Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Traveling South By Laurence L. Murphy, Illustrations by Deirdre SheeanGo Back to the Table of Contents
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The barking of a dog woke me. It was dawn and the river, I saw now, had an island in the middle. The sun was up on the dew of the fields, and a dog, a collie, ran through the field, his voice was crisp with the dawn and winged in the morning. Some people were walking up on the road and they called down ‘bon matin!’ I greeted them back, packed up my things and headed up the bank to the roadside. There a young man driving an old truck, stopped.

He was a florist who was delivering tulips to Toulouse, the capitol of the central south near Albi. Toulouse was Toulouse Lautrec’s home city, as well as the medieval capital of the cult of mystics, the Cathars, who were ruthlessly suppressed by Northern Knights, their lands appropriated. It had become a guild city famous for its aura of red brick and stone.

The man’s wife was Dutch and he was in love with Amsterdam. He had lived in Canada, but it was Holland, like his wife, which was his first love and he spoke of the excitement of living there, and how, ever since, he had made a living out of Tulips. The countryside, after a flash of shy beauty in the morning, suddenly turned flat and sad under a brownish yellow sun and now we were outside Toulouse where the florist shop was.

Traveling south, things had changed. It was not just the character of mountains and plains and the contrast of deciduous woods to mountain pine, but the feel had changed as if the south was a special place, one more in tune with the sun than the moon. The moon was a nuance in the south, a close star intended only to light festivals at night, and if it rained in the evening you did not think of the moon, but only of the clouds that would hide the sky in the morning. Cities in the south were different too. They seemed more landed, as if they had sprung from the ground like earthen plants or pottery. The day was the promise of the south and what man had built was secondary to sheer light. The south was illumined by sun only, and time moved in an arc. The cities died at noon in siesta, and even the traffic wilted with shame under this evidence of sun and earth. Walking into the bright red brick of Toulouse at high noon was to walk into a ochred illusion, almost frightening.

I was exhausted from the uneasy sleep beneath the willow. The city looked a savage place where a future generation, both afraid and awe struck, sheltered from a hostile and inexplicable world composed of both brutal and catastrophic possibilities. There was an island park in the middle of the river, spanned by connecting red stone bridges, and I walked there, lay down by the river and slept in the savage sun.

I dreamt of what it would be like in Ibiza when I saw my friends, and I dreamt of falling in love in some Rousseauean way in which all was sun and earth and primitive splendor. I dreamt of love as loneliness does, as a space where nothing is taken for granted, least of all others; where only love can hold substance together from fragmentation; a space where every moment is vulnerable. I dreamt of the kind of love one gets lost in to keep oneself from getting lost altogether. I woke in late afternoon and walked into a cafe and ate looking out over the desolate, frightening, red dust of the city.

Toulouse is an ancient city. They had found coins here which dated back to 200 BC Conquerors of the city had included such type as Alaric II, Clovis and Charlemagne. It was haunted by the religious crusades undertaken against it. It was also the home of a doubtful victory in which Napoleon’s field Marshall Soult had faced and defeated Wellington, a moral victory for the French, who lost in the vicinity of 2,000 men to the allies 4,400. Napoleon, however, had abdicated the week before. The result was 6,400 dead for nothing.

I walked back to the park and slept again, weary in the sun, and when I awoke it was nearly evening. I drew a sign on the back of a large artist’s tablet I kept for writing. The sign said: Espagne. I took my sign and walked to the outskirts of the miraged city which then looked like a cold shimmering hallucination under a steamed sun which was now setting on the mountainous horizon.

I got a ride from a man who had fought in the French wars in China and Vietnam and who spoke English. He would not talk to me at length about the wars, nor the countryside. He brought me to a small road where a Parisian businessman who kept a country home in the foothills of the Pyrenees gave me a ride. The businessman was going there to meet his mistress, and now it was evening and the businessman brought me to a small town just inside the cloak of mountains. There was to be a fair in this town that evening.

I got out by a bend in the road and heard the band music, then saw people gathering in the gaudy lights and the glow of dazzling Christmas tree florescence, made strange by being outside, so that when the light rain fell it seemed as if it were drizzling inside a ballroom. There were cotton candy arcades, ferris wheels, and the smell, which is memory itself, of deep fried vegetables, meat and fish sometimes mixing with the smell of wind from the mountains. Soon it became impossible to walk in the crowd, now trumpets and drums, young girls majoretting, now pausing for a special display of baton twirling, and I made my way to a hill top to a place in front of the town’s Cathedral where arcades, wheels of chance, shooting galleries were lined up and milling crowds were cotton candied and flush with excitement. Down from the hill I found a hotel titled l’Alliance Franco Castillian. I was getting close to Spain. I did not know how close until morning.

The flavor of the town was fresh with festival, the cafes packed, rendezvous’ being kept, liaisons made and broken, and the streets quiet now after parade, littered and confettied, jute boxes keeping their own pulse, wine drunk and spilled, the age of the crowd growing older with the hour.

