27 April 2009

Cham Sans Skis

Oh, the horror! Woke up this weekend to warm temperatures, overcast skies, foehn wind, and bits of rain. While I've been promised that things will stabilize (April showers bring May flowers, right?), I can't help but feel that the end is near. There is still the Haute Route (I'm still invited right, Silas? Silas?) and overnighters in various huts but all that takes more (family) planning. The take-your-pick choices of single-day ski tours are quickly disappearing around here.

So what's a guy to do when he can't ski the Alps? Be a tourist in them! And that's what the family did: headed to Chamonix to hang out for the day. I was there earlier in the year for my whirlwind three country tour but I failed to see anything in town other than the train station and the long line to board the Aguille du Midi cable car. It was quite nice to step back a moment and smell the
Edelweiss. And, honestly, it was probably a good time to go as the funky weather and closed chairlifts kept the crowds at a quiet minimum.

Yep, the world famous Chamonix. Birthplace of Le Ski Extreme and probably a whole range of Le Ski Unextreme, too. I imagine there are plenty of other interesting and historical events that surround this place but, really, in comparison to flipping down rock cliffs and scraping your way through shoestring chutes what difference does it make?

Straight to a bar to drown our (my) sorrows in Gamay, pasta, and pizza.

Hank was so sad he could hardly eat his ice cream. Poor guy. What else could I tell him that it's the cycle of life: snow falls, then it melts. Year after year. And on and on.

Kind of a gloomy day to be a tourist. Even worse to be a skier. I don't know what is more painful, though: the realization that the snow will soon be gone, or the fact that someone's gonna hafta deal with my complaints about the lack of snow until next October. Wouldn't wanna be those people.

24 April 2009

The Running Kind

I love to run. I love its simplicity: a pair of decent shoes for my feet and some music for my head. That's about it. Maybe a hat to soak up sweat, sunglasses, some lightweight clothes. It's a nice balance to the constant on and off again world of skis, skins, gloves, layers of clothing, and heaps of survival gear. And frozen water isn't a necessary component.

I'm not a good runner. My torso is long and broad, my giant thighs are better suited for slow, steep climbs. Though my balance is good I'm not especially nimble. I'm prone to injuries because I have problematic feet. I think the situation is made worse because I prefer to scurry up rocky trails rather than amble along flat, smooth surfaces. I'll never run a marathon.

But I love it and in addition to locating the high peaks and guessing the tree and snow line the first thing I do upon moving to a new place is to determine where and to what degree I will be able to run. I had a nice course in Kazakhstan through some apple groves and up into the foothills. In Santiago, I could leave from the house and spend as long as I wanted on cattle and motorcycle trails. Mexico was a terrible place to run. You were never too far from too much traffic and, inevitably, you were forced to run through or over or around too much trash. The dirt roads of Idaho and Northeast Nevada are paradise. Washington, DC--in every aspect--is a hot, humid, swampy shithole.

Happy to report that I've found my outlet. There is quick and easy access around the neighborhood but other than short sections down by some streams most of the available area is paved pathways that outline the nearby crop fields in long, straight, and flat lines. A tad dull. A short ten-minute drive, though, takes you to the Jura Mountains and miles and miles (and kilometers and kilometers) of dirt roads through hardwood and evergreen forests. A real treat, especially in the morning light.

More Blue Ridge than Rocky, the Jura Mountains is a low altitude, thickly forested range whose north end begins in the Alsace and southern tip drops into the Savoie near Chambéry. Those industrious Swiss have exploited its resources since the 18th century thus providing me with all the well-worn running paths my heart legs can handle.

Industrious, yes, but the Swiss also seem to enjoy their quiet time. So while they have plowed roads into the hillsides for several hundred years now, they also like to take the time to reflect on their surroundings and the picture perfect landscape they create for themselves.

Running around the mountains with nathin' to do, it's easy to reflect on lifetime experiences and various situations that may or may not have anything to do with your current experience and life situation. The last time I was able to run through forested mountains I was living just outside of Ketchum, Idaho, the summer of 2004. The year Hank was born. Before that were the monumental summers of 1996 and 1994 when I would run the fire and logging roads above my beloved Priest Lake.

Recently, through my pounding chest and spinning head, I thought about the differences between the Swiss logging operations and those I encountered in North Idaho. Then I ran by some of the Swiss logging operations. A far cry from my experience at the lake.

I think you could--yes, I'm certain that you could--safely and peacefully eat off those landings and log piles. Then I ran by a two person thinning crew working in one of the plots and I knew for sure I was a long way from home.

Our Idaho Department of Lands crew truck wasn't quite as aerodynamic as theirs, our ground clearance a little higher, our paint not so shiny. Our Husky saws were bigger.

Yep, running is a time for meditation, no matter how dizzy I am or how much my legs hurt or how hard my heart knocks my rib cage. Wendy has borrowed my little music machine a couple times for her own workouts only to return home to ask how I could possibly keep running with all the slow songs I have loaded on the player. I guess I haven't thought about it too much but maybe it's the contrast of the burning body and the input of the mellow music that puts my mind at ease and encourages it to keep up with my heart. Regular intense activity, whether it's running, skiing, or thinning tree plots with a Fire Crew, is the one thing I can count on to keep me spinning just slightly slower than the world around me. Therein lies the balance.

