On April 26, 1336, Petrarch climbed Mount Ventoux, the French Alpine peak, for fun and kicked off the European Renaissance. Six and a half centuries later, the British cyclist Tommy Simpson would die on Mount Ventoux during the 13th stage of the Tour de France screaming his last words, “Put me back on my bike!”. Two thousand years before Simpson succumbed to the storied mountain, Ventoux hosted the “Welcome to the Alps” party for Hannibal’s invading Carthaginian army. As he marched through Southern France gathering Gallic allies, Mount Ventoux would be the first reminder of the massive natural barrier that stood between Hannibal and destiny.
It was here on this legendary mountain that I now found myself…in the gift shop.
“Excusez-moi, puis-je vous aider Monsieur?” says the shopkeeper. I don’t speak french but if I was to make a wild guess, this woman is asking me if I need help buying the beautiful and expensive coffee table book I’ve been exploring (and probably ruining) for the last 20 minutes.
“Pardon, je ne parle Francais. Ehhhh….but no, thank you, I’m just browsing.” I say, utilizing all of my French knowledge. She gives me a little polite grimace and goes to help some bikers.
Growing up, I was a pretty outdoorsy kid. Every summer my parents provided an outlet for my adventurous whims. One summer I’d go out west to visit relatives in Western Colorado where we’d kayak the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers and another year I’d go to a summer camp in the Adirondacks for a few weeks, honing my archery, survival and sailing skills. In retrospect, I’ve never properly thanked my parents for those summers away from them…maybe sometime later…..
In addition to getting me out of the house for a few weeks, my parents’ goal was to mold me into an Evangelical Christian. For the summer of 1997 my parents sent me to a Christian hiking program in the Adirondacks. This time was spent traipsing around the woods of Upstate New York with Christian hippies. It provided me with a good foundation of reflection…. ehhh… renaissance. I not only learned about the evils of evolution, but also about marijuana and blow-jobs. There was a sense of hidden truths that seeped through the religious dogma and provided a very stereotypical “coming-of-age” experience. We’d listen to our group leader (who was the camp director’s son), Mike, talk about his fear of death while rock climbing and it just seemed very contrary to the religious canon which we were just instructed in. One day, our group leader was trying to explain evolution and why it was wrong, and one of my friends brought up the example of the Peppered Moth to try and prove our leader wrong. Our leader, faced with an obvious example of rapid evolution/natural selection was dumbfounded and fell back on the cliche. “The Bible says that this did not happen, so it must be misunderstood.” Then he quickly walked away, embarrassed, while four 13 year olds taunted him for being a “pussy”. So, the 20 year old, who was studying “Pastoral Ministry”, ran away from a group of 13 year olds who were left laughing, calling him a pussy.
At the end of 2 weeks, the small troop of boys would have hiked half of the high peaks in the Adirondacks (23 out of 46). Therefore, if you did it two years in a row (or even two consecutive 2 week sessions) then you would have hiked all 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks and get to call yourself a “46er”. I only did the program once and then climbed the rest of the peaks sporadically over the next few years. The Adirondacks are pretty rustic and sparsely populated, particularly around the “High Peaks Region” which is centered close to Lake Placid. Even so, we’d run into the occasional scene of high society infringing on the wilderness. One moutain, known strictly as “Sawteeth” has a trailhead that starts in a golf course. As we walked past the 15th green, the threesome that was playing stopped putting and gave us some pretty nasty looks. As if to say, “how dare you interrupt the scenery of these majestic hills while I put this little ball in that hole.” Mountain climbing is a sport of “you vs. nature”. Nature is going to throw hot days, muddy trails, gnats, and a whole mess of other things at you in order to prevent you from winning and reaching the apex of the mountain. We were in an epic struggle with nature and these golfers were using her as wallpaper for their ostentatious game. Thankfully, the whole situation at least provided us with some scathing conversation to distract us from the mundane task of walking steadily at a slight incline. I think I even heard the Mike drop an F-bomb that day.
Toward the end of that two week period we climbed a mountain called Whiteface. From the summit of a nearby mountain we could see the white-topped mountain and on top of it, a little building that looked remarkably like Jabba the Hutt’s palace. The day after getting this distant view of our objective we climbed that grueling bitch. Out of the 50-some mountains in NY and 13 in Colorado that I’ve climbed, Whiteface was the most exhausting. It’s a 10 mile hike to the base of the mountain and then a disgusting 2 or 3 mile rapid ascent to the top.
Most people, in modern times, don’t realize just how good we smell on a regular basis. Since Americans tend to shower daily, we’re not only caught off guard by a non-showering person but we tend to ignore 99% of the population who smell pretty good. Well, after hiking 17 mountains over 10 days without a shower, the reverse happens. The 10 guys who were part of my hiking squad smelled normal to me; even the horse flies that lived in our hair seemed in sync with our being. The smell of old sweat and mold had replaced Irish Spring and Old Spice. Until this point in our journey, we hadn’t gotten close enough to any “normal” smelling strangers to notice the difference. When we got to the top of Whiteface Mountain the wide gap in smell disparity between us and others was more than apparent.
Whiteface Mountain is not only the 5th highest mountain in New York, but also a highly visited skiing resort,. There is a road that climbs from the base of the mountain all the way to Jabba the Hutt’s Palace. The “palace” is really a little castle that includes the ski lodge, a restaurant, gift shop, etc. At the gift shop you can buy a bumper sticker that says “This car climbed Whiteface Mountain!” and therefore, it represents almost everything wrong with society.
As we neared the top, it became more clear that we were approaching a summit. Mountain peaks don’t always look like you’ve reached the top of a natural pyramid. Sometimes it’s just a clearing in the woods with no view at all and you’re left thinking, “ehhhh….lame, Nature. Lame.” Conversely, there’s no better feeling than seeing that your goal is attainable and the rush of victory will soon surge through you. The last part of the ascent is a sharp 45+ degrees, so you can’t really see what’s at the top until you’re practically there. At about 50 feet from what I assumed to be the top I could see the top of the Palace and hats. These hats were moving and a could seconds later I could see the faces that were supporting the hats.
“Look at the people climbing up here Mommy!” one boy exclaimed to his now interested mother. We had become a zoo exhibit to the people who had travelled comfortably to the summit in air conditioned minivans.
The boy was amazed. The zoo animals had escaped from their exhibit and were now in the viewing area.
I think at that moment I began my 20 year transition into an adult. The idea that what we were doing was awesome and we were having good, clean fun. It didn’t matter that other people looked at us like we were idiots for climbing to the top of a mountain that you could drive up. We climbed the mountain not for a view or to grab lunch at it’s famous restaurant. We climbed it because it was there and we wanted to experience something, but something unknown. Like Plutarch, we climbed it because it was there and sometimes the reason reveals itself as a revolution only after you’ve completed the task. For me, it was kick-started a much needed adolescence and taught me to explore paths that I might ignore because society tells me “do things this way”. For our group leader, I think he began to reevaluate a set of long held beliefs.