by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
Stupidly, He and I had rejected the idea of bringing a tent with us on the basis of weight. Our bags were already full and around twenty-five kilos each, so the idea of a further three seemed too great a burden. Anyway, I was used to a dry French climate with an odd sprinkle of rain.
On our way from La Rochelle to Châtelaillon-Plage we encountered a few small downpours scattered amongst moments of hot, prickling sunshine. The pathway down the coast was wonderful, and despite our desperation to arrive at our destination it was a most joyous walk. It also turned out to be the longest of the trip, some 28 kilometers of walking.
Just as we set out, I decided to clean myself in a secluded section of coastline on the border of La Rochelle where we’d slept, albeit unsuccessfully, the night before. I walked naked into the calm blue, though the experience was rendered less romantic by the sharpness of the shingle at the shoreline. The beach was bordered by a flat rocky inlet which created a lagoon-like cove, and the horizon was wavering between an ominous grey and a delightful deep purple that created a luminescence in the water. We were alone on that beach, save for a fisherman collecting mussels who stopped to watch me enter the shallow water. Cleansed and refreshed, I packed up my things and we set off on the long walk to Châtelaillon-Plage.
Halfway down, just prior to an outburst of the heavens, we stopped at a dead-looking seafront we discovered was Aytré, a fisherman’s village. It bore a number of striking ‘carrelets’ on its seafront; dilapidated wooden cabins stretching out from the coastline into the sea by way of rickety bridges. Their purpose, I later discovered, was as fishing huts, identifiable by the fishing nets which could be seen draping down from them. The tide was low, leaving the rotting legs of the cabins exposed. Their spindly, fractured foundations were sagging under the weight of their high-standing bodies. We could see mussels shining royal blue on the black rocks that coated the beach, little clusters of them huddling together under the watery morning sunshine. It began to rain.
Further on we passed the square pools of Angoulins’ salt marshes. The murky ponds spanned as far as our eyes could see to the east. They were teeming with sharp, emerald spikes of samphire poking out of the shallow banks, and solitary cranes stood in the waters preening themselves on dainty limbs.
The beach on the northern edge of Châtelaillon-Plage was empty when we arrived, the blazing sun creating a blinding sheet of sand on the water’s edge. Various communications between He and I established that there was ‘no way’ we were taking the train all the way to Bordeaux that night and ‘what a bloody stupid idea’ that had been in the first place. We sprinted down the limestone slope onto the sand, stripped, and plunged into the pallid grey water. I rose gently to the surface, and floated, bleeding my sweat into the salty water surrounding me.
Looking back upon the beach, the upper coastal path was bordering a scrubland with a few low-growing conifers. In the distance, to the south, one could see the town shimmering under the golden mid-afternoon sun. It was going to be a good night.
Four coffees, five cigarettes, and fifteen calls later, He and I were still sat in the terrace of a town centre brasserie on the high street of Châtelaillon-Plage, falling slowly into the realization that there was not a single room to spare in the whole of the town or surrounding area. It turned out that the fifteenth of August was a particularly important day in France. This we were made aggressively aware of by a hoard of brusque hotel receptionists:
‘C’est le quinze août. Evidemment il n’y a pas de chambres.’
‘Mais vous n’êtes pas au courant? C’est le quinze août!’
‘C’est le quinze août. Bonne chance hein (accompanied with muffled laughter).’
I felt despairing. He looked weary. We stopped by a few bars and drank a couple of kirs, then we went begrudgingly on our way.
Along the seafront the clouds had formed a sort of inwards-out formation, with the sun piercing through the central masses into an explosion of bright orange light drifting out to right above our heads. It was beautiful. The tide had gone out, and the beach now stretched a good five hundred metres or so ahead, the wet sand undulating in satisfying dips and rises into the distance. We walked just out of town, near to where we had swum earlier, and formed a cosy shelter between two conifers. He proceeded to drink an entire bottle of wine, and we feasted on the remnants of baguette and tomatoes we had saved from that afternoon. Just as we laid our heads down ready for sweet slumber, a mumble of deep, hungry thunder echoed around us.
