“In classical mythology, Pyrene is a princess who gave her name to the Pyrenees. The Greek historian Herodotus says Pyrene is the name of a town in Celtic Europe. According to Silius Italicus, she was the virginal daughter of Bebryx, a king in Mediterranean Gaul by whom the hero Hercules was given hospitality during his quest to steal the cattle of Geryon during his famous Labors. Hercules, characteristically drunk and lustful, violates the sacred code of hospitality and rapes his host’s daughter. Pyrene gives birth to a serpent and runs away to the woods, afraid that her father will be angry. Alone, she pours out her story to the trees, attracting the attention instead of wild beasts who tear her to pieces.
“After his victory over Geryon, Hercules passes through the kingdom of Bebryx again, finding the girl’s lacerated remains. As is often the case in stories of this hero, the sober Hercules responds with heartbroken grief and remorse at the actions of his darker self, and lays Pyrene to rest tenderly, demanding that the surrounding geography join in mourning and preserve her name: “struck by Herculean voice, the mountaintops shudder at the ridges; he kept crying out with a sorrowful noise ‘Pyrene!’ and all the rock-cliffs and wild-beast haunts echo back ‘Pyrene!’ … The mountains hold on to the wept-over name through the ages.” (Wikipedia/ Pyrenees)
I alight on the train platform, the stifling summer heat stirring up billowing heat waves from the afternoon platform pavement. Beyond lies the famed name of Geneva, city of the United Nations and CERN, Jean Calvin, Victorinox knives, and chocolate, now a confusing clash of 16th Century buildings mixed with modern glass and steal, and the lingering sweet odor of over-ripe garbage. Not at all what I expected. Already back at the airport everything had been so badly organized, and no one willing to help, with signs all wrong or non-existent, that it had taken three hours to get to the city center, instead of the twenty minutes the guidebook said it would. Now I can’t find the exit to the station because there are no signs for it. This would be my main experience with Geneva.
But it is only the beginning of the journey. I stay in Geneva only a few days, to get reoriented and to see a place I’ve wanted to visit since I was a child. Then it is on south into France, to the Pyrenées, for a longer, more intimate leg of the journey. It is still far away, but already I can make out the faint calling of the mountains. Perhaps I will find her there, where Hercules left her, broken and betrayed, and all alone. Or perhaps there will finally be peace for her, when I hear the echo of her name, Pyrene. It is a beginning. I have my pack, my shoes, my camera, and my eyes. For a month I want nothing more.
All summer the miasma of diabetes had wrung havoc from my legs, rendering me at times incapable of taking a step without excruciating stabs of pain shooting through my thighs. So as the Tour of Mont Blanc trip loomed before me I worried that there was no possible way I was going to be able to complete the journey. The first steps up the foothills to the southwest of the Mont Blanc Massif filled me with apprehension, for the further I ventured away from connections with towns and up into the wilder region of the mountains the greater the risk of getting stuck up there. I had to grip my shoulder straps tightly and set my heart for the distance, telling myself I could do this and that I wasn’t going to let diabetes defeat my love of mountain walking.
All throughout the foothills surrounding the Mont Blanc range, especially in France and Switzerland, young families have returned to the villages to bring new life back to the old chalets and byways.
I moved much slower than I would normally have walked in days past, but, in spite of being out of breath and falling behind everyone along the way, the hills and slopes rolled by and by mid-afternoon I found myself gazing at the vista of the alpine crags.
The mountains grew bigger and bigger, almost frighteningly so, with a mass and ominousness that I had never experienced with the high mountains in Japan. At once both a sense of dread mixed with unutterable joy nagged at the back of my mind. It was all still too new to get lost in; even my photos felt tentative, as if trying out a grander horizon.
As the late afternoon sun began to approach the line of peaks to the west and I still hadn’t reached the refuge where I hoped to stay for the night and no one else was in sight, I began to lose heart that I would make it. Clouds were gathering and it looked like rain. Breathing heavily I topped one rise and came upon this memorial to winter. Out of breath I plopped down on an outcropping and laughed like a man drunk.
