by Martin Dugard
The path down to Omaha Beach is paved and empty. From a bluff where the American cemetery spreads crosses and Stars of David in geometric precision, the trail winds through wrecked pillboxes and signs warning of wild boar danger. Pictures of D-Day show this area defoliated, the result of an Erwin Rommel directive to clear all brush and open unobstructed fields of fire. Now it's a tangle of trees and vines, overgrown save for the narrow strip of pavement and the occasional footbridge.
I step over a row of dunes onto Omaha Beach. I have read about what happened here since childhood - most of us have. I'd always imagined this moment would be like stepping into church - peaceful, thoughtful. But the French have known invasion for two millennia, and if every stretch of the country marking a battlefield or pivotal moment in history were declared sacred, there would be precious few places to stretch out and pursue their favorite passion - living the good life.
Which explains the sunbathers on Omaha Beach. And the couple in the dunes doing something surreptitious that causes the male to poke his head up every few seconds to make sure the coast is clear. And a distant spate of beach houses toward Pointe-du-Hoc, where Rangers famously scaled cliffs to knock out pillboxes. As far as I can tell, I am the lone American on Omaha Beach this afternoon. The rest, for some reason, go no further than the cemetery - and the only person remotely concerned with history. I stand on the hard sand of high tide, searching for a way to add proper reverence to this moment. I want to internalize Omaha Beach, see it in a way that will remove the sunbathers and wrestlers and condos; in a way that lets me touch history and wonder what it was like to crawl along the same sand under machine gun fire over 60 years ago. And so I run.
A Foreign Affair
Weeks ago, on my first run of this journey into France, I stumbled on the alpine waterfall above Annecy. It seems I have run the whole of France since. The flight from Los Angeles took 12 hours. The train from Zurich another five. Annecy is much like Tahoe - both are mountain resort towns on massive lakes - so I was relieved to find an affordable hotel during peak season. The room at Hotel du Lac was small, with a firm double bed and wooden shutters instead of curtains, and a view of the granite cliffs ringing Lac Annecy like thousand-meter castle walls.
I wanted sleep more than anything after finally arriving in this bastion of privacy. My body felt bloated from airplane food and drink, my legs felt without energy. Still, I forced myself to change clothes and head out for a run. Running after a flight is my cure-all for jet lag. It was almost 9 p.m., but a long summer's dusk meant the sun was a long way from setting.
I jogged slowly, pathetically. The streets were cobbled, without sidewalks, wide enough for exactly one car at a time. I aimed uphill, away from the lake. I wanted to find a forest and be alone on a trail through pines. I needed the solitude. I also needed the camouflage - I felt so weary that I fully intended to walk, and my ego wouldn't let me do so in public.
For all their reputation as lovers of food and drink, the French are an athletic people, given to long walks and an appreciation of the outdoors that demonstrates their world view that the right balance of food, drink, exercise and nature make for a healthy mindset. I wanted to fit in, and slouching along the lakefront lacked a certain joie de vivre.
The trail I found was an old cow path, though there were no droppings to indicate why it was still well worn. Most likely it's been used for centuries, dirt rubbed smooth and shiny until it will never grow over. As I climbed through the forest, I was revitalized. Following each twist and turn of the trail, I began to think about extending my run instead of cutting it short.
I passed a cabin with rock walls two feet thick and a wooden roof that had rotted and collapsed. The trail angled along the lip of a ravine and my footfalls became cautious. I heard water below, but the stream was nearly dry when I look down. The sound got stronger though, the vivid mental image of wisps of water bouncing off rocks and cold drops colliding with more cold drops and that curious personal calm that accompanies moving water. When I rounded a final corner, I looked up to see a cloud of mist dropping several hundred feet from a cliff above, resuming its former clear shape in a deep pool, then sneaking toward the downstream exit behind a moss-covered pine tree.
The long trip was forgotten. I stopped to stare - carrying a camera would only detract, images like this must be stored mentally - before turning for the leisurely downhill trot to the hotel. I showered, then ate ravenously at a cafe with a surly owner whose short-haired black mongrel loped table to table nosing for a handout. Pasta, chicken, mild curry, chilled white wine, then an espresso and a long walk before 12 hours of sleep.
