It’s festival season in southern France. I was told to come here by my previous Workaway host, as I’d find the kind of chaos and drunken debauchery reminiscent of Pamplona during La Corrida in Spain. I was assured there’d be an abundance of wine, sleeping in the streets, and exuberant crowds wearing red and white.
Having planned poorly (aka, not at all), I arrive in Biarritz having just missed a festival, and not quite in time for the next and last one of the summer in Dax. Biarritz is lovely and I want to stay, but all of the hostels are booked solid, and couch surfers are apparently all worn out from the week’s prior overindulgence of alcohol. No hosts are accepting surfers.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, I find myself homeless in France. I’ve checked out of my hostel and no one responded to my emergency couch requests. It’s late afternoon, and the messieurs are hinting not-so-subtly I give up my table with free wifi and two empty glasses of beer, so they can start preparing for proper customers. The battery on my laptop is dead.
I run through my options. The small-town train stations close after 11pm and don’t open until 5am. I’ve seen homeless men camped along the public beach, but I’m not sure how I feel about sharing their company alone. I’ve googled the cheapest hotels I can find, but without a phone or a map, I have no guarantee of finding them.
Without a plan, I pack up my things and start walking.
I vaguely remember something about a coastal trail you can walk from Hendaye to Bidart. The route takes about a day, and Hendaye is 30 minutes away by train. If I start the walk towards the evening, I could probably guerrilla camp overnight without being noticed, and resume walking in the morning. This might be the only option I have left.
I’ve never done this before, and panicky thoughts start entering my brain. I run through worst-case scenarios — robbery, bears, rain. I’m not even sure if there are bears in this part of France, and I start to worry I haven’t done enough research on the potentially dangerous wildlife I might be sharing an evening with.
I dismiss this fear and quickly run through my limited French vocabulary, trying to determine how I would respond to one of these disastrous scenarios. “Bonjour, je voudrais un grand creme s’il vous plait…” and my mind goes blank. My ability to order a large coffee is astounding, but somehow learning the words “help” and “I’ve been robbed” have not been a top priority.
Possible bear attacks aside, I realize now’s the time to move. With my overstuffed, mustard-colored backpack and sloppy hair, I stick out like a sore thumb. I want to disappear before it gets too dark; before my movements attract unwanted attention and my vulnerability is exposed.
The timing is perfect. I hop off the train and walk towards the beach just as the sun begins to set. I walk past sand-covered tourists, past the seaside cafes, and up the hill. My plan is this: walk until 9 or 10pm, and then find a discreet place to unfurl my sleeping bag. Be as inconspicuous as possible. Survive. I don’t have a tent or even a Swiss army knife, but I made a stop at the local boulangerie and am fully armed with baguettes and cheese.
The trail winds itself away from the shoreline and meanders through the forest, bringing me past a beautiful chateau and wide open meadow. While I’m perched on a log having a picnic, a mounted police officer stops a few paces away, enjoying the view. I pretend not to notice. I move on nonchalantly and he follows. I can hear the clopping of the horse’s hooves in the near distance, and see hoof prints in the muddy trail ahead of me. It’s obvious the trail is patrolled.
I’m not sure what the laws are concerning camping without a permit in France, but I’m pretty sure it’s frowned upon. I think of what I’ll do and where I’ll go if I’m kicked out of the park, and my mind draws a blank. Hitchhiking in the dark, perhaps? Where would I go?
I walk faster, pausing momentarily to appreciate the last beams of sun bouncing playfully on the waves below. I laugh out loud. This is my life — here, right now, outrunning a mounted police officer and spending the night in the woods, alone in France.
All of my fear evaporates and I inhale the salty sea breeze. The adrenaline coursing through my veins flushes my cheeks with excitement. I look around and there’s no one there. Just me, all by myself, on the adventure of my life.