The Refuge de Bonhomme sat above a tumbling valley resplendent with emerald green grass on every rounded slope. Upon setting my pack down and scanning the panorama below, I witnessed the famed alpine sheep seething across a distant peak. For the first time I could picture the landscape the Heidi so adored.
All my life I had dreamed of glimpsing Ibex. They represented an almost deity-like symbol of the remote and legendary world of the Alps, a place where only intrepid mountaineers and hardy shepherds could venture. So when I finished my dinner and glimpsed a lone Ibex tossing his horns along a dark ridge, I grabbed my camera and stalked outside as fast as caution allowed. The Frenchman, Sebastien, who had befriend me over a beer, laughed and cried out, “What’s the hurry? They’re so tame you’re guarantied to see one! I just wonder about that bright red windshirt you’re wearing, though!”
The refuge was so different from what you get in Japan. People sat around meeting one another and welcoming people they didn’t know. Two refuge staff members brought out guitars and sat on the kitchen counter singing songs to candle light. Outside night fell, turning the world blue while a powerful wind howled across the rooftop.
I fell asleep to the pattering of rain against the bedroom window and the rise and fall of Sebastien’s breathing. The stout wooden walls felt solid in the mountain air and the bed a safe haven. I slept so deeply that I cannot remember that night.
One thing I discovered as I walked was that you were never far away from at least a hamlet. To my surprise the Alps in Japan were much wilder and required that one be a lot more self-sufficient. I was able to buy fresh Tambe cheese and still-warm baguette at a local bakery near the bus stop here in Chapieux.
My first glimpse of an alpine glacier came here in Villes des Glaciers. At one time the glacier must have held an otherworldly spell over the village below, but today so much of it had melted away that mostly only orange hued rock remained. Throughout the walk I saw clearly that all the glaciers had melted away to but a fraction of their former grandeur. It was humbling to such powerful forces of nature burned away to nothing.
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.
I am in the midst of researching how to create a magazine-style blog and will be moving Laughing Knees over to a new server, possibly on new blog software (I’m using WordPress and like it, so may stay with that, but I am also looking at TextPattern, Nucleus CMS, BlogCMS, B2Evolution, and Expression Engine… If I can get the multiple blogs showcased on the front page feature of WordPress working, then WordPress will probably be where I’ll stay, mainly because I’m familiar with it and it is very well supported, but setting up my idea for the site design with one of the other platforms is in many ways much more straightforward and easier, so we’ll see. I like Expression Engine the best of all these platforms, but if I am going to move on to including a few commercial things on the site… I want to sell some published things like books, illustrations, and higher quality photographs… then Expression Engine can be quite expensive initially. But it may be worth it. I tried out TextPattern for Laughing Knees for a while, but the development is so slow that it doesn’t seem to be keeping up with what is going on. I don’t want to spend all my time coding things. I used to do that, but I just don’t have the time or will any more. Though, TextPattern is truly elegant….
It will be good to get the blog settled in one place with a server that I like and to finally start moving on with the other ideas ideas I’ve always had for the site, like fictional stories, essays, photos, illustrations and cartoons, tutorials, a few concentrations on some of my hobbies, like ultralight backpacking, bicycle travel, photography, books, ecological housing and communities, and wildlife, all of which I’d like to write up more static, permanent pages for. I’d even like to record many of the songs I’ve written and sung so that people can listen to them. All of it takes time, of course. But I’m slowly getting there.
I will continue the photo series of my Europe trip soon. I just finished a long stint with tests and class preparations recently so I’ve not had much time outside of school beyond stumbling back home, heating up some soup, and falling into bed. Tomorrow I, finally, get to leave the area and go on a two-day hike, to celebrate my birthday (Nov. 26, 1960… erm, no I am NOT crying out for attention!!!), and try out my new and long-awaited Mariposa Plus backpack.