I bought saucisson and good bread and drank too much at a cafe, until the people I had met traveling south became, in my memory, a collage of personalities - each one encountering my personality - each with our separate stories - intersecting one another in time-a collage of light burning out into darkness as the night disappeared into a daze of dark wine. By morning, leaving the town, I had a headache in the bright morning sun. I had drunk too much in the night and now the landscape remained vapid, like the headache, until way up into the mountains. A Basque hunter, his truck heavy with traps and guns, had given me a ride through the foothills and then a family vacationing from Paris brought me into high country.

They had pulled over with great flair and fuss, and I did not realize they had stopped for me for they were unpacking suitcases and taking them from the back seat, reshuffling them into the trunk and it was not until all was arranged that they waved for me to join them. There was a son of about twenty and a young girl of about 10, and I sat in the back seat with her and her mother and suitcases. They were from a section of Paris just south of Montparnasse and the young girl said she did not like Paris any longer because it was dirty. The young girl said that I did not have much of an American accent, and this being a compliment made me proud, though they asked why Americans drove cars that looked like boats. I pointed out that many French cars were big. They said that was different because the bigness of French cars had a point, but that American cars looked big just for the hell of it. I could not explain my country’s fascination with the great size of things, so I didn’t try. The father drove fast enough to be reckless in this terrain, his son was navigating in the front seat next to him, and the mother back seat driving next to where I sat. We were really up in the mountains now. They were going to visit Andorra; the mountain-island country at the very heart of the Pyrenees.

Now the mountains were high and green, the landscape looking stitched by great pines and the young girl pointed to a mountain which she said was no longer in France. I had not been out of France for three years and my morale lifted, suddenly believing that I would in fact see the paintings I had come for. They let me out where the road divided in the direction of Andorra.

All the traffic was headed for Andorra and the road south was deserted. I walked miles down the road south, to where it balanced high over the edge of a cliff. There was a sign warning to watch for sheep, and a waterfall fell in a twisting slash down the mountain deep into the valley below. The cliff dropped for what seemed a mile, the road beneath a line of ink. Clouds bumped into the mountain, the air was chilled, and then there was a fog of dense white. Coming out of the fog, without having moved, it felt as if one had been displaced by miles. Then I knew it was a cloud that I had been in. There was nothing separating you from the sky, and in places it was raining below in the valley, or if it was raining on you, you looked up to where the cloud broke, and could see the mountain top where it was sunny, and below where other clouds concealed the earth. The clouds might part at your nose to reveal the cascade of falls twisting over the edge of the cliff and disappearing into a mist on the valley’s floor. It seemed as if here earth and sky met and danced for a little while. The earth was melting matter struggling in the ether against the cold processes of nature. One felt composed of both earth and air, the conversion of oxygen from these tree and water from this sky, as much a part of you, and you of it, as a feature or aspect of your body. One’s body was earth, air, and elements only. I have never felt this way in cities. Life there is structured, or scared by time, like Spanish cities with a history of toil and heartbreak coupled with character hard won, so that it seems this character is laid down with the stones in the street. But the mountains were movement and process beyond time, a breaking down and building up in sheer indifference, and there remains evidence of time’s metamorphosis in mountains: outcrops of strata from the earth’s core, former sea beds melted and burst into upheavals so sudden entire eons are preserved in layered stone. Sometimes staggering strata house the fossils of ancient species impressed in the sedimented-silk screen of prehistoric seas. Then the mountains are a mausoleum built by the undercurrents of an earth caught up in fire. Mountains are the thrones of the earth, and at night, they are defiant, even as the stars reflect remote, darkling, sometimes extinct, constellations. In the oceans of night time can even condense into black holes where it is absorbed. Then in darkness and luminous refraction, the earth itself is only a dream of matter and motion against a backdrop of night. Then the mountains remind us we are only an appearance passing, the earth itself held still in this night like an embankment holds water, like hand holds hand, or as mind holds image and memory.

I thought I would have to sleep there on the cold mountain. There were no cars. A goat made an appearance on the mountainside and stared at me with great wonder.

I could see a van wind through the scribble of road below from at least four miles away. It traveled distantly through the valley, climbing to where, like some Gulliver, I stood alone with the goat. As the van came nearer I saw it was painted up with floral designs, and the driver had a flower in his hat.

They were Germans hippies and they were not going anywhere in particular. They had been driving around in the mountains for days. Just driving. They spoke some English, and I spoke some German, and through the jumble of each other’s languages we decided they would take me to where the road flattened out into a valley by the border. I thanked them and we rode for miles through the mountains in absolute, stunned, silence.

I got out of the van and the pines had smoothed out into valley shrub and it was suddenly hot, the shrubed trees alive with the call of birds in the evening and insect clatter. The Germans turned around and disappeared back up into the mountains. I was still in France, but the land seemed Spanish, or at least south, and there was a railroad here in the valley. I began walking in the lush of the place alive with sound and the smell of the valley intoxicating and warm after the hard cold smell of the mountains. I started hitchhiking, thinking of the paintings which had caught time and perception in a moment of light. Then a car’s headlights were suddenly blinding, and the car stopped.

It was a French family going across the border to Spain for a fiesta that evening. I sat in back with their daughter who would not look at or speak to me and then we were at the border and they thought it a better idea that I walk across. Border guards are sensitive concerning multi nationals in one automobile. The daughter frowned at me. She had me typed as a vagabond and probably worthless. I thanked them and went to a bank to exchange money.

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