St. Bernard Pass

Before I write about leaving Orsieres I will transcribe my notes upon arriving there.
“The walk today was entirely on paths. The mountains change constantly with the clouds and sunlight. There were lots of walkers about. Got directions from a very muscular, pretty, older woman who seemed to be working on her house.”
When I saw the muscular woman, I was staring at a map and looking at the crazy, nearly useless “turn left at the big pole” directions in my book, and she came out of her house. It was a hillside house of the Modern, big glass & open spaces variety. She was trying to splain me that I had to veer right at the small grass roadway that descended the hill, forming a border of a pasture containing both cows and goats. After going 3-4 clicks too many, on one road and another path, I finally found the correct path. It was a small road that descended into pine woods, occasionally breaking into a clearing. The havey overcast sky cleared, with distinct rainclouds that brought a shower now, and now sun again. It was a great arrival weather- except that my arrival was still 2 hours away.
“ I got lost after that and then my right Achilles started cramping up again. The hills are green, the villages mediaeval (sic) in their closeness. They seem to be cities of barns, with their overhangs over small streets, barns below and houses above. Old grey wood, cryptic writing on the thresholds. The church here in Orsieres is dark, smalles like a new BMW, felt really peaceful. Just the right scale- big enough to be grand and make me feel like I’m in the current, or presence of, place of, something bigger than me, but of which I am a part.
“The church in Sembalier was nice, quiet, plain, peaceful, bright, and small. Between and chapel and a church.
“I like staying at churches- makes me feel connected to the tradition of Pilgrimage. I’d like to think that this isn’t another item to consume…
“I think a lot about scale. A lot of the local knowledge is difficult to access b/c the norm is the car—asking for distances, directions, people don’t know via walking…. Also maps- hard to find maps of a scale small enough to be useful in making the decision about taking this trail or that. The compass is indispensable. “

14 June
Leaving Oriseres was a little difficult because I didn’t know where I was going to stay. I knew it was to be a short day in order to rest up for the following day whereupon I’d make the St. Bernard Pass. Everything in the town was wet, and it looked like things there generally stayed wet or icy. I left a message at the place listed as a hostel in Bourg St. Pierre. I went to the tourist office in Orsieres, which was also the train station, but they were no help. Then the Post Office to send some postcards because I might get lost in the snow and never return. And finally to the trail.
From my notes: “Short walk today- very pleasant/ Little confusion. Lie-down after lunch.”
The trail was mostly through pine forest, so more of that golden light, and the wonderful way evergreens dance in the wind. Their needle-covered branches are more like very deep sleeves. The ground was soft, buoyant. I passed through a town that was a simply a few barns, no stores. A family was lunching on their patio. I stopped at a shrine to Mary (looked like a gazebo) that a church put up. There was a spring, all next to a rushing stream, and it was sunny.
“The air smelled like cows- the state fair: sweet hay earthy manure & that animal smell.”
“Then next to the stream again, Came upon a lake that was a power station, also had sheep. The stream continued upwards, trail was a soft and moss-covered.”
The town of Bourg St. Pierre wasn’t much. Strangely there were few working-age people and no men. It seemed like a town of old ladies. The restaurant in town was closed, but luckily there was a highway and a gas station with a restaurant about 1 km away. They served horse steaks.
The hostel looked like a boy scout camp. Since I got there so early I felt like I was just waiting. With no real reading material (it is heavy) and no inclination to draw I sat there and finally went to sleep.
15 June
Waking at the Scout Camp, I found no breakfast stores. Being that today was St. Bernard Day (apparently I missed a huge festival at the Pass) I thought I needed breakfast and went back to the aforementioned horse restaurant. Then I was off, and the trail quickly rose above the treeline to a windswept, cold, wet landscape. I saw a Marmot. The moisture in the air kept me wet. I was nearing 10,000 feet so I was short of breath. The trail followed the old Roman road up the mountain and was generally above the paved automobile road. I came upon some ruins- probably an 18th century summer farm- and then on to more and more snow. In the final stretch I was waist deep in snow. I knew it was an ice bridge over a stream and was very nervous about falling through. There was a moment when I was not sure I could make the last climb, as I found myself at the bottom of a big ice bowl. I’d ascend twenty feet and slide back ten.
Arriving at the top there were loads- bus loads- of people standing around taking pictures and ooh-ing and ah-ing. When I walked up out that ice bowl people looked at me- and I felt- like an alien. A monk at the door of the pass said that I looked cold and like I could use a snack and some tea- he was quite right.
The hospice there felt very safe, solid, and warm. I finally found the dining room, and was dutifully handed a bowl full of herbal tea and some crackers.
Dinner was a few hours later, and I sat at the only table with a French family and a very chatty South African woman. She was headed to Aosta so we planned to walk together the next day. This would be the first time I had a walking companion.
After dinner I visited the crypt, which is an incredibly silent place. There is the sound of water, and a particularly gruesome Christ. And stillness.
16 June
It rained all night. Luckily in the morning the rain had mostly stopped, but there were heavy clouds and fog. The trail would take us over the mountains and not on the roads, but my new friend wasn’t comfortable walking on ice, so we took the road down, down, down. There were beautiful vistas, very green. We stopped for lunch around 11 and had a fantastic meal of locally made cheeses, a half glass of complimentary wine, and breads. Continuing on, the trail came back into the world of evergreen trees, and soon we were walking through cow fields that were defined by movable electric fences. I was shocked by one and for a second forgot where I was. Then I remembered who I was, where I was, and what I was doing. All of this happened in an instant, then back to walking.
After going down down down down until I didn’t think we could go down anymore, then down some more my knees and thighs were really shaky. We found the hotel suggested by the book (I don’t remember the name), and arranged for a two-bed room with little trouble. It was nice to share the cost of the room. I had planned on staying a day in Aosta, and part of me now wishes I had. But I continued on thinking that it somehow it was good for me to have company. Walking with someone else I realize how slowly I walk (this doesn’t surprise me).
From my notes “Nice to be back in a city. Pretty girls walking around, cafes, hipsters on their bicycles. Its cool. Wish I could speak Italian.” The World Cup was in South Africa, and my South African companion told me about the horns at the games, and about the team’s nickname. We were both tired as I was about a 30km day, and went to bed before dark.


About Tarver

I am an architect living in Atlanta Georgia. In the summer of 2010 I walked from Ronchamp, France to Rome, Italy, about 1200 miles. I walked about 20 miles a day for 62 days. This blog is to recount the steps, stories, and images from that walk, with the intent of providing some useful information for those thinking about making a long walk, and those for those who wouldn't dream of it.
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