voyage aux alpes.


A few days ago I saw an opportunity: a Monday morning with no class. That meant a weekend a few hours longer. This could not go to waste and on the spur of the moment I bought a train ticket for Grenoble, booked a hotel, and got my skis down from their dusty perch atop my closet.

This is the beauty of your 20’s, I’ve said again and again: you can get up and go. You have work or school, but no house, no husband or kids, no pets that need to be fed, no garden that needs to be watered.

My approach to travel has certainly changed a bit since beginning grad school, though. Now I spend the time to search out a deal at a fancy hotel, and it’s totally worth it because the craphole of a dormitory that you are stuck in is so miserable. Even if time is money, it’s reasonable to spend some making sure that you’ll have a big bed and a nice shower (the benefit of traveling at the last minute is that even if I’m cheap, I’m a better guest than having an empty hotel room). These are things that do not exist at CROUS Montpellier. Even in Sweden, I used to simply look for the cheapest hostel or a floor to crash on: better to spend the money on many trips that cost practically nothing. Now, with a little bit more cash spent, I can enjoy comfort that I never, ever find in my daily life.

(To my classmates who say that everything is too expensive: I suggest a job. I have one and I haven’t died yet or failed out of school, and even the tiniest bit of extra money every month makes a big difference in how you’re able to spend your time.)

And so on Saturday I found myself at a hotel in Grenoble, with a shower that poured water out of a foot-squared matrix of spouts like a rainstorm. I sat under the hot water for 20 minutes, soaking up the chance to be in a shower where you don’t have to hit the button every 15 seconds to restart the water. There’s plenty of water here.

The plan had been to ski, but that first day it hadn’t worked out with the buses, so I ran up and up and up into the hills above town, first past the views of the city – which says it is the second-largest economy in France – flanked by Alps, and then into the hill farms, no city in sight. My calves ached, my knees twinged on the way down, my feet slapped. I collapsed into my huge bed that night.

Come Sunday, I finally boarded the bus to Autrans. It was raining and gray. In the city, there was no snow to be seen anywhere. As we rounded one hairpin turn after another, cutting through gorges and across cliff faces, there was still no snow. I got more and more nervous.

About ten minutes before arriving at the small town that hosted the cross country ski races at the 1968 Olympics, I began to see snow through the fog. But it was still raining. It was 9:30 and the bus home didn’t leave until 5:30. I wasn’t sure how I was going to occupy myself all day in the rain.

After walking to the nordic center, I timidly approached the ticket booth.

«Je veux skier, même s’il ne fait pas si beau» I said, doubtfully.

«La neige est bonne» the woman replied. «C’est meilleur que s’il faisait chaud…»

I thought to myself, of course she’s saying that. She’s just trying to sell tickets and convince people that it isn’t completely disgusting outside. That’s her job.

When I finally stepped into my skis and took the first few strides, though, I saw she was right. They had groomed that morning and the corduroy – barely skied on because the weather had turned most people away – was surprisingly fast. It felt more icy than waterlogged, and didn’t have the cementy-potatoes feel that I had been dreading. Okay, maybe this was going to be fine.

Just as I had on my run the day before, I climbed up and up and up to start. Knowing that I had almost 2000 feet to ski up into the Alps if I really wanted to try the whole trail system, I paced myself. But the skis slid easily, and my body worked better than I had expected after the hard run the day before, and after a month of not skiing.

I eventually reached the upper trail center of Gève, where it wasn’t raining anymore. Half my climbing was complete. Onward I skated, onto a trail called “Panoramique.” Not so much today, but it would take me up to the ridge and around a snaking bowl that, I am sure, would have had lovely views if it hadn’t been fogged in. Every once in a while things would clear for a moment and in just one direction I would glimpse a few ragged peaks before they disappeared back into the fog.

