Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bill's Hiking Adventure

Tonight, I caught up with international man of mystery Bill over a glass of Puligny Montrachet Grand Vin du Burgogne 2006 at our kitchen table. We had both had rough days. I had watched Grace devolve in front of my eyes into a puddle of viral misery. Bill had attended Parent Night at Abigail's class to learn the precise defition of "rote learning." Here in France, if you don't get it on the first worksheet, you get more worksheets. The good news, I guess, is that Abigail seems to dig the worksheets.

I really wanted to interview Bill about Parent Night, given my overwhelming interest in the subject. However, he refused to grant me an interview on that topic, intent on babbling about the Sommet de L'Homme.

Launa: OK, Bill, what was it you wanted to tell me about your adventure the other day?

Bill: Well, first of all, I think for my fans, who know me, they're going to be thinking that this is just another story of Bill defying death. They are going to think that this is another story of how, with enough under-planning and overconfidence, I can turn a trip to my backyard into a Trek to the Himalayas.

They have reason to think this.

My aunt once had to carry me off of Long's Peak over her shoulder. And once you and I, along with two of our best friends, were nearly killed by lightening on top of Mt. Washington. And I took you out into the deep wilderness during both Hurricane Bob AND Hurricane Andrew. And I went insane from altitude sickness and became lost on a 13.000 peak in the Rahwah Range. Oh, also I also ate an entire canister of stove gas by mistake.

However, this isn't going to be one of those stories.

(Deep sigh.)

I kind of wish it were.

Anyhow, so I hatched this plan based on some guidebooks and maps a friend back home had given me when he heard where I was going. He told me that the hiking near here was ABSOLUTELY MINDBLOWING AMAZING. That I couldn't be in a better place for bagging 6,000 or 7,000 foot peaks without lots of mountain climbing gear.

So there I was, driving past beautiful medieval village after beautiful medieval village, hopes high. But then the road would keep ending at the edge of a medieval town. And I would have to snake through it, and it would be 15 minutes before I could get out on the other side of it and start driving again.

In fact, it was kind of like driving up Route 100 for the length of VT. For the first hour and a half, you're thinking, "Beautiful! Pastoral! Cow. Farm. Church. Steeple." And then for the last half hour, you're thinking, "If I see another cow, I'm going to shoot myself. Right after I shoot the cow." Sometimes even beauty can tire you out.

(At this point, in the interview, Bill interrupted his storytelling to complain about the pace of my typing. Apparently I was slowing him down as badly as all those medieval villages, and he had places to go. And his fan base to reach.)

Bill: You're not really going to put in the part where I complain about your typing. Read back my last line.

Launa: "And his fan base to reach."

Bill: No, the line before that. Read back the line before that.

(We then had a nice "Whose on First?" moment before going back to Bill's story.)

Anyway, due to all of these medieval towns and all the peaks I was passing and not climbing, I started to have a sinking feeling about how quote MINDBLOWING AND AMAZING this hike was going to be.

Basically, it was pretty, but it felt like I was just taking a really long time just to drive to a notch, like Holyoke Notch, in a lame little series of foothills that really would have nothing to do with the Alps or the mountains that build up to the Massives Central. I started cursing myself for not just biting the bullet and driving to the Alps to find some 10,000 foot peaks. Just not those 13,000 foot ones. Altitude sickness.

And then I started thinking, just relax. Enjoy life for what it is. Appreciate the small things. There will probably be some beautiful flowers, or some other kind of boring stuff, to make up for my mistake of driving to pointless foothills rather than real mountains.

Launa: So when do we get to peaks, and bagging them? Or is this story all about driving? I have a lot of driving and grocery stores on the blog already. And stories about how when you make a mistake, you realize that it's really the little things that matter.

Bill: You're not doing an interview, you're just typing slowly and being difficult.

Launa: You're not telling a story. You're just talking and being difficult.

(Eyebrows were cocked in challenge and anticipation on both sides of the table.)

Bill: So as I was just driving up to this non-summit, I started thinking about how much I missed the White Mountains -- you don't drive to the highest elevation and walk around. In the Whites, you have to pay for your view in blood, sweat and tears, having hauled your sorry ass up the side of a waterfall.

And then I started thinking, honestly, that French people might just be kind of wussy in their hiking. And I am ashamed to say that the line from Willy, the Scottish School Janitor on The Simpsons popped into my head: "Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys."

Launa: Bill, this blog is searchable by our new French friends. We can't put that in.

