I remember in 1994 while pedaling across America after many years of traveling the world on my bicycle I met a guy in the middle of the country somewhere and we had lunch together as we were headed in opposite directions. He had with him a new gadget – a mobile phone. As he went on to explain how cool it was and that he could keep in contact with his family and friends without the need of getting to a payphone, my immediate thought was why would you really want to be connected all the time? Half the joy of travel is being in the moment, and connecting with those you are meeting, much like we were doing right then, that was until his phone rang. After he hung up I said to him that I thought it may have been a cool idea, but it will never catch on in a big way, people like being disconnected sometimes.
Okay, so maybe that wasn’t my best business moment ever. At least he wasn’t a guy named Steve Jobs asking for investment money on this new product, because I probably would have said out loud what I was really feeling internally, “Bad idea, no thanks!” And from where I sit now I would most likely be just a bit frustrated at not being a multi-millionaire. Or would I? Okay I am going off topic now.
So nearly a quarter of a century later my first thoughts on the mobile phone could not have been more wrong, right? Yes, I know the mobile phone has worked its way into every nook and cranny of the planet, has addicted the modern world to its sexy apps and constant connectivity, but I am starting to see the cracks. People don’t want to feel controlled by a small device dictating their daily lives and extracting more and more money out of their pockets, and sharing their personal information with the world at large. I admit I am one of those who now carry a mobile phone. At first I started carrying it for the camera as I did on the spot interviews with people using a Smartphone and a microphone. Then I spent a year traveling America in an RV in 2016-2017, and the mobile phone was our communication tool to meet up with people, and make plans as we traveled across the continent. I couldn’t wait to get back to France though to get rid of the ever-present phone in my pocket always looking for attention with its beeps, rings, dings and blings.
On our return to France the price of our landline rental fee had increased so much that we cancelled it and our ‘landline’ was now through the modem, so the mobile phone I used in America received a French SIM card as a back up for power outages and before I knew it, the phone had arrived a bit more permanently in my back pocket. Yes, I still used it for interviews, and I must say as a tool for that it has been and continues to be, perfect, but my Instagram and Gmail accounts, Whatsapp and messenger apps have started to bite just that much more into my time that I now notice it.
Last year visiting London I saw a disturbing scene recurring on the streets and in the trains and buses, so I started a small communication movement called ‘Give it a Go’, trying to get people to reconnect face to face and turn off their phones a bit more. When I explained to two friends of mine down here who don’t have a mobile phone they said with a grimace, “Pin a badge on to talk to people? How bizarre!” Actually even I was surprised at how many conversations that small badge has started, pulling many away from the ever present finger swipe and glaring face which is becoming all too common and ever present.
I have only had a working mobile phone for slightly over two years, but I see the need to reconnect and get away from the small addiction it allows me to have. Unfortunately, unlike many unhealthy addictions, I do not feel like an outcast, actually the opposite, I am in the accepted crowd, the constantly connected. In so many ways I want to get back to being that guy I was in 1994. Yes, since then my life has changed drastically. I was a single man traveling with the world spread out before me. I do not want to go back to that status, I am happily married with two children and those last twenty four years or so have been a fantastic voyage. It is also nice to know that my wife and I met randomly in China, we moved to five different parts of Europe and America, were briefly members in an Irish eco-village project, opened two businesses, raised two wonderful children, I wrote and published a book, and most of that time we were that weird couple with no mobile phone, and only up until 2005, we were also that couple without an email address. So yes, it is possible to live without constant connectivity. As the world gets more and more connected though it might seem more and more impossible, but it isn’t. Life can still go on without a phone close at hand.
Or can it? After a busy couple of weeks driving around to a few mountain bike races with my son, and heading off to Marseille to renew the kid’s passports, I needed to get reconnected with a slow moving form of transport and meeting people on the road -unknown strangers who would become friends. I had been feeling this twinge to get on my old touring bicycle quietly tugging at my sleeve since the middle of summer, so it was time to dust off the old panniers, fill them up with camping gear and hit the road. The phone left behind and my digital camera pulled out of a draw it has been living in for a few years, I was ready. October 1st I would leave our doorstep, map in hand, no plan, and see what the reconnected world would throw at me.
The short trip wasn’t going to be anything but that, a short voyage exploring the surrounding area by bike. The bicycle is the perfect speed to explore the countryside, and a great vehicle for opening up conversations. There seems to be no threat when you pull up on a bicycle asking to pitch up your tent for the night. I know there are online sites such as ‘Warm Showers’ that I could have looked up hosts in the area I was headed, actually I am a Warm Showers host, but I really wanted this to be like the good old days – me, a map, my bike and unknown small adventures awaiting.
Day one was a blowy day into headwinds, but I was full of enthusiasm and wound up traversing 77 hilly kilometers in the region northwest of where I live. I ended up windblown and happily tired in a small village named Anan, where I saw a farmer out trimming his hedge. His land bordered the river I was following as I was cycling in the Save Valley. I asked if I could pitch up on his land, he said no problem, but if I just headed down the road a few hundred meters there was a small park owned by the municipality with a picnic table right next to the river and no one would mind if I camped there. I checked it out, and it was perfect. Speaking French to a certain level definitely helped making contact as I was now in small villages and not a small international enclave like the village I live in.
