The Tour Du Mont Blanc… Well Almost

Woah. Europe has been a ride to say the least. So far I felt challenged to survive outdoors, extreme love and warmth, budding new friendships, and awe of all sorts of landscapes. But last night was one of the most challenging yet. I fell asleep after a big warm meal, tucked in my sleeping bag with my sleeping bag rain cover, under the cover of a few trees. I closed my eyes and drifted to sleep hoping for there not to be a storm like the one I had braced the night prior. I awoke to pounding rain hitting my whole body, but I was dry. But like any raincoat, the nylon sheet covering my soft sleeping bag could only withstand so much saturation until it soaked through. Hours passed and I felt my face damp and I was struggling to breath under the rain cover, but even worse I could feel the dampness all around me closing in. An especially annoying repetitive drop off a leaf above my forehead kept me from sleeping. I think this is what actual torture is like? Despite wearing all my layers, I was shivering cold. I looked out and got a face full of rain and could see lightning in the dark sky. I felt so alone and scared. My sleeping bag was slowly getting more and more damp as I twisted and turned trying to allow some sleep. I kept trying to relax but the plastic cover with water falling on top of it felt like it was gagging me. Finally bit by bit I could feel my sleeping bag was no longer dry. I started crying. I pulled everything off, and while being completely vulnerable to the rain, shaking, and getting everything more wet, I was able to reach in my bag, and pull out my emergency poncho. The poncho was made of a plastic material that reflects 90% of your body heat. The crinkling of the plastic mixed with the sound of the rain as I preserved what little dryness my clothes had left now that even my sleeping bag was wet. I squirmed back inside and with no where to go, waited for the night to be over. Finally when the sky lightened just a bit, I left all my stuff and went wandering into town seeking some sort of covering.

“I give up!” I shouted at the world. “I want to go home! This is stupid. I don’t want to be here anymore.” How could I continue on the trail? I was only the second night in to a week long trek and I was deeply unprepared despite spending 300 euros on stuff for this trip. Frusterate, dissapointed and scared, I cried with the rain as I walked. Finally, I saw a light on in a store in the distance. It was a grocery store. Inside someone was mopping the floors. I walked inside (probably looking a little scary) wearing a disposable bright orange poncho, with two beanies on, a headlamp, soaking wet, with a red tear-stricken face at 5 in the morning. I wonder if he had questions about how I spent my night. I paced around the store over and over, wanting to soak in the warmth and dryness. When I had stayed a bit longer than the socially acceptable amount of time, I left. I kept walking until I found a little awning to sit under.

Brutal was not only the cold and the wet but where my mind was going. Sometimes when I’m alone in particular, I can’t distract myself from the chaotic and dark directions of thought. Just two days ago I arrived in Les Houches. I had come there from the French alps through a mix of hitchhiking and public transport. That first night I had geared up (spending way too much money and adding way too much weight) for the trek. Then I found a spot in the trees off the side of the road and set up my hammock. It was still early in the day, but I had nothing to do, so I decided to nap. I ended up just getting deeper and deeper into a familiar haze of destructive thought cycles.

Traveling alone has been a journey. From the highs of complete freedom to the lows of complete self destruction, despite where you are, there’s really no escaping your own mind. Sometimes I’m not so successful at choosing happiness or at fighting off my own demons.

It was like so many days in Humboldt when this unexplainable stagnation would overwhelm me and despite my urges I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. The self hatred and discust would build the longer I lost battles against myself. It’s kind of like the feeling of needing to vomit. A naseau that engulfs you but the very essence of it is stifling. But still- stops you from getting out of bed. Stops you from allowing yourself to breathe. It feels suffocating, but without clear solution. Like you’re in the bottom of a well and the slippery walls keep you from being able to climb out. I felt my mind sinking deeper into this place and I couldn’t move. I spent the hours of 2 pm – 10 am lying in that hammock. Then the next day I pulled myself out and started the walk.

