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February 2000

Once Upon The Alps

In the European high-country Alps you can wander through the most stunning mountains in the world. Vive la difference!

The dawn is almost, but not quite, perfect. Looking east, the rising sun illuminates my trail undulating along the crest of a luscious green ridgeline. Silhouetted on the horizon just a half-day’s hike away is a row of spectacularly ragged peaks that just make me ache to be there among them.

But something’s missing. Then I hear it, drifting on the wind: a faint clanging. It crescendos until, by the time I finish breakfast, there’s a cacophony of bells punctuated by the baaing of perhaps a hundred sheep. A flock is descending from its high pasture toward a tiny building below treeline. Now things really can’t get any better. I settle back, steaming brew in hand, to soak it all in.

It’s not normal for me to be smitten by bells, livestock, or buildings in the backcountry. But this isn’t my backcountry; this is the Old Country-the Maritime Alps of southern France, to be precise. And let me be open about it: I’m head over heels in love with the entire 800-mile-long Alpine chain, from Slovenia through Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and, of course, France. Wherever I go, there I am throwing my arms into the air and twirling around with an ear-to-ear grin. I just can’t help it. Above-treeline campsites give me a bird’s-eye view of pastoral scenes complete with expansive, flowered meadows that you just want to roll around in like a kid. Peaks reach for the sky in such overpowering display that you can’t comprehend the forces that created them. This morning’s concert of chiming bells and bleating wool, for example, is part of the Alps’s charm–you just can’t get it anywhere else. It may be “unnatural” by North American trail standards, but it’s as musical to my backpacking ears as the bugle of an elk.

This dichotomy of intercontinental hiking reminds me of a saying the French used to have about the women’s movement and the seeming desire to homogenize the sexes. “Vive la difference” was their motto, which translates roughly to “celebrate the differences.” That’s the way I feel about travel. In North America, I walk to leave civilization behind. In the Alps, I embrace the culture of mountain worlds I can’t find at home.

It’s these differences I’m savoring as I break camp and follow the rolling ridge toward France’s Parc National du Mercantour. Yesterday’s hike began on cobblestone streets in the busy tourist village of St. Martin-Vesubie. Hiking is such a deep tradition here that trails lace the entire countryside, and when a village gets in the way, signs direct the walker through ancient alleyways to regain the more familiar open air. In America, I want trails to be the only visible work of man. Get me the heck out of town, and keep me away as long as possible. I don’t feel that way in the Alps. Passing through a thousand-year-old village, picking up a baguette and lashing it to my pack, and switchbacking up the other side of the valley are all in a half-day’s play. More often than not, a weathered-wood chalet spilling over with scarlet geraniums fits into the mountain landscape rather than mars it.

Since leaving St. Martin-Vesubie, though, I’ve seen remarkably few artifacts of civilization-the flock of sheep this morning, but otherwise only a solitary hiker and some cairns. As I cross the unmarked border into Mercantour, the peaks crowd closer and the ground underfoot grows bare and talused. I pause for a few minutes at the junction of four trails where at last I encounter fellow walkers. These hikers come in shapes and ages that I wouldn’t expect to see so high in the mountains. It’s obvious that many are enjoying Europe’s hills because they can spend nights in trailhead hotels or high-country huts. I move off the trail to let an old woman by; she grabs her husband’s unsteady hand as she nervously steps down a steep and rutted passage. Two young children with tiny daypacks jolt like baby goats beside their parents. I follow the energetic little ones up toward the Col de Fenestre (Window Pass) at the Italian border, where I’ll be able to see all the way to the Matterhorn.

Mercantour’s stony core reminds me more of high points along Colorado’s Rockies than it does of fertile European mountains where livestock have been grazing for a millennium or more. While Americans generally misinterpret “alp” to mean high snowcapped peak, ancient farmers had no use-or name-for such unproductive realms. For them an alp was something profitable: a high-altitude summer pasture.

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