flyover country

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I remember reading once that there is more life in a one-square-foot patch of earth than in an entire city block. I may be off on the specifics. The point is just how much life there is–from microscopic to tiny–everywhere you go. The point is what you can see when you stop and look. I remember being floored by that colorful fact, probably encountered in National Geographic Kids, and crouching in the grass for several minutes. Sure enough, there were more bugs than I knew how to name. Everything was moving, when you really looked at it. Everywhere things were crawling and seething and hiding.

I’ve had lots of time to look, home in Missouri, waiting on paperwork to process for a teaching job in France. My room overlooks fields, a garden, a lawn of browning grass. I count the surprises viewable from the windows: Deer in the field. A sudden rainstorm, sweeping in with bruise-colored clouds. A few bats in frenetic flight, just blacker than the matte night sky. The wind carving paths through the knee-high soybeans. ACS_1184 2

It’s less than exhilarating, my existence here. Friends have moved on, to engagements and new cities. My old jobs are positively vintage, inaccessible: I spent sweaty afternoons at the local pool completing the teenage rite-of-passage known as lifeguarding. What’s left is family and this old house where each creak of the floorboards is familiar.

In a world so full of noise, this kind of quiet feels almost radical. In a time of life where I am expected to be always striving, always carpe diem, this time to just be feels like a revelation. It affords the kind of clarity that I realize comes from simply paying attention to things.

For maybe the first time, slowing down hasn’t tortured me, overwhelmed me with immediate existential crises or urges to make unwise impulsive decisions. Free from the childhood distractions of summer camp and swim team and general growing up, I have a whole lotta time to think. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.

Plus, there’s more time to read. I’ve been enjoying what I think of as “rural novels” or “Midwest novels,” marked for me by a matter-of-fact tone, no artifice. Characters largely stay put, but compensate for a lack of mobility with rich appreciation and description of their surroundings. Two such examples are Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead and companion novel Home. These novels follow two aging Iowan pastors and their families in rural Gilead in the fifties. The books are subtle and true, imbued with melancholy and sunlight. Robinson manages to write about faith and family without bowing to the sentimental. These books are slow, meditative. Not at all boring. This time at home feels like that.

All this practice slowing down–like a temporary life of retirement at 24–had me eager for the road trip I took in July with Victor. We saw a lot and just like with that fabled square-foot of earth, it brought me to a few realizations. First, once again, this earth is teeming with life. There are stories and things of interest everywhere, often very subtle. Everywhere were curiosities. Even at the rest stops. Even in the odd ghost town in Arkansas. Just a matter of paying attention. ACS_1185

Second was the melancholy acknowledgement that I will never see everything, know everything. The more I learn, the more I am humbled by all there is to know. Our trip made me think, and say: I know nothing. Or very little. 

It reminds me of when I was 15, working on Rosetta Stone French, able to recite a few phrases from memory. A friend asked me, without irony, “so are you like fluent now?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty close,” I responded. It would be years before the assertion of fluency was accurate. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I feel that now, just with life. A full acknowledgement of how small I am, now that the sparkle and arrogance of the college days has faded. Time felt endless. Now it doesn’t. The reality paralyzes for awhile, and then you move forward, conscious of your place. I am, I think, a raindrop in a sea.

Home is where you go to entertain these true, hard thoughts. Absence of distraction. Marilynne Robinson wrote “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”

On the road trip, there is again much time to think. Companionable quiet as we drive, all corn fields and cloudless skies. I become well-acquainted with the right side of Victor’s face. I grit my teeth when semi-trucks seem not to see us or when a storm rolls in and slicks the highway. I am scared of car wrecks. Not in any inhibiting way, just with an acknowledgement that floats hazy on the edge of my consciousness. It’s such a common way to die. Every time we leave the house we surrender to the possibility of falling victim to another person’s inattention. I’m surprised we don’t consider it quite a bit more often, our own mortality.

attention abeilles: hiking the massif de l’esterel

img_1742The best thing about waking up in the morning–or returning to my petit chez moi at any time of day–is the view from my balcony: the brilliant bay outlined by mountains.

I come from the part of Missouri that’s just barely not-Kansas. Deprived of elevation for so long, any hint of it makes me giddy.

Mountains comfort in their grandeur: a constant illustration of perspective. When you can see more than the neighbor’s front lawn, it’s easier to feel loosed from quotidian cares.

These particular mountains sit stoic, wrapped in a fine layer of gauzy fog. They look their best at sunset, as the dying light tinges them a deep purple. When night falls, the streetlights click on and trace a route around the base of the mountains in sparkling orange light.