‘We’ll be fine.’ He said sleepily.
An hour later, I awoke to white teeth tearing through the heavens. It sounded as though the sky were being ripped apart. The trees around us swayed like a chorus of sombre dancers praising the mighty tempest. Rain raged down onto our sleeping bags, coats, shoes, everything. Everything was soaked, yet He had not yet awoken from his drunken sleep. I thought we might die that night, during those long minutes of crackling electricity shrieking about my head. I thought this might well be the sorry end for us both, all down to the damned fifteenth of August. I loved Him very much in that moment and thought too of the moment my parents would be told that we had been found, frazzled to blackened crisps beside the ocean, hand in hand. Why wasn’t He waking up? Was he already dead? I began to panic.
‘Wake up! Wake up! I’m scared! I’m scared! I’m scared!’
He awoke, much to my relief, and reassured me that the storm would pass, and we should just cuddle together. ‘Like moles’ he said. I agreed, momentarily. But the tumult surged on, and my eyelids could not drop.
A cloud of hailstones flooded out from the great mouth of dark above us, spilling out from the clouds like marbles, hitting my head and neck and back over and over and over again. We ran, and my heart fell from my chest into my arms. I clutched it as we bolted into town.
We arrived at a hotel door and pushed it open. The entrance was deserted. Tables were set up for breakfast, and a dim light shone at the end of the entrance hall.
‘Goddamn it. Let’s sleep on the chairs.’
Not a wink was to be had that sorry, wet night.
A day later, after a warm hotel room in Bordeaux had re-fired our spirit of adventure, we set out for Les Landes on a train to Arcachon, then a short bus ride to the lake-town of Sanguinet. It began to rain as we walked down to the lake to find the walk to Biscarosse, but it was a warm, soothing rain that didn’t go far past our baggy cagoules. I had discovered beforehand that beneath the lake of Sanguinet lay a treasure of drowned villages, some traceable back three thousand years. The water was still and shallow, and of a deep, pond-like green, startlingly different to the sea we had swum in two days prior. It reminded me more of the River Severn that I had grown up beside, where the clearness of the water served only to show the flailing tendrils of silkweed that would repeatedly catch onto my father’s fishing rod each time he cast. Strangely, the mouth of the lake seemed to eb and flow slightly, as though there was some sort of tide caressing the underbelly of its muddy waters.
We began to walk into the fern-covered wetlands of the Landes of Gascogne, a large national park stretching down on the southern west peak of France past Bordeaux and towards Bayonne and Biarritz. Wet molinia covered the path through the forest, which was made up of a diverse array of Pyrenean oaks, pedunculate oaks and birch trees surrounded by meticulous rows of maritime pine. There was a silence prevalent throughout the expansive wilderness which halted only when we arrived at the flatter shrublands nearer to Biscarrosse where a road wound through our path. Dwarf gorse, buckthorn and heather coated the flatlands between each section of forest, and beside the road little corners of evening primrose shone golden and slight, touched by the gentle breeze. A plump brown pheasant scurried through the undergrowth as we passed the road back into the forest, this time onto a brighter, more open path. Huge bushes of oozing bulbous blackberries grew out from the scrub, but when we approached them to feast swarms of tiny black flies puffed out like smoke from the fleshy fruits.
As the day drew on to evening, we began to hear the ribbiting of a woodcock coming woozily out of sleep. A peregrine fluttered soundlessly onto a nearby tree. We came out onto a path girdled by holiday homes which continued on and on until we reached a café beside a bridge leading to the lake of Biscarrosse. The waitress serving us laughed at our disbelief that Biscarrosse was in fact a holiday village with nothing but chalets, parking lots and camp sites. Reams of cyclists crossed in front of the café, along with families and other holiday-goers. I didn’t like it at all. It seemed like some strange, dystopian township. After two coffees and two delicious little ginger biscuits, we journeyed down to the lake and plunged into the shallow waters. The lake was vast and still, with forest all around. How wonderful it was to be in water that cradled our red skin and shook off our thick layers of sweat and grime. But the beach was busy despite the overcast evening, and after twenty minutes we shot off to find a place to sleep nearer to the sea in the west.
