Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Day 21: Trient to Argentieres

We woke up at 7:40, ate breakfast, showered, and got on the road. Though our legs were very sore from yesterday, the hike started easy enough, through fields of wildflowers and cows. The cowbells sounded so beautiful, a perfect soundtrack for the mountains. Then, our ascent began in full. For the next few hours, we hiked up switchbacks through a pine forest. We took it slow, and finally left the forest for the meadows. The hike got easier from here, and we continued up through meadows for another hour or two. We stopped in Les Arbages, a herding settlement, with stone huts that were a perfect cool refuge from the sun. After our little break, we finished our uphill to a funky restaurant at the top. We ate some lunch with panoramic views of Mont Blanc.

Our descent began with a small uphill to a ski lift. It was not running, so we walked down next to it. This part was easy and beautiful. Naomi and I went ahead of my parents, a nice break for all. At the bottom of this part was another restaurant and a working lift, this one cabins. We ate ice cream bars, made sure the lift went to where we wanted to go this time, and got in. We passed over a huge herd of goats and sheep and a lot of cows before getting off in the skiing town of Le Tour. When we got off, it started to rain, and we were really glad that we had taken the ride instead of walking down the steep hill. We then got off our path a little, and headed down to Argentieres, where we are staying tonight. The thunder only made us walk faster; but the rain never really got bad. When we got here, our luggage was not here, so my dad and sister walked another kilometer through town to find our bags. I, on the other hand, slept. When the got back with the bags, we hung around the room, cleaning up, and working on my next steps. At seven, we went down to dinner.

Dinner began with escargots and local white wine. The escargots were hot and cooked in butter and pesto. Naomi got the courage to try one, and ended up eating three. We couldn't convince my mom to try any though. The main part of the meal, though, was the fondue. The cheese was incredible, and the liquor it was cooked with was perfect. Dipping the French bread in was heaven. Desert was amazing ice cream and sorbet. The perfect dinner in the alps.

After dinner, Naomi and I took a little walk to see the orange pink light on the glacier. We then headed into the room to work out next steps and write this blog. Now that it is finally dark, and this is finished, I'm going to sleep.

Day 20: Champex to Trient

Today was epic. We got out a little later than we had hoped, and began our hike. Not long after we began, our trail passed under a working chairlift. Hopeful that it would take off the first uphill of our long, hard day, we found the operator. He assured us we could get to the place we needed to go from the top of the lift, so we got on. It was a huge lift; we were in the air for probably fifteen minutes. We got out feeling great about our shortcut, and treated ourselves to a cup of coffee at the café at the top. We then began the hike back to the point we knew we had to leave from. We overshot it, so we had to walk back down to it. What we didn't know is that we overshot it by much more than we saved, so instead of walking uphill for 45 minutes as the directions told us to, we walked downhill for about an hour fifteen. After arguments and a lot of downhill, we arrived at the trail.

From here, it was all up. It started out steep but not too technical, with very stark cliffs all around us. We then began traversing boulder fields, hopping from one boulder to the next, through some snow, and on very rocky paths. This was not easy. At a stream, we refilled our water bottles, enjoying the cold of the fresh snowmelt and praying that it wouldn't get us sick.

We went slowly, encouraging my mom the whole way. We then got to the verticals. First, it was snow. We walked across the vertical faces of large snow patches. In some parts, we had to go from snow to boulders, staying away from the edges of the snow where it had melted and a leg could (and in the case of my mom, did) fall through the snow.

The last part had a path, but required using our hands. We scrambled up slowly, the top now in sight. We were headed to the fenetre d'arpette, a window between two mountainscapes. After the last scrambling and a little more snow, we were there. From the top, it looked as if we had just climbed a cliff, and had a cliff to climb down on the other side. The view was stunning. To our left loomed a huge, blue glacier, and all around us were huge, snow covered peaks and cliffs. We ate a quick lunch, the wind rushing through the gap in the mountains, bringing dark, imposing clouds towards us.

