It was a Dark and Stormy Night

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My daughter, then 8, my friend Cathy and her two daughters, 16 and 15, and I were heading for a small farmhouse bed and breakfast on a mountain top above Ornans, Valleé de la Loue, in eastern France. The plan was to crash before a planned side trip the next day into Bern, Switzerland to see the Mormon temple there. My traveling companions were Mormon, and we were, unbeknownst to me, doing the temple tour of Europe. It all seemed so casual at the time, how we went from place to place, all with Mormon temples. But I digress.

We had driven at 150 kph through Saumur, Usse, Blois, and other Loire destinations (all those places where one really would have liked to stop), and it was heading towards 11 p.m., or 2300 hours, as you prefer. We were fading, and even Galahad, our trusty red Peugeot station wagon, was wheezing a bit. We reached the top of the mountain without incident, a small town called Echevarne, and began to follow the signs for the B&B. The road changed from pavement to dirt (mud actually) and houses to forest. No problem, says we, we’re hardy Arizona ranch types, a bit of mud never hurt anyone. Did I mention it was raining? Not a lot, just enough to be atmospheric. So onward we plow, and soon come to a clearing, where I ask my friend Cathy (in her version of the story I was driving, but I know the real truth) whether we should turn around, go down into the town below, and find a little pension for the night. She effectively says, what, are you chicken? Then she hangs a right down the hill. Which was a long slope of mud.

At that point, Cathy says the strongest Mormon expletives that won’t cost her with the Bishop, we get to the bottom and we start trying to turn around. We turn around all right, and start to head back up the hill, only to slide backwards, and eventually, start to slide off a cliff. Everyone at this point is screaming except me, and that’s because my jaw had locked with body English, trying to keep the car on the road.

Finally, after a long slide, we end up with one wheel off the cliff, saved from teetering as if we were in a movie by the glutinous mud embracing the entire undercarriage of the car. At this point it is midnight in a dark, rainy forest. And it’s France, which closes at 5:30 (or 17:30, if you prefer), and reopens at 9 sharp.

I calm everyone down, we get out into mud up to our knees, shake the car to make sure we’re not journeying farther that night inadvertently, and decide (well, I do, and I’m sort of the leader as I speak some French) to settle down until dawn and go into town in the morning.

I end up behind the wheel, with Cathy in the front passenger seat. The girls indulged in the usual amount of jockeying for space in the back seat, and then proceeded to stay up all night telling werewolf stories, bandit-abduction stories, while Cathy illuminates her watch every five minutes. I went to sleep.

In the morning, I was shaken unceremoniously awake slightly before dawn, and we squelched down the logging road, for such it was, towards some unnamed downhill town. I fell twice in the first 40 meters, and had my sandals sucked right off my feet. As a side note, fresh mud feels really good between your toes on a morning walk in a rainy forest. One hundred meters beyond our car, there was a huge tree across the road. There was no way we could have reached the little town the signs led to, as we determined that was what we had been following – not signs for the B&B. Speaking of mud, much the worse for the stuff, we arrived in town where my adventure continued. Did you know the word for mud in French is boue? As in la boue. How come mud is feminine?

Monsieur to the rescue
Monsieur to the rescue

As I had the only (if limited) French in the lot, I called Emergency Services, and eventually ended up in a 3-way conversation with the police in Paris and a tow truck driver in the next town. I got everyone else tucked up into a small pension that was miraculously across the street. (I must have looked bad-the proprietor gave me a cup of espresso for free. In France!) Monsieur Avec Le Tow Truck (M. Mercadal, a wonderful man if you’re ever stuck anywhere in the Besaçon region of the Franche-Comte) arrived, swooped me into his truck, got me some more coffee, and away we went. I did my best to describe to him where the car was. He kept trying to turn off, and I kept saying “Non! Plus loin” (“no, farther”- well, sort of). We eventually retraced our steps of the night before and arrived in the aforementioned clearing, where M. Mercadal had the good sense to stop, unlike our heroines. He asked at the time if the forest was not beautiful, and I replied that it was, but it would be more beautiful when the car was liberated.

We walked down to Galahad (remember Galahad?), our little mudball of a car, and Monsieur was kind enough to retrieve fresh clothes (and wonder of wonders, the girls’ makeup case. He was their hero!). We determine that we will need a “tracteur” to remove Galahad from his predicament, and M. Mercadal whisked me off to a mountaintop town full of old French farmers. As he negotiated for the tracteur, one of the older gentlemen stepped up to le Tow Truck window and asked who I was. When I replied, “Je suis une stupide Americain!” he burst out laughing and introduced himself and everyone around us. I don’t know for sure, but I think that comment that got us a better rate on le tracteur

It was a procession of at least 20 cars, motorcycles and bicycles that wended their way back to the clearing, as Monsieur Avec Le Tracteur went down the slope to retrieve Galahad. Amid much scratching under berets, and smoking of cigarettes Galahad was attached to le tracteur. Monsieur then freed him with a mighty sqlooosh and dragged him back up to the clearing. Whereupon, M. Mercadal winched le car onto le tow truck, we bade adieu to everyone, and returned down the hill to Montgesoye where he dropped me off at the pension and continued on with Galahad for a checkup. Oh, and before we left the clearning, M. Mercadal repeated his query if the forest was not beautiful, to which I replied that it was lovely and I was glad to be here. He was much pleased that I appreciated the countryside, being a local boy.

Galahad was pronounced healthy (it had been feared that his steering was bent…yes, my French got a LOT better during this adventure). He was returned to us late that afternoon (was it really only one day?) and by that time, everyone else was up and it had been decided that, the area being really extremely lovely, we would bide a few days. My daughter and I had a wonderful time, talking with the innkeeper and his family in Franglish, watching soccer, and eating with them. We went out kayaking, where I managed to flip over in some of the coldest water in which I’ve ever had the pleasure of being immersed. We hiked. We enjoyed. The others hardly left their rooms. I am so sorry I cannot remember the pension’s name, because the owners were wonderful and it wasn’t a bad place to stay, if not deluxe. It’s at the foot of the hill from Echevarne, though. Phone booth across the street. Mind the mud!

It took a dark and stormy night to help me find one of the most beautiful places on Earth, the Valleé de la Loue in the Franche-Comte, nestled up against Switzerland. I surely hope to return there someday soon and look up Monsieur Avec Le Tow Truck. He surely can’t have forgotten us. I hope I’m still his stupide Americain. And if you say you’re going to “crash” some night, try not to be as literal as we were.

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