Monthly Archives: May 2007

Life: An American in Chamonix

Choices ChoicesMountaineering boots or pointy Italian pumps? Or both? With luggage restrictions continuing to tighten, there’s only room for so much. And last week when I flew from NYC to Geneva, I had to decide how I’d lighten my load for a return to the Alps. I arrived in Chamonix, France a week ago with two checked bags and one small carry-on (British Airways doesn’t allow the “plus a personal item” anymore). It’s my third summer here, and I was so excited to be back in Cham that I didn’t care a bit about luggage by the time I stepped off the plane. It’s a good thing—because my bags got lost anyhow (typical Europe), so flip-flops and grimy clothes had to suffice.

Turistas

Chamonix, most simply, is Europe’s playground. The city center is at an altitude of about 3,000 feet, and Mont Blanc (the highest peak) rises just under 16,000 feet above town. Chamonix is completely surrounded by mountains—and tourists come here to see them, tripping over themselves on cobbled streets while looking up at the dizzying needle-sharp summits. The peaks remain snow-covered all year, making Chamonix an alpine climbing destination in the summer and a hot ski spot in the winter.

Stacking Wood at La Grange

I have been unable to get this place out of my mind since I first came here in the summer of 2005. In the intermediate two years, I have worked and saved up enough money to return twice—staying until (or beyond) that savings runs out. Last year was a financial disaster, as I ran out of money a few days after I broke my ankle here while climbing—and then I didn’t have all of the debt paid off until December. Obviously, I’m hoping that this summer isn’t such a money pit.

Cou CouAs an American in Chamonix, though, working is technically illegal, so I agreed earlier this week to help a friend stack a winter’s worth of wood outside of his chalet. He gave me tea and cookies in return for a morning of physical labor. And this is how things work here—with simple exchanges among friends. Last summer, I seemed to be the valley’s dog watcher, as I had a few gigs taking care of people’s pets in exchange for accommodation. It worked well, and I even taught Cou Cou how to climb (he already knows how to ski).

Anyhow, this is the beginning of the Chamonix days—so more upcoming. Oh—and the pointy Italian pumps? C’est dommage. They had to stay in the States.

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Landscape: NYC’s Greenspace

Central Park Reservoir Running TrackI love to visit NYC, but after a few days there, I end up feeling kind of trapped. I think that people who thrive in the city must draw energy from its tight-packed structure, its buzzing traffic, its restaurants, museums, and bars. I can appreciate these things fully for ten days. Tops. And then I need to get some fresh air. While I don’t think that NYC could contain a substitute for the landscapes I love most—mountainous, snowy, and sparse—I’ve found out that daily excursions to Central Park can be revivifying. Luckily, the park is a short jog from The Sister’s apartment, so I took my running breaks there last week during my visit.

Central Park’s reservoir running track is one of my favorite areas to revisit. The dirt track circles underneath mature shade trees, and if you look straight ahead, you might forget that you’re in the city. Look left, and you’ll see the skyline framed by leafy shadows—a nice juxtaposition of the urban and the wild.

The Urban and The Wild

Venture off the track, and the cityscape disappears altogether. If you’ve been reading “Down and Out,” you’ll know about my penchant for “sexy lines”—and I was not disappointed to find meandering paths and curvy natural lines throughout the park.

Central Park’s Sexy Lines

Central Park is also packed with little details that make me smile: purple flowers in bloom, worn wooden bridges, and old ladies running in pearls. Even when I’m running in Central Park, I feel like the place invites me to slow down—to see the minute pixels of beauty in a city that, to me, often feels larger than life.

It’s in the details

Literature: Dillard’s Tinker Creek

“I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.”

–Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)

I see fireIn her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard explores the creek near her home in Virginia with an infectious curiosity. Dillard’s writing ranges from detailed notes on the lives of muskrats to reflections on more grand-scale things such as “seeing” and light and God. “I propose to keep here what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’” she says, “telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights dizzingly lead.” She adds: “I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood.”