We came from here...
....and had to go here:

Scared of what laid ahead, we finished lunch quickly and began our decent. It was down a path, but a very, very steep path, and we spent a lot of time scooting down on our butts. Naomi pointed out a small mammal, and a bit later, a baby ibex. After a very slow, tedious downhill, we were off the steepest part. It began to rain. Not hard, but enough to make us worry about the hours and hours we still had ahead of us. We heard a huge rumble, and saw a large piece of the glacier break off, and pour down the mountain in a shower of snow. A tragic but impressive display. The rain turned to hail as we continued down towards the river, though it seemed to get farther and farther the more we walked.

The rain slowed and then stopped, and we kept walking down. After two and a half hours, or more, we got to a refuge where we were hoping to refill water, but it was closed. From here, luckily, the path flattened, and became almost like a sidewalk. We walked on this, seeing lots of bright orange slugs, a snake, and frogs, for an hour or so. We then had a steep downhill to Trient, the town where we were going to sleep. Our shins and knees did not feel like they could go another step, and we got into town. Our directions pointed us in entierely the wrong way, so we walked the entire town before finding our hostel. We threw down our stuff, and went down to dinner, at 8:20. After a disappointing dinner, we fell into bed.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Day 19: Lavachey to Champex

After a shower and an uninspiring breakfast, we walked outside and waited for the bus. It came right on time, and brought us up the road, cutting about 45 minutes off the beginning of our hike. We got off the bus and hiked to the trail head. We could see, right above our heads, our first destination; a refuge. The walk was steep, but we had much worse to come. We had a view of a large glacier the whole time, and passed snow banks at every switchback.

We drank some tea at the refuge, and then got on our way. This was by far the hardest part of the hike: two hours of very steep, switchback filled trail up the face of the mountain. We walked with several groups, all moving at similar paces and taking stops at different times and frequencies. We took a lot of stops, and moved slowly. The scenery was beautiful: snow covered mountains, rocky ravines, and grassy faces. We made it to the top, walked through some snow patches, and took our lunch break at the peak; Italy on one side and Switzerland on the other. The Swiss side was snow covered, and though stunning, was very cold. With all our warm gear on, we ate, took photos, and schmoozed with the other hikers.

Our descent began on the snow. Naomi and I discovered the joy of running down the wet snow patches; it was almost as fun as sledding down, though not quite. This was a large portion of our hike; running through snow patches, stopping in the mud to wait for my parents, and then bounding ahead. We took a short break at the end of the snow, and then began a steep downhill to the valley.

The light at this point was amazing, the greens were so green, the whites so white, and everything else was so pronounced. We walked down a dirt road, cutting some switchbacks off on steep trails, and finally ended up at a bus stop. We waited twenty minutes, then boarded the bus. I slept while it took us to our first destination. We stopped in a small town, watched the football match for twenty minutes in a restaurant, and then got back in the bus. It took us up a mountain on a skinny, switchback laden road to Champex, where we are staying tonight. It is a beautiful little town by a little lake.

We showered and read email before dinner. During this time, I realized that I screwed up, and I don't have to be in Italy until a week after I thought I did, so right now I have an extra week on my hands with no plans. The view outside the hotel is outrageous, straight off a postcard. We ate dinner accompanied by the most stunning views of the Swiss alps. After dinner, we walked around the lake as the sun set.

I am now sitting on the deck outside my room writing this. The stars are just coming out over the peaks, as the last reds disappear in the west.

Day 18: Courmeyer to Lavachey

We're on hiking time now: wake up before seven, quick shower, quick breakfast. Though we were one of two families staying in the hotel (the recession is hitting them hard this summer), there was an impressive spread for breakfast. After eating and pocketing as many little nutella packets and cheese as we could fit, we left the hotel. While my dad bought lunch, I bought hiking socks, and then we began the hike. It started through the Italian town of Courmeyer, a pretty town filled with hikers. When we had finally passed through neighborhoods and fields of wildflowers, our ascent began with a vengeance. It was really steep. After a small breakdown, we distributed some weight and kept hiking.

