Uzès, Day Five: In Search of Mammoth Cave Paintings

Let’s do a little roleplay to warm up tonight’s entry.  Say you’ve been traveling for thirty hours by train and plane and when you arrive at the rental car place, they cheerfully say that they’ve upgraded you from the mini-van you requested to a full nine passenger van. Would you raise a fuss and demand the smaller vehicle? Or would you just be grateful to be on your way, only to discover the inappropriateness of the vehicle later?  Can you guess which we chose, and which presented hilariously stupid problems today?

It turns out that unlike America, where we all drive SUVs that smell like a steak and seat 35, and have designed our roads appropriately to accommodate said Canyoneros, French roads have a peculiar and unique nature. I suspect they were originally plotted by a very drunk Goat named Maurice and two equally drunk centurions. Perhaps as a dare? Or maybe a job done poorly to piss off the ol’ superiors back in Rome?  The typical French road is approximately wide enough for Maurice to stagger along, followed closely by his two pals named, I dunno, Varro and Bibulus. Said nine passenger van was not designed for French roads; it was designed, near as I can tell, to safely transport Mormon clans to and from church three times a week.  Look, you understand basic geometry and you can see where this is going, can’t you?

We first ran into trouble trying to leave our parking space in front of the AirBnB. Yes, we made it literally 0 meters before encountering a problem. That has to be a new record, no?

Our original plan was to back down a narrow road, avoiding hitting any of the other parked cars, make a four point turn, and get out onto the main road. As we attempted to do so, we found it nearly impossible not to hit any of the six million concrete pots and or trees that lined said road, not to mention the parked cars.  A purple-haired young French woman (henceforth named L’Héroïne) leapt out of her apartment and attempted to guide us forward after removing some metal posts that blocked the end of the street.  All went well until it came time to make a turn. Just any old turn.  Patiently and with zero English, L’Héroïne attempted to pantomime how Mark, my father-in-law, could commit what I will not-so-politely refer to as some physics defying bullshit.  Needless to say, we scraped the shit out of the side panel of the van before finally popping free like a cork from Bibulus’s ass (long story, ask Varro some time).  At this point, we have taken thirty minutes to get out of our parking space.  Still, L’Héroïne made the impossible possible, and she departed not with words which most of us couldn’t understand anyway, but, and I shit-you-not, a high five to each one of us. Godspeed, L’Héroïne.

And so we were off.  Ahead of us lay an hour drive through the very hilly French countryside down very narrow roads to reach our ultimate destination for the day: the Pont d’Arc Cavern. We made it fifteen minutes out of Uzès before Sarah demanded we pull over, threatening to paint the backs of our driver’s head with an intestinal interpretation of her breakfast.  It seems that a nine-passenger van is not suited for transporting anyone with even the slightest propensity for motion sickness, especially on the wild curves and switchbacks we chose to drive.  Remember, as I tell you this story today, that we chose this. We brought this on ourselves.

One motion sickness pill and half an hour later, we were back on the road, with Sarah squeezed into the middle of the front row between myself and her father.  Why was I in the front? Because I can get car sick in the back of completely ordinary cars on normal, straight-road car trips.  We scooted and and compressed and made do and off we went again.

The country was rocky, a bit arid, and stunningly beautiful.  We passed a half-dozen small villages nestled atop nearby hills, visible for kilometers from the steeples of their churches; some things here are very much like they are in Kansas, it seemed. Fields of lavender, grapes, and other crops that tolerate the sandy soil rolled past.

When we were maybe four or five kilometers away from our destination, we rounded a corner to discover… road construction.  A very bored looking man in a neon jacket stood blocking the road, which looked to be half torn up.  A sign indicated that the way forward could only be taken by buses.

“Well, we’re kind of driving a bus,” Sarah suggested. Alas, we were waved away.  We attempted to re-route with Google Maps.  It led us into the back alley of a brewery, directing us onto the semi scale.  We turned away, not certain that we couldn’t end up with a ton of barley dropped on us if we obeyed.  Around we went again.  This time we asked for directions from the construction worker.

Reader, I swear he pointed in the direction we wanted to go, shook his head, and shrugged.  Even Sarah’s French could not persuade him to assist us in finding the right direction.  Right about this moment, I realized I had a 13% battery life left. Luckily, we had Sarah’s phone at the ready, and so we swapped my poor iPhone out for hers and mapped another path.  The new phone plotted a path that seemed to route us around the small town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, which for those of you that don’t speak French, translates roughly as “Fuck You, American Drivers.”

At one point, as we drove down the progressively narrower roads, at progressively slower speeds, my mother-in-law read from a street sign.  “What does ‘Chemin’ mean, I wonder?”  I looked up from the phone to watch several elderly men and women walk past us, little dogs in tow.   Sarah said she didn’t know, but we trusted Google, and stayed true to its requests, up until it seemed to want to lead us the wrong way down a one way street.

“Let’s go left instead of right,” someone suggested.  I don’t remember who, but I suspect it was the ghost of Bibulus.  So we continued on down something-something Chemin until suddenly, the road narrowed enough that even to our untrained eyes, we were going to end up having to abandon the vehicle and make new lives for ourselves in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc if we attempted to continue, for the van would become part of the stone walls that grew ever closer.  Cursing the name of Bibulus, we attempted to turn around.

