Monthly Archives: July 2009

Day 1: Wordsworth Alpine Adventure

“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

Trail SignEarlier this week, I returned from an eight-day adventure retracing the footsteps of poet William Wordsworth from Chamonix, France to Como, Italy. The next several posts will be devoted to this journey, which involved walking many miles, bivouacking in a forest, hitching a ride with an old lady in Sion, and sleeping with mice in an attic, among other adventures and misadventures. The point of it all was to walk, as Wordsworth did with his friend Robert Jones in 1790, and learn from Nature the “plain and universal reason of mankind, the truths of young and old.” Wordsworth wrote about his journey to the Alps and the grand ideas it produced in his autobiographical poem, The Prelude (1850). I can’t say that I had such lofty revelations as those along the way, but I did have some deep thoughts and a lot of fun, too.

On Sunday afternoon, I started the walk right from my front door in Chamonix. Within a few hours, I had reached the town of Le Tour and was tempted to hop on the Col de Baume lift, which would have—in a flash—taken me to the top of a great hill:

Baume Lift Station

I resisted. Honestly. Instead of taking the lift (which wasn’t there 200 years ago when Wordsworth came to the area), I continued walking up, up, up until I reached the top of the Col de Baume and had this view looking back on Chamonix (Mont Blanc is the white blob in the center of the photo):

Chamonix Col Baume

At this point, I’ve already crossed a border, and I had this steep descent into Switzerland in front of me:

Switzerland Border

This is the Alps, right? So as soon as I descended, I had to climb up yet another high pass, the Col de la Forclaz. I snacked at a hotel at the top of the col and watched cyclists buzz by, as the Tour de France stage ended in nearby Verbier that day. From the top of the col, I had a view of my destination–Martigny, a big town near the France-Switzerland border:

Martigny Eve

Here is where I made my first route-finding error. Instead of just bombing down this big hill, I traversed along the mountainside, and it took forever. So I didn’t make it all the way to Martigny that night, and I ended up sleeping in the woods. I carried a bivouac sac and sleeping bag with me, so I just plopped my sleep gear down on a bed of pine needles and slept for the night. In the morning, I woke with a start to the sound of a barking dog. Evidently, someone’s vicious sheep dog didn’t like the smell of me so nearby…

Note: this post is one in a series of posts about my recent attempt to retrace William Wordsworth’s footsteps from Chamonix, France to Como, Italy on the walking holiday the poet took with his friend Robert Jones in 1790.

Life: The Wordsworth Way

“When the third summer freed us from restraint, / A youthful friend, he too a mountaineer, / Not slow to share my wishes, took his staff, / And sallying forth, we journeyed side by side, / Bound to the distant Alps…” –William Wordsworth in The Prelude

walkin bootsWithin the next hour, I’ll be taking off on a very haphazardly planned backpacking trip. In total, I will cover approximately 210 miles through France, Switzerland, and Italy. I don’t know yet how I will be getting home. I’ve chosen my route based on the poetry of William Wordsworth…and not upon some massively well-planned-out-and-popular-alpine-trekking-tourist route, so I’m not exactly sure what adventures I’ll run into along the way. I only have maps for half of the distance at this point…


I’m planning on retracing the route that Wordsworth took from Chamonix, France (where I’m currently living) to Como, Italy on the walking tour he made with his friend Robert Jones in the summer of 1790. I’ve wanted to do this for years…ever since I first studied Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem, The Prelude, in graduate school. I recently spent a week at The Wordsworth Trust’s reading room in Grasmere, England to brush up on my research and find more out about the route they took.

My research in England shocked me in some ways…basically, I realized how freaking fast these guys were moving. They covered the 210-mile distance in seven days, and I’m hoping to do the same. To this end, I’ve packed only a light pack, with bivouac gear for sleeping, and I’m hoping to buy food in towns or eat at huts along the way (so I’m not taking a stove and fuel, etc.).

packed pack

I’ll be checking in with my gal pal Louise each day, hoping to stick to the following itinerary (Wordsworth’s in 1790):

Sunday, July 19: Chamonix, France to Martigny, Switzerland
Monday, July 20: Martigny to “village beyond Sion,” Switzerland
Tuesday, July 21: “village beyond Sion” to Brig,” Switzerland
Wednesday, July 23: Simplon Pass/Spittal Hut, Switzerland
Thursday, July 24: Spittal to Mergozzo, Italy
Friday, July 24: Mergozzo to village in Lago Maggiore area (maybe Arona?), Italy
Saturday, July 25: Lago Maggiore to Como, Italy


I once lunched on the lake in Como, so I know of this area’s beauty…it’s like the Italian Lake District. I’m already imagining myself sunning on the lakeshore, recovering from the pain and blisters and worry I’m sure I’ll experience in the process of reaching this destination.

