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gravel roads feature

gravel roads and friendly odes

gravel roads and friendly odes
words x paul lott
photos x cédric bonel
Change was arriving on cue, blown in on a stiff westerly breeze. The secondary colours of summer were being overtaken by primary hues of red and yellow that radiated a false sense of warmth amongst the elongated shadows of the forest. The first leaves to lose their grip spun to the muddied floor below while a ladybug clung tightly to my shoulder as we ran, eager to make the most of her short time in a giant world. Mossy roots and steep climbs broke the rhythm of our footsteps, providing time to reflect on the simple luxury of filling our lungs with damp, peaty air on a Wednesday afternoon.

Tranquil sounds of the forest were pleasantly interrupted by childish giggles and nervous adult laughter as a battalion of four year olds marched past on a technical section of single track, their confidence padded by a lack of experience not equated to that of their wiser guides. An exchange of waist level high-fives and eye to eye reassurance was all we could offer them for the downhill section ahead, an undertaking certainly more terrifying for the adults than for their fearless troop of twenty three-foot adventurers.
As we neared the pinnacle of our run, a steady pace slowed to a stroll, breathing leveled and made space for conversation. We discussed the similarities between ourselves and the dirty, yet gleeful faces we’d just past. On a field trip of our own, we shared their wide-eyed bewilderment as we soaked in the vibrant flora and struggled to find our footing amongst the uneven terrain. A mixed feeling of privilege and naughtiness crept over us as we thought of our colleagues toiling over emails and spreadsheets while we lost ourselves to the forest. Somewhere not far away, desks sat unattended, chairs cold, coffee mugs unfilled. Meetings postponed, deadlines pushed back.

Responsibility was absent from our to-do list, nudged off by more important decisions of which trail to take first or what backcountry road would give us the best sunset panorama. With one of us actively recovering from forty two point two kilometers of World Major effort and another gearing up for an ultra trail race the weekend following, compromises of distance and terrain were taken into account to keep everyone’s morale high and legs happy.
Despite a variance in the kind of running retreat we individually sought, a few common threads tied us together.
we all desperately needed to switch off, move our bodies, fill our lungs with fresh air and bellies with good food.
One of us in particular just wanted to drink good beer and brew coffee the old-fashioned way; a proposition left unchallenged. The only semblance of stress we had came through trying to remember whether or not swimsuits made it on our packing lists. Even though we were close friends, it was agreed that the hot tub at our chalet might be a bit small to accommodate this kind of oversight, regardless of how much beer or wine we decided to drink.
The sun took a hiatus behind the clouds and was reluctant to return. After a quick lunch, we traded technicolor mountain trails for a shadowless stretch of gravel road lined with fields primed for harvest. We were grateful for a more predictable running surface that allowed us to properly digest the beauty of our surroundings, albeit quite drab and monochrome. Far in the distance, a white manor with four chimneys stood in solitude on a hillside. The adjacent barn, aged and inconspicuous, would have been easy to dismiss had it not been for two windows burning orange on its dull facade. It reminded me of the face of a wiry old man, eyes wild, harboring stories and secrets dying to be shared. As we neared the manor’s winding drive, an elegant Scottish Deerhound the same color as the sky, came bounding down to meet us. Behind her, a man beckoned us to pay a visit.

The warmth of his greeting helped dispel the chill in our bones, but a generous offer of hot tea ridded us of the cold altogether. He retreated to the barn only to return moments later with a tray of biscuits and antique China still steaming as if he’d been expecting us. His wide eyes and round glasses, windswept hair, and nervous energy suggested he was the man in the barn windows, yet far younger and less cantankerous than I had imagined. We stood huddled together in conversation, sipping from teacups wrapped tightly in bare hands. A dog far too tall and equally unaware tried to maneuver between my legs. Our host adjusted his glasses on his crinkled nose and looked upward at the swirling clouds, forecasting that this evening’s sunset would be nothing short of magical. I was reluctant to believe his summation.
With one hand scratching behind the ears of his lanky companion, he used the other to point across the road to a field where he claimed the best sunset views were to be found. Beyond, mountains painted with autumn’s palate tore at a grey sky, forming blue cracks that poured pale light onto the flats below. This gave us less reason to doubt his premonition, so we kindly thanked him for his unexpected hospitality and decided to make a move towards the proposed vantage point.

