"Un billet pour Les Huaches," I tell the young man in the glass booth.
"Les Huaches?" he repeats. "What is Les Huaches?"
The way he says it and the suffering in his face tell me no set of syllables so ugly could exist in French.
I open my Lonely Planet guidebook, Walking in the Alps. I had hoped to get through buying a ticket without it. This need to display my ignorance of French only five words into Switzerland cuts. The ticket seller outsmarts me before I find the right page.
"Les HOUCHES," he says.
Of course it's Les Houches. "Oui," I say. "Les Houches." Very humbly.
"Les Houches," he repeats. "Les Oosshhh." Long, drawn out, beautifully ooshed, skis on fresh snow. "Oo, la la la la la," he says, in 6/8 time. A quarter-note "oo," four eighth-note "las," followed by a dotted half-note "la."
The third time he says it, he's shaking his head. "Les Houches is very complicated."
He focuses on his screen, types percussively, exhales at three intervals, says, "Oh, c'est comme ça, hein? " to the screen. Finally he tells me my itinerary. I go from the airport to Gare Cormarin, Geneva's central train station, then to tram 16, which I might as well take only as far as "Le Rive," then get off and see the lake.
"Because, after all, monsieur," he says, more or less to the computer, "you 'ave all day."
"You 'ave," he says again-this time looking me in the eyes-"... all... day."
After wandering along "Le Rive" I need to reboard tram 16 and take it to Geneve-Eaux-Vives, where I catch a train for St. Gervais les Bains. Another train on a narrower gauge will take me the rest of the way to Les Houches.
For weeks I will be saying: "Oo, la la la la la. Les Houches. Les Houches is very complicated." I say it because of Louis, the counter clerk. I had no idea anyone said "oo la la," never mind "oo, la la la la la." But the other part, the fact that "Les Houches is very complicated," gets closer to the real reason.
I want this trip's complexity more than any of its details-the trains, the hike, the camping. This trek climbs into the nearly inexpressible heart of Romanticism, toward Mary Shelley's monster, Percy Shelley's rivers, William Wordsworth's ego. Louis knows none of this, of course. He only knows an American tourist wants a train ticket for a small town in the French Alps that requires a lot of transfers and wasted time. The Swiss, after all, practically own time.
"Next time you visit," he tells me, "you stay in Switzerland."
* * *
On June 16, 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin fell into a trance. She had gone to bed after a night talking about galvanism with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, their host, Lord Byron, and Byron's doctor, John Polidori. They talked of experiments in galvanism that got vermicelli moving by itself in a glass case, that made the muscles of dead men twitch.
Many years later she described what happened when she went to bed:
When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me. I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantom of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.
She had seen Victor Frankenstein, experimenting with bones, sinews, and brains. Most people know the story, or at least what Hollywood's done to it. But the jump she makes from the conversation to her dream to her "unbidden imagination" should be dwelt on here.
That night she slept at Byron's villa on the edge of Lake Geneva, not far from Geneva. Villa Diodati was the site for one of the most productive literary seminars in western history. Works by Byron and both Shelleys-by the time Mary published Frankenstein, Percy's first wife had drowned herself in
The Serpentine in Hyde Park, making it possible for the lovers to marry-saw their birth in those conversations.
Mary Shelley knew the writings of Edmund Burke and William Wordsworth. The first had published an influential book called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful in 1757. The latter's Prelude, first conceived in 1795, is English literature's heavy turn to autobiography in poetry. Its big moments revolve around the idea Burke had theorized. The most famous comes in Book Six, where Wordsworth hikes the part of the Alps where Mary situated her sublime, where her husband would set his in the poem "Mont Blanc," where I've come to look for mine. Mary might have listened to Wordsworth recite The Prelude in her father's living room. We know she heard S.T. Coleridge recite parts of his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" there, and Wordsworth knew William Godwin. In any case she knew the poem and the obsession with sublimity so many of her fellow Romantics shared.