Reading Dillard’s book feels like taking a stroll through a maze of wonder. At every turn, Dillard guides us around an edge that opens up to something unexpected. She couples humor and surprise with seriousness about her subject matter, and what emerges is a beautifully balanced story. The book rolls smoothly through a diverse set of topics all centered around Tinker Creek, and we end up with not just a place but a sense of how that place elevates the mind, spirit, and soul.

A few gems from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is flat, and fleeting, and gone.”

“I cannot cause light. The most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

“Slow it down more, come closer still. A dot appears, a flesh-flake. It swells like a balloon; it moves, circles, slows, and vanishes. This is your life.”

“If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.”

“You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled.”

Life: The Re-Visitor

“I have been roaming far and wide over this island of Manhattan… The city is thronged with strangers, and everything wears an aspect of intense life.”
-Edgar Allan Poe

CabbieSome people might think that driving a car in Manhattan is an adventure. And I would tend to agree. I might also add that driving a car in Manhattan is like gambling, like playing Russian roulette. Your body is the bullet. The car is the gun.

I drove into Manhattan on Sunday night, and I found myself sandwiched between a semi and another car in the Lincoln tunnel, my heart racing as if I had just come in from running sprints. If I lived in Manhattan, I wouldn’t have to work out to get my heart rate up. I would just have to drive a car to stay in shape.

Empire State BuldingDriving aside, Manhattan is an OK place. When I come here, I’m usually on my way in or out of the country, and I like to spend a few days with The Sister, who lives here. I tend to revisit my favorite places: DTUT for daily coffee, Central Park for afternoon running breaks, and Otto Enoteca for dinner. I think that people are either re-visitors, or they aren’t. You know what I mean? Either you have this impulse to branch out all of the time and go to new places, or you find the places that you really love, and then you keep going back to those places. I don’t know what it might imply about my personality, but I am definitely a re-visitor.

And this is why. I like to have memories of place that develop over time. The Sister and I meet up at Otto, for example. We sit at the bar and order the Prosecco. Dennis, the bartender, comes over and asks us what kind of cheese we want, because he knows that we love cheese. I say we want the triple cream, no matter what, and I let The Sister choose the other two. Peter, the wine guy, comes over to say hello.SistazWe decide on a wine. We order pizza. We finish off the evening with a cordial; we call it mead. This is the script, and over the past few years, it has had some variations. Maybe a boyfriend would enter the scene, or GP would meet up with us, and we would sit at a table. Rebecca would be there. Or we would eat pasta instead of pizza. Gelato instead of mead. It’s the variations of the experience that make it grow richer over time, even though I like that fact that some things can still remain the same.

Landscape: Country Roads

Future Derby Star?I’ve been back in Louisville, Kentucky this week visiting my parents, and just outside their door, country roads stretch out like the world’s longest roller coaster. I get on my road bike and cruise their ups and downs across shade-dappled surfaces. I pass through sweet-smelling honeysuckle patches. A snake slithers in the ditch.

In Louisville, I learned how to ride a bike. I was 18, and I didn’t know that bike tires had tubes (or that those tubes needed to be filled with air). I had never heard of clipless pedals. And I didn’t know how to stand up in the saddle to climb a hill. I just knew that I had this desire for speed, and once I got on a road bike, those other details didn’t matter.

Farmhouse

In the summer after I started riding, I crashed in my first bike race, I broke my first bone, and I had my first experience with roadrash—which is like a burn, a flaying of the flesh, but the result of body-surfing across asphalt. It was an ugly debut into a sport that somehow stuck.

Moooooooo!

Despite its painful beginnings, cycling remains (over a decade later) the source of much pleasure. I went on from Louisville to race in college and then move to Colorado Springs for better racing and training partners. I started track racing. I eventually quit. But I still ride, and I still maintain that cycling is the best way to get a feel for a place.

Bluegrass Roots

Literature: Emmy D Frenzy

Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be;
Attended by a Single Hound–
Its own Identity.
                  

