Grace was slowly coming back to herself, at least enough for a little lunch and a little adventure, so we left mid-morning on Saturday for the Gorge du Verdon, a deep canyon with a mineral-rich aqua blue river slowly splitting it in two. The river spills out under a high bridge into the Lac St Croix. When you come to visit, that’s where we’ll take you first.
We love the road to the lake. It winds up the hill from Aups through a series of switchbacks, rising to a peak from which you can see a long stretch of blue and purple mountains in the distance, layered below with all of the bucolic green hills, then the flat roofs and ochre walls of villages and farmhouses packed into little pockets of towns. It’s a beautiful and inspiring landscape, in a way that is pretty and pastoral and picturesque and you might want to put on a postcard of Provence. And mail to your mom.
Then, you crest the hill of the road, and the landscape becomes moonscape. There is a huge flat plain, wrapped around its edges with dark, sharp edged mountains jutting upwards. The brush turns scrubby and dry, unwatered and virtually unplantable. The mesa rolls along towards the Gorge de Verdon, known as France’s curt little answer to the Grand Canyon, and dips into a deep blue lake ringed with bright yellow rocky orange sand. The postcard of that side you would mail not to your mom, but to your ex-boyfriend, as if to say, "I've moved on to more impressive things than you will ever be."
Cresting that hill is the sensation of being lifted up gently along the most beautiful Green Mountain pass, and then dropped without warning into the dry mountains of the Western United States. We are tootling along in something familiar and adorable and friendly, then suddenly slammed into a stark and forbidding, shockingly beautiful and unfamiliar new world.
Just under the bridge at the edge of the Gorge, we rented a little pedalo, a white floating plastic foot-pedaled boat to take a little two-hour trip into the Gorge on the river that that now winds peacefully (at least most of the time) along clay beaches and crumbly sandstone walls. Stunted trees grow in the sandstone here and there, some of them with trunks sticking out at a 90-degree angle and then stretching upwards. Lots of other families and little groups of friends were doing the same, each with cameras and bathing suits and little grocery bags of dry towels resting on the boats. The sky was blue and clear, although the sun had dipped low enough that the water was shaded as we passed under the bridge and in between the high walls of rock. A few teenage boys were hooting and calling to each other between a boat down in the river and the road bridge high above. Everyone watched as first one, then another kid dropped himself off the bridge and fell, arms flailing in circles down, down, down for what felt like way too dangerously long into the cold water. Then they popped right back up for more excited hooting.
Grace and Abigail took their brief turns pedaling, but mostly wanted to pull up to the clay along the water's edge to grab a handful and turn it over in their little hands. They sculpted and smoothed while we lazed along the water for an hour or so. It was the perfect incredible blend of shocking natural beauty and silly little 70's style Amusement Park diversion that we love so much here. When the water got too shallow for the pedalos, the more serious adventurers in kayaks and canoes passed us and continued up towards where the water was running fast over rocks. We turned around slowly and drifted back on a current we hadn't even really noticed on our way upstream.
As we got closer to the boat rental dock, the sky was starting to darken behind us, even as the sky ahead was still brilliant blue. A dark shadow started to fill the sky between the two cliffs on either side of us, and there was a sudden chilly breeze that made the girls put on their towel cover-ups. We took a big turn in the lake then pulled into the dock and hopped onto shore.
Since the girls had been nearly two hours without a snack (can you believe our cruelty?) they each tried to best the other in begging and pleading for a little treat. Bill grabbed the car key to head off for a few minutes to try to find the local rowing club, and I said I would get them their ice cream and watch them play in the sand until he came back. People were still renting pedalos, although I noticed that the guy selling tickets made sure to poke his hand up at the cloud in warning before each sale.
After ten minutes, the big grey cloud that had been dogging us pulled up even with the edge of the gorge. The breeze picked up into a wind, and a wrinkle of water swept across the blue-green lake like a really great movie special effect. The girls had finished their ice creams and were sitting beside me on the path between the beach and the car park. After twenty-five minutes, the whole sky had darkened and the wind was pushing the pedalos away from shore and away from the docks. The little people on the boats were cranking away with their little feet and not making much headway. We all were eager for Bill to come back soon, and the girls started to shiver in their thin towel coverups.
After half an hour the first drops of rain started to fall, and flashes of lightning appeared on the horizon. The pedalo man dropped his chilled out California attitude and went running down to the dock waving his hands over his head. No more pedalos out today; the ones that were out had to come back in. Like now would be good.
We huddled next to each other, cold and just the tiniest bit scared. We heard the sound of thunder rumbling, or was it the canoes and kayaks being pulled up on the rocky shore in a rush? The raindrops got bigger and there were more flashes on the horizon. Then there was a loud thunderclap, unmistakable. I put the kids under my arms and snuggled them close. They had been joking about Dad the Mistaker before. Now they seemed to wonder if he would ever return. More long minutes past as I unsuccessfully fought the urge to complain about Bill’s remarkable timing.