After years of spending and wasting money on lots of other more expensive, heavier, and ultimately unsatisfactory packs, the one that originally caught my eye, but which I shunned for the fancier stuff, finally came home. Trying it out three weeks ago and packing it on and off with different loads for different seasons and different climates and terrain, I think I’ve finally found the pack that does exactly what I want a pack to do, basically meaning that it holds my light selection of gear and disappears on my back without calling attention to itself. I think I’ve gotten most of my other gear pretty much worked out, including switching, for most walks, over to a tiny, woodburning stove that will eliminate the need for carrying gas cannisters and allow me to learn more about making fires while at the same time being environmentally safe, a pair of sturdy, but light hiking shoes with more thickness in the insole than the shoes I used in the Alps this summer, which caused quite a lot of swelling and pain on the rocky descents, and reverting, from the miserably cold and wet film of plastic of my expensive Montane Superfly to the heavier, but more protective and reliable Paramo Cascada jacket. Sometimes lighter isn’t always better. And sometimes it’s nice to just wrap up inside something warm and dry, no matter how heavy it is. And I guess I’m just tired of spending so much time thinking about gear all the time rather than being out there actually walking and losing myself in the woods. After all, I didn’t start going for those long walks all those years ago so that I could get wrapped up in what I was walking in; I went out there because I forgot all that. There were times when I’d emerge from the woods and stand there blinking in surprise, wondering where I had stepped out into.
Of course, a lot of what all this concentration on going lighter has to do with is being able to go encumbered, and that is thanks to the evolution of my gear selection and hiking and camping techniques, along with a quantum shift in how I approach being outdoors, ever since I read Ray Jardin’s “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook” and later, his “Beyond Backpacking” and after that discovered the Backpacking Light site and community in its early days of its refreshingly new ideas and a number of other sites, like the now dormant Joe’s Ultralight Backpacking”. Walking with camping gear is actually fun now, no longer a burden and source of agony. The only thing that keeps me from truly enjoying the climbs and descents is being out of shape. If I work on that, well, there are a lot of mountain trails I want to explore!
From this point bushcraft seems like the likely step for my evolution, learning to go even simpler and discovering further what it means to live close to the elements. Of course, I want to balance this with a healthy understanding that with all our billions on the planet it is no longer responsible to go around chopping down trees and killing animals for sport. But there is something about knowing exactly where your food comes from and why animals behave the way they do in different environments and that you will be all right if your lightweight pack actually does fall off the side of the cliff (something that actually happened while I sat eating lunch with a friend… one moment we were sharing a tangerine, the next, his pack had disappeared in the clouds below) that calls to me and seems to remind me of what it means to be alive and why we have these brains in our heads and noses on our faces and hands on our arms. Whenever I see videos of the Inuit going hunting or the Saan discovering a buried gourd for drinking water, I just have to think how ignorant the rest of us are about basic needs.
I often wonder if the simple test of having to find food for the day, of having to concentrate on survival rather than how to screw your neighbor, brings people together more than other way of life possibly can, simply because we cannot survive alone. Maybe that is why I love the mountains so much; up there you are definitely not in charge. You have to give way and watch yourself, you have to make sure your partners are all right, you have to rein in your ego and do your best to get companions to share and cooperate. Coming back from a difficult mountain trip always humbles me, and all the crap of jockeying for recognition in a company, of people scrabbling to tell other people what to do, of accumulating too many belongings, of constantly being sullen or apathetic or lazy or inconsiderate all come across as alarmingly anti-life. I don’t know how close I can get to living with less and learning to get along better with people, but I want to at least try. It’s part of what will help us survive in the mess we’ve created.
All summer it had been raining in Switzerland and only when I arrived in Zürich did the clouds break and the sun come out in full force. The morning I took the train from Zürich, heading west to Luzern, rain blanketed the landscape once more. With the rain the northern summer chill so reminiscent of my younger days in Germany also made itself felt, and for the first time since my arrival I felt I had returned to a familiar Europe.
