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  • Mark Smith

When It Rains…Just Go Straight

Dernière mise à jour : 12 janv. 2020

There I’d been all worried about not finding a cycling partner because good ones are like haystack needles, when suddenly I had two.

The second partner, a certain Englishman called Jeremy Phillips, came to me through Ann Henriksen, she of the shady border crossings and insatiable buying habits, who now showed her agility at trapping confused men in her dubious web of wanderlust. Not satisfied with a single unsuspecting fish, she cast out her line for a second, quickly landing Phillips, with whom she finally had to admit she was planning to continue her journey once I return to Paris in late June. Such is life with women!

My answer was to face the music head on. I wrote to Jeremy Phillips, with whom I soon built a choppy but cordial correspondence. He was to leave London a few weeks hence and weave through Europe to Istanbul, where he planned to arrive a few days after Ann and I finish our Kyrgyz tour. The path would bring him through north and eastern France. Should I join him for a day or two along his journey, the better to know mine “enemy,” or at least to get in a few miles with the satchels? Jez, his email moniker, agreed I should. So on the appointed day I showed up at the train station in Reims, capital of France’s Champagne region, and cooked in the sun for 40 minutes while waiting for the Englishman, who was late for our meeting for “technical reasons” I learned about only later.

A boyish fellow of dark brown hair, average build, an easy smile and 51 years, Phillips rolled up on a solid-looking randonneur, shook my hand and readily agreed to pizza on the city’s main esplanade, where by fits and starts I began to get a picture of this sole traveler and the nature of his mission. A web content editor who’d recently been “made redundant” in his job, Jeremy Phillips now appeared to be at a crossroads in life. He’d traveled fairly widely over the years, though always remaining tethered to his obligations in the big city—the apartment he’d bought in North London, his successive jobs, and a collection of women, none of whom had quite managed to convince him of the need to settle down and found a family…or even a permanent couple. Now things had changed. If only for a few months, he was free to ditch the routine and do something unusual. He’d clearly spent a lot of time and energy in arriving at this momentous decision, but his face looked puzzled as to how he now found himself in this place, eating pizza with me, a curious unknown.

At least I had the laptop Jeremy had asked me to bring in an urgent-sounding email received just before I left Paris. When I pulled it from my pannier upon arriving at our Airbnb rental for the night, Jeremy’s eyes lit up like a child’s on Christmas morning. “Oh wow! Great!” he exclaimed, visibly relieved, posing the computer amid a scattered heap of papers and maps on the kitchen table. He then sat down as if to a long-awaited feast.

Jeremy had been having problems with his Garmin GPS navigation device, which he was counting on to guide him across Europe without wrong turns. The damned thing wasn’t working, he said. “I couldn’t get the proper routes programmed into it on my phone. That’s why I was late to collect you at the station,” he said. He assured me the computer I’d brought him would help solve the problem.

Two hours later Jeremy was still squinting at the computer screen, making notes on a scrap of paper, but he seemed to have made progress. “Ok, I think I’ve got it,” he said with faint conviction. “We’re going to be ok!”

A light rain fell the next morning as Jeremy and I picked our way out of town, following the Garmin’s orders turn by turn. But at a roundabout on the outskirts of the city we decided to disobey, opting for a smaller road that our paper map confirmed would deliver us to the next way point with less traffic. “It’s telling us to go back,” Jeremy said. “What shall we do?”

“To hell with it,” I said. “Let’s go this way. It’s nicer.”

The Garmin was going haywire, offering insistent adjustments to our route that made no sense and would eventually have led us to Estonia, had we listened.

But that’s the thing. You can’t always listen. You can’t expect machines or other people to make the right decisions for you, or to help you avoid all the bumps and turns you’re likely to encounter. For a long time I’d wanted a GPS device that would save me all the time I would otherwise waste on the contorted divagations a road can easily add to your journey. I have also wanted help and guidance with more important decisions in my life, but I didn’t get it.

Over the next three days Jeremy Phillips and I covered 240 kilometers, heading southeast along the Marne River through what is certainly among the most nondescript regions in France—a flat, boggy expanse with long straight roads and little confusion possible. The Garmin started working again and it’s true it kept us on track here and there. But had it not, I don’t think anything dire would’ve resulted. It wouldn’t have stopped the rain.

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