Numbskull: A Novel of Love, Loss, Lies & An Epic Bike Trip Through France

Here are the first 14 (of 43) chapters of Numbskull, a novel based on my near-death cycling “incident” in 2013, and several French cycling trips. Plus other stuff. You know: Life. There’s more about the incident at the end of this, plus info on how to get the rest of Numbskull. Writing this novel was an important part of the recovery from my injuries and the traumatic brain injury (TBI) I’m still learning to live – and ride – with. A few people have been confused and think this is real … it’s not. It’s a novel. OK, start reading …

***

1 seeing chantilly

Day 1, Chantilly … 20 miles/20 total … The Humpty Dumpty Syndrome, on a bike

I’m in Chantilly.

The one in France.

It’s just north of Paris, a short bike ride from the airport.

It’s 4:22AM (Tuesday morning on Day 2 actually) and I can’t sleep. Despite the Ambien I took seven hours ago. My neck hurts. A lot. Can’t find a comfortable position on this uncomfortable, saggy bed. My battered & traumatized brain won’t calm the hell down and my anxiety/stress level is way up. Despite the Lexapro I took 20 hours ago at the airport. Should I take another Lexapro? I’m gonna. Hang on…

OK, I’m back. Took the Lexapro. Let’s hope it works fast.

Why am I here? In Chantilly?

Well, I have a TBI (that’s a traumatic brain injury, and, trust me, they don’t use the word traumatic lightly).

Was on a bike ride: April 20, a year ago. A beautiful Sunday morning. 11:47AM. And a very drunk driver hit me. And sped away. Was knocked unconscious, had a fractured skull and the TBI. Woke up four days later in the hospital. Didn’t – and still don’t – remember a thing about that day.

BTW: They caught the bastard. He’s in jail, two months into a five-year sentence. And no, I won’t say or write his name. Ever.

I’m a newspaper reporter.

Actually, used to be a newspaper reporter. Not sure what I am now. Got laid off by the Examiner three weeks ago. Nothing personal, they said. Circulation and revenue are down, we need to make some cuts. Sorry Marc, you’re one of the cuts. We don’t need a general assignment & enterprise reporter who also does a weekly humor column. We’re going in another direction. What direction? We’re not sure, but it’s a different one. Don’t ask so many questions. Thanks for all your good work the past 10 years. We’re giving you and everyone else we’re laying off a week’s severance pay for every year you worked here … up to 5 weeks.

So, there you have it, that’s why I’m here in France.

In Chantilly, starting an epic French bike trip.

And can’t sleep … without Maddie. I miss Maddie so much it hurts.

***

OK Marc, enough with all the whining. They get the picture. Get to the bike trip part of the bike trip.

Let’s just say it didn’t get off to the greatest of starts.

My flight from Philadelphia left at 8:50PM Sunday (that seems so long ago) and arrived at Aeroport Charles De Gaulle at 8:35AM Monday. Paris time. Tried to fall asleep on the flight, and did … 20 minutes before we landed.

Waited at the baggage carousel for my bike and my panniers.

Panniers?

They’re the bags you attach to each side of the rack on the back of your bike. They hold all your stuff. And you need a lot of stuff when you’re on an epic French bike trip. Pannier is a French word, and I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce it. The R might be silent. There are a lot of silent letters in French. It’s confusing.

My panniers rolled out onto the baggage carousel, but no bike.

Where the hell is my bike?

Why isn’t it coming up the baggage carousel? Everyone else from my flight had their bags and was long gone. It was just me – and my panniers – and no bike in a big, cardboard box. Started stressing out. Big time. How the hell am I going to go on a bike trip without a bike? You kind of need one. Otherwise it’s just “a trip.”

Is it gone? Lost? Stolen? Evaporated? Do I have to go into Paris and buy a bike? Is this an omen? Should I get on the next flight home? Can I just curl up in a ball in the corner of this airport and cry myself to sleep?

Finally decided to find the Air France luggage office, walked in … and there it was, my bike in a box. Sitting there. It seems the big, bulky, cardboard box was too big to go through the baggage carousel, something I should have figured out a long time – and a lot of stress – ago. Hey, give me a break; I have a TBI and just spent a sleepless night on a stupid airplane.

Dragged the box out of the Air France office, found a semi-quiet spot in a corner and started putting my bike back together. And had all sorts of problems getting the damn handlebars back on. I’m a pretty experienced cyclist and can fix flats and dropped chains and replace brake pads. This was the first time I’d ever disassembled and packed my bike into a box, and then tried to put it back together again.

You know, the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome. With a bike.

The pedals and wheels were a breeze to put back on. The handlebars were a different story. You have to thread this long screw down through the stem and into this little nut that you can’t really see.

My manual dexterity isn’t quite as dexterous as it once was. Neither is my patience, which wasn’t the greatest to begin with. Now, I get stressed out and anxious and impatient so much faster than I used to, which, like I said, was already pretty fast. Even with the Lexapro. Damn TBI.

Let’s just say I was anxious, stressed out & pissed off as I tried to get the handlebar screw back in place. My stuff was strewn about every which way, was mumbling curses to myself, as hundreds of people from all over the world walked by, staring at me like I was Crazy Airport Guy.

OK, they may have had a point.

Couple of times had to take a step back from my bike and the stupid handlebar screw, take a few deep, cleansing breaths and try to relax.

Finally got the screw in, the handlebars on properly and my bike back together, and could dial down the stress level. Felt a little better. Put the panniers on, put the handlebar bag on the handlebars and used a couple of bungee cords to attach my small knapsack on top of the panniers on the back of my bike. A guy I know, who’s biked across the U.S. and around Europe a few times, told me I absolutely, positively had to bring at least four bungee cords and a roll of duct tape with me.

“You can fix anything and solve any problem with bungee cords and duct tape on a bike trip,” he said. “And, for some reason, gray duct tape works best.”

“Really? Gray?”

“Nah, I’m just messing with you Marc, every color’s the same.” Nevertheless, have a roll of gray duct tape with me.

You never know.

***

At 11:36AM, finally rolled my bike out of the airport terminal … and into France. My epic bike trip had begun. And yeah, people look at you kind of funny when you wheel a loaded-up bike through a busy airport. Screw ‘em, they’re jealous. Had a map of the airport from the information booth, and all I had to do was find the periphery road. It winds around the airport and would take me to the D212 road that would then take me in the direction of Chantilly, where I planned to find a hotel and spend the night.

Easy, right?

Not exactly.

All the signs outside the terminal pointed to the A1, the French equivalent of a big American super highway/turnpike. Didn’t want to get on the A1. Not on a bike. It may be illegal. Definitely dangerous. And I’m kind of petrified of dangerous, traffic-filled roads. For obvious reasons. Went a couple hundred yards in every direction, around and around, looking for some sort of sign or side road that would lead me to the periphery. Nothing. Finally, frustrated and pissed off, which is the exact opposite of how you want to start off an epic French bike trip, started following the signs toward the A1, hoping for the best. From the map, this seemed like where the periphery should be. After about half a mile, and before I got to the A1, saw a road up above me, crossing over the road I was on.

“This has to be the periphery road,” I mumbled. “But how the hell do I get up there?”

Went a little further, hoping I’d find the access road up to the periphery, but again … nothing … and I was getting closer and closer to the start of the actual A1. More and more cars were zooming by. Was getting more and more nervous, anxious and stressed out. Turned around and rode back under what I thought – and hoped – was the periphery, and decided had no choice but to climb the steep, rocky embankment.

Started up and immediately realized it was a suicide mission. My bike, what with all the panniers and bags, my laptop, toiletries, underwear (five pairs!), must have weighed 70 pounds. Maybe more. There was no way I was getting it up the steep embankment. Not in my weakened, post-incident (I will never, ever call it an accident) condition. Sat down on the side of the road, fought back the tears, and tried to figure out what to do. Stuff like this never used to bother me or stress me out.

“So, Marc, how was your bike trip through France? Amazing, right?” “Well, I never actually made it out of the airport.”

“Voila!” I shouted after a few minutes … and took my panniers and knapsack off my bike and carried them to the top of the embankment, slipping and falling once, skinning my left knee. Hey, it’s not easy climbing up the side of an airport mountain in clip-in bike shoes. Went back down, super- extra carefully, got my bike and managed to push it up the embankment without falling. Barely. Reattached the panniers and bags. Bungee cords in place.

Mission accomplished. Off I went.

The road was the periphery. I think. Must have been. Rode a couple miles, past a bunch of big hotels, came out the other end of the airport on the D212 and headed north to Chantilly. My back and neck only hurt a little. Felt good to be on a bike. In France. Finally. As soon as you ride into Chantilly, you turn a corner and there it is … this amazing French castle. Then again, all the castles here in France are French castles. Or chateaux, as they call them over here. And they’re all probably amazing. It’s not like some rich king or duke or marquis is going to build a small, boring castle. All the other kings, dukes & marquis would mock him relentlessly: “Hey Henri, your chateau is merde.”

There were moats and gardens surrounding the chateaux in Chantilly, and turrets and spires all over the façade. Felt a little better as I sat in the gardens and tried – somewhat successfully – to relax.

And then I got sad. Really sad.

And tired. And thought about Maddie. She should be here with me. She’d love Chantilly.

***

Started this journal 23 days after the incident. This was about the time the fog in my brain lifted enough for me to begin to process my thoughts and write them down in a somewhat clear and coherent way.

My neuropsychologist thought keeping a journal would be a good way to help me organize my thoughts, deal with my depression, anxiety and stress, retrain my brain and eventually help me get back to work at the Examiner. The neuropsychologist was right. Keeping a journal helps. Now, writing in my journal is a habit, something I have do every day to try and make sense of everything that’s happened and is still happening to me.

BTW: Never knew there was such a thing as a neuropsychologist until I started seeing one. Did you? Didn’t think so.

I’m definitely still in recovery mode, mentally and physically. Had 19 broken bones. I think. Was never clear on the exact number. What’s the difference if it was seven broken ribs or eight broken ribs? It hurts the same. A lot. Let’s just say stuff was busted up from head to toe and what wasn’t broken was bloody and/or bruised & battered. My biggest issue right now is this damn TBI. It’s a bastard. And I may have a little PTSD mixed in with the TBI, according to my neuropsychologist. Yep, the TBI/PTSD daily double. And, I have all the depression, anxiety, insomnia and stress-related issues that come with TBI/PTSD.

It’s now 5:44AM and I’m going to close my laptop and try to sleep for a couple of hours. It’s been a long couple of days. Hope some of the above makes some sense, as I’m a little delirious, what with all the sleep deprivation.

Day 2: Soissons, 50 miles/70 total … My $140 waterproof panniers aren’t as waterproof as advertised

2 stuff copy

I didn’t.

Fall back asleep, last night. May have dozed off for a few minutes, but mostly tossed and turned. Finally, at 7:57AM, admitted defeat, got up and went to the café next door for coffee and two croissants.

Jet lag sucks. Combine it with a TBI and it super sucks.

But I do love croissants (and pain au chocolates). And, I’m already quite good at pointing and saying “Deux, s’il vous plait.”

BTW: That means “two, please.”

BTWA (the A is for again): When an American holds up two fingers to indicate we want two of something, we use our pointer finger and middle finger. Like the peace sign. Go ahead, try it … I’ll wait.

I’m right, aren’t I?

When a French person does it, they use their thumb and pointer finger. So, when an American uses their pointer and middle finger in France to indicate two, it confuses the hell out of the French. They’re not sure if we mean two or three. Or peace.

BTWAA: One croissant or pain au chocolate is never enough. It must always be two. Sometimes three.

***

Wait, before I forget all the details, must write about the flight over to Paris and the guys sitting on either side of me. Damn, this would have made a great column for the Examiner. And by great, I mean funny.

Window Seat Guy was a rather large, older man (60?) whose largeness spilled over onto my seat. Let’s just say I wasn’t getting a piece of that armrest. Aisle Seat Guy was about the same age as me. I think. Me? I’m 34. My birthday was a few weeks ago: Two days after I got laid off at the Examiner. Happy birthday Marc! Anyway, Aisle Seat Guy was thin, but a total armrest hog, which meant I wasn’t getting a piece of that armrest either. It was going to be a long, uncomfortable flight. My neck was already starting to hurt. So was my head. This was my first flight since you know what, and I was worried about flying and how it would impact my TBI.

Aisle Seat Guy: “Have you ever read Lonesome Dove?”

Me: “No.”

He showed me the paperback copy of Lonesome Dove he was reading.

Smiled politely at him.

Aisle Seat Guy: “You’ve never read Lonesome Dove? I can’t believe it. It’s the greatest book ever written. It won the Pulitzer Prize, it’s an epic western adventure about …”

Window Seat Guy: “Hold on a second, the greatest book ever written is Guns of Navarone. It’s an incredible World War II story about the…”

Aisle Seat Guy: “Guns of Navarone, are you kidding me? I’ve read it and I’ve seen the movie. It’s OK, but it’s no Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry is a genius I tell you, a genius.”

On and on they went, until finally, mercifully, dinner was served and they shut their yaps for a few minutes. Debated whether or not to tell them The Three Musketeers is the greatest book ever written. Decided not to, worried I’d prolong a literary debate I had no interest in being part of.

It seems Aisle Seat Guy travels to Paris once a year for business.

Aisle Seat Guy: “I read a third of Lonesome Dove on the flight over, a third while I’m in Paris and a third on the flight home.”

Me: “That’s cool.”

Thought about telling him maybe it was time he got back to reading the first third of Lonesome Dove, but decided against it. I’m working on being nicer and more patient, and Aisle Seat Guy may have been a test.

A really hard test.

Just before we landed, Aisle Seat Guy offered me his copy of Lonesome Dove.

Me: “I couldn’t take it, you wouldn’t be able to read the rest of it in Paris and on the flight back.”

Aisle Seat Guy: “No problem, I always bring an extra copy with me. Just in case. It’s in my suitcase. I’m on page 157, so I can pick up right where I left off tonight.”

Wow, he brings a spare copy “just in case.” Just in case of what? Is there some sort of sinister gang of book thieves roaming the streets of Paris, preying on Americans reading Lonesome Dove? And do they only steal books written by Larry McMurtry, or do they also swipe books by other popular authors?

Didn’t want Aisle Seat Guy’s copy of Lonesome Dove, but it seemed vitally important to him that I take the stupid book. So, I did. Forgot to pack a book, so what the hell, now I have something to read. Maybe it will help me fall asleep. Probably not.

Aisle Seat Guy: “I guarantee you’ll love it and will thank me.”

BTW: My brain and my TBI can handle flying. Felt fine. That’s a relief. Had visions of excruciating, pounding headaches as the plane gained altitude, followed by quiet, yet desperate whimpering for seven hours.

***

OK, back to Day 2 of my bike trip, or Sleepless in France. No wait, Sleepless in Soissons. That sounds better, although it only works today.

I’m in Soissons, which is about a 50-mile ride from Chantilly, and it’s 3:46AM (Wednesday morning) and, surprise, surprise, can’t sleep.

Yet again.

So, I’m writing.

Again.

The plan had been to keep going through Soissons – it’s got a giant cathedral and not much else – and then ride another 20 miles to Laon and stay there. It started raining about 25 miles into the ride and was still raining when I got to Soissons. It was cold, wet and I was starting to shivering and shake. Plus, was really tired from the whole jet-lag, lack-of-sleeping thing and from riding the 50 miles.

“The hell with it,” I said when I got to Soissons, and got a room at the Hotel Du Pot D’Etain and immediately discovered my brand-new, $140 waterproof panniers aren’t quite as waterproof as advertised.

All my clothes were at least damp and some were soaking wet (the ones on the bottom). Spread everything out anywhere and everywhere I could find a place to spread them out: the bed post, the hook on the bathroom door, the douche (that’s the French word for shower and yes, immature people – like me – think it’s funny) and on the radiator, which wasn’t on even though it’s pretty darn cold. Stretched two bungee cords from the bed post to the window and hung the rest of my clothes on them. Thank goodness for bungee cords.

If my stuff isn’t dry in the morning, I’ll find a Laundromat and put them in the dryer.

Let’s just say getting around the room was difficult with stuff hanging everywhere. It was like one of those Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movies where there are all these multi-colored laser beams filling a room and guarding some giant diamond or a highly toxic, mutated strain of a virus that will kill millions of people. Tom has to twist and turn and gymnast his way through the laser beams.

I’m no Tom Cruise (that’s a good thing, right?), and almost killed myself going to the bathroom in the dark. Turns out you can clothes line yourself on a clothes line. Guess that’s where the phrase comes from.

Thank goodness my laptop was in a large – and actually waterproof – Ziploc bag, along with Lonesome Dove, which I started reading a few hours ago to try and help me fall asleep. It’s pretty good. Aisle Seat Guy may be on to something.

Still can’t fall asleep, so I might as well write some more.

Tonight’s topic: cycling.

I’m a pretty experienced and strong cyclist. Well, I was a strong cyclist before that bastard almost killed me. Not so much anymore, but I’m determined to get back into biking shape. Uncle Steve took me on my first bike trip the summer before my senior year of high school. To Vermont. Lots of mountains. It was great. Learned how to climb mountains and turn beautiful circles with my pedals. The next year we did upstate New York. Lake George, Lake Placid and lots of other lakes. And more mountains. Still great. Was hooked on the whole cycling and bike-trip thing. We skipped a year and then did the Skyline Drive in Virginia, which is one huge mountain. It was amazing. We skipped another year and did the C&O Canal, finishing up in Washington, D.C., which was where Uncle Steve lived. That was our last bike trip. Uncle Steve was diagnosed with brain cancer about three months after the C&O trip and, well, he didn’t make it.

Really miss Uncle Steve and our bike trips. He would have loved biking over here in France.