Of course Bill drove up just then, all full of enthusiasm about the rowing club that he had found. I rushed the damp little girls into the car, just the tiniest bit unwilling to hear all about his excitement that he had found a way to spend all of his weekend mornings for the next few months. From Bill's perspective, he had been out on a little errand and came back with great news about a ROWING CLUB that he could actually JOIN! From our perspective, we had been left out unprotected in a thunderstorm and just escaped being drenched and hit by lightning.
Later that night, we went for dinner at our new friends Jessica and Gerard's farmhouse. We were amazed to discover that their house is built directly on the same crest we love so much between the valley of Aups and the valley facing the Gorge du Verdon. As you drive along the rocky path out to their house, you can look one way down to Aups and the other way towards the high dry hills. As soon as we arrived, their dogs Alba and Goya came out to greet us with the greatest of enthusiasm and slavish joy. The shepherd Alba immediately attached herself to Abigail, and would lay herself at her feet, hoping to have her belly rubbed until the end of time. Louise, Zach, and Cameron took us out to the barn to show off their big grey geese (who took an instant dislike to Bill), the ducks and little black-and-yellow ducklings, the chickens, and the big, high-sided enclosure of rabbits.
The girls adored watching Louise and Zach pick up the rabbits and bring them over for inspection and careful, cautious petting. They would pick up the wooden box under which fifteen or twenty rabbits were huddling and hiding together, then grab one under the shoulders and lift him up. Zach preferred to lift them by the ears, although we would warn, "Doucement! Doucement!" hoping, but not really believing, that this was a relatively safe way for a little provençal farm child to lift a rabbit. We were all a little giddy, translating between English and French, watching the rabbits hop away in fright, with Zach now and then clowning for us. Little Cameron couldn't see, and Bill set him on the edge of the high wall. After a bit, he jumped down and tried to pick up a rabbit himself, laughing and complaining as the rabbit scratched him then scrabbled away. I was worried about Cameron being inside, but I tried to be relaxed about it. After all, the girls were beside themselves with laughter.
We were all looking at one that Louise had picked for us, and all laughing in a few different languages. The heavy wooden box that Cameron had been lifting up to pull out a rabbit fell down with a thud, and I began to hear a sound that I first thought was a child squealing. I just couldn't tell which one. But then the children's voices stilled, and even though the sound was coming from where Cameron was, his mouth was closed. I said, already knowing what had happened, "what's that sound?" It was a rabbit's high-pitched, scared cry, over and over again. I had heard it in the fields at night when I was young, when the foxes had been out hunting.
Louise went over and picked up the heavy wooden box, and there was an auburn colored rabbit lying still, no longer crying, as the rest hopped away. She picked it up, thinking its leg was broken. The way its hind quarters dangled, I knew that it was its back that had been broken by the heavy wooden hutch. It was calm when she held it, but when she put it down, it could only hop with its front half. I felt as though we had been driving along in our bucolic happy postcard of Provence, and suddenly dropped without warning into an alien and terrifying landscape.
Louise, normally sunny and tremendously engaging, turned on Cameron and grabbed at his ears in anger. "Doucement," I said again, although I wasn't sure that this word that had failed earlier would work now. The kids all looked stricken, and tore off for the farmhouse, leaving Bill and me staring at one another, knowing that we had failed the kids, failed the rabbit. It was an awful moment.
We followed the children back up the hill, and Gerard was already coming out towards the barn. He looked purposeful, but not particularly angry or upset. This is a farm, after all. Animals are sometimes hurt. Cameron and Zach had run in opposite directions to hide, Cameron with tears of shame and frustration streaming down his face. Jessica came out to collect him, to caution him, and to console him all at once, in that way that we moms do. He shouldn't have been in the rabbit enclosure, she reminded him. It wasn't his fault, he had to be much more gentle, he shouldn't be so upset, and yes the rabbit had been hurt. And now it would have to be killed.
This was what I had feared, but somehow I wished it could happen as fast as possible. Gerard came out of the barn carrying the rabbit, hanging limp, by his ears. I wasn't sure whether it was already dead, or whether Gerard was taking it off to kill it elsewhere and hang him up for tomorrow. Gerard made a pleasant enough joke, "OK, time to eat it now," and reminded Bill and me, "He was going to be dinner next week, anyway. This way it's just a few days sooner."
