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An Unexpected Journey


On paper, everything seems easier than it actually is. When you see that expected travel time should be about eight hours, you take for granted just how much of an eternity eight long, excruciating, mind-numbing hours can seem. This past weekend was a lesson, a cruel lesson from the Universe in Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” I’m sure you must be confused, so let me explain….

First, though, the weekly report card! I’m still getting smiley faces in all my classes and have even gotten an A++ in the “tells awesome jokes” category. It’s the usual grind of homework and studying till I fall asleep, so as to leave my weekends work-free. I’ve been running in the mornings in preparation for the Hell that will be Field Training, which continues to loom over my head. There’s a great park not far from my dorm, comprised of a kilometer loop with workout stations set up along its path. One day, running down by the city, I saw several soccer fields filled with kids in bright, solid-colored uniforms. They must have been a youth soccer league, because they couldn’t have been much older than 14. It reminded me of my days when I used to rule the ol’ football pitch: I was the best defense in the U-6 American Youth Soccer Organization of New Hartford. I was good, so good that they even gave me a trophy at the end of the season! Although, for some reason, they gave my trophy to everyone else as well. Anyways, I did some reminiscing as I passed by the fields and finished up my run before the sky cracked open and buckets of rain began to drench anything not covered. Overall, I believe that school is continuing to go well and, thus far, none of the balls of my juggling act have been dropped. Hopefully, I can keep it going like this.

Now, what you’re really here for: my travels! Last weekend, Triberg gave me a great taste for nature and had me longing to go spend more time outside of the city. Although cities are a great way to experience a culture, one can only stand so much concrete, overpriced food, and funky smells coming from grates that disappear into blackness. Atlanta will forever be my numero uno city in my heart (and not just because it has Krispy Kreme and Green Manor, although mostly). The place I set my sights on this time was in the French Alps: a well-known ski-destination by the name of Chamonix. This is home to the massive, snow-capped, four-thousand meter tall mountain known as Mount Blanc. The city sits in the cradle of two expansive mountain ranges, which gives the impression that one is in a giant crater. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I can even begin to talk about Chamonix, I need to explain how I got there first.


As I mentioned earlier, the anticipated travel time was eight hours from Metz to Chamonix. I would have to get up at the exhausting hour of four in the morning to make it to the station on time, with the expectation that I would roll into Chamonix around two in the afternoon. Painfully, I clambered out of bed at four-thirty and made my train at six. Everything was going just smoothly until Lausanne, Switzerland (stupid Lausanne…). The plan originally had a twelve minute layover at one stop, which certainly isn’t the closest I’ve cut it before. However, as is the custom here, my train ran behind schedule and pulled up to the station just as the train I was supposed to be on was departing. You can imagine my frustration as I ran up to the platform and painfully watched my train fade away down the tracks. This setback delayed me three hours and meant I wouldn’t get in until five in the afternoon. Just like that, my eight hours of travel had now turned into eleven.



Being naive and carefree, however, I brushed it off as the setback that is always destined to arise in any trip and figured that I would be okay. With an extra hour to kill in Martigne, Switzerland, I was able to climb the parapet of an old tower and take in the beauty of the Alp’s sweeping valleys. Leaving Martigne, I hopped on board the Mount Blanc Express, which is a special train that winds its way through the mountains of the Alps. If you’ve ever been on the Expedition Everest ride at Disney World (or any roller coaster will suffice really), that’s what this train felt like. With a jolt, it pulled away from Martigne and started off the journey at an alarming thirty-degree incline up the side of a mountain. Near the apex of our climb, we plunged into the darkness of a tunnel that cut through the mountainside. When we emerged, we were traversing the side of a mountain on a path barely wide enough for the train. Looking through the large viewing windows that stretched across the entire cabin, there was only a heart-stopping plunge downwards next to the rail tracks. Unlike a Disney ride with fake backdrops, this was the real deal. As the train clattered along the precarious tracks, it offered some amazing views of the Alps. It was so amazing that I forgot how upset I was about getting in three hours behind schedule!


The adventure ended at a station in Vallorcine, France, where I had a one-hour layover. It was the kind of place that only had a main street, with a smattering of houses here and there. I met some interesting people who were waiting for the same train I was: there was an older French couple who extended an invitation for me to join them by saying: “Hey kid, we’re going to go get a beer. Want to come with?” Although we didn’t find an open bar, we did end up finding a 700 year-old church that had survived an avalanche thanks to its surrounding stone wall, so I guess that was cool. Then, I met an English family that loathed European football and were instead massive fans of the Green Bay Packers! Talk about finding a needle in a haystack.