I spent the hours on the train between Zürich and Luzern with my face pressed against the window pane, drinking in the green landscape. It was still hard to believe I was actually in Switzerland. Looking out at the gentle rolling hills, without a mountain in sight, preconceptions of what Switzerland actually was slipped away with each passing kilometer. The country actually had flat regions, where you could drive your tractor and set holstein cows grazing.
Of all the cities in Switzerland Luzern was where I hoped to discover the romance of a Swiss lake. In spite of the rain, the colorful banners of the Luzern Festival and the flags of the city and the aluminum and glass structures of the train and bus stations, coupled with a seamless merging of ancient stone clock towers and churches and low-cut, modern office buildings made the entrance into the city seem weightless and cheerful. I stopped by the tourist office and though there was a long line of travelers waiting to get information, the tourist information officer smiled when she looked up and seemed to take a liking to me, for she went way beyond simply telling me where the youth hostel was located, going into deep detail about the history of the city walls, the timing of the bells of the old city belfries, the memorial of the Swiss Roman guards who had died protecting Caesar, even the significance of the faded Dance of Death paintings by Kaspar Meglinger on the Spreuer Bridge spanning the lower half of the city’s portion of the river. When I voiced concern about all the people waiting behind me she waved her hand in dismissal, “They always ask the same questions!” She went on to explain that she had been born in Switzerland, but had grown up in California, on a vineyard. She also told me her last name, which was Dutch, and at my raised eyebrows, she shrugged, “My ex. What can you do? I figured that it was silly to break up on bad terms; after all we had loved each other at first! So I decided to keep the name.” We must have been standing there for twenty minutes, gabbing. I felt like Luzern had welcomed me with open arms, though the eyes burning into my back said otherwise.
After leaving my pack at the youth hostel just on the edge of town, I took the street car back downtown and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling about in the heavy rain. Students from all over the world wandered the streets, mostly in big groups, all taking photographs of the famous sights, especially the KapelleBrÃ¼cke, a long, wooden covered bridge that spanned the wide Reuss River. From what the woman at the tourist office had told me the bridge had burned down several years ago, due to a careless smoker. Walking across the newly rennovated version now, I stopped every so often to stare at the thousands of names and messages scribbled in Hangul onto the wood by Korean tourists.
The rain got too heavy to walk out in the open so I retreated to the market streets and hugged the storefronts to escape the downpour. Couples raced by, hiding under umbrellas and jackets, to disappear in coffee shops and clothing stores. I bought a hot pretzel at one vendor and stood nibbling at it under an awning while watching the water stream down over the cobblestones.
People often think that when it rains photographs no longer exhibit beauty, perhaps equating the dampness of the rain and the greyness of the skies with lack of color. But in the rain colors come alive where before there was just a dull stone face or strong shadows. When the water glistens on the surface of leaves or street lights reflect their neon colors in the puddles, rain can enhance the effect, pulling your eyes away from the stereotypical sunny skies to the ground or to hidden corners.
The romance of the lake came in the most unexpected way. I was just returning to the youth hostel, and had stepped off the street car, when two Korean university students stepped off behind me. They looked lost so I approached them and asked if they were looking for the youth hostel. We hit it off, and walking back to the hostel, we began to talk about our travels. The conversation never stopped. Khang and Yunho asked me to join them for dinner and when that still didn’t give us enough time to get to know each other we all took the street car back downtown to take a walk around the area I had wandered in all day. I felt like a university student again as we joked about, talking about girls, about dreams, about new places to travel to. We arrived at the edge of Lake Luzern and like a sea it spread out in the darkness as far as we could see. Boat and port lights, mixed with the squiggly strands of street lights, wavered on the dark water, while on every bollard at the edge of the lake couples held each other in the rain. Yunho, the youngest of us and out on his first trip outside Korea, sprinted to the edge of the lake and threw his hands in the air, shouting… and reflecting the feelings of Khang and me… “I LOVE LUZERN! I LOVE SWITZERLAND!” Then he ran back to me, his smile beaming from ear to ear, and asked in earnest, “Isn’t it romantic Miguel? Isn’t it romantic! Oh, Miguel, it is so beautiful!“
Still floating on these words I woke at dawn the next morning and took the train west again, for Chamonix, France, the doorway to my mountain dreams.
