I’ve noticed this about travel: most of the truly knock-down incredible experiences arise when spontaneity is encouraged to take the wheel. For this to happen, a would-be adventurer has to get his or her itinerary-hugging ass out of the way; i.e., avoid making too many (or in my case almost any) plans or designs.
Case in point: yesterday as my farmer host, Louis, was giving me a walking tour of the fields and animals and wooded pathways around his beautiful farm, we wound up in a conversation about the importance of preserving some of the wild places that benefit everyone just by being there. During our talk Louis casually mentioned that a few dozen kilometers to the south lie the remnants of the ancient Bretagne forest of fairy tales, Druid lore, and Arthurian legend. When something fires up my imagination and cranks the curiosity dial up to 11 I tend to fixate, so I immediately chucked my plans to return to Rennes the next day and began researching this exciting new wrinkle in my wanderings.
The Paimpont Forest, which engulfs the small village of that name, is widely believed by literary scholars and country folk alike to be the remnants of Broceliande, the mystical forest of legend. The long-horned stag once hunted for sport by royalty and noblemen stills runs and is hunted here, but most visitors these days are hunting other sorts of weirdness. Bizarre tales of Broceliande have circulated in literature and folklore for 1000 years, perhaps most famously in the tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. The mythic figure, Merlin the sorcerer (wizards, dude), is said to be buried in the forest in a wizardly sort of way, which according to legend means imprisonment for eternity inside a stone by the spell of a vengeful sorceress. I guess wizard life can be a 1st class bitch some times, and apparently so can a vengeful sorceress. Others believe that Merlin actually lived, was an arch Druid, and is really buried with his wife under the monolith known as “Tombeau de Merlin.”
When I announced my intention of making the 25 mile round trip to Paimpont on foot, my good, kind hosts were not fans of the plan. Concerned about my being out on the hilly, winding rural roads at night, they urged me to accept a ride. Mule-brained beast that I am, I refused, begging them to let me have a bicycle to indulge my fascination with getting to amazing places via the forces of my own muscle and bone and butt cheeks. Paragons of classic French countryside hospitality that they are, they tweaked up an old mountain bike for me, extracting my promise to be off the roads before nightfall, and I lit out across the gorgeous, rolling countryside of Brittany, a pedal-bound Evel Knievel bound for the forest primeval (DiSanto, you shameless bastardizer of your mother tongue…).
(Not long into my ride, I learned there are campsites in Paimpont Forest, at which point I would’ve been gone like a turkey in the French corn if not for the facts that 1) I’d left my camping gear in the caravan and 2) I’d left my hosts stoking a wood fire over a great iron cauldron for the purpose, I was told, of dispatching- with deepest gratitude, respect, and humaneness – a couple of the farm’s duck denizens on that Last Great Ride to the dinner table).
After pedaling around the slumbering village of Paimpont, digging the ancient Abbey, and eating lunch at a creperie that was one of maybe 3 open businesses, I explored Broceliande, focusing on these 2 storied sites:
1) “Fontane de Jouvence” (The Fountain of Youth )
Used by Druids for baptism rites, the waters were purported to restore youth to anyone willing to swill this (now) stagnant murk. Being as I am a specimen in the vigorous prime of its animal dynamism, I didn’t bother even to dip a toe. More interesting to me was a strange site adjacent to the fountain, a clearing surrounded by high, reddish, naturally occurring stone walls. On the floor of the clearing visitors had built hundreds of small, cairn-style mounds of stones, and inside almost all of them were buried slips of paper with messages (Wishes? Prayers? Dirty limericks about horse-hung men and deep-throated women?) scrawled on them. It was spooky. Curious, I unearthed a bunch of them; I won’t be surprised if tonight in my caravan I am visited by a delegation of pissed off Druid ghosts hell bent on settling my hash and whomping my wagon. I couldn’t translate the inscriptions from the French, but one of them was clearly a prayer for the recuperation of the writer’s father from illness. A few of them mentioned the name, “Merlin.” Which brings us to
2) “Tombeau de Merlin” (Merlin’s Tomb)
I tried to sketch it. It didn’t work out. Don’t ask to look at the sketch. You can’t. Look at the photos.
Bouncing the mountain bike back over the stony trails and deeply rutted, ass-walloping logging roads, I got to thinking about the medieval chronicler quoted in the Wikipedia article I posted yesterday who, unconvinced and disappointed by his visit to Paimpont Forest, wrote, “I went as a fool and came back as a fool.” Me too, but I don’t think that was his problem, given that in this life every one of us comes and goes in that same damn way. The chronicler went and came back, maybe, as the wrong kind of fool, the kind who designates and dismisses certain modes of reality as “foolishness” and then grumbles, sulks, and generally gets bummed out when he finds them that way. But myths are more than just stories about things that probably never really happened anyway: they are important. They did happen. They are happening now.
The great mythologist Joe Campbell, one of my heroes, taught that (forgive my clumsy paraphrase, Joseph) myths are forever animated, sort of living maps of human experience, of the archetypal hero’s journey through life that each of us signed up to go waltzing Matilda through the day we were conceived (The Big Boink Theory). I think of myths as multi-faceted, prismatic crystallizations of the human journey, reflecting back at us our many roles in The Great Holy Hullabaloo and World Variety Show Revue (whew).
Besides, I’m not at all convinced there isn’t some genuinely weird presence hanging out in those primordial thickets. As I sat on a stump beside Merlin’s Tomb, hacking away at my doomed sketch, a couple tourists approached with a beautiful white dog; I think it was one of those Alaskan kinds. As soon as they walked it near the monolith, the dog began to whine desperately and strain at its leash to get away from that place. It’s owners made several attempts to approach the site, but the dog reacted the same way every time, and eventually they gave up and left.
A few minutes later, still ham fisting my way through my Hindenburg of an illustration, I was startled by a deep snuffling and grunting sound in the trees, the kind of noise a large mammal might make, which is the kind of noise it was. An older gentleman and his female companion emerged from the woods, the man grunting, stomping the earth, and sniffing the air like a bear. He had long, straight white hair and a long white beard and carried a walking stick. (Friends, I shit you not). I chuckled and smiled at them, and they responded the same way. Still snuffling, grunting, and stomping, the man rounded the tomb and approached me, speaking en Francais in a rich, mellifluous voice: “Do you speak French,” in response to which I got to bust out my best-used French phrase, “I do not speak French.” He nodded kindly and indicated that he’d like to see my sketch, and I balefully agreed, then lowered my head to erase one of the drawing’s many tragic lines. When I looked up again, I was alone in the clearing. Wizards, dude.