The Romantics and the Reality of the Alps

As I travel through the Alps I can’t help but be taken in by the grandeur and majesty of the mountains. Such immensity of scale in a range renowned for its striking and dramatic summits leaves me in awe at every turn. Yet I wonder if part of this awe doesn’t stem from a cultural conception. Perhaps my wonder at viewing the Swiss Alps comes in part from the images conjured by that very idea of “The Swiss Alps.” That term automatically conjures images of bell-laden cows grazing in green pastures below icy glaciered peaks; bearded men with walking sticks and tobacco pipes trekking through the valleys; and quaint villages with small wooden homes and gardens crisscrossed by narrow cobble-stoned streets. I want to view this place with an air of objectivity, but I can’t forget the associations I have gained from society. Consider this passage from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

“Immense glaciers approached the road; I heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche, and marked the smoke of its passage. Mont Blanc, the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raised itself from the surrounding Aiguilles, and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley”

In the story this is meant as a motif of the extreme emotions brought about by events in the book. But reading it as a 17-year-old who had never traveled abroad, how could a line like that not summon an extreme longing for a fantastical world? Having never traveled abroad I could create in my mind the world that I dreamt of, the world given me by the stories. Here’s Victor Frankenstein again as he climbs into the “Chamounix valley”:

“…as I ascended higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character. Ruined castles hanging on the precipices of piny mountains; the impetuous Arve, and cottages every here and there peeping forth from among the trees, formed a scene of singular beauty. But it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings”

Europe is unique in that its mountains are some of the largest in the world, yet they are situated in the midst of one of the most highly developed areas on the planet. Mont Blanc rises about 12,000 feet above the valley of Chamonix. By comparison, Mt. Everest rises 11,400 feet above base camp. The mountains of Europe may be lower, but they are similar in size base-to-summit. But Europe’s unique history has resulted in countless villages dotting the alpine valleys, creating a sort of paradox in the 21st century wherein one can traverse mountains as serious as any in the greater ranges in the morning and enjoy gourmet meals and a bed at night. These villages have all been commercialized to a great degree, but the image remains of the iconic European village perched high in the Alps. To see these towns is to consider the audacity of primeval man, dwarfed by the landscape yet nevertheless carving out an enclave of his own, a home to defend against a vast, visibly powerful wilderness.

Europe is old culturally, and many of these towns date back thousands of years. Passing through the large valleys, many of which now host veritable cities, one can spy ancient castles on the hillsides high above, strategically placed to allow for the best views of approaching danger; or tiny church spires peering over craggy summits, indicating the presence of towns improbably balanced nearly out of sight and certainly out of reach of primitive invaders. Sights like these naturally draw me back to my high-school fantasy world invoked by the images in Frankenstein. I can look past the changes and see only what I choose.

But that’s not the whole truth. Europe is as technologically advanced as anywhere in the world and therefore hosts a high standard of living. Thus the quaint little villages are not the only sights to see – high-rise hotels and apartments stand like needles thrust into the ground from above, pushing aside like a wedge the picturesque scenes of antiquity. Highways, not roads, line the fertile mountain valleys, and cable-cars thread the rocky summits. The iconic ringing fields of bell-clad cows often stink of manure and poison the rivers, besides mowing the grass nearly bare. Hordes of tourists throng in villages that are a bit too quaint and charming, kind of Disney-esque, as if they are playing into the image of what they are “supposed” to look like. Most damning of all, the great glaciers – those immense symbols of nature’s dominance – are steadily melting and receding to reveal rock that crumbles in the unanticipated heat. Despite my desire to see the natural paradise of Romantic depiction, I can’t ignore the changes of time.

“From the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy…”

Our surroundings often influence our accomplishments, and as humans we feel a natural tendency to tie our accomplishments to such visibly striking physical features. Indeed, as Frankenstein shows clearly, mountains are perfect metaphors for fierce emotions or extreme passion. Artists since time immemorial drew comparisons between their violent emotions and the violent geology of their landscape. I continue the tradition today, but I don’t want to ignore the dirty realities of the modern world. From the uninformed passions which consumed me in high school to the more reality-based understanding of today, I am doing nothing more than commenting on my observations of the world around me. The world is rarely like the stories, but that doesn’t mean it is not rewarding. Reality is usually grittier and more painful than imagination, but ultimately more concrete and meaningful. And the Romantic ideals? They go the other way – coming from reality and blending into the world of imagination, cleansing themselves of the grime of reality in the process. Truth is born of objectivity, and objectivity is gained through experience. My Alps are not Mary Shelley’s Alps. They are something else entirely and perhaps more powerful because I now have a sense of what they are really like. I can’t completely discard the lens through which I have viewed this world until now, but I can look beyond it and use the comparison for perspective. Thus, my Alps are as magical as ever, because I finally get to experience them for myself. They may not be the “sublime” mountains I dreamt of, but now they include my own observations, and that makes them less of an idea and more of an experience. And despite the differences, the experience has proven by far to be the best part.

