He admired Sarah for her resilience, her ability to work long hours, to keep a clear mind, to be the long haul woman she was. Travelling made him broody: strange dreams came to him at night, projects he never worked on, women he had never met, but yet look familiar to him, men who appeared to have a grudge for unknown or forgotten reasons. He feared falling asleep at the wheel, a recurring nightmare, a dream where he woke up, driving, his car out of control, facing imminent disaster. As they were navigating through Münich, the Sunday traffic smoothly flowing through the roadworks and narrow lanes, Sarah said to him he had to take the time to readapt. He thought about this for a while, then starting talking as if Sue – the girl from Apple – was in the car. As he was driving his thoughts drifted back to the busy London street. Sarah decided not to ask questions: Julian in this mood, half here, half elsewhere, had to be left drifting, lest too sudden a recall to reality made his driving less rational. They were pulling out of the city now, the traffic clearing up, powerful cars on the fast lane disappearing at vertiginous speed. Tall pine trees bordered the autobahn, dark hills appeared on the horizon shrouded by little grey clouds. The car instruments were showing a cool 20 degrees ambient, the ideal temperature for Julian’s working brain. He remembered the stiffling 32 degrees of the belgian motorway.
Sarah at the wheel, her naked thighs a source of lusty meanderings in Julian’s tired mind, they crossed the Europa bridge, the Brenner Pass, then they were in Italy. Somehow the sky seemed bluer, the air lighter. As they left the motorway, the Pustertal opened in front of them, and he reflected how lucky he was to know this place, how lucky he was to have met, and been accepted, by his wife. The usual guilt feeling – “I am not worthy” – invaded him, then went, swept away by the cooler air through the car windows. At St Laurenz Sarah veered towards the mountains and Val Badia, a familiar and always renewed feeling of “going home”. The stream was flowing, silver tide through the shiny rocks. Drifting, he was thinking Sue would be a good mother too: strong legs, generous hips, a madonna smile. Sarah was talking to him: they had arrived, their mountain towering above them, their host welcoming.
He woke up with a vague headache, still dreaming of a girl both alien and familiar, a contradiction he did not attempt to resolve. The previous night’s storm had left the air clean and cool. Big white clouds were slowly dissipating, the sun shining bright. The mountain shone in the light, streams of rain water flowing down the cliffs. Sarah was cheerful and smiling: she reminded him that it would take a couple of days to adapt to the altitude, the pure air and the slopes! He smiled, and remembered how carrfully they had packed their gear, lifelong habit of the professional mountaineers they had now almost become. The long road and the heat would soon be forgotten, their legs tired at first, getting stronger.
They went up with the ski lift, reaching a a small plateau, and followed a path that wound its way through the pine tree. The sky was blue with small white clouds, the smell of the pine trees strong in the morning air. He had now forgotten about Sue and was watching his wife’s brown legs with a deep pleasure. Sarah strode on, her beautiful thighs shining below the grey shorts, her muscled shins and arms glistening soon with a light sweat. The climb was at first easy, then got steeper. He knew the magic valley altered his mind, his feelings, his soul, he knew the place was inhabited by spirits older than man.
It took him another couple of days to feel his legs’s strength coming back, that wonderful rise of power in the calves and knees, being able to climb, the going back to primeval life. He sometimes thought that mankind genesis was in the mountain. There was security and food, safety from the evils of the plains, its dangers, its plagues: pure air kept mankind evolving, developing skills, farming, breeding animals, the plentiful of medicinal herbs, the plants that feed and heal. Much later had come the luxuries of the plains, the easier life, and corruption, perdition, and then societies that no longer recognised the natural order of seasons and time, and ignored the spirits. He talked once with Sarah about his beliefs, she smiling indulgently, “here goes my romantic and ever so dreaming husband…” She kissed him and said she did not believe in his story. Far from being mortified, he laughed too. He knew there was little evidence for his theory, and that, to the contrary, if there was evidence of early development, it was in the fertile plains of the great rivers of the Middle East that such existed. Yet, like Reinhold Messner, he believed in the mountain people as a source of a universal culture. And there was ample evidence of extraordinary resilience in the face of implacable odds. Here in the Südtirol, the Ladin culture had resisted persecution, economic disaster, invasions and worse. As recently as the Second World War, they had been at the vortex of power struggles and mad schemes to reshape the geography, human and physical, of their valleys.