These are my personal fairytale mountains. But like a shy classmate with a crush, I was content to stay a safe distance away. I didn’t even have a name for the object of my affections. All this time I’ve been here and my description stopped at: “those pretty mountains in the distance. To the right. With the red rocks.”

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It turns out I have a view of the Esterel Massif, a coastal mountain range of volcanic rock tinted brick-red by porphyry. On Sunday I asked Cécile, friend and native Cannoise, what I needed to do to get over there. Whenever I’ve hopped on a train to explore, I’ve always headed direction Ventimiglia, towards Italy. Never towards Marseille. I had developed a mistaken idea that the trains didn’t really run that way. Left unchallenged, this idea kept the mountains mysterious– and inaccessible. I’m glad I asked, because Cécile assured me that they do. She looked at the map of destinations and suggested a few. I wrote them down. I’m well-versed in the string of sparkling towns surrounding Nice, but didn’t even have names for the much more rural areas that neighbor Cannes.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was itching to go somewhere, but the tiny train station right across the street didn’t offer rides for several hours. Fearing the sunset and the resulting chill (I was ill-dressed for a 15-degree temperature drop), I went to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The next day, the sun again shone bright and my student canceled. It was as good a sign as any to get on the train. I picked Agay and bought a round-trip ticket for 7 euros. The next thirty minutes I was shuttled through the coast, surrounded by rocky red mountains and the deep blue sea (a preview of the hiking scenery to come).

The train spit me out in front of a tiny station and sputtered away. The station, bright red and boxy like a toy house, was dwarfed by the red rocks in the background. AGAY.

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Because I always like to spend a lot of time in adequate preparation, I picked a direction at random and started walking, googling hiking trails and train times as I did so. I was also wearing Birkenstock slides, which proved their name by causing me to slip all over the mountain. (There’s a reason I do not position myself as the Expert Traveler, source of wisdom for all practical matters).

Within five minutes I was away from the main road and headed down a promising path. It involved wooden and stone stairs and much of it felt like I was cutting through people’s backyards.

acs_0361acs_0351acs_0362acs_0363 Within twenty minutes, I had gained a lot of elevation and a panoramic view of the sea and hills. I hadn’t passed anyone else until I saw a red pickup truck parked in a field near a sign that warned ATTENTION ABEILLES. Watch out for bees. 

acs_0358An old man walked around to the truck.

Bonjour! I called out. Excuse me, but what bees? It seemed wise to inform myself in case there were giant attack bees further down the trail, or something of the sort.

It was nothing so adrenaline-inducing.

The man pointed behind the truck to a collection of beehives. I crept a bit closer and could hear the signature angry hum. Vaut mieux pas s’en approcher ! He warned. Vous risquez de vous faire piquer ! 

acs_0352 Noted. Getting stung a dozen times over wasn’t really on the day’s agenda, so I gave the bees a wide berth. Bees soon became a theme, though, buzzing shrilly about each patch of wildflowers I approached.

Ten minutes later, I came to a bench on an overlook. I stopped and read for about an hour, stopping occasionally just to fling my head back and breathe. I also furiously brainstormed picnics, my mind organizing grocery lists. If ever I found a place to have un pique-nique, this was it. acs_0330 acs_0353 acs_0329 acs_0332 The trail widened into a a red-dirt path big enough for several lanes of traffic. Tiny pebbles lay like scattered marbles on the ground, a sort of Home-Alone-style trap. In my sandals, the footwear of the hopeful and foolish, I was struggling to stay upright (much to the amusement of my fellow hikers). I wound my way up the red rock layers until I came to the point de vue at the very top of this particular mountain. acs_0356acs_0360acs_0359 acs_0350acs_0354acs_0344img_1717acs_0334 Gravity propelled my descent and I arrived where I had started in half the time. I still had 45 minutes before my train came, so I took the opportunity to visit Agay’s stretch of coastline. img_1742acs_0333 I found a rocky beach with clear water and patches of electric-green moss. Next to the bay was a campground complete with RVs, grills, and families having apéro. A man in waders headed out in the water with a bucket and a pole, surely hunting for some kind of snack from the sea.

It was a notably different crowd than on the Cannes beaches, with the luxury restaurants on the sand offering 20 euro cocktails. This felt normal, rural, a bit like a lake in Missouri. (But give me a Mediterranean bay any day.)acs_0337acs_0349acs_0346 acs_0331acs_0366acs_0365acs_0367acs_0364 It was a day well-worth 7 euros, I’ll say that much. Good things can happen when you jump on a train.

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