In this series of 7 chapters, I tell the bizarre and unforgettable stories of my most recent motorcycle journey of 7 weeks, during the summer of 2020.
The aim of this motorcycle adventure, was to do everything differently to how I’d grown used to. I ditched as many creature comforts and technological aids as possible in an attempt to uncover the most realistic, undiluted experience of frugal motorcycle travel, completely alone through Europe,during the outbreak of this deadly virus.
I wild camped in urban locations and creepy, rural settings. I ended up in scary situations and many times feared for my life, and if I would even make it home. At one point I was attacked in my tent, and at other times, parts of my motorcycle left my hanging onto my safety by a shoestring. But keeping my chin up and my eyes on stalks, I managed to prevail from the uncertainty of darkness and had probably the most rewarding solo travel experience I’ve had so far, even if it wasn’t by any means the easiest or most enjoyable.
So if you’d like to get yourself comfortable and a warm beverage to hand, I’ll try my best to retell these experiences in the frame of mind I found myself in. Thanks for reading.
#1 – Somme
Hitching a lift from beside the motorway is difficult at the best of times I thought. And that’s without factoring in other inconveniences, such as the day being Sunday, and I should mention there was a deadly viral pandemic wreaking havok across the continent, and indeed the rest of the world.
It was late into a Sunday afternoon, during the final days of July in rural France, not far from the killing fields of the Somme. Somehow I’d managed to run out of fuel in a place so remote, a mention of the nearest town would raise even the most well-travelled of eyebrows.
I probably looked crazy, covered in sweat, arms acting as fleshy coathooks for my cumbersome leather garments – far from suitable attire for this arid summer heat, sans sufficient cooling provided by movement. Subtly, I was concealing a red plastic container full of gasoline as I stood there at the entrance to a motorway rest stop – trying my best to appear like the opposite of what I really was, a pain in the ass you don’t need on your Sunday.
An hour passed. Still no luck. To comfort myself through the despair of waiting, I’d been absorbing information from all around me, countless rejections had me considering other options. With only 3% of my mobile battery remaining I figured I had about 3 hours of daylight left, then intevitably I’d be alone in the dark.
I always feel like some kind of movement is progress, so I made my way down a corkscrew path bedded with unkempt grasses that led to a vast open meadow, the crunchy hacked remains of crops harvested long before stretched for as far as the eye could see. I walked a bit, then quite a bit more. I stopped for brief rests every so often to give my arms a break from the luggage I was carrying. Pauses just long enough for me to catch my breath and for the painful lactic acid to leave my muscles, before lifting my belongings once more, and trudging on through the prickly ground below me. I knew the general direction to head in, but unfortunateIy, I also knew it was a long way ahead of me.
As far as my eyes could see, undulating fields of emptiness stretched to the horizon, with woodland running the flanks. For what was probably 2 hours, I had walked, faintly able to make out the sound of cars to my right through the barrage of trees. All I had seen were deserted fields of gold, a few distant wind turbines for reference and not a single living soul. I knew that my only option was to keep on walking. On one particular arm-break, I could see a car in the distance, it was merely a small coloured speck, appearing to drive right across the fields. It was a promising discovery, perhaps there was a road there, I thought to myself.
Half an hour later and I had arrived at a small country lane, winding up over the hill with a few snaking turns. The remnants of a blazing sunset were now only a faint glow on the tarmac. The light would start to fade soon. As I looked to the motorway to my far right, I noticed this small road passed underneath it, maybe there was a way to access it nearby? I tried to wave-down a few cars but with no success, it was becoming a real problem. My motorcycle was still grounded beside an SOS phone up there somewhere, kilometre marker 106. The only reason I didn’t use the emergency phone, is that the fee for being rescued roadside is a staggering €130. I just wasn’t willing to pay that, not for the convenience.
This adventure was supposed to be all about stripping away the comforts and luxuries that I was so used to, if not dependent on, in the hope that I would gain a more realistic perception of what travel, exploration and indeed this mysterious existence that we cling on to, truly represents. ‘More challenging with the hope of greater rewards’ is probably how I would’ve worded it back then.