Jessica's children cried a little, Louise and Cameron for a very long time. Louise was angry that the rabbit had been killed, although she must have known long before that these rabbits were meat, not pets. Cameron didn’t stop until Bill assured him, in his best French, that this was Bill’s fault, not Cameron’s. He should not have let him into the rabbit pen. Either because Bill absolved him or because he was being spoken to in strange pidgin French by a strange man, Cameron stopped crying.
The rest of the evening’s guests arrived then, a lovely big beautiful family from Scotland, with five twentysomething children with impeccable manners and pretty holiday clothes. We drank Jessica and Gerard's ambrosiac homemade quince wine, then a liqueur made from walnuts that made me wish I could take a bath in it, not just drink it. We ate Gerard's homemade paté, one with herbes de provence, another with truffles dug on their farm. There was bread with fresh tomatoes and garlic scrubbed across it.
Yet, even as we made our polite conversation, death was everywhere in the air that night. Hunting season would start the next day, and Gerard spoke of killing tiny little thrush that Jessica would put on a spit and roast. We talked about hikers being gored by wild boar in the mountains, and Gerard's friend who shot at a man poaching truffles on his land. Bill, not to be outdone, told Gerard stories of my father shooting a hole in the ear of our neighbor's dog when the dog was harassing his sheep.
Gerard told of the time he had been hiking in the Gorge and bitten by a viper. He put a tourniquet on his arm, then lacerated his arm and sucked out the venom. He recommended that Bill carry along an epi-pen on any hikes in the area. He told another story of fishing in the same river we had been blithely pedalo-ing on, when a huge rock, the size of a dining room table, broke free without a noise and fell a foot from his body.
My favorite Gerard near-death story, however, was his story of fishing in the Gorge when the water suddenly and rapidly rose about ten feet. He pulled himself up the side of the canyon with a rope, which worked nicely until an enormous wave came down the Gorge and slammed him against the rocks. He woke up 500 meters downstream, facedown on a sandbar. To this story Bill responded, "That's AWESOME. You have GOT to meet my friend Buck!"
The clinchers of the evening, in terms of gory stories, however, were the stories of gameparks. Our new Scottish friends apparently run the only Safari Park in Scotland, a large preserve located between Edinborough and Glasgow. The lovely and sophisticated children of the family regaled me with stories of Chimp Island, the enclosure where they keep the chimpanzees.
This gave me my opportunity to tell my favorite Lienhard family story, a great narrative from Bill's family's sabbatical, the trip that inspired our own.
Back in 1976, The Lienhards were driving through a small game park in the beautiful English countryside. They saw the usual English wildlife: giraffes, rhinos, and elephants, all from a very safe distance. And then they entered Monkeyland. All was well, until Bill's dad, Gus, decided that the monkeys were just a little too far away. "This is ridiculous! We can't see them. They’re too high up!" Gus, ever the caring father, really wanted his children to see some monkeys on their trip to England, like all good children must.
Fortunately, the family had a box of cookies in the car. Gus took the vanilla wafers, and, against Linda's wishes, but in true Lienhard fashion, interpreting rules as guidelines, crumpled them up and sprinkled them on the car's windshield. He coated the outside of the car in cookie crumbs, shouted "Come and get it," and started banging on the car's roof.
Not one by one, but en masse, a group of horrible dirty hairy monkeys dropped onto the car. Instantly, Gus began yelling, "Oh my GOD! Roll up the windows!" First the monkeys scoured the car for every last crumb of wafer. Then they started in on pieces of the car, including the headlights, trim, siding, window liners, windshield wipers, and window-washing nozzles. The gamepark road was full of cars, and they were trapped. They couldn't go backwards, they couldn't go forwards. Gus could only bang on the inside of the top of the car and demand that they cease and desist.
I then learned from the nice Scots that monkeys are particularly fond of wiper fluid, drinking the toxic brew like vodka shots whenever they can. I also learned that apparently Gus is not the only American who treats rules like guidelines, and has invited this sort of depradation on his holiday rental car.
They followed up this story with one that may give me nightmares for years. Once, the keeper at the Safari Park had closed the Chimps in their enclosure so she could clean the island. But she was not as careful as she should have been with the lock. Monkeys are very clever, and look for every opportunity to escape when they can. Once she stepped away, the monkeys opened the door, and as a group set on her. Although blessedly they did not rip her limb from limb, as they have been known to do at other zoos. Instead, they chewed her fingers off. All of them.
One minute I was sitting at dinner with a lovely sweet Scottish family, and the next minute a woman's hands were bleeding flesh-mitts.
So I should have learned my lesson and told Bill "No, thanks honey," when he offered a lovely hike today. He had been scouring the Michelin guide, apparently unthwarted by Gerard's tales of tidal waves, angry truffle-mad landowners, the start of hunting season and viper bites. After a quiet month of doing not much at all, Bill's hiking hunger finally unleashed itself with a vengeance, and led us to a hike up a mountainside to visit some monoliths.
