June 15, 2014
South of France. We have been journeying for some time now. The sun is almost underneath the west side of the French Alps. Golden orange and periwinkle blue paint the sky, peaking through haunting clouds as we drive directly below on a tightly dangling road. I’m revitalized and exhausted. Alive and unstable. It has been another twenty-four hour period of very little sleep and an overload of adrenaline. It is doubtful I will sleep tonight. I don’t sleep well in cars.
Steve is at the wheel with me as passenger. Two people in the back, who are equal parts stranger and family, sing along with us to a never-ending Bob Seger playlist. Choosing to spend ten hours with two strangers is risky. Adverse personalities have the potential to clash and blow within the confines of this tiniest of mini vans. Luckily, we have found that Kirk and Carolyn are actually the best of random traveling companions. We all love classic rock, share a lot of the same views on life, empathize with one another’s travel pains, and are seemingly on the same bathroom schedule. Steve and I learn that Kirk is a pastor and business owner back in New York. He and Carolyn spend their free time volunteering, boating, and cherishing time with their kids who range from adolescents to young adults. They all sound very intelligent and grounded. We share details of my being a teacher, Steve being a small business owner, our trip so far, our everyday lives back home. There really is hardly a lull in conversation as we make our way across two countries.
“Looks like another toll coming up.” Kirk says, pointing out a sign overhead. My eyes follow and then my mouth drops.
“Mont Blanc?! We’re going towards Mont Blanc?!” I pause to let this sink in. However, the looks on my fellow travelers’ tell me that they don’t recognize the significance. For me, being a Brit Lit nerd, bells ring in my head. “Lord Byron wrote a poem all about Mont Blanc! It’s the biggest mountain in Europe!” I explain. Everyone does the obligatory “huh” and smiles at my excitement. Attempting sleep is no longer even an option. I must experience Mont Blanc.
Switzerland. Steve pulls up to the toll tower. “Twenty euro,” the attendant states. We all give each other a look and huff. The tolls have been between ten and forty Euro each. Our impromptu road trip expenses are adding up quickly: 850 Euro to rent the car, about 100 Euro on gas, and close to 100 Euro in tolls so far. At this point, there is no turning back- literally, as we are on a one-way road hanging off a mountain.
“Have you guys seen The Sound of Music?” Kirk asks seemingly out of nowhere.
“Oh yeah,” I say. “such a good movie. Steve doesn’t like musicals though.”
“Yeah,” he agrees. “never seen it.”
“Well, we are totally the Von Trap family right now, escaping a country by going over the Alps!”
I smile at this clever comparison.
Kirk and Carolyn share that they were in Scotland before Paris. Kirk is a huge golfer and excitedly tells us of golfing at the largest golf course in the world, which happens to be there. With that, the conversation turns to travel stories.
“When I told my friends and family we were planning this trip,” Carolyn explains. “they were so excited that we were spoiling ourselves like this. But really, traveling is downright hard work!”
I wholeheartedly agree with Carolyn as I reminisce on my and Steve’s journey so far. We were in Chicago a mere ten days ago. It’s hard to believe. It has been amazing, eye-opening; exhausting and stressful, and our trip is only half over. We’ve traipsed London, explored the outskirts of England, circumvented chaos, survived Amsterdam, explored Paris; and now, escaped France by Von Trapping through the Alps. Perhaps not on foot, but on Lodgy, which is the 21st century version of “on foot.” Italia will be good to us. I know it will. We just need to get there.
“We go to Guatemala quite a bit,” Kirk says. “We actually own an orphanage there.”
“No way!” I muse. “My niece was adopted from Guatemala before the borders closed.”
Another circumstance that makes us all pause and ponder how small the world actually is. I have found that this is the Truth (with a capital T) of travel- the beauty of seeing just how much in common you have with people from all walks of life.
When the sun disappears, Kirk and Carolyn settle in as much as possible and nap wakefully in the back seat. I’ve found that I’m okay with going down each mountain side; it’s the twisting up that scares the hell out of me. Luckily, Steve has driven stick-shift multiple times before. However, it has been a good ten years since the last, and that was in the flatlands of Illinois! This is a whole other animal.
I hear light snores dance over Credence Clearwater coming from the speakers.
“How are you doing?” I ask Steve, nervous to hear the answer.
“I’m okay.” His eyes dart unsteadily following the curves in the road.
We head upwards again. Steve shifts and the van is quiet for a second as it settles with its decision to keep going. My heart skips up my throat and I hear a “Uhhh!” from the back. Quick, loud intakes of breath.
I would be scared for my life, but the view is phenomenal. Towns tuck into the folds of the mountains, dotting the rocks like little islands. In almost every town (and there are dozens of them), a church with a glowing cross hangs from the highest cliff. Twinkles of lights string across the horizon, highlighting dark shadows where towns cease to exist. I’ve tried and tried, in vain, to capture this spectacular experience on camera. I gave up about an hour ago and settle with taking in the moments as they come. I pretend that my brain can store these perfect images so that I will always remember them just-like-this. This place is a fresh, new, vibrant discovery that is somehow just for us.
