I’m a big fan of loosely making, or making and then breaking, travel plans. It seems to me that the entire point of travel is openness: opening one’s heart to new sights, new foods, new places. And, more deeply, new relationships, new cultures, unforeseen adventures, surprises.
It’s tough to be open to surprises. To be sure, there are plenty of travel options in which we can go to a fairly secluded beach, eat all of our meals there, and interact with others very little. There are travel options that boast a fine schedule and menu, all featured in American English. No doubt, those vacations have merit, too. But, even if we do count them as this meaty, rich thing that is travel, I question if they’re fulfilling in the same way.
This past June, I went to France on a work trip that ended in Nice. I realized that, in Nice, I was merely hours away from the Gorges Du Verdon, an incredible gorge that lives up to its nickname as the “French Grand Canyon.”
I had to go. However, a few French connections and the trusty Trip Advisor all confirmed that the Gorges couldn’t be reached without a rental car. Public buses drive to the closest town, Castellane, but the Gorges is still too far to walk (unless you’re prepared to hike for a day or two) and too mountainous to bike.
For a number of reasons, including stick-shift skills that are poor at best, renting a wasn’t an option for me. Still, it seemed unwise to give up on the Gorges altogether (when was the next time that I was going to be within hours of the site?). I stubbornly plopped myself on a bus to Castellane and said a few prayers for luck.
In Castellane, the woman at the Tourism Office confirmed that, without a rental car, reaching the Gorges wasn’t possible. It became clear that I had three options:
1. Take a shuttle that would drive there the following day (I waited for it the next morning; it never came);
2. Walk 6-7 hours to the Gorges and walk the same distance back (there are no food/bathroom options en route);
3. Don’t go at all.
Headstrong, I resolved to have lunch in Castellane and try to beg a taxi driver (this would require first finding a taxi driver, which is not so easy in a French Medieval town) to drive me there that afternoon.
I was mulling this over on the cobblestone street when Denisa and Arava approached me. They were both my age, and they were traveling together; they also had come to Castellane to see the Gorges. They had a rental car, and they wanted to go white water rafting on the Gorges, but they needed a third person.
Oh, were they in luck. Oh, was I.
In the end, I ended up not just seeing the Gorges, but white water rafting in it and then paddle-boating in one of its lakes. It was a lucky break that Denisa, Arava and I ran into each other, and luckier still that they turned out to be two of the funnest, loveliest travel companions I’ve met to date. My “plan” –which was to show up in Castellane and hope for the best– worked. But I realize it could have just as easily gone the other way.
Sometimes, going with the flow and not having a plan works out brilliantly. Sometimes it ends up failing miserably. But, whatever the outcome, if you’re shown one gesture of kindness, if you lay your eyes on one beautiful thing, if you have your breath taken away by one simple taste of goodness, it all becomes worth it. Maybe, admittedly, testing one’s boundaries, taking a leap of faith, venturing out without a true plan, isn’t one big walk on the beach. But, then again, that’s travel.