He led us past Salernes to a nondescript parking space along the road I had driven a dozen times. We started up a rocky path onto the hillside. Once again, the view behind us was stunning: verdant hills and earthen farmhouses tucked into their sides. Purple-blue mountains rose up behind the hills. The sun was moving in and out between clouds and sky, showing off with lots of sunbeams and mottled light-and-dark patches on the landscape below.
As we climbed higher, the mountainside was dry and scrubby, all loose gravel, yellow sand and ochre rock. Again, a moonscape, not a landscape. Abigail found a rock with the obvious outline of a stone snail, her first fossil. We walked past a dip in the earth, rocks piled around a place four feet by seven feet that had been dug out a few feet deep. It was now filled in with plants, but was still an unmistakable shape. A few yards higher, there was another, then another and another. Pit after pit surrounded by piles of rocks, sitting in this barren moonscape of hill. First we were on a sweet little hike. Now we were walking through a bleak rocky path past shallow graves.
We tried to come up with other possible interpretations for the holes. Perhaps there were stone carvings in each of these pits, Bill suggested, but they had been taken to a museum. I thought briefly that these were the abandoned foundations of little shepherd huts. But then there were just way too many of them.
By the time we got to the top of the hill, and the eerie laid-out rock circle altar, I was pretty sure. There was a sign at the top that reinforced my worst fears: not only was this an ancient burial ground, it was An Ancient Burial Ground. Like 2,500 years before Christ Ancient. Like same time as the Egyptians Ancient. It had been discovered and excavated in the 1950's by a curious pharmacist in Salernes (apparently, super-smart Pharmacists are everywhere in France.)
This was all quite fascinating and interesting, and I took a few photos to post on Facebook. However, all this creepy dead people ancient-ness hadn't fazed the girls, who were competing in their usual triathalon of whining, complaining, and lagging behind looking for sparkly rocks and more fossils. The reference on the sign to Ancient Egypt caught Grace's attention, but it was the group of men, walking around their trucks not to far away from the top of the hill, that caught mine.
You know that thing about how if I were an animal, I would be a sheepdog? Well, just as I had
dreaded the rabbit death just a few seconds before I could actually have prevented it, I started to be just the tiniest bit concerned about the truck guys off in the distance. Here we were, in the ancient Neolithic Burial Ground, which was creepy enough. What if it were also someone's private property, and perhaps they weren't that excited to have us there? I called to Bill, trying to get my three little sheep herded up and started back down the hill. It was, after all, the first day of hunting season. They ignored me for a good long time, as they are wont to do, until a whine not unlike a dying rabbit's started to enter my voice. Time to go home. Now. Like RIGHT now. I mean it.
They had started to walk towards me when we heard the first gunshots. Close. Now, not only were we in a scary old place with ancient graves, but also, people were shooting at us. Or at least shooting very near us. Bill reasoned that we were all wearing bright red and pink. I "reasoned" back that that was fine, but that we were on someone else's land, and that someone was now shooting guns. It was time for them to come with me, and I couldn't really wait for Bill to decide that was the best thing to do. Last time it had taken him forty minutes to come to his senses and come rescue us. This time, I was not waiting.
It’s probably not a great idea to actually run down a mountain of scrabbly, loose gravel and rocks. It's also probably not a great idea to scare one's children unnecessarily. I had no actual proof that we were being shot at, as opposed to shot near. But there is a fine line between pastoral and disastoral. I had crossed it on the beach waiting for Bill to beat the lightning; then crossed it again as the cute farm animal turned into a parapalegic, then into dinner; then re-crossed back and forth several times during our bloody, death-tinged dinner time conversation. This time, on the way down the hill, I would merely skate along its edge, moving my little family as fast as our feet could carry us without breaking our own legs, without being swept against the walls of the canyon, without having our ears shot off as a warning from the crazy sheep farmer, without our car ripped to bits by monkeys drunk on wiper fluid, or without our fingers being chewed off on Chimp Island.
Only when we were in the car, could I turn on the music, roll up the windows, and exhale completely. And only once we drove into the driveway, could I joke with Bill: "We just got shot at in a Neolithic Graveyard."
We decided to spend the rest of the evening close to home. We were out of groceries, down to some rice, a hunk of Camembert and a few slices of wild boar sausage. But I had had enough adventure to last me the day. Yes, I am a caution freak, but perhaps am not-so-secretly exhilarated by that line between what is lovely and what is dangerous. Without any danger (and without Bill’s nose for adventure) I am merely a sheepdog wishing endlessly for her belly to be rubbed.
For tonight, however, bring on your caution. I am hoping for a peaceful night’s sleep.