Monthly Archives: June 2007

Life: Art Saves

The chateauI basically carjacked someone today.  Yep.  I was hitchhiking, and a car stopped, so I went up to it, opened the door, and got in.  A few minutes down the road, it dawned on me that the guy had stopped to make a left-hand turn, and I just assumed that he had stopped to pick me up.  But no.  I opened the passenger door anyway and hopped inside.  The conversation was awkward in French, and when he dropped me off at my destination, he turned his car around and headed back in the direction he came.  That’s when it hit me:  ohmygosh.  I’m a carjacker.

Anyhow, these are the joys of life without a vehicle besides a bike.  I was also able to work out a last-minute ride (no hitchhiking involved) to Geneva this week to attend a celebration of my friend Andy Parkin’s work.  His career’s largest sculpture was unveiled on Thursday night at Chateau Pictet-Lullin—a proper castle—overlooking Lake Geneva.  The place was chock full of modern art and ancient books that made me drool.  

Andy Parkin talking art

Andy had been working on this commission for over a year, a sculpture of a sail made mostly out of recycled copper. The Chateau Pictet-Lullin Sail Welded into the sail’s structure are parts of a stove, a radiator, a fondue pot, and a lamp, among other things.  It’s over four times as tall as Andy is, and it’s also meant to be climbed.

The chateau grounds also contained a vineyard, so wine flowed freely…along with loads of good food—risotto, veggies, shrimp, steak skewers, and mini-crème brulees.  I will admit—I have been feeling down-and-out lately, and it’s not just the weather.  Stress about future work and life is beginning to build, but being able to celebrate another person’s life and work felt like such an instant relief.

Landscape: Gushing Glacial Streams

Magic Water FaucetWhen British Romantic poet William Wordsworth was a student at Cambridge, he took off on one of his summer vacations for a walking tour of the Alps. He and his buddy Robert Jones walked over 500 miles south through France during the summer of 1790, and when they showed up in Chamonix, they walked up into the mountains and stood there, enchanted with the area’s “streams of ice, a motionless array of mighty waves, five rivers broad and vast,” Wordsworth later wrote in his autobiographical poem The Prelude.

Last week, on my own little walking tour, I couldn’t help but notice how this place changes when it rains. Waterfalls seem to sprout magically out of rocks around every bend, and the ones that normally just trickle turn into gushing glacial streams. Rickety bridges cross over falls that rumble beneath their planks, so that when you walk over them, you can feel the thudding in your boots.

Rickety Alpine Bridge

Not a good place to slip:

Don’t Look Down

The downside of last week’s rain was that I had to sit around for a few hours while my gear dried out, but the upside was that I could find a “faucet” pretty easily whenever I needed one for the next few days.

Literature: Gilbert’s Last American Man

“Be awake, Eustace said (laughing at the very simplicity of it), and you will succeed in this world. …Only through constant focus can you become independent. Only through independence can you know yourself. And only through knowing yourself will you be able to ask the key questions of your life: What is it that I am destined to accomplish, and how can I make it happen?”

-Elizabeth Gilbert, in The Last American Man (2002)

Tim Burton on AspiringI tried to keep my backpack light as I ran around in the Alps earlier this week, but I did pack two books: my black, unlined Moleskine journal (a staple), and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man (this week’s read). The book was such a page-turner that I hardly wrote in my journal while I was away, and I stayed up until 2:30 last night to finish it.

The Last American Man (2002) is the true story of man named Eustace Conway. This guy lives in a teepee in North Carolina and lives off the land. He has acquired over a thousand acres of living space and invited others to join him at the place he calls Turtle Island. Although Eustace Conway is an endlessly fascinating figure, Gilbert’s exploration of his life goes beyond the level of a simple character sketch. She’s probing deep into American consciousness and asking questions about what it means to be a modern American man and what it really means to live a simple life. She draws upon American history and looks at this country’s pioneer spirit; she considers how maleness is often linked with myth. In Gilbert’s book, Eustace Conway emerges as an incredibly accomplished and romantic figure, but Gilbert also shows us the complexity and tragedy of his life. I have nothing but praise for this book—Gilbert is lighthearted and full of humor, but she’s also serious enough to consider the deeper threads that weave this man’s life into the web of American society—even though he has in many ways set himself apart from it.

This book is inspiring and carefully crafted, and I highly recommend it to: anyone wanting to read about a genuine life, anyone looking for some inspiration to break free from a prescribed way of living, anyone who has ever thought about living off the land, and anyone who might like to think more about this notion of “the contemporary American male.”

(BTW: the above photo is actually of a British man–Tim Burton, descending from New Zealand’s Mt. Aspiring.)