Day 3: Laon, 50 miles/120 total … My chin was made of metal … and my chest was a magnet

3 Laon street

Another night of tossing and turning and not much actual sleeping. What with the whiplash, broken shoulder and back issues, it’s really hard to find a comfortable sleep position. Used to sleep on my stomach. Not now. Hurts my neck. Have to sleep on my side and don’t like sleeping on my side.

They have these things called whiplash pillows. They’re expensive and are supposed to eliminate the pain in your whiplashed neck.

They don’t. A lesson that cost me $200.

This makes three mostly sleepless nights in a row.

BTW: My clothes were sort of, mostly dry this morning. Spent about half an hour in the bathroom, drying out my underwear with the annoyingly unpowerful hair dryer. May have burned out the motor.

***

Left Soissons a little after 10AM. The plan was to ride to Laon. It’s only about 20 miles from Soissons, so took the long way. Headed east to Fismes, where I had some lunch … and fell asleep in a little park next to the church. Lay down on a bench by the church for a minute, it was sort of comfortable in a wooden-bench kind of way … and next thing I knew it was half an hour later. Hope this doesn’t screw me up tonight.

When I woke up, my neck was stiff. And sore. More than usual. The lingering effects of the whiplash. My lower back was also stiff and sore. More than usual. The lingering effects of the three compression-fractures of my vertebra. Did some yoga (Maddie was big on yoga and took me to classes all the time), felt a little better, and started riding. It rained a little, got wet, it stopped raining, gradually dried out.

BTW: Now pack all my clothes in the plastic bags you get at the grocery store, and then put them into my not-so-waterproof panniers. Better safe than soggy.

***

Got to Laon. It’s an ancient city perched high atop a cliff that juts up out of the flatlands below. The cliff is like 300-feet high and about a mile long. The city on top is filled with all these old, stone buildings, including the 12th- Century Gothic cathedral. It’s called Notre Dame. The towers of the church are decorated with dozens of statues of oxen. Oxen? It seems these beasts of burden hauled up all the stones they used to build the church and all the buildings and ramparts.

Got a room at a hotel near the train station at the base of the cliff. Took a shower, another nap, had something to eat and finally headed up to the top of the cliff to explore Laon. You can take the POMMA 2,000 cable car, but decided to walk the ancient steps. I’m not exactly sure what constitutes ancient, but I’m going to call all the stuff 500 years or older ancient.

It’s 297 steps to the top (I counted). Had to stop and rest and catch my breath four times. Stairs are tough. Should have taken the POMMA. Would have, but I’m a bit stubborn (get this from Dad) and kind of cheap (Dad, again) and it cost 2 Euros. Plus, one of the goals of this trip is to get my body back in shape, and taking the POMMA 2,000 isn’t going to get me there. Plus, all the riding and walking should tire me out and help me sleep better tonight. Maybe. Hopefully. Probably not. It’s worth a shot. My left ankle was throbbing by the time I got to the top. It’s the one that got broken. Forget the exact name, but it’s the kind of break where the muscle pulls away from the bone and takes a piece of the bone with it. Yeah, it hurts as much as it sounds like it would hurt. Feels OK when I bike, but starts to hurt when I walk a lot. Probably shouldn’t walk a lot. Or climb 297 ancient stairs.

Wandered around town, wound up at Notre Dame, noticed a couple of television trucks parked outside and lots of people milling around. Everyone was dressed up and seemed excited about something. The tourist office is next to the church. Went inside.

“Parlez-vous Anglais?” I asked.

“Yes,” the women said.

Asked her what was going on at the church: A free concert this very evening by the Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio France that was being broadcast on TV.

Although the concert was free, you needed a ticket.

“Can I have une billet please.”

Billet means ticket, and I have no idea if I pronounced it properly. Think the T is silent.

She looked at me with a look that I can only describe as one of contempt, as if tickets for an event of such importance would still be available an hour before the start of the concert.

“We have no more tickets,” she said, shooting me another haughty look. “They have been complete for weeks.”

***

No way was I going to let the lack of a billet prevent me from hearing the Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio France play in a 900-year old church perched on top of a cliff and covered with oxen.

Come on, how often do you get a chance for something like this?

Got in line, toward the back, and waited and waited. They finally opened the doors and we started filing into the church. “Look like you belong and have a ticket,” I told myself as I got close to the entrance. My plan, if someone asked for my ticket, was to go totally dumb American on him (or her). “I do not understand, Je ne parle pas Francais,” I would say over and over until they finally gave up and let me in, shaking their head in disgust and exasperation at the stupid American without a billet. Hey, we already have a reputation for being rude tourists, so why not use it to my advantage?

Amazingly, nobody asked to see my billet … and I waltzed right into the church and took a seat in the back, in the unreserved section. At least I think it was the unreserved section. Nobody said anything. Or asked for a billet. Waited for the start of the concert, and the sun started setting. As it did, the red and blue stained-glass windows got darker and darker and finally went black. It was quite beautiful and peaceful. My brain was calm.

The Orchestre Philharmonic de Radio France was wonderful. Their first number was something by Mozart.

The only problem was the cymbals. Holy crap were they loud. And hurt my head whenever Cymbal Guy crashed them together. At one point, Cymbal Guy smashed them together five or six times in a row. Thought my brain would explode.

Noise has been a problem since the incident.

And bright lights.

And lots of other stuff.

It’s a long list. Too tired to go into it now, but let’s just say cymbals are now at the top of the list.

By the start of the third or fourth song (I know song isn’t the right word, but I’m not sure what else to call it … Movement? Piece? Number?), was starting to get a little drowsy and soon it was like my chin was made of metal … and my chest was a magnet.

Clank!

Third nap of the day.

Dreamed Maddie was sitting next to me in an ancient white-stone church atop a cliff. We were holding hands, listening to an orchestra, smiling. Maddie looked so beautiful. We were so happy. It felt so real.

And then my dream changed. We were on bikes. Here, in France. Fields of sunflowers. Smiled at Maddie. And suddenly, without warning, a car slammed into Maddie. She went flying.

Woke up with a jolt.

And started silently sobbing. The tears just streamed down my face, and dripped onto my pants. Couldn’t stop. Didn’t want to stop. The lady sitting next to me stared, looked concerned, whispered something in French, and handed me some tissues from her pocketbook.

“Merci,” I sobbed.

Maddie should be here with me.

But she’s not.

She’s dead.

Murdered. By the bastard who hit us on April 20, 2014. At 11:47AM. She died at the scene from a broken neck. I was lying 20 yards away. Unconscious. Couldn’t help her … couldn’t hold her hand … couldn’t tell Maddie I loved her. The thought of her lying there, battered and broken, and not being able to do anything to help her … well, I just can’t get it out of my mind. Picture that scene all the time. Her lying there. Me lying there. Dream about it. And always wake up with a jolt, and in a sweat. And start sobbing.

I was so out of it and busted up, drugged up and foggy in the brain after I woke up in the hospital that they had to keep telling me Maddie was dead two or three times a day before it finally sunk in and I stopped desperately asking: “Where’s Maddie? Where’s Maddie? Where the hell is Maddie?”

Refused to believe it.

My parents told me, Maddie’s mom told me, a police officer came to the hospital to ask me questions and told me. He asked me what I remembered. “Nothing,” I said. “Nothing.”

We were on a bike ride, getting ready for our wedding-anniversary bike trip to the Loire Region of France. We’d been to France together once before. Six nights in Paris on our honeymoon. Loved it. Had been talking about a Loire bike trip for years and we were finally gonna do it. Were so excited. Maddie spent a semester of college in Paris and she did a four-day bike trip in the Loire with some friends. We were going to recreate her trip, and then keep riding to another couple of castles. Ten days on bikes in the Loire. It was going to be so amazing and so romantic. I was going to write a book, Biking the Loire, that we’d self-publish as an eBook. Maddie was going to take all the photos. She’s a great photographer. And the next year (which is now this year), we’d bike through the Dordogne or Bordeaux, maybe both if I could

get enough time off from work. Or maybe Provence. More eBooks. More romantic bike trips.

All of that’s gone.

And now, here I am, in a church in Laon, without Maddie, listening to an orchestra, the tears streaming down my cheeks.

Day 4: Reims, 45 miles/165 total … Remember that scene in Wayne’s World where …

4 Day

Finally, a decent night’s sleep last night, and owe it all to Ambien. Took one Ambien my first two nights here, the prescribed dose. Last night, in Laon, took two. Was desperate for a good night’s sleep. And knew, after my near- nervous breakdown in the church, that I’d never be able to fall asleep without some extra help. Can’t sleep without Maddie. We used to cuddle and spoon, talk and laugh, get drowsy and fall asleep.

Feel a little better this morning. Almost back to normal, or at least my new, post-murder, without-Maddie, TBI normal. It’s been so long since I’ve felt normal that I can’t really remember normal.

Can’t Remember Normal, now that’s a good title for a book.

Anyway, don’t have enough Ambien to take two every night, and probably shouldn’t. OK, definitely shouldn’t. Don’t even have enough Ambien left to take one every night. Have 34 left (just counted) and will probably be here at least 40 more nights.

Will have to skip the Ambien some nights, but not yet … not quite ready. Need my Ambien. Need my sleep. Maybe I won’t take one Saturday night. Or maybe I will.

And yes, I’ve become an Ambien addict.

And maybe a Lexapro addict.

Have 42 Lexapros (just counted). My doctor prescribed this anti-anxiety, anti-depression pill months ago. Helps a little, but makes me feel a little out of sorts. Can’t quite explain it or pinpoint exactly what’s different, but I just feel a little off. A little not like me. Needed them at first. Not sure if I still do. But afraid to stop taking them.

Hey, Out of Sorts, that’s another good title. And yes, all these possible book titles are getting annoying. I blame it on all the sleep deprivation and will try and control myself. Wait: Sleep Deprivation. Nah, sounds too clinical.

Anyway, think I’m going to stop taking Lexapro in a couple of days. Have started to kind of relax and feel less anxious since I’ve been over here, especially when I’m on my bike. At least I think I’m feeling less anxious. Can’t tell for sure. Then again, the whole trying to fall asleep thing every night is stressful and makes me anxious, which makes it harder to fall asleep.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Here’s the dilemma, the thing I’m confused about: I have a TBI, an actual brain injury, a physical problem. It’s like a broken bone, but in the brain. I suffered a broken brain. So, if all my lingering anxiety and depression are symptoms of a TBI, which all the doctors (and the Internet) say they are, do I have a mental problem or a physical problem?

Or both?

And do any of these pills help?

None of my doctors, or even the Internet, has been able to answer these all-important questions. The doctors all say: We don’t really know. We know a lot more about the brain than we used to know, but it’s still a mystery. And it will take a year or two for your brain to heal from the TBI.

Maybe longer.

Maybe never.

“So Marc, take the Lexapro, if you want to,” said the doctor who gave me the Lexapro prescription. “Or don’t take it if you don’t want to. It’s up to you.”

Thanks, that really helps. Or doesn’t help at all. It’s up to you to decide if I’m being sarcastic.

My brain does seem to be healing and my anxiety and depression are getting better. Then again, the progress is so damn slow I’m not really sure. It’s not like I can measure it day-by-day or even month-by-month. It’s more like three-month periods. A quarterly report. I’m a little better now than I was last quarter. Profits are up slightly.

Or maybe, I just want to believe my brain is getting better. Maybe I’ll never get back to who I was before Maddie was murdered.

We were – of course – wearing helmets. They say my helmet saved my life. It didn’t save Maddie. Despite the helmet, my scalp was ripped to shreds.

“Why was my head ripped to shreds if I was wearing a helmet?” I asked one of my doctors.

It seems that the impact of my head hitting the windshield of the car and then the pavement was so great that my helmet pushed against my head and just ripped up flaps of skin as it worked its way across my head. Even though it was on pretty tight. One doc compared it to getting scalped. Don’t like thinking about this analogy or image – and wish he hadn’t used that word. And wish that scalping wasn’t mentioned in Lonesome Dove on a regular basis. It took about 50 stitches and staples to put my scalp back together again – and pulling out all those stupid staples a week after the incident was totally painful.

“What does this feel like?” the doctor asked as he examined my scalp a few weeks later.

“What does what feel like?”

“When I touch the spot on your scalp where you suffered the fractured skull.”

“Are you touching it?” “Yes.”

“Right now?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t feel anything.”

“How about this,” he said, apparently moving his hands around my scalp, touching different spots.

“I can feel that,” I said as he moved from the left side of my scalp to the right side. “That hurts a little.”

Apparently a portion of the left side of my scalp is numb.

“It’s nerve damage,” the doctor said.

“When will the feeling come back?”

“It’s hard to say. Nerves take a long time to regenerate. A year or two, maybe longer.”

In the meantime, I have a numb skull.

Hey wait, Numbskull! Now that’s a great title for a book.

The Adventures of Numbskull

The Numbskull Chronicles

Numbskull Rides!

Lonesome Numbskull

***

Back to the bike trip…

So, I’m in Reims, the headquarters city of the champagne region. Remember that scene in Wayne’s World where the pompous jerk played by Rob Lowe explains how Champagne is a region in France. And only champagne made in this region is officially champagne and everything else is just sparkling white wine?

Well, this is the Champagne region, the place where they make all the champagne.

Several of the big and famous champagne makers – Piper-Heidsieck, Mumms – offer tours of their caves, but wasn’t up for something so touristy. Here’s what I like to do every day: ride as far as I can and enjoy the scenary, find a hotel, take a shower, maybe a nap, wander around town, eat something, drink until I’m a little tipsy at a cafe, then head back to the hotel and hopefully fall asleep and stay asleep until dawn … and then do it all over again, day after day after day.

Other than the staying asleep part, I’ve stuck to the plan. I’m especially good at the drinking until tipsy part. Being tipsy makes my brain feel better. More relaxed and calm. And probably disrupts my sleep. It’s a Catch Vingt- Deux type situation.

Museums – and tours of champagne caves – are tough for me. Too many things to take in all at once. Too much information for my brain. Too many people talking all at once. Too much noise. Too many colors. And patterns. And things to look at all at once. Or read. Or remember. Too much brain stimulation. Circuits overload. Get really tired. And stressed out. Brain hurts. Have to get out.

Instead of going on a champagne tour, I wandered over to the Cathedrale de Notre Dame. According to my Let’s Go France book (the only book I have other than Lonesome Dove), the current façade dates back to 1211 and has 2,306 opulent statues of angels, prophets and saints. That’s strange, I only counted 2,212. Only kidding, didn’t count all the opulent statues. That would be a little psycho. And 26 French kings were crowned king here, dating back to Clovis in 498.

That definitely makes this place ancient.

The incredible, stained-glass windows were designed by the famous artist Marc Chagall (I know he’s famous because I’ve heard of him) and are totally mesmerizing. Must have sat in front of Chagall’s stained-glass windows for an hour, maybe longer. And only fell asleep once. Think I needed a quiet, peaceful place to sit and reflect and be in the moment. That’s something Maddie always said: “Be here, be now, with me. Stop thinking about what’s next and enjoy this moment.”

Unfortunately, all I could think was: Why isn’t Maddie here to enjoy this moment with me? Have had a hard time enjoying the moments since Maddie was murdered.

***

OK, it’s time to try and stop feeling sorry for myself and plan tomorrow’s ride. Planning keeps my mind from wandering back to thoughts of Maddie. Think I’ll stay another day here in Reims and ride through the champagne vineyards south to Epernay (the other important city in the champagne region) and look for Rob Lowe.

Between Google maps and the actual, old-school Michelin paper maps that they sell everywhere over here, it’s easy to plot out a day’s ride. Hang on a second, I’m at a café and my expensive glass of champagne is empty. It’s such a beautiful night and I’m feeling really relaxed and my brain is a little less fuzzy and foggy than normal, so think I’ll get a second glass …

I’m back … and trying to sip my second glass of champagne super, super slowly. It’s 7 Euros a glass.

BTW: They have Wi-Fi here at the cafe – and they pronounce it Wee- Fee, which is funny. So, could check my email, post a photo or two on Facebook, put out a Tweet or a photo on Instagram or even Skype someone. Nah, just not up to it. Not quite ready to reconnect with the world. Too exhausting. Maybe soon. Mom and Dad are probably worried.

As I was saying/writing: Love a good map and the Michelin maps are about as good as it gets. There’s so much information on them and I’m starting to get good at deciphering all the data to plot and plan the most scenic rides with the least amount of traffic.

Traffic makes me nervous. Which leads to anxiety. And stress. And makes my brain hurt. And yes, lots of different stuff makes my brain hurt.

The roads on Michelin maps are color coded by how busy they are. A red-and-yellow-striped road is a super highway, like the A1 at the airport. Bikes aren’t allowed on these toll roads. An all-red road means it’s a fairly major road. You can ride a bike on a red road and some have bike paths that run parallel to them. But it’s better to stick to the yellow roads, which are quiet country roads. Better yet are the white roads, which are even quieter country roads. I’ll add an extra 10 or 15 miles to my daily trip just to stay on the yellow and white roads and avoid the red roads.

The Michelin maps are also great about letting you know when you’ll be going up or down a big hill or mountain. A > symbol on a road means a climb of 5 to 9 percent, a >> symbol is a 9 to 13 percent climb and a >>> means avoid this road at all costs! It’s more than a 13-percent climb and should only be attempted by a professional cyclist who weighs 146 pounds. Fotunately, there are very few >>> roads. Think most are in the Alps.

Used to be a really strong rider who could handle the >s with ease and the >>s with only a medium amount of discomfort once I found the right gear and the right rhythm and started turning my beautiful circles. Now? Not so much. The >s are pretty tough. Haven’t hit a >> yet … and not looking forward to it. Maybe, by the end of this trip, I’ll be back to where I was before you know what happened.

Uh-oh, it looks like there are several >s and a couple >>s on the ride to Epernay and back tomorrow.

