The Little Island That Wouldn’t

The Little Island That Wouldn’t

I was laughing as I rolled to a stop for the map check. No, I wasn’t just laughing, I had lost it. I was on a jag. Cackling. But of the four other riders present, not one of them had any idea why I was laughing, so as sometimes happens, it seemed like I was just garden-variety crazy.

I couldn’t help it.

As we’d sailed downhill through a town that barely qualified as a village, I’d seen a guy wearing a T-shirt promoting the film “Back to the Future.” That seems innocuous enough, right? As they say with humor, it’s all in the context. And the context was really the thing here. I was on the island of Corsica, a place that still can’t decide if it’s French or Italian, where its own language hangs on like a lichen on some mountainside rock, a place so devoid of industry that tourism is one of its biggest, if not its biggest economic drivers. Except for the cell phones and the cars, the clock stopped on this place before love could hit summer back in 1967.

Which is to say, the irony of that T-shirt in this place rendered me a puddle of mirth for the better part of two minutes. It was a small joke, to be sure. A joke for one.

I probably wouldn’t have found the T-shirt so funny had I not been so charmed by the place. The resolute refusal of the Corsican people to try to export something other than wine, their refusal to live a life of maddening consumption combined to make it a place of placid serenity. This is the eddy off the river where the old fish, the smart ones hang out. It’s a remarkable thing to witness. Town after town where people carry on with lives that aren’t built around jobs worked in 12-hour stretches, where the mall is recreation, where I honestly couldn’t tell what many people did all day.

That might not seem so enviable until you considered that the two old guys chatting in Corsican are sitting at a table at an outdoor bar 1000 feet above the coastline below and as they spoke they were looking out over vineyard and orchards that spread to a beach before an azure bay. And the weather—mid 60s and breezy—was the sort of October day that causes people to close their eyes and smile when you tell them the climate is “Mediterranean.” The weather was so good it was nearly a cliche.

You’re kidding
I’d been interested in visiting Corsica for six, maybe eight years. I’ve ticked off most of the great Alpine and Pyrenean climbs that I’ve wanted to do, and spending three hours to ascend something it takes a top fuel pro an hour to get up holds less fascination for me than it once did. I’ve grown fond of places where the pace of life is defiant, where mountain roads overlook the ocean and the best riding never strays from a view of blue.

What I didn’t expect was that any island could be as resolutely beautiful as Meryl Streep has been for the whole of her career. Corsica was the same, with roads that hugged crazy rock formations teetering above the ocean winding inward to hidden valleys before they climbed up to cling hillsides sitting in the shadow of much bigger peaks.

Just stop it with the beauty, okay?

At one point late in the trip I was reminded of the serpentine winding of Highway One along the Sonoma Coast. Fifty feet or so above the wave-crashed beach, as you ride south the road loops left, drops a bit in elevation, turns right and crosses a creek headed for the ocean, then kicks back up and turns left to overlook the beach once again. It’s a pattern that repeats over and over. I’ve always thought this a haltingly gorgeous stretch of coastline.

Then I encountered Corsica, where you do much the same thing, but 300 feet above the water, with less elevation change, and often no discernible beach, so that the waves pound the very massif of rock into which the road I was riding was cut. Drama factor of 10.

I began to feel guilty that I wasn’t riding with a better camera to take richer images with a sharper lens. Then I had the funniest epiphany. The residents of this island, as aware of its unaffected grace as anyone in the world, would have laughed at my camera coveting.

Same room, different day
The trip I was attending was the Santana Adventures cruise about which I wrote early last year. I’ve previously attended one of their cruises, working on a piece for another publication and I was surprised by the logic and convenience of the format. You fly in, transfer to your cruise ship, open your suitcase in your stateroom and then unpack it into the available wardrobe. Yeah, you unpack.

For anyone who has done an extended bike tour, this is a concept that seems deliriously fantastic. As in, the subject of fantasy. The pattern is always to pack every morning, to tote your bag down to the waiting van. An extra hour lost every day between bag transfers and unpacking just enough to find the stuff you need. With the cruise ship, I’d get back to my stateroom at the end of the day and my book was exactly where I left it, unless I’d left it on the bed, which had been made during my absence.