After two hours of skiing and some hard climbs, I reached La Quoi. But things weren’t over yet. Up here, it hadn’t been groomed, and the skiing was slower; it was also snowing. But there was a loop of maybe eight or nine more kilometers along the ridge, which dropped down to a refuge before climbing up through a steep meadow to rejoin the trail and head home. At the refuge I bought a lunch of ravioli and cured ham, plus an entire pot of Russian Earl Grey.

Back on my skis, it was cold. The next few kilometers alternated between rain and snow. I had expected to feel better after lunch, but I had been skiing for almost three hours already and I did not feel better at all, at least not at first. I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake: the weather was terrible, and here I was, 15 or 20 kilometers from the touring center, cold and tired. I could die out here!

That was a little bit melodramatic. Yes, climbing was hard, but as soon as I got on more gradual terrain, it was so easy to be on skis, gliding along, even in the slow mush. At one point, feeling cold, I decided to sprint up a hill to try to get the blood going. Much to my surprise, after a long ski and months of no speedwork, I fell into the easy rhythm of attacking and reached the top of the hill warm.

It was an exhilarating feeling: I’ve still got this. Against all odds, I’m still a skier.

And as I began my descent of the Alps, cruising around corners and gleefully picking the best lines, popping up and over the hills with my momentum and a few quick hop skates carrying my speed, I thought: I’ll always be a skier.

Maybe it’s not so different than the joy I found in Font Romeu a few weeks ago. But for one thing, I’m in better shape now. Trails or no trails, two weeks ago I decided that I would be damned if I sat on my ass all day and signed up for a marathon to kickstart a running routine. I have incentive to go run, even if I don’t like the places I’m running. After two 30-mile weeks and a crash diet, I felt fit (fitter; hills still kick my ass). I swear I felt lighter and stronger than I had in Font Romeu. Skiing for hours was hard, but not as hard as it had been then.

For another thing, my entry to Montpellier had been confusing, more confusing as time went by. I found myself in a city unlike anywhere I had ever lived. Not a city to be a sportswoman. There’s a lot of pavement and cars that pay no attention to pedestrians or cyclists. In the first few days I thought, well, I just haven’t found the good part yet. But as the weeks wore on, it seemed more and more impossible that my kind of city even existed within anywhere in Montpellier.

Here, there’s no ski club for me to embed into, nobody to tell me the secrets to happiness. Some of my classmates have made new friends here, outside our program. I’m jealous. They have people who share their interests and their cultural backgrounds, people to cook Chinese food with or talk in Spanish. How did they do it? Where are the people like me? I glimpse them every once in a while, but I can’t truly find them.

Hence, running in yucky places, on the hot pavement, dodging ubiquitous dogshit that covers the sidewalks.

It’s not that I’m not having fun – it was nice to have so many options for what to do at night, pubs and restaurants and classmates who I love. We have a good time. In the last few weeks it has seemed so impossible to have the kind of life that I’m used to that I thought, well, maybe I just resign myself to this semester being different, because this isn’t miserable.

Back in the States, my friends are all multitaskers. They are professional skiers who paint amazing pictures in their spare time (look at Hannah’s website!); scientists who get out every weekend to kayak or rock climb or mountain bike; professors who rip turns on their tele skis at every chance; adults with full-time jobs who nonetheless donate their free time to coaching kids. They hike the mountains, play Frisbee, farm. Doing one thing never means that they can’t also do something else.

That’s how I lived too, but it’s foreign here. Sure, people have interests – drinking, watching movies or sports, eating, (occasionally when the weather is good) being a tourist, talking to their boyfriend or girlfriend on the phone. These interests prevent many further trips and adventures. It’s “normal” that these simple things are all a student has time, or desire, for. Being a student is apparently very limiting.

School had never defined me before, but I was ready to let it. Maybe this was my new life, the kind of friends I would always have. Maybe my old life was over; maybe this was growing up. Had my friends at home just not grown up yet? Or was following several passions a uniquely American trait? This wasn’t so bad, after all. We won a bottle of vodka in that pub quiz. In a few years, I’d be married to another scientist, doing research somewhere as part of a PhD.