(Here’s the link to order the paperback or PDF version of the complete book. If you’ve read this far, thanks; I hope you like the Numbskull)

Day 5: Reims, 55 miles/220 total … If they show Castle over here, is it called Chateaux?

5 Champagne

Sleep update: A so-so night last night, helped by the champagne. Think two or three drinks and an Ambien are about the right dose. I know: You’re not supposed to take Ambien when you’ve been drinking. But, it seems to help me fall asleep. Then again, maybe it’s why I wake up three or four hours later and can’t fall back asleep. Should probably cut back on the drinking. Nah, there’s nothing else to do at night. And it helps my brain calm down.

BTW: Right at the start of Lonesome Dove, Augustus fetches the jug of whiskey and has a few belts. It makes him feel “nicely misty inside … foggy and cool as a morning in the Tennessee hills. He seldom got downright drunk, but he did enjoy feeling misty along about sundown…”

Wow, this pretty much sums up how a couple drinks make me feel at the end of the day. Maybe Gus got thrown from his horse and hit his head on a rock, and is battling a TBI he doen’t even know he has since nobody back then knew about TBIs. Or concussions. A couple of drinks sure does make you feel all misty inside and makes you forget your wife is murdered, your scalp is numb and your brain is scrambled. And makes you feel as cool as a morning in the Champagne hills.

BTW: That guy on the airplane was right; Lonesome Dove is pretty damn good. And, it’s 945 pages, which should last me most of the trip.

***

Today was a really hard but incredible day or riding through the champagne vineyards, about 55 miles and maybe six or seven >s and two >>s. Amazing scenery the whole ride.

OK, I admit it; I walked my bike up the last – and steepest – section of the second >> mountain. Technically, I don’t think it’s a mountain, but sure felt like one. The view from the top was fantastic. If I looked north, could see the cathedral in Reims. If I looked south, could see … what looked like three or four more big hills to climb on the way to Epernay.

Damn.

Think I may have overdone it a bit today, what with all the riding and all the hills. Can barely walk right now, especially up the stairs of my hotel. My thighs are screaming. My neck hurts and my left ankle, the broken one, is acting up again. Have a little bit of a headache. Need to sit quietly for a few minutes and regroup.

Anyway … went to the Moet & Chandon caves in Epernay and took the tour. What the hell, had to do it. According to the brochure, the one in English: “In this legendary subterranean labyrinth, the forces of nature have come together to create a uniquely ideal setting for the metamorphosis of choice fruit into the House’s luxurious wine.”

This has got to sound better in French.

Moet & Chandon has 18 miles of caves. They’re damp, musty and cold – and about 90 million bottles of champagne are aging in them at any given moment. Ninety million bottles!

The tour was in English and there were six other people: Two British couples and an American couple. And me.

At the end of the tour, we got a complimentary glass of champagne.

“Where is your wife?” one of the British women asked as everyone sipped their champagne.

Why does she think I’m married? How the heck does she … Aha, my wedding band. Still wearing my wedding band. Can’t take it off. No way.

“She’s not here.”

“Where is she?”

This woman was persistent.

“She’s not here.”

“Did she not come on this trip?”

OK, she asked for it…

“She’s dead. Maddie was murdered about a year ago,” I said and walked away. The woman finally shut up.

Sorry lady, but you wouldn’t stop pestering me. Actually, I’m not sorry. You pissed me off.

***

“Marc, why are you here?”

This is the question I asked myself earlier today, after I got back from Epernay. Was in the cathedral again, looking at the Chagall stained-glass windows. My favorite spot in Reims. Maybe my favorite indoor spot in all of France. So far.

Chagall’s windows tell “the history of Abraham and the last moments of the Earthly life of Christ,” according to the church’s website. It hurt my brain to look at the thousands of details and pieces of stained glass that tell all these Bible stories. Too much information to absorb. Brain gets tired. All foggy and fuzzy. This isn’t a very good description, but is the best I’ve been able to come up with. My brain gets the same way when I’m in the supermarche, looking at the seemingly endless rows of bottles of wine, or fruits/vegetables or boxes of crackers or cookies. It’s just too much information – too many bits of data – for my brain to take in all at once. Get frazzled and anxious and just pick something quick, anything, and keep moving. That’s why I like riding so much. The scenery – the clouds, the trees, the mountains and rivers and fields – are general, not specific and seem to relax my brain. All I hear is the wind, my tires against the road and my breathing.

The fog and fuzziness melt away.

It’s kind of strange – and maybe even ironic – that the best thing for my brain is riding my bike, the thing that got my brain messed up in the first place. No wait, it wasn’t cycling’s fault. It was that damn murdering bastard’s fault.

Anyway, instead of looking at the details of Chagall’s windows, focused on the bigger picture – literally – and this was much better. All the different shades of blue were relaxing and soothing and my brain calmed down and relaxed. Was like looking at the most beautiful ocean ever, and the colors changed whenever a cloud covered up the sun.

“So Marc, why the hell are you here?” I asked myself again (I’m writing this much later, it’s 4:46AM in the morning and, yep, can’t sleep, although I did get in about five hours before I woke up, which is pretty darn good for me).

And by here, I mean France, not specifically Reims.

The simple answer is that Maddie was murdered. I sold our condo and was halfheartedly looking for an apartment while waiting for the sale of our condo to close. And then, while waiting for closing day, got laid off at the Examiner. So, there I was: Alone, unemployed, about to be homeless, most of my stuff in storage, with no apartment to move into. The thought of trying to find a job at another newspaper somewhere in the Philadelphia area, or in Pennsylvania, or anywhere in the United States, wasn’t appealing. Or easy, what with all the turmoil and downsizing in the newspaper business. Let’s just say the future of newspapers – and a career in them – isn’t promising.

The thought of finding an apartment wasn’t appealing. Neither was moving back in with Mom and Dad, who offered to let me stay at their place for as long as I needed or wanted to stay. All of the above stressed me out and made me very anxious.

As you’ve probably deduced, I’d slipped into some sort of mild depression that seemed to peak at about a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. OK, maybe a 7. Sometimes an 8. A 9 every now and then. Like on Maddie’s birthday. That was one hell of a miserable, rotten day, especially when Facebook reminded me it was Maddie’s birthday. Getting back to work helped. Sort of. It kept my mind off Maddie for a few hours at a time, and my head and brain and neck didn’t seem to hurt as much when I was working on a story. There was, however, a price to pay. At the end of the work day, was totally stressed out and exhausted, and spent the nights – and weekends – in my green reclining chair, sipping a beer or two, resting and watching TV with Penny (our cat). Was too spent, whipped and dog-tired to do anything else. Have now seen every damn episode of Castle like three times and still can’t decide if it’s any good. It doesn’t matter. It helped kill time.

Hey, if they show Castle over here, is it called Chateaux?

As the months dragged on, felt as though I was writing the same boring, boilerplate stories over and over again. Just wasn’t the motivated, enthusiastic reporter I’d always been. Wasn’t the motivated, enthusiastic person I’d always been. All I did was work, go to physical therapy and rest/recover. Was anxious and tired, and the stress of being a reporter, especially the stress of cranking breaking-news stuff out on deadline, was getting to me. Wasn’t fun. Nothing was fun. And yes, this is pretty much the definition of depression.

***

“Do you have any suicidal thoughts?”

At least three different doctors asked me this question. I think it’s something they’re required to do for a patient who’s suffered the loss of a spouse, almost died, has a TBI, maybe PTSD and is in the midst of a never- ending recovery. Or maybe, just maybe, my depression was a lot worse and more transparent than I thought.

“No, I haven’t thought about suicide,” I always answered, which was the truth.

Really, I haven’t thought about committing suicide.

I have, on more than one occasion, and somewhat regularly, thought that it would have been a helluva lot easier if I had died on April 20, 2014 right next to Maddie. It would have been lights out, no pain, no depression, no living without Maddie. Wouldn’t have had to put my body through hour after hour of painful physical therapy and rehab. Wouldn’t have to put my brain through hour after hour of thinking about Maddie, wishing I was the one who had died and she was the one who had lived. Wouldn’t be so damn sore and exhausted and anxious all the damn time.

Have come to the conclusion that being dead is easy. Requires absolutely no effort. It’s the process of dying that sucks. Especially if it’s a long and painful process. Remember my grandmother, back when I was 10 or 11, saying she couldn’t wait for her “telegram” from God. She was 77 and in terrible health, had suffered two or three strokes, couldn’t walk, could barely get out of bed and was living in a nursing home. Didn’t understand what she was talking about, what with being 10 or 11, and having never heard of a telegram. Even after my parents explained the telegram thing, and that God doesn’t actually send you one when it’s your time to go, couldn’t understand why Grandmom was ready to die.

Now I do.

And sometimes, think that maybe I did die on April 20, 2014 and this – my day-to-day existence – is what the afterlife is like. You spend eternity trying to recover from whatever it is that killed you. I don’t believe this, but hey, you never know. Anything’s possible. Plus, think this was the plot of some TV show or movie I saw years ago. Twilight Zone?

***

Was kind of relieved when I got laid off from the Examiner and got away from a newsroom filled with people who felt sorry for me. Tough to be pitied day after day. And everyone I interviewed had heard about what happened to Maddie and me. The Examiner ran stories on it, a couple TV stations covered it, it was all over social media – and then it started up all over again when the murderer finally took a guilty plea and got sentenced. Everyone would give me the look. You know: The pity look. And then they’d say something along the lines of: “I’m so sorry about Maddie, she was such a wonderful person … how are you doing? Really Marc, how are you doing?”

“I’m OK, I’m getting there,” was what I always answered, and then tried to change the subject.

As time went by, had less and less patience for people. All people. My family, my friends, my coworkers, the people I interviewed. The people in front of me in the line at the supermarket. And, as time went by, the stress began to build and build. There were a couple of time when I just about lost it in the newsroom. Totally remember this one day. Was working on a Sunday A1 feature about the new CEO of Doylestown Hospital and her big, $200 million plans to expand the hospital and how it would help the community. It was a Thursday and I had to get it done by the end of the day. This also happened to be the day the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board released the monthly numbers for the state’s 12 casinos – at 1PM. Vanessa, our casino beat reporter, had left the Examiner a month earlier and, of course, we hadn’t replaced her. Why replace someone when you can get the other reporters to do even more work? I got stuck covering the casinos. And damn it, couldn’t figure out how to get the monthly revenue numbers from the state’s 12 casinos onto the Excel spreadsheet that Vanessa had created and that automatically calculated the monthly increase or decrease in revenue for each casino from the same month a year ago. Totally needed this info for my article, and to give to the graphics person so she could put together the monthly casino revenue chart. Couldn’t get the damn spread sheet to work. And my editor was pestering me to get something onto the web.

“Marc, the Inquirer already has the numbers up on their web,” he said. “Shut the fuck up,” I wanted to yell at him.

“I’m working on it,” is what I said.

The more I tried to get that damn spreadsheet to work, the more stressed out I became. Finally, using this online website that can calculate the percentage change between two numbers (because there’s no way I can do it myself), was able to calculate the increase/decrease for each of the 12 casinos. Pounded out something quick for the web, then made a call or two to get some quotes for the print article to run the next day, and finally, after all this was finished, got back to the article about the new Doylestown Hospital CEO. Then, at 4:45, get an email from a local company announcing their CEO had resigned. Great. Had to scramble to get something on the web, and then do the damn print article. And then finish the hospital story.

In other words: A very busy, but not an unusually busy day in the newsroom.

There were about three or four times that day when I really, really had to take a few breaths and control my emotions and try and relax – or I would have gone into full freak-out mode and started yelling and screaming at people. And, once I started yelling and screaming, I’m not sure if I would have been able to stop.

***

Let’s just say France is about as far away from that newsroom and our condo and neighborhood and family/friends as I could get. Well, Asia is further (or is it farther? I’m too tired to figure it out right now), but I’m not sure how good the biking is over there. And maybe, just maybe, a bike trip in France is what I need to start to turn my life around. Yeah, I’m going with that: This trip is therapeutic mentally and physically and is important for my recovery. That’s why I’m here.

Think Maddie would approve. After all, we were planning a trip to Paris and then the Loire for eight days of biking. Maddie was totally excited about the trip. She couldn’t wait to show me around the Loire. Do I owe it to Maddie to go to France and bike my way around the Loire, or am I just using her death and my layoff as an excuse to ditch everything and ride around France?

It’s probably a little of both, which I still think would be OK with Maddie. And in a horribly ironic way, Maddie’s death is basically funding my trip. She was an elementary school art teacher. The benefits from the school district where she worked included a payment of three times her annual salary to the surviving spouse in the event of the employee’s death. It’s called a death benefit. An ironic term since there’s absolutely no benefit to Maddie’s death.

Plus, we – I mean I – did great on our condo, buying it low, during the Great Recession, and selling it pretty high, after the recovery.

Money isn’t going to be a problem for a while, even with all the out-of- pocket expenses I had to pay for Maddie’s memorial service and my medical bills. Then again, who the hell cares about money. Just want my life to somehow and magically go back to the way it was before Maddie was murdered.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.

A couple of weeks ago, was watching CBS Sunday Morning and there was a segment on Carl Reiner. He’s the guy who created the Dick Van Dyke Show, teamed up with Mel Brooks to create the 2,000 Year Old Man and directed a bunch of the early Steve Martin movies. Carl is 91 or 92 and still pretty sharp and funny. He talked about his life and his comedy, and then he talked about the death of his wife. She’d been sick a long time, was totally bedridden for about a year. The end was near and Carl asked her to sing a song. She did, very softly and in such a sweet and wonderful voice that the hospice worker leaned over and whispered in her ear that she had a lovely voice.

She died a few minutes later, surrounded by her husband and children.

“Isn’t that a wonderful way to go, surrounded by your family, singing a song and having someone tell you that you have a wonderful voice,” Carl said, his eyes tearing up.

Maddie deserved an ending like this. In 60 years. She didn’t deserve to die broken and battered, lying on the side of the street.

Nobody does

Day 6: Compiegne, 70 miles/290 total … No amount of clenching was going to stop it

6 sink

Sleep update: The same.

Lexapro update: Didn’t take one this morning. Let’s see what happens. Hope I won’t be anxious about not being anxious. Crap, I’m getting anxious just thinking about not being anxious. That’s the thing: Once you start worrying about being anxious, you’re immediately anxious. Like when I get in bed every night and start worrying about not being able to fall asleep.

***

Today was a beautiful day of riding, about 70 miles from Reims to Compiegne. Once I made it out of Reims, stuck to the small, quiet roads, through vineyards, farms and a little town every 10 miles or so. Stopped in Fere and had some cherries and a banana. In Villers-Cotterets, got a sandwich (frommage avec crudités on a baguette) and a Volvic from a pastry shop. Then headed toward the castle in Pierrefonds. And yes, I do seem to measure my rides in snacks as much as in miles. Volvic is my favorite French “still” mineral water, edging out Evian and Vittel.

Decided not to go in the Pierrefonds castle and to just admire it from the outside. I mean, come on, this country is filled with castles. Can’t stop and see every one of them.

Nature is my museum.

Book title: Nature Is My Museum.

The last 10 miles of the ride were on a path, through some woods where all sorts of historic stuff happened. The armistice that ended World War I was signed here on Nov. 11, 1918, in a railway car that became a shrine. And then, on June 22, 1940, after the Germans invaded France and took control of Paris, the French signed an armistice (a surrender?) with the Germans. To rub it in, Hitler had everyone do all the signing in the exact same railroad car on the exact same spot where the Germans surrendered back in 1918.

Hitler got his in the end. The railroad car is long gone, but there is a memorial.

***

OK, something infinitely embarrassing happened in the forest between Pierrefonds and Compiegne. So embarrassing I wasn’t going to write about it. But I will. This is my journal of truth – even the embarrassing truths. So, here goes: All of a sudden, and without warning, I’m riding along and had to go. Really bad. Not in five minutes. Now! And no amount of clenching was going to stop it. Think it was the damn frommage sandwich.

Wheeled my bike a few yards into the woods, got behind a tree, pulled down my bike shorts, squatted and, well, you know what I did.

And realized I didn’t have any toilet paper.

But did have a few pairs of socks in one of my panniers. Picked out the oldest, rattiest pair and, well … you know what I did.

And from now on, will carry toilet paper with me. A big wad in my front bike bag and a backup wad in one of my panniers.

BTW: The toilet paper over here is pink.

BTWA: Remember to go easy on the frommage during rides.

***

Got a room at the Hotel Lion D’Or in Compiegne, took an extra-long shower (because of the incident in the woods) and did some sink laundry.

Sink laundry?

It’s what you have to do on a long bike trip and, I’m proud to say, I’m getting pretty darn good at it. With the help of my Genie.

Genie?

Liquid laundry soap in a plastic tube they sell in the supermarche. Supermarche?
Oh come on, you can figure it out.

BTW: There’s a reason why I keep referring to “you” and am writing in my journal as if this was a letter or email to a friend. Years ago, early in my reporting career at the Examiner, an editor gave me some good advice.

“Don’t ever forget that whatever you write, people are going to read,” Joan said. “The victim’s family will be reading this.”

She was referring to an article I had written – and she was editing – about the verdict in a murder trial earlier that day. Guilty. I went with a feature kind of lead, something borderline inappropriate for such a serious matter.

Joan changed it.

“The man who was murdered has a wife and two children,” she said. “They’re going to read this. It could be the last thing ever written about this poor man.”

She was totally right and from then on, I always thought about the people impacted by what I was writing about. This doesn’t mean you can’t rip someone to shreds when they do something illegal or immoral, just make sure you do it in an appropriate and even-handed fashion and get your facts right. And be super-extra careful what you write about victims. I took this a step further in my weekly (and hopefully funny) columns and made them personal and fun, sort of like this journal (hopefully). The key is to connect with your readers. Is it working with you? And was that last sentence a little desperate?