We walked beside the main road for some time. A rusting metal fence barred our passage into the woodland yonder, and there seemed no end in sight. There was nowhere to sleep here.
Neither of us spoke. We both knew this concrete highway hadn’t a hope for us upon it. He turned to me when we reached the third roundabout.
‘Why don’t we hitch hike?’
We thrust both of our thumbs out onto the oncoming traffic beside a layby near a group of supermarkets not far from the aforementioned roundabout. Lo behold, in the quickest hitchhike heist I had ever witnessed, we were picked up in a little blue Twingo by a charming girl called Rosalie, who told me in French that if it had been a lone man beside the road she most definitely wouldn’t have stopped. I laughingly reported this to Him, who laughed too, a deep-throated belly laugh that resounded with the relief of being inside a car, on our way to a town far from the strange camp-conglomeration we had arrived at prior.
The sky had developed into a vibrant topaz hue by the time we arrived at Biscarrosse-Plage. The scatty groups of maritime pine just outside of the city centre were shrouded in a chilling blackness, their tips penetrating the deep blue of the sky like spearheads. I could smell the saline whiff of the ocean that sat just behind the dunes where Rosalie stopped the car. We thanked her, and I thought for a moment of asking for her number, but the moment passed, and our meeting became a welcome, warming memory, as meetings of that kind often do.
He and I clambered up the side of the steep dune towards the horizon. There she was. A wide, open mouth of azure deepening in shade as the sun dipped below its far edge. The beach spanned miles in each direction, perfectly flat and pristine from the dance of the tide. The air was dipping in temperature and I felt a stiffness in my limbs that longed for rest and warmth, so we turned back and walked towards the sparse sections of forest where a campsite was signposted to the north. The aforementioned sporadic groups of trees were becoming ever more ominous as the light drifted from the sky, each shadow growing blacker and thicker. We marched on.
The campsite was closed. We settled on a little area of grass beside the campsite fence by a black Renault Clio that shielded us partially from the road. The weather forecast had not indicated anything greater than a ten percent chance of rain, and down from the seafront the air was pleasantly mild and refreshing. We set about creating a makeshift shelter from our raincoats, lay our mats and sleeping bags down and ate a surprisingly delectable feast of baguette and ratatouille.
Just as night well and truly fell, the streetlamps blinked on, and we were exposed under the white artificial lights. Passers-by averted their gazes, ashamed. I thought on my bed and my home, my warm jumpers and ready supply of food and gas.
It started to rain.
Great fat puddles of water began to pool on my mattress, the makeshift shelter having proven disastrously ineffective. The rain wouldn’t stop, it seemed simply to intensify as the minutes went on. A black cat sauntered over and nuzzled my hand. I started wailing in despair.
He and I made the decision to pack up and walk around to look for a shelter. We came across a deserted restaurant terrace some twenty metres from where we had set up camp. After investigating the spot, we were rapidly sent away by the owner’s children, who stated that the desolate cold stone veranda was a ‘private property’.
Ten minutes later, a group of curious French youths converged on our path, initially stopping to ask Him whether he was alright, stood as he was with his head in his hands as I snuck off to piss in a nearby bush. Some moments later, after a wealth of questions, kind reassurances and excited proposals we were given a wondrous pop-up tent, thrown majestically onto the ground by one of the boys in the group by a swift flick of the wrist followed by peals of laughter from us and the group. The tent was a miracle, a tiny box not big enough for He nor I to stretch out in, but a miracle all the same. The rain had stopped, and I leant over to Him and stroked his hair.
‘It’s going to be a good night.’
And so, it was.
The Carl Kruse Blog Home page is here.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include: Acting and Art, Psychogeography, and Sleep and the Enduring Insomniac.
Carl Kruse is also on Dwell.