As I skied back down to Autrans, I rejected that completely. Not a single person I know in Montpellier knows or understands the joy that I get from being on snow, or how having skis attached to your feet is easier and more natural to me than running. They are my good friends and always will be, but they can’t be my only friends. Just as a few of them have found people outside of our program, I need that, too.

To come back and not be able to even convey this feeling I had on my skis was just wrong. To not be able to share this trip with anyone was disappointing. I have no problem traveling alone – I find it much more agreeable than most people probably do, and it’s relaxing to be able to decompress and just not talk – but there’s an undeniable yearning to have someone to experience these new places with. I wish I could have turned to someone as I sped through the trees and said, “isn’t this awesome?”

But nobody was there.

If I can survive this semester, I’ll find them again. If I marry another scientist, he’ll be one who climbs mountains or ride bikes or does something – anything – in the outside that I love so much. Maybe he’ll fish or hunt, or watch birds or dabble in nature photography. Maybe he won’t be a scientist at all. Maybe I won’t get married at all! But in the next months, I will find some friends who won’t pass off my trips as that unfamiliar, but cool, I guess, thing Chelsea does because it makes her happy.

Sitting on the train back to Montpellier, my legs ache. That’s my souvenir from the weekend – that and the reminder to keep being myself, that my people are out there and sometime soon I’ll find them. Until then, I’ll keep running and enjoy the nights out at the pub. Just not every night.

le vol du train jaune.

curve bridge

Skiing was not the only highlight of my trip to Font Romeu. There was also a train: Le Train Jaune, to be exact, a small old-fashioned train that feels like the Wild West and takes you through the valleys and up into the mountains, clinging to steep cliffs as it goes.

I had seen a brochure advertising this train in the station when we went to Carcassonne, and that’s actually what gave me the idea to go skiing in the first place. On the cover it loudly proclaimed: “Une autre façon de découvrir la montagne!” Huh, I thought. The train goes straight to the snow. Sweet deal.

So I tried to buy a ticket. Apparently this train is not all that popular, because the woman behind the counter had a very difficult time binning it together with the tickets to get to where the train leaves from… that should have been my first clue. (Don’t worry, in the end it worked out fine and I loved the train!)

On Friday when I left, I hopped on the regional train in sunny Montpellier with my skis, feeling silly because of the disconnect in seasons. I got to Perpignan, where I was supposed to connect to another train, but that train was canceled. I didn’t have time to ask why as I sprinted out to the “gare routiere” or bus station, where they had arranged a bus to take us to our destination. It’s a lot less efficient to take a bus that stops at each train station – you have to navigate multiple roads, intersections, villages with tiny streets where I swear we had only an inch on either side of the bus and I was worried we might crush parked cars. I worried that we wouldn’t get to Villefranche in time for me to make my connection to Le Train Jaune.

We finally made it. After dropping off everyone else, there were just eight of us left going to Villefranche, a small town already far up into the valley. It turns out that only two trains go to Villefranche: one from Perpignan, and Le Train Jaune. And here I discovered why our last train had been canceled. Snow. Le Train Jaune was not running. I began to wonder if I had made a horrible, terrible mistake.

After waiting in the station for an hour or so – and we were already quite late when we arrived – they finally arranged a bus for us.


I had originally planned to ski that afternoon – it is why I skipped class that morning instead of simply traveling later in the day – but with all of the delays it had become impossible. And as we climbed over the passes and up and up and up in elevation, things got slower. With all of the snow on the road, cars had to stop and put on chains. But there was nowhere to pull over to do so, so people would just stop in the middle of the road and chain up. There was also no room to pass, so we sat at a standstill for ten or fifteen minute stretches at time. Finally, we got to the point where everyone had chained up or turned around, and things began to move faster. Our bus driver was aggressive. I tried not to be scared.

Font Romeu station on the return trip... when I arrived the first night, it was dark, cold, locked, and snowing.

Font Romeu station on the return trip… when I arrived the first night, it was dark, cold, locked, and snowing.

