The Digital Adventures

Chapter 3A

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

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Our Moveable Feast


  • Caption of first photo on page 22 of the printed publication:
    After unloading the Land Cruiser, camper-trailer, and a half ton of supplies and equipment from the Queen Elizabeth in Cherbourg, France, we drove the first of the 42,000 land miles that would take us completely around the world.
  • Caption of second photo on page 22 of the printed publication:
    Willy Mettler, who joined us in Cherbourg, France, was killed in Cambodia. From left: Woodrow, Willy, Al and Steve. Manu joined us later in Spain.

The French customs officer in Cherbourg smiled in welcome as we heaved our suitcases on the quayside counter.

Fifteen minutes later, though we could barely see his head behind our mound of duffle bags and cartons and luggage, we could tell he was no longer smiling. And thirty minutes after that, by which time we’d unloaded the last of our gear from the Queen Elizabeth onto the counter, making a small mountain braced by an intertangle of hunting bows and fishing rods, and capped by a big, round archery target, the officer was yelling for his chief.

The chief looked at our six cases of insect repellent, our seven flashlights, and our eight dozen arrows and asked, “Perhaps messieurs plan to open a sport shop in Boulevard des Capucines?”

When Willy Mettler met us outside the customs shed and saw the pile of equipment, he looked even more distressed than the customs man.

“It won’t work,” he exclaimed.

“Don’t worry, Willy, we’ll manage,” I assured him. “We can throw most of the stuff in the camper and the Land Cruiser, and we can put the rest in your car until we get to Paris and get squared away.”

“No, it just won’t work,” he muttered, kicking the straw target. “This spare tire will never hold up.”

Unable to reach Paris that first night, we had to camp in dark chaos in a field off the highway. Disorder reigned. When I groped for a flashlight I got a handful of shoe polish, and when I wearily crept into my sleeping bag it turned out to be Al’s laundry sack. It was a rough night. I woke up with a bottle of borscht under my neck; Woodrow had slept on and crushed a month’s supply of paper cups; Al smelled like gefilte fish.

We stretched, rubbed our aches, and opened the camper door to savor the first of what we hoped would be several hundred glorious mornings on the road. We were camped in a manure pit and were the objects of the rapt attention of some sixty cows who’d come to make their morning’s contributions, and two puzzled farm hands who’d come to supervise. We moved out for Paris.

April in Paris was for us a quiet campsite by the edge of the Seine in the Bois de Boulogne. Mornings we’d emerge from our camper and stop to watch the coal-laden river barges come ’round the bend through the mist, while farther down the river, almost lost in the haze, the haunting outline of the Eiffel Tower challenged the lightening Paris sky. Through the stillness of the park came the sound of polo ponies warming up on the green at Longchamps, and the air carried the moist caress of warming earth. In the evenings, with the campfire thwarting the not wholly vanquished chill of winter and its ally breeze off the Seine, we watched the sunset and ate from plates heaped with fresh mushroom omelette and great hunks of soft crusted French bread which we washed down with glass after glass of warming red wine. Other campers wandered over to say hello, compare equipment, and share a glass of wine or offer a wedge of cheese. There was a family of eight in a Microbus from Munich, a bearded Australian with only a sleeping bag, two newlyweds from Holland in a too-small puptent, four college students from Copenhagen, a British professor and his wife. As night falls, Paris elsewhere becomes the City of Light, but in the Boi she remained calm and dark, and we’d sit around the fire, passing the good red wine around, telling tales-haltingly-in a mixture of each other’s tongues, and singing the universal drinking songs. Such was the Trans World Record Expedition’s home in Paris.

  • Caption of second photo on page 24 of the printed publication:
    Before leaving Paris, Steve filled the Land Cruiser’s radiator with our sponsor’s anti/freeze coolant and sealed it shut for the duration of our journey.

We spent five days in Paris, buying auto insurance for Europe, taking photos for the sponsors, beginning the movie of our trip, getting Algerian visas, repacking our equipment, and holding a press conference under the auspices of the French National Tourist Association. The start of our trip was so deceptively peaceful that when a wire service reporter asked if I expected any trouble, I answered, “Maybe a flat tire or two or a case of dysentery, but that’s about it. We should be able to handle any difficulty that comes up.” I’d have to eat those words in a few days.

It was the 5th of April when we dismantled our camp in the Bois, said good-bye to our friends, and headed south. We moved through a green, green land along a road lined to the horizon with stately trees, and the country passed in a charming blur of cobbled medieval towns, of great cathedral towers in the grayish distance, of Chartres, Orleans, Blois, Tours, Chateauroux, Limoges, Loches, Toulouse. The pace was unhurried, the living easy, the meals simple-dairy-fresh cheese, farm-fresh eggs, bakery-fresh bread, fish we caught in the misty Loire at morning, and lots of thick red wine. I drove, Woodrow slept, Al read from our guidebook about the famous cathedrals and the wars, sieges, and intrigues they had once looked upon.

Today they look down on prosperous farms, growing towns, elegant chateaux and, sadly, here and there, a monstrosity of paint and chrome exhorting the driver to METTEZ UN TIGRE DANS VOTRE MOTEUR.

There are few changes in the French countryside as obvious as those in Paris, and the gas station was the worst offender. These glaring bastions stand out in harsh contrast to the sculptured beauty of the chateaux-studded countryside, though we had to accept them as a necessary evil in a country whose traditional bicycles have succumbed to the Citroen and the 4CV The thing we refused to accept as necessary, albeit an evil, was the price of gasoline-90 cents a gallon-most of it for De Gaulle’s taxes.

  • Caption of the photo on page 26 of the printed publication:
    As we drove into the Pyrenees, we encountered rain, mist, fog and snow, which often required us to look out the side window for the road’s center line.

We were gradually working into our camping routine, slowly getting organized. Willy had driven ahead with our load of extra equipment to Spain, where we planned to resurrect my old Jeep to serve as a storage vehicle. No more borscht for pillows, and no more manure pits. We stopped at the registered campsites along the road. They were clean, and guarded, and had the last hot showers we’d see for weeks. There would be regular campsites down through Spain and into Morocco, but after that we’d be strictly on our own. That’s the way we’d planned it: a month of easy camping to get ourselves in shape before plunging into the rough going east of Algiers.

  • Caption of the photo on page 27 of the printed publication:
    When driving in the Pyrenees became too hazardous, we opened our camper-trailer on a ledge off the side of the road .

One day south of Carcassone, passing through rising land toward Axles-Thermes in the foothills of the Pyrenees, we celebrated our first thousand miles by land, the first of 42,000, and the easiest. We were now well on our way to Spain and the gateway to Africa, far away from the traditional, easy motor route to the Orient that ran from Paris through Italy on to Istanbul.

At the gas station in Quillan, before the long haul into the mountains, we mettezed un tigre in our tank with the last of our French francs. Woodrow asked the attendant about the road ahead, particularly the pass at Port d’Envalira which, since Paris, we’d been warned might still be closed with snow.

“Non, messieurs, c’est impossible,” he replied, explaining that it was too early in the tricky spring season.

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