City Boy Takes a Hike in La France Profonde

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

I took the steep
ribbed rocky road
behind the cemetery.
Earth and stones
terre rouge
sere and sharp
tricky underfoot,
that turn
the color
of dried blood
in rain,
unctuous and sticky
and stain the soles
tenaciously.

The road debouches
on the main road,
far below the junction
to the village
skipping all the
dull switchbacks,
near the house
meublés, always rented,
with one auto in the carport
perpetually in a canvas shroud.

Saint Jaumes
a yellow arrow points
the way, as they do
with the names of homesteads
off the beaten track.
Another pilgrim
I am.

Clinging to the ragged
shoulder painted
with a dashèd line
the sparse grass covering
the quarter meter
that keeps tires
from the hidden ditch
for run off.
Not much room
to dash
on foot from
the rushing
always parting guests
speeding not so gentle
zephyrs
faces masked by smokey
glass.

Approaching trucks
excuse to bound
across the dipping
shouldered gap.

I think of lying
broken in a ditch
dying on the road
in deep deep deepest France.
Daedalus splashing
soundless, tiny,
microscopic,
in a corner of the canvas.

Past the carrefour
forked nexus for the twisting
narrow road to Cotignac.
Past the field
lately filled
with desiccated sunflowers
permanently bowed
toward a sun now gone.
A photographic image
caught in vegetal husks.
Zen.
Priceless.
Market gone.

The field is full
of poppies and weeds.
Sunflowers.
The more precise
tournesols,
sun-turners,
not viable this sun-baked year.

In Valesole
and Esparron
the growers have turned
their lavender fields,
the endless plateaux,
to sowing wheat.

Past the miracle field
of poppies.
Poppy red and tinged
with wild cornflower-blue
companions,
a million snapshots
by roadside travelers,
stopped in their
otherwise heedless tracks,
speeding tires
cooling on the gravel
inches from the live highway
where this shock of color
makes everyone romantic.
And the farmer,
humanist,
French,
temporized
while couples hip-deep
in a sea of color
caught each other
caught themselves.

And passing that,
rere-regardant,
the village sits
athwart the hill
rightward glancing,
a rare crystalline day
each stone projects a shadow
microscopic,
the hedges beneath a frame
for my camera eye.
Ulysses I
again,
chercher Pénélope.

Broken circle
on a sign,
arrows chase themselves,
equilaterally bound,
cedez accès,
the rond-point
that swoops cars village-ward
or toward the world,
the humble hedge-rowed
route to the center
of commercial Fox,
and so I pass
Nathalie Coiffure
her windows blocked
with Masonite
and an old beauty
poster, colors
gone all fugitive
in years of blazing sun.

Ahead the old wine co-op,
La Poste
(we share a postal code
with seven other
villages and cling to our
post office,
sinecure for the cousin
of the daughter
of the sister of
some past mayor),
and hubbub:
Chez Jean and
his sister-in-law’s
bodega,
pardonnez-moi,
“alimentation”

last resort
on weekends for forgotten
butter, eggs, or goat cheese
or possibly a passable wine
or a tin of Titus sardines.

I have a beer,
an ice-cold Fischer,
in a bottle with
a fancy spring-load
ceramic stopper,
that and a box of
Davidoff cigarillos,
O, et un bic…”
genericized butane
slab,
and the tab comes
to 17 euros, 50,
and Jean, numbers-challenged,
tells me 27, 50…
and I quietly correct him,
slurring words—
the only way the locals
understand my French.

I sit and drink my brew
in peace, the others
never speaking
above a murmur
in the cool shade of the
arbor above his terrasse.

I pass the bucket
for butts, a must
here in fiery timberland,
and bid my au revoir
to Jean and his equipe.
Retrace my steps on
the road to the old village
and hang a left
at the old lavoire,
where long dead village
women hauled their
loads of linen and farmers’
overalls for washing out
the red clay and sticker burrs.

Soldier-stiff
a row of cypress
in irregular formation
along the road,
targeted 40,
speed limit signs
for no cars
the only traffic
ados on their motos
and the clapped out
cars of their older brothers
on a spree,
always laughing as they
pass the wild-haired
American.