Day two was an easy 45 kilometers after a leisurely breakfast and took me through a few bigger towns. My sleeping bag mat had a small leak, so lunch by the lake in a small village called Samartan was the perfect spot to fix it, but after submersing the mat, finding the hole and patching it, I then read that the glue took eight to twelve hours to dry. Hmmmm, that meant I wouldn’t be able to lay down on it till nine at night the earliest. Oh well, I’d figure that out later on. I pedaled to another town I had always seen on the map, but never visited once in the eleven years we have lived here, L’Isle Jourdain. I arrived there early after a few quiet hours just drifting off in my own thoughts whilst slowly moving through the sunny mild autumn day. The town boasted two lakes, one quite big, the other small. The larger of the two lakes had a cable pulling water skiers in a loop doing jumps and enjoying the day as much as I was, but in a whole different way. I stopped in the tourist office and asked about the municipal campsite. It was closed, but as I really didn’t need too much I asked if she thought it would be okay if I just put up my tent there anyway. She didn’t think it would be a problem. I then looked around the office and saw a sign for refuges for pilgrims. I recognized the symbol from the previous week cycling on the Santiago de Compastella trail in Ainsa, Spain, where my son, Louis, had been racing bikes. I asked her more and she asked if I was a pilgrim. I told her that nineteen years ago me, and this same exact bike with my then girlfriend, now wife, had cycled the pilgrim’s trail to Santiago. She smiled and said, “Well then you are a returning pilgrim!” and happily told me there was an empty room on the border of the lake for twelve euros. Se handed me a key and said go check it out. I cycled around to have a look, and it didn’t take long to make my decision. A cooker, bunk beds, a balcony awash in sunlight overlooking the lake. Hey, it also solved my glue-drying dilemma, I wouldn’t be needing the mat till the next day. Perfect!
I went back to the tourist office and gave Fabienne, the nice woman working there, a few ‘Give it a Go’ badges. I explained what it was all about and she thought it was an excellent idea. She had just given up using her mobile phone for the past year. She now was back using it, but it spent a lot of time in Airplane Mode. What a good idea!
The town was really nice and had an old Roman bridge I walked over into the town center to buy some food for dinner. After I got back I was cooking and my neighbor said to me over the small wall between our balconies, “Sorry there will be a little noise here tonight.” I asked why and he went on to explain it was his birthday. I said no problem, if it was too loud I’d come over for a glass of wine or a beer. He said I was more than welcome, but I might be a bit bored as they were a bunch of students of all ages from all over France taking a bicycle mechanic course. I smiled and said I was traveling by bike, and was the previous owner of two bicycle shops and have worked in the industry off and on for many years. He lit up and said, “Perfect, now you have to come, see you later. Bon Appetite!”
Later that night we all passed a social evening talking about bikes, and the course they were taking. I told them a bit about my bike and its previous travels, and as it was in my room where they couldn’t see it, they asked me to come by the course center the next day. The teacher would love to see the bike and meet me. I said okay, it’s a date.
The next day I stopped by and wound up giving an impromptu talk about cycle touring, gave them a brief tour of my old-school components and frame and they were all looking at my bike and taking photos. They were doing a wheel building seminar so were all happy to see the wheels I had hand built over fifteen years ago still gong strong on my good old buddy leaned up on the kickstand. One girl taking the course exclaimed, “This bike should be in a museum!” At least it wasn’t me she thought should be in the museum, as I was the second oldest guy in the room;-)!
The disconnect tour was doing its job. I was reading a map, not listening to google maps, I had met great people, and the perfect places had presented themselves to me for sleeping. It didn’t take long to find the groove I spent so many years in traveling the world on two wheels. My phone was becoming a distant memory already, and if I met that same guy I met back in 1994, I’m thinking my answer wouldn’t be that much different, or at least I would say, “Hmm interesting invention, make sure you keep it on Airplane Mode most of the time.” I’m sure back in ’94 he would have looked at me quizzically though.
I had to start looping back towards home now. Probably one more night of camping, or I may even make it back if the roads took me that way. As it turned out I followed the small squiggles on the map. The woman on google maps would have been prompting me to make U-turns and get back on the right road as I took the long way around. I must say, the long way around was quite beautiful, and definitely the right road! I camped out near a town called Carbonne which we travel through quite often, but just a few kilometers from the too-familiar town center and I was in a new world. Although most of this short trip probably never took me more than eighty kilometers away from my home village, many of the small villages I cycled through were unknown to me, and I could have been anywhere in France. I totally recommend exploring the area where you live on a rambling two-wheeled adventure. It changes your perspective, gets you talking to the locals, and who knows, maybe your phone will spend a lot more time on Airplane Mode!
Take care, see ya up the road.
Many of you may know this clip, but hopefully the times are a changing!