I just spent 10 days biking through wine country in Southern France. A huge group of us got together to celebrate the life of a great friend who recently defied the odds to beat a deadly cancer. He “Lance Armstrong-ed” his way back to health through biking and came back better and stronger than science predicted he could.
Attacking Mount Ventoux, the most feared portion of the Tour De France, was the original point of our biking trip. Unfortunately, I busted my knee the day before and was unable to make it up the mountain. But I did take this pic from my hotel room at the very moment my buddies summitted. Can you see them waving?
Because the other bikers I traveled with tend to ride at the speed of Lance, and I ride more at the speed of, say, a lame snail, I ended up spending a lot of hours alone checking out the scenery. Having never been to France, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Funny thing is that upon first glance the French countryside looks a lot like, well, the San Luis Obispo countryside with its vineyards, wildflowers, and tiny rural towns. But below the surface, it’s a whole different world.
There’s something different about the air in French wine country. It’s somehow crisper, sweeter, more oxygenated. Although the trees are probably the same exact species we have here, there’s something about the way they tilt against the sky, the way the branches bend and leaves curve, that makes them appear to have been sculpted individually with an artist’s hand. Like maybe the guy who trims those shrubs at Disneyland into animal shapes took his shears to France and became a master of abstract composition. Everything in France is about aesthetics. Fruit stands are meticulously arranged. Buildings are preserved in all their ancient Roman magnificence. Even their ghettos are dazzling with perfectly pruned flowers and cobblestone streets.
One day I abandoned my bike and hiked a good twelve miles alone through untouched wilderness. As I was walking through yet another endless lavender field I realized that the space was so quiet, I could not remember ever hearing such a loud quiet. No cars, no airplanes, no voices, nothing! Not even a bumblebee buzz. Normally that would creep me out. But instead it was calming and I had one of those writerly epiphany moments. When a distant rooster finally broke the silence I realized that although the setting initially appeared so familiar, it felt so completely different. It was a “feeling” type of setting.
I’ ve always been sucked into books where a moody “feeling” type setting emerges. You know, the kind where you “feel” like you are “in” it, not just being told about it. A few great examples come to mind; Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers, and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.
I love the idea of setting as a character in itself. And while hiking I promised myself that while writing I will now and forever pay more attention to setting. Describing one’s surroundings always seemed so boring to me back in 9th grade English. But now I realize there’s more to it. Setting has to evoke a feeling. Whether it’s soothing and familiar, or uncomfortable and frightening, the right setting can make or break a book. And a vacation!