On my birthday, August 24, 2010, I will swim the English Channel from Dover, England to Calais, France. Here’s why. The story below will take you a couple minutes to read, but it’s a good one, and it really puts my decision to swim the Channel in perspective. Enjoy.
–London, England October, 2006–
“You know you can take a train from London to France, don’t cha?”
The girl who said this to me was fat. She had on dirty sneakers with dirty shoelaces and she reminded me of Jabba the Hut. . . in sneakers.
“I know I can take the tunnel, but I wanna cross by ocean.”
“That just doesn’t make any sense!” Her accent was Canadian, possibly upstate New York. I didn’t care. I wanted her out of my hostel.
“Look, uh, you haven’t paid keep for two nights. You want me to just charge your credit card now?”
“Oh, ah, no. I’m leaving today.”
I had been working at a hostel in London for two months. I was also working as a bartender at TGI Fridays, the only place that would hire an American. It was great. I was happy. I was earning pounds and spending pounds in London. Who wouldn’t be happy? I paid no rent, earned money to hang on the computer while I learned French, and cashed in at the bar where the whole staff was super cool, launching into their John Wayne impressions whenever I opened my mouth and let my light Texas drawl fly.
After two months, I had 1000 pounds cash in my pocket. From London I set out to hitchhike to Dover, England. I left the nice, safe, comfortable hostel and the nice, safe, comfortable bar for the dangerous, unsafe, cold road. And it was cold that day. It was rainy. I took the train to a suburb just south of the city. “Where is the highway?” I asked the barman at the pub.
“What? Oh, uh you take this street… Where’s your car?”
“Don’t have one, I’m hitchhiking.”
“Oh, you’re a hitchhiker.” His “oh” was a downer. Like a sinker in baseball. Down and away, “Ohhhh, you’re a hitchhikerrrr…”
Well, Mr. Man, I am a human being and I happen to be hitchhiking. “So where’s the (goddamn, fucking) highway?”
“Take that road, mate. It curves around.” He cleaned his glass and looked glum. A businessman with a very fancy suit looked at me and scoffed. That was his BMer outside. Fuck you guys.
I took the road that curved around. It curved to the highway. I knew it was illegal but I walked up on it and stuck my thumb out. Nothing. I walked down some more . This was more illegal. A bobby could stop at any moment and throw me in the slammer. I was scared. I kept walking. Someone will stop, I thought, if I’m here, someone’s got to stop, this is too dangerous to let someone just walk on the road, holy crap, those cars are fast.
Someone did stop. “Hey, you can’t walk on the side of the road. Get in!” Nice guy. “Look, I’ve been hitchhiking forever. I used to drive cars up to Scotland, sell them, and hitch back. I’m a fuckin’ nutcase, you know!” His teeth were yellow. His glasses were old. His beard was old. He was lovely. “Look, so, mate, I gotta turn off here – I’m gonna grab you a ride.” He pulled into a truck stop. He rolled down his window and yelled, “Hey, you there! Yeah, you! This guy needs a ride. You goin’ to Dover?”
“Yes,” the trucker said, and I climbed in his cab. How fucking cool is this!
“I used to drive in the States,” the trucker said to me. “I didn’t do it for money. I did it with my wife. We drove across the whole western part of the U.S.” He was nice, nicer than the last man, less crazy, more family man. He reminded me of my father in a former life. I loved him. “You know, one time…” he scoffed, “I got robbed in France. I pulled me lorrie over to this place where they was gonna unload me product, I had clothes and whatnot, and it turns out this bloke had a gun, he pointed it at me head, and I thought I was dead. Another bloke came ’round, unloaded the product, like, clothes for a fashion show, and that was that. Product gone.” Nice story, nice guy. He said he smoked a cigarette after the robbery and didn’t think much about it after that. “I can’t take you on the ferry with me. ‘Gainst the law now.” The next sign was for Canterbury. I will go say hi to my friend, Chaucer, I thought.
