Today’s Miles: 13.7
Total Miles: 3,426.7
Airolo, Switzerland – December 23, 2016
A blue sky stretches above us as if clouds never existed. The sun glows, almost hot in the cold morning air. My eyes follow the ribbon of road as it bends forward, rising toward the pass, toward the white crescent of snow waiting at the end of the valley.
There is no better day than this to face a monster, I think.
I look over at Fritz as we walk. He is all confidence and joy. I am all worry and anticipation. The two pairs of snowshoes strapped to his backpack lend me comfort. We have the right equipment, the perfect day, and a good plan. There is nothing left to do but go.
We follow footprints across the snowbanks lingering on the road. They disappear near a cluster of buildings that have been shut down and boarded up for winter. Caretakers, we guess, checking on their property.
A lone bike track remains, a few days old, going up and returning back down. We follow it past the giant air intake building for the road tunnel far below us under the mountain. I imagine the cars rumbling deep in the earth, the roar of engines, of wheels on pavement, of man and machine echoing off the tunnel walls. It’s near silent above, just the sound of our footsteps and a hint of wind.
The bike tracks stop where the snow swallows the road whole. The rider switched to skis and disappeared somewhere to the west before returning to ride down. We stop in the last bit of pavement to strap snowshoes to our boots. They feel awkward and large at first, heavy compared to shoes, but the moment the snow deepens they catch and hold my weight high.
In a hundred yards, there are no more tracks to follow, there is nothing but fresh snow stretching to the pass. We are alone, even from the footprints of ghosts that passed by days ago.
There would be a hundred cars flying past us in the summer. There would be crowds and noise and people. Fritz grins at me and tells me to go in front. He doesn’t want me to miss the chance to be the first in the snow. He is all joy and excitement at the pass being ours and ours alone.
I remember the first time I met Fritz, in the rain of Norway. It was late at night, near midnight, and I was trying to squeeze a few miles out of a rain-soaked day. I thought I was alone in the world until I saw Fritz and Christof standing by their tent. We spoke for five minutes and he gave me a fish. I remember cooking it under my tent fly as the rain fell that night. I never thought I’d see him again.
I wonder how life would be different if I’d gone another way that day, if I hadn’t stopped to talk, if I’d been ten minutes later and passed quietly by his tent.
Maybe I’d still be on this pass. Maybe. But it would have lost something without him, a bit of its beauty, the joy, the laughter, something.
Some would call it luck or fate that we met. Some would say it’s the universe’s plan or God’s hand. Some would say it was just meant to be. Maybe it’s all those things, maybe none, but I think at the heart, after all the hand waving, it’s Fritz and me, two strangers who talked to each other, who chose not to be strangers anymore, who became friends in just five minutes, who decided to cross that inch of the map together where civilization retreats away for winter.
“Hey Fritz,” I say. “Once again we’re the only people crazy enough to be out here.”
He laughs. His grin makes the sun and snow look dim. I don’t worry anymore. There is nothing to worry about. The months in my tent thinking and wondering, plotting and planning, they are all behind me. The door is open. The pass is all snow and blue sky. It’s beautiful. It’s easy. It’s full of joy.
I think of Italy. I think of the warm Mediterranean. I think of how lucky I am.
We follow the old road as it snakes downward from the pass, curving and looping back and forth, dropping until the snow gives way to the earth, until Airolo appears in the valley below. I sit on a rock and reach down to loosen my snowshoes until my feet slip free.
I take a few steps. The dirt feels good under my feet. It was almost too easy, too simple, but some monsters are all in your head.
I glance back up toward the pass, toward the miles of snow filling that inch of map, toward the blue sky holding sway above.
I’ll miss it, I realize. I’ll miss not knowing. I’ll miss the fear, hope, wonder, and worry. I’ll miss it all, every piece of that monster in my head.
I think of Tarifa, of the Alps waiting again along the Mediterranean coast, of southern France, the Pyrenees, Portugal, and Spain.
Don’t worry, I think. There are plenty of chances to invent new monsters.
Obviously, huge thanks to Fritz for helping me get across the pass and coming with me. Also, big, big thanks to Snowplow (CDT 2014, and a perfect trail and!) for emailing me and giving me a ton of info and ideas about how and where to cross the Alps. When my confidence was on life support, his emails brought it back to life. I never feel alone out here.