Words and photos by Brian Leibold (Check out Brian’s Rules of the Road on Kindle!)
The valley of Chamonix is set in arguably the most stunning location in Europe, with the great Mont Blanc overlooking it like a wise stern infinitely distinguished grandfather capable of making you feel lucky and inspired or low and humbled, according to his whim.
I arrived on a foggy night, and the clouds obscured the mountains.
There was a refuge called Gite Le Vagabond. This intrigued me, but the price for a cot was unfit for the vagabonds who they purported to attract, so I slept on a bench in a little hut by the train tracks on my ragged blue mat.
In the morning, the fog had cleared, and I woke up to a clear blue sky. Eyes and spirits seemingly magnetically fixed skyward, I embarked on the Tour of Mont Blanc, the TMB for short, a week long 200 kilometer hike beginning in the French Alps and continuing to the Italian and Swiss Alps.
Solitude if sought in the Alps can always be found, and for me it was always found in the early morning. Every morning I would wake up before six and would usually have about three hours before the rest of the (mostly elderly) hikers would start their day.
In these early hours, I would feel like the lone human viewer of the mountain musical symphony, my companions the chirping birds, the bored cows and their jangling bells, the tranquilly flowing water, the soaring snow-capped peaks, and the enigmatic forests. I would try to discern the age old whisperings of the forests and mountains.
I am inclined to walk fast, and the trees in particular were undesirous of this, I felt. They would silently express their disapproval at my quickness. What would I see walking quickly that I couldn’t see trekking slower? This is no race, least of all a rat race. Take your time, they seemed to say. They parroted the Ents, the trees of Tolkien, warning me against hastiness.
At one point, I became hopelessly lost in the midst of a ever-thickening forest. Beginning to actually become frightened, I cursed loudly for a few minutes. But the tall trees admonished me for my blasphemous unquiet, and seemed to whisper confidentially to each other,
“Who is this brash young American vagabond who comes into our woods and expects to never get lost?”
“Sit under our branches for a spell and quit your cursing and worrying. You will find the road again.”
Words of Wisdom: In the mountains and the woods, trek slowly, and engage in unhurried reflection. Listen to the Ents, and hasten not back to civilization. Do not give a moment’s thought of the things that burden you in the valleys and back alleys down below.
Thoreau says “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
Mark Twain, in his travels in the Alps, wisely writes that “All frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps.”
On the hike, I liked that almost every person that passed would give a friendly greeting. In the French cities, this is unheard of. But in the mountains, it is the norm. Tony Hawks remarks on this in his book A Piano in the Pyrenees when he goes for a hike saying
“Every person we passed offered a jovial Bonjour! Every single person. It was almost as if the moment they left the speed, noise, and fluster of the town behind and exchanged it for the freedom of the countryside, their manners had changed.”
Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that in the city, the ruck sacked are often looked down upon. What are you doing? Where are you going? Get a job. Take a shower. Button your top button. Buy a lot of stuff you don’t need, and so become normal. Stop making us feel so uncomfortable by your strangeness. There’s nothing wrong with having a job and taking showers and buttoning top buttons. Neither is there anything wrong with not doing those things.
But, in the mountains, we all have the rucksacks and the muddy boots and are alike in that we are choosing (at least for a few days) to voluntarily remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle. We are all trekking vagabonds. So the natural feeling of freedom that comes when we are removed from our burdensome obligations combined with the incredible natural beauty of the Alps allows people the ease to smile at strangers, strangers who are alike in many ways. All greet all with the joy they really feel.
The trek continued. Every day there was a peak above 2000 meters. There is perhaps nothing more satisfying than reaching a peak after an arduous and long climb. The beauty seen below is enhanced by the climb’s difficulty.
John Muir, in his observations of Yosemite says “One must labor for beauty as for bread, here and elsewhere.”
It is why going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (and, more especially, coming back up) is so much more satisfying than simply gazing at its grandness from the visitor center. And it is why the view after hiking to a peak in the Alps rewards the traveler more than the same view when reached with the help of the gondola.
At the top of a mountain, the golden eagle, flying towards the golden sun, provides more joy than he would lower down. You have climbed to where the birds fly high above the cowbells. The wind, though fierce, seems benign and congratulatory, like it is applauding you somehow in all its frantic activity. The green unperishing ageless, yet at the same time youthful, hills with innumerable knotty roughened toughened trees and the tranquil Edelweiss flowers high up in the rocky soil soaked by the sun seem also to congratulate you. You have done well, they say, and you have not been hasty. Now, look out and see what we see, and be calm, as we are. And the snow-capped craggy Teton-esque mountains, inimitably eminent on their natural thrones, appear more inviting that they do imposing, as if they are responsive and open to you now that you have worked so hard climbing higher to meet them. They are still unknowable and silent and all knowing and unviolent, but in your proximity to them, you feel closer to unlocking their brooding mysteries.
As you descend, this feeling begins to fade, and as you reach the valley of Chamonix again, you look back up and feel small and unimportant and, well, human. You feel like what you are. But you look with pride back up at the mountains, remembering how you felt and knowing you can feel like that in the future. You feel that thirsting unquenchable desire to rise up high in the sky above the clouds. So, again, you climb.