I landed without wings right in the middle of a faraway city, Zürich. I brought with me images from childhood, of green foothills towered over by shining peaks and corner shops selling chocolate and watches. Almost as if waking from a long sleep I took to the streets and felt as if I was peering through a window. I walked for hours that first day, letting myself get lost in the side streets and unplanned water’s edges.
I hadn’t expected short sleeves and burning sunshine and crowds worshipping the light or deeply suntanned numbers of men and women with beautifully toned bodies. They bobbed past me while I stared at them in surprise. And smiles everywhere. In one afternoon the stereotype of the dour Swiss evaporated. Like a benediction after the furtiveness that you nurture in the trains and sidewalks of Japan, the quick smiles and acknowledgement of women passing me reawakened that sense of interactive street life that I so missed in Japan.
It might be postcard perfect, but there is something to be said for cities that step beyond mere convenience and practicality. Walking here was a joy; even in the city you could feel as if it was a place meant for people to appreicate their presence there. Everywhere there were seats to lounge on, coffee shops to stop and unwind in, views to look out at to remind you of where you were located. Unlike Tokyo where you would never know that the ocean its right at your doorstep until you round a corner and find it there, almost as an afterthought, here the hills and the river and the big lake hold pride of places. You could tell that the inhabitants loved what they had. The water in the lake was clean enough to swim in, and proven by the hundreds of sunbathers who had crossed over to the platforms floating a hundred meters away from the shores.
Jetlag slowed me to an aimless stroll and with the sun beating down it took me a while to count the strange coins when I bought a mineral water and a bockwurst sandwich. Japanese kept springing out instead of German, but even then the Swiss German sounded garbled and oddly gutteral, even for German. Luckily just about everyone spoke perfect English, so I allowed myself some lapses in kick-starting my German again.
It took a while for my head to begin swiveling into photography mode, where my eyes begin to sink into the light around me and scenes present themselves one after the other, often before I am aware of what I am looking at. When I can let go like this walking with a camera turns a place almost into glimpses of streams of consciousness. The world grows incandescent and full of meaning, and even the lowliest flake on a wall holds the weight of the world within itself.
Like most places in Switzerland tourists overrun all the prettiest areas. As I walked about I wondered how the Swiss could put up with the constant intrusion. I don’t think I would be so hospitable if strangers were continually tromping up and down the street outside my window.
Humans painted everything red in Switzerland. They even wore the color on their hats and shirts. I never saw so many flags hung out of windows and draped from flagpoles, not even in conservative America. I never imagined Switzerland as a nationalistic country, but without even having heard anyone speak about it the Swiss never let you forget where you were.
I love to get lost and let the turns in an alley or trail surprise me. In the old part of a city like Zürich the walkways are narrow and crooked and sometimes you literally brush up against the walls as you navigate. When you look ahead at a certain unusual light and follow your nose, often you come upon gems of courtyards and secret, tiny cafés.
Europeans take their eating and their time to talk very seriously. At noon all the shops but the restaurants close down and don’t reopen until two-thirty or three. As a boy in Germany it was always a difficult time to get through because I always wanted to go rushing outside after lunch and burn up energy, but my grandparents insisted that I stay in the living room and take a nap on the couch. It was much the same here in Switzerland; I wondered what Japanese or American tourists would think, with their inability to stay still and wait.
The popular tourist spots always exhaust me after a while and for the time I stayed in Zürich I often took refuge in the alleys and out-of-the-way hills. Here I could watch the local populace go about their daily lives in peace. Since these walkways were so small and narrow cars never passed through and the tranquility gave me an inkling of what cities must have been like thre hundred years ago.
