For years I refused to have a dog because I assumed it would tie me down. Trap me. Limit my freedom. Then I fell in love with Mud Mountain and my ardour for the road evaporated. “Might as well have a dog,” I said, “I’ll be here at least ten years.”
Ha! How unpredictable the autoroutes of fate. How quickly they twist from the expected to the unimaginable.
My dog was never a tie. She was an inspiration.
As we pulled out of the port town of Saint Malo, happily hugging the right-hand lane again, the horizon blushed pink. Dawn filled the French sky with strawberry dreams. Beside me on the passenger seat, the crusty heads of a baguette and a tarte aux pommes poked out of paper bags. My co-pilot Rotty ignored them. She had more important things on her mind. Her nose was pressed against the passenger window drawing translucent streaks onto the glass.
I glanced at the back of my dog’s head, the fur running in perfect rivulets between her ears, and I marvelled at it all. Because do you know what? If truth be known, I’ve never really liked motorhomes. Too cramped. Too modern. Too technological for a mud witch like me. Formica worktops and vanilla décor. All this squeezing past this to get to that. No. It’s never appealed. I’ve always travelled light, with a rucksack. Free as a bird flitting from this place to that.
There is only one reason I am motoring round Europe rather than backpacking. Only one place the idea actually emerged from. My dog.
Last year, as my journey across Europe dragged itself out of the fog of dreams and into the forecourt of a plan, I realised I needed an automobile of some description. Planes are stressful for animals. Coaches generally won’t carry them. Many guesthouses don’t accept dogs, and if they do you pay extra for the privilege.
One idea led to another. My mind took the clay form of a car into its synaptic hands and molded it into a van. The van grew bigger, higher, and eventually became a small motorhome. I watched the advantages of a home on wheels stack up: Accommodation is pricey in Europe. It was an inexpensive way to live and simultaneously travel.
Now at last here we were, driving en France, stone farmhouses rolling across verdant croplands. orchards and cobbled villages flicking by like something snipped straight out of Jean de Florette. I gasped as the pastures of Brittany parted for us. The sun scudded into the sky, gilding the fields and the leafless trees. Foot pressing lightly on the gas pedal, I wallowed in the singular contentment one feels when faced with an empty highway and fantastic weather.
Ah c’est belle la France, quoi?
The autoroute signs flashed overhead; Rennes, Nantes, La Roche sur Yon. The days flashed by likewise. Sometimes my Sat Nav knew the way. Sometimes it didn’t. Whenever I got lost, I would stop at a patisserie to ask directions, while stocking up on croissants and Paris Brest.
But it was cold, and our holy grail was warmer weather. Thus we chugged on, past Rochefort, Bordeaux, and through the forests of Gascogne. We overnighted in campsites with frozen water pipes, in muncipal car parks, at the edges of icy lakes decked with mallards and herons. It was an adventure. And I loved it.
As we motored toward the Atlantic coast, my heart brimmed with happiness. I thanked my dog; for the company, for the home on wheels, and for setting me free. She was my constant in a year of upheaval. The being I spent most time with, day in, day out. The love she inspired within me, amazed me. We understood each other better, and spent more quality time together than a good many couples. For there are no words with an animal, no lies and few expectations, only patient observation. And an unwavering by-your-sideness that is arresting.
Pulling into Mimizan, I parked by the seafront and inhaled the strange cerulean of the Atlantic. Surf shops littered the coastline. Barnacles and mussels gripped the black backs of the rocks. Suicidal waves hurled themselves at the shore, splattering into a lather. Rotty pushed her ears back and ran into the freezing wind. She rolled on the frost-coated sand, while the tide of destiny pulsed.
Yes, little did I know that late January morning, but a dark seed had germinated within my dog. Little did I know, her kidneys were weak, the Leishmania parasite poised. Little did I know within three weeks I’d be cradling her in my arms as she took her last, rasping breaths.
As I sit here in the future crawling through the darkness, gone are the pink skies of France. Gone are the golden hills and the holy grails. Now, the only thing I can see is my ignorance. If there is a road to be travelled it evades me. If there is a map, it’s out of date. For the Sat Nav of life has sent me somewhere I don’t want to be, to a place without light or sign posts, where platitudes are chewed on by the wolves of grief, and advice flails as uselessly as a paper sword.
I am lost.
Do I stop here? Reverse? Abandon the wheels and walk? I don’t know.
And neither does anyone else.
Except perhaps time.
Atulya K Bingham
"This is such a compelling book. It will make you want to abandon everything you know, move to the forest and commune with the trees and earth." Luisa Lyons, actor, writer and musician.
"Inspiring and beautifully written."
The Owner Builder Magazine.