See you back at “Down and Out” in a week…or two?!

Landscape: England’s Lake District

alcock tarnI suppose I have a love-hate relationship with England, as a country, in general. This attitude comes from the time I spent living in the city of Manchester (hate), trying to get away to its nearby wild places (love). I was reminded of how rockin’ the English countryside is on my recent trip to the Lake District.

I took the train from Manchester to Windermere, and on the walk up to my lodgings, these lovely, happy-go-lucky creatures greeted me:


Just a ways up this mossy-rocky road I was walking, I had views that stretched out over endless miles of green rolling hills:


One thing that seemed to strike me over and over again about being in England was this sense of permanence. The stone walls dividing pastures have been around for hundreds of years. Country houses in the Lake District look centuries of years old, and most of the places I walked among are now immortalized in English poetry. There are no strip malls here. No billboards. No neon signs. Even the trees seem to have been around longer than most:


After staying two nights in Windermere, I moved on to Grasmere. This town is important as a historic landmark…British Romantic poets lived in Grasmere (Wowrdsworth at Dove Cottage) and the nearby Rydal Mount (Wordsworth and Coleridge). Big hills surround Grasmere, and they seem to just sit there, begging for visitors.

the tarn

So, heeding the call, I decided one evening to go “fell walking,” as the Brits call it. I didn’t know where I wanted to go besides up, and I luckily stumbled upon a public footpath pointing to Alcock Tarn (above). Just as the sun dipped behind the hills, I reached the tarn, and then walked down as the town lights started to twinkle in the night.

Literature: Wordsworth’s Daffodils

Wordsworth GraveA little poetry/photo montage for you folks out there today, inspired by the last week I spent in England’s Lake District researching William Wordsworth’s poetry of the Alps. I remained mostly indoors, shuffling through stacks of books at The Wordsworth Trust’s Jerwood Centre in Grasmere, but the landscape just outside the research center has inspired some of the greatest poetry in the English language. One of the most famous poems from this area is William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” poem (as it is commonly called), written in 1804 and supposedly inspired by a walk the poet took with his sister Dorothy in 1802. Here it goes:

I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Grasmere View

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

Poets Corner

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

Dove Cottage Garden

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Jerwood Center

The photos:
Wordsworth’s Grave, St. Oswald’s Church, Grasmere; View of Grasmere from Dove Cottage; Poet’s Corner in Dove Cottage alley; Dove Cottage Garden; The Wordsworth Trust’s Jerwood Centre.

Poem citation:
Wordsworth, William. The Complete Poetical Works. London: Macmillan and Co., 1888;, 1999. [July 12, 2009].

Life: Summer Base Camp

Fric FracI’ve rented a little studio in France’s Chamonix Valley in an area called Les Tines. It’s a fifteen-minute bike ride into Chamonix proper, but I’m quite happy to be on the outskirts of town. I didn’t quite know what I was getting into when I arranged to stay in this place, as all of the communication went down over email, and I’d wired money into someone’s bank account before I even showed up.

But I’m super-happy with the apartment’s funky feel. Random art is splattered all over the place, such as this “Fric-Frac” French film poster that hangs on one wall. And even though I thought that my apartment in Vail was tiny, this one is even smaller, with the bed in a loft above the desk/office space:


I showed up with only two bags, so I guess I don’t need much closet space (good thing, as there isn’t a closet anyway). The apartment is furnished with a futon for guests (any takers??), and a well-equipped kitchen that has a modern appeal:

little kitchen

Honestly, though. I’m not here to stay indoors, and my first week here was like an outdoor orgy. I went climbing five days, and I ran twice from my doorstep up to the Montenvers Hotel, which is a 2,400-foot elevation gain over steep rocks, roots, and the like. The sight of Les Drus dominates this part of the valley:

Les Drus1

Next week, I’m off to England’s Lake District to do some research for an upcoming literary trek in the Alps. Even though I’m very happy with my summer living quarters, it seems like this place will be more like a base camp this summer than a real home. I find it a bit ironic—or weirdly appropriate for someone like me—that the French don’t have a word in their language to capture the essence of the English word “home.”