I would have wandered Zürich for a week, but I had come to go walking in the Alps. So, after three days of rewinding my clock I headed off to the train station to take the train west.
I’ve only begun to work on the 850 photographs I brought back. Looking through them and working with PhotoShop on them I’m beginning to find a few that I really like. To think that I was honestly considering not bringing the camera because of the weight!
It is raining here in Zürich. An appropriate ending to a rich trip. Tomorrow the plane leaves for Bangkok and further on to Japan. Needless-to-say my emotions have been swinging this way and that, trying to come to terms with the discrepancy between the satisfaction of the lifestyle I’ve been living for the last month and that of the frustrating term in Japan. I know for certain now that I have to find a way out of the way I’m living there. It’s been eating at my soul for too long.
The constant encompassing of tourist holes is also affecting me, too, though. When I took the cog train to the top of the mountain, Gornergrat, above Zermatt, at 3100 meters, I found a shopping mall there! I stood there dumbfounded; couldn’t people let go of their need to purchase things and just stop for one moment to let the mountain be? Appreciate it as it is?
And that’s the thing about Europe, and the Alps, and a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I had a conversation with a Japanese couple the other day, in which we were talking about why people in Japan don’t hold precious their historical and environmental heritage in the same way as the Europeans. While walking along the gallery of huge mountainscapes in France I kept muttering to myself, “People are really full of themselves here.” By which I meant that there is an undisputed assumption that the Alps are beautiful, that the old villages are quaint, that the food is delicious, that life is “sane”. Never does anyone question the very idea of turning the mountains and villages, people’s lives as a whole, into a viewing stand, or letting the old things die away. It is like an enormous museum, which to me, are dead places, things which are not allowed to alter into something new. And that’s what tourism does here. It clings to antiquated ways without letting the images turn.
So I will return to Japan with a different sense of what the Japanese see in the world and how change is an intimate part of the way they live. The mountains there are not museums; they are living places and people are a part of that. Perhaps I can learn to feel the same way, more or less.
Yesterday evening I set foot back in Chamonix and ended the eleven day walk. The actual walking time was nine days, which is one day shorter than the usual routine. Upon seeing Chamonix from high up on the col overlooking the valley I knew that I had come full circle and that soon I’d be back in the “real” world. The thing is that it doesn’t feel like a real world at all, but like unnecessary complications and undue worries and too many choices and an unhealthy concentration on things that are unimportant. During the last two weeks I was able to filter out those things which occupy too much of one’s time and about which we all worry too much about, and concentrate on things like how good something you eat tastes, the wholesomeness of simply talking to another person, laughing with them, sharing worries and information about what you need to continue on, and revelling in their presence, immersing yourself in the logic of placing one footstep after the the next and moving forward within a landscape, exactly as we were designed. For the entire route I never once picked up my book and read anything. Nights were for sleeping and resting, days were to waking and using your body and to take moments to look around you. Of course, there is more needed to survive, but I really wonder if we’ve loaded ourselves down with way too much gear, trudging through our lives with nothing but thoughts of how to add more gear to the pack and how to make money to purchase more of this heavy gear. It’s insane. And to allow oursleves to be subjected to others who seem to assume that they have a right to place themselves above us and order us to live according to their values, who think of nothing but possessions and assume that all of us must dedicate our lives to that. Exactly what is wrong with us?
After the evening the other day when the doldrums hit me and I wrote about being sad, I returned to the campsite and encountered two British rock climbers who invited me into their tent for a beer. We eneded up talking most of the evening and their sense of humor really cheered me up (I love the way the British counter hardship or adversity with laughter). We got together the next day, too, and sat in a pub talking for hours about problems with young British kids, about equipment for walking, about global warming, movies, good places to travel, environmental education, the best kinds of cheese, and again about outdoor equipment. I left Champex with a feeling a contentment and completion that belied the loneliness I had felt earlier.