Bill: I didn't come up with the line. It was created by Matt Groening. I'm just saying it popped into my head in a moment of weakness and misunderstanding. I'm creating dramatic tension.

SO, I got to the trailhead, and it was a little cooler than I had imagined, but not much. There were sheep grazing, with tinkling bells, and I thought that was pretty cool. But the trail jut seemed like a road through low foothills. I wasn't even sure if a little walk was really worth my time, but I started off, deciding that when I got bored, I would head home.

Then, after forty minutes of walking, I came over a low ridge.

And the world dropped out from under me.

I felt like the Hobbit, looking at the Misty Mountains for the first time.

(I crinkled my nose in distaste at this simile, but wrote it down anyway.)

Bill: It turns out that what I had been walking on was a plateau pitched at a fairly gradual grade at the very edge, the very lip of the end of an enormous plateau. When I suddenly reached the edge, the ground dropped straight down. About 3,000 feet straight down.

This ridge line-- this extreme ridge line -- extended for MILES in either direction. I could see pretty much every mountain range in all of southern France from where I was standing.

Launa: So is that the end?

Bill: No! You're missing the most awesome part! I considered forming a religon. Based entirely on mountain worship. Then I started taking pictures.

Launa: You took pictures of your new religon?

Bill: Well, I realized I would need materials to get converts.

I really can't compare what I saw to any other mountain experience I have ever had. It was absolutely amazing. Expletive deleted.

Launa: Better than smootching with your wife?

Bill: My mother reads this blog.

OK, back to the Religious Experience I was having. The ENTIRE amazing ridge line that I could walk on for the next 4 hours if I wanted to, was tufted with the most beautiful soft blonde stubble of grass. I think I took about 1,000 pictures of it. You should put them on your blog. It looked like the little patch of grassland that is protected by a bored park ranger on the top of Algonquin. Except it extended 10 miles in either direction.

I had to lay down on the top of one of the many summits of this ridgeline and mediate for at least half an hour on the Worthiness of Mountains and the puny scale of humans in relation to them. But I ended my meditation with a panic attack when I thought I was getting altitude sickness. But it turned out fine. I think I was just falling asleep.

Launa: So here's my takeaway: the whole driving, and not having to climb the mountain part leaves you with a lot more time for religious experiences and lying down. What was the coolest part? The blonde grass?

Bill: You know, after all my complaining about driving rather than hiking, it turned out also that the road was also one of the coolest things about this hike. Literally four feet from the edge of the abyss was a two track road of sorts, with no guard rails. The road itself was amazing. Terrifying in parts, but amazing. I kept wondering what would happen if I met somebody else who was driving in the other direction.

Then I discovered, on my return hike, who used this road. The shepherd.

He has a white Renault van with a high top, and the way he shepherds is to drive all over the ridge with three dogs in the back. When he sees the sheep, he lets the dogs out and gives directions from inside the car.

Launa: Oh, so he's the one who let the dogs out. I'll tell the sports fans back home.

Bill: As I was walking back from my little bout of altitude anxiety, he stopped and talked to me, maybe because we were the only two people up there. He drove up in the white Reunault and asked if I were French. This is never my first question to people in the White Mountains.

Launa: Why would you think they were French?

Bill: Ha Ha. When I said I wasn't French, but that I understood him, he said, "I have lost my sheep and don't know where to find it."

I said, I can tell you that it was not on the Sommet de L'Homme, as I was up there for a long time and didn't see it. He was upset by this. The dogs started barking madly and he started swearing in French. Apparently there had been a report of a dead sheep. And part of being a shepherd is cleaning up the carcasses.

When I got back to my car, I saw just that, a dead sheep right by the trailhead. I wondered if I should just throw it in the trunk and bring it home to throw in the freezer, but then I saw the Renault zipping around and flagged down the Shepherd. I helped him with the dead sheep. Then I came home.

Launa: Please tell me that you actually know that you can't just eat dead animals that you find out in nature.

Bill: Really? Well then, good thing I saw the shepherd first. You should also put in that I got back right on time for the lasagne party.

Launa: Yup. Duly noted.

Bill: I still think it was too bad we weren't serving lamb.


  1. I must admit that I wondered how you were able to capture your dialogues with Bill. I love the fact that you sit and type while he talks. Fun and funny. Especially the part about the cocked eyebrows and the references to who reads the blog...

    Do tell more about the house and post more pictures of where you live. And perhaps a few photos of the town and school... if you are open to suggestions from the peanut gallery.

  2. Oh (mountain) god, that was fantastic. Miss you guys...