Both the Lakes and Mountains are Still

Travel Blog 11: Really Just the Sequel to “Biodome”

All my paths lead up. I feel like I am always climbing, my legs burning, my neck craned at a 45 degree angle. Either the world is tilting, or I have a penchant to go where the sights are grandest. Normally, that means being forced to stare up, or else just glare at the roots of things. 

But at least in Geneva, their great, wide lake is level, perhaps the most level body of water I’ve seen for something of its size. 

In Switzerland, the clouds hang low over the mountains, as if they are also impressed by their scale. The people who live here — they really do want this place to be beautiful, though in a city like Geneva that hangs on the tip of the country’s southwestern tip whose border drives like a wedge into France, there’s really only the etching and outlines of old Europe left here. It is all modern, some stone, but mostly glass, concrete and steel.

But it is that lake that barely shifts and ripples in subtle dcurrents. It’s warped body stretches and curves into the distance, where only the thin outline of trees miles away mark its far bank. 

What wealth lingers there? One must think quite a bit, considering the country’s high cost of living plus the international, cosmopolitan nature of a place known for being the European headquarters of the U.N., not to mention its years of being a site for international conferences and treaties. On the far side of the lake, which is technically outside city limits in a municipality called Cologny, a spread of two or three story buildings rise like white and red pimples from fields of green. By their shore is a screen of masts from small schooners and yachts that don’t even seem to move on a breezeless day. The clouds reach like a dark, cupping hand over those homes on the far side, but they hang lazy over the city and the mountains that sink into the dull morning light. One can sit in the parks and greenery bordering the lake and stare with head level. You can’t do that once you reach the mountains.

In the resort town of Zermatt, the hotels, shops and restaurants sit the cleavage of the surrounding mountains. Beyond it all is the Matterhorn, the clouds clinging to it like a modest woman just come from the shower. In summer, its white spike of sheer cliff is even more striking among the green trees and bare, charcoal grey rock that surrounds it. It’s easy to see why such a peak would be burned into the memories of artists and scientists alike. Compared to other peaks in Switzerland, the Matterhorn does not blend into the surrounding peaks, instead standing like a spike struck into the earth, its sheerness apparent even from our relatively low altitude. Of course, the mythological nature of such a thing is helped by the famed, doomed expedition by Edward Whymper, where four of seven members of the party died on the descent. It still remains one of the deadliest peaks in the world. 

Everything involved in living here involves climbing. To get to my hostel I had to climb multiple flights of stairs, and even then, the building had no elevator, meaning I must climb four flights of stairs just to get to my room. 

There are costly funiculars and lifts to get you to the surrounding peaks, from which there are miles and miles of hiking and biking trails. It’s at the peak, starting my descent, that I start to think:

The whole scale of it is probably incredible. I say probably, because to take it all in at once demystifies most of it. One would have to look at every piece individually with specific purpose, identifying its scale, mass, shape, and on and on. That is likely what makes the Matterhorn so appealing. It is an entity into itself, a king of the giants. 

This is sheerness, a kind of brutality born into heights and points. 

This is scale that gives meaning to numbers, when they talk of being 3,000 or 4,000 meters above sea level, this is what they mean, because the incline is full in view, the crest and peak of waveforms made manifest in their awesome proportions. Because it’s not just height, it’s also breadth. It’s a kind of unassailable truth that such inhospitable, nearly terrifying landmarks so often dwarf all human achievements by factors of millennium and size. Because our roads run like veins through these mountains, and unlike the buildings and structures of civilization those roads are part of the environment. And where if all of humanity left the earth our buildings will eventually crumble and the vines will cover the windows, these mountain roads are baked in, and nature has nothing to reclaim. And they may take you through these mountains, and routes may even take you to their peaks, but you will never dwarf them.

So better to look at the minuteness of such environs, from the streams running into the mountain lakes dotting the landscape, or the various flowers clinging by thin stems to the mountainside. As I walk, an old man in front of me, wire thin and sinewy, constantly stops to lean over to one of these flowers. He folds like a napkin, his neck becomes two bat wings as he cranes to look in close to the bright purple, yellow, or crimson. He might know these flowers’ names, but he takes a different path then me, and I never get to ask him if he does. 

This is what people like J.R.R Tolkien spoke of when he wrote of the “roots of the mountains.” It’s as if these things are alive, huge, ancient and impenetrable, as if they themselves reach deep into the earth, like icebergs whose totality is incomprehensible.

Now let me ask a question: what infinite things control you?

The mountains are still, unwavering things. Or at least that’s how they appear to us, but in reality the tectonic plates are shifting under our feet, slow and unburdened with any sense of haste. Given enough time, there would be more mountains in our future. But other things move with greater urgency, such things we cannot help but notice. The lake moves and the light catches onto the spines of minute, shifting waves that clatter like loose, rolling bottles against the stone walls of the shore. Something has made these waves, put energy and momentum into these shallow crests and troughs. It could have been that tourist ship that passed not too long ago, the force of its wake only reaching the shore several minutes after. It could have been the wind, though on shore it feels like the air is being weighed down by anchors. Tectonic plates underneath? The moon’s gravity above? Later that day the waves will grow more pronounced, but in a morning moment, what is the true cause. Is it everything? Is it the sigh of a person waking up too late and noticing the time? Is it the rolling wheels of hundreds of cars, buses and trains clambering into and out of the city?

Huge entities these are, and such micro-manipulations of their environs, and with that what could we say does the same to us?

Chaos theory and a butterfly’s wing beat, sure, but really, I wonder what small forces may affect my mood, my perspective, or my eclectic desires and passions. Am I just the culmination of a million different variables? If I see a mother duck leading a small flock along the coast of the lake, and then spot a wee duckling pick up its head from atop its mother’s back then wave back and forth like a radar dish checking its surroundings, what will that do to me later? Does it mean nothing or everything, and could I ever possibly tell?

Probably not, and whatever. Speculating on impossibilities and pretending you make any sort of sense is a fun pastime when you don’t have a train to catch and you’ve already written way too much confusing drivel. It’s also not something you can bring up in bar conversation, so really what use is it? 

Catch you up on my travels in another few days.

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