Travel Blog 6: Bloggius Travelanius And the Half-Off Priced Train Ticket
Along the roads of Normandy, it seems that most of humanity has been shuttered away. All that’s left of them are their homes, their yards and the petty semblances of lives being lived.
There are few people walking the streets on a Thursday afternoon or evening. The local convenience stores close at 7 p.m. The small cars run along those thin two- or one-lane roads like hares scampering from burrow to burrow. And those roads continue on and on, leading from town to town, village to village, hovel to hovel, without any real need. There are farmer’s roads, with tractor tires dug deep pools in the muddy earth, but nobody is out in the fields.
Everything feels subdued, from the temperate sun, to the feeling of that slight ocean breeze, to the scents of tilled earth, manure and flowers. It’s as if somebody had bottled a tempered, rural existence and stole away all human life for the strange pleasure of the external voyeur.
The farms here have already sprouted with the spring crop, the corn and wheat already pushing up to knee height. Everywhere among these roadside farmsteads grow flowers, creating miniature tableaus each with their own unique color palette, whether its white and purple, or yellow and red, and so on. Glowing crimson poppy flowers sprout from inside the wheat fields themselves like bold intruders on that sea of bronze reeds.
And that is all of what seems to be the new life here. Everything else along those roads is old. Ancient stone and brick walls run parallel with the roads, some marking old borders to feudal territory, others concealing the broken bodies of crumbling farmsteads, maisons and chateaus. The stone has been covered with ivy and moss and pockmarked with age. Each brick emanates the years of growth and death and regrowth of lichen and weeds. Eventually the walls will crumble and die, but the possibility of living long enough to see that seems like hubris.
And that is just the area of Normandy itself, before one looks at the impact American culture and tourism has had on the area, let me first speak to my blind efforts to see what I could.
Those who know me know I bite off more than I can chew, mostly because I don’t know how big my mouth is.
No, I’m usually quite reserved in public, but if you want to comprehend how I got started on this wild adventure, it was after a job application rejection I was really holding out on, and after a few hours of contemplation, I went, “… Fuck it.”
I do that a lot. I said those words when I decided to cook a Thanksgiving dinner all by myself last year. I’ve done it when I said I was going to fix a leaky roof on my old folk’s house in the rain without a ladder (those of you who know would recognize this as the hit movie “Kyle’s Big Adventure: The First One).
So last Thursday, July 1, I told myself I was going to rent a bike and take it out to visit Omaha beach, because “Fuck it.” I got off the train to the sprawling town of Bayeux at 1:15 p.m., and the really swell guy at the local bike rental place was nice enough to drop off my bike at 1:30 right next to my hotel. I was only staying a day, so I dropped off my things in my room and immediately got on the bike. It felt like I was driving stick for the first time. It’s also here where I admit I haven’t rode an actual bike for around four or five years. Hey, you relearn quickly when you have to. And that’s why they say, its just like riding a…
At that point a car came close and I pulled off to the side, accidentally twisting one of the bike’s chain links. “Fuck it,” I said, and continued on, and for several miles the bent chain link would cause the gears to shudder and shift.
I got to the top of one hill when the chain finally decided to get caught in the drive. I’m standing there, fiddling with it when I realize I can use this position to unbend the chain just enough to fix the problem. And look at that, we’re back on. I continued down roads marked with the faces and names of WWII servicemembers being honored for their sacrifice. There are bars and restaurants with wood G.I. cutouts beckoning people in for a hamburger. However, even three days before July 4 those places are closed. The roads are mostly barren. There are tourists making the stops at the local monuments, but they are a trickle compared to what must have been a flood in the days pre-COVID.
So I get to Omaha Beach, or really the top of the hill where one should be able to find their way down. Following Google’s insight, I go down roads that are marked for no cars and get to a overlook with a few, dilapidated bunkers. I think, “there must be a way down to the beach from here.” I take a trail that looks promising.
Thirty minutes later I crawl my way out of a dozen winding trails dotted with thornbushes and mud. I take the long way around, and end up at Omaha.
The beach itself is another tourist destination, but here are mostly local or regional bathers and hikers. A few use the trails to go up onto the bluffs, from where a monument to the 5th Engineer Special Brigade overlooks the whole of the scenery. The block stands directly atop an old German bunker, now flooded and swarming with chirping birds. Higher up the hill, another monument to even more from the 1st U.S. Infantry who died on that cold, rainy June day.
After that, my phone was at half charge. It would be an hour ride back to Bayeux, where I could get a meal and get some rest before boarding my train in the morning. Or…
Or I could ride for what Google told me was just another 40 minutes, and get to Pointe du Hoc, the site of one of the bloodiest and harshest event during the Normandy landing. I came to a roundabout, one direction would take me home, and the other one towards du Hoc.
The ride was longer than 40 minutes. It always is, because Google thinks you’re a wizard on a bike who can travel 50 MPH uphill while tailgating passing tractor trailers. I arrived, finally, at around 7 p.m. The United States has already erected its own memorial and info-tour for the event, where U.S. rangers were asked to climb a sheer cliff face in order to silence several giant guns the Allies were worried would destroy their landing craft and ships. Men fought vertically, all the while being shot at from fortifications lining the cliff wall.
You can read about it, but once you see it for yourself, see just how much of an advantage the Germans had and how terrifying it must have been to climb 100 feet of raw cliff while being shot at, it’s hard to think of anything quite so harrowing.
It was time to get home. Supposedly, it would be just an hour and 40 minutes. Sure, it was probably the longest bike ride I’ve done, but there’s always time for firsts.
Peddling, peddling, and when it feels like somebody has tried very hard to sharpen a pencil between my thighs, that’s when Google says, “go ahead, go down that side road. It’ll be fine.”
It turned out to be two miles of country farm road. Most of it was dug in deep troughs by farm equipment and tractors, so every few feet was a mud pit. “Fuck it,” I told myself. “Fuck it, fuck it.” And after a mile, and wishing I had simply turned around when I saw the first mud pit, it just kept going. Meanwhile, my phone was dying, and telling me it wouldn’t last till 8 p.m. I shut down all unnecessary functions and prayed it would last. I would be fine if I were on major roads where I could try and ask for directions, but no out there where the insects swarmed and the empty fields called at me like the Sirens did to Odysseus, telling me to crash upon those pits of despair.
I was exhausted as I neared Bayeux. My legs felt as stiff and numb as dowel rods. And when I finally came upon my hotel at 10 p.m., finally, my phone gave a last whimper before it ran out of juice.
I took a shower, and ate airplane pretzels for dinner. Then I slept.