Vagabond Tales: Averting Death In A French Field

You don’t need to have traveled to France to be familiar with the French concept of laissez-faire.

A phrase, which translates to “let it be” amongst economic scholars, references the way in which governments should, in theory, let an economy take care of itself. “Hands off,” essentially.

Despite being an academic term rooted in economics, many travelers to France might argue that this laissez-faire mentality has permeated everyday French culture in that sometimes it seems the French people simply can’t be bothered with petty concerns.

“Do what you want, I don’t care, it will take care of itself.” That sort of feeling.

Often times American travelers, in turn, wrongly label this as laziness. While the French versus American culture debate will have to wait for a different day, there simply are aspects of French culture that Americans will never understand.

Of course, there are also things that us Americans do that the French view as curious and weird. For example, many French people I know find it inconceivably odd how casually American’s drop the word “love” (as in “OMG I love U” to a casual acquaintance or saying how you “love” someone’s new shirt).

Regardless, I, for one, am a fan of the French laissez-faire. One place I often notice this “couldn’t care less” mentality is whenever I am wine tasting in France. Unlike California’s Napa Valley where wineries have the audacity to ask for $20/person for a tasting, many times at French vineyards there isn’t even a tasting fee at all.On at least four separate occasions I have called into a rural French vineyard where the tasting room attendant had to come in from the fields to offer us a sample of their recent vintages. Despite the obvious added effort of catering to us, the mentality surrounding the free tasting was always the same:

“If you like my wine, you buy it, if you don’t, then leave. I don’t care.”

While this is all well and good with relation to wine tasting, I didn’t realize that this same mentality also applied to wildfires, namely in that they, too, should just take care of themselves. Though I’m sure this is not the actual case with all French wildfires, it sure seemed to be the case one April outside the southern city of Nîmes.

Cruising the rural hinterlands in an aging, red, four-door sedan, the vineyards and fields streaked by against a hazy blue sky as my wife, her expat friend whose car we were driving, and I meandered our way across the southern French countryside.

Not having passed another vehicle for at least 15 minutes, the emptiness of the two-lane road was a welcome relief from the congested and narrow streets of nearby Nîmes. The sun was shining, two bottles of red had already been acquired for evening consumption, and what I can assume were French road trip tunes casually streamed from the stereo.

Life, it seemed, was pretty darn good.

That was, of course, until we happened upon what appeared to be a small wildfire. Burning off to the right of the road, brisk winds whipped the flames into a choking and thick gray smoke. Nevertheless, despite the visible flames on the roadside the smoke appeared to stretch only for 10 yards or so.

Not really sure what to make of the fire burning uncontrolled and unnoticed in the roadside ditch, the decision was made to simply keep driving and get past it before things got out of control.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

Having crawled at 10 mph through the beginnings of the smoke the visibility was suddenly reduced to zero. Without the ability to even see the hood of the car it was impossible to tell if we were driving into oncoming traffic, off the side of the road, or directly into some oncoming flames. A brisk crack to the right side of the road quickly answered the question for us: we had driven into the flames and they were about three feet from the car.

Quick decision. What do you do? Do you:

A: Keep driving
B: Reverse
C: Act like a fool and jump out of the car without your shoes and leave the car to burn, yourself choking violently from the heavy smoke inhalation.

After obviously choosing option C, (I was forced to jump out the back window due to the rear door not working any more), three road-trippers, who 30 seconds ago were on a casual drive, now found themselves standing in an empty French field having parked their car directly in the middle of a fire.

With feet aching from walking barefoot on the hard, plowed earth of the field, my thoughts drifted to whether or not the tires might be melting. I couldn’t tell, of course, because the car was completely consumed by the smoke.

In a moment of snap decision it was decided that I couldn’t just let my friend’s car burn. Grabbing the keys from her I decided I would run down through the field and approach the car from upwind so as to avoid the prolonged smoke inhalation. One hundred yards down the field, however, I encountered a huge irrigation ditch and was forced to turn around.

Just to complicate matters, with the car completely invisible behind the curtain of gray smoke, I turned back to see an enormous agriculture truck driving down the highway in the same lane our car was in – increasing in speed in an apparent effort to shoot through the smoke.

Knowing there was a two-ton metal obstacle in the middle of the smoke, which they couldn’t see, I again took off running across the plowed earth, this time waving my hands and screaming anything and everything that might possibly get the truck’s attention.

Luckily, they saw me and stopped just short of the increasing smoke screen. Amazingly, these words managed to come out of my mouth.

Il y a une voiture à l’intérieur de la fumée!

Whoa. I speak French. Thanks Rosetta Stone!

With the truck drivers now aware that there was a car in the middle of the smoke, they acted in a much more rational manner than we originally did. They rolled up their windows, drove slowly through the smoke (managing to not hit our car, which may or may not have melted tires), and safely emerged on the other side.

Following their lead I raced barefoot and shirtless over the hot asphalt, my T-shirt covering my nose and mouth in the hope I wouldn’t inhale multiple plumes of smoke. I opened the driver’s side door, found that the engine still started, and slowly rolled the car forward on tires, which thankfully had not yet melted.