I hadn’t seen any cars for a while now. The more thought I gave to the likelihood of being rescued at this hour, the more my brain was conguering up increasingly daring plans in order to reach the motorcycle. I looked up at the motorway in the distance and noticed there was a steel wire fence running all the way across the visible section. Theorizing ways I could cut through the fence to climb onto the motorway, I lost my mind. My strategy for the next car that I saw? I was going to wave my arms like a lunatic windmill, real panicky but hopefully not appear threatening.
Not even 10 minutes later, a small navy-coloured hatchback approached from over the hill. I waved and flapped my arms with more conviction as it exited the final turn in the sequence. As it approached me even closer, it pulled over to the side of the road. I didn’t want to immediately get my hopes up when the car stopped, so I approach the window slowly, leaning in to make friendly eyes with the driver. I was so exhausted, the desperation must’ve been written across my sweaty face without any need for an act. Without hesitation, a stocky young man gestured for to me to climb in. I collected all my things messily piled on the edge of the field, politely dumped them in the back seat and clambered inside, bilingually thanking him as I shut the door beside me, that sound of closure being the note of safety.
A drive lasting 20 minutes had allowed us to satisfy a certain curiosity we had about each other, to learn more about what we were doing in this current point in our lives amongst other things. He wanted to know exactly how I had become stranded in such a way, and where I was planning to visit on this journey of mine. I too was fascinated by his presence, why was he driving on the small road where we met and what thoughts or assumptions posessed him to rescue me. Now in some degree of safety, I pondered on the way of life he must have, trying to understand how it would be to live in such a remote part of France. He was a student with great ambitions, soon to be travelling to a university in the nearest city. He revealed that he just fancied an evening drive as he had only recently gained his driving licence. It was friendly conversation with laughter, as the last of the lightness in the sky escaped this beautiful rural landscape, we approached my estimation of the motorcycle’s location. Miniscule reflections bouncing off the glossy bodywork contrasted against the pitch dark shadowy shrubbage that curtains the motorway. We said our last words and parted ways.
I endured 4 hours of rigorous perseverance to acquire 5 litres of gasoline from just 10km away. Finally, the show could go on.
I emptied every last drop into the fuel tank of the motorcycle and started the engine. No problems there. Whilst putting on all of my leather gear I really felt a true sense of happiness that you don’t often experience, a respect for human kindness and the whole situation leading to a positive climax. Straddling the machine once again, it felt as good as arriving home after a long journey. I had longed for our return so much, it didn’t feel strange to experience emotions normally reserved exclusively for living things.
With the engine now warm and responsive, I engaged the clutch lever, stepped down into first gear with my left foot and, without even time to glance over my left shoulder… the dingy 3-lane motorway became illuminated with an attack of blue and orange beams of light approaching from behind.
What had I done?
Perhaps it’s just a natural instinct, but often when I see the lights from police vehicles racing in my direction, I always feel a guilty panic that I have done something wrong, even if I haven’t the faintest idea what it could be.
I thought to myself, maybe it’s some kind of misunderstanding and I’m not actually in trouble. It’s crazy how so many thoughts can run through your head in what seems like a single second.
I surrendered the engine and prepared for the imminent approach of an authoritative uniform and purposeful stance in my peripherals.
Perhaps it was just tiredness taking its toll on my otherwise rational perception, but I swear Jean-Claude Van Damme walked alongside me in full Gendermarie get-up.
“What is the problem?” the officer asked me.
“What is the problem? I don’t know” I replied with bona fide confusion.
For a moment, neither of us seemed to understand why the traffic stop was taking place.
“Was there an accident?” as one of his eyebrows raised.
“No, there was no accident” I said, reassuringly.
“Oh” now he seemed less clear about the situation than before we exchanged words.
There was a fleet of 2 highway patrol vehicles and a van wearing the Gendermarie livery. For a few minutes, Van Damme, another police officer and a couple of highwaymen were discussing me in French, trying to figure out the mystery. The French paused once more and Van Damme focused on my direction.
“Have you been drinking alcohol?” He asked, bearing an austere facial arrangement.