To rewind a bit. I know it’s hard to understand this feeling and why I do it to myself. A lot of people say they have depression, but I don’t know what other people face. I also don’t know that I’ve mentioned these feeling to many people in my life although I can’t remember not dealing with them. The sadness is familiar as paralyzing as it still can be. But maybe I’m just at a low right now because I’ve just had some highs. In writing this, it’s not a bad idea to reflect. Prior to this, I had hitchhiked from St Jean D’Aulps where I had been staying with a friend and his family. What a warm and lovely family too! It was exciting and sweet and new. One, I had never stayed with an English family before. The delightful accents, vibrant conversations, rich dinners, and overall love that I felt there was a complete amazement to me. I had met Hugo at a slackline festival only two weeks prior. Handsomeness aside, he was decked out in complete bike gear for his tour and with a tent that he won in a photography competition, so those two things alone can give you an idea of what kind of person he is. When we were parting ways after the festival I thought it was a goodbye, but just a few hours later we met again in the nearest town. We explored a cathedral and ate icecream and then parted ways only to meet again a week later in the Alps. But to even better understand this stagnant feelizng, let me remind a bit further. 

Another reason for my potential low: My aunt and uncle and their three children, luck have it, were spending a month in Paris for work. I returned to the after meeting Hugo and the slackline festival. Them being in Paris has been a decisive factor to my timing of being in Europe at all. I booked my flight from India desperately awaiting the comfort of family after 5 months of being a foreigner and long bouts of solitude. Huxley who is 5 and Coco who is 8 are two of the people in my entire family that I am most bonded two. They are my cousins and part of the family in Paris. We all crave the ability to love and to be loved. There’s not really anything I’ve experienced in my life like building a relationship with a child. I am able to give them all my love endlessly and theough years of spending time together, I have built strong bonds with them. When I first met them at the airport in early July Huxley said to me, “I’m so happy I get to spend 21 days with you!!” and both he and Coco I have held hands 90% of our time together. I always think that my heart can’t love them any more than it already does, but I feel that I fall deeper each moment I spend with them. No matter where we sleep, the three of us always end up sleeping together. I spend hours playing games of their choice. Whether it’s running outside pretending to be different characters or story telling in the car, I feel that the best thing I can do when I’m with them is dedicate my energy and attention to them. I feel so lucky to have these two relationships in my life because they give me so much purpose.In days of darker thoughts or too much solitude, I remember the need to perservere because there are a few people I can name that I know would be unbearably affected if anything ever happened to me. These names in particular, Huxley and Coco, I think of every night before I fall asleep and the thought of them alone helps me drift into sleep.

“You don’t want to come (back to the Alps for a few days do you? Hiking and swimming in lakes and camping and what not. Given that you’ve just come from here pretty much, and I know you’re loving being with your family and have already turned down other travel plans I’m guessing the answer is no, but I thought I would ask anyway! I’m here for another week and a half… The weather from Tuesday onward doesn’t look that great, but we do have a chalet and a hot tub so we can do day hikes and get wet, then relax at home and cook good food!”

I saw the text message on my phone only 4 days of being back with Huxley and Coco. Despite it being inprobable that I’d go, I was flattered by the invitation. Not to mention it sounded like a pretty grand adventure. I love open doors and moments like this. It’s kind of been a theme of why I travel. But I had just come from there, and I was not ready to give up even a day with my family. But I couldn’t bring myself to say a clear no either. Three days passed and I hadn’t given him a response or really even considered going. But each day when we’d chat about our days, he’d send me epically beautiful photos of towering green mountains and crystal blue lakes with little descriptions of his adventure for the day. “That looks amazing.” I texted “I wish I could be there!”

“Well you can…”  He responded. “It’s just a short car journey away. Well, short by American standards anyway. Have you decided what you’re going to do yet? If you need ant more persuasion I can tell you about the fantastic phenomenon called Tartiflette.” Then I just did this crazy thing, and I said Ok. Within an hour I had found a reasonable flight for 75 Euro and booked it. To this day I’m not completely sure why the second invitation really convinced me, but maybe a part of me felt like it was chance that I couldn’t miss.