The entire ordeal took no more than five minutes, but for some reason I felt like we had cheated death at least three times.

With the girls having managed to navigate a way around the irrigation ditch on the far side of the field, we piled everyone back in the sedan, snapped a quick photo to document the moment, and continued on to the nearest village a bit shaken but happy to be on the road again.

Pulling into the first winery that we saw, I alerted the tasting room girl that about three kilometers down the road there was a fire burning in a field with nobody there to put it out.

“Hmm,” she shrugged with a slight glance to the horizon.

“Would you like to try some of the white? I am sure someone will take care of it soon.”

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Injured Hiker Sets Remote Norwegian Island On Fire

In the classic 1994 outdoor film “The River Wild,” Meryl Streep’s hapless husband manages to create a signal fire to let his kidnapped wife know that he is still alive and planning on staging a rescue effort. Upon seeing the wafting plumes of smoke emanating from the mountainside, this inevitably leads Streep to attempt to paddle a whitewater raft down “The Gauntlet” in an effort to kill Kevin Bacon. By the end of the day, Streep manages to beguile Bacon and thereby saves the life of her son and is reunited with her smoke-sign savvy husband.

This, of course, is the Hollywood version of signal fires.

Back here in reality, however, occasionally you break your foot while hiking on a remote Norwegian island, lie incapacitated in the woods for three days … and then you set the entire mountainside ablaze.

This was exactly the fortune of an unlucky hiker who recently fell and broke his foot while hiking alone on the Norwegian island of Hillesoy. In an article posted by Outside Online, a 25-year-old Canadian man attempted to ignite a signal fire in an effort to call for help; however, the fire quickly engulfed his tent and led to the blaze spreading across the forested island.

Though the man was rescued by authorities and transported to a nearby hospital, two army helicopters and 20 firefighters were needed to douse the flames, which incinerated much of the island’s foliage. Hillesoy is home to nearly 800 people, and luckily it has not been reported that the blaze affected any of the island’s residents.

While setting a blaze of this magnitude is considered illegal in Norway, considering the circumstances officials claim that the man will not be facing any charges.

[Image credit: andrusdevelopment on Flickr]

Vagabond Tales: Why you might not be allowed into Canada

The border between Canada and the United States is the longest undefended border in the world, yet, of the 60 countries I have wandered through, it’s the one in which I have had the hardest time gaining entry.

At 5,525 miles long, there are over 120 official places where a traveler can cross the Canada border in a manner which is consistent with that of virtually any other border crossing in the world: Speak with a customs or immigration agent, display passport, visa, and proper documentation for onward travel or proof of funds, answer some background questions, and more likely than not you’re on your way.

For some, however, it isn’t always that easy.

In looking at the fine print, Canada has a trump card in their back pocket when it comes to admitting people into the country, and it all has to do with a condition of entry officially known as criminal inadmissibility. Go ahead. Look it up. It really isn’t that strange. The United States has one too.

According to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website, “If you have committed or been convicted of a criminal offence, you may not be allowed to enter Canada.” Such offenses listed include examples such as manslaughter, assault, theft, human rights violations, involvement in organized crime, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Ok, fair enough. If you’re a convicted criminal we won’t allow you into the country. I can agree with that. Murder, manslaughter, trafficking. I wouldn’t want that in my country either.

If you read more closely, however, according to the Wikipedia entry regarding American entry into Canada, “a single criminal conviction, no matter how minor or long ago, is grounds for exclusion from Canada.”

I mention this because it’s this fine print which provides the background for a rather curious sequence of events which took place in the spruce forests of the Yukon Territory.When driving from the Alaska into the Yukon there are only two main border crossings for the traveler to choose from. Neither of them, as you might imagine, are remotely close to anything at all. As far as the eye can see the border territory is a sea of spruce trees and uninhabited woodland, a scene which is unsurprising considering the Yukon is the size of Sweden and has a population of only 34,000 people.

Seeing as this comprises a measly .1% of the entire Canadian population, you would figure that crossing the border into Canada via the Yukon would be easy.


The first indication that something was amiss was when I encountered a forlorn man on a bicycle, his rig completely laden with saddlebags and long-distance gear, with the heaviest piece of equipment being the sense of despair worn across his face.

“Good luck in there”, he caustically growled. “That border guard’s having a bad day.”

“Did he not let you through or something?” I sincerely questioned.

“Nope. Making me turn around. Fifteen years ago I got in a fight. He’s calling it assault. It’s the only thing I’ve had on my record ever.”

This, you see, was problematic to the biker for a number of reasons: The nearest building, much less town, was nearly an hour away. By car. He was on a bike, and was already 800 miles into a two-year bike ride from the Bering Sea to Patagonia at the bottom of Argentina.

“I can’t believe he actually made you turn around, on a bicycle, out here in the middle of nowhere, while you’re fulfilling a life dream of biking to Argentina.”

“Tell me about it.”

“So what are you going to do now?” I wondered aloud.