Our trying first leg was rewarded with a stunning view of Mont Blanc and the surrounding alps. Just a few more minutes brought us up to a refuge, with tables, drinks, food, and a view. We talked with the other Americans at the refuge while eating what we had bought this morning. Though I was sitting in the sun, the cool breeze and nourishment felt perfect.

The next part of the hike was up and down along the edge of the mountain. We passed through grassy spots, wooded spots, and shrubby spots, and had to cross lots of snow melt streams. We crossed over a big one, and I held back to take some photos. By the time I caught up to them, they had turned around and were walking back towards me. We debated the route, chose one, and then were advised otherwise by some other hikers, and headed back the way we were going originally.

This was probably the prettiest leg of the hike. We had panoramic views of Mont Blanc, grassy meadows filled with wildflowers, and the occasional patch of snow. We walked the extra few hundred meters up the mountain to another refuge, where we rested and had a drink. When we felt ready to go, we began our steep descent to our refuge-turned-hotel. We were mostly on a farm road, but one I would not want to take any vehicle of value on. It was steep and rocky, but downhill. Running down the sections proved the easiest way down, but as my parents wouldn't even try it, our descent still took a long time. We finally got to the bottom and to our hotel, right by the gorgeous, freezing river. We passed out on the beds for a little, enjoying being flat and stationary until dinner time.

After dinner, which was good but not anywhere near as good as what we saw around us--I guess we were on the economy menu--Naomi and I walked around the river. When we started to get chilly, we headed inside. I beat my mom and sister in a few games of set, and we went to bed.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Day 17: We'll be comin around the mountain

We didn't wake up this morning until 9:15, so I got around ten hours of sleep. I guess I needed it. We had a good hotel breakfast with abundant fresh fruit, and then ventured quickly into town, St Remy de Provence. We'd heard about a chocolatier there who we needed to visit. We tried the cardamom, violet, and coffee chocolates, and bought some rosemary chocolates, which we have yet to taste.

We packed quickly and got in the car, beginning our long journey to the alps. Except for an epic experience getting gas that took half an hour, we drove straight to Annecy, a town with Mont Blanc in view, set on a gorgeous blue lake. We walked around a bit, ate a sandwich, and then Naomi, my mom and I rented kayaks and paddled around the lake. The weather was wonderful, and the scenery was beautiful. After paddling and splashing for quite a while, we met up with my dad, walked around the canal-laden town, and then got back in the car with wet butts.

After a gorgeous drive through the mountains, we arrived in Chamonix, an active, lively tourist town at the foot of Mont Blanc. We are staying in a hotel in Chamonix our last night of the hike, so we dropped off a bunch of stuff there that we won't be needing for the next five days. NB: for the next five days my family is hiking through the alps, around Mont Blanc. Some days we are carrying everything we need, and some days we have arranged for someone to take our luggage to the next hotel. We are hiking between eight and ten miles a day, with a good bit of elevation change each day.

After dropping of our stuff and the car, we got a taxi to Courmayeur, Italy, where we are staying tonight. We drove through the tunnel Mont Blanc, an 11.6 Km long tunnel through the mountain. There was a horrible fire in the tunnel several years ago that killed thirty nine people, so there are lots of safety precautions taken in the tunnel, including a police and fire station in the middle.

We got to our hotel, showered, and went down to dinner. We were the only ones in the hotel restaurant. We had an amazing four course meal, accompanied by a local red wine, and finished with a selection of local cheeses. My favorite was a cheese called toma. Hopefully we can find more tomorrow. Now, it is time to pack for the next two days and head to bed.

Day 16: Many Meetings

We got up slowly this morning, and ate poached eggs with bread, cheese and ham. I then tackled the task of packing all of my stuff. I drew out the process by calling the family I lived with when I was in France four years ago, in the hopes that we could meet for dinner tonight. When the packing was done, I headed to the workshop to finish the coat racks. It went better this time, and I finished in not much time. I sanded them, oiled them, and hung them temporarily for a photo op.