It’s kind of strange having only a small relatively unformed crush on someone and then blindly entering into staying with their family in a chalet for a few days. Oh, did I mention that? It was his family vacation he was inviting me to. Mom, dad, brother… I tend to freeze up and get social anxiety around people I’ve known for years let alone a cute boy and his entire British family. Well, that’s what makes it all the more of an adventure right? He picked me up from the airport at nearly midnight and we drove the hour distance home. He was so relaxed and calm, but I felt like my heart was racing a million miles a minute and my words were choppy. Will I ever get over my barriers of social anxiety and just let people get to know the real me? Yet self frustration and critique seldom help. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, but I had my own room and bathroom! It was deep in the mountains of the French Alps. Qlthough all I could see in the dark were the seemingly endless winding roads.

In the morning I heard his family talking in the living room. I wrestled around with what to do about the situation. So do I just strut out there? My room was on the same floor as the kitchen and dining room. I knew the second I opened the door everyone would be wildly curious about who I was and first impressions are important! I wished I had some clean clothes… This is one of those moments when it would be good to be traveling with more than just three outfits. I awkwardly stood with my hand above the door handle while giving myself a pep talk. Ok I’ll just go out there and be charming. Say hello, start conversation, you can do this Raleigh. You’re good at this. You’ve done it a million times before. People love you! I opened the door and the flowing conversation reached an abrubt halt. There I was, the mystery girl that their son had invited over, standing like a deer in the headlights outside her door. Everyone stopped what they were doing and there was a brief second of silence. His brother was standing in the kitchen half buttering a croisant. His mom and dad stood up to greet me and I made my way over to them. “Hi, I’m Raleigh.” smile. smile. Pleasent exchange. Say something relaxed! Be charming! Ask a question! My mind urged. “Nice to meet you!” I said maybe a little too loudly. I made my way over to them and hugged them. Do I hug them? Too late. “Oh you must be Hugo’s brother!” I said to one of the boys who had Hugo’s curly hair but was a bit shorter than him, but turned out not to be his brother. 

I guess I’m going on a bit of a tangent, but it turned out I wasn’t as horribly awkward as I expected myself to be. His parents were charming and easy to talk to. I got into a great conversation with his dad about politics and had a lot to talk about. We ended up going hiking all day long and swimming in multiple lakes. His mom ended up reading my blog and said she felt like she really knew me. We shared great food and wine. I couldn’t have asked for more. It was amazing to see the beauty of the alps from the perspective of such outdoor oriented people. It was a time that made me feel rejuvenated since much of my time lately has been spent in urban settings.

Finally the time had come to an end. I left the comforts of home with my thumb out on the road. Four rides and two hours later I had arrived at my destination. I was about to walk over the mountains to Italy and I was massively unprepared. It was going to be half of the Tour de Mont Blanc, so about a 7 day trek. I needed gas. I needed a map. I needed rain gear. I needed food. I needed direction. I was scared and unmotivated. I was already cold. But like many things, I just shrugged my shoulders and geared up the best I could. I ended up spending about 300 euros.

I bought:

  • Gas 8 €
  • Backpack rain cover 12 €
  • Food 44 €
  • sunglasses 55 € (I needed actual sunglasses because my eyes have been hurting lately)
  • Knife 12 €
  • Shampoo 5€
  • lightweight compactable pot 38 € (stupid expensive but coolest camping gear I own now!)
  • Map 12 €
  • Rain bag for sleeping bag 47 € (solution to no tent??)
  • Sunglasses string 2€
  • Lighter 1€
  • Hat 12 €
  • Hiking poles 14 €
  • beanie 4 €
  • Fleece 6 €
  • Body Heat reflecting Poncho 16 €

That first night (the only in the hammock where I felt my mind falling), there was a storm. I was cold and I could feel the air under my hammock thoroughly, but the trees and my rain cover protected me perfectly. In the morning nothing was wet and despite my dark mental space, still being a bit unsure what I was getting myself into, and having doubled the weight of my pack, I started the Tour.