Wordsworth went to the Alps when he was a Cambridge student in 1790. He went there for some sort of ecstatic revelation. He expected it to come at the crossing of the continental divide, but he missed it. Several years later he wrote about asking a man for directions on that day:
We questioned him again, and yet again;
But every word that from the peasant's lips
Came in reply, translated by our feelings,
Ended in this,- 'that we had crossed the Alps'.
Upset at the time, later he found his sublime moment in remembering how he missed it, in his imaginative attempt to recreate the day. His imagination, he wrote:
rose from the mind's abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say-
"I recognise thy glory."
Mary Shelley's monster is another version of that "unfathered vapour," one that went from her dreaming to her imagination to a novel that has never been out of print. They are the sublime. Not the adjective, as in "what a sublime party," but the noun, the thing that can be pointed toward but not spoken or explained, the ecstatic revelation of the infinite across the imagination.
As a teacher of Romanticism, these works are part of my vocabulary. They're what got me interested in teaching in the first place. Wordsworth's Prelude, Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner," John Keats's "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," where "stout Cortez" looks out on the Pacific while his men can only look at each other, stunned to be in the presence of a man who dares to look on infinity-these are what I spend my days with, and what have brought me to the Alps.
Philosophers tell us infinity, eternity, God, the sublime, are unimaginable, literally impossible to render into images. The sublime's simply unavailable to us, an idea
Whose dwelling is the place of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky.
as Wordsworth puts it in "Tintern Abbey." So, we can't imagine it, but some of us can't stop trying to find it, all the same.
* * *
I am in Geneva. Tired, cranky, half-crazed with jet lag. I sit at a sidewalk café, Le Restaurant des Voyageurs, across from the Gare Eaux-Vives, waiting for the train to Les Houches, and I realize this trip has truly begun.
The beer, a lager called Cardinal, is feeble, my breath stinks, and my eyes are both fitfully awake and dying to close. But the tram, the architecture, a graffiti-tagged Amnesty International headquarters, people around me speaking three languages simultaneously, add up to tell me I am in another country.
None of the languages is Spanish, the only one my jet-lagged brain can manage.
"Votre biere," my waitress says.
"Gracias," I tell her.
She smiles and walks away. Apparently I'm cute when I'm stupid.
But I have not flown to Switzerland to flirt with Suisse-Romande waitresses in Spanish. I am here for the Alps, the Romantic sublime, bolt-necked monsters, the light of setting suns, an albatross, a stately pleasure dome, stout Cortez. So I finish my beer, cross the street, and a few minutes later sit looking out my second-class window en route to St. Gervais les Bains, France. It's mid-July. Twenty minutes outside of Geneva I see my first snow-topped mountain.
A narrower train on a narrower track climbs from St. Gervais les Bains up to Les Houches. I am alone with my backpack at an unattended little train station, really just one brick building not much wider than the sign that reads "Les Houches." A small bridge across the Arve River leads to the village. It's about 6 p.m. The shops and houses, the shutters in front of every window's flower box, are closed or closing. I cannot read the sky's particular shade of gray. Two facts hit me. First, I have never put up the tent in my backpack. Second, I have no idea if my pants are waterproof.
On the train I had already realized that even though the hiking underwear I bought at R.E.I. brags it will take me through eight countries in sixteen days without a washing machine, when I take them off each night to rinse them I will be butt-naked without a second pair to wear while they dry. Walking through Les Houches's one road in the gathering darkness, I hope I'll find a hiking supply store for a spare pair of underwear and someplace that sells food and drink.
I do. But when I ask for "calzoncillos," the clerk has no idea what I'm saying. Pantomiming a need for fast-drying underwear to the sales girl as the shop's about to close seems like a bad idea, so instead I hurry around the store to find what I need myself.
