A Tale... Extract from travel diary for Europe in 1996
17/8/96 En Route (to Aosta)At this point, I must intervene to give some basis as to what I was rambling on about. I was on a train trip in Europe on my way to Champex having obtained, as I was later to find out, somewhat inaccurate directions. Part of the trip was to pursue the idea of walking up a mountain. After perusing my railway timetable maps, and as an added bonus working out what was land and what was sea, Aosta in the north of Italy seemed like an excellent choice for a stop over; thus allowing me to travel via SCNF rather than the Suiss trains (i.e. relatively freely) through to Chatelard Frontiers where I was informed a coach would take me to Champex.
My ankle has swollen. It was sore last night and this morning – but now it hurts like hell just doing nothing. I can walk on it – which is good – but the camp site would appear to be about 20 minutes drive from the station.
Caught the leaning tower of Pisa while at the change over. I don’t think the rapid walk there and back did my ankle any good.Without any semblance of a doubt, I was uneasy. Each small station had a soldier on guard and usually a few more around and about the station, but since the only person in the carriage who could have taken me hostage in a scene of military defiance was an elderly lady of about 70, I felt a bit more at ease; but I gripped my pen should the need have arose for physical defence – all things considered I would still have preferred a sword.
I’m getting a bit worried. I seem to be the last, or at least one of the last, people on the train The last town was crawling with soldiers. Scary.
18/8/96 En Route (@ Mont Blanc)What happened on the night of the 17th? It is best to begin with when I arrived in Aosta just before dusk.
My hand is badly damaged from last night. I am finding it very difficult and slow to write. Ankle is going not it’s best fit to burst…
The third taxi driver I asked knew even less than the bus driver about the location of a campsite. Fortunately after walking around the shuttered town centre looking for camping signs, I stumbled, almost literally, into someone else with a backpack. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak any English. Had it not been for the arrival of his two friends who did – well, its best not to postulate. Knowing what I know now, or rather, not knowing what I didn’t know then, alarm bells did not ring at the directions:
“Keep going ‘til you can’t go any further and turn right.”
“The path gets narrow…” and then, “Should take about 40 minutes.”
I was feeling, at this point, quite pleased and added an extra 20 minutes due to the state of my ankle.
The path did get narrow and started going uphill, but it kept going. My first passing doubts – not to mention the passing expletives every time I brushed my ankle – came with the path going up mountain and getting rockier, not to mention the need to use my torch to negotiate small groups of trees with night falling rapidly. I must hasten to add that I did keep on eye on the decreasing lights of the town behind me, while I could, to check for a camp site I may have missed.
An hour had passed since I’d began and still the orange-tipped poles marking the path as having some sort of distinct direction (although in writing this down it occurs to me that it may have been to Aosta) carried on. Apart from the point where I thought that someone with a torch was following me, which I soon discovered was a sort of white flash in my eyes when I stumbled or jarred my ankle, or maybe even the hopeful sound of motorcycles ahead turning out to be a small waterfall, the climb continued without much of interest to relate.
It was welcome relief to see a collection of houses off to my left, some of which even had lights on, and relief was surpassed by sheer gratitude when after a little look around I saw an elderly man walking his dog. Fortunately in the north of Italy, mst people seem to speak French, so with more than a little enthusiasm I asked where the nearby camp site was.
“No camp site near here. You need to go to Aosta.” It’s at this point when you know you’ve just been told the worst news you can imagine, that it gets worse.
“7km that way,” he says as he points down the tarmac-sealed mountain road. Even from where I was standing, I knew it was going to be winding – a lot. The timetable on the bus-stop that the old man told me about before I limped off informed me that the last bus had already gone an hour and a half earlier; leaving me to a long hobble back to the town I’d left, none the wiser and a lot wearier.
The torch waved by my side at the occasional approaching car but one veered towards me; my body shifted, my ankle gave way, slipped off the side of the road, twisted again and the ground leapt up to me. My hand held out to stop me, scraping off dirt and rocks, my wrist taking the full weight of my body with a four-week full backpack including the four man tent strapped to it. My exposed legs, knees scraped and cut, the torch and bag scattered out in front of me, sunglasses no longer held in the neck of my t-shirt, but lying ahead. The pain in my ankle was racing through me making me numb except for the tingling in my fingers. I must have lain there for twenty minutes or more, unable to find strength to move. The headlights of five cars lit me up then drove on. I seemed to be inside myself, looking at me from the outside when I lifted myself up, picking up the items around me but unable to straighten my backpack which was left askew and misplaced on my back. The climb down the mountain road was spent moving forward. I don’t think I would have recognised myself swearing at the dogs barking at my presence, keeping myself going to a place I didn’t know on a river of expletives and curses. The passing of time takes me to the outskirts of the town, the choice of paths, each with as much chance as the other – and then to the arched sign of a camp site appearing to my left, unlit and unknowing of the relief it could bring. Inside there were people sitting around a television showing “Fried Green Tomatoes…” with no-one watching it, but making comfortable conversation. To this day I wonder what I looked like making my way towards the shop and office with the blood dripping off the end of my fingers and starting to dry on my legs, one of my arms held in position by an imaginary sling. I asked for a place for the night; headed towards it and then collapsed against a tree. Sitting there, my body seemed to fall into itself and tears were rolling down my face. It was a strange mixture of relief at having made it somewhere and the hurt that had been kept at bay by some part of me that I didn’t know existed, coming all at once.
“Are you ill?” The voice was the same man who later was to give me some antiseptic for the various cuts that were plentiful, but not deep. The people not watching the television tried to satisfy their curiosity while I dabbed and winced, but my knowledge of French was not up to the task and neither was my will power. I managed to put up the tent with one hand and the help of my forearm, but I didn’t even bother to try putting in the pegs and hoped there would not be a very strong wind during the night.
I set off again the next morning, to get the train I required for Chatelard Frontiers. The directions I had were wrong almost to the point of disbelief, so I ended up having to pay for the Suiss trains (with my foot being relieved by it’s own seat whenever possible) and travelled the St. Bernard’s Express, through some of the deepest and highest countryside I’ve ever seen, to Martigny; I transferred to Orsiers where the coach was waiting to take me to Champex. I never got to walk up the mountain I had gone there for but was rewarded with some of the most picturesque nature it has ever been my fortune to discover at first hand. My camera rewarded me with dead batteries, not allowing me to take more than a couple of photographs. It was the only cold night during the whole journey (and in the most expensive camp site – which only goes to show, something) but if it was this that helped the water taste as good as it did then it was more than worth it.
After a few days my ankle improved as did my wrist (thankfully, in time for Prague). The legacy of the journey still exists in the fact that my wrist re-asserted itself seizing up my whole arm and caused me a visit to the Accident and Emergency some days after I returned from the whole trip and I now have to wear a wrist support when it gets too painful or I pick something up awkwardly. It makes me think that some things stay, just in case we forget.