Another lesson I learned from Joan was to always ask, no matter what horrible thing had just happened to someone: “Did anything good come out of this.”

Amazingly, the answer was almost always yes. No matter how horrible the situation. Wrote a series a few years ago on Leo, who was 73 and had just suffered a stroke. The story was supposed to be all about his recovery. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, loved to dance. The series was going to end with them finally back out on the dance floor and in each other’s arms.

Leo never made it. He had several more small strokes and, instead of getting better, he kept getting worse and further and further from the dance floor. And the worse he got, the more Mary Ellen took care of him. It turned out to be a love story.

“Did any good come out of this?” I asked Mary Ellen.

“Yes,” she said. “I love Leo more than ever and am so grateful that I’m here to take care of him. And our children have been so supportive and we’re all even closer as a family than we were before.”

So, did any good come out of Maddie’s murder?

Not yet.

BTW: The paper I used to work for is the Bucks County Examiner. Bucks County is just outside of Philadelphia and has lots of history and arts. It’s where Washington crossed the Delaware and where James Michener grew up. I know the Washington part because there’s a town in Bucks County called Washington’s Crossing and they re-enact the crossing every Christmas. Covered it four times. Twice it was beyond cold and my fingers were so numb I couldn’t take notes. Know the Michener part because there’s like 12 things named after the guy: a museum, a library, roads, etc. Never actually read one of his books, but plan to one day. They’re longer than Lonesome Dove.

When I started at the Examiner, it was the fourth largest paper in Pennsylvania, with a circulation of about 125,000. We had a Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. bureau. We had 26 news reporters and seven sports reporters. It’s still the fourth-largest paper in PA (I think), but circulation is now less than 60,000 and our Harrisburg and D.C. bureaus – along with more than half our reporting staff (including me) – are long gone. In other words: we’re a fairly typical newspaper. It’s heartbreaking.

***

OK, so before I got distracted, was about to explain sink laundry. You can only pack so much stuff in your panniers. This means you have to do sink laundry every day or two, especially your smelly, disgusting bike clothes. Packed two complete bike outfits: socks, shorts, jersey and gloves, and am diligent about washing the stuff I wear every day right after that day’s ride.

Trust me, bike shorts stink after 40 or 50 miles in the saddle. And bike gloves, for some strange reason, smell even worse than bike shorts. How is it possible for your hands to stink worse than your butt? And yet, they do.

Laundromats?

They’re everywhere over here, even in the small towns like Compiegne. They call them Lavaries. They’re time consuming and expensive, like 10 or 12 Euros to wash and dry one load, so I’m only going to go to one every week or 10 days. That leaves sink washing between the Lavarie days.

Step one: The pre-wash.

Actually, prior to step one, you have to figure out how to stop up the sink so you can fill it up with warm water. Some sinks have working stoppers, some don’t. Think some hotel owners remove the stoppers just so us bikers can’t wash out our bike clothes in the sink. They’re a little obsessed with limiting the use of water and electricity over here. Which is probably a better way to go environmentally. Fortunately, the sink in my room in Reims has a nice rubber stopper. In a pinch, I’ve stuffed one of my dirty bike socks in the drain. It sort of works.

OK, next comes the pre-wash. Put a little Genie in the sink and fill it up with as much warm water as you can, put in your clothes, swish them around a bit, and soak the stink out of them for about 10 minutes. Usually take a shower while waiting.

Then, you drain the water out of the sink, fill the sink back up and wring out the bike clothes … drain the sink, fill it and wring stuff out again to get all the soap residue out. Two times usually does the trick.

Then, really, really wring every last drop of water you can out of the socks, shorts, jersey and gloves. This is my upper body workout for the day.

And finally, find a way to stretch a bungee cord or two across the window, hang your clothes on the bungee cords or on a hangar that you hang on the bungee cords.

Voila, clean and eventually dry clothes.

Was running a little low on underwear and T-shirts, so did a second load of sink laundry today: two pairs of underwear and two T-shirts. OK, my chores for the day are done.

***

So, what with all the clothes hanging up to dry, my small hotel room feels even smaller. Have noticed that all the rooms in all the hotels in France that I seem to stay in, you know, the cheap ones, are pretty much the same: Small, and dominated by a fairly large bed that almost always sags in the middle. Maybe they make the beds this way over here. And there’s always this long, skinny pillow that extends all the way across the top of the bed and is folded into one of the sheets.

I call it the log pillow – and log pillows are useless.

Every room also has a large wooden chest, an armoire.

The only reason I know these large, wooden chests are called armoires is the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine buys an armoire and Kramer has to guard it on the street. Then some street toughs steal it from Kramer while Jerry and George are getting soup from the Soup Nazi. Classic episode. For extra credit: What are the names of the two street toughs?

It’s strange, but everything you come across in life relates to something that happened on Seinfeld.

Even here in France.

I’ve also learned that there’s always a “regular” pillow or two in the armoire for the guests who hate log pillows. Keep that in mind when you’re in France and discover you hate the log pillows.

BTW: Bob and Cedric were the names of the two street toughs.

Day 7: Lyons-la-Foret, 70 miles/360 total … A man, a plan, a canal, Panama

7 Day strawberries

Love this town.

Was going to keep riding, on to Rouen, but felt a connection with Lyons- la-Foret as soon as I got here, and decided to stay the night. Plus, was really tired. Think 70 miles is my limit. Maybe 60. And Rouen was another 20, and the thought of riding that far – to a big, loud city – and trying to find a hotel wasn’t appealing.

Plus, fell earlier today. My knee and elbow are scrapped up and throbbing. More on this later.

Lyons-la-Foret is a small village surrounded by forests, which you probably figured out from the name: Foret = forest. In the center square, there’s a huge, covered market with some sort of thatched roof that is higher than the building beneath it is tall. By like double. The town is filled with all these cool, half-timbered buildings. The brochure from the tourist office says Lyons is a Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. This means it’s one of the most beautiful villages in France.

Damn, I sure have good taste in French villages!

According to the Beautiful Villages website, Lyons “stretches out its facades decked with half-timbering, colourful daub and bricks along the River Lieure. Shops busily ply their trade around the 18C covered market where other jewels of local architecture such as the Vieux Logis or former bailiwick that has since become the town hall can also be seen.”

Bailiwick?

It’s where the bailiff works.

Bailiff?

Someone with the legal authority to collect debts. You know: a loan shark.

The English translations of French tourist blurbs on websites and in brochures are hilarious, but probably not by design. Bet the Japanese translations are even funnier, but I can’t read Japanese so I’ll never know for sure. Will ask the next Japanese person I meet who speaks English. Hey, maybe I can get a job roaming the French countryside, by bike, proofreading and copy editing the blurbs on the websites and brochures of all the local tourist boards into proper English. Could team up with a Japanese man or woman, maybe a Tokyo newspaper reporter who was recently laid off. We could start a business.

***

OK, here’s the scoop on my fall. Was heading out of Beauvais and had to cross some railroad tracks. They went diagonally across the road, wasn’t paying enough attention, my front wheel got caught in the track at a funny angle … and down I went.

Fortunately, had slowed down to go across the tracks and was probably only going 9 or 10 miles an hour. Even more fortunately, went down on my right side, the side that wasn’t so badly injured and broken up in the murderous incident. Even more fortunately, didn’t hit my head. Another concussion could be really bad. Like former-NFL-player bad. I’m not saying this to be funny; I’m serious. Ever since my incident, can’t watch football any more. And I used to love to watch football. Can’t stand to watch the players smash their heads into one another. And can’t watch the Tour de France any more. Too many crashes. No more watching boxing. Or MMA. Actually, never watched boxing or MMA.

The fall today didn’t really hurt that much, or, maybe I’m immune to pain at this point. Sort of lay there for a minute or two, trying to calm down enough to assess the damage and determine if anything was broken or bloody and whether or not my bike trip was over.

Wiggled my right foot and ankle and everything seemed OK. Moved my right knee and hip around and, while my knee hurt a bit and was scratched up some, there didn’t seem to be anything broken. My right elbow was also scraped up, but everything was still working properly and nothing seemed to be broken. Took a few deep, cleansing breaths, stood up, dusted myself off, squirted some water on my scrapes, got back on my bike and started peddling.

Might be sore tomorrow, but think I’m OK.

I hereby solemnly promise to be extra, extra careful going across railroad tracks for the rest of this trip.

***

Have been avoiding the real world since France. Well, my real world. Have thought about, considered, been tempted to … and have yet to open email. Even though I’ve had Wee-Fee availability almost every night and have been online, looking up stuff about the towns I’m in or headed toward. Wee- Fee is everywhere over here. But what the hell, it’s been a week, and I’m sure there are a few people – you know, like Mom – wondering about me and maybe even a little worried. Like Mom.

Hang on, I’m going to reconnect with the world and open email…

Holy crap, 237 emails.

Most are spam. There’s like 11 emails from Rosetta Stone, and they all say the same thing: This is your absolute, last chance to learn French for only $199. This offer expires tonight. And then they send the same email two days later. This is what I get for going on their website once, more than a year ago, when I was thinking about learning how to speak a little French before our anniversary trip to the Loire.

Crowd Savings also sent a lot of spam. Hey, wait, I wonder what the word for spam is in French. Bet spam is still spam over here, in China and everywhere else in the world. Spam is spam. Could spend $199 to get Rosetta Stone and find out for sure. As for Crowd Savings, the most recent email was for an amazing deal for a 3-pack of Ahh Bras, in black, white and beige, reduced from $59.99 to $16.00. Wow, only $16.00.

Ahh, if only I needed bras.

Hotels.com sent info about hotels in Bayeux. How do they know I’m headed for Bayeux Oh wait, went on hotels.com a few days ago and looked for hotels in Bayeux. Damn, Mom has no idea where I am or where I’m headed, but hotels.com does.

And maybe the NSA.

Seven new people are following me on Twitter. Haven’t tweeted anything since I left the paper, since there’s nothing in the paper I want to promote any more and that’s the whole point of Twitter (at least for newspaper reporters). Haven’t posted anything on Facebook since I left for France, and don’t think I’ll start tonight. It’s tempting. It’s such an easy way to let everyone know where I am and rub it in that I’m biking in France and they’re not. Isn’t making your friends jealous the whole point of Facebook? But, if I post something, then people will comment and email me and I’ll have to answer them and … it’s just not worth it. Too much work. I like the fact that nobody knows where I am, and that I’m now all alone, with no responsibilities, no people to interview, no court filings to read, no articles to finish on deadline and no editors to make happy.

I’m free.

Only a few people know I’m here in France. And nobody knows I’m in Lyons-la-Foret. Not even Hotels.com. Moved out of our condo after the closing sale, holed up in a hotel for two days – and flew off to France. Wonder if anyone’s even noticed I’m gone? Maybe I’m the tree that fell in the Lyons-la-Foret and nobody can hear my desperate screams for help. Or me ordering another vin rouge.

Did get a few actual emails from actual people. Three from Mom, which shows great restraint on her part. Bet Mom wanted to email me twice a day, every day. Mom’s emails, of course, described the weather back home in great detail. It seems they’ve been getting a lot of rain, but the past few days have been dry. Fascinating! She seemed worried about me, but tried not to sound too worried. A son can tell. Mom just wants to know that I’m OK, and having a good time, and wants to know where I am and where I’m headed and what I’ve seen.

So does Dad.

Speaking of Dad, I now understand a few of his age-related issues. He’s 72. For example, he doesn’t like restaurants so much anymore.

“All that noise,” he says. “It comes at me from every direction and I can’t hear what anyone at my table is saying. All I hear is bits and pieces of every conversation in the restaurant. It’s frustrating. Let’s just eat at home. Your mother will make you a nice dinner, a nice piece of fish.”

This is exactly what’s it’s been like for me since the TBI. It’s not as bad as it was at first, but is still pretty darn annoying. Especially the clanking and clanging of dishes and silverware in restaurants. They’re like a series of tiny smacks on the head, like someone flicking me over and over with their finger. If a waiter or busboy ever drops and breaks a dish … wow, that really hurts!

And certain laughs, like a high-pitched cackle or a really loud and abrupt snort or guffaw (I’m not sure what a guffaw is, but like the word) totally hurt my head. The high-pitched cackle seems more prevalent in women, while a lot of men break out in a machine-gun-like, staccato-like laugh that just might be even more painful. People tell me I flinch when someone with a high- pitched or snort-like laughs lets loose within earshot. Hey, now I know what the phrase “earshot” means. At work, someone two cubicles away had a really loud and annoying laugh, and she laughed a lot. Spent half the day flinching. Think this is another reason was relieved when I got laid off. Another few weeks of that laugh and my head might have exploded. And it’s not like you can ask someone to stop laughing. Or change the way they laugh. It’s like asking them to stop breathing.

Oh, and sneezing … let’s just say: ouch! You never notice how loud sneezes are until you have a TBI. And, there are as many types of sneezes as there are types of laughs. I’m now an expert in laughs and sneezes.

Anyway, the café here in Lyons-la-Foret is nice and quiet. No sneezing, minimal laughter. I’m sitting outside, and outside is always quieter than inside. The voices don’t bounce around off the walls so much and attack my brain.

Better email Mom and Dad …

***

Bonjour Mom and Dad:

So far, my epic French bike trip has been great. Did a have a little issue with jet lag the first few nights and some trouble sleeping, but I seem to be back on my normal schedule. Speaking of my normal schedule, I spend most of the day riding. From the aeroport, headed east to Reims, which is in the middle of the champagne region. Made a little side trip to Epernay and visited the Moet & Chandon caves, where they have 90 million bottles aging underground. Well, 89,999,999 after I left!

From Reims, I’ve been heading west, and should be in Normandy and the invasion beaches in a couple of days. Dad, I know you love WW2 history, I’ll email a few photos.

The scenery has been great, although a little hilly at times. And by a little hilly, I mean really hilly. Some would say mountainous, but I’ll stick with hilly. I’m starting to get in pretty good bike shape. Uncle Steve would have loved biking here in France. I sure miss him.

The food has been great, although I mostly snack during the day, lots of fruit and sandwiches, and then go to the grocery store and the local markets to get dinner ingredients: some bread and cheese and tomatoes and fruit, lots of fruit. Strawberries and cherries are in season right now and delicious. And I always get a little pastry. OK, a lot of pastry. Then I find a nice, scenic spot and have a little picnic for dinner most nights. Some wine may also be involved. I do eat dinner in restaurants every once in a while. Had a great pizza with sausage and mushrooms the other night. And some red wine. Love the vin rouge.

I’m feeling pretty good. A few aches and pains here and there from all the riding, but that’s to be expected as I get back into cycling shape. I’ve ridden 355 miles so far, which is pretty good.

My brain?

Don’t worry, it feels pretty good. I think all the fresh air and non- stressful, non-newspaper days of riding through all the great scenery have been good for me, and my brain, and it feels pretty clear most of the time. I think this trip is good for me.

Hope all is well, love you… Marc

***

BTW: My name is Marc Otto Cram.

Wait … take a second and look closely at my name again: Marc Otto Cram. I’ll wait.

Yep, it’s a palindrome. You know, the same backwards as it is forwards. Like: A man, a plan, a canal, Panama. Or: Mad as Adam.

Or, Mad as Marc. At Dad for giving me a name that’s a palindrome. He thought he was being so darn clever.

BTW: His name is Samuel Cram. His grandfather, Herschel Cramowitz, came over from the old country – Rumania – and the people in charge went and changed his name to Cram when Grandpa came through Ellis Island. Guess it was easier to spell. And yes, I heard “Cram it Cram” on a regular basis growing up. And worse.

Used to hate having a palindrome of a name, but what the hell, it’s kind of interesting and different and don’t mind so much anymore. It’s amazing how many people noticed it from my byline in the Examiner and emailed, asking if I knew my name was a palindrome.

No, you’re the first person to ever point that out to me! Thank you.

Several people included a couple of their favorite palindromes. The Panama plan one seems to be on everyone’s Top 10 list.

***

Was mostly honest with Mom and Dad in my email. While I don’t exactly feel OK, I don’t feel any worse than I did before I left. And maybe, just maybe, a little bit better in terms of the whole anxiety/stress/depression thing. They don’t need to know that I’m still not sleeping well or that I hit the deck on some railroad tracks the other day, or that my brain still isn’t quite right.

My sister also emailed a few times, wondering pretty much the same things Mom and Dad were wondering (she is their daughter). I’ll do some cutting and pasting and send her what I sent Mom and Dad. Hang on…

OK, all done.

BTW: She’s lucky and has a non-palindrome name: Jill Lynn Cram. Heard from my friend Jeff, one of the few people I told that I was headed to France to bike. He’s a cycling fanatic, and I knew he’d be totally jealous. Jeff emailed to say he’s thinking about coming over and meeting me for a week of riding. “Are you going to Provence?” he wrote. “I really want to cycle Provence. It’s supposed to be amazing and I really, really want to take a crack at Mt Ventoux. Were you planning on Provence and the Ventoux?”

Wasn’t planning on going all the way south to Provence. My mission is to do the Champagne region (done), Normandy (almost there), some Brittany and then spend a lot of time in the Loire. Then ride back to Paris and head home. Then again, it’s not like I have to be back on any set date, or have a job or a home to get back to. What the heck, maybe I’ll meet Jeff in Provence and take a crack at the Ventoux. Why not?

“What dates are you thinking of coming over here?” I emailed Jeff. “Think I can get down there by maybe July 10 to 15. Or a little later if that works for you. Sooner would be hard. If you’re coming, pick a date in that timeframe and a city to meet and let me know.”

***

Mt. Ventoux?

It’s this legendary mountain in Provence that’s part of the Tour de France every few years. The riders all say it’s the hardest climb ever, harder than any of the other mountains in the Alps or Pyrenees. They should know since they climb mountains on bikes for a living. I’m certainly not ready for something like Mt. Ventoux yet, but it’s a good goal to shoot for.