“No, I’ve just been walking for 4 hours so I’m pretty tired” I told him.
Without hesitation, his partner removed a testing device, promptly moved it up to my lips and instructed me to blow into it until he told me to stop. It all felt quite surreal, being breathalyzed by the side of the road at night, without a millilitre of alcohol in my blood, yet blue and orange light repeatedly discovered every nook and cranny in the surrounding terrain.
By the way, this was only the first day of the adventure.
The test revealed there wasn’t any alcohol in my blood, they all looked at each other with a shrug – one more potential lead eliminated.
“So what are you doing parked here?” Van Damme was getting closer to more sensible questions it seemed.
I briefly explained my treacherous journey and confessed that I was now fully equipped to continue on my way.
“Ah!” – Van Damme finally realised the situation, his exclaimation bringing the others grouping closer to hear the revelation.
Some French conversation resumed between the men as I looked around at the situation I was in. At least I knew I wasn’t in any trouble. My mind however, was already wandering on to the next obstacle, where could I sleep at this time?
A gaggle of masculine laughter broke out from the group. I wondered what could have amused them, I hadn’t heard nor understood a single word. Van Damme told me that the SOS phone beside me had been activated several minutes before, so they hurried to my location to see what the emergency was. Being stranded during the daytime can mean that you are potentially waiting for a very long time to be assisted. But because of the inherent dangers of an incapacitated vehicle in complete darkness, the urgency of rescue is multiplied exponentially.
Initially, they suspected I was driving under the influence, involved in an accident, or perhaps both. For them to find out that this was just a poor guy that had run out of fuel on his holiday came as a pleasant surprise to them. A situation that had been so uniquely challenging and exhausting was entirely trivial and hilarious to them, that didn’t bother me though. Van Damme insisted I followed him to the next service station in case anything else happened to me along the way.
I have to say, they were so kind and thoughtful towards me, even if it was their job. I went from thinking that the people of France were rather conservative and not especially inclined to help others visiting their country, but now, those naive assumptions had been thrown out of the window like a hotel television set handled by an arrogant rock ‘n roll band. I just felt so grateful to be reunited with my independence in the form of a rather scrappy looking motorcycle.
We arrived at the service station and I filled the motorcycle to the brim with fuel before doing anything else, like forgetting. Van Damme seemed so pleased to be in my presence, watching my every move in apparent admiration, and reflection on his own life experiences. We continued conversing under the bright lights of the petrol station’s forecourt as I handled the fuel nozzle, making sure not to overfill and splash gasoline everywhere as I have done before as a result of being preoccupied.
“Why did you not take your jerry can monsieur?” Van Damme asked.
I told him,
“I had to leave it back at the SOS phone because I have no more space to carry it, you can go back for it, if you like” – at this point I really just wanted to keep moving.
“No, no monsieur but it is your jerry can, you must take it!” he insisted with a joyful smile.
We both laughed and wished each other a good evening. Soon after, they cruised away from the floodlit forecourt and back into the darkness of night, no doubt preparing to respond to another call.
After refuelling, I sat on the kerb (as I often do when I need some time to process events) and thought about what my plan of action would be, now that it was so late. I left the safety of the service station to rejoin the gloomy motorway, without an inkling of where I could sleep.
A few kilometres turned into twenty and then thirty. The cool evening air was creeping further into the sleeves and collar of my leather jacket, adding to the already uncomfortable physical condition of driving overtired. I realised I didn’t have any energy remaining to ride around searching for a campsite or a hostel, so I figured my only option was to wild camp somewhere. Quickly it was becoming too cold for me to ride safely, I had to pull-in to the next available stop.
In France there are two kinds of rest stop on the motorways, both accompanied with the prefix to the name, ‘aire de’. One kind is equipped with toilets, fuel and a place or two to eat and drink. The other kind bares more resemblance to a picnic spot, offering only ‘hole-in-the-floor’ toilets, some benches and a lifeless selection of grassy areas. It just so happened that I arrived at the latter, more basic offering.