Life: Out and About

The Road to BuetI walked out of my front door here in Chamonix (Les Tines) on Sunday evening with a backpack, some climbing gear, and three days of food. I thought that I might meet up with some pals at one of the high mountain huts on Monday night to do some climbing the next day, but when those plans fell through, I decided to stay out alone. I’ve been wanting to do some exploring on the backside of the Aiguilles Rouges, which is the series of peaks opposite the area’s more famous ones in the Mont Blanc massif. When someone suggested that I climb Mont Buet (3094m), I thought that it sounded like a great idea.  Buet’s not glaciated nor too technical, so it was something that I could do alone. And what made the idea even more attractive is that Buet is on the backside of the Aiguilles Rouges, so I plotted a route that allowed me to traverse the range and walk back into the Chamonix valley this morning (Wednesday).

It all sounds simple enough, I know, and even though I spent the first night awake as a massive downpour slapped at my little bivouac from all angles, things dried quickly and nothing major went wrong. The home away from home, a blue North Face trek bivy, was light and functional (despite its poorly-designed pole system; I decided that only the front one is useful):

Chez Moi

I spent the next afternoon walking up the Bérard Valley and slept out a short walk from the Buet summit. I would have suffered through ten nights of rain for the view on top—it was spectacular weather, and I could see the peaks distinctly. The sloping summit on the far right is Mont Blanc; in the same range but to the left of it are the Chamonix Aiguilles, and then the Aiguilles Rouges stretch out in front. I love living inside of that valley, but it’s even better to look down on it from above.

Oh La La!

Whenever I go into the mountains around here, I hope to see my three favorite local mountain-dwellers (in this order): the chamois (because they’re a rare beauty, long-necked like llamas but fast like deer), the marmots (because they’re wacky, like carpets with legs), and the ibex (because they’re fearless climbers, and I like their horns). I’m a crap wildlife photographer, though, and after catching only this one decent ibex, I have a new respect for anyone who can do the genre some justice.


Getting over the Aiguilles Rouges was tricky, but I climbed down through the Col des Crochues and then slept out above Lac Blanc. I arrived thirsty and tired that evening (having walked up Buet the same morning). Even though I had hoped to meet up with some others to climb (I don’t cross glaciers alone or climb anything technical without a rope), I was glad for the time and space to myself. I’ve known it for a long time, but these last few days were a good reminder: going out alone is good for the soul.

Landscape: Out Exploring

Out ExploringI’m loading up my backpack and leaving the Chamonix valley this afternoon for some walking and climbing in the local hills (read: The Alps). Plans are vague. But I promise to come back with some more intimate reflections on this place—its glaciers, ice cliffs, moraines, and marmots, among other things.

See you back on Down and Out soon!

Literature: Mathiessen’s End of the Earth

“I am awed by these creatures and their adaptations, as I also am—please forgive my digressions—by icebergs, whales, the sea and ships, circumpolar currents, geologic time, the origins and evolutionary histories of life-forms, the quirks of birds, birders, and explorers, antifreeze in fish blood, the blue in ice, human folly, the ozone hole, and the earthly balances upset by global warming—in short, the mysteries of the natural world in their endless variations, the myriad petals of creation that open up and fall away in every moment.” –Peter Mathiessen, in End of the Earth (2003)

Voyaging in AntarcticaEarlier this year, I spent five months working in communications at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Antarctica is a place that has seriously gotten under my skin since I first went there in 2003, but I was ready to leave by the end of this year’s contract. After those five months, I found myself missing things that you can only get above 60-degrees South latitude—things like spring flowers, gas station coffee, road bikes, and microbrews. But—funny—now that I’m back in a place where I can find those things, I find myself thinking of The Ice. I take little journeys there in my mind, and a recent read, Peter Matthiessen’s End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica (2003), has also helped revivify my memories of the place I love.

Matthiessen is also the author of The Snow Leopard (1978), which is about his work with zoologist George Schallar in the Dolpo region of the Nepalese Himalaya; The Snow Leopard is a classic in the natural history category, The Polar Sea and End of the Earth is characteristic Matthiessen in that it also involves a journey interspersed with history and the author’s acute observations of the natural world. In End of the Earth, Matthiessen actually takes two journeys, both to Antarctica and both by sea. In the first, he sails through the stomach-churning Drake Passage from the tip of South America in order to view wildlife on the Antarctic Peninsula. On his second journey, Matthiessen sets off from Hobart, Tasmania to Antarctica’s Ross Sea, still hoping to see the emperor penguin that has so far eluded him.

Even though seeing the emperor penguin was one of Matthiessen’s objectives, he admits that this singular goal simply “was not good enough” to justify the voyage when he still had many things undone at home. “I might mutter uncomfortably that Antarctica is monumental, an astonishment,” Matthiessen further explores the reasons for his desire to go back, “…More than any region left on Earth, I plead, Whale sightings Antarctica is immaculate, inviolable, a white fastness of pristine air and ice and virgin glacier and the farthest end of Earth, where frigid seas abound in marine creatures in a diversity still marvelously intact—all true, all true. Yet there is something else.” Matthiessen, in the end, doesn’t tell us outright what that “something else” is, but a person can’t read this book without getting at least an idea of the incredible allure of this place.