“I don’t know. Maybe skip that whole Canada section.” With an exasperated wave of his hand he pedaled a lonely road back into the spruce forest.

Given this curious interaction I was hesitant to approach the border, even knowing that I was clean. Still, the process didn’t exactly go swimmingly.

“Good morning”, I nervously offered the border patrol agent, shocks of brown hair poking from beneath the gray beanie covering my head.

“You got anything in the car I should know about?”, countered the visibly perturbed officer.

“Um, no sir. I’m pretty sure we’re all good.”

Meanwhile, our passports had been run into the office for scanning, thereby leaving us at the officer’s whim until their eventual return.

He looked at my gray beanie. He looked at my haggard green truck I’d been camping in for the past 3 months. He looked at the bed in the back, the curtain on the campertop window, and my youthful, twenty-something appearance.

“So I’m not going to find any marijuana in here?” he pulled out of left-field.

“Nope” I replied with a smile, a little taken aback but confident in my response seeing as I’ve never touched a drug in my life.

“So no pipes, no papers, no bongs, no residue, no plastic baggies?”

This was starting to get weird.

“Ugh…no, you won’t” I matter-of-factly replied, slightly irked at the obvious profiling.

“You mind if I have a look?”

“Not at all”

Which is how I ended up waiting on wooden bench in the Yukon for nearly 30 minutes as a border patrol officer searched completely through my vehicle for some sort of illegal substance. This man didn’t just expect to something, it was almost as if he wanted to find something.

I came to find out later that when the officer inside ran my passport an alert was raised that I had previously been involved in a “drug-related arrest”, a charge I vehemently denied and later tracked to a disturbing computer error that nearly cost me entry into the country. Regardless, this error had never shown itself at the 30 or 40 border crossings previous to it, so why here in the middle of nowhere?

After an hour long saga amongst the spruce trees, the agent finally relinquished our vehicle amongst an uncomfortable feeling he was disappointed he couldn’t find anything on us.

Shaken, my wife and I crawled back into our forest green Toyota and made an unsettling drive to our campground in the Kluane National Park.

So what’s the lesson here?

If you’re considering traveling to Canada, think long and hard about if there’s anything which may preclude you from entering the country. DUI, fighting, that “stupid mistake you made in college.” Anything.


Because one day you might want to ride a bike to Argentina and find yourself pedaling backwards.

Want more stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here.

Top five travel documents to email yourself before you travel

A lost or stolen passport or ATM card is a surefire way to add stress to any trip. As a preventative measure, I keep a list of travel documents (scanned, as necessary) in my inbox, so I have them at the ready should I run into trouble. Before you head out on your next trip, make sure you have the following documents, copied, prepped and prepared in the event you need them quickly:

1. Passport
If your passport mysteriously goes missing from the hotel security box or hostel front desk, or you’re mugged or robbed on the road, scanning a back-up copy can save you hours of paperwork and waiting. If you need a visa for travel, scan a copy of it, as well.

2. Medical and travel insurance cards (if applicable)
Not all medical insurance covers travel outside of the U.S., so check before you get on a plane. If you plan on visiting a region prone to civil unrest, natural disasters, or general sketchiness, have a medical condition, or are a fan of adventure travel, travel insurance might be worth looking into.

3. Bank and credit card collect call numbers
Keep the bank phone numbers nearby. It won’t bring your cards back if they’re lost or stolen, but at least you can report and cancel/put holds on them, ASAP. Most financial institutions have collect call numbers you can use from a foreign country.

4. Emergency contacts and relevant health information
At a recent appointment with a new physician, he noted that I was allergic to penicillin, and asked what happens if I take it. I explained I have a family history of anaphylaxis, and he asked why I don’t wear a medical alert bracelet, especially given my occupation as travel writer. It’s a good idea that never would have occurred to me. So while you’re typing up that list of contacts, including doctors, add in any life-threatening allergies or medical conditions. Should you wind up in a medical emergency, odds are someone, somewhere, will speak English. Or write it down in the language of the country you’re visiting (Lonely Planet Phrasebooks are invaluable for this kind of translation, even if you need to say it in Urdu or Thai).5. Itinerary
Be sure to send copies of your travel itinerary to family and/or a close friend. If you’re backpacking and don’t know where you’ll be staying or don’t have a world phone, the ubiquitousness of global cyber cafes makes it easier than ever to stay in touch, even in rural areas.

*Bonus round

U.S. Department of State contact info/Embassy and Consulate list
If you spend a lot of time overseas, especially if you fall into the category cited in #2, it’s a very good idea to register your trip with the U.S. Department of State. In the event of an emergency requiring evacuation, you’ll be in their system. It’s also helpful to keep the embassy/consulate link in your inbox and on your person, in case you or a fellow traveler runs into trouble.

Immunization card
Some countries or regions require you to present this, to prove you’ve had the necessary vaccinations before being admitted entry. Admittedly, I’ve never actually had to produce this document, but better safe than denied. For a list of recommended and required inoculations for destinations, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site.

[Photo credit: Flickr user cubicgarden]