As I rolled into the rest stop, it was poorly-lit and deserted, quite a few of the lamp posts were inactive. Many years ago these picnic areas would be filled with cars and campervans, families travelling or migrating to locations all around Europe and North Africa. A quiet, relaxing place to catch a few hours’ kip before getting back on the road again. In more recent times, they had become a hotspot for vehicle theft and organised criminals looking for an opportunity to loot some valuables while families slept unaware. This knowledge only contributed feelings of fear to the already uncomfortable situation I was lumbered with.
It was definitely quiet there, maybe too quiet. I noticed some trucks parked together, maybe 3 or 4 with all the internal lights switched off from what I could tell. I figured they were all sleeping so I respectfully killed the engine whilst still carrying momentum as I got close enough and rolled to a stop beside one of them.
I felt so much fatigue from the hours of riding and then the stress of breakdown and the walking that ensued. I never would’ve guessed that I would be sleeping in such a place on the first night of the trip, and that it could all go so wrong. I looked around for somewhere inconspicuous to pitch the tent. I didn’t want to be seen by any vehicles passing through in the middle of the night while I sleep. I would be such an easy target while I feel into a deep, much needed sleep. I came across a few mature trees on the grass that cast large shadows from the street lamps.
Wild camping is not new to me, I have been several times in England, but by no means would I say I’m experienced or even any good at it. I always seem to forget something I later on really need, only to find ways to adapt without said item. When you are wild camping it’s almost always in a place that prohibits such a thing. The remoteness of your location often provides adequate safety from prying eyes. Unfortunately here, I didn’t have that luxury, the entrance roads and parking spaces were clearly visible from every potential pitching spot.
Constructing the tent was such a struggle in my state of fatigue, a couple of times a car cruised through the parking area and then left to rejoin the motorway. I found myself sitting under a tree during these instances, trying my best not to move or be seen, I felt myself almost gritting my teeth as the headlights of intruding vehicles licked my silhouette. Perhaps I was spotted and my questionable behaviour is what caused those drivers to reconsider stopping there.
By now, I had set-up the internal structure of my makeshift bedroom and carelessley flung the outer layer over the top. The ground was nearly impossible to penetrate without a mallet to accurately drive the pins into the hard, sun-baked soil with force.
Once complete, if you could call it that, the tent looked far from it’s best state but it did at least feature a fully functioning door for me to climb through and no doubt could provide me with some shelter. I sat there, gazing out of the tent as if I was only down to a few remaining brain cells, no doubt ‘catching flies’ trying to somehow make sense of today’s curious events. I remember the highlighted, fluffy outlines of white rabbits glowing in the distance, scurrying about gracefully for food. Looking up at the sky, sparkling lights from stars surrounded a bold, white moon. I’m not sure if I would have felt more comfortable if I could see other people around or not. Exhaustion seemed to immerse me in the depths of my sleeping bag, fully-zipped and foetal.
Something kept disturbing me throughout the night, what seemed like every 5 minutes. I blinked myself awake, my ears tuning-in to frequencies that could mean danger, before drifting back into a thoughtless slumber. You know even on this first of nights, I was waking up to unusual noises that caused me to hurriedly rustle around for my flashlight and knife for either hand.
The night passed for what seemed like just an hour before the chugging rumble of a large HGV engine idled outside. It was a comforting sound, despite it extinguishing my sleep – it meant someone was awake out there and that they were not a threat to me. I unzipped the tent. By this time some light had emerged from the horizon, but not much. I looked around and for the first time, with fresh eyes I got to see just where I had slept.
What a triumph it was, I survived sleeping some of the night outside, by myself. It was a big deal for me, I didn’t think I would have the courage to pull that off in such an obvious location. And how amusing it was to observe the calamity that was the tent construction as a result from such a wild day. A nursery child would have no problems bettering those efforts.
The truck driver didn’t spare a glance in my direction so I took it upon myself to quickly deconstruct the tent down and pack it away. Some cars slowly started to trickle in to the parking area just as I was leaving the grassland with my luggage.
I had a lot of miles to cover today, I wanted to reach Chambery, the start of the Rhone-Alps which would provide me with passage to Italy. I would be looking at a good 8 hours in the saddle, without the luxury of maps or mobile internet.