When this was finished, it was clean up time. We went out in the garden and cleaned up the wood and compost piles. We then moved to the little room in the garden, moved all the furniture out, and swept. Leaning on the outside of the workshop have been several huge beams that Garth took out of the house during the renovation. We brought those out to the pile of more huge beams. After some more crap-hauling, we were done.

We headed inside to do some swapping on the computer. While I made a playlist for Garth, he made one for me. We shared some photos and videos as well. While the computers did their thing, we set up some lunch, very similar to breakfast. It was then time to drive to Carcassonne to catch the train.

When we got there, only ten minutes before Cheryl's train. The ticket counters were closed, and the machines wouldn't take any credit cards. The trains that Cheryl and I were hoping to take were not listed. After Garth noted that no one was working at the station, I remembered my mom mentioning a strike that might be happening. And, as she predicted, it was. We scrambled a little trying to figure out my next moves. Garth offered to drive me to the highway to hitchhike to Avignon, but there seemed to be a train going in the right direction that was leaving in forty five minutes, so I declined. After hugs and goodbyes he left, leaving Cheryl and I in the station.

Cheryl watched my bags while I ran into the city to buy a pair of headphones. After I made my purchase, I looked around for a place to buy a Panach, a mix of beer and lemonade that I drank a lot of when I was in France four years ago. Unsuccessful, I grabbed some juices and jogged back to the station. We boarded the train, and took off eastward, no ticket in hand.

When we arrived in Narbonne, I collected my stuff and got off the train. As I was stepping off, I stopped. Right in front of me was a face I recognized. Taking a second look, I realized it was Peter Dutko, my good friend from Oberlin. I swear there are cosmic forces acting around me in strange, strange ways. After the shock, I turned around, got back on the train, and sat down with Peter and his sister. Excited and amazed, we talked about where we had been, what we had been doing, and everything else there was to catch up on. They got off at Sete for a walk around before winding up back home in Montpellier. I took it to the next stop, Montpellier, asked how to get to Avignon, and got back on the same train to Nimes. From there, I took a bus for about forty five minutes.

My parents picked me up from the station. We typed my french family's address into the tomtom, Jill, and drove there. I called as we pulled up, and my French father guided us into the driveway. It was so good to see them. After lots of hugs and hellos, they invited us onto the patio for drinks. My French brother Guillaume is studying in Touluse, so he wasn't there. Marion, my French sister hasn't changed a bit; she's still small, cute, and very, very quiet. The house is much more finished than when I was there, and they have a real swimming pool now. When I was there, they set up a blow-up above ground pool; the most popular spot around.

We spoke in French all night over a huge feast of grilled meats, soufles, and melons. It felt amazing to see them, to bring back memories, and to bring my two families together.

After a loud and animated meal, a delicious pear tart for dessert, and a photo sharing, it was time to head home. We got back to the hotel in St. Remy de Provence, and fell into bed.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Day 15: La Dernier

My last day of work started slowly. I had to figure out my next moves, connect with my parents, and I got to speak to my lovely Hannah who is far off in India. By about eleven, I was ready to get to work.

My first task was to oil all of the wood on the exterior of the house. Around each window, and in some random areas where a door used to be, are beautiful old pieces of wood. I brushed linseed oil on the beams, giving the wood a warm, dark tone and bringing out the details. This really pulls the exterior of the house together. I was very nearly finished when I was pulled away for tea time, and finished not long after. We then ate a quick lunch.

After lunch, Garth and I struggled to put the sculptures in the car. They are gorgeous metal sculptures, with profiles of faces that sit on top of wine glasses and bottles. The base, however, is almost solid concrete, and therefore outrageously heavy. We got them in safely, and got on the road. I had to either duck or lean forwards during the ride to avoid the sculptures. After a twenty minute drive, we arrived at Garth's friend Sophie's wine domain. She inherited the domain from her parents, and has been running it on her own for several years. All around the village are her vines, covering rolling hills, with the still snow capped Pyrenees in the distance. We met Sophie's mom as we unloaded the works of art commissioned by Sophie for the Salle de Degustation-the tasting room. Sophie came up from the vines, sweaty from setting up the wires for new growth. Sophie is lovely and sweet, and speaks little English, so we spoke almost entirely in French. She took us around, and into the cave, where the wine is made. There were six vats, each the size of a large bedroom, that, after harvest, are all filled with fermenting grape juice. She then invited us in for some grape juice, before we went on our way, two boxes of bottles of rose in hand.

