It was my plan to visit the cobblestones of Northern France today — to visit the iconic pavé that forms the route of the Paris-Roubaix bike race, which would have taken place tomorrow. It would have been my second visit. My first was in 2014 (Niki Terpstra won). Since that visit, I’ve written a novel titled “The Arenberg Forest.” Here is a snippet. Maybe I’ll be there next year.
The next morning she was up with the grey dawn. A plan had formed complete in her sleep and she had woken with purpose, almost in disbelief at her full night of rest.
She downed two enormous bitter cups of coffee – American in size but Belgian in quality. She highlighted the route on the map and set off. The roads were empty in the wet morning. She put on the seat heater and opened the sunroof, hoping to have drops of mist engulf her.
She drove on the route she had only seen in photos and video clips. The gritty farms and clusters of brick pubs and shops. Empty today, no police, no barriers to keep back crowds, no dust in the air, no drunk teenagers.
She came to the forested area, an iconic stretch that seemed out of a fairy tale when she first heard of it – mythic and dark where dreams, were made or destroyed in the blink of an eye. She pulled the car to the side of the road and got out to walk past the barrier blocking the road from traffic.
The rain was starting in earnest now, spattering on her shoulders. She pulled her hood close over her nose and took off – planting each foot as if she were barefoot, wanting to get her full share of the energy of these stones. Maybe later in the spring she would get to be here for the race – invent some reason she could be of service or just schedule the time here, disappearing into the crowd and drinking beer for breakfast.
A car swished behind her in the dim light, the yellow light bouncing ahead of her on the trestle that crossed the path.
When it was well past she looked around, to make sure she was truly alone. Slowly she knelt on the pavement, letting the damp soak up through first one and then the other knee, placing her palms flat on the grey stones. Stones that she imagined had seen wars and tanks and troops but also miners and cows and wooden wheels. Now so treasured and spoken of only in hushed tones or braying boast.
She pressed her nose down, tipping forward so her toes lifted up behind her off the ground. The sense of moist rich earth, of hard, unforgiving steeliness flooded her. A smell she had only imagined until now – a glimmer of it from her summers on the east coast with her grandmother but pushed back and replaced by the fruity, fresh wheaten smell of California for so many years.
She belonged here. She knew it as she had known few things before. It made no sense. She was so lightly tethered here – part-time work, difficulty with the language, living in borrowed, half-heated apartments like someone on the run, in full avoidance.
But just as she knew people in California who said they could never live away from the sea, she now knew that she could no longer live away from the stones, no farther than a half day’s drive from where she could plant her nose and hands into the unforgiving hardness whenever she needed to remind herself of who she really was.