I save mid-winter and early spring for writing, trying my best not to fill my calendar. It’s always a halcyon time where I, like most writers I know and read about, flirt with the unexpected in productivity, moods, and distractions. Being a mother, and the sole proprietor of a very old home with its own particular demands involves much of the latter, but it also allows for the elasticity of time, when writing can last all day and into the night with breaks for meals, or it can be an intense hour in the morning with another in the afternoon. The former leaves little time; the latter leaves all the time in the world for recipe testing and cookie baking, party planning and homework helping.
When I got an invitation to go hiking in the Alps for ten days recently, I checked my calendar. Amazingly all that was written on it for the next two weeks was WRITE, uninterrupted by so much as coffee with a neighbor. It took me all of three seconds to say OUI OUI OUI, and before I knew it I was on the night train to Gap.
The night train. Hiking. The Alps. These are things I hadn’t done since I was in college, and a place I’d never been, for hiking. I was way too excited to sleep, and I don’t think it was the couchette which, in the intervening years, has become a much more comfortable thing indeed.
I got off the train in Gap at dawn, and headed across the street to the golden glow of a café, already bustling with other travelers. The air was frigid, the slightly dawning sky revealing snow-capped peaks all around. The cold, and the night on the train, made us all friends in that café and we crowded the booths, everyone ordering coffee or chocolate, croissants or tartines. I had a bus to catch in an hour, which allowed me time in the atmosphere and singsong accents of the south.
I’d been warned the bus ride was a wild one and indeed, my heart was in my throat more than once as the edge of the road disappeared into a valley as deep as the Grand Canyon. We sped through tiny villages where the mirrors on the bus nearly scraped the houses on both sides, through apple and pear orchards, vineyards, and grazing pastures as tiny snowflakes fell all around. After an exhilarating hour and a half, I arrived at my destination, a postage stamp of a town called Barcelonette, where snow was falling and another big bowl of hot coffee awaited.
The real hiking began the following day, not too early because butter and jam-laden tartines dipped into bowls of strong coffee is a morning sacrament in France. Hiking can wait, and the early mornings were frigid.
The snow was a meter deep on the trails, most of it pure and untrodden, which meant hiking was one plunge after another, punctuated by the occasional dry spot. But what blessed exercise, climbing and winding through alpine forests onto crests where the whole world was at our feet.
What struck me mightily was the contrast between wilderness and civilization. I’d been trained to hike in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington where a good map and a compass were obligatory. The same was true here except that civilization was never far away. We’d be walking among the majestic Mélèze pines amidst total silence when boom! Around the corner we’d stumble into a small village with a central well, a ancient church with spire, a barn full of cattle or sheep. And just when I’d think I couldn’t climb another centimeter in the snow that collapsed under my step, I didn’t have to. Because there was a small ski resort with a few hardy skiers and a clutch of bars serving the local absinthe-like liqueur, Génépi.
In terms of the local cuisine, there were here too unexpected surprises. Who knew, though I might have guessed, that hand fashioned ravioli stuffed with garlic and onion-scented potatoes was as regional as the pine trees? Or that dough pillows stuffed with meats and cheeses, or vegetables and called tourtons, would be sold from every butcher shop, freshly fried and ready to reheat at home? But mostly, the culinary joys of the Alpes are heart – tartiflette, raclette, stewed lamb.
Did I write? Volumes, mostly in my head as I climbed up and down those trails, marveling at every twist and rise. Now that I’m back in my familiar prairieland of Normandy, though, the inspiration, the vistas, the clean, clear air are still with me, and the words are tumbling from my fingertips.