There are 20 comments

  1. Phil Jeremy

    Did this guy actually drop out of high school? Where did he learn to write like this? Dakota has the unique ability to write both the amusing as well as the most beautiful and poignant……..and he lives in a truck……and he can run a bit:)

    1. Mike Papageorge

      I think I read here on iRf that he left college after two years. His writing is excellent. Different than Anton's, whose writing is also really enjoyable.

      Do check out Rickey Gates' website for a taste of his writing. Awesome stuff too :)

  2. Jonathan

    As an English teacher with a degree in English, you, sir, are a fantastic writer. If you ever wrote a book, I would certainly read it. Keep up the writing and the running!

  3. Liz, UK

    Agree with the guys above. Great writing. A blog writer worth reading for once.

    Although some parts of the Alps are a bit ruined there are still remoter, hidden bits…. Still very wild and untouched. But I won't say where these are!

  4. Matthew Bryant

    I very much enjoyed this. Almost lyrical. Disillusionment is humbling, and only through the humbling experience can you see things as they are and still appreciate them. It's like waking up. It's like enlightenment. You should write a book.

  5. Cooker

    Beautifully written article that indeed captures the majesty of the Alps. However, the mid section, bemoaning the impact of the modern world, seems a little exaggerated . I was in Samoens, a valley or two north of Chamonix, this summer. No high rise blocks (maybe 3 floors max, and not many of those), and the heritage buildings were original in the main. Yes, the cable cars are offensive, but without them my young children would not have been able to appreciate the magnificent adventure of getting up really high. For my part, splendid isolation, just me and the mountain trail, was only ever 20k away…oh, and about 1k upwards. Maybe I got lucky, I hear that Chamonix and the other main ski resorts are very built up, but I was surprised just how unspoilt and quiet Samoens was. But that's as a western european….we are not blessed with lots of space and compared to similar ranges on other continents I can imagine that the alps must seem a little crowded. Glad they lived up to expectations in the most part though….

  6. andrew shuff

    Dakota~

    I highly enjoyed reading this piece. I have live in or around Nashville Tn for my entire life and can only somewhat relate your story to my own in a number of visits to the San Juans while my brother lived in your hometown of Durango. Journeys into the mountains and the surrounding towns always seemed very magical to me in thought and action. Those feelings still stay with me to this day. I enjoy following your journeys and look forward to reading more.

  7. Seamus Foy

    I loved studying lit. in college, but college definitely isn't necessary to becoming a great writer. Two of America's finest, Faulkner and Hemingway, didn't go to college (I don't think Faulkner graduated from hs), but like Dakota, they read voraciously. Good writers are good readers. Dakota, I hope you keep reading and writing. iRF has tons of great contributors, but nobody has the range of Senor Jones here!

    Anton and Ricky are great too. Joe Grant is also one of the best. It's not surprising that ultrarunners are great writers. Both require an abundance of patience and persistence, despite the fact that outsiders often think great runners and great writers are only that way because of some innate ability.

  8. Momma Myrna

    Dakota thank you for taking me with you to the grandeur of the mountains, you allow me the joy of a visit to the country side, its residents, and your delight in the journey. Blessings and safe traveling. Grammomma Myrna

  9. Jason

    Well said. People often confuse their preconceived image of a place as the reality. When they finally see something after years of reading or dreaming about it they are let down because it doesn't fit the idea in their mind. They then view those things outside their image as a corruption, unnatural, unfair or just wrong, when in fact it is just life happening. You summarized well how a landscape can have multiple aspects. These mountains, and the towns and people among them, are as much a part of history as they are living, ever changing reality. Thanks for the piece.

  10. Oliver

    Wonderfully written and insightful article! In our defense though, the "stink of manure" is a good thing, the farmers fertilize their fields with it, and it's what keeps our pastures so vividly green. I've grown to enjoy the cow variety, but the pig variety, not so much…:)

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