Got an email from Pervaiz, from work, who said he misses me, and that the rumor is more layoffs are coming by the end of the year. That sucks. Dolando from work emailed and said he’s leaving the paper soon to go back to school and get a teaching certificate. Probably a wise move. Just noticed that I wrote “Pervaiz from work” and “Dolando from work.” It’s not my work anymore, which is still pretty hard to believe. Am no longer a newspaper reporter. Wow. It’s all I’ve ever been and now I’m not even that any more.

What am I?

Who am I?

Our friend Michelle wrote that Penny is doing really well. Penny is our cat. Felt bad about abandoning Penny and leaving her with Michelle. Penny’s a really social cat, so I’m sure she’s having a blast with Michelle – and her four cats.

I just noticed I wrote “our friend Michelle.” The “our” is Maddie and me.

Maddie’s mom emailed, and asked a lot of the same questions as mom. So, I’ll email her what I sent my parents. Think Maddie’s mom blames me a little bit for Maddie’s murder. Maybe a lot. And I think she feels bad about blaming me, since she knows it wasn’t actually my fault. She tries to compensate by being extra nice to me, which only makes things between us a little more awkward. I understand, sort of. Maddie is gone and it’s devastating for all of us. Hell, I blame me for Maddie’s murder.

OK Marc, calm down. It wasn’t your fault. It was the drunken, cowardly murdering bastard’s fault. There was nothing you could do. Just thinking about it gets me all anxious and stressed.

All my email correspondence is done, time to head back to the hotel, the Hotel Du Grand Cerf. According to the hotel’s brochure I picked up at the front desk, it is located in “a healthy and restful climate ideal for wanderers.”

Guess that makes me a wanderer.

***

Heard back from Jeff already. And he’s in.

“Yo hammerhead, meet me in Bedoin on Saturday July 11 – that’s the only time I can get off this summer. It’s the base city of the Ventoux. Google it. I’ll figure out a hotel and get us reservations and make airline reservations and rent a car and a bike and meet you there. Don’t be late or I’ll kick your ass. Stay in touch and don’t get hit by any French cars before I get there. I’ll send more details.”

Yeah, Jeff thinks he’s funny.

“OK, it’s a date … love you too,” I emailed back.

Day 8: Caudebac, 50 miles/410 total … “Michel is 71 and says this is not such a hard hill to climb”

8 Day jumieges

It’s been two days without Lexapro and haven’t noticed much of a difference. Yet. Feel pretty much the same as when I was taking it. Think that’s a good thing. Maybe I should make a dramatic gesture and flush the rest of ‘em down the toilet. Nah, may need one down the road. Knowing they’re here, just in case, is reassuring. Sort of like Aisle Seat Guy and his spare copy of Lonesome Dove.

***

Today was my day for bike issues.

Left Lyons-la-Foret a little after 9:00AM and started climbing a big hill. Got to the top, looked back to Lyons-la-Foret, and could see the fog down below covering most of the town. It was pretty cool.

About a mile later … pop!

My first flat tire of the trip. The back tire, of course, since it’s the more difficult of the two to fix. Because of the chain and gears. No problem getting the tire off, the old tube out of the tire and the new tube inside the tire. The problem was getting the tire back on the rim of my wheel. The last few inches are always the hardest, as the tire gets tighter and tighter as it stretches out as you push the bead of the tire around and into the rim of the wheel. Can usually muscle those last few inches in with my thumbs. Not so much today. This is the first flat I’ve had to fix since the incident, and guess my thumbs aren’t as strong as they used to be. Had to cheat and use one of the plastic levers that you use to get the tire off the wheel. You’re not supposed to do this, because the lever can pop the tube if you’re not extremely careful. Was extra-extra-extremely careful and finally got the tire all the way back on.

Down to my last spare tube.

Five miles later, just as I was entering the outskirts of Rouen … pop!

Another flat tire. The back tire. Of course. And, once again, lots of problems getting the last few inches of the tire back on the wheel. Used the tire lever again. Extra-extra carefully.

And was out of spare tubes.

Fortunately, came across a bike shop in Rouen and bought three tubes. At the rate I’m going, they should last a day or two.

BTW: My knee and hip were a little sore from yesterday’s fall when I woke up this morning. Was a little worried, but they loosened up once I got going. Now that I’ve stopped riding, they’re sore again.

***

Rouen is a big city, it’s where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Damn that must have hurt. Seriously, think about it. Actually, don’t. Too gruesome. Rode around the center of the city, had a snack, took a look at the cathedral, thought about staying overnight. Nah, too big and noisy of a city. And I don’t like big & noisy cities so much anymore because, well, they’re so big & noisy. And hurt my brain.

According to my Michelin map, there are hotels in Duclair, which was another 15 miles, and in Caudebac, another 10 miles past Duclair. A red line under the name of a city on the Michelin map indicates there’s at least one hotel in the town.

There was about a 5-mile hill out of Rouen once you cross over the Seine (yep, the same river that goes through Paris). At least it seemed like it was five miles. Was probably only two or three. There was only one > on the Michelin map, but there should have been at least three. This is one tough climb.

“Bonjour,” shouted an old guy as he and his friend passed me about half a mile into the hill/mountain.

Me (out of breath): “Bonjour.”

Old guy on a bike: “A bunch of French words I didn’t understand.”

Me (even more out of breath): “Je ne parle pas Francais. Parlez-vous Anglais?”

Old guy: “Yes, a little. Are you British?”

Me: “No, American.”

He and his buddy seemed a little surprised, and pleased, to meet an American on a hill/mountain outside of Rouen.

Old guy: “It is beautiful day for a ride, no? And not so hard for someone 25 years.”

Me: “I’m 34.”

Old guy (pounding his chest with pride): “Thirty four, that is quite young. I am 67.”

“Yeah, yeah, good for you old timer,” I mumbled to myself. The 67-year- old old guy started talking French to his buddy, they both looked at me and started laughing.

Old guy: “Michel is 71 and says this is not such a hard hill to climb.”

And with that they stood up on their bikes, started peddling a little faster and began to pull away from me, dropping me like a pair of dirty underwear. Showoffs. What with me being only 34 and an American, I wasn’t about to let two old French guys kick my ass up this hill/mountain. Got up and out of my seat and began spinning my pedals faster. Closed the gap and was gaining on them. And then, after 500 meters (OK, not even 300), stuff started seizing up all over my body. My lungs ran out of air and were ready to explode. My back started screaming. Had to slow down a little (OK, a lot).

The two old guys, turned, waved and sped away.

Damn, have to admit it, those two old guys sure could ride. They kicked my young American ass. Pretty sure they’re retired professional cyclists who once rode in the Tour de France. Michel may even have won the damn thing a time or two.

***

Duclair is a cool little town right on the banks of Seine. Thought about staying there, but it was only 2:00PM when I arrived and decided to keep going. Glad I did. About four kilometers (2.4 miles) later, there was a sign pointing to the left that said Jumieges was 3.5 kilometers (2.1 miles) to the left (south). Had no idea what Jumieges was or if there was anything worth seeing in Jumieges, but my Michelin map had a symbol – three little dots – that indicated some type of ruins were there. Love a good ruin, and decided to make a side trip to Jumieges. What the heck, it was a nice day. Plus, there was another little symbol – the letter B, in blue, surrounded by a box – that indicated there was a barge that would take me across the river (still the Seine) and a white road I could ride all the way to Caudebac. Cool, a barge. I like boats.

Jumieges turned out to be amazing.

According to the Normandy tourism website (which means I must now be in Normandy): “The first sight of the remains of the immense abbey church, in its verdant setting in a meander of the Seine, is unforgettable.”

They’re right.

Jumieges is one of the oldest monasteries in France, which means it’s one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Was founded by Saint Philibert in 654, destroyed by the Vikings in 841 and then again during the Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453).

All that’s left of the once-immense cathedral is the skeleton: the outer walls and some of the towers, with grass growing in the middle. The walls seem to defy gravity and are just so majestic and beautiful and amazing. And unforgettable. And relaxing.

Must have hung out at Jumieges for an hour, including a 20-minute nap, lying on the grass, next to my bike. Had some water and biscuits and a banana.

The barge station was where it was supposed to be, but the next one wasn’t for another hour, so rode back the way I came and on to Caudebac, which is where I am right now. Like Duclair, it’s a really nice little town, right on the banks of the Seine. There are paths all along the water lined with parks and flowers.

Day 9: Honfleur, 40 miles/450 total … Please let there be a bike shop in Pont-Audemer

9 Day awful bridge

Today was my day for bike issues.

Oh wait, I wrote this yesterday, didn’t I? Guess you can’t go on an epic French bike trip without at least one déjà vu experience.

Actually, it was only one bike issue today, but a much bigger problem than yesterday’s two flats. Shouldn’t whine about it. If you’re on a bike trip, you gotta expect bike issues. Right? It’s part of the adventure.

***

So, to get to where I was going from Caudebac, you have to cross back over the Seine … on a huge suspension bridge. I’m talking a Golden Gate- sized bridge. Huge. It was at least a mile long and had the same profile as some of the larger hills I’ve been climbing. It was like a mountain over a river.

Oh crap, how am I going to get across this bridge … on a bike? There’s no way you can ride across on a bike with all that traffic.

No worries, this is France, and there’s always a bike lane. Must be a law.

Was a couple kilometers past the bridge … and suddenly heard a clinking, metallic sound coming from behind me that I know all too well.

“Damn it Marc, you broke a spoke,” mumbled to myself, looking down at the back tire of my bike. The wheel was wobbling back and forth, and the rim was rubbing against the brake pad (which makes it harder to pedal, especially up hills). These are sure signs of a broken spoke. Stopped and started testing the spokes, one-by-one, and sure enough, one of them was busted.

I’m not much of a bike mechanic, as my bike mechanic will tell you, but do know that when you break one spoke, more bad things can happen. Your wheel is immediately out of true (or balance), wobbles around and rubs against the brake pad. And once one spoke breaks, more tend to break since everything is out of whack and balance. Soon your wheel is rubbish.

And there’s nothing worse than a rubbish wheel on a bike trip.

Had no choice but to keep riding, gingerly, slowing down when I got to rough patches on the road, and taking is easy climbing the hills. The town of Pont-Audemer was about 15 miles away.

Please, please, please let there be a bike shop in Pont-Audemer.

There wasn’t.

Pont-Audemer is right on the Risle River, and lined with canals surrounded by ancient, timbered houses. They call it the Venice of France. Rode round and round looking for a bike shop, but no luck. Bet they have bike shops in the Venice of Italy.

Did get some strawberries – half a kilo for 2 Euros – that were amazing. They were so sweet it was like eating strawberry candy. They melted in my mouth. Went back and got another half kilo. A kilo is like 2 pounds, which meant I ate two pounds of strawberries. Hope I don’t get sick. Have toilet paper, just in case.

Honfleur was still another 30 kilometers (18 miles) away and my back wheel was getting wobblier and wobblier. Then again, it may have been my imagination. This whole TBI has made me a lot more anxious and nervous about stuff like this. Instead of seeing this as a challenge to be overcome, and part of the fun and adventure of a bike trip, now see stuff like this as the start of a chain of events that will keep getting worse and worse and ultimately end in disaster. For example: My back wheel just completely falls apart, leaving me stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

This is, or course, a total overreaction. Wasn’t in the middle of nowhere and could always hitch a ride to Honfleur if my wheel disintegrated. Or hail down a passing taxi. Or a bus. When you have some money, which I do, things are never really a disaster. Especially when you’re in a popular tourist area.

Try telling that to my brain. Anxiety beats logic every time.

Despite the wobbly wheel, and the fact that I haven’t taken a Lexapro in a few days, was able to keep my anxiety level below the red line. Maybe this was a test I needed to pass. Maybe this was a step forward. Or maybe I’m making a mountain out of a broken spoke.

Limped into Honfleur (Can you limp on a bike? I think you can), which is a port city/fishing village – and tourist magnet – located on the spot where the Seine and the English Channel all come together. According to the Normandy Tourism website: “The changing light on the Seine estuary inspired Courbet, Monet, Boudin and many others. Today dozens of galleries and artists’ studios continue to display a wide choice of classical and modern paintings.”

Courbet, Monet and Boudin are all famous painters. I’ve only heard of Monet, and am wondering why this Courbet guy got top billing over the super-famous Monet. Should I know of this Courbet? No way he’s better than Monet.

Anyway, and sure enough, about a dozen artists have their easels set up around the port, and are painting away, hoping to sell their paintings to all the tourists wandering around with that dazed-tourist look on their faces.

Headed over to the tourist office to see if there was a bike shop in Honfleur. There is, but it closed at 5:00PM and it was 5:06PM.

“It will open morning tomorrow at 10,” the woman at the tourist office told me and showed me where it was on the plan de ville (map).

***

Sitting at a café now, along the docks, sipping a beer as slowly as I can manage. It’s about 9:00PM and it’s just starting to get dark and most of the day-tripping tourists have left and it’s quiet and relaxing. The sky is slowly turning a darker and darker shade of blue, and as the sky darkens, the facades of all the stone buildings around the port seem to change color and get darker as well.

If only I had an easel and some paint – and knew what to do with them. Maddie was a really talented artist, and would have really loved this town and the light and all the artists trying to capture the light.

Oh well, time to get a little misty.

Think I’m starting to get the hang of the café culture, which isn’t surprising since I’ve spent time in one just about every night. It’s my new version of sitting in my green reclining chair and watching TV. Here’s what I’ve learned about cafés …

In France there is an art to everything and even something as seemingly simple as a visit to a café is a subtle and delicate form of self-expression filled with customs and procedures that date back millions of years to the caveman cafés.

Lesson number one is to pick the proper café. It’s exactly like real estate: location, location, location. A café is, first and foremost, a place to sit, relax and watch the world go by. And to be seen.

In Honfluer, this means a café along the water.

Once you’ve found the perfect seat at the appropriate café, you must then do what the French all seem to do: empty the contents of your pockets onto your table. I’m not kidding, that’s what people do over here before they sit down. Out come the keys, wallets, loose change, combs, cigarettes, lighters (everyone in France smokes) and phones. Not sure why they do this, maybe they make the pants pockets a lot smaller over here and sitting down with all that stuff in your pockets is uncomfortable. Then again, it might have something to do with World War II. Everything in France has something to do with World War II. Especially here in Normandy.

Next comes the whole greeting-of-friends ritual, although this can and often precedes the emptying-of-the-pockets ritual. A simple nod, “hello” or handshake or hug just won’t do. Not even close. Everyone must stand and kiss any and every new arrival on both cheeks and then, in turn, be kissed on both cheeks by the new arrival. This can take a really long time when someone arrives and joins a table filled with six or seven of their friends. That’s a lot of cheeks to kiss. Do the math.

Most people seem to go with the double-cheek kiss greeting: right-left or a left-right. However, have seen a few people go with a right-left-right or a left-right-left. Not sure what this means. Are these triple-cheek kissers closer friends than the double-cheek kissers? Think I may have seen a quadruple-cheek kiss greeting, but it happened so fast can’t really say for sure. And, does it mean something if you start with a left-cheek kiss? Or a right-cheek kiss?

Even the men kiss each other, which at first seemed kind of weird. It now seems perfectly normal.

OK, so you’ve found the right café, the right seat in the right café, emptied your pockets and kissed a bunch of cheeks. Or, none of the above if you’re all alone. Like I am. It’s now time for the all-important drink order. They’re expensive and the goal is to make your drink last a really, really long time.

The waiter – never, ever, never call him “garcon” or he’ll know you’re an ignorant American and will shoot you one of those haughty, snooty looks that French café waiters have perfected over the centuries – approaches and the pressure mounts. This is the point when most American tourists panic and blurt something out in English, assuming the waiter speaks English. They do all speak English, but you should never assume this and blurt out your order in English because, well, it’s just rude. You’re in France. Speak a little French. I’m still a little insecure and shy about my French, and have been ordering something simple, usually “une bier, se il vous plait.” Have been experimenting with ordering vin rouge.

Tonight, the waiter brought a little plate of almonds with my bier. That’s another café thing: you often get little snacks with your drink: olives, peanuts, chips. I like it.

***

The whole sipping slowly thing has been tough for me, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. Writing in my journal on my laptop seems to make the slow sipping easier, since it’s hard to pick up your glass and drink while you’re typing – although it is possible. And, a couple of drinks make the writing easier. The words just seem to flow out of me, often in a torrent of inane, misspelled ramblings that require a lot of editing later. Guess that’s why Hemingway and Fitzgerald did so much of their writing in cafes. Then again, at least one of them, and probably both, were self-destructive alcoholics. But damn, they sure could write. Wonder if either of them ever wrote at one of the cafés here in Honfluer. Maybe they were at this every table in this very café.

Have been anxious to try this pastis drink I read about in one of those Peter Mayle books about living in France (that Maddie had me read). But, not quite sure how to pronounce it. What the hell, my beer is empty, so might as well try.

Hold on a minute…

***

Took a shot and said pronounced it “past – ease” and it worked! The waiter not only nodded, but shot me a glance that seemed to say: “For an American, you are sophisticated in the ways of France – and are a very handsome man.”

A few minutes later, he arrived with a thin, tall glass that contained an inch of yellowish liquid and two ice cubes. He also brought a small pitcher of water.

Where’s the rest of my drink?

According to what I remembered from the Peter Mayle book, you’re supposed to pour some of the water into the glass to dilute the super-strong pastis. Did it, and the yellowish liquid immediately began to undergo some sort of chemical reaction – and got all cloudy.

It was like some sort of high school science experiment. Do I need safety goggles?

OK Marc, stop being such a baby and drink it. Hold on a minute…

Hey, this pastis stuff is nice. It has a distinct licorice taste to it that I’m liking the more I drink.

Think I’ve found my new café drink! Need to get another, just to make sure. Uh-oh, think this is how Hemingway and Fitzgerald got started.