Tuesday turned out to be a miserable day in terms of weather. The climb up to Le Bovine Pass just kept getting colder and colder and by the time I arrived at the tiny mountain hut at the top my fingers were numb and everything was wet and freezing. So when I opened the mountain hut door and found a glowing atmosphere of walkers sitting around a wood stove and eating the wonderful food the proprietor was cooking for everyone it was like, as a fellow walker claimed later that day, “Opening a present.” We all sat in there cupping our mugs of hot chocolate between our palms and praising the warmth. For lunch I ordered a “roesti”, a Swiss mountain specialty of pan-fried potatoes mixed with cheese, onions, tomatoes, and egg. none of us wanted to head out into the cold again.
Everything was wet again, of course, within an hour of heading down the other side of the mountain. Because the trail passed through several mountain ranches the trail had been trampled into a sea of mud through which I had to trudge. I had forgotten to take my afternoon insulin while in the hut, so my legs started cramping up and walking became really painful. I finally reached the campsite in Le Peuty, near Trient, at about seven in the evening, and there no one there, just a wet, lonely field of drenched grass with a small shelter under which to eat. I thought I’d have to spend a cold night alone here, when I discovered the fireplace in the shelter and the proprietor of the campsite drove by just then, offering dry wood for the fireplace. I fairly danced for joy at the prospect of being able to sit in front of a roaring fire, eating dinner. Just then two women… actually the same women who had camped above my site at Champex and who had arrived earlier in the day at the mountain hut at Bovine just as I was leaving… arrived on the scene, also dripping wet and worried about the idea of a cold wet night. We teamed up and outfitted the shelter so that it was protected from the wind and rain, hung up our belongings to dry, set up the wooden table in the middle for a nice dinner of couscous and chili con carne, and lit a warm, dancing fire. We spent half the evening praising the fire and voicing our joy at its warmth. After a filling and delicious dinner (it was just chili con carne and couscous, but it tasted like the best meal you could buy at an expensive restaurant) we sat back sipping tea and talking about our dreams and traveling in distant lands. WE all agreed that this eveing would be one that we’d remember for the rest of our lives.
Yesterday was glorious. The sun broke through and after climbing the long and steep trail up to Col de la Balme, I crested the last high point of this journey and came face-to-face with Mont Blanc again in all its glory, floating on the sunlit morning clouds. Walkers from all over sat with their backs against the Col de la Balme mountain hut, soaking in the sunshine and basking in the wonder of the distant mountains. The two women sat next to me and we cut slices from the bread we had brought with us and sat laughing at the difference between last night and today.
Then it was time to saw good bye. They headed on further toward the place I had started the journey, while I headed down to the valley, to Le Tour, and beyond to Chamonix. The end of the walk. And a mixed bag of sadness and relief. Soon I’d have to return to Japan and to my miserable little apartment and the oppressive job I had gotten myself mixed up in. But it had been a wonderful walk, one that would remain one of the best memories of my life, in spite of hardships. But that is what makes such journeys so memorable and special. I got to know a new place, made some great new friends, and revived an old ghost inside me that I’ve needed to talk to for a long time. I’m ready to go home, for now.
I’ll be in Europe for another week, visiting Interlakken and Zermatt. I’d love to go to Italy, but I just don’t have the money to travel around a lot any more. Besides, Italy needs its own proper stretch of time in order to appreciate the right way. Three or four days is just not enough.
I’m happy with what I got and found. And that’s all you can really ask from a good journey.
Arrived in Champex this evening tuckered out from a harder climb than I had anticipated. Most of the early part of the walk wound through little hamlets with mazes of streets and crooked, weathered chalets that looked as if they had been standing there for several hundred years. Until now it was probably the most beautiful and cultural immersed portion of the walk, giving me a real sense of what the old Alps must once have been like. I wish I could see it in winter.