When we arrived at the train station in Font Romeu, it was closed, since we hadn’t arrived on the last train but instead long after it. That presented a problem, because it’s four kilometers straight uphill to get to the actual town. I had asked my hotel what the best way to get there was, and they said, “there will be taxis.” Well, there were no taxis. Everyone else who lived there quickly talked among themselves and arranged carpools with each other, and left.

That left me and one other girl, who turned out to be from Quebec. There was a taxi number posted on the side of the building, but when I called it, it was a wrong number. She said she was waiting for a friend – well actually, a friend of a friend, someone she had never met – to pick her up, and she’d ask if I could get a ride too.

The funniest thing about this was that she hadn’t had a phone that worked in Europe, so she had borrowed one from another woman on the bus to call her ride. But while she was talking, the woman got in a car with another passenger and drove off! So we were left in the cold, outside of the locked train station, with a random women’s iPhone.

Luckily, the friend of a friend, who turned out to be Scottish, agreed to give me a ride. Thank God. When I left, the girl from Quebec still had the iPhone, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it – there had been at least fifteen minutes before we got picked up, and the woman apparently hadn’t realized that she didn’t have her phone….

So that was Le Train Jaune part 1.

I was understandably concerned when it was time to leave Font Romeu that maybe there would be a repeat of this situation. But there wasn’t – it was a beautiful warm sunny day and things were running right on time. I took a taxi down to the train station and basked in the sun for 20 minutes waiting for our chariot to arrive.


train jaune

And it turn out to be absolutely as fun and beautiful as I had imagined. The train tracks went places that roads did not: hugging the sides of steep valleys, traversing huge bridges across canyons, offering glimpses up other side valleys towards unidentified snowy peaks. The people on the train ranged from babies to octogenarians, and we all oohed and aahed along together. At one point or another everybody stood up and pointed their cameras out the window. Even the teenager who made sure to sit in a seat separate from his family.

interiorIn particular I watched a girl, maybe five years old, who was traveling with two older women – I imagined them being her two grandmothers, or maybe a grandmother and a great aunt, or something like that. First the child stared at my long ski bag and her grandmother asked me what they were. “Les skis de fond,” I said. The girl looked confused. Her grandmother then described how you don’t always ski downhill, sometimes you have other skis, and you can go uphill, downhill, wherever you want! The girl was delighted.

But more than eavesdropping, I just watched how they interacted. The grandmothers had little napkin-wrapped items of food that they pulled out of their bags, cookies and apples, and a thermos full of hot tea which they poured out into little mugs. As we passed by different views, they would point out things to their granddaughter: do you see the animal tracks? Look what those people are doing! They seemed to be enjoying it every bit as much as she was.

It reminded me of what it would have been like to travel with my grandmother McIntyre, right down to their warm but well-worn jackets and sensible pants. My grandmother loved speaking French and I think of her often when I’m here, whether it’s wandering in the market or walking to school. I once went with her to Quebec, but how wonderful would it have been to go to France? We are so lucky to have grandmothers.

scenery 4When I wasn’t thinking about that, I was looking around. There were traces of people everywhere, even though the slopes were steep and rocky and I can’t imagine how they would support much of a population. I wondered: what did people do here, for thousands of years? You could see the forms of old roads leading off into the woods, or stone walls delineating – what? At one point I saw that some areas had been terraced, with stone retaining walls holding back each layer of soil. In one place, someone had begun to restore the terraces and planted an orchard. This would be a hard place to farm, much harder than any hill farm in New England. The land is practically vertical, and so many rocks.

Of course, the rocks are useful too. On the seemingly most improbable of ridges, even up on some small peaks, you could see defenses or, more likely, a church. They were made out of the hillside themselves, blending in with the rocks that were harvested to build them.

Or sometimes you’d come across a village deep in the valley, the crook between two slopes. Perpetually shaded from the sun, it seemed – but also protected from the wind and elements, and with easy access to the water that flowed out of the mountains.

