Over the hills

I decided to drive from Lawrence, Kansas to Calgary, Alberta, a roadtrip of around 1,600 miles. The practical reason was to be able to have my car during the four months of my fellowship in Canada, but there was also the drive itself through western Kansas, sweeping up the Rockies in Colorado then following them up through Wyoming and Montana. I never got round to taking a driving test in the UK and learned to drive when I moved to the US in my early thirties, so it still possesses a novelty attraction to me. I did driver’s education, driver’s ed, at a Midwestern driving school which consisted of watching videos (and I mean real, genuine videos) from the 1970s about avoiding driving through railroad crossings when trains are approaching and then I was taken out twice by a sweet lady in her 80s called Wanda, whose conversation consisted mainly of complaining about the teenaged girls that she usually accompanied in the car. I then had my full driving license with no test to pass. There had been a written test on the video day, but the grading sheet was passed out for us to correct ourselves with the admonition that we should ensure that any crossings-out were done properly for the “books”. One young man took off his glasses for the eye test and the cheerful, robust gentleman who ran the school urged him to step as close as he needed to the chart, regardless of where the line was to be found. In his introductory talk to us, he encouraged us by telling us that he had run the school for four decades and only one person had ever failed. “And she was