Striding Among the Mountains.
There is something about the high places in the world that stirs the imagination. I remember as a child I would look out of the car window as we rode along, gazing up at the Cotswold hills that formed the terrain of my youth. My eyes would trace the outline of the hills, that sharp line where earth stops and sky begins, and I would long to be there, for my own outline to become part of this grander silhouette. I wonder what it is that drew me there… What I wanted was not necessarily to be up there, looking down, surveying the landscape before me, this was not a major part of my imaginings. Rather, what seemed more important was the view from down below, that stark silhouette against the sky, and me, little old me, being part of it. For people to stop and look, and wonder who it is that traverses this lofty realm.
In my childhood imagination this was something grand indeed, something other-worldly. One character always sprang to my mind when I considered this particular place of being, Aragorn of the Lord of the Rings, or, more relevantly in this instance, Strider. Strider… Oh, how I longed to be this striding man. When I imagined walking this terrestrial tightrope between Cotswold hill and overcast sky, it was Strider I was thinking of, and Strider who I wanted to be. To me, it meant adventure, it meant independence, it meant strength. The power to be up there, at one with the high places, above the day-to-day needs and concerns of the normal world. Away from the stress, away from the fear, I would stride along these ridges of my imagination, sure-footed and sure-hearted, I would know who I was and where I belonged.
Sadly, as with so many childish fantasies, the realities of this world rarely match up to them. We had set out to climb the hill behind our house in France, a rocky outcrop of which forms a magnificently craggy silhouette against the sky — perfect Strider territory. It would take a couple of hours to reach this craggy peak, up a thin rocky path cut knee-deep into the earth that snaked its way up the hill. Rumo ran ahead, crossing and recrossing the path, investigating the many scents that pulled his nose towards them. Rivulets ran over the path below our feet, constantly running down the side of the mountain despite the lack of recent rain. Half way up we were passed by a gaggle of teenagers coming the other way, music pumping softly from a pocketed phone, their hands full of rucksacks, tents, and plastic refuse sacks, the remnants we presumed of a fun night up on the slopes. Beside the path, smaller rocky outcroppings hosted giant vultures, their scrawny necks jutting out from large round bodies, who would launch themselves into the valley air upon our approach, their huge wings catching them softly upon the unseen currents of wind and air that swirled around us.
Beyond the vultures, atop the first hill of our trek, low stone walls enclosed small flocks of sheep who had been brought up here for their summer pasture once the snow had receded. A gravel road led us along the small plateau to the foot of the next hill, the one that formed the rugged backdrop to our home far below. At first, again, we followed a dirt and stone path cut deep into the ground, but soon this levelled off and the path became little more than a pattern in the grass that spread before us, the slight shimmer of grass that has been bent down underfoot only giving a minute clue as to where the path led, but one which, surprisingly, the eye seems to have no problem in finding. Even Rumo, leading the way as per usual, seemed to find no difficulty in spotting and following this subtle trail. It was at this point that we realised that the rocky cliffs that had been our goal were not, in fact, where we were headed but were in fact over to our right, down a long slope, the sheer edge protected by a wooden fence, presumably placed there to stop any animal or human from getting too close, from intermingling their own outline with that of the rocky promontory, from achieving glory. Thus, what had once been the mystical place where earth meets sky, from up here was no more than another hill, its green crest blending softly into the verdure of the forest trees that blanket the other side of the valley.
I suppose I never will see my own outline against the sky. See myself from below and wonder at my own power and strength. In reality I will never be more than a person just standing on the ground, on his own two feet, perfectly mortal, mediocre, not the Strider of my dreams, the secret king with the strength to lead an army. But still, the high places call to me, they call me to come up to them, to ascend, to dream, atleast, of being more than I am, perhaps more than I’ll ever be. And when I’m there, I do feel the potential, the possibility of transcendence, the space between my dreams and my reality feels that much thinner, the two hazily shimmering together into a rough mirage. I look down into the valleys below and to the higher peaks above and I know who I am, I know where I belong. And after just a few a hundred more metres our trip was rewarded, maybe not with our own position in the skyline, but with a panoramic view that rivaled any I had previously seen.
Before us, the sheer, grey, rock faces of the Pic de Ger, the Pic de Gourzy, and the Pic d’Anglas, among others, formed an amphitheatre of stone, their lower reaches smothered in lush, green forest, while patches of white snow above glistened in the early summer sun. Between us and them the ground fell away into the valley, the nadir hidden from view nearly 1000m below. To our left as we looked out, the path continued on, winding its way up and down the intervening hills to reach the Col d’Aubisque, of Tour de France fame. To our right, the way we had come, the path stretched out into the distance, the flocks of sheep we had passed like so many balls of cotton wool milling around in their grassy pen. Beyond them, the ground fell away once more to the real valley floor, and the town of Laruns. Perhaps no one below could see us, perhaps our own silhouettes would not be painted against the sky, but to be up here, to know that we came from down there, that alone is a feeling of power and strength that I think even Strider would recognise.