We get to the top of another peak. Another Mont Blanc sign is coming into view. 10 kilometers. It’s been difficult trying to point out exactly which mountain peak is Mont Blanc- they are all so massive. But soon, we will be on Mont Blanc. The Monarch of the mountains.
I wait with bated breath and very little oxygen, as we are now definitely well within the zone of thinning atmosphere. 5 kilometers. 2 kilometers. How many people can say they drove on Mont Blanc? How amazing is this? 1 kilometer.
We make a long, sharp turn and suddenly there she is. Intense. Immense. How did a monster this size sneak up on us? Blanc doesn’t look like she ends till far past earth’s troposphere. My eyes move from above to ahead, and I see a toll booth followed by a huge gapping hole in her rocky belly. We are not going to be on Mont Blanc; we are going to be in Mont Blanc! And then the sky disappears and what surrounds us is grey rock and fluorescent lights. Everything sounds like an echo, even within the confines of the van. Steve opens a window and we hear the whoosh whoosh whoosh of the car sounds billowing off the solid inner core of this enormous mountain.
“Whoah!” Steve says while pointing towards a sign on the right. “This tunnel is 12 kilometers long!”
The excitement washes away for a moment as claustrophobia peeks over my shoulder. That’s about ten minutes spent under a mountain. What was at first a satisfaction is now a distress.
I try to just focus on the fact that I am in the mountain Lord Byron wrote about two hundred years ago. He and Mary Shelley, who wrote the amazing Frankenstein, stayed in a cabin facing Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc in their backyard. This is the stuff dreams are made of.
So why am I breathing so raggedly?
Before long, we see the exit ahead. I start to breathe easier and smile. This truly is a once in a lifetime experience. This thought makes me both ecstatic and depressed.
When we see the final fluorescent light tube and make our way out, I take a deep breath as if I have just come up for air after scuba diving. Immediately, a sign meets our eyes: Benvenuti in Italia. We burst out with a “hurrah!” feeling victorious.
Italy. Then, off to the left we see squad cars, a small building, and two men holding flares waving us over. This can’t be good.
Steve pulls to the side. One of the men comes to Steve’s side and the other goes to my side. “License and registration?” Steve reaches for his wallet on the dash and fishes out his license. This guy looks as if he just got divorced this morning and then his cat died this afternoon. In the meantime, the other officier is on my side, looking in the window for clues or drugs or stowaways- whatever border patrol looks for in Europe. He smiles at me but continues his visual search.
“Is there a problem officer?” Steve asks as he hands Angry Cop his license.
“You were going a little fast.” The officer says, obviously agitated. “You have international license?”
Steve looks at me, then quickly back at Kirk and Carolyn to see if this term registers with anyone else. The looks on our faces obviously read the same as his.
“Uh, international license? I didn’t know I needed one?” In his confused state, everything comes out like a question.
“Yes, need one to drive overseas.” Angry Cop is not amused. Happy Cop, on my side, continues to visually rape our Lodgy and smile all the while.
“Please pull past median into parking area,” Angry Cop demands and points in the direction ahead. Steve nods, drives, (probably considers taking off into the mountainous landscape), u-turns, and parks. Then, following orders, he exits the van and heads into the police station. As soon as Steve and the policia are out of site, we begin to chatter rapidly.
“Well, we’re all in this together. If he gets arrested, we will help bail him out.” Kirk states.
My heart flounders. “You think they will arrest him?”
Carolyn hears the panic in my voice and soothes me. “I doubt it,” she says quietly and puts a hand on my arm. “International license? I have never heard of that! Why wouldn’t they make us get one to rent the car!”
Minutes pass. We anticipate the different ways this could go, consider our options for each, sweat a little, laugh a little (because seriously? This is actually happening?), and wait. After about fifteen minutes, I consider going in myself. I look at the clock (23:01) and mentally tell myself to wait until the clock turns to 23:05 before I decide to storm in and demand they let my poor unsuspecting husband go. At 23:04, Steve walks out with a elongated paper in his hands. I immediately feel relieved.
“What happened?” We ask in concert.
Steve looks ruffled, delirious, and ecstatic. Today is a day of mixed emotions. We could probably create an elixir similar to the Fountain of Youth with all of this intensity.
“Well, they were totally playing ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop,'” Steve starts. “They said they pulled me over for going 7 kilometers over the speed limit- apparently there are cameras in Mont Blanc! The one guy wanted to let me go with a warning, but that other guy… something was up his ass. So, I had to fill out all this paperwork- mind you, it’s all in Italian, so I may have signed my life away. Then Bad Cop signs it after me, hands me a 40 Euro ticket and says, get this,” he pauses, a smile spread across his face, “Welcome to Italy!”
For a fleeting moment it’s silent, and then all at once the van fills with undiluted laughter. Is this real life?
As Steve pulls back on the highway, I wonder if maybe we should have just stayed in Switzerland.
Switzerland was kind to us.