Day five. Final day of bicycling. Our ten year old’s pay-off day. Saint Benoit Parc Aventure and parcours acrobatics in a forest await. Yesterday, en route to Chinon, our destination, we detoured across the Loire to Langeais to see the crumbling Foulques Tower. All that remains from the fort used in a key battle fought in the year 994 between two dukes seeking control of the Touraine region is this tower or “keep.” Empty inside but for grass and the wooden catwalk that once lifted soldiers up to defend against attack, the tower is the oldest surviving fortress in France.
“This tower is how old?” Dain asked repeatedly. Battles like those he’d seen in videos were actually fought here. Right here. We saw this realization sinking in. This fortress tower was his bridge from fantasy to reality. We, his parents, are gatekeepers whose job is to lower or raise these drawbridges as we judge fitting.
Could we have crossed this bridge without riding bicycles? Sure. But, we like bicycling. Why? You weigh the cost of the effort, as Dain did when agreeing to ride the detour to the fort. Having paid the cost, you savor the reward. Along, of course, with the pastries.
We are staying in Chinon at Hotel Diderot (4 Rue de Buffon 02 47 93 18 87), or as Daiga likes to call it, “hotel of the many jams” for the more than two dozen homemade fruit preserves offered guests at petite dejeuner. Chinon is known for its wine, but also for the fortress made famous by Joan of Arc. In 1429, during the Hundred Years’ War, Joan of Arc traveled here to convince King Charles VII to fight the good fight and save France for the French. After a week of riding, eating and drinking in the Loire Valley, I am ready to celebrate that victory.
But today is our last day with the bikes. A sad day, a scary day, a happy day. The day starts with a hike, 8 km past the fort and through wine country above town, the while joking, “Want more baguette? Now? How about now?” Anxious to get to Parc Aventure, Dain starts asking “is it bon soir time yet?” the minute we mount our bikes. Bushwhacking backwards on the route to shave 34 km down to 12, we still only roll into St. Benoit shortly before five.
A sign proclaiming “Parc Aventure” is posted at the edge of an empty grassy field with the lamest possible BMX track. Really? This is it? The French idea of a joke? Even French kids don’t have this much sense of irony, surely.
Dain is more than crestfallen. I feel bad for him. Daiga is not going to let this happen. Spying a family walking an ad hoc trampled path into the nearby forest, she says, “Let’s follow them.”
Wow. Suddenly we are in a maze of zip lines and obstacle courses anchored off the ground in tall conifers. We listen to the sharp, metallic zing of wheels on cables. The audible grunt of effort. Way-to-goes shouted in French. The dusky forest all but blocks out direct sunlight. The aroma of fresh pine needles and resin mixes with climbing chalk and sweat and that peculiar coppery smell that is common to blood and fear. Are we about to face one of those surprises Daiga planned to avoid? Is this safe?
St. Benoit Parc Aventure has laid out fifteen parcours courses at progressive levels of difficulty, each level color-coded for easy identification no matter what language you speak. You start a course by climbing to platforms mounted on tree trunks. Along with zip lines, the courses include hanging nets, swinging cables that test balance, obstacles that dangle and tend to fly out from under your feet when you step on them. We are fitted with canvas harnesses, shown how to attach safety lines to zip lines. We climb. The heft of the harness straps is reassuring, but that doesn’t stop the quivery feeling in arms and legs. Daiga finds her bravery limit early on. Dain and I go higher, then higher still.
Your rational mind says, don’t be silly, what’s the worst that could happen? You slip, fall, dangle, and embarrass yourself. Your irrational self shouts, don’t go up there, this is crazy, then whispers, but wow, it sure looks exciting.
Two full stories and more above ground, Dain hits the wall of his courage. He is ahead of me. Much faster. Clipping and unclipping safety lines high up near the forest canopy can be daunting enough. It takes strength and agility to cross these obstacles. Dain calls down to his mom, “I’m scared.”
On the ground, Mom calls up, “You don’t have to do this one. Just climb down. It’s no big deal. You’ve already done enough.” I say nothing. I know how important it is for a boy to face down these moments. A choice must be made, and the choice he makes will stay with him for a long time to come.
Dain shouts down to Daiga, “Okay, I’m doing it.” He wiggles into the net, loses his balance, stumbles, claws his way out. Next obstacle, vertically dangling logs– you are meant to step on the cut tops. They spin out from under his feet. He nearly “falls.” Clutches the line above his head. Takes a breath. Musters strength. This time his wildly pedaling feet somehow manage to pull those logs back under him. He reaches the far platform. Unclips. Clips onto the zip line. Before launching that screaming slide, he looks back at me.
Wow. His surprise, that it could be this hard and this scary, even better, his discovery that he could meet the challenge and prevail, comes back to me as, “It’s pretty scary Dad, but you can do it.”
I call out, “je suis de soie,” and off I go.
The next day, after returning the bicycles and preparing to catch the train to Paris, I hear his words echoing back to me. Not, probably, as he meant them. “You can do it.” Yes, yes I learned that I can. I learned that the best adventure might just be the one filled with those little “je suis de soie” moments, moments that too often and too easily pass you by, that you really only notice when you slow down enough to take the time to be where you are.