Glacial Creep

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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.

8 Responses

  1. Happiness is a hut. I couldn’t begin to describe the rapture of companionship I experienced in a vile hut in the Cordillera de Talamanca in Costa Rica. I felt like a member of small improv company performing for an audience that just happened to be mountains.

  2. Wonderful!

    Long ago, I loved visiting Zermatt. The Matterhorn is one of those things that lives up to its iconic status. Took my breath away.

  3. Butuki, I’m so happy for you that this trip has fulfilled and exceeded your expectations, that your health has been good, that all the challenges were met. Thank you for writing about it so beautifully and honestly, and letting us come along with you. Your travels have brought back a lot of memories of that place for me – I hope someday I’ll see Mont Blanc and Chamonix again. Best wishes for the remainder of your trip.

  4. I wish I could have been there among the mountains, the wonderful people you met, tasted the bread, the cheese. what special memories these are!
    M

  5. Hi, wish I could have been there and shared the wonderful experience.
    Marlis

  6. I have long wished to experience what it must feel like to be a traveller in the old day – a merchant making a ten day trek from Edo back to his own small town. I imagine walking all day into the night and finally, at some point coming across a small inn with a warm fire filled with other people who had been walking all day as well. The atmosphere is festive, but not a wasteful festivness – not the festivness you find in a Roppongi bar after the investment banks close and people are gathering in a feble attemt to find meaning in their lives, rather, the kind of festivness of people grateful for a warm fire and a hot meal with strangers, and a cold cup of ale. We all sit down and any thought of our tired legs fades into the laugher and the glow of the fire.

    We enjoy this for a short time – an hour, maybe two – before we head to our straw sleeping pad in the corner and fall instantly asleep knowing that tomorrow will be another full day of real work – the kind that makes you tired and makes you enjoy simple pleasures like this. There is no need or desire to “party hard” until 3am.

    I thought that such an experience was impossible in todays world with cars and trains making travel far from tiring (annoying yes, but not tireing). I never stopped to think that such an experience might be found in the mountains huts around the world. I think back on the times when I have stayed in huts or camps together with strangers, sharing a fire and a hot meal with strangers, and I realise that my dream has already come true.

    Thanks for pointing this out to me.

  7. Hi Everyone, I’m now back in Zürich, with one more day to go. My plane leaves for Japan tomorrow.

    Lot’s of strange feelings. A sadness mixed with relief about going home. But at the same time a complete aversion to going back to the place I’m living in in Japan and the job I’m working at. I guess I have to be positive about it all; after all that same job gave me the opportunity to take this trip. If the working environment was a little more supportive…

    Kevin, I’ve been thinking about your words ever since I read them a few days ago. We both seem to seek the same things when we get out there and see the world. I have only touched a computer those times when I needed to communicate. At other times I never missed it. I haven’t watched any TV, only started reading a book three days ago (it was hard to resist a huge English bookstore here in Zürich… just don’t have something like that in Japan. I’m reading Harry Potter now (^J^)/” ), and was happy all along with the set of clothing I’ve been wearing (and washing each night in the shower). Living simply and close to the elements makes me feel alive and I suspect, as Kevin was getting at, that there really is no need to “look for meaning in life”, the meaning is right there all along. You learn to appreciate it when it only comes in small bites.

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