Damn you, pastis!

Day 10: Bayeux, 60 miles/510 total … I’d like to mangle the crap out of him

10 beach chairs

Got to the bike shop about 9:50AM, sat and waited until the lights went on and the front door opened … at 10:10. Ten minutes isn’t late in France. It’s kind of early.

“Parlez vous Anglais?” I asked the bike-shop guy.

“A little,” the guy said.

Could tell this was about the extent of his English. Had no idea how to say “broken spoke” in French, so I showed it to him.

“Ooh la la,” Bike Shop Guy said. He gave me a smile and a confident look, and my brain calmed down a bit. There’s nothing like a good bike mechanic to calm down a buzzing brain.

But first, before Bike Shop Guy could fix my wheel, he had some work to do. He took several bikes and lined them up outside the shop. Then he swept the inside of the shop. This is the difference between a French bike shop and an American bike shop. At the American bike shop, all this would have been done before 10AM.

You know what? What the hell’s the hurry? So what if he opened up a few minutes late and then did his chores. I’m on a bike trip. It’s not like I have a deadline. Or have to be somewhere at a certain time. Marc, be here, be now, enjoy the moment. And relax. That’s one of the things I’ve had to try and do because of my TBI: slow down and try and relax. Which is easier said than done. For example: emptying the dishwasher. Used to be able to whiz through unloading the dishwasher. It was a thing of beauty, precision and efficiency. Maddie was in awe. Not so much anymore. Start whirling away in fast motion, like I used to do, and quickly get all anxious and stressed and the dishes start clanking against one another, and the noise hurts my head, and the faster I try to go, the more they start clanking and the more anxious I get and … Marc, take a freakin’ breath and relax. It’s only the damn dishes. What’s your hurry?

It’s the same with paying the bills, or folding the laundry or looking stuff up on the internet. I try to go fast, like I always did, and get all frazzled and anxious and need to stop and consciously slow down and relax. Hey, it’s not easy to suddenly have to change the way you do pretty much everything in your life at the age of 34. Habits have been formed that are hard to break. Being a newspaper reporter is all about doing things fast. Really fast. On deadline. Under stressful conditions. Have to constantly remind myself to slow the hell down. Go ahead, try it. I dare you. Do something you do on a regular basis, like the some of the stuff I just mentioned, and then try and do it at half the speed you’ve always done it. It’s not easy.

BTW: Typing’s is the hardest thing to slow down. Just can’t seem to do it. It’s happening right now! Even when I try and go slow my fingers start going a little faster and faster, and the thoughts spill out a little quicker, the fingers speed up to keep pace and … mistakes are made. Lots of mistakes. Like 10 per sentence, which is double the number I used to make. You wouldn’t believe the way I can mangle words. For example, I just spelled mangle: mnagel. Try not to let it get me frustrated because, well, it’s the way my brain and fingers now operate. Whether I like it or not. And getting frustrated stresses me out and makes me more anxious and irritable and pissed off at myself and the asshole who did this to us. Damn, haven’t thought about and cursed out Maddie’s murderer in several days. I’d like to mnagel the crap out of him.

OK Marc, calm down, take a deep breath.

***

Finally, once all the bikes were set up just so, and the shop was swept spotless, Bike Shop Guy sprang into action. He put my bike on the stand, took out the broken spoke, put in a new spoke and trued up my horribly out of true wheel by tightening and loosening several other spokes until the tension was just right all around and my wheel spun perfectly.

He made a few other adjustments and voila, my bike was complete again!

I paid the bill – only 10 Euros – and was out the door at 11:07 and on my way to Bayeux.

“Bon journey,” Bike Shop Guy said.

“Merci,” I said.

***

The ride from Honfleur was along the coast and through several resort towns: Deaville, Houlgate, Cabourg. In another month or so, this area will be crawling with tourists.

Up a big hill to the cliffs that run along the coast and down into the town of Arromanches. This is where the British built Port Winston (named after Churchill) on D-Day. They towed in all these old ships, sunk them in a semi- circle, and then filled in the open spots with 600,000 tons of concrete. And they did it while the Germans shelled the hell out of them. There’s a Musee Debarquement, but I didn’t go in. Instead, got a sandwich and sat by the beach, trying to imagine what it must have been like on June 6, 1944. Carnage. Lots of carnage.

***

Six more miles to Bayeux. Decided to stay at the Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese that my Let’s Go France recommended: “Homey 1- to 7-person rooms in a labyrinthine layout surrounding a courtyard with a giant chessboard.”

This is my first night in a youth hostel. They’re so much cheaper than hotels, so I’ll keep an eye out for them from now on.

BTW: I have come to rely on my Let’s Go France to help me figure out where to stay and where to eat and which tourist attractions are worth visiting. Having it with me gives me a sense of comfort and reduces my anxiety of the unknown. I know this sounds a little nutty, especially since I’ve had internet access most nights and can – and do – look things up. My Let’s Go France is my bike-traveling Bible (or Torah), and provides me with a sense of faith that everything will be OK on my epic French bike trip. It’s sort of like that episode of Gilligan’s Island, the one where Gilligan makes wings out of feathers and is flying.

He’s actually flying.

Then the damn Skipper has to go and ruin everything by telling Gilligan he can’t fly.

“I can’t?” says Gilligan, who is flying.

“Of course not,” the Skipper says, even though Gilligan is flying.

And with that, Gilligan, who now no longer believes he can fly, thanks to the Skipper and all his negativity, stops flapping his wings, and crashes to the ground. He lands on top of the Skipper, who starts chasing him around, hitting him with his hat.

It’s no Seinfeld, but the message is clear: You gotta have faith in yourself … and your Let’s Go France.

There’s another message: Marc, you watch way too much television.

BTW: Mom and Dad got me my Let’s Go France book, back before our anniversary trip. It the 2011 version, but everything they wrote about back in 2011 still seems to be here, just a little more expensive. I’ll tell them how helpful it is in my next email. Not sure if I’ll tell them about the Gilligan’s Island analogy.

***

Realized earlier this evening that I haven’t really talked to anyone, other than asking if they had a hotel room for the night, or if I could have a bier, pastis or deux chocolate croissants, since I’ve been in France. Other than that annoying woman in the Moet & Chandon cave who kept asking about my wife. And the bike mechanic who didn’t speak English.

Until today that is. And, despite the hermit-like tendencies I’ve developed the past year, it was great to hang out with and talk to people.

The Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese is a step or two above – and a little more expensive – than a typical youth hostel. This means there are more than just backpacking American and European college students staying here. There are actual adults. And actual families.

They put me in a little room on the top floor with this guy Dwayne, a backpacking American college student from Washington State University. Dwayne’s a little strange. He has big, scary eyes and never seems to blink. He’s nervous about something and did a lot of pacing and mumbling to himself. Dwayne didn’t say what’s bothering him, and I wasn’t about to ask. Think he’s harmless, just a little on the intense side. OK, a lot on the intense side. Like super intense. Should I be worried? Maybe I’ll ask if he wants a Lexapro.

He asked me where I went to college, which was kind of flattering. But come on Dwayne (or maybe it’s Duane), I’m 34. Sure, I look young for my age, at least that’s what people used to say before the incident. But college? Seriously?

Told Dwayne I graduated a few years ago and was a freelance writer. “What are you writing?” he asked.

“About biking through Normandy and Brittany.”

“For who?”

Dwayne sure asked a lot of questions.

“Travel and Leisure magazine.”

Total lie. But there was no way I was about to tell Dwayne: Well, my wife was murdered and I almost died, got laid off from my job as a newspaper reporter and decided to bike around France to try and figure out what the hell to do with the rest of my life. And you?

It’s not so much that I wanted to lie. It’s just that when you’re in a youth hostel, everyone expects you to tell them your “story” and the whole freelancing, Travel & Leisure thing was a lot easier – and less painful – than the truth. It just sort of spilled out. And who knows, maybe I will write a freelance article for Travel & Leisure about biking through Normandy and Brittany. I’ve never actually read Travel & Leisure, but it’s the only travel magazine I could think of. Does Travel & Leisure even do articles about bike trips? Or is biking not considered leisurely enough for them? Maybe I should have said I was doing the article for Bicycling magazine. Or the New York Times. Then again, does it really matter? It’s all a big, fat lie. And, come to think of it, technically, I am now a freelance writer.

“Where’s your wife?” Dwayne asked.

Damn, this wedding band is making things complicated. Should I take it off? No, I can’t.

“She’s back home, I’m meeting her in Paris.”

***

They serve dinner at the Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese, and about 15 of us gathered in the dining room around a big table.

There was an older American couple from Dayton, Ohio who are here to see the invasion beaches, museums and cemeteries. My guess is they’re in their 60s. The guy’s father served in World War II. He wasn’t part of the Normandy invasion, but landed in France a week after D-Day. And survived the war. The guy, Freddie, is a civilian employee at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton and knows an awful lot about the history of WWII. And was more than happy to go on and on and on about what he knew. He talked really fast and quite loudly. Too much Freddie is bad for my brain.

Mary, who is maybe 30, and a sculptress from Los Angeles. She has long auburn hair and a lot of freckles. She said she was here in Bayeux to see the famous tapestry.

“What famous tapestry?” I asked.

Mary looked at me like I was an idiot … and then explained there’s a museum in Bayeux that has this 900-year-old tapestry. It tells the story of the famous battle in which William the Conqueror and his army came over from England and defeated King Harold and his army to seize control of Normandy. Harold died in the battle when he got shot with an arrow. In his eye.

Ouch!

May have to see this famous tapestry, which, from Mary’s brief description, sounds like it could be the world’s first superhero comic book.

Mary had this strange – and sort of endearing – way of speaking. She elongates the last word of every sentence, as in: “Marc, you’re not very smart, are youuuuuuuuuuu.” She didn’t actually say this, but I’m pretty sure she was thinking ittttttttt.

Freddie also knew the story of the tapestry and William the Conqueror – they’d seen it earlier today – and he went on and on about it.

Mat, from Quebec, who is about 25 to 27, and had one of those hipster beards going. It was big and bushy and looked very itchy. He’s also traveling by bike, but is headed east while I’m heading west. He’s a grad student in something or other. He told me but I forget. Geography? Geometry? I’m pretty sure it’s something that starts with a G. Greek? Grammer? We filled each other in on the routes to ride and where to stay. He highly recommended St. Malo and said the youth hostel in Dinan is really nice.

BTW: All Canadians put a Canadian flag patch on their knapsacks. Partly because they’re proud to be Canadian, but also because they want to make sure people from other countries don’t mistake them for an American.

A Taiwanese family of four who live in Denver, but are spending the summer in Paris. The father is some sort of visiting professor of Asian studies. The kids – about 10 and 12 – seemed bored and spent the evening playing their video games.

Three business major guys, from Michigan State, who had spent the day at Pointe du Hoc and the American cemetery and kept saying how “awesome” everything was, like it was some kind of amusement park with roller coasters. They did a Bus Verts tour from the bus station in Bayeux that hit all the D-Day highlights.

“Dude, we should have rented bikes like these dudes,” one of the Michigan State dudes said, pointing toward Mat and me.

Two girls from Penn State who had started out in Paris and were headed to London.

The Michigan State guys and Dwayne, Mary and Mat and the Penn State girls all went off to a café after dinner. They asked me to come with them, but had to pass. Was tempting, but dinner was enough. All the conversation, coming at me from so many directions, was exhausting and my head was starting to hurt. Needed some quiet time.

The Michigan State guys were totally interested in the Penn State girls, although it was hard to tell if the Penn State girls were into the Michigan State guys. Think one of the Penn State girls was into Mat, but Mat seemed more interested in Mary. Trust me on this; I’m an astute observer of my fellow humans. It comes from all my years as a reporter.

“Where’s your wife?” Mary asked, before they headed off to the café. She too noticed my wedding band.

I told her – and everyone else at the table – the same lie I told Dwayne (since he was sitting at the table): She’s meeting me in Paris in a few days. Also told everyone I used to work for a newspaper near Philadelphia, the Examiner (just in case they Googled me) and that I’m now a freelance writer. Travel & Leisure. Biking in Normandy and Brittany article. Maybe an eBook. They seemed to buy it. Why not? Sounds plausible. Some of it’s true.

Day 11: Bayeux, 40 miles/550 total … “We are Dutch, we ride bicycles all the time”

11 Cemetery

Decided to stay in Bayeux and do a day trip to the American Cemetery and Pointe du Hoc.

Pointe du Hoc.

Pointe du Hoc?

It’s the 100-foot cliffs that the Army Rangers scaled on D-Day while they were pelted with hand grenades and shot at by the Germans who were dug in on top of the cliff. The Germans were entrenched in these massive concrete bunkers that housed several big, deadly guns that the Rangers had to put out of commission. It was an impossible mission. And yet, they did it.

It was a rainy, overcast and drizzly day and it started coming down harder as I got to the little town of Colleville, just a mile or so from the American Cemetery. All the churches over here seem to be open during the day, so I sat inside the Colleville church, had a snack, and waited out the rain. Is it OK to eat inside a church? Hope so. Did it in a respectful and somewhat religious manner. The rain finally slowed to a drizzle and off I went to the cemetery.

This is the final resting place of 9,386 soldiers who died on or right after D-Day. The cemetery is a vast sea of 172 acres of perfectly manicured and startlingly green grass (the greenest grass I’ve ever seen) and 9,386 bone- white marble crosses and Jewish stars that seem to stretch on forever. They end at a stone wall that runs along the cliffs. From here, you can look down on the beaches where a lot of these guys died. It looks so peaceful now, but on June 6, 1944 it was total chaos, death and destruction all along these beaches.

It started raining again as soon I got to the cemetery, so went into the visitor’s center/museum to wait it out. An American couple were at the information desk and told the guy working there that the woman’s grandfather was buried here. This was their first visit to the cemetery and they needed some help finding the woman’s grandfather’s grave site.

The man behind the desk was kind and gracious and treated them as if they were D-Day veterans/heroes. He pointed to the computers around the corner, and told them they type in her grandfather’s name and it would them tell them the location of his gravesite.

“It will give you the section and the row, and you can find it using this map,” he said, handing them a map of the cemetery.

They walked over to the computers.

“Do a lot of people come to look for their relatives?” I asked the guy. “Oh yes, quite a few,” he said, adding I had just missed the ceremony on June 6, the 71st anniversary of D-Day.

“We used to get a lot of D-Day veterans who came to visit the graves of their buddies, but not too many anymore,” he said. “There aren’t very many World War II veterans still alive.”

Thanked him and wandered around the cemetery, walking slowly, trying to grasp the enormity of D-Day. Saw the American couple, off in the distance, in the middle of a sea of marble crosses. They stood there, holding hands, their heads bowed.

***

Off to Pointe du Hoc. And after a mile or so, came upon two women on bikes. One of them had a flat tire.

It was the back tire, of course.

“Do you need any help?”

“Yes, we do, please,” one of the women said.

They were Dutch, their names are Emma and Sophie, which don’t sound very Dutch to me. Then again, they’re the first two Dutch girls I’ve ever met. My guess is they’re in the 25-to-30 range. Their age isn’t important, but it’s the newspaper reporter in me: We always had to ask people their age, where they lived and include it in the story. Plus, I like trying to guess people’s ages. I’m pretty good at it and am rarely off by more than two or three years.

Emma and Sophie had rented bikes in Bayeux and were doing a day trip to Pointe du Hoc.

They had the wheel off Emma’s bike, but didn’t have the little plastic levers you need to get the tire off the wheel. Took mine out and was about to get started taking the tire off the rim when Emma grabbed the levers from me and had that tire off in like 12 seconds.

It was quite impressive.

“That’s quite impressive,” I said.

“We are Dutch, we ride bicycles all the time,” Sophie said. “And we can fix flat tires.”

They didn’t have a spare tube.

“I have one,” I said and fished one out of my front bike bag.

“We will pay you for it,” Emma said.

“Oh no, it’s my pleasure to help fellow cyclists.”

They thanked me profusely and Emma had the tube in the tire and the tire on the wheel in like three minutes. This was seriously impressive.

We rode together to Pointe du Hoc, where we saw the American couple from Dayton I met at the Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese last night. It was like a mini reunion. Introduced Emma and Sophie to Freddie and his wife (still can’t remember her name) and then we all wandered around Pointe du Hoc together. Was easy to imagine the Germans hunkered down here, the Allied planes dropping bombs on them (there are giant bomb craters everywhere) and how amazingly difficult and deadly it must have been for the Rangers to fight their way up these cliffs. About half of them didn’t make it.

***

My journalism instincts kicked in when we walked by the American couple I’d seen earlier at the American Cemetery. Needed to know the story of the woman’s grandfather.

“Excuse me. I saw you at the American Cemetery earlier today and heard you ask the guy at the desk to help you find your grandfather’s grave. I’m a reporter and I’m writing an article about biking in Normandy and was wondering if it’s OK to ask you a few questions.”

They said it was OK, and then told me the story of Steve Golas. That’s another thing I learned as a newspaper reporter: Most people are more than happy and willing to tell you their story. All you have to do is ask. Nicely.

BTW: Now feel obligated to write a story about biking through Normandy for some publication. Any publication. Even if it’s the Examiner. It’s one thing to lie to some college kid you meet in a youth hostel, but it’s another to lie to a couple whose grandfather was a D-Day hero. Really need to tell this story and get it published somewhere. Maybe it will be the start of my freelance writing career.

Steve Golas was an Army Ranger. He was in the first wave of landing crafts on D-Day, arriving a few miles to the east of Pointe du Hoc at a place called Pointe et Raz de la Percee. The Germans were on top of the cliffs at Pointe et Raz de la Percee, a few hundred yards from the edge of the water. They had a clear line of sight to the Rangers, and Steve Golas was hit as soon as he jumped out of the landing craft.