Again, I tried to imagine. There had clearly been civilization here for years and years, networks of connected villages and farms and churches. It seemed like such a hard place to make a living, and yet rewarding, apparently, too. What was it that made it inhabitable, besides the beautiful scenery and the summer sun?

When we reached Villefranche – which is amazing, by the way, I hadn’t seen much the first night but it turns out to be an old fortified city with walls and towers and ramparts… what? – I had to get back on a normal train and go back to normal life. But I was left with some photos of the beautiful scenery from Le Train Jaune – a great way to travel, as long as it’s not snowing.

scenery 1

scenery 2

scenery 3

valley village

skiing in fourcade’s hometown.

I can understand if you think that all I do is go on vacation.

But let me assure you: it doesn’t feel that way. After only a week of statistics class, I feel about as far from a vacation as someone can get. Greek letters for sums and products, derivatives and coefficients, dance before my eyes; my waking hours are spent thinking about residuals, deviances, normality, likelihoods. I can assure you, it is no picnic.

And so last weekend, despite the strong protestations of our professor, I took off on Friday to spend the weekend in the Pyrenees. After all, they’re only a couple of hours away. Oh, happy, happy day.

panorama2(Click to enlarge, I think.)

I left Sjusjøen, Norway, a month ago, thinking that I’d had my last ski of the year. I tried to hard to make myself be satisfied with that concept. It had been a really great ski – shouldn’t that be sufficient? Now it would be back to work, I’d have a whole new city to explore on foot, even if there wasn’t any snow.

But while Montpellier is great for many things, I don’t even like running here. There’s no green space, no anything – just narrow sidewalks carpeted in dog shit, cars that drive too fast and don’t like to stop for pedestrians, and too many intersections to have to stop at. It’s a lovely place to be a person, and a terrible place to want to exercise. I needed the mountain air (even if it wasn’t for exercise). I escaped.

I woke up on Saturday morning to bright, bright sunlight streaming through the window of my little hotel room in Font Romeu, and immediately set about procuring breakfast: pastry, of course, and some fresh yogurt. Then, up the gondola to the ski area. Yes, that’s right. If you don’t have a car, you can take the gondola from the center of town and it’s a ten-minute ride to the base lodge. Even with your cross country skis. As the valley falls away behind you, there are some quite nice views.


The cross country trails don’t actually start at the base, but above it. So I corked in some VR50 kickwax – it was warm, but the snow was still cold – and started making my way up a wide trail groomed with corduroy but meant for walking on. Strangely, walking is something you do at resorts here – trails lead to refuges and vistas up on the ridges, and are groomed every night. I took one of these to the La Calme lodge, where I got my first look at some classic tracks. They were beauties.

I spent most of Saturday skiing around on the right side of the mountain. A trail named after Martin Fourcade climbed up to the ridge of the Col Rouge, crossing a major downhill-skier thoroughfare on the way; after that I dropped into the woods and wound back and forth, but mostly up, through the trees until I popped out near the top. I climbed a gradual grade separated off by snowfence from the alpine trails and was soon at the very highest point in the whole resort. One lift dropped off one side of the peak, another of the other. Skiers were unloading from both and I felt very out of place on my skinny skis.

left  right











I had to check my map to be sure what to do, but just as I thought, I skied though the melee and in between the two lift lines, before dropping down out of site on a trail made just for me. Ha! It was quiet, beautiful, and all those people probably didn’t even know that there was a mirror trail system, a sort of alternate universe, to explore just beside their own.


I skied another big loop, with glimpses of tall ridges peeking through the trees. It was a glorious day, incredibly sunny and with a gentle breeze to cool you off. My skis started slipping and I had to put on some warmer hardwax, which then of course started sticking in the shady sections. No matter: I really didn’t care. The skiing was lovely and I managed to go for three hours despite the fact that, as I said, I haven’t been getting any exercise. My hip flexors were protesting loudly by the time I was done.