I like my fast music, too. Especially when running downhill and listening to a mad Argentine singer who belts out indecipherable Spanish to crazy beats. The experience of the run can quickly turn hypnotic.

Not much snow left in the Jura and now that I've switched hemispheres back toward the north my ski season will end sometime soon. As long as my feet hold out I should be fine.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

16 April 2009

Easter Hunting

Warm temperatures, a visit from a friend, a giant bunny that hides chicken eggs; Springtime never felt so right. Spent the long weekend in practice of many activities I take to heart. Cooked Springy meals like lamb and dorado baked in salt.

Drank Springy wine like cheap Vinho Verde and historic Brouilly. Killed some Spring time in our Springy garden.

Listened to Springtime music like The Instruments, Sam Prekop, and Sergio Mendes. Hunted for Spring snow--soft but not too mushy.

We circumnavigated the Mont Blanc Massif, though in this part of the world--the Haute Savoie--if you're not in the Mont Blanc Massif, then you're just around its corner; it occupies a significant amount of space. Featureless in its shadow, in the immediate surroundings its easy to feel like you're on top of the world, even if it's your own small one.

In the big middle of it all it's sometimes nice to know that others have the same intention. Piled rocks and scratched surfaces, broken statues and a sense of humor lend a sense of welcome to a strange and foreign country.

The skiing is the same no matter where you land. It's hardly the point. It's the getting there and being there and with who and how and what next that matters. I like to think that I ski because it allows me to skim the surface of something otherwise unknowable. All the small details that compliment the final activity secure me in this assurance and, ultimately, provide some meaning.

And sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's frightening but it's almost never what you expect and, more importantly, you might never see it again.

I often feel that I am better alone. However, I also know for certain that these feelings are tricks, and it's best to resist these tricks and try to participate in something bigger than myself, something altogether knowable. The hunt, in fact, is a game and it's a game played with others and its season never ends and there is never a fresh kill at the end of the chase. I know this, and though I resist, it often takes the culmination of several events to remind myself of the burden of solitude and the unbearable lightness of being. Thanks, Milan.

So I picked up thirds because it seemed to suit me. It's not a bad place to be, especially with the sun to keep you wrapped in the present. The days are long now and everything has changed.

You work around things and up and down and finally you come to a place that seems to fit. Well, it has to, and it usually does; there is no other way up but to come back down. In the meantime, temperatures change quickly and heart rates rise (also quickly). Those are some of the small details that make the day worth doing, the living worth living.

I stumble 'round on through my memory's maze.

It's always hard to tell if you have a friend in the sun or a great spoiler. Warmth and blue skies come with a price: unpredictable snow, dehydration, and, the worst offense, blurred vision.

Hunt long and hard enough and you'll find the spot. And though the equipment might change, the process is the same and a friend is still a friend.

Whether it takes the form of eggs, soft snow, a purpose, or a new sense of place, the Easter Bunny delivers, true to form, whatever it is that you need most. Thanks, Easter Bunny!

Thanks, Old Europe!

Thanks, fraulein Klar, for the stolen pictures (#s 4-8, 13, 15, 16).

And thanks, Hank, for picture #2.

07 April 2009

Saving the Planet, One Tadpole at a Time

Our smaller, upper pond is the most vulnerable. It's shallow and full of tadpoles. The other day we saw a perfectly content frog, as big as my fist, sunning itself on its edge; a proud infanticide. After we read about tadpoles in his illustrated encyclopedia (you know, the part where it says that most of them don't survive because the things that brought them into this world also like to eat them) Hank has taken it upon himself to capture and transfer them to the lower, less active pond. Though deeper and bigger, the other upper pond already has four or five fully grown frogs doing their best to devour all their offspring. In his almost-five years, I've never seen Hank so focused or patient.

He stands above the water quiet and concentrated. Days seemingly go by until you hear a shocked shriek followed by thrilled laughter. He'll often yell out, "I got one!" before quickly heading for the lower pond, laughing as the squirmy, slimy tadpole tickles the palms of his hands. He'll bid the tadpole goodbye as he lowers it into the pond, offer it luck, and remind it that it was just saved from the big frogs. Then he will return to the small pond to start the procedure over again.

It's Springtime in Switzerland and finally it feels like it's all coming together. Our possessions have arrived; the house is settling into its place. Our car is here and it still runs. Hank is much more comfortable in his surroundings and so are we. Never thought I'd say this but I'm glad that winter is over. It seemed an especially long and hard one this year and I ain't talking about the weather. The mud, slush, and gray skies that dominated the landscape on our arrival to Geneva didn't help ease the transition, either. But now with flowers, blue skies, and tadpoles, the world is starting to spin a little more smoothly.

And, yes, skiing will return as well. An Easter weekend visitor should help kick things back into gear. She seems to possess an intrinsic ability to find good snow. After all, home is where your skis is and, for now, they're here. In the meantime, we'll save little creatures from certain doom, smell the flowers, and enjoy the good life. No more big bad frogs in this pond.

(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)