Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Tour du Mont Blanc

As we inch closer to our anticipated departure (September 6th, the Tuesday after Labor Day), our gap year slowly starts to come into focus and gradually develops from black and white to color. We’ve started to actually fill in a specific date here and there and confirm some of the details of our trip. I’m still in the throes of my personal tug-of-war between wanting to settle down in just a few places for several months at a time and itching to move around so we can experience (or maybe I should say taste, since so much is about the food) as many places as possible. For now, we haven’t settled on a firm itinerary but we have drafted a skeletal calendar and committed to a few anchor activities.

One such highlight is the seven-day, 105-mile, Tour du Mont Blanc. I first read about the tour, which circles Mont Blanc on foot, several years ago in a backpacking magazine I bought on a whim when looking for advice on hikes near Washington, DC. (Serendipity can unearth such wonderful surprises!) I saved the brief article and added it to our burgeoning gap year folder. Fast-forward to last summer when Joe and I did a 4-day, 30-mile, rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon. We started at the north rim and camped for three nights as we made our way down to the Colorado River and then back up to the south rim. Although avid hikers, we have no camping equipment or experience and decided to do the hike with Just Roughin’ It, a small local outfitter. Our small group of six (the guide, married schoolteachers from Australia, a Seattle policeman and us) were fast friends – after just a few hours, we were able to share stories and joke as if we’d known each other for years. 
The common experiences of cooking, eating and cleaning up after every meal, sharing a campsite and witnessing the glories of the Grand Canyon led to fast familiarity. Our Grand Canyon trek ended up being part of one of the best vacations we’d ever had! Even before we’d started our climb to the south rim on day three, Joe and I were already scheming about our next guided hiking/camping excursion. We put Yosemite, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks on the list. And then in November, I unearthed the article on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

The magazine writer recommended hiking the tour with an outfitter because of the fickle weather in the Alps, even in the summer. July snow squalls are not out of the question! In fact, there’s a very narrow window of only a couple months when Mont Blanc’s trails are passable for the complete ring around the mountain. And unlike the Grand Canyon hike, where each night’s objective was a campsite, the tour progresses, from France to Italy to Switzerland and back to France, from one mountain refuge to the next – some rustic huts and others small alpine inns. A support van carries trekkers’ bags, except for the daypacks with lunch and daily provisions, and meets you each evening at that day’s destination. The outfitter provides all the food and takes care of sleeping and meal arrangements. Just as with our Grand Canyon trip, hikers are left to concentrate on being properly clothed, the journey itself and the breathtaking scenery. There’s a wealth of information about the Mont Blanc loop on the Internet and I bought Kev Reynolds’s The Tour of Mont Blanc, apparently the de facto Bible on this classic hike. Because the fair weather season is so brief, the mountain refuges (some of which cannot be reserved) fill up quickly during the summer. Several web sites include reports of hikers at the end of a long day of trekking 15+ miles being stranded with no place to stay as the sometimes below freezing night temperatures approach. The possibility of this last situation, combined with the terrifying experience of losing the trail on a solo hike out west last fall (more on this in my next entry), sealed the deal. Our Grand Canyon adventure will be followed by the Tour du Mont Blanc as our next guided hike.

Friday, January 21, 2011

My Voices

Today is one of those days when I wake up and ask myself, "Are you crazy? Are we nuts? In this terrible economy, how can you just walk away from everything and expect to come back on your own terms after 12 full months?" Thank God I haven't had many, but I do admit that there have been a few of them -- days of fear and self-doubt and thoughts of encroaching insanity. Such days usually creep up on me after I hear new economic statistics predicting continued doom and gloom, further unemployment and ongoing malaise. Or, on the tails of a particularly dismal story about middle-aged people being unemployed for years. And years. My inner guilt complex scolds, “Who do you think you are? You’re going to just walk away from your new education degree and Joe’s secure government job and expect to get not one but TWO jobs when you come back?  Do you really think that’s wise?”

These attacks of anxiety usually drive me straight to my gap year spreadsheets for reassurance that we’ve saved enough money, have enough financial cushion and have budgeted accurately. The fear generally sets in for several hours. Initially, it’s the panic that we’ll go broke, have to move in with our children and become laughing-stocks. But then, after fretting for much of the day, the panic about being in the poorhouse turns into a panic that screams, “but we have to go, no matter what! We’ve looked forward to this for so long!” In the late afternoon that brave voice really, really deep inside me always surfaces and says, “You can do it, you must do it and it is the absolute wisest thing you can possibly do. You will never, ever regret it.” And it is this voice that always wins out. I’ve taken some pretty big leaps in my life after listening to the voices in my recesses and in the end, they’ve always been right.

There’s an episode of the TV series The Love Boat (yes, the show was one of my favorites way back when) that I will never forget. It featured a recently retired couple in their late 60s on a much-anticipated cruise. (I wish I could remember the actors who played the husband and wife, but I’m afraid I can’t.) Shortly after the ship sets sail, the wife can hardly contain herself because she has a big surprise for her husband. Over the course of their 40-plus-year marriage, she tells him, she has managed to build a huge nest egg for traveling the world in their retirement. Expecting to be greeted with shouts of joy, she is crushed as he slowly absorbs what she has told him and becomes increasingly angry. He is furious that in order to save for the promise future travels, she denied them so many trips and vacations throughout their working years – the years when they needed journeys the most. He asks, why did she sacrifice getaways while they were young and healthy for the promise of travel when they were old and grey? There were so many times over the years, he said, when there was nothing he wanted more than to be traveling with her. I was probably about 22 years old when I saw that episode and as hokey as it sounds, it taught me an invaluable lesson. There are times when you simply must not wait for tomorrow. You have to listen to your brave voices, shove aside the panicky ones and jump in with both feet.

So why do I still have butterflies in my stomach today? It’s excitement, not fear, I keep repeating. Excitement, not fear.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January Resolutions

For so many years in business, I succumbed to the January mandate of “get out there and make something happen!” After all, January is the start of a new year, a time for resolutions, the perfect excuse for launching new goals and strategies and programs. Clients want new initiatives in the first month of the year, right? Isn’t that what they expect? My bosses always exhorted me to get on the road in January – traveling to conventions, visiting customers and announcing innovative efforts. I’m afraid, however, that my heart was never in it. For me, the Tuesday after Labor Day has always seemed much more appropriate as the start of a new year. September is the time for new shoes and crisp new folders, blank paper and fresh ideas.

In the frigid, unconscious, grey days of January, I want to hunker down and do the hard work of imagining, researching and preparing. In the weeks after New Year’s, my heart turns to planning and filling in the details of our next escape. Over the years, it’s become a ritual of the Martin Luther King holiday weekend: first, I thank God for this great man and what he did for our country and second, I make the initial arrangements for our summer getaway. I’ve always said that I work in order to travel and that I pay our vacation fund before I go to the grocery store. It’s always been this way and I suspect it will never change.

This year, more than ever before, all I want to do this January is plan for and dream about leaving for our gap year in September. As I observe the steely, oh-so-dismal frozen Maryland landscape through the plantation shutters of my bedroom, my dewey-eyed imaginings of strolling through Granada, hiking in the Alps and sunning by a fountain in Provence take over. What I’m looking at now is ashen, lifeless. What I see in my minds-eye is in technicolor and vibrant – filled with promise and potential. Such are the initiatives and resolutions I focus on in January.