Finally, one hour and twenty-eight minutes later, the long journey came to close. As we passed into the shadow of Mount Blanc, the train pulled up to the station and delivered its cargo of weary travelers. I was feeling it at this point, so I made a beeline for my Airbnb (funny side note, its listing was “cozy couch”). It was situated in an apartment suite adjacent to the train station, which I was thankful for. Unfortunately, none of the doors had numbers or names on them, so I had no clue which couch was mine. My host had neglected to send me the details on said information. I ended up becoming a door-to-door salesman, in search of someone who might have a clue. Every room I stopped at was out-of-towners, which got me no further than where I started. I tried calling my host numerous times, but no one picked up. After a half hour of searching, I gave up in frustration and left a message saying that I would come back later. The shower that I had been desperately looking forward to would have to wait a couple more hours. Instead, I went out in search of something to fill my stomach.


Being a ski-resort town, Chamonix is essentially the Parks City of France. It has a rugged, outdoorsy feel to it, with enough basic amenities included that it doesn’t scare away the city dwellers. The bars were filled with sweat-soaked hikers and backpackers like myself, and impromptu concerts were set up by musicians hanging outside restaurants. The town was a perfect blend of nature and civilization that made it fun to walk through (although some parts were certainly touristy). I satisfied the ever-hungry pit that is my stomach at a hot dog shop, where I feasted on perhaps the most delicious hot dog a person could find after going the last twelve hours without food.

When I returned to the apartment complex, I was nervous that I would have to cancel the Airbnb and end up booking at a place that was exponentially more expensive. My host had still not sent me a response, so my worry-meter was right up at the top. I gave it a half hour more before I would try and find an alternative place. As my luck would have it, she messaged me just as the half hour passed. Sending me detailed instructions, I eventually made my way to one of the doors that no one had answered earlier. She was out of town, so she had left the keys in her mailbox and some sheets for me on the couch. At this point, I was so tired that I collapsed on the couch without taking a shower. Although it was only 9:30pm, I knew that I would need a lot of sleep for the hiking I intended to do. That night, I slept more soundly than I had in weeks.

I ended up sleeping in to 7am (for those that know me, that’s really, really, late)! I rolled out of bed in a tumble of sheets and crawled to the heavenly spout of hot water, where I camped out for at least ten minutes. After that, I fixed myself a hearty breakfast of an orange and an assortment of crackers, washed down by gulps of fresh mountain water. Leaving behind my couch, I set my sights on a new challenge, this one a little more fun than the previous I had encountered. I found a trailhead that led up to a cable car station called “Aguille du Midi”. That was the halfway point up Mount Blanc, and also where I would make my way to. The beginning of the trail was a series of steep switchbacks that were barely two feet wide. However, as the day was still young, I had the advantage of fresh muscles and the benefit of being in the shade. Even then, by the end of the first hour, I was beginning to feel the effects of the constant uphill climb in my calf muscles. It got worse when I passed by someone hiking down, who told me that I was only about halfway up at this point.


Continuing upwards, I crossed over a river and noticed that the flora and fauna were subtly changing around me the higher I got. It reminded me of pictures we had seen in environmental science, where a mountainside can be broken up into several distinct regions: there are large trees down at the bottom in the subalpine region. In the alpine region, trees become more stunted and have to withstand blasts of colder temperatures. Then, above the tree line, the vegetation gives way to tufts of grass and shrubs and a much starker environment. As I progressed along the trail, I noticed all this changing around me and remarked at how much it was like the pictures in the books. Once I got above the tree line, the landscape gave way to rocks the size of houses and patches of snow that lay frozen on the ground. In several spots, the trail became so hard to follow that I had to backtrack to make sure I was staying on it. For anyone with little kids, this is not a hike I would recommend: I had to scale several large boulders and shimmy my way across ledges of snow that covered up the path. Up here, there was little shade to speak of, and there was not another soul in sight at this early in the morning. Two hours into it, my body was covered in sweat and every footstep became a battle of lifting my lead-like leg upwards and fighting Earth’s gravity. I wanted to give up, but I knew that this far in, there was nowhere to go but up. The only way I could maintain my resolve was to continually count to one-hundred in my head in Russian. It took my mind off of the exhaustion and helped pass the lonesome time.

Salvation came at two and half hours into this grueling trek. After seeing nothing but nature for some time, I finally saw my first small sign of civilization: literally, it was a sign! It pointed to an even larger sign of civilization, a warming house (called a refuge) for weary hikers like myself. Even more exciting, the cable car station, Aguille du Midi, finally came into view! One by one, things slowly began to get better. At the warming hut, there was a trough with frigid, flowing, water that I took in in large gulps. However, my final stop wasn’t the refuge. No, I needed to go continue upwards for ten more minutes to get to my real destination: the cable car station. Only then could I say that I had accomplished my mission. I came across two hikers carrying skis that were planning to ski down Mount Blanc and completed this last leg with them.

Coming up to the crest of the cable car station, the view was indescribable. That’s why I’ll take a moment and let the pictures speak for themselves.











