Europe, France

Hiking the French Alps

Europe France

While in the French Alps visiting my dear friend and cheesemaker, I joined in on a hike up L’alpage du Distroit with two local farmers, in pursuit of finding and retrieving their calf-bearing cows. Wooden walking sticks in hand, we drove up the mountain as far as we could then, trekked the last part on foot. For those of you who did not grow up in the Alps, beware when anyone tells you, “It’s just an hour. It will be easy.” Easy it was not. I didn’t get the first few hours up the slope on foot to acclimate to the altitude and find my rhythm as I normally would, so the one hour of vertical ascent was hard.

After many breaks and many deep breaths, I managed to trail behind the group, significantly, but within visible distance so as not to lose them. Along the way, I couldn’t believe the narrative of my life and the series of choices that took me to that day. There I was, climbing a mountain in borrowed hiking boots and a rust-orange raincoat with two strangers and my dear friend in the vast beauty of the Alps as fog swirled in around the deep green of the trees and the golden yellow of the grass and the fresh smells of the Earth, the sounds of far-off cowbells chiming in the distance. This, this moment was a story: this human experience of physical pain and mental struggle and incomprehensible beauty.

At the top of the mountain lived a shepherd, a young man who spent the spring and summer in a small hut tending to the hundred cows that graze in this alpage. We feasted at his table from paper-wrapped parcels of food found in the farmers’ backpacks; homemade cheeses, pig’s head, sausages dusted in flour, pig’s shoulder, truffles, hard-boiled eggs, tins of sardines, fresh baguettes, biscuits, chocolate bars and swigs of an unnamed liquor from a communal flask. They conversed in French as I consumed everything in sight, considering it a celebratory feast for both reaching the top of the mountain and being alive to experience this moment.

The six pregnant cows plus one calf were herded into a pen, the group formed a line, and we proceeded down the mountain path the way we came; four humans, six cows, one calf, lighter backpacks, drizzling rain, more fog. We could barely see the path in front of us, but that didn’t stop the cows from carrying on boldly. I suppose they had climbed up the path during springtime, so they were familiar with its curves, but their obedience and order still struck me as miraculous. One after the other, they slowly climbed down, carefully placing their hooves in stable places and avoiding the thousand foot drop-off that was ever present on one side of the path. Over waterfalls, under cliffs and between canyons we walked, all the while a sight to behold and ready for any small misstep that would most certainly be fatal.

Back at the farmer’s house, over tea and a prune tartlet while the fire crackled and warmed the cozy kitchen, contentment found new meaning for me. This is life, my dear friends. This is how I want to live: ever wide-eyed, always ready, never stuck, constantly seeking, surrounded by wonder. May my days be continually filled with moments worthy of retelling.