For more “Down and Out” on Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, click here.

For more “Down and Out” on Antarctica, see the December 2006 through February 2007 archives.

Life: NON! NON! NON!

The GendarmerieLast weekend, I participated in my first French protest. Being in France, the event involved passionate shouting, some gendarmerie (police), and—of course—bikes. It was the Chamonix valley’s annual “NON AUX CAMIONS!” bike ride from Passy le Fayet to Chamonix, an environmental protest against commercial trucking in the area. “Camions” are what the French call semis—and the people that live here in the valley are opposed to the pollution that the trucks bring while transporting goods through the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Enviro Bikers

The police blocked off traffic along the 20-kilometer stretch of major highway while we cycled up the alpine pass, portions of it elevated high, as if it were propped up on stilts. Cars passing in the opposite direction honked their horns and blinked their lights. Protest banners had been draped on overpasses along the way.

Alpine Pass on Stilts

Over 400 people—ranging in age from 4 to 84—gathered for the ride on all types of bikes—road, mountain, recumbent bikes, and cruisers. My favorite was an old brown cruiser with a workable front light (a good bike for riding home late at night in Chamonix, I thought). The guy who rode it wore a white haz-mat suit with the campaign’s characteristic logo on its back.

Happy Cruiser Guy

We whooped and hollered through the tunnels, and as we rode into town, a cheering group of fellow-protestors held up banners and began chanting “Non aux camions!” (it rhymes in French). Overall, the protest was tame for France. There were no fireworks or street fires—as I observed last summer during the World Cup finals. No one looted anything or toppled any cars—as has happened in recent protests near Paris. No heads got chopped off. But I could still feel it, that fiery French spirit, in the air.

For more photos and info about the campaign, see the ARSMB website: here.

Landscape: Mont Blanc, Unveiled

“From a bare ridge we also first beheld
Unveiled the summit of Mont Blanc…
…The wondrous Vale
Of Chamouny stretched far below, and soon
With its dumb cataracts and streams of ice,
A motionless array of mighty waves,
Five rivers broad and vast, made rich amends,
And reconciled us to realities…”

-William Wordsworth, in The Prelude (1850)

May Snow in ChamGray skies and an unexpected snow kept the mountains hiding for over a week after I arrived back in the French Alps. I knew that they were there—those colossal forms covered in snow and ice—but the low clouds kept me from catching a glimpse of them. When the Chamonix skies opened up over the weekend, I finally saw it: Mont Blanc, unveiled.

Mont Blanc Unveiled

Rather—the entire Mont Blanc massif is what I wanted to see—its collection of peaks inspire me more than the sloping summit of Mont Blanc, itself. Jagged rock spires called aiguilles (“needles,” in English) run up and down the massif for as far as the eye can see, in both directions, and on both sides of the valley.


At night, after the sky turns from soft blue to inky purple to black, I still feel the presence of those forms. They loom—in a someone-watching-over-you kind of way—so that even when you can’t see them, you know that their summits are still there, touching stars or floating in the clouds.

Touching Stars

Literature: Tales of a Female Nomad

“The fear of sounding foolish is the insidious enemy of learning a foreign language.” –Rita Golden Gelman, in Tales of a Female Nomad (2001)

Small WorldRita Golden Gelman is a modern-day nomad. She has been on the go for over twenty years, traveling all over the world to live within different cultures and to learn from the people she meets along the way. RGG says: “I’ve been living my nomadic existence since the day in 1986 when, at the age of forty eight, on the verge of a divorce, I looked around and thought, ‘There has to be more than one way to do life.’ There is.” Her book, Tales of a Female Nomad, is a collection of tales about how people “do life” all over the globe.

As I read RGG’s book this week, one theme emerged: it’s that in order to be with others and to learn from them, a person must consciously live in the present. “While I’m here,” says RGG—“here,” meaning wherever she is at the time— “I want to be 100 percent here…When I am writing, I am inside the sound and meaning of the words…When I am eating, I luxuriate in the taste and texture of every bite…And when I am with people, I am really with them.” Espousing this attitude, RGG has been able to move throughout the world and share meals with women in their kitchens or around their cook fires. She has slept in palaces and thatched huts. She has learned to speak in foreign languages and to communicate without words. RGG is older than my mom, and I found her story to be an inspiration because it’s really a story about living without constraints. Age, gender, color, and culture do not stop this lady from living out her passion for people.

Traci Macnamara cruising 50ccOne of my friends working in the Peace Corps in a rural village in Fiji sent this book to me, and while I read it last week, it made me wonder at what point a person attains “nomad” status. I haven’t had a permanent address in nearly four years, so I wonder if I fall into the category. I’ve been hoping for more stability in my life (this autumn, I’ve promised myself, I will stay put)—but RGG’s book certainly rekindled my desire to be present within these beautiful moments of geographic unrest.