-Emily Dickinson, in Complete Poems (1924)

Slash of Blue in New ZealandEmily Dickinson (1830-1886) had a wicked eye for detail. The natural world breathes in her poetry—it’s living color and light. Dickinson was also somewhat of an interesting character—she lived pretty much as a recluse in her father’s house. She only published seven poems during her lifetime, but she was crazily prolific and left behind over 2,000 poems when she died. Maybe her work was misunderstood by her contemporaries—all of those unconventional dashes and off-rhymes—but I’m sure she was just ahead of her time. When I read—and reread—her work today, I see its timelessness—for when do beauty, love, and life grow old?

Below, I’ll post her “A Slash of Blue,” which shows her characteristic vivid natural imagery…and may also hint at her attitudes towards the Civil War.  Scholars think that she wrote it in 1860 or ’61.  This one just stuck out at me today as I was reading.  But I’m also pasting links to some of my other favorites published online at Bartleby.com. This collection of 597 poems is divided up into five sections (Life, Nature, Love, Time and Eternity, and The Single Hound).

“A slash of Blue,” Emily Dickinson (poem 204 in Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1955):

A slash of Blue —
A sweep of Gray —
Some scarlet patches on the way,
Compose an Evening Sky —
A little purple — slipped between —
Some Ruby Trousers hurried on —
A Wave of Gold —
A Bank of Day —
This just makes out the Morning Sky. 

Further reading:

“I’m nobody! Who are you?”; “A bird came down the walk:”; “Some keep the Sabbath going to church”; “Much madness is divinest sense”; “Adventure most unto itself”; “Success is counted sweetest”; “I’m wife; I’ve finished that”; “There’s a certain slant of light”; “The soul selects her own society”; “Wild nights! Wild nights!”; “Title divine is mine”

Read on…those are just starters!

(The photo above is of a sunrise from a rock bivy in New Zealand’s Rees Valley– probably the most spectacular natural display of color I’ve seen in the past three months.)

Life: The Ride

Peace Out, Boulder.My friend Andy’s transportation options include a motorcycle, a 1966 Volkswagen van, two bikes, and a bush plane. He has lived in Boulder, Colorado for over 20 years, and he regularly flew the bush plane to work when he worked full-time out of an office in Denver. He’d ride his motorcycle out to the Boulder airstrip and have a truck waiting for him at the landing strip in Denver, which happens to be a convenient two-mile ride away from the office. The first time I heard this about Andy, it ignited in me a fire of ideas. I knew only a few people who had their pilot’s licenses, and I still haven’t met anyone else who flies into the office. The things we never think of.

I drove up from Denver last night to meet Andy for dinner in Boulder, and I had never been to his place before. But as soon as I turned down his street, I knew where he lived. An unmistakable rainbow-colored Volkswagen was parked out front. Groovy.

Andy’s Rainbow Van.

Being a van-lover, I squealed with delight and promptly asked for a tour. We first inspected the exterior, which is painted with a rainbow band, clouds, and a cluster of flowers.

“Wow. Did you paint it yourself?” I asked.
“Yeah, me and about ten friends…and a pot of mushroom tea,” he said, scratching his head.

We popped open the engine compartment, and he explained how he’d replaced the original air-cooled engine for a water-cooled one. I ran my fingers over the radiator mounted on the vehicle’s left side. Mechanical genius.

The Living Room

Andy’s van has a pretty good living room—the bench seat looks comfy, and it pulls out into a bed that sleeps two. He told me that he sometimes comes out to sit at the table—because that’s the best place to pirate wireless from his neighbors (a man after my own heart, truly).

Super Sexy Split Window

Despite all of his vehicle’s strong points, I’d say that the split window is its sexiest feature.  The windshield was beautifully curved, perfectly proportioned and balanced by the split down the middle.

Before heading into town, Andy asked me what we should drive to dinner: my rental car, his motorcycle, or the van.
“The van, for sure,” I said.
“You wanna drive?”
“Nah. You go for it.” I strapped myself into the passenger’s seat:  sometimes it’s just better to enjoy the ride.