2008-05-31 49 2

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Sat 31 May 2008 in 49,2:
49.0374871, 2.2812665

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The meetup location is in Montmorency forest, well within reach of Paris.

Ilia got within 10 or 20 meters of the meetup location, but about 1 hour 20 minutes late (photos upcoming!). This day, I had classes until 11:30; then I spent a couple of hours on the Internet, checking if anyone else had the intention to go and finishing planning the trip. I set out from home at 13:35, hoping to catch the train at Gare du Nord at 14:36. This station is quite far away, so, not wanting to waste a metro ticket, I had to walk as fast as I could; I eventually got there early enough, a comfortable 15 minutes before the train was leaving. The train I wanted to take would stop at Domont at 15:02, which is 5 kilometers away from the target: I would have to hurry up again but it seemed realistic.

This is where I made the first critical failure that turned my trip into a little adventure. On the departure board, I saw a train that was leaving at 14:33 in the same general direction; since I did not remember the exact departure time, I thought it was my train. I went to the platform and tried to double-check; but on the train, I found no indication whatsoever of its route; only on the platform, I saw a message board where I *thought* I read "Domont" among the list of the stops. Maybe this concerned another platform, or another train at the same platform: I do not know. Anyway, I boarded the train, and once it had left the station, I heard: "Welcome aboard the TER heading for Beauvais. This train will stop at Persan-Beaumont, etc., Beauvais" - but not Domont. The controller confirmed what I heard; fortunately, he did not charge me the increased fare.

It turned out that I had taken an express inter-city train going in the same general direction, but whose first stop (Persan-Beaumont) was the last stop of the commuter train I had the intention to take. So there I was, stranded in the middle of nowhere, 12 kilometers long of my destination one hour before the meetup time, in the very remotest suburb of Paris; I could not even leave the station, because my ticket was not valid there. The scenery I had seen from the train actually looked more rural than suburban; however, there was one unmistakable detail that showed I was in the northern suburbs of Paris, in one of those famous "banlieues": the station was full of people whose company did not look very safe. I checked when the next train back for Paris was leaving: there was one at half past three, but it went along another line, south of Montmorency forest rather than east of it. However, my priority at that moment was to get out of that place, where I risked at the same time being assaulted and being fined, as soon as I could; and anyway, I remembered that on the other line, there was also a station that was not that much further from the destination.

So I got off at Vaucelles at the exact moment when the meetup was to take place. The weather was just like last week: a morning merely veiled with a thin layer of clouds was turning into a grey, gloomy afternoon. At this moment, my plan had a drawback, though: I am rather underequipped when it comes to high-tech; I own neither a GPS, nor a computer. I have access to the public computers in school, but they lack a printer. So the only thing I had to guide myself was a rough sketch copied by hand from Google Maps, which only showed the way from Domont; to find the way from Vaucelles, I only had to rely on my memory. There was a map at the entrance of the forest, but it only showed a portion of it, that did not include the geohash. I entered the forest along a tiny footpath, but soon decided that it did not go in the right direction; so I strayed from it and started wandering through the forest, from time to time crossing or following footpaths, trails for tree-cutting engines, and an automobile road, whose hairpin turns made it useless for orientation. I quickly got lost, and had only a faint idea of the direction I had to follow. Fortunately, I soon came across a parking lot where I found a detailed map of the whole forest; I learned that the meetup location was in sector 27 (which was quite helpful, since sector numbers are painted on the trees at the corners of those sectors), and was able to plan my route up to the destination. I also learned that in half an hour, I did not get to any significant distance away from the train station, that I still had about three kilometers to go, and that if I had gotten off one or two stations further, the walk would have been slightly shorter.

So now that I knew where to go, I set out in that direction. Half of the way I had to follow a narrow automobile road that was very uncomfortable for walking. The other half was in the forest again. When I got near the meetup point, it was 17:20. In Google Maps, the characteristic landmark was a sharp bend of the path and a strip of wood where trees grow in regularly-spaced rows (on the map, this strip turned out to be the sector 27); I had located the row where the meeting point was, measured the distance from the point to the path (65 meters), and thought I would be able to pace out that distance to find the point (that makes about 40 double paces). Though I had no difficulty finding the sector 27, it turned out that the regular rows were much less obvious from the ground than from satellite; moreover, the undergrowth, while not quite impenetrable (but still full of rather nasty thorns), ruled out the pacing. So I did not find the exact spot of the geohash, but came to within 10 or 20 meters (and more than one hour late). I do not know if anyone was there at the correct time, but there were definitely no other geohashers when I got there; just in case, I timidly shouted "xkcd! geohashing!", but no one replied.

I had found the forest beautiful at first, because it is always pleasant to find oneself in a forest when you live in a large city, and because it seemed wild. I even found a few strawberries, but they were sort of funny: quite ripe, but still firmly attached to the stem, with a thick skin and a watery, slightly bitter taste. Soon I found out that the forest was, sure enough, dirty and messy, but actually there were traces of human presence everywhere: neatly-cut logs, marked with paint and piled up everywhere, automobile roads criss-crossing the forest, water-filled tire marks in the dirt, and even a few pieces of garbage (not too much though). The terrain is somewhat hilly, but the forest covers everything, so the views are not particularly beautiful. On the whole, I liked Fontainebleau much better than Montmorency. Add to this that as I already said, the weather was rather oppressing (it started raining just when I reached the geohash), that I was quite tired and hungry (I had walked only for two hours, but I was constantly hurrying up; as for food, my last meals were: no dinner the day before, then a symbolic breakfast taken in a hurry, and a light snack eaten in the train), and that I was disappointed for having missed the meetup time. And yes, a seemingly innocuous detail that also contributed to my bad temper: in this forest, the hikers do not reply when you greet them.

So I walked back to the station (I decided to go to Domont to avoid going twice through the same places), ravenously hungry and completely tired (but not wet: the rain was very light and the weather still quite warm. Honestly, I prefer heavy rain, pouring from deep violet anvil clouds, with hail, lightnings and the rainbow that concludes the show, rather than this depressing grey drizzle). In Domont town, I met again suspicious-looking people; one even talked to me ("Hey, are you Muslim? Are you converted to Islam? Hey, brother!"), but fortunately, when I ignored him, there were no further developments. I came to the station at 18:37, just as a train was leaving; but my bad luck for the day ended there. The next train was only 20 minutes later, and I safely arrived at Gare du Nord; I was even able to take the metro to go home without having to waste a separate ticket.

Conclusion of the expedition:

  • Total time spent: about 6 hours and a half.
  • Total money spent: 7€70 (including the croissant I bought in Domont to calm my hunger a little bit).
  • Enjoyment: medium.
  • Lessons learned:
    • Always draw a map of the whole region surrounding the geohash, not only the path from the place where you *think* you will start.
    • If you do not have a map nor a GPS, going in the wrong direction along the path will take you to your destination quicker than going in the right direction without any path.
    • Geohashing locations in the northern suburbs of Paris are better to avoid. I already knew this, but thought Montmorency a rather safe location; the experience proved me wrong. (This map might be helpful, but unfortunately it only shows the near suburbs.)