“You can drop me off here,” I said to him.
“I can take you to Dover.”
“No, not yet. Thank you.” And I was thankful. Every time I get a ride I’m thankful. The Universe does want to take me places, but this time I want to see where and why Geoffrey Chaucer wrote what he wrote.
I stayed in Canterbury for 3 days. I was stalling. Dover was calling. I watched the 007 Movie. I watched The Departed. I needed to go. So comfortable, staying in a hostel again. Canterbury is quite beautiful. More peaceful than London. The rain drips down and you can feel yourself feel. I could easily ask for a job, I already know how to do the job. “Hey, sir…”
“Yes?” The clerk was jovial. A man 40 pounds overweight, balding, scar over his left lip. There was no scar over his lip.
“I’m ready to check out now.”
I left, not hitchhiking this time. I took a train to Dover. A bullet train. It was great. Hopped off and the salt was in my face.
I spent three days exploring castles, WWII memorials, sites, places, Cliffs of Dover – white, chalky outlines pounded in by French cannons, cavernous caves, lore, more history, Henry VIII came here you know, he loved this castle. Henry strolled in with his gout and venereal disease. He banged his whores and left for France. Business had him negotiating for more land. Dover, ever Dover, is where they came to expand their empire.
I looked out at the Channel. “I will cross you,” I said out loud and took a boat. There was a short, young man on it, and we made eye contact. Sea salt sprayed my face. Did I tell you I loved it? I wanted to practice my French. I said, “Are you French?” He said yes, though he looked brown and Moroccan.
We ended up sharing a room at the hostel in Calais. His English was good. Better than my French. “Hey, you know,” he said, “I’m taking this product to Marseille. It’s called hillbilly heroin, you wanna do some?” I was scared. “Hillbilly Heroin, what the hell is it?” I drew my backpack under my bed and drew my covers tight. He seemed cool enough, but I hate drug dealers. He did his drugs in silence. He may have been cool, but I really hate drug dealers. “Do you want to go to Marseille with me in the morning?” Fuck no. “No, that’s all right,” I replied. I fucking hate drug dealers.
He was gone in the morning. I was happy. I looked over the water. I was right on the water. I checked out of the hostel and found a campsite not 40 feet from the beach. Blood of my grandfaters, died on this beach. Spilled and seeped. It’s not Normandy, but it’s close enough. The water was blue, so blue. “I will cross you,” I said out loud again. I will, I know I will.
At the time, this thought was not real. It was a passing fancy. I will have to go into the archives and dig up my old tapes of my European adventure, but while crossing the Channel by ferry, I remember narrating about ships and death on the water. Thousands of ships, thousands of deaths as England and France used this channel to swap blows. Land changed hands, English became Norman French, and Henry V anglicized French back. Thousands of battles, thousands of seagoing deaths. Thousands upon thousands, all for water, all for land, all for travel. I love it.
At this time I had no desire to cross the Channel swimming. This was not in my head. I just wanted to cross it by boat, and that was all. Then I saw the movie On a Clear Day about a year ago. I wasn’t even really inspired then either, but the seed was planted.
Over two years later, I was swimming at my father’s apartment complex: I am burning cortisol with this swim, I am fighting depression with this swim; in the water, you feel nothing. I feel good, for now. I will swim the English Channel. That was the first time I thought it, and I was serious. I will swim the English Channel. Holy fuck, I thought it again. What the fuck. I will swim the English Channel. Mother fucker! So this is how Ray Kinsella felt in Field of Dreams.
I thought it and I thought it and I thought it, and it didn’t stop. “I will do it,” I finally said, and it stuck. And two months later (this is February 2009 if you’re wondering), after 4 Total Immersion Swimming lessons, after about 60 hours in the pool (I love swimming now, especially TI) I’m going to swim the Channel, and I’m scared as fuck. I will attempt it. I will do it. My birthday and the day the first man to ever do it, did it: August 24, 2010. I hope you can be there.