As we helped him gather the tray of crumbs and empty cups, he inquired about our dinner plans to which we responded with shoulders shrugged. He offered a suggestion with a wry smile, acknowledging that the best restaurant in the village was closed, but didn’t necessarily have to be. He tsked and motioned to his gentle giant to follow him back towards the barn, but she defied, opting to be our guide instead. As we walked down the drive, he yelled into the wind to say he’d make a call to the restaurant on our behalf. He sealed our visit with a wave and a promise to see us later.

Dust lingered in the air from a passing vehicle as we crossed the narrow gravel road. A small herd of cows raised their heads, chewing slowly. As we searched for a safe spot to crawl under the electric fence, a bull, most perturbed by our presence, asserted his dominance by goring an old tire and simultaneously emitting both a terrible sound and smell out of opposite ends. We’d reached a non-negotiable impasse.

Not far down the road, our guide waited patiently by a navigable section of fence, separate and safe from the beast not even Thesus would have dared to challenge. With angry bellows fading, we crawled under a thin wire and climbed to the top of the hill just as the sky began to open up. I held three fingers to the horizon to measure how much light we had left.
the paddock wasn’t conducive for running, even though the setting itself was a painting. we channeled our inner child and took turns sprinting and leaping over cow patties only half dried.
I could sense the bull in the far field staring and praying for a miscalculation. He didn’t have to wait long.
The countryside was now blanketed in spun gold. Moisture hanging from elongated blades of grass captured the entire sun into individual droplets. Atop a large pile of fallen wood stood our protector and guide, the sunlight adding radiance to her regal and elongated features. We took a pause from our childhood games to appreciate the unfolding scene and to reflect on the reasons that had led us to this particular time and place.
stepping away from our busy lives mid-week had proven in only a few short hours to be exactly what we needed to recalibrate our minds and shed life’s many stressors.
The four of us stood silently, face forward into the sun, absorbing its warmth and releasing our anxieties like dandelions in a breeze. Then, without warning, the sunlight vanished. We instantly snapped out of our euphoria and stared at each other underwhelmed and disappointed. Like a power outage during the final scenes of an enthralling movie, the sun fell behind the clouds once more. In shared disappointment, we gathered our belongings and prepared to head back to the car. I noticed a thin strip of cloudless sky hovering just above the mountain tops and suggested that it might be worth hanging around for five more minutes.

After the sixth minute, cold and hungry, our bellies made the final call and we started to retreat across the paddock. As we navigated through a minefield of digested grass and feed, I caught a shimmering half crescent growing out of the corner of my right eye. Within a few moments, the lost sun vibrantly erupted. Pyrotechnic flows of orange poured down the mountains, into the valley, and across the clouds above. We cheered and danced to nature’s silent disco until the last light was lost to Earth’s incessant spin.
A short meandering through dark country roads brought us to a quiet village, lights turned low with the exception of our destination. Standing in front of a door that bore a sign that read, “closed on Wednesdays”, was a familiar face smiling to greet us once again. Our host ushered us in on a red carpet of kindness and kept promises, a welcomed turn of events for four exhausted and famished runners. We spent hours laughing and telling stories, sharing charcuterie boards and over-poured glasses of wine. How we became the recipients of such generosity remained unbeknownst to us. However, this random act of kindness at the hands of a stranger we’d just met while running along a lonely gravel road accentuated the purpose of our time together. We weren’t only here to run. We were here to prioritize the self, absorb the beauty of our surroundings, and most importantly, reconnect with the friends who add solace and substance to our individual journeys through life.
about the author
paul lott is an ultra-runner, environmentalist, and educator. follow his journey on instagram.
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