And – to decide you are going home is definitely a treat. Think about it: you’re at the height of the resort, and you just get to go downhill, on trails that are built for cross country skis. All of my training on the S-Turns at Oak Hill came in handy as I flew down the mountain. I think I was having as much fun, and probably going as fast, as the tourists on their alpine skis. When I got back to La Calme I was so exhilirated that I (slowly) climbed back up the Martin Fourcade trail a few more times, just so I could have the rush of zipping around the corners again.

Although I had to spend the afternoon working on school and other things, I did get to relax and explore the town a little bit. It’s a fairly old place for people to come to enjoy the mountains, and gave me an idea of what a traditional European winter getaway is. The streets were windy as the town is perched on the side of the hill, and they were also decorated. I found a nice spot to get a coffee and enjoy the sunset.

sunset 1

sunset 2

sunset 3

Can you tell? So much sun. I’m peeling now, and for two days after I got back to school I still had a serious sunburn. My friends made fun of me, but to me, it’s worth it: why the horror at a sunburn? Okay, so I’m going to get cancer, but it means I was outside, enjoying life. If you live in fear of sunburn, if you find it incomprehensible that someone would come back from the weekend with a sunburn, then… you’re missing out.

On Sunday I explored the other side of the trail system. I’d seen on the map a long 11-k loop, and wanted to check it out. That required going to the other side of the La Calme base and checking into a separate set of trails (they connected high on the ridge). To my surprise and delight, this set of trails was completely different than what I had skied before. It was like someone had built two separate resorts. Instead of climbing through the trees, I sailed through huge open vistas with incredible views of the mountains on all sides.

Just a few kilometers into my ski, in short sleeves and skate skis, I raised my arms above my head as I flew through the fields and laughed out loud. This was life. I was free.

That sounds corny, but seriously, that was what was passing through my head. I felt alive. I felt like there was nothing better, in the whole world, than being here on this snow in this sun. If the world could stop and I could relive this day over and over, I would not have complained.


I skied a couple of laps of this big loop, adding on some smaller ones that I had to check out at the top and at the base. But the feeling was the same. Even when my legs got tired, when it felt like the muscles in my calves were disintegrating and cannibalizing themselves as I pushed up the hills, even when the wind coming across the top of a ridge made it feel like, in my feeble state, I wasn’t going anywhere – I kept skiing. There was always the next spot of sunny snow around the corner, the next downhill to rest on, the next incredible view that I knew was coming up.

At one point there was a small sign that pointed to “Pic de Mauroux, 0.4 k”. Curious, I skied about 200 meters up a hill before dirt began to intrude into the trail. I took my skis off and kept walking, and soon found myself on top of a “pic”: it wasn’t anything incredible, except that, at the edge of the plateau, the valley dropped off and the views were, once again, beyond pretty. It was strange to be on a snowless hill after skiing all day, but I sat in the sun for a moment and took it all in.

panorama1Another place to recover was a small “refuge”, a stone building with a fireplace inside and a deck and picnic tables outside. Every morning the man who ran the place would head up the mountain on his snowmobile, carrying some supplies for the day. You’d be skiing and come around a corner, in the woods feeling like you were far from everything, and there it would be, tourers sitting at picnic tables and laughing over their soup or omelette. For me, I just got a cup of tea, and sat out in the sun. People come and go, with kids or dogs, wives or parents, and it turns an afternoon in the mountains into a social experience to be shared only by explorers under their own self-transport.

refuge 1

refuge 2

As I skied down the hill to the gondola for the last time, I was pretty sad. Why did I have to go home, when all this was here? But, it must be said, vacation can’t be every weekend. For one thing, Font Romeu is priced exactly like what it is – a resort. But for another, I have to actually be a good student and do my work.

Still, these trails, this snow, that sun, it’s so amazing. To think that it’s right there, a train ride away – it’s taunting me. Maybe my monthlong absence of winter made me appreciate the trip more than I normally would have, but I think it was easily the best place I’ve ever skied in my life. If you have the chance, go! Maybe I will, too.