“The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences…”
~ Christopher McCandless
Day five on the Tour Du Mont Blanc and I am having a rest day in Courmayeur, an enchanting village nestled in the Italian Alps that is the perfect place to catch a rest, enjoy a good meal and most importantly, have a great shower. I’ve walked more than 44 miles over four days on trails with punishingly steep ascents and toe breaking descents but with breathtaking vistas as far as the eye can see. Every time I look up from the trail (and there are times that for safety reasons I must look down), I hear myself saying a small prayer of thanks to a God that is capable of creating such magnificence.
As much as I’ve traveled, I don’t believe I have ever experienced such relentless beauty. From the snow peaked mountains, to the purple, yellow and burgundy field flowers, the dense emerald woods, to low lying clouds and the endless streams and waterfalls with water so clear it is like Evian strait from the source, it has been one astounding view after another. Hours and miles can pass before I come to a Refuge or Auberge where I can stop for a coffee or tea, take a rest and have a chat with the other hikers before continuing on. I am clocking somewhere between 6 and 9 hours of hiking a day and despite the physical challenge I feel a sense of exhilaration as I move from one leg of the trip to the next. It has been everything I was expecting it to be and more. I am loving every single second of this journey.
Like all of life’s experiences, it’s the people I am meeting that are turning this trip from a great experience into an unforgettable one. The main advantage to doing a self-guided tour is the opportunity to meet new and interesting people from around the world every single day and from the moment I began, that has been the case. First it was Kevin from Dublin,whom became my trusty companion for several days, and who was on his fourth tour of Mont Blanc and likely his last for some time, as he is soon to become a father of twins. Then there’s Jim, Tim, Nancy and Frank from San Francisco,who have adopted me into their group and have made me feel most welcome, as well as Rowena from Scotland and Cat from Kent, life-long friends with sharp minds and quick highbrow humor who have us in hysterics whenever they are around. There’s also Simon and Jill from Liverpool and Yuval from Israel. We sit around during coffee breaks at the Alpine huts or at the end of the day over a beer or wine and talk about the hike, the next day’s weather, our lives, politics and the anticipation of the next good meal.I have enjoyed meeting every single one of them.
One of the things that I had looked forward to the most and has turned out to be the most problematic for me is the food! I thought that after long hours of hiking I would be justified in having a little bread and some cheese with my meal without guilt but what I didn’t anticipate was that that was going to be the ONLY thing I would be able to eat. Literally, within the first two days I had eaten more bread and cheese than I had in all of 2012! Every morning starts out with a Continental breakfast of bread, rolls, pastries, cereal and yogurt. Because it can be hours and miles of difficult terrain before the next opportunity for food, I must eat something and have resorted to muesli and plain yogurt, sometimes fresh fruit if it is available and strong coffee or tea to fuel the climb. It’s different from what I typically have for breakfast and within two hours of walking, it’s gone and I can feel my stomach churning for more. The only practical thing to bring on the trail is more bread, cheese and perhaps a bit of ham. At night, depending on the Auberge or hut, dinner can be as simple as cheese, ham and more bread, or risotto with veal and potatoes, or stewed beef, again, with potatoes. Nothing raw or fresh for days and I can feel it in my body. Despite the working out, I’m just not used to eating only cooked or processed food and it feels very heavy and difficult to digest. But mercifully last night I was able to have my first salad and I am now in possession of two perfect looking peaches that I plan to enjoy later this afternoon as I sit and relax with my book before showering for the evening’s events. I try every day to avoid the bread and the dairy and every evening I marvel at how absolutely impossible it is unless I want to starve, and with all the working out I am doing (I figure I am burning somewhere between 1500and 2000 calories a day but it could very well be more), there is no way to go without the sustenance, so I plow through it. You would think this is enjoyable, but I am honest when I tell you, that I am sick of eating this way and long for a green drink and a big raw salad. I guess that will have to wait until I get home.
There is a natural exchange of energy and gifts between us hikers and we help each other out where we can. When my chapped lips burned from dryness, Frank gave me his extra Chapstick. Tim was struggling with muscle tightness in his leg so I gave him some Traumeel and Arnica which helped the steep descents feel less like torture and he in turn, gifted me with a beautiful crystal he found on the trail. If one of us has gone through our provisions for the day but there are more miles to travel, someone will share their food or water so they won’t collapse from lack of fuel. I got a great lesson on how best to hold my hiking poles in order to get a good triceps workout AND protect my knees on the sharp declines from Jim and when I need a laugh, Rowena or Cat are close at hand with a sarcastic comment to take my mind off of the arduous journey I find myself on. It’s like we created our own little community, naturally falling to our strengths to help each other where we can.
When I set out on this trip I was both looking forward to and concerned about all the time alone and how I would be able to navigate the trail and the isolation. I was simultaneously eager for the solitary time to gain clarity on some issues so that I can return home with a fresh mind and a new perspective, while concerned that trekking for hours on end with no one to motivate me would somehow get to me. Throughout, I’ve found myself thinking of Christopher McCandless, fearless explorer and American hiker who in search of his TRUTH, ventured into the Alaskan wilderness and was the subject of the book and movie, Into the Wild. After months of total isolation, he concluded that: ‘Happiness is only real when shared’, and in wondering if this solitary trail would lead me to greater joy or a greater sense of isolation, what I have learned instead is that the world is my community. And I am not alone unless I choose to be. There are no strangers… only friends I have not yet met… And I am meeting them here on this wondrous trail around Mont Blanc!
Sending all of you lots of love!