We were served breakfast and dinner on the ship daily. These weren’t the Continental breakfasts of a croissant or two, some fruit and maybe a bowl of muesli with yogurt. They had two omelette bars, giant fruit spreads, a cheese table, breads, croissants and pastries. Honey, juices and coffee by the liter.

At dinner we each had a choice of salad or soup, three, sometimes four entrees, and two different desserts. There was wine if you needed something more adult than water. It was a menu cognizant of American sensitivities and devoid of mystery tureens.

As a means to make sure that you were adequately fueled to ride 40 or 50 miles a day, it worked well. The downside was that lunch was your only opportunity to explore the local cuisine, but most days that felt like enough.

I’ve criticized Los Angeles as a place with a too-perfect climate, one that can lull you into missing the passage of time. Corsica has a climate nearly as nice. But it also has a geography of such varied and spectacular beauty it’s as if it were the island version of one of the world’s great art galleries. Imagine the Art Institute of Chicago rendered in landscape. Corsica, with arsenal of coves, nonchalant cliffs, postcard bays and rocky spires that rise like some prehistoric skyline put Los Angeles to shame. There wasn’t a single road I traveled that lacked for beauty. Sure, there were some crazy drivers when I got into two of the bigger towns on Corsica, but even then, I could look down over the docks and out into the waves.

I spent a number of days wondering just what people did with themselves if they didn’t work at a restaurant or some shop. Sure, there were a number of farmers of one sort or another, and some wine is made, but I didn’t see how everyone there could be employed. They probably weren’t.

Not working has a bad reputation in this country. Many of us place what Europeans see as an outsized emphasis on what we do. They see it as misplaced priorities. To them, a job is just what you do, not who you are. And I’m no better. I tell people I’m a writer. It’s synonymous with my identity. And if I didn’t work, if I didn’t write, I don’t know what I’d do with myself. It is more than just work for me. But there was something mysterious about Corsica and the people hanging out at the cafes and restaurants, taking two-hour lunches, hour-long coffees.

In a place like that, who could blame them? When you are so surrounded by profound natural beauty that you can’t look in a single direction without a view worthy of a National Geographic cover, I could be persuaded to just chill out, sit down and enjoy a bit of Rosé—at 11:00 in the morning. For the rest of my life.

I read years ago that when you meet someone of substantially different mental health, they don’t make sense to you. If you’re a normal person and you meet a schizophrenic (or someone in the depths of depression), they just won’t compute for you. But it’s true in both directions. If you’re a schizophrenic, normal people seem completely crazy to you. The voices, after all, are everywhere.

That’s how I felt in Corsica. It didn’t make sense. They were carefree in a way I hadn’t seen since my last trip to Hawaii, and I’m not talking the tourists. Try watching a local fish at 2:00 in the afternoon and you’ll redefine your sense of island time.

And maybe that’s what I was seeing. The European answer to island time. One thing is for sure: It made no sense to me. Were I to live on that island full-time, I’d either go crazy or experience a denouement that would see me walk away from the rest of my life just to live a life focused on meals, talking to friends and … I’m not sure what else. Maybe it’s that simple. In a place where you can sit on a patio and look down on orchards and vineyards and count the rows, or out at the ocean and watch the ships come and go, maybe it really can soothe that frenetic American need to do. I don’t know. I’m not close enough to their mindset to see the world the way they do. Were I living there, I’d need to go explore every cove, every mountain road, each basketball court of a town. I don’t see how I could settle into just one spot, the same chair at the same table at the same bar and look out on the same beach, the same inlet, the same stretch of blue, day after day. There’s too much drama to see on that island; it seems a whole world, a kind of rocky outcropping of a greatest hits album.

If I don’t return, my life will be incomplete.


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  1. Bill McCready

    Thanks for the unrequested and unexpected review. Our friend who dared me to ignore Corsica is laughing at the thought of another seduced cyclist who feels compelled to return. FWIW, it was also the first time for our ship’s Italian Captain, a non-cyclist who was similarly smitten by Corsica’s unexpected beauty. He helped convince my wife to sign a return cyclists’ charter 18 months from now. At his urging Santana’s cycle of Corsica will be followed by a circuit of Sicily. Bring your wife.

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