Just 60 km or so to Italy! But pretty much from the second I lifted my pack onto my back, there was some sort of acute pain in my left shoulder. I kept stopping to rest and moving relatively slow. After 4 hours of walking I realized I had only made it 3.5 kilometers and I felt wrecked. Why couldn’t it just be straight horizontally instead of straight up and down? I guess I wasn’t going to make my 20 km goal today. There was no one there with me, and the mood I had struggled to move through still loomed over me. I won’t say it was easy or that I was especially motivated. I took generous breaks and moved slow, but something started to change within me. I felt like I had something to accomplish. My surroundings kept changing, from fields of flowers, to wiggly bridges over waterfalls, to the tops of windy mountains, to sunny meadows at the bottom. About four hours in, my speed changed from a slow trudge to a near run. I suddenly felt I had all the energy in the world. Step after step, I propelled myself further down the trail. Finally, the trail emerged to a small town at the fringe of the mountain. It surprised me that the trail actually went through a town, and I wished I hadn’t carried all the food with me I needed for the trek. I wandered into the town around 6pm and watched as the sun disappeared over the west edge of the valley. I felt I could go on for another couple hours, but finding a cute clearing off the trail by the river, I decided to stop and set up camp. Despite feeling so dark yesterday and sluggish to start, it ended up being a really good day for me. I felt refreshed and couldn’t wait for tomorrow!

Originally I liked the spot because of hammock potential, but ended up thinking it might be a good idea to camp on the floor for better body insulation. It was already getting cold. I covered my hands and toes and head with warm layers, cooked a meal of pasta, and read a bit before light disappeared completely. I was wrapped in a sleeping bag and a sleeping bag cover on a yoga mat. All my stuff was packed in my bag next to me under it’s own rain cover.

I awoke to the rain. Unfortunately, the tree cover wasn’t nearly as effective as it had been the previous night. The mud softened under me and puddles formed on my yoga mat and my body. The cold here at higher elevations was more dangerous and the rain was strong. Now back to wear I started this post from. 

I made it through the night, although I’m not sure I would have without my emergency poncho under my sleeping bag to stop from freezing. It poured non stop and in the darkness I only hoped to stay dry within my small cover. I had a cup that I left out and it was filled with water by the morning. That just gives you an idea of how much rain. It must have been 4 inches at least. It wasn’t long before my sleeping bag and clothes were soaked through. I think the worst part was feeling like I had no escape and no one to turn to. I think the feeling of standing in the aisle-way for way too long with socks on my hands and a bright orange plastic poncho with a tear streaked face, and red sleep deprived eyes, probably looking half-insane, will resonate with me for a while. If nothing else, the appreciate beung dry. Once I felt a bit more sane, and stopped panicing, I went back to camp in the rain, gathere most of my belongings and headed to a laundry mat.

Once the laundry mat opened I spent 15 euros on drying all my things, and the ladies at the laundry mat looked at me with such disgust. I get it. I was pretty soaking wet and a bag of pasta had ripped open in my bag, getting soggy and all over. Plus I had to dry my pack itself so I just had piles of unorganized crap everywhere. They also seemed visibly upset that I didn’t speak French and kept gasping and following me with a broom. I don’t think I was so well because the whole time I was on the verge of tears.

Next I went to a cafe, ordered a coffee and started writing this. I decided I wasn’t going to continue the trail. I was done. Yet here I was accomplishing something in my own way. I felt defeated, but also renewed. I had survived. I hadn’t written in a long time, and usually when I would sit down to write my sea of thoughts would go towards self destruction, and I often felt this blockade that was purely of my creation. But today it was gone. I wrote with shaking hands from coffee and lack of sleep, with a mind a bit distorted by the fear and emotions of being alone outside in a storm, but I was warm and unafraid and ready more than ever to continue.

 

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