Don’t have time to write a lot right now, but during the last climb of the day I came upon a valley that so looked like what my grandfather used to take me walking to when I was a boy that all sorts of memories of my childhood in Germany, of relatives who died, like my grandparents and last year my aunt, from diabetic complications, that upon arriving in Champex and the still lake there with its tourist boats and little pensions, I almost broke down crying in the restaurant. I guess loneliness of the walk is getting to me… though I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, nothing really longer than a few hours, then I’m on my own again. In the restaurant a group of other walkers sat together relating the day’s experiences and it was hard just sitting there looking out at the lake with all those memories coming unasked. I closed my eyes for a while after drinking my coffee and wished each of my loved ones well, hoping everyone was peaceful and happy and not lonely anywhere.
The fight to keep your composure and make it through these trying moments is part of such a walk, of course. I hope I can make the walk something really worthwhile.
Just arrived in the village of La Fouly in Switzerland. Of all the places I’ve passed through until now it is the most quintessentially “Swiss alpine”. Sweeping green hillsides ringing with cowbells, chalets standing on stilts, stupendous peaks rising in the background, it is what I’ve always imagined the Alps to be like. They’re much more varied of course, but I guess most people travel with some predetermined image in their heads of what they expect to see. Much of that has been permanently damaged, and I will never quite see these places the same way again.
I was supposed to walk until Champex today, but when I arrived here and found that there were still four hours to go, I decided to call it a day. It’s a nice enough little place, perfect for holiday travelers, and would be great if I had a lot more money and someone to share a room with! I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants a quiet place to hole up for a few days and go for great walks.
I’m loving the mountains, but I’m getting a little tired of the constant, just hand’s-breadth away, stand-offishness of the bigger mountains on this walk. The Tour de Mont Blanc is like a stroll through an enormous art gallery, the path skirting the grandness of the mountains, but never quite touching them, with the walker leaning in from along the edges, making out the gigantic forms, but never feeling their solidity underfoot. It is so different from the walks in the Alps in Japan, where you always get right into the grit of the climbs and feel the vastness of the mountains underneath you. Of course, these mountains are colder and higher and so you don’t have the same freedom as a casual walker to simply go up to the high ridges without specialized knowldege.
Entering Italy was an experience in high blood sugars as every meal seems to come with two courses and then a before dessert morsel, followed by a dessert. Last night in the mountain refuge that I stayed out I discovered the Italians at their most cheerful sitting around eating, drinking, and talking. Out on the trails, however, I found them unusually reticent, especially the men, very rarely looking directly at you and saying hello. Forget the smiles. So different from the French who readily sang out their greetings and often stopped to engage me in little chats about where I came from and where I was going. This was completely unexpected. I’d always heard of Italians being so open and friendly, and the French closed-mouthed. Maybe the Italians were all still recovering from the festivities of the night before.
Had an absolutely horrific night at the hotel in Courmayeur the second day. A contingent of Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) walkers had overtaken the little room I was in. An elderly woman slept in the bed next to mine and once the lights went out she proceeded to snore like a locomotive. After several hours of lying awake, unable to sleep and hearing others in the room shifting as they also attempted to sleep, I finally took it upon myself to nudge the woman’s bed each time she began her aria in an attempt to curb the noise. After the third nudge she sat up and snarled something at me in Italian. When I answered in English she returned, “Two people can’t sleep. Do you have a problem with that?” I told her that, much as I didn’t want to wake her, her snoring was so loud that it was impossible to sleep. She didn’t apologize or even acknowledge that perhaps she was making everyone else unhappy, but instead called to her sleeping husband and asked to exchange beds with him. That solved nothing, of course, and when her snoring started up again, I got so miffed that I packed up my backpack and headed out to the front of the hotel to sleep on the lawn chairs there. It was freezing but I got a rather good doze in while gazing up at the stars.
Last night was my first night sleeping in the tent. The refuge I was hoping to stay at, Rifugio Elena, told me that there were no places left and the only place available was the open field out back. It was a ruinous place where every other step had you stepping into cow patties and it smelled like a dirty barn, and the wind coming off the col above was glacial, but inside the tent it was warm enough. I slept very well.
Tomorrow I’m off north across the northern portion of the Tour. Four more nights to go.