My reward was a much-needed break and some food to eat. I claimed a metal bench as mine and gobbled down cheap crackers while taking in the picturesque view. Talking with some English folks, I set my sights on a new destination: I would traverse the side of the mountain and head over to Mer de Glac, the largest glacier in all of France. This time, I wouldn’t have to worry about climbing up and could enjoy a relatively flat hike. Compared to my morning trek, this was a piece of cake. It took me just under two hours to make it the four and a half miles to my next stop. The only bad part of it were the snow drifts that lay across the trail. They could be as large as fifty feet across and made it so that you could only walk in a narrow trail of footprints made by earlier travelers. Stepping out of these would have you taking a very long and dangerous slip n’ slide down the side of the mountain. As I approached Mer de Glac, the number of tourists began to rise dramatically. The reason behind this was one of laziness: there’s a train which runs from Chamonix up to Mer de Glac, so any Joe Schmoe can pay an outrageous thirty-eight euros to plop themselves down and have an internal combustion do the work for them in getting up the mountainside. I’m not made of money, so I took the cheap option and went with the two hour hike to get down. Every time the train went by, I could hear its shrill whistle mocking me in my weary state.


Now, I should elaborate a bit more on the whole “getting back” situation. There was a train leaving Chamonix, which, if everything else went accordingly, would get me back into Metz at 10pm Saturday night. Unfortunately for me, its departure time was 3pm. I had just begun my two-hour hike downwards at 2pm, so I was faced with three options: miss the 3pm train, run like a madman down the mountain and condense two hours into one, or give up every essence of manhood and shell out thirty-eight euros for an overpriced train ride down. Option three was off the table, and I was nervous that I might trip and fall, so I decided to enjoy the hike down and ended up taking my time with it (I would later realize that I had chosen wrong). When I got into Chamonix, it was 3:15pm and my legs had been magically transformed into jelly. My new plan had me travelling for twelve hours, with an overnight delay at a station in Basel, Germany. Although the prospect of it was not very exciting, I was still in that foolish mindset where I figured it couldn’t be that bad. Let me cut through that crap right now: it was bad, very bad.


I left from Chamonix around 5pm and, as the Mount Blanc Express began to trundle back through the steep mountain passages, I looked out the windows in sadness. For once, I was sad to have to leave and go back to school. I wished that I’d had more time to go hiking and see some of the hidden gems of the area. Alas, it was my time to go. The ride back to Lausanne, Switzerland, passed in a few short hours. I’m supremely glad I had the foresight to bring a thick book with me, as I ripped through its pages on these tedious rides. A lakefront town, we pulled into Lausanne just as the sun was setting. With white, wispy, clouds creating a haze on the horizon, it made for a stunning array of colors as the sun slipped into the watery depths and the darkness of the night came on. I had an hour to walk around Lausanne, so I spent it stretching my legs and getting in some extra steps (That day, I ended up doing 38,000 steps!). Then, an hour later I boarded several series of trains that eventually dropped me off at a station in Basel, Germany right after midnight. Now, the worst part was upon me: my next train wouldn’t leave Basel until 5:25am. Here I was, stuck at the station with nowhere to go and nothing to do for five freaking hours. I found a bench in a well-lit area of the station, wrapped my backpack straps through my legs, and began the long, painful wait. As the night wore on, the temperature began to drop into the high forties and bugs started assaulting my skin that made me twitch like a horse. Around 2:30am, several guys came through the station and started clapping loudly and making a lot of noise so as to wake up those of us that were sleeping (for I wasn’t the only traveler caught in this overnight nightmare).

When 5am eventually rolled around, I was starving, exhausted, and desperately in need of a shower. After all, I’d spent six and half hours the day before hiking. I got into Strasbourg at 7am and thought that the worst was finally over. However, there was one more “surprise” lying in wait for me. My train from Strasbourg to Metz, which would have gotten me in at 11, was cancelled due to strikes! Talking with the information desk, I would have to take a train from Strasbourg to Paris and then from Paris to Metz. It would end up adding an hour onto my overall travel time. Here I was, only a forty-five minute car ride from Metz, and now I would have to keep traveling. As fed up as I was, I did the only thing I could do: I got on the train and tried my hardest to keep from passing out. At 1pm on Sunday, I finally crossed the threshold of my apartment and collapsed in a heap of sweat-stained clothes on my soft, clean, bed.

There is a lesson to be learned from all this: don’t overextend your travels or yourself. It’s one thing to say that you can do something, but another thing entirely to actually carry it out. I thought that I could make a twelve-hour trip back manageable, and I was dead wrong. I spent more time traveling than I spent in Chamonix, which kind of made this trip a drag. I loved every second in Chamonix, but I would not recommend taking the trains to get there (unless you’re only taking the Mount Blanc Express). From here on, I plan to stay more local and enjoy the things that are near me, instead of trying to make a massive trip happen. Anyways, I learned a lot about myself and about traveling this week. Although a lot of it sucked, it’s important to remember the words of T.S Eliot – “The journey, not the arrival, matters.”

Posted by oklempay 09:50 Archived in France Tagged hiking mountain train chamonix hike couch express basel lausanne mount_blanc martigne vallorcine

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