Trying to keep up with developing the photographs for the blog really takes up a lot of time, especially the 800 or so images I took during my European trip last summer. I’m about a third of the way through the collection and hopefully can now get the images up to go along with more frequent posts. But I really have to find another way to work with the images, featuring fewer of them in the blog posts and more of them in a gallery. For now I’ll post what I have…
Dark rain clouds had followed me from central Switzerland and by the time I reached Martigny at the western edge of the country both the apprehension of nearing the might of the Alps and the prospect of crossing over into another country had manifest itself in the heaviness of the rain and the dimness of the daylight. There was a train I had to transfer to but in the rush to run down the stairs to the other platform I had accidently thrown away, along with my lunch garbage, my month-long Swiss Railpass. I realized my mistake moments before the train I had just disembarked from took off and, thinking that I had left the pass on the train, I ran back and jumped on the train, only to be trapped on board as the doors closed behind me. There was no pass on board and I panicked over someone possibly having stolen it. When the conductor came strolling down the aisle he laughed when he saw me, admonishing me for not having gotten off the train to make my transfer. He was sympathetic with the loss of my pass though, and offered to write me for free a ticket to my Chamonix destination. He then wrote up a new schedule for train transfers, but saying that I would arrive quite late in Chamonix. Resigned, I sat on the train till the last station and then rode it back to Martigny. The rain had redoubled, roaring outside the train window and filling the landscape with a depressing gloom. I felt really far away from home.
Luck would have it that back at the Martigny platform I discovered my rail pass inside the trash bin where I had thrown my lunch bag away. Relieved I crossed to the other platform again and found the cogwheel train that would climb up to Chamonix. Other walkers already filled half the seats, sitting with their packs balanced on their knees. I found a place between a gang of young teenagers from Britain. When the train lurched to a start they proceeded to smoke cigarettes and bombard the compartment with shockingly lewd stories and much-too-knowledgeable recounts of experiments with strong drugs. They were the noisiest people on the train and made it hard to concentrate on the passing scenery outside.
As the train gained altitude the cold set in. Even the train conductors wore winter jackets and stood on the platforms along the way swinging their arms to stay warm.
Chamonix huddled in a deep grayness, shot through with a wall of torrential rain. The rain was so strong it hushed everyone as they emerged from the station. The streets were deserted except for a few stragglers heading for the tourist information center in the center of the town. I followed these lone individuals and managed to get into the tourist center just before it closed. All the hotels were booked and those that had a room or two available were far too expensive for me. One place, however, a backpacker’s lodge called “Ski Station” took in travellers who had little money and who didn’t mind sharing rooms. THe tourist center agent got me a room there and then gave me directions to the nearest bank machine.
Here is where everything went wrong. I tried to use my American Express card, only to find that the bank didn’t take Amex. I had just enough money for one day of food and not enough for paying for lodging. Concerned I wandered around town seeking every ATM I could find and each one refused my American Express card. I ever stepped into a hotel and asked if they might change money there, but they, too, told me that they didn’t take American Express. After about the eighth bank machine I began to panic. With my need to take insulin and then necessity to eat afterwards I couldn’t afford not to have money. When nothing worked I walked up the steep hill in the back of the town to the backpacker’s lodge and presented myself to the caretaker, an elderly woman with an angelic smile and quiet demeanor. I explained my circumstances and, without pausing, she said, “No need to worry. You look tired and wet and are obviously a traveller. Put your pack down, choose a bed, and get yourself dried off. I’ll lend you a little money so you can eat.” Then she looked directly into my eyes, “Just promise me you’ll try to pay me back as soon as you can, okay?”
I was astounded! Hospitality still existed! What travellers dream of. I thanked her so profusely that she laughed and said, “Now you’re making me regret what I said! Go get dried off!”
I changed into dry clothes and then headed down into town to get something to eat. I found a small Italian restaurant in a tiny side street and ordered a cheap pizza with a beer. The effect of the fear of not having money still coursed through me and eating the pizza was like floating through a dream. All around me sat families and couples who laughed and reveled in tabletops of food and the sound of clinking glass and utensils rang in the yellow light of the lamps. I ate my fill, paid up, and strolled back to the lodge. The lights in my room were out already and I undressed in silence, pulled the rough wool blanket over me, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The backpacker’s lodge, Ski Station, where I found kindness and selfless hospitality.
First view of the Alps on that bright, sunny, following morning. They were so high I had trouble believing they were real.
The form and flora of the hills surrounding Chamonix town reminded me so much of the Japan Alps that it was like deja vue. Only the fauna, like ants and butterflies gave away the difference, and of course the sheer height of the peaks above.
The start of the Tour de Mont Blanc began as a quiet climb through early morning mists above Les Houches, southwest of Chamonix.