Our next stop was the super market, where we had to buy provisions for the soiree tonight. We also stopped by the car mechanic, because Garth needs to replace his headlights.

We got back, unloaded the car, and I got to work welding. I first had to cut the handle at an angle, so Garth held the piece while I worked the metal chop saw. I then began to weld. It was quite easy this time, the metal was mostly thick enough, so it didn't melt too much, and my joints were strong and fairly clean. I then began work on the second, which was not so easy. After pulling my work apart several times due to the many axes I had to keep straight, Garth called me in.

I showered, and began to help him prepare dinner. Sophie came early, so she helped set things up. I lit the fire, and we opened a bottle of her rose, and we started a game of petanque, garth and me against Sophie and Cheryl. We were destroying them until Stephan rolled up on his bike. He took one ball, and began to set the girls on course for a comeback. The game ended with the guys just ahead of the girls plus Stephan.

As the massage table was still in the garden, and Sophie has been working hard in the fields, I gave her a massage. The fountains, light, and music made the garden the perfect setting for a massage. Halfway through, Alvin and Andrea showed up. When Alvin was finished trimming Garth's already short hair, and I was finished with sophie's back massage, I sat in the chair. I told him to give me a haircut that would make my mom happy, and here's what I got:

We then sat down for dinner. There was fresh baked bread by Alvin, oysters, grilled sardines, and salad. We had a wonderful time, they are a great group of close friends, and a pleasure to spend time with. After dinner, we fed the weeds from the garden to the fire to try and smoke out the mosquitoes, to everyone's amusement if not relief from the bites. After some dancing, Sophie went home, and Stephan rode out not long after her. We went inside. Andrea and Garth looked around the house, Garth taking as much helpful advice as he could from the master builder. Alvin and Andrea then headed out.

The night ended, of course, with an episode of So You Think You Can Dance, probably the last one I'll be watching for quite a long time.

Day 14: Winding Down

Today was the day I was to finish taking the render off the walls. It was a beautiful day. After breakfast, I got on the ladder, ready to knock out the last bits. Of course, what looked soft and easy to pick off had withstood a hundred years of tunneled winds, and was hard as cement. Where I could, I used the pneumatic pick. However, I couldn't take it all the way up the two-story wall, due to its weight and tendency to kick back at times.

Just before lunch, I finished. Still full of momentum, I went to the garden and pulled out some tenacious vines, flowers, and a tree that persisted after being cut down in full years ago.

We ate lunch in the garden, and then took a siesta. I read in the hammock until I dozed off for a few. When I got up, I swept and shoveled the lyme into buckets, ready to take to the dump. Garth and I dumped the render, and stopped by Alvin's. He and Andrea have made a lot of progress on the swimming pool, and it looks great. After inviting them to dinner for tomorrow, and requesting a haircut (as Alvin was a hair stylist for 14 years before he became a photographer), we headed to the Roquetaillard dump to look for metal scraps. The first thing we found was exactly what I was looking for: a pitchfork. We rummaged around, collected a few bits of interest, and saw a huge green lizard. We drove up the hill, back home.

Looking at the two metal gardening utensils, I decided that curling the tines instead of attaching steel balls to the ends would be more elegant. I started up the fire, and waited for it to heat up. After a short tutorial, I got to work. Metal work in the fire--could I be any happier? After working for an hour or two, it was time to clean up. After a shower, Garth and I dragged the massage table outside. I gave Garth a massage, while the veggies were on the grill.

We had dinner, and then played a vicious game of petanque. Garth took the lead early, and kept it, beating me this time around. After coming very close to finishing my book, I fell asleep.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Day 13: Fete de la Crap

I woke up this morning ready for a day of hard work. After breakfast, I headed up the ladder to finish picking off the render. This was probably the greatest test of my courage yet this trip. The wind was blowing ferociously, so I feared being blown over and I had dust pouring into my face, nose, and eyes. On top of that, I was working directly over a beehive. We plugged it up so bees could not get out as I whacked their hive with a pick, but as the bees returned home, they flew around, confusedly trying to located their hive.