They drove up the road to the pass, surrounded by magnificent views, sensing a rising tension around him. Sarah and their son were talking climbs and times of ascent. Slowly the traffic was building up, the sky was blue, little clouds had started their own ascent. The tension was probably all his: after a week in the mountains he felt tired, although at home in the landscape: it always took him at least a week to adapt, to the climate, to the changing scenery, to the air. He had become a creature of habits, and finding back his Tirol’s habits was taking time. They got to the car park, below the telepherique, the big batallions had not arrived yet, there was plenty of space. Sarah and the boy got their gear out of the car trunk and got ready. The boy was no longer a boy, he reflected, in fact people could take mother and son for a pair of handsome lovers. Part of him wished he could go with them, part of him was just happy having to drive back. They waved at him from the cabin as he left the car park. The sun was already hot.
He stopped at the next town, bought some special flour at the pharmacy (the pretty girl at the till tried to sell him more specialties), then drove to the supermarket and refilled in pasta, rice and olive oil. He knew the place, the car park where Italian drivers queued, the incredible view over the massif above through the shop windows. Back in the house the older brother was getting ready for his own expedition. The tension subsisted and this surpised him. He considered calling Sue: she had, after all, given him her phone number. He thought better and decided not too. He sat down for a bite, heated up some coffee, opened his laptop and started reading. He was hoping to finish off the Cryptonomicon this holiday, but he was becoming a very slow reader. Slow reader, slow worker, slow walker: was he just getting older? A vision of his son and wife overwhelmed his mind: him, tall, trim, athletic, all muscles and bones, his very seductive male face, her, so beautiful: mother and lover, no, mother and son… He knew of the medieval portraits of Madonna in the little church, where the Mother was eclipsing the Son.
It had been a long walk, with, at the end, the scary progression on the scree, the narrow path, the climb, up to the little charte where the alpine club bivouac was. They looked up and Sarah explained which way she and their son had gone. She said the descent was even scarier. The way up was nearly vertical with a long steel rope guiding the climbers. Their path curled around the mountain, down at first then up again. Walkers had gathered near the bivouac, looking at climbers and telling tales of past exploits. The view over the Tofanas was magnificent. The drop from the top was awesome: a smooth and very steep descent, just scree. He thought he’d hated that if he was to climb. Sarah was dismissive. He thought she did not really trust him to do anything that difficult. Well, the guide said one of the most difficult klettersteigs of the Dolomites. Sarah said their son had to lift her over an overhanging rock. His mind wandered, on the vertical cliff, the beautiful young mother and her handsome and skillful son.
He said “for another day”, and she laughed. Later they’d argue about car parking and trivial things. In the WW1 Open Air Museum, a steep slope towards the Hütte, they looked at small shelters, carved form the rock, officers quarters, food stores, dormitories for the troops. The entrance to the long caverns was there. Sarah asked him if he wanted to visit: the steps were in complete darkness, visitors having to wear helmets with lights, like deep coal miners. He declined, the place was a great emotional strain for him. The path was busy, families and kids playing where those soldiers had suffered and died. This was the advanced front line of the war in the Südtirol. The Austrians had held out for the most part of the war, until their food reserves were exhausted, and supply lines cut. Around the mountain was his favourite climbs, the Kaiser Jäger Steig, carved by the Austrian élite troops, winding its way to the summit over the void. An Italian flag flew over the Hütte. The view from the top, 360 deg., was extraordinary. They drank Malacchio, and ate a piece of struddel. The air was cool, even cold when the sun disappeared behind the clouds. For him Sarah pointed out the summits, the Civetta, the Sassongher, the Sella, even the Neuner, towering over the Farnès. On the bus he fell asleep, exhausted.
This story continues here…