I pay for them, say "gracias," and hike up the street to the epicerie, which is trying to close. I barge in and start grabbing things and putting them on the counter. The man behind the counter joins in the spirit. He shows me I need cheese, a baguette, mustard, a tiny bottle of wine, and two summer sausage links. I pack these things into my growing backpack and set off to find the trail.
I have two maps of the Tour de Mont Blanc. One of them's the Lonely Planet Walking the Alps guide. I picked up the other in the store where I bought my second pair of underwear. It's more detailed, a map book more than a guide, really. The only problem with it is that it's in French, and I know this is going to be trouble. But how hard can it be to find a trail?
A little, apparently. I look for the trailhead that leads up the mountain from Les Houches. It's supposed to be next to the bottom station of a tram that goes from Les Houches's main street up to La Col du Seigne. But I look around and can't find anything like what the book describes. There is a ski lift. Is that it? Apparently not.
As it gets darker, after I make several false starts, I eventually find what seems like the trail, walk uphill for about forty-five minutes past ski chalets, then a flock of Girl Guides all camped out over the lower slopes, and finally find a bit of level ground on the side of a ski trail, and get things set up just in time for dark.
The first night of camping passes uneventfully. I find a flat space, set out the tent, and after a little bread, cheese, sausage, and wine, go to sleep. The next morning I get going for real, walking up a steep, grassy ski slope. Up past sheep, past sheep shit, through sheep shit. Just when I think I'm at the top, I crest a hill and find there's a lot more to this mountain than revealed itself from the bottom.
I get a little lost trying to follow the directions. My plan was to use the Lonely Planet book's narration and the French book's map. But the French book has some narration where Lonely Planet leaves gaps. Unfortunately too many of the French words and grammar are beyond me. Finally I'm able to make out a sentence telling me not to follow a small path off to the left of the top of a ski lift, which I've already been following for a couple hundred meters.
Preferring up to down, I keep going. Somehow-serendipity or dumb luck, if that isn't the same thing-I end up on a spot that's undeniably on both maps and in both narratives. I find myself outside a hotel closed until ski season and, right next to it, a station for the Tramway du Mont Blanc. I stop, work my way inside the hotel, which should really be better secured than it is, fill up my water bottles, then eat a mid-morning snack at the tram station.
Before too long, there in the midst of the mountains, the tram actually shows up. Considering how deserted everything is, its very existence seems bizarre. It's a narrow train and it stops at the station where I'm sitting. A group of backpackers are inside. The tram conductor unloads some supplies for the closed hotel, then continues up the mountain. The backpackers wave to me as I stare. It's like seeing a subway show up at the North Pole.
* * *
Hiking the Alps goes beyond walking, climbing, slipping on wet stones, trudging through gravel, camping out. I traveled here for something uncapturable by photos or a travel diary, irreducible to meals on sausage and cheese, no matter how rewarding eating like an Alpine chamois herder can be. This hiking unfolds as a kind of voyage through the discontinuities of thought. It comes down to the way we step. We step on some rocks, not others. I tend to lean toward the outside of the trail, over by the precipice. Others cling to the mountainside, even when the walking's rougher over there. Is it ease I'm after, or danger? Am I just traveling a path from Les Houches to Les Condamines, or is it a walk through the unsafe side of my subconscious? Both?
Walking in cities seems analogous to talking. We choose our paths, constructing routes like sentences filled with our steps, street signs, words spoken by passing strangers. Walking in the mountains feels more like going through the images, tastes, and sounds that arrive in our minds before we open our mouths to speak. Michel de Certeau calls walking "anterior or parallel to informative speech." I would go further and say it often expresses things informative speech never does or can. Just as the Romantic Sublime often gets stuck right when it wants to tell the experience, speech burrows back into where words are made, and back further, to the impressions that made the words necessary-but inadequate-in the first place.