The hill keeps itself
to my right,
sun-baked
pensive
gravel crunch
only at the apex
of the one-laner.
A field of clods of earth
and black birds
on one side
and endless wheat
with orphan poppies
and bi-color thistle
on the other,
and a ditch
I will span
with my skinny ass
to retrieve an impossible
purple bloom
for my imagined
princess, yet to arrive,
when she arrives,
if she arrives,
as we trudge together
some time in the
near future
in the dazzling white
and the wheat
and the clods of earth.

And then just below
that point, the road
turns past old man
Jouve’s place,
master craftsman in
wood, who made
me a window and door,
the same silly signs
in the window of his
atelier:
Vitrage et
moustiquaires

silly in its way
as if Spinoza’s
window carried a sign
that said, “glass ground
here,” or Kafka,
“pest control.”

And past the house,
and his rows of
vegetables I see
him watering
in the lowering sun,
past the shrubs
and low trees, as the
road turns again,
and his dog,
even older,
getting a late start,
begins to bark,
and I say out loud,
“Ah too late chien,
too late; I’m gone.”

I have turned my back on the hill
and the village
and ahead the sudden vignobles,
a field someone stuck here
amid the wheat,
this one notable for its
old stone cabanon,
a sheaf of hay and
a bit of articulated rusty steel,
thrusting out, waiting for
a painter,
all baking, baking
in the late sun
like a wood-fired brick oven
optimal for bread loaves
with a chewy crumb and crust
sharp enough to cut
and the high stinging wood
smoke tang on its blackened
corn-mealed underside.

And still I walk, and the
road turns again, through the compass
and pace my pace to hit
the shadows for respite
before the last turn back
to dead reckon
90 north and trudge back up the
back side of the hill,
but before that must
pass the schizoid holding
of some suburbanite manqué
to one side, shaved close as with
a scythe or a Snapper sit-down
tractor mower, a bit of lawn
ridiculously green beside a field of
wheat, with its wavy rows
of young shoots, already tan
in the relentless summer.

Then the final turn
as the road rises
among a thicket of yellow arrows,
ancient homesteads
retrieved, east, northeast
and rising rising
with small clouds of
butterflies fluttering silently
beside the trail
and the sign
announcing the road ahead
some 500 meters is
non-carrossable,
even as I hear another clapped
out truck crunch its way toward me
around an epingle amid the hairy
weeds and wildflowers, down the road
from the cemetery high above.

And the switchbacks and
epingles begin in earnest
and half-way my shirt is
wet and I breathe in gusts
and I increase the pace.

Bob said, in winter mind you,
“Walk this every day
and you’ll live forever,”
and I’ve been doing it
every other day,
because I figure I have a headstart
and so far no one is gaining.

The old remparts appear
spotted, irregular, age-spot
shapes
of lichen the color
of something toxic,
a tinge that could convince
you there is something
maybe not so right
with squashes and fruit that color.

Old Europe, I think;
these walls maybe seven hundred,
maybe nine,
so many years, still standing,
and the brick condos of Cambridge
will be gone
I’m sure a hundred years after I’m dead,
the mortar already decayed.
They call this wall (as
the houses built this way)
dry-stone.
No mortar.
Withstanding men
and boulders erupting
from the earth
stony Leviathans.
And trees, roots athwart them.

And the road turns
and turns,
and I know I am near the top
in the place where the walls are
breached,
spilling their stony guts,
rubble of terre rouge
(and somewhere far below
on the plain, on the road to
Aups, there are furrowed
rows of such rubble, no
more than pebbles, tens of meters
long, where walls had been to divide
the fields, and where the stones had
been retrieved for building,
rural parsimony,
a heritage of earth and rocks,
priceless).

And I reach the road back to the village
from the right side round, opposite
the rocky trail down
where I had started, abreast
the stone carriage house
hard by the cemetery
where sits in the gloom
an old hearse
meant to be drawn
when needed
by horses now long dead.

Breath heaving
shirt soaked
I start the last steep incline
to the house.

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