“We have met several of the Rangers who survived and knew my wife’s grandfather,” the husband told me.

One of them told them that Steve Golas had been promoted from platoon sergeant of C Company to first sergeant of the entire 2nd Battalion a day or two before D-Day.

“He didn’t have to go in on the first wave, but he begged and begged his commanding officer to let him go in with his buddies,” the husband said.

“He was a hero,” the wife said of her grandfather.

“He sure was,” I said.

***

Rode back to Bayeux with Emma and Sophie, who are trauma nurses at a hospital in Amsterdam. Was tempted to tell them all about all my trauma, but decided not to. Don’t like to talk about it. They were staying at a hotel not too far from the Family Home/Auberge de Jeunese. They – and by they, I mean Emma – asked if I wanted to meet later at the café near their hotel. Was tempting, as they seemed nice enough and it would have been fun to talk to them and hear more about Amsterdam, and their bike-mechanic skills. Can’t be certain, but I think Emma might have liked me a little bit. She paid a lot of attention to me all day, asking me lots of questions and laughing at all my jokes. Sophie seemed to hang back and let Emma pay attention to me and laugh at all my jokes.

Had my bike gloves on the entire day, which means they – and by they, I mean Emma – couldn’t see my wedding band, which means there was no way she could have known I was married. OK, I know I’m not married, but you know what I mean. Then again, could be nuts and may have totally misread the entire situation. Emma could be a friendly traveler and just wanted to be friends. I’ve never really understood American women, let alone the Dutch version.

“It is the least we can do to say thank you for helping with our bicycles,” Emma said.

“Thanks, but I’m really tired and I’m gonna go to bed right after dinner,” I said. It was the truth. It had been a long day, and needed to rest my brain. Plus, I was a little scared that Emma, you know, kind of liked me. Not ready for that.

“If you change your decision, we will be at the café,” Emma said.

***

Dwayne was still at the youth hostel, and seemed even more nervous and intense than last night.

“Are you OK?” I asked after we had finished dinner.

That’s all it took, and Dwayne spilled his guts. It seems he had come to Paris a few days ago to meet up with his girlfriend, who had spent the spring semester studying there. Dwayne loves her very, very much. In fact, he brought an engagement ring with him, and planned to ask her to marry him when they were at the top of the Eiffel Tower. So, Dwayne gets to Paris, he’s so damn excited to see his girlfriend, what with him loving her so very, very much, and being all set to propose … and she goes and dumps him and breaks his heart. He’s not even there two hours and she tells poor Dwayne she doesn’t love him any more, she’s met someone else, some French guy, whom she may or may not love. Either way, she’s sure she doesn’t love Dwayne any more. It’s all over.

The poor bastard.

“Come on, I met some Dutch girls and they’re at a café a few blocks from here, let’s go have a couple drinks. My treat. Ever try pastis? It will take your mind off what’s her name.”

We found Emma and Sophie, and Dwayne spent the next two hours telling us all about his girlfriend, about how he was going back to Paris tomorrow to win her back. And maybe beat the crap out of her new French boyfriend. The poor kid. He doesn’t stand a chance.

Still think Emma was interested in me, but did my best not to encourage her. Hey wait, did she see my wedding band, since I wasn’t wearing bike gloves? She didn’t say anything, or ask me about my wife. Maybe she didn’t notice the ring. Or maybe she did – and didn’t care because she wasn’t interested in me in that way. Probably the second one.

BTW: Everything down there works. Have done a couple self tests, if you know what I mean. And, at some point, in the future, may want to have sex again. Hell, I’m only 34 and could live a long, long time. Or maybe I won’t live a long, long time, which, when you think about it, is even more of a reason to hook up with Emma. She’s attractive … and she’s Dutch.

BTWA: Never had a chance to see the famous Bayeux tapestry. Oh well, maybe next time I’m here.

Day 12: Coutances, 55 miles/605 total … What the heck ever happened to Jean Claude Van Damme?

12 Day

Today’s goal was to ride to Granville, an old and fortified city on the coast.

Only made it as far as Coutances

Seemed like a nice day when I left Bayeux at about 9:30AM. Sun was shining, was warm.

Rode to Perriers and then Coutances. The whole way seemed uphill and into a really stiff headwind, a wind from the west and the sea. Was really tough and slow going, like climbing a never-ending hill. Damn sea winds! My legs felt heavy, numb and tired. Got to Coutances at about 2:00PM, stopped for a quick snack and to take a look inside the town’s old church. It was completed in 1274 and is really ornate. Was inside about 10 or 15 minutes, walked out and …

Total, absolute darkness.

The sky was filled with black, angry clouds and seconds later a giant and really loud bolt of lightning lit up the sky – and it started pouring. Buckets. Waited under cover, hoping the sky would clear up as magically as it had turned black. No such luck. The sky was even darker. It was night during day.

At about 4:00PM, gave up and got a room at a room at the Hotel Normandie, where there’s also a café/restaurant. Showered and read a big chunk of Lonesome Dove. Damn, this is a really good book. Dare I say great? OK, I will. It’s great.

It’s almost midnight now, and it’s still raining. Really, really hope it clears up tomorrow.

BTW: Deets (he’s one of Gus and Woodrow’s Indian fighters and cowhands) had an interesting take on suicide. He says he’s known several men who went and blew their brains out and he’d pondered it from time to time: “It seemed to him it was probably because they could not take enough happiness just from the sky and the moon to carry them over the low feelings that came to all men.”

Wow, Deets is deep. And, yeah, I’m trying to take some happiness from the simple things on this bike trip: the views down to the sea from the top of a cliff, making it to the top of a big hill/mountain and then flying down the other side, sitting by the edge of a river, eating a sandwich and drinking an Orangina. The only thing is, all these little things would be so much better with Maddie. And that’s a big thing.

***

Oh wait, one more thing. There’s a TV in my room and couldn’t resist the temptation to watch a little French TV. Was the first time I’ve turned one on since I’ve been here, and learned the answer to the all-important question: What the heck ever happened to Jean Claude Van Damme?

Not only learned the answer to this vital question, but also discovered the equally exciting news that Homer and Marge are huge over here. And, even in French, The Simpsons are funny. The actors voicing Homer and Marge are incredible; they sound exactly like Homer and Marge, but in French, which makes it seem as though Homer and Marge are a lot smarter and classier than they are in English.

“Doh!” by the way, is still “Doh!” in French.

And, an episode of Castle was on, which answered the question: Do they call it Castle or Chateau over here. The answer: Castle. It was the episode where his father, the super-secret spy, gets all shot up and is bleeding, but nevertheless saves Castle. And then disappears.

There was also some sort of Big Bang mini-marathon, or maybe it’s always on over here, just like it’s always on over there (in the U.S.). Sheldon was equally annoying in French, and the voice of the actress playing Bernadette was so high-pitched that the glasses in my bathroom broke. OK, this is an exaggeration, but not by much … and her voice really hurt my brain.

Unfortunately, couldn’t find Seinfeld. Need to hear Kramer in French. Wonder if it’s on over here? Gotta be, right?

OK, I know you’re dying to know: What the heck ever happened to Jean Claude, the Muscles from Brussels? Don’t worry, I didn’t forget. Was just trying to build up the suspense.

Jean Claude is OK – and making commercials. In the one I saw like three times in an hour, he’s is at home, wearing what he typically wears when he’s lounging around at home: flowing white-linen pants – and no shirt.

Jean Claude is talking on his cell phone, surrounded by three lovely ladies who just happen to have pineapples on top of their heads. Pineapples? Perhaps it’s some sort of European thing – or maybe Jean Claude loves tropical fruit.

So, Jean Claude is talking away on the phone when suddenly – BAM! – he pirouettes gracefully and gives one of the pineapples on top of a lovely lady’s head a smack with his foot. It splits in half and falls to the ground without harming a hair on the beautiful woman’s head. He keeps talking and – KABOOM! – another karate kick, another halved pineapple falls to the floor. He continues talking and – POW! – a power kick aimed at the third pineapple. Nothing happens for an instant … and then the pineapple splits into a complicated and artistic pattern, and falls to the ground.

Couldn’t decipher who Jean Claude was talking to on the phone, but think it was his agent. Perhaps he was begging him for a part, any part, in any movie, that didn’t involve beating up tropical fruit.

OK, enough TV, time for bed. Hope the damn rain stops.

Day 13: Coutances, ) miles/ 605 … The plan was to spend a long, long time together

13 lyons

It didn’t.

Clear up and stop raining.

It was raining when I woke up at 7. Back to sleep. Was raining when I woke up at 8. Tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t. At 9, went down to breakfast, hoping it would stop raining.

Nope.

Was raining even harder at 9:30. Pouring. Sky was totally black. There were a couple of older guys sitting at the hotel’s bar/restaurant. For breakfast, they had red wine (lots of red wine) and croissants, and dipped their croissants into their red wine. Dipped my croissant into my coffee.

The guy at the hotel desk told me there would be storms all day, so told him I was staying another night.

None of this is surprising. I mean, come on, what a cliché: It’s June 13 and this is the 13th day of my epic bike trip. Maybe I’ll be lucky and some guy wearing an ice hockey mask and wielding a chain saw will jump out and kill me. And, to make this scenario even worse, there’s a black cat living in this hotel. He (or she) is quite friendly. Spent a lot of time today in the lobby, drinking tea, reading Lonesome Dove and writing in my journal. The cat kept me company.

He (or she) sure made me miss Penny.

BTW: Most French hotels have a cat or two. They’re friendly … and strut around like they own the place.

BTW: Chat is the French word for cat.

***

It’s 10:47PM and it’s been a long, boring day, saved only by Lonesome Dove and my new friend the cat. Already about halfway through the Dove, and it just keeps getting better and better. Evidently there’s a TV miniseries starring Robert Duvall as Gus and Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow. Who knew? Will have to watch it when I get home … or figure out a way to stream it on my laptop over here.

Damn, that’s something Maddie was great at: figuring out the computer stuff. She was in charge of all our IT needs. I just don’t have the patience for this sort of stuff. Maddie does. Or did.

Guess now’s as good a time as any to try and figure out what the hell is going on with my life. A rainy day will do that to you. I know this French bike trip is my way of escaping everything that happened back home. Eventually, I’ll have to go back. But to what? There’s no Maddie. No job. No place to live. There’s nothing.

My life changed forever at 11:47AM on Sunday, April 20, 2014. Know the time because it’s in the police report. The guy was drunk, and high, on all sorts of drugs. At 11:47AM. On a Sunday morning.

Maddie and I were so excited about our bike trip to the Loire and had decided to get to work on getting Maddie pregnant when we got back home. Or maybe we’d get started in the Loire. That would be a cool story, about how our son/daughter was conceived in Blois/Amboise/Saumur.

“We can call him – or her – Chateau,” I suggested. “It works for a boy or a girl.”

“Maybe not,” Maddie said.

Death?

It was this abstract concept, something that happened to people a lot older than us. Certainly not to Maddie, who was 30 on April 20, 2014. She was kind and caring and loving and patient and beautiful and amazing. The kids at her school adored her. Everyone loved Maddie.

“We’re lucky,” Maddie would say from time to time, for no particular reason other than the fact that we were lucky to have found one another.

We were, we really were. I’m not saying we had some sort of storybook romance for the ages, like in The Princess Bride, and that our relationship was better, purer and more important than anyone else’s relationship. We had our share of problems from time to time, and arguments. And yeah, I could be stubborn and tended to pout after an argument, especially when I was wrong, which was usually the case. The thing was: We were totally happy and liked and loved each other and that’s a rare and beautiful thing. The plan was to spend a long, long time together and live happily ever after.

Now what?

It’s a little more than a year later and I still don’t know the answer to this question. What I do know is death is no longer an abstract concept. It’s real. And it can happen in the blink of an eye without warning even if you’re in perfect health. One minute you have life figured out and you’re happy; the next minute your wife is dead and you’re lying next to her unconscious, ripped to shreds and barely alive.

Was busted up from head to toe, and the doctors kept telling me how lucky I was to be alive. This didn’t really sink in until months later. Guess I was too depressed about Maddie and in denial about how badly I’d been hurt. Plus, I was on a lot of really strong drugs and not thinking very clearly.

OK, here’s the list of my injuries, starting at the top:

The scalp lacerations, which I’ve already described.

Underneath the scalp lacerations, the fractured skull and TBI. Two fractures around my left eye: the orbital bones. Was lucky and didn’t need surgery to repair them. They were non-displaced. My chin/jaw didn’t break, but were totally black and blue … and numb. Could barely open my mouth for weeks. Think it was from the chin strap of my bike helmet.

“It looks like nerve damage,” one of my doctors said of the jaw thing. “It could take a year or more for the numbness to go away.”

It’s still numb.

Nerve damage is sort of like a TBI: The doctors all say it will take a year or two to get better, but they can’t say for sure how much better it will get.

Had so much bleeding/swelling in my head that they put some sort of drain in. Don’t remember it, but they told me about it later. Have a nice lump/scar where the drain was attached. And lots of other lumps and scars up there.

Collapsed lung (left one) and seven or eight broken ribs (left side). Because of this, and all the internal bleeding, was on a ventilator the first two days, and had a tube in the left side of my chest to drain out all the blood. Don’t remember the ventilator or chest tube, but have the scar on the left side of my chest as a reminder. Probably a good thing I was so out of it the first few days and don’t remember the ventilator. Would have been terrifying to wake up and be on a ventilator. Don’t like thinking about it.

Wasn’t exactly in a coma, just unconscious at first and then so out of it from the TBI, all the other injuries and all the drugs that I have no memory of the first few days.

My sister took a few pictures of me in the ICU, but haven’t been able to look at them. They’re evidently pretty graphic.

“You’ll need them when if you sue the bastard,” she said.

One of my friends, John, visited on Day 2. He was so shaken up by the way I looked that he had to leave. After like a minute. He told me later that he sat in his car in the parking lot and cried.

Had a broken left shoulder and shattered left elbow. They went in and fixed my shoulder and elbow while I was out of it, putting some sort of rod in my shoulder and a steel plate and a bunch of screws in my elbow. Can feel the plate and screws in my elbow. It’s uncomfortable, especially when I rest my elbow on a table. Feels like there’s something between the table and my elbow. Can pull the skin around my elbow tight and see the outline of the steel plate and the little rounds heads of the screws. Weird. Can get the plate removed if I want, now that the bone is healed, but I’m in no rush for another operation. Can’t feel the rod in my shoulder, but my shoulder makes clicking, grinding and crackling noises whenever I lift it over my head or rotate it in a circle.

It’s like that old joke: Hey Doc, it hurts when I go like this.

Doc: Then don’t go like that.

My neck got a pretty bad case of whiplash – and also makes clicking and grinding noises. Can you have whiplash anywhere other than your neck? Probably not. Used to think whiplash was a made-up thing that unscrupulous people claimed to suffer from in order to sue someone after a car crash. Trust me: whiplash is real. And it’s really, really painful. There are times, like for an hour or so, when my neck feels perfectly fine and normal. And then, it doesn’t. At first, could barely turn my head, which made driving difficult and probably dangerous. After lots of physical therapy and several massages, my neck’s range of motion is now pretty close to normal and it doesn’t hurt so much. Most of the time. Until it does. And, every once in a while, I get spasms in my neck and have to remain very, very still for several minutes to convince them to go away.

Compression fractures of three vertebrae in my lower back. Still don’t really understand what a compression fracture of the vertebrae is, but it’s supposed to be the least serious kind of broken vertebrae you can suffer. A broken back, wow, that’s scary. I had a broken back. Could have been paralyzed, or needed several operations to insert rods and all sorts of other stuff to put my back back together. Was lucky and it healed up on its own. It’s OK for the most part, but, from time to time, it acts up.

My entire left side, from under my armpit to my knee was one big multi- colored bruise, a case of road rash to end all cases of road rashes.

Do they call it rue rash over here in France? Rash de rue?

Had the broken left ankle. My right ankle was also bashed up pretty bad, but didn’t break. Both my ankles are still sore from time to time. Like when it rains! Or when I do a lot of walking.

Think that’s about it. It’s more than enough.

Rumors were flying around, and someone told me she heard I’d broken every bone in my body.

“No way. If I broke every bone, I’d be dead. It was only about 20.” “Only,” she said. “I don’t think only is the right word.”

“It could have been 30.”

***

Spent nine days in the hospital, seven days in a rehab place, then a week at Mom and Dad’s before I was able to go home to our condo and manage on my own. Was really hard to be back there, all alone, without Maddie. Her stuff was there, exactly as it had been on the morning we left for a bike ride. Kept thinking it was all a dream, a horrible, terrible nightmare, and Maddie would walk through the door any minute and everything would be back to normal.

On the bathroom sink was her Burt’s Bees ultimate care body lotion with all-day moisture and a Burt’s Bees Radiance facial cleanser with royal jelly. The first time I saw them, well, I just sort of sank down to the floor of the bathroom and couldn’t move for like half an hour. I’m not sure why these two tubes set me off, but they did. Actually, I know why: They reminded me of Maddie. Duh.

Think I cried at least once every day for the first month I was back home.

On the night table on Maddie’s side of the bed was a bottle of her Young Living Lavender essential oil. It’s supposed to relax you and help you sleep, and every night, Maddie would dole out two drops onto my left palm. I’d inhale the vapors and then rub the lavender on my feet. It had to be the left palm because “it’s closer to your heart.”

Brought a bottle here to France with me and, every night, rub two drops onto my feet.

***

Started physical therapy on July 8. Two grueling, exhausting and painful sessions a week. It helped. A lot.

Went back to work on August 4. Three days a week for a month, then four days a week for another month, then full-time in October. Was good to get out of the house and to be around people, especially my fellow reporters. But all the things I used to be able to do easily, like whacking out a breaking news story on deadline, or writing two or three articles in a day, were now stress-inducing tests of my stamina and resolve that by the end of the day left me battered and beaten and exhausted.

