Adventure starts at the place where your plans end. Sometimes, you set out with the goal of having an adventure, and so you purposefully avoid planning. Nothing more than a blank spot on the calendar, a sacked lunch, and an inkling to wander in one direction or another. Other times you’re thrust into adventure when you take a wrong turn, or the power goes out, or any of a thousand other things happen that shake you from the fragile web of your own carefully laid plans. This is more commonly known as misadventure.
Of the two, I tend to find the latter more enjoyable.
For nearly six months I had been traveling in Europe, doing work-trades in exchange for hot meals and a roof over my head. It wasn’t a bad way to live. Staying with local families felt authentic, and I’d lucked into some pretty posh digs. One house had two kitchens, and bedrooms overlooking the sea. Another had a walled garden with its own heated indoor pool. I was living like a millionaire without spending a dime.
Then, suddenly, the work dried up. As my stay at a house in the french countryside neared its end, I’d reached out to nearly a dozen other potential hosts. None returned my message. I widened my search, but still came up dry. The master plan which had kept me housed and fed for nearly half a year on foreign soil, suddenly fizzled and died. I was thousands of miles from home, in a country where I didn’t speak the language, with no intention of going backwards, and no clear route forwards. After nearly six months, I was finally on an adventure.
It’s always a little nerve-racking when you suddenly find yourself at the beginning of an unexpected adventure. Even if you’re used to living near the edge. Civilized life has a way of dulling the senses, and lulling us into softness. Your first thought is always Where will I go? What will I do?
But as the time for departure draws near, that old long-toothed dog comes back out and reminds you that it doesn’t really matter. You’ve fended for yourself before, and you can do it again. This ability to stare off into the abyss, into a world without shelter, or cars, or microwave dinners, and to be comfortable in the knowledge that you can keep yourself alive there is the biggest advantage of the venturing life. It primes you for hardship; Inoculates you against fear of going without. When you know in your soul that no matter what you can simply start walking, the world seems brighter, and filled with more opportunities. All of your resources become magnified. Little things become big advantages.
My advantage in France came in the form of an eight-speed Raceway Venise, sky-blue with a cargo rack on the back and a mirror on the left handlebar. It was one of a half-dozen beaten up old bikes that lay rusted and cobwebbed in my host’s garage, and she’d offered it to me for my travels.
I didn’t want the Raceway. I’d wanted the Giant, a black ten-speed I’d pulled out and fixed up while she was away. But she insisted that her granddaughter was coming to retrieve the Giant any day now, and wheeled the Raceway out into the sun for me to inspect instead.
“That’s a girl’s bike,” I said.
“No it’s not” she said.
“Yes it it,” I said, “That’s a girl’s bike. You can tell because of the shape of the frame.”
“Pfff,” she said, “There’s no such thing anymore.”
I looked at her incredulously.
“European men don’t care” she said.
“Oh, we know all about European men in America,” I said, “with their pointy shoes and their scarves.”
She didn’t laugh. I sought a different tactic.
“It’s just that I don’t think it’s really made for adventures. Look,” I said pointing to the words printed on the frame just below the brand name, “It says right here it’s literally from the comfort ville series.”
“It’s sturdy,” she said, bouncing it on its flat tires.
It was clear, it was either the Raceway, or the walkway. I sighed.
“I’ll take it.”
“Bon courage,” she said, “Bon chance.”
The chain and gears were orange with rust, and the walls of the tires were cracked from age. But the tubes held air, and before long I was pedaling off, cargo rack loaded down with everything I owned, and the front basket filled with a tent and my scarf. I looked very European.
I was headed for Dol, a nearby town where I’d finagled a few nights’ stay in a trailer park. Trailer park really gives the wrong impression, for Dol is everything you could want in a rural French town. It has cobbled streets and artisanal bakers that turn out warm baguette twice a day. It has bars that open at eight in the morning and sell tiny cups of coffee alongside hand-rolled cigarettes and Coca-Cola in glass bottles. It’s a place that bustles with business and tourism, but isn’t too busy for the shops to close for a few hours at lunch, or for people to take Mondays off.
The ride was hard, but hard work is always made easier when it’s paired with a sense of adventure. I didn’t have a map, but I’d once seen a sign in a nearby village pointing toward a place called Dol de Britagne, which I assumed was the same Dol. I also assumed that by following one sign I’d surely see more.
I was right, for the most part. Though I did climb one enormous fucking hill, only to find that the signs had disappeared. A game of charades with a local woman was enough to convince me I had to go back down to continue on the right path.
There is a line that pops into my mind whenever I find myself in a situation like that. A half-forgotten text from a girl I knew who, despite having a stable job, and a graduate degree, is probably more of an adventurer than I am. “You can’t always have a plan, and sometimes you need to be okay with that.” It’s always haunted me. Partly because I’m a planner by nature and I find it difficult to put the pencil down, and partly because I think I loved that girl, and I wonder if my need for plans is part of what drove us apart. Either way, these days, when I find myself uncomfortable at the volatility of my situation, I just remember those words, and continue on. I’m usually surprised by how well not planning works out.
Once I was back on track, the rest of the ride was comparatively smooth sailing. I peddled past corn fields and cow pastures, and through little villages where kids still play in the streets, and say bonjour monsieur when you go by, which is weird because I still think of myself as one of the kids in the street, rather than a monsieur.
I peddled into the afternoon sun, rolling along the cobblestones into Dol with a little time left before the bakers, and the tabac, and the creppiere closed down. So now I’m sitting here in the front of a bar, with the last of the day’s bread, a half-empty coke, and a cigarette I can’t light. And I’m just thinking about how some times in life we go up gigantic fucking hills that end up being detours. They don’t seem to move us any closer to our goals, but in the end they make the other hills seem small by comparison, and maybe that’s enough.