I think about things like this the night after the roughest day of the trip. I also think about the sublime, which is supposed to be inexpressible. It's Wordsworth missing the continental divide or Coleridge being interrupted by someone at the door while dreaming poetry in an opium haze, only remembering a few lines and the fact that he had dreamed something incredible. Finding the sublime always seems to be like that. It catches you when you're not looking, then it's gone.
* * *
Today's hike begins with a plodding, three-hour ascent, then crawls along ridges about 2,500 meters above sea level. Water from melting glaciers rustles across beds of pebbles under the layer of snow I crunch over. I see the wash of water flowing endlessly underneath through holes in the snow.
The Refuge des Mottets in the little hamlet of St. Maurice looks like a nice place to stop. One of many little inns that house hikers for about fifteen euros a night, it sits just at the edge of a flat valley dwarfed by mountains on all sides. Fellow travelers sit on picnic benches and rest as I pass by. Hiking and camping have worn me down enough to make the idea of a night in a bunkbed in a dorm room with a dozen strangers appealing. But my budget doesn't allow for that, so I go up the side of a mountain for an hour to find someplace removed. Camping near these little outposts, anything big enough to have a name, is against regulations. Rain starts falling as I climb, then turns to hail.
Soon I'm bunkered down near the top of the Col de la Seigne, about a twenty-minute walk from Italy. After a day filled with sharp rocks and broad fields of snow, I find myself wondering if this is sublimity. If so, I prefer other aesthetic categories.
This is my worst night. The wind blows across a treeless gathering of hills. Finding a level square of ground for the tent is almost impossible, but I there's something close to one near the side of a small mound of earth that makes a little bit of a windbreak. Lightning and thunder follow the rain and hail and pin me in my tent, which at least keeps the water out.
The next evening I set up the tent on flat ground. After a drizzly day spent staring more at the slippery rocks than anything else, with most of my things soggy, I am happy to find an unsaturated bit of ground under the clouds. Even better, this spot is right next to a refuge, or in this case, a rifuggio, since I have been in Italy all day. While my budget makes no allowance for bunkbeds, there's always enough money for wine. After setting up the tent I walk down and drink a few glasses with some other hikers, then some tea, then some more wine. By the time I get back into my tent, I'm reconciled with the weather.
That day I had walked past a platoon of Italian soldiers, met a pair of triathletes running the trail I was slogging, seen a man on a horse, and re-encountered a Danish woman I had met and re-met just about every day of the hike. I always passed her, but somehow she was always ahead of me again when I found her the next time. The days had become a routine. That day the clouds kept the mountains hidden, only to climb up and down, not to look at. I was starting to count the days until Chamonix, where Victor Frankenstein goes for some rest while his monster is on a killing rampage, and where I will spend a few days in a modern campground.
The wine puts me into a nice sleep, then wakes me up to pee a few hours later. I slough off my sleeping bag, pull on my hiking boots, stumble out of the tent, walk a few yards away, and start doing what I have to do, all as close to asleep as possible.
It is the kind of rest you don't want to lose.
While peeing I open my eyes. The clouds have lifted and there, in the clear night sky, stand the Alps . It seems like I'm looking at all of them at once. My eyes open wider and wider. I know this is what I've come to look for, what I've given up hoping to find. Mont Blanc stands on high, as Percy Shelley puts it, and the moonlight and starlight reflect off the snow and glaciers. In that moment I understand Coleridge's Kubla Khan, who creates sunny pleasure domes and caves of ice in his imagination, and Wordsworth's "unfathered vapour," Keats's Cortez on his peak in Panamá looking at the Pacific. I don't think about it. That will come later. But I understand.
I know what "the sublime" looks and feels like. I know, for a few seconds, what vision is. This is what the poets tried to write and the painters tried to paint. I thank all of them for trying, but even more for writing about trying and failing. Without their failures I wouldn't be here peeing in the moonlight, seeing the mountaintop. It was Mont Blanc in the days before and will be again tomorrow. But in this one moment, between sleeping and waking, it is the sublime.