On Lake Annecy, the water is crystalline and glittering with a thousand shades of green and blue. When the sun sets a little lower the reflection will make the lake impossible to look at. But until that happens, the view from shore is spectacular to a cartoonish degree. The shimmering water is dotted by sailboats. A castle stands perched upon a peninsula on the opposite shore among gardens and rocks so steep the walls cannot be distinguished from the bedrock from this distance. Just beyond the castle lies a small hamlet (yes, “hamlet”) of steep-roofed houses and brown porches and a steepled church that must have been built in, like, 1237, judging by the similarity of its deeply weathered walls to all the other old buildings around here that were built so long ago that the year is not really so much a year as it is a number. Best of all, above the water and the castle and the hamlet, a whole bunch of steep mountains go straight up into the sky toward the quickly dropping sun that is turning everything into a molten shade of gold. The mountains are what I’m attracted to and are the reason I’m here, but I can’t help but be impressed by how the human structures comfortably punctuate the landscape in a way that just doesn’t seem to happen in America. All in all, the scene is certainly French but particularly Alpine in a very Disney-esque sort of way. I can see why mythology has such a strong tradition in these mountains.
That “Disney-esque” comment didn’t come out of nowhere. I was informed just an hour or so ago that another nearby castle was the actual inspiration for the movie Cinderella. Apparently during some long-lost epoch Walt Disney himself visited Annecy and was so inspired by said castle that he took a story that had been told for centuries (Cinderella) and turned it into a lucrative film that has since become such a classic that it’s easy to forget that Walt Disney didn’t make up the story himself. The general themes of the Cinderella story itself can be found in texts all the way back to Ancient Egypt, but, for me at least, the story is purely European. These mountains have always evoked in me a romantic side that seems totally willing to turn a blind eye to reality in order to shape observations how I wish to see them. I dream of small, firelit communities below jagged peaks of ice and snow; of mule trains on high passes; of a geographic scale so immense that avalanches and rockfalls can only be the result of warring giants and dragons. Behind every tree, under every rock, around every corner lurks the possibility of something otherworldly and magical; the landscape feels charmed and faintly enchanted. I find myself prepared to forgive the profusion of cars and apartments and gas stations and telepheriques that proliferate across the landscape, in favor of my fairy-tale dreams.
Nowadays, the old and winding roads up which once ambled heavily-laden mules are laser-cut and smooth, and they lead to villages hemmed in not just by vertiginous rock but by equally vertiginous hotels, and the glaciers are disappearing and the trail systems are extensive and complex and dotted with a near-forest of trail signs. But, perhaps because the mountain scenery is so dramatic and impressive, and probably also because the houses are built in that chalet-style and there are great big pastures full of cows wearing bells and the evening light is so vividly golden it looks to have been dripped on everything, I look through all the modern conveniences and still see a quiet agricultural world that interfaces regularly with a fantastical world of dwarves and elves and ice monsters and dragons. It’s silly and I know it, but that’s okay because this geography is so in-your-face dramatic that it’s easy to think it somehow charmed. I love the Romantic tradition of stories like Frankenstein and Faust and The Three Musketeers and when I am here in these mountains I can see not just how these stories could have been conceived, I can imagine that perhaps they weren’t conceived at all, but experienced. And, yes, it’s silly, but that’s okay with me. I want to feel these legends whether they’re real or not. I want to see the dragons.
Here in Annecy, the mountains are as big as anything in Colorado, but they aren’t nearly as high. From the overshaded evening light of the lake, I run over 2,000 meters (6,561 feet!) up in one single sweep of a climb, and am still shy of 8,000 feet of elevation. And these are just the Prealps as they call them in French and of which I bet you can figure out the meaning. The big Alps are just a few miles away and tower over everything else with an indifference bordering on insolence. There’s an almost racial dichotomy between the dark greens and browns and greys of the Prealps and the chaste, angelic white of the glaciers on the really big peaks. And when I say “really big,” I mean it – though these peaks rise hardly higher than anything in Colorado, their sheer prominence from top to bottom is rivaled in only a select few places in the world: Alaska, northwestern Canada, the Himalaya, Pakistan. Few other places on the planet offer extremes of ten- to twelve-thousand vertical feet in just a few horizontal miles, and fewer still feature such extremes in a climate that supports lush green pastures in the valleys and kilometers-long glaciers on the peaks. Europe is mythologically dramatic, and I embrace such appellations even while knowing they could be burst at any moment by a realistic observation. But as scared as I have always been to ruin my perceptions of a range that has always captured my imagination, the mystery continues.
