July 13: Losing Dan in the Alps is Surprisingly Easy

This morning the plan was to get on the road early, but we only managed to emerge from our maison at about 11am. Coffee in the coffee press was so distracting, and somehow this renovated but still ancient kitchen begs to be lingered in. I love it.

Our first stop was at E.Leclerc to buy various power cables and also a Netbook. Dan can't go without reading email and accessing the internet, and his new laptop isn't holding a charge at all, not even for one minute. So, Dan now works from this tiny laptop the size of a journal -- pretty awesome actually! The one twist is that it has a French keyboard. Instead of QWERTY, it has AZERTY, and lots of other strange mix-ups. Takes a bit of getting used to -- fortunately you can switch back and forth from English to French keyboard input, depending on whether you're going to look at the keys or just blithely type on the wrong things and have the right things show up.

This day's itinerary included cycling high holy places like Alpe D'Huez, Col Gabilier, Col de le Croix de Fer, and Col Telegraph. The idea was to start from L'Bourg d'Oisans and go around in a big circle, ending in Alpe D'Huez, the mother of all alpen climbs, frequently featured in the Tour de France, and terrifyingly high and long -- a 11 kilometer climb that's basically straight up, with 21 switchbacks. OF course this was planned right after he'd gone over Gol Cabilier, which is even worse. We drove through Grenoble and up into the Alps.

Words cannot express how big the Alps are. I think that what I was expecting was mountains that ended at some far point, high in the distance, in the clouds. There would be inclines upon inclines, ending in distant slopes and hazy snowy peaks. What I did not expect was the steepness of the mountains, so that the summit was almost so close you could count the trees, and yet so far it makes you feel a little sick. The Alps are very high and very abrupt -- there is no gentle slope, there is no steady climb, it's valley and river and flat respite, and then it's straight up. And a lot of times it's just bare rock, thousands of feet up, layers and layers of rock. You can almost see how it was shot up out of the earth as the tectonic plates collided -- Benny says they are still colliding and the Alps are still growing. He says he has done his research.

The Alps are astonishing and sobering and beautiful, but they also made me feel sick, not just because of my nervousness of heights (I won't call it fear, it's not that, it's almost just an involuntary pain that goes up the back of my legs and through my feet) but just because of the sheer enormity and unfamiliarity of it. It was like being dumped into an alien world -- there were no reference points for the scope of those mountains. I'm telling you, whatever I had seen on TV or in pictures or read about in books or novels, or thought about, there was nothing that prepared me for how the Alps actually were. They are huge. Terrifyingly, earth-rendingly, neck-wrenchingly huge. They are something else, some other part of life, some harder, slower part, and the sight of the little elecrical wires traipsing over the summits, with the steel men holding them up so purposefully, tirelessly, kind of made me sad for humankind. So businesslike, so efficient, and so tiny and frail.

We arrived at Bourg D'Oisans, Dan put his bike together, and just like that, he was off, not to return for at least five hours. We planned that he would text me and I would meet him at the foot of Alpe D'Huez, camera in hand. I had terrible nerves that something would go wrong, but what can we do? We have to just press onward and deal with the difficulties that arise as they arise. No one can actually fall over a precipice and be dashed against the rocks because that just doesn't happen in this movie of my life, of which I am the star. And that's what I kept telling myself.

After we dropped off Dan, I drove us into Grenoble, which is actually a really big city with lots of skyscrapers and scientific complexes and apartment buildings and whatnot. Thanks to GPS, I was able to find what I was looking for: Telepherique, a cable car that would take us across the river to the old side of Grenoble, and on up to the Fort de la Bastille, where we could get a good view of the Alps and Grenoble and look deep into our own souls and see if we had the fortitude to let our children meander around against horrific drops with only these puny, half-rusted iron bars keeping them from certain death. The answer: Yes, we did. But we screeched at them a lot while up at the Fort.

The place was buzzing with preparations for a rock show, and also the fort was decorated in some strange mural art. Here's an example:

When the children had had enough of the Fort and its environs, and we'd sniffed up enough alpen flowers to give a monk a headache, we stopped by the gift shop to buy postcards (and a French flag which Benny dearly loves and a small grey and white rabbit imprinted with the somber word: Grenoble: which Sadie dearly loves) and bundled back into the cable car.

More on the Telepherique in another post -- for now I'll just say I've probably been more terrified but not that I can remember. There were multiple times during the day when I ruminated, was childbirth worse than this? I'm sure it was, but... being up really high with seemingly nothing between you and the abyss is pretty rough. For me. The children can't get enough of it.

Speaking of insane drops, we did a recon drive up Alpe D'Huez, to spot good places for photography when Dan goes up it. The thing about this climb is that the way it looked to me on TV and the way it really was were two completely different things. This is a monumental climb -- there's no "Wow that was hard!" It's like, I was this person before I climbed Alpe D'Huez and now I'm another person, after I did it. I saw many, many cyclists grinding up that hill, and the 21 switchbacks around three faces of a huge mountain.

By the time we had got to the top I was gasping in fear, the children were delighted with the view, and I was scared for Dan. IT is a huge climb, words cannot express how huge, how much it goes on and on, how winding and irregular those switchbacks really are, how the mountain looks like, oh, here's a populated area, I am near the top, and then puts you back out in no man's land for another five miles, almost straight up. Anyone who can get up that thing has my profound respect. I do not want to try it, ever. I think it might take what's left of my soul. Fortunately Dan doesn't have to worry about that, having eaten his soul accidentally years ago, and not missed it since.

Here's a picture of the pastures / ski slopes / snow up at the very top:

We drove back go Bourg D'Oisans, hoping for word from Dan. I had charged the Netbook and now found a quiet spot beside a little mountain stream that the city has corralled into a little channel, where it flows crystal clear under little bridges and through a park. There is a huge log over it, for running back and forth, and that's what the children did for two hours while I updated the blog and posted pictures.

We had one message from Dan from the summit of Col de Telegraph, and then nothing. I began to panic that he was on Alpe D'Huez and I was missing it, so we went back again and climbed straight up to the top... and back down again, clinging to the side of the mountain desperately, fighting the urge to vomit. The thing is... why abandon guard rails near the top of the mountain? Isn't that where you need guard rails the MOST? Think!

At the summit, we got a text from Dan that he was descending Col Galibier and had been taken 30KM outside his intended path by a wrong turn. The light was fading and we decided to pack it in with the four climbs he had done, to come back and do Alpe D'Huez another day. I drove a hideous route on D1091 (if you've been there, you know) toward Col Gabilier and finally, after crying to some random old guys sitting at an outdoor cafe somewhere in the mountains (they were leathery and looked angry on approach, but actually spoke English enthusiastically and were very kind to me as I was trying to figure out where to go. "DRIVE SLOW. HAVE A GREAT DAY," intoned one as I drove away, his accent sounding like something between a drunk lunatic and Stephen Hawking.

Finally, after several signs that indicated we should stop if the light was flashing, because an avalanche was imminent, we ran into Dan. With him safe in the car and eating a ham sandwich, I felt so relieved I cried. The children were really great today, helping me overcome my many uncertainties. They impress me with always finding something to enjoy, like the log in the stream that was too cold to swim in, or a game they made up with the flag and rabbit on the way home. Today they saw things they may never see again -- those Alps, that cable car, that view of Grenoble, that insane climb. I wonder if they will remember the site of the Alps soaring in brown rock overhead, or the fish they saw in the stream, under the log they lay down on, trailing a stick in that crystal clear water.

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