Now imagine that you are in a van approximately the size of Moby-fucking-Dick, attempting to turn around on roads built by drunk goats and drunker Romans, and imagine that half the town’s elderly population are out for a leisurely stroll, perhaps called out by some sort of Geriatric Bat Signal to come see the stupid Americans attempt to navigate the local byways.

It took something like ten minutes to complete an approximately 20 point turn, but we did it without further damaging our White Whale.  All the while, I hung out the window shouting “Je suis désolé!” to passerby.  Not one of them even cracked a smile.  They simply stared, tugging their little dogs along, until disappearing around the bend.

We went the wrong way down the road that Google suggested, and within a few minutes, we had arrived at our destination. Never, ever doubt Google, even if it leads you the wrong way down a one way road.   I’m pretty sure I saw graffiti in Latin to that point once.

As we were getting ready to climb out of the whale and head into the museum, Sarah said: “Oh. I figured out what Chemin means.”

A pause.

“It means ‘path.'”

No doubt in the heavens, Varro and Bibulus had a mighty guffaw.

Once we arrived at the facility, all went well. We had a quick lunch and made our appointed time  to be toured through the most elaborate counterfeit experience one can possibly imagine.

The Pont d’Arc cave itself, you see, is several kilometers away from the World Heritage site we had visited.  Instead, we were guided inside an enormous and completely artificial cave in which the 36,000 year old cave paintings had been, we were told, faithfully reproduced.

The experience, I thought, would be roughly akin to being told that you were going to the Louvre, and indeed, you were taken to a building full of incredibly believable artwork, only to realize later that every single sculpture and painting you had viewed was a forgery.  Very accurate, very nicely done, but still: not real.   Well–not exactly like that. We knew we were going to witness the fake in the first place, and we paid fifteen Euros each for the experience up-front!

Luckily, it wasn’t quite so hollow as my initial suspicion.  The cave, as near as I could tell, was very faithfully recreated, and the artwork itself had a powerful effect on me. Even if the experience was mitigated by the fact that I was only viewing a very accurate reproduction, the original artist, dead some 40,000 years or so, still communicated with me.  There’s just something immensely powerful knowing that. And it’s not like I demand all the books I read be in the original hand-written manuscript, now is it?  God, that would be awkward.

Communication, huh. I spent a lot of time on the drive back thinking about it. The tour guide went on about spirit worlds and scared spaces, but I had to wonder if the artists from that period didn’t paint in religious ceremony, but simply to prove that they had been here, that they had existed, and to share with those who came after a little of what their life had been like.  To think that they were reaching across the vastness of time to show me what beasts had roamed these lands with such a deft hand, a line of charcoal,  and a palm print of red ochre.

I spend so much time pondering what sets homo sapiens apart from the other animals, but perhaps it’s that instinct, those little acts of creation in the face of death, that are most unique to us?  To think beyond this moment to the ones that may comes centuries or eons hence, and reach for them with fingers in wet clay on the side of a cavern beside a river in paleolithic France?

And everywhere the walls are lined with the clawed markings of bears made not by the artists mostly but by the actual honest-to-God cave bears that lived in the caves through autumn and winter. Not years before or after the painters did their work, but concurrently. Perhaps indeed the caverns were sacred spaces, because I cannot imagine living in that era, without weapons more powerful than spears, and casually descending into the dark spaces where such awesome predators rested for months.  “Don’t mind me, Yogi.  Just going to sketch out a bad-ass lion I saw the other day.  Say, Booboo,  could you shift over a few feet?” No. Thank. You!

Imagine it further, watching the cave in the spring, waiting for the thin, hungry bears to trundle out so that you can go in and do what? Work on your shading technique? How can you really be sure that was the last bear and the cave is really empty now?  How long do you wait?  Thank the cave bears for paper and canvas!–that should be the prayer on the lips of every artist. You think you have it bad learning the new version of Photoshop?  At least a mother-fucking nine foot tall cave bear isn’t going to jump out of your screen and eat your guts out if you try booting it up too early in the year.

The paintings themselves seem so oddly advanced, mature. Check them out on the website linked above.  I couldn’t begin to match the artistic talent on display here.  And the way they used the natural shape of the rock to give three-dimensional form to the drawings, almost as if they were attempting to either call forth the spirit of the animal from the limestone, or perhaps trap it within? Who knows what went through their minds really, but you feel that if you stand there long enough, if you stare hard enough, you might be transported back, for just a moment, to feel their warm breath on your ear as they whisper the secrets of their ancient world.  If only, we might hear them, bridging the vastness of the years as if they did not exist. And indeed, we see their work, but ultimately, the meaning escapes us.  We can only appreciate the artistry of it (and they are truly great and powerful works of art).  Mammoths, woolly rhinos, cave lions and bears, aurochs, and the mighty megaloceros are all captured on the walls.  As a side note, apparently the only human depiction behind the hand prints in the entire cave system is a woman’s pubic area. So I guess I’ve seen cave porn now.  Got that going for me. Mmm hm.

I completely understand the necessity of the falseness of the experience, the imitation built in order to protect the original site and still allow education of the public. While I selfishly wish I could have laid eyes on the real thing, the experience was a profound one that I will contemplate for many years.  It was well worth the money and the rental car damage.

As to the damage, when they ask us what happened to the side of the White Whale, I will merely say:

“C’était le mammouth.”

1 thought on “Uzès, Day Five: In Search of Mammoth Cave Paintings”

  1. This is a great story! As soon as you wrote “chemin”, I thought, “Oh crap! Don’t go in there!” It could have been worse: never go down a ‘sentier’!

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