Spent the evenings and weekends in recovery mode, resting and trying to exercise and get my body and brain right. Rarely left the house and slowly began to sink deeper and deeper into my misery. People wanted to come visit or take me out to lunch or dinner, but I made excuses: I’m tired, I’m busy, have to go to physical therapy. My parents would come over most Sundays, and bring dinner with them. My sister made me come over to dinner at her place every couple of weeks. This was about the extent of my social life.

It’s been more than a year, and I’m still not fully recovered, body or brain.

Went on eight bike rides before I got here to France, a total of 214 miles. And yes, was totally nervous and scared about getting back on my bike (a new bike, of course, as my old one was as broken and battered as me) and riding on the road. What with all the cars. And minivans. And trucks. Any one of the people who flew by me could be drunk. Or texting. Or fiddling with their radio. Or not paying attention. Or could be one of those assholes who doesn’t think people should be allowed to ride bikes on the street, and has decided that it’s OK to ride by us really fast and really close because, well, we somehow deserve to be hit.

So, because I was so nervous about riding on the roads, did something that sounds kind of crazy, but might actually be brilliant. Bought one of those baby holders/carts that you attach to the back of your bike and pull your baby or little kid around in. Some people put their dogs in them. Have always noticed how cars/trucks slow down and give these baby carts a wide berth whenever they pass one – and then speed up whenever they pass an adult on a bike. It’s OK to drive too close to, speed by or even hit an adult on a bike. But hit a baby? No way, that’s barbaric and cruel and goes against every and all of the societal norms. And, to make the whole scenario more realistic, bought a life-size and life-like doll baby to put in my baby cart: A Paradise Galleries doll for $89.95. According to the website: “Renowned artist Michelle Fagan has created our little bundle of joy ‘Tall Dreams Ensemble’ with the heart-tugging realistic details of a real baby, from her delicate face, sweet and innocent brown eyes filled with love, down to her tiny toes and feet.”

Her toes really were kind of adorable … and sure enough, drivers slowed down and gave me an extra-wide berth when they passed. Felt sort of, kinda, almost safe. But still anxious and nervous.

Only got busted once. Was stopped at a red light. Someone on a bike pulled up next to me and looked in the back of my baby cart.

“Cute baby,” he said, smiling.

“I know, she never cries. Sometimes I forget she’s here.”

Was tempted to get a baby cart over here in France, and still might.

Could put my panniers in it. Have seen two people doing this. But don’t think I need one over here. All the French drivers treat you as if you were towing a baby cart – with a real baby in it – behind your bike. They’re so damn respectful of cyclists and pass so darn safely. Feel comfortable riding over here. Thank you France.

BTW: Didn’t (couldn’t) ride by the spot where the murderer hit us. Haven’t been able to drive by it in my car either. One day. Maybe. Then again, probably not.

***

People (Mom and Dad, my sister, and the two or three other people I told) thought I was nuts to go on this bike trip, and tried to talk me out of it.

“You’re not ready,” they all told me. “Maybe next year.”

Jeff was the only one who understood. “Do it, you have to do it, what the hell do you have here?” he said.

He was right. It’s not like I had a job, a place to live, or Maddie. This was the perfect time to go. Needed to get away. Needed to do something. Needed a change.

And the hell with that murdering bastard who took Maddie from me. Fell in love with cycling back when Uncle Steve took me on our first trip, and I’m not going to let the murdering bastard take this away from me too. Screw him; I’m doing it. I’m going to France and bike, just like Maddie and I planned. Well, not exactly like we planned. But close enough.

And I’m glad I did.

So far.

Starting to feel stronger, a little bit more like my old cycling self. There are times, when I’m on a quiet road with no traffic and the scenery is beautiful, that I forget – for a few minutes or so – that Maddie was murdered and that my head and brain hurt.

And then I remember.

Was always the one thinking ahead to what’s next, where we had to be and how we were going to get there. Think that’s from being a newspaper reporter, or maybe I was already that way and it’s why I became a newspaper reporter. Maddie was the one to say: “Marc, take a breath and relax and enjoy the moment. Be present. Be here, with me, now.”

She was right.

So, for Maddie, I’ve been trying to be here and now on this bike trip. But the “with me” part is gone.

I’m trying Maddie, I’m really, really trying. But it’s hard without you. Really, really hard.

Day 14: Dinan, 85 miles/690 … Someone put two kittens in the trash and left them to die

14 kitty

What a long, strange and amazing day this was, capped off by quite a surprise. Two surprises actually. The first was a feline surprise, the second a human one. Actually, a very human one. Maybe even the most human.

Today’s ride included:

The medieval and fortified town of Granville, a really cool town up on a hill, overlooking the sea. From Granville, you can look across the bay, and see, off in the distance, the amazing Mont St. Michel. Wish I’d been stuck here for two days instead of Coutances. This is a way cooler town.

Saw a statue of George C. Scott, I mean of George S. Patton, in Avranches, which he liberated during WWII.

Once past Avranches, rode west and along the coast, toward Mont St. Michel. So, here’s the deal: Back in 708, the Bishop of Avranches was visited in his dreams by the Archangel Michael. Mike told the bishop to build a giant church/cathedral on this barren and tiny little rocky island just off the coast. And so, he did. As if you have a choice when you’re the Bishop of Avranches and an Archangel takes over your dreams and tells you to build a church/cathedral on a tiny, rocky island. Mont St. Michel kept getting bigger and bigger, and is a now a pilgrimmage – and tourist – destination.

It’s amazing.

There’s a little road from the coast out to the base/entrance of the Mont St. Michel. Rode to the entrance, looked around for a while. And then turned around and kept riding. Just wasn’t in the mood to spend hours at and in a giant, religious cathedral island. Needed to keep moving and riding. Maybe I’ll make a day trip here tomorrow. Or maybe not.

From Mont St. Michel, had two options: St. Malo to the west and north, or to the youth hostel in Dinan that Mat told me about. It’s west and a little south.

Decided on Dinan.

Why?

St. Malo sounds great. What’s not to like about an ancient (at this point, is it even necessary to point out that a town/church is ancient?) and fortified town on the coast, with a beach. But a beach town sounded extra lonely without Maddie. And Mat, who seemed to know what he was talking about, said Dinan and the youth hostel were great. And now that I’ve stayed at a youth hostel and have started talking to people, kind of want to have people to hang out and talk with at night. Have to admit: Have been a little lonely, what with being all by myself all the time over here. Plus, Dinan is more in the direction of the Loire than St. Malo and I need to get to the Loire soon. Our anniversary is in 10 days and I have to be in the Loire – either Villandry or Chenonceaux – on our anniversary.

That’s etched in stone. Ancient stone.

***

Stopped about five miles from Dinan, in a little park to read my map and have a snack. Went to throw out the wrapper from my biscuits and … heard this strange noise coming from inside the trashcan. A whimpering, crying, sad sound.

Pulled up the lid of the trash can and … wrapped up in a dirty, old towel were two kittens. Someone had put two kittens in the trash and left them there to die. Was so stunned, just stood there for a couple of seconds, not believing what I was seeing. And hearing. Snapped out of it, dug a clean T- shirt out of my panniers, pulled the kitties out of the trashcan and wrapped them up in my T-shirt.

One was orange with stripes and a white nose and the other was gray with white feet. They must have been about three weeks old, although my kitten-age-guessing abilities are limited.

How the hell could someone do such a thing?

Held the two kitties up against my chest and talked to them, hoping they understood English. Told them everything would be OK and I wouldn’t leave them in the trash can. They seemed to calm down a little, so maybe they understand English. They also seemed hungry. Cupped up my left hand, poured some water into it, and they both started lapping up the water. Kept filling up my hand with water and they kept lapping it up. They must have sucked down half a water bottle of water. It kind of tickled when their rough little kitten tongues rubbed against my palm.

The only food I had was an apple and some nuts and raisins, which didn’t seem like something kittens should eat.

“Now what do I do?”

No way was I going to leave them. The only problem was: How the hell do you ride a bike with two kittens? Couldn’t hold them in my hands/arms and putting them into my panniers didn’t seem like a good option.

Would they fit and be OK in the back pockets of my bike shirt?

Nah, that won’t work. They had tiny, but sharp little claws, and would have made mincemeat out of my back after a few kilometers.
My bike bag! The front one. Maybe they could fit inside.

Emptied out as much as I could from the handlebar bag and stuffed all that stuff into my knapsack and panniers. Gently put the kitties into the handlebar bag, zipped it up just enough so they couldn’t jump out, but could still get some air. They cuddled up against one another and seemed content.

Off we went.

The kitties purred for a while and fell asleep. Peeked into the bag every few minutes. They seemed OK.

“Please, please, please don’t pee or poop in my handlebar bag.”

***

Dinan is way up on a hill, has a giant castle and is totally surrounded by ramparts. The views down to the river are fantastic.

Turns out the Dinan youth hostel isn’t actually in Dinan. Darn. Why didn’t Mat tell me? It’s down below, by the river. So, the kittens and I headed back down the hill and finally found the youth hostel – a big, rambling farmhouse surrounded by flowers and a field.

And guess who was there, hanging out in the front yard?

Emma and Sophie. My Dutch friends.

My first thought was that Emma was stalking me, but there’s no way she could have known I would be in Dinan tonight because I didn’t know I’d be in Dinan tonight until a couple of hours ago. The girls had spent the past couple of nights in St. Malo and were headed back to Amsterdam tomorrow.

Emma seemed excited to see me and gave me a big hug.

“Look what I found,” I said, and opened up my bike bag.

They gasped … and immediately fell in love with the kittens.

Told the girls all about how I’d found them in the trash and they thought

I was quite the hero.

“They’re really hungry,” I said.

Emma and Sophie’s maternal – and nursing – instincts took over and they sprang into action. They had a car and insisted on going to the supermarket to get milk and other kitten supplies. Wasn’t about to argue with them. While they were gone, went inside to get a room in the hostel. Showed the lady at the desk the kittens, told her all about how I’d found them in the trash … and she instantly fell in love with them. And thought I was quite the hero. She got some milk for the kitties. Guess it’s pretty much impossible not to immediately fall in love with two little kittens, especially ones with a backstory like these little guys.

And yes, they’re both guys. I think. And I’ve decided to name them Gus and Woodrow, after the heroes of Lonesome Dove.

Gus (the orange kitty) and Woodrow (the gray one) really went to town on the milk and slurped up every last drop in like 40 seconds. The woman said she would get more, but told her Emma and Sophie had gone to the grocery store to get milk and kitten supplies and would be right back.

The woman said I could keep the kittens in my room and that she and her husband, who ran the youth hostel, would help me figure out what to do with them.

“I think perhaps a bicyclette trip is not so good for them,” she said with a smile.

Reluctantly agreed with her.

“Maybe the two Dutch girls will love them,” she said. “I think they might already.”

***

Emma and Sophie returned with milk, kitten food and cat litter, and the woman at the desk gave us a cardboard box for the litter. There were a few other people staying at the youth hostel, and they gathered around to hear the story of the kittens and to fall in love with them.

Gus and Woodrow must have slurped up their body weight in milk in like five minutes. And then they ate their body weight in kitten food.

And then they took care of business in the cardboard box.

“Isn’t that adorable,” Sophie said, as Gus pooped out a series of poops equal to his body weight. Woodrow did the same a minute or two later. They were both diligent about covering over their poop with the kitty litter. Good kitties.

Then they did all sorts of adorable kitten stuff: chasing a little ball we found outside the youth hostel, rolling around and wrestling each other, stalking Emma’s leg and jumping onto it as if to attack her.

They pretty much exhausted themselves, and were soon asleep. Gus nestled in Emma’s lap, Woodrow on my lap. They were even more adorable asleep than awake.

“We must take them home with us, please,” Emma said. “Surely you can not take them with you on your trip on a bicycle.”

“Yes please, we will give them a good home,” Sophie said.

The possibility of taking them with me on my bike trip had crossed my mind. I mean, come on, everywhere I’d go, I’d be the kitten hero. I’d be famous throughout all the youth hostels in France. Maybe in all of Europe. I’d do a blog and post youtube videos that would go viral. Plus, I really liked the little guys. Then again, what if one of them jumped out of my bike bag and got lost in the woods? Or got run over. I’d be crushed.

“I guess it would be the best thing for them, if you’re sure you want them.”

They were sure.

“I’ve already named them, Gus and Woodrow,” I said and explained all about the Lonesome Dove guy on the airplane and how great the book was, and they agreed to call them Gus and Woodrow.

The girls had also bought several bottles of wine and bread and cheese and fruit & some cake at the supermarket.

“We thought it would be better to stay here for dinner with the kittens rather than go into town for dinner,” Sophie said.

After a while, Emma noticed my wedding band.

“Are you married?” she said, looking a little surprised and a little sad. She tried to hide her surprised – and sad – expression. But you can’t fool a newspaper reporter.

Thought about lying, about saying my wife was in Paris, studying art at the Sorbonne, and that I was going to meet here there in a few days. But, what the hell? It was a nice night, we were on our second bottle of wine and we had two kittens.

Decided to tell the girls the truth.

And it wasn’t as horrible or as hard as I thought it would be. Was kind of nice to talk about Maddie. Sad, but nice, and the story just spilled out of me. This was the first time I’ve talked with anyone about Maddie since I’ve been in France.

The girls got quiet and sad, but sometimes it’s OK to be quiet and sad. And this was one of those times. So, told them some more about Maddie, how we met, fell in love and got married. Showed them a photo or two on my phone.

By the time it hit 11PM, was totally exhausted. Told the girls I had to go to sleep and asked if I could keep Gus and Woodrow with me.

They agreed.

“We will have breakfast with you and the kittens on the morning,” Emma said. “And then we must leave for Amsterdam.”

My room had a couple of cubbies. Put a few of my clothes on the bottom and the kitties on top, and they was asleep in like 12 seconds. Gus sure is a loud purrer.

***

A little while later there was a knock on my door. A quiet, but persistent tapping. It took me a while to realize I wasn’t dreaming.

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s me,” said Emma, who opened the door and came and sat on the edge of my bed.

“I can’t sleep, your story was very sad and I kept thinking about it. And how lonely you are. Are you OK?”

“It’s OK,” I said. “I’ll be OK.”

“Can I sit here with you for a while?”

“OK.”

What happened next is still all hazy and dream like, but I’m pretty sure it happened.

Emma moved closer and then closer, and pretty soon she was cuddled up against me, spooning me from behind. She eventually started kissing the back of my neck and her hands began to wander around, lower and lower, until they reached their final destination. Like I said, everything down there works, and seemed to enjoy what Emma was doing.

Nature just sort of took over. I rolled over and faced Emma, and we started kissing and rubbing and fondling each other. It felt nice to be with someone again. Really nice. I missed this, the feeling of someone warm prssed against my body. Holding someone so tight I could feel the in-and-out of her breathing. The anticipation of what was next. I was with Maddie. We were back together. The nightmare was over. The bastard never hit us. Took a deep breath, breathing in some more of Maddie. Opened my eyes and realized it wasn’t Maddie. It was Emma. Someone I barely knew.

Pulled away.

“Are you OK?” Emma asked.

“Yes, it’s just that … (wasn’t sure what to say, if I should tell Emma that I had been imagining Maddie was alive and was here with me, lying next to me, holding me) … “I don’t have anything, any protection.”

“I do,” Emma said, and reached into her pocket and pulled out a condom. “And I am on the pill, we are safe.

BTW: I wrote this last part much later (on June 15), as it would have been quite rude to have pulled out my laptop after we were done doing what we just did to write about what we just did. Plus, pretty much passed out after we did what we did, and had my best night of sleep since I’ve been here. Hmmm … sex as a sleeping pill? And yes, it’s really difficult and quite embarrassing to write about sex. It’s definitely not something I did as a newspaper reporter.

Hey, wait a minute. Was this pity sex? Is that why Emma did what she did? Am I such a sad and pathetic shell of a man that women take pity on me and want to cheer me up with sex? Oh well, that the hell. I’ll take it.

Holy crap, what a day. Kittens. And sex.

***

OK, this is the end, for now. Thanks for reading this far; I really hope you enjoyed the Numbskull. If you did, and would like to keep reading, you can purchase the entire printed book (43 Days/Chapters and 212 pages) here on Etsy … but only if you live in the USA. Sorry, foreign postage is crazy expensive and difficult. However, anyone can order the electronic version as a PDF on Etsy.

About the Author:

I was a newspaper reporter in the Philadelphia area and then Columbus, Ohio for a long time: 30 years. Now, I’m a freelancer content provider and bike blogger. I’m an avid (some would say obsessed) cyclist.

On November 3, 2013, everything changed. And almost came to an end.

I was on a bike ride. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and the next thing I knew it was Wednesday and I was waking up in the hospital from some sort of coma. An impaired driver had hit me and fled the scene. My injuries were bad, really bad, life threatening. I suffered pretty much the same injuries as Marc Cram, including the fractured skull and TBI. And yes, I really do have a partially numb skull. Fortunately, I was alone on that ride. Susan, my wonderful wife, nursed, loved and Urban Zenned me back to health and taught me a lot of life lessons along the way. Including patience.

BTW: They caught the guy, and he was eventually sentenced to three years in prison. I hope he’s on the right path.

So, Numbskull is based on my life: cycling, cycling through France, almost getting killed cycling, being a newspaper reporter, and Susan. Writing this was an important part of my recovery and helped me and my brain get back to and come to terms with my new normal. Which still includes lots of cycling. Thankfully. Sharing the Numbskull with family, friends and with you was and is important to me and still part of my on-going, never-ending recovery. When you suffer a TBI, well, deepening on how serious it is … it impacts the rest of your life. Fortunately, mine wasn’t horribly bad. Just average bad. There are a lot of TBI people a lot worse off. I’ve met several.

There you go. Thanks for reading.

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