Existentialism on a bike – Day 4

It’s been a thoughtful and most exhilarating day. Thoughtful because whilst cycling I’ve been pondering the “big” questions – you know – the ones about life, the universe and everything: the ones that usually start with the word “why”: the ones that often don’t have easy answers. Exhilarating, because the ride has been a near perfect combination of testing ascents and long sweeping descents, separated by a few level sections. And all accompanied by the most wonderful lakeside and mountain scenery. Fantastic! You may remember that yesterday I was uncertain what to do and where to go. Once again serendipidy struck; speaking to the Patron he advised me to stay a second night, explaining that the area is well worth exploring. Porquoi pas? And there’s the added benefit that I have to carry only the most essential items of my luggage. Finding my way to the cycle path on the west shore of the lake (via the tourist office to pick up information) is straightforward. Once again it is dedicated and perfect. Muttering “bonjour” to the first few fellow cyclists I encounter I soon realize this is a futile gesture – I’ve joined a scattered procession of hundreds, maybe thousands, around the lake. It is Saturday morning after all. Many of them seriously have the bit between their teeth; head down, pedals pounding, clearly focusing on their “PB “s – or those of their friends/competitors. I bet they’re into Strava! I can sense their anger and frustration when our progress is temporarily halted by a herd of cows on their way to milking.

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Let’s start with the “Life” questions – particularly human life. Looking back over yesterday’s ramblings (assembled after quoffing a pichet of local red wine) I realize they require a little tightening up. There are some attributes which are clearly and uniquely human: critical self-awareness; the ability to recognise and respond to an accepted social/moral framework (call it conscience if you will); and particularly our access to higher level thinking skills (analysis, comparison, judgement etc.) all of which are are dependent on our amazing capacity for advanced language. Even the most animal-centric scientists begrudgingly concede that these qualities set us hugely apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In evolutionary biology one expects smooth gradations: here, the differences are nothing short of cataclysmic. The question is, how? – and more importantly, “why”? It has been suggested that at some critical point in our evolutionary history, human beings reached a tipping point: that we were subsequently able to manipulate the world to our unique advantage. But is this really the answer? Homo Sapiens emerged from Africa around 70,000 years ago. Other humanoid primates, for example the Neanderthals in Europe occupied different parts of the world before our onslaught. Did they all share uniquely “human” attributes? It is believed that Homo Sapiens was able to interbreed with other humanoid species; do we all, in fact, share the Neanderthal gene-pool? I’m not convinced. Once again, the jury’s still out. Continuing to the end of the lake I decide to tackle an alpine ascent up to Thones. Pausing at St Ferreol, at the foot of the gorge, I see that it is “only” 17km away. I estimate that, at my speed, this could take up to two hours! But what a wonderful two hours – accompanied by the sound of rushing water and the overwhelming smell of wild garlic.

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Part way up I emerge into a wide hanging valley in the middle of which is the alpine village of Serraval – a beauty. Soon after this I reach the Col du Marais at the relatively modest height of 843m

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However, the snowline doesn’t seem that far away. A sweeping descent to Thones for lunch. And no, it didn’t take me 2 hours! What about the universe? Of course scientists think they’ve answered all the questions. But have they? There’s no doubt that it’s governed by some wonderful, even beautiful laws: the processes of evolution: the intricacies of quantum mechanics: progress towards the single unified theory, etc. These could almost be said to be miraculous! And there’s no doubt that scientists with their restless curiosity deserve all the credit for this. But there are still many unanswered questions – particularly the “why” ones. Where do the laws governing the universe come from? Why are they there? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? If not, why not? (Believe me, they’re busting a gut to find it). Why have they not yet been able to “create” something which is living from something which is not? (They haven’t!). What was there before the big bang? What exists beyond the limits of space? I could go on. The truth is, and I say this with absolutely no disrespect – scientists can only answer scientific questions. An obvious truism. In anthropological terms there are also many things which are difficult to explain: why does philanthropy exist? (The selfish gene); what about love? Why is there beauty in the world? (It serves no scientific purpose). As I said, many questions but fewer answers. In any journey, the best is often left to the last. In my return to Annecy I spontaneously decide to leave the main road for a back lane. What a beauty – it’s hard to know where to start. First, a towering waterfall.

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I think this must be the original “main” road between Thones and Annecy because it links a number of idyllic hamlets. And have you ever seen intricate woodwork like this? (A mail-box)

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When I reach Annecy I feel almost drunk with the beauty of the day. It certainly has been a thoughtful and most exhilarating day. Tomorrow is my last.

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