The mystery, like the peaks themselves, is wrapped in swirling layers of clouds. The weather in the Alps is fickle and often bad. As long as we’re on the romantic theme, I can mention that the year Frankenstein was conceived by Mary Shelley while summering on the shore of Lake Geneva with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron (talk about elitist) – 1816 – was “the year without a summer.” Though that was largely due to a volcano that erupted on the opposite side of the world, it is still not uncommon to wait out two weeks of stormy weather in the Alps just to get a good look at the mountains. This summer – 2014 – has been particularly wet and grey, which is terrible for adventuring, but, ironically, great for the imagination. In bad weather the views are obscured by heavy clouds that hang over the serrated peaks like marshmallows impaled on needles. They swirl and swarm but seem loathe to dissipate or migrate into the flatlands. The mountains collect the clouds around themselves like nebulous cloaks and hide their secrets within the barrier of white. But like any cloak, sometimes gaps appear, and the occasional gaps in the clouds tantalize with what they suggest. As several thick layers of clouds swirl they occasionally part and reveal a dark slab of rock and ice, immeasurably far above and completely inaccessible. One gets a brief look at this view, craning one’s head upward at a ridiculous angle, and then the clouds swirl back around and obscure the peaks again. What is up there in those mountains, what beasts and spirits roam among those spires and glaciers swathed behind layers of protective clouds, seem to prefer their mystery.
And that is precisely what I love so much about the clouds – their proclivity to restore a sense of virgin stillness to an over-visited landscape. Objectively, we all know exactly what lies behind those clouds. But when the mountains are hidden behind thick clouds of white, my imagination glows like coals that stoke the sense of mystery. Nevertheless, on clear days I myself have climbed high into these mountains. I have summited Mont Blanc itself – the tallest mountain in the Alps – three times by two different routes. In addition, I have climbed a multitude of lower nearby peaks and run many of the trails that dart in and out of the high alpine valleys and basins. Still, something feels hidden behind such superficial knowledge of geography. I sense – or possibly imagine – a kind of deep intensity in the area that holds secrets I will never know. I have felt this in almost every place I’ve seen that was too extraordinary to even begin to remember or comprehend. From grand vistas in the San Juans or Alaska to the minute intricacy of the New Hampshire forest, I often feel that I’m among something important on a cosmic level that is too grand – or possibly too obvious – for me to see.
This is particularly striking in the Alps likely because they are so outlandishly dramatic; they throw all their firepower into a desperate visual fireworks display intended to shock and awe. And it works; trust me. The visual splendor of the Alps is unsurpassed anywhere I have ever seen, and this show of maddening beauty is impossible to ignore. But the mountains exist on a plane beyond our transitory perceptions. And though we make maps and build roads and telepheriques and ski runs and climbing routes through all the nooks and crannys of these mountains, they continue to inspire with an aspect of mystery that may, in fact, be ineradicable. Though people climb into the hidden recesses of the Mont Blanc massif nearly every day of the year, the dragons are still hiding up there somewhere.
My European experience is informed by these fantasies such that I’m willing to look beyond factors that might annul them, in order to see what I want. Modern transportation, guidebooks and the tourist trade, for example, tend to either eliminate or commercialize a sense of mystery. Knowing that, I may seem to be creating in my own head a contradiction of willing ignorance so that I can see what I want to see. But the truth is that no matter where you go, your experience is informed by a million things that come with you. Nobody is a blank slate or a perfect sponge for observation; we can see only through the lens of who we are and what we know, which is largely a function of where we are from. So, recognizing this bias, I choose to look for the magic hidden beyond every horizon, for the enchantments that could be under any rock. I know this place is changing. I know my fantasies are based on folklore developed in very different – and long gone – times. But the exciting thing is that if this world is changing, and if I’m a part of this world, then I have the power to influence just a little bit of what could be. And I refuse to let the concept of the unknown die just because people have mapped the planet down to each individual rock. This world is made up of more than mountains and rivers and cities. Its topography is the surface manifestation of something deep and harsh and real, with which we can only interface peripherally, through what we see and know. The greatest explorers are the ones who leave no maps. They understand that no map is useful for those seeking the unknown because the concept of a map is contradictory to what we really need, which is not to find anything but simply to try. The problem, of course, is finding some unknown to explore when the whole world has been mapped.
These mountains are beautiful and the good weather days are magnificent in that they allow us to view them in all their magnificence. Yet I wonder if I feel a sense of disappointment when I reach the summit and look out over everything below me. I have accomplished the goal and set foot on the highest point around, yet in accomplishing the goal I take it away. The possibilities I imagine in setting goals are magnificent; the realities are proud but known. The dark places, the shadowed corners, hidden behind clouds and swathed in uncertainty – those are the places I truly seek. The suggestion beyond the horizon. I wonder if the reason so many people flock to the Alps – flock to mountain ranges the world over – is the mystery of what could be. Perhaps we hold in our hearts a longing for blank spaces and so we embrace them even when they’re only imagined, like when clouds cover the peaks. We use an outward search for the unknown to mimic an inner search for value.
But if all the horizons are mapped, then our search for mystery turns inward, to the hidden recesses in the mountains we have already climbed. And when even those places are mapped – as in Chamonix – we still feel an inexorable power from the landscape, and it’s downright heartbreaking because what is left after everything is mapped? We have to imagine what’s next, and it could be anything, even fairy tales.
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
- Are you called by the suggestion beyond the horizon?
- How do you feel and what do you do when you reach your aspirational destination? Do you revel or do you again look to the horizon and dream?