I spent two days in the Alps. That little nook of Europe where France and Italy and Switzerland are, for all intents and purposes, one, offered green alpine meadows, cold streams and late-afternoon thunderstorms that left the air smelling clean and somehow made life tangibly richer. I went back to the cafe with the surly owner each night for dinner. Lunch was inevitably salami and tomato on a baguette with coke. The runs were rugged, always either uphill or down and never a flat to be found.
The Journey Continues
When I pushed on to Grenoble, an industrial city closed to the world for Bastille Day, France lost some of its luster. Like the United States, it encompasses a broad spectrum of topography and climate. After the splendor of the Alps, I meant to be open to whatever charms, however drab Grenoble offered. I meant to run the wide boulevards. But I dashed for the train station instead, aching to find again a place with personality. I took the train south to Avignon, stopped long enough to tour the former Holy See on a blistering afternoon, then took the train again to Marseille, then Aix-en-Provence.
I treated myself to a four-star hotel just because I feel like being luxurious for a night, then trot through Aix. From a deserted abbey, an a cappella chorus practices with the door open. Restaurants set out tables and chairs for dinner, which doesn't begin until 7. Fountains are more frequent than stoplights. The narrow streets are jammed with people, and I twist and turn as I jog and sightsee, before finally giving in and just walking. Aix is one of those cities where the run must be done at dawn or not at all. Too many people to let the stride open up. But it is beautiful, with pastel city walls the color of good mustard and a sky rented from Montana.
Back on the train. The plan is to head along the Mediterranean coast, then cross into Italy and spend the night in Rome. But the cars toward Nice and Cannes are crammed with beach-goers, so I head west, toward Bordeaux. Veering from the plan makes me feel heady, adventurous. I consider Spain, but decide I have begun a love affair with France and am bound to see it through. I mean to stop and see the ruins of the Roman aqueduct that shares my family name, but forget. The gentle rocking of the train as I pass through a land of rolling green hills, canals lined with sturdy trees and cathedrals shouting to be explored is mesmerizing. I get off the train again and again to touch history.
The country's reputation for being brusque was not borne out. Everywhere I went, the people were warm, patient with my lack of French, helped me honestly count out the proper amount for each purchase when I held out a fistful of francs. Everywhere I went, I was awash in history and beauty and wonder (by what miracle has this countryside escaped wholesale development?). Everywhere I go, I run. Long runs on unfamiliar terrain, judging distance only by my watch, but knowing that is not valid because I slow so often to sightsee or speed up to race pace when the trail or road unlocks my caution.
I dash north, to Paris, one of the world's great cities for runners. Forest-covered paths along the Seine lead from the Eiffel Tower around the bend toward the Louvre and onward to a place I have never been. The paths are along the main thoroughfares, but offset far enough to avoid fumes and traffic. The sensation is like running through a giant, very well maintained park. Running past Notre Dame, I glanced up at Quasimodo's belltower and down the quay where Inspector Javert's suicide in the most recent version of Les Miserables was filmed. Runners abound in Paris.
Yet I wanted to see more countryside, more history. And so it is that I find myself on Omaha Beach, slipping behind a dune to change into my running shorts. I keep my shoes and shirt in my pack, stash it all behind a bush, hope that a wild boar doesn't drag it back to his lair, leaving me to spend my remaining days in France bare-kneed and sweaty.
I trot down the hard sand of high tide, examining the sea wall where men once huddled awaiting the next charge, and the bluff from where metal rained down. The lay of the beach, once spiked with anti-tank obstacles, brings to life the image I've carved from history books. This is a place where history was salvaged from the prospect of centuries of madness, though now it seems like just a beach. I swim when I'm done, and can't shake the feeling that my workout is somehow heretical. Yet it is a run I will never forget.
Back to Paris. I go for a last run up the Champs D'Lysees, the symbol of all that is French. I stop in the center of the Arc de Triomphe. The moment is epic, and I am reminded of a De Gaulle quote: "France is not France without grandeur." And grand it is.