When this was finished, I began to work on getting some concrete render off the walls lower down. For this I used the pneumatic pick. I worked until tea time, then until lunch. After lunch I forwent a siesta to work on the welding I thought was finished; it had not withstood the test of time. It is much stronger now.

After welding, I got back to work on the wall. I finished everything at around 5:00, and had one more task to complete. For the wall to look really good, I painted the metal beam that supports the front door. The wall looks great.

After cleaning up, it was time to go to Limoux for the fete de la musique, a France-wide festival of music. On street corners all over France, bands play, and big acts perform too. When we got to Limoux at about 6:30, the main stage was empty, and there was another little stage with a bad DJ. We met Stephan for a drink in the main square, and the main acts began. There was a women in her forties singing French classics from the sixties, mixing in some American classics such as the song from Titanic. She was backed up by a recorded track. Alternating in with her was a man in his sixties, singing equally bad, prerecorded French classics. After I danced once with Cheryl, and the drunk who was cheering almost asked her for a dance, Stephan and Cheryl and I decided to look around for more music. Garth headed to Alvin's for a dinner party, promising to return at 11. After walking the whole city and finding nothing, not even an open Creperie, we ended up eating dinner in one of the restaurants in the square. After eating, and subjecting ourselves to more of the same performance (trust me, the songs got better each time he sang them), we headed into the bar to watch the Spain/Honduras game. The bar was empty; I think the French have given up on the World Cup this year after their embarrassing defeat.

After the game, Stephan went home. His house is on rue Paussifile. Say that out loud. Cheryl and I took a walk around Limoux, down to the water, and then back to the square, where Garth picked us up, fresh bread Alvin had just baked in hand. After a small glass of Banyuls, a Port-like wine from the coast near here, I headed to bed.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Day 12: Recovery

The first time I woke up this morning, I was gripped with panic. I heard a car engine start, and I thought it was garth's, my ride. After refuting that thought, another, equally frightening thought was that Thomas, Garth's brother, and the one operating the car, had to pull forwards to get out,
right through my temporary bed.

Garth woke me up for real at about nine. I sat up slowly, the morning light was bright and gorgeous. Soon, we were driving back towards Thomas and Alice's home. We arrived to find Thomas asleep, the girls chipper and playing, and Alice nursing a hell of a hangover, lying on the couch while trying to supervise the children. I played with the kids while Garth made some tea and toast. Telula, the two-year-old, sported the cutest nutella mustache I've ever seen.

We lazed around most of the morning, shying away from bright lights and loud noises. At about noon, Garth and I headed to his friend's house, about ten minutes away. Jim, whom we met at the party last night, made a lot of money in London with an IT company, sold it, and now lives in France, enjoying himself and raising a family with his wife. They live in the maison de maitre, the largest house in the village, and have been renovating it. They have commissioned Garth to create a light sculpture that will hang in a cut out that spans three floors. After a perfect cup of coffee, and some photos taken of the space, we headed back to Thomas' house, to say goodbye and pick up Cheryl, who had passed out on an extra bed.

We got on the road, headed back home. On the way, we found a huge Sunday flea market, and decided to stop. I've never seen so much crap in one concentrated area. We walked around, stopped for a sausage sandwich, and then continued exploring the junk. I did find a nice little messenger bag, for a whopping two euros.

I fell asleep only minutes after returning to Garth's. It was a deep, beautiful, well needed Sunday afternoon sleep. I woke up around 7:30, helped prepare dinner, and we ate a delicious meal of mashed potatoes, salad, and duck.

After dinner we finished the last "ten minutes" of the SYTYCD episode Garth and Cheryl started before dinner, which lasted almost an hour. We decided against watching a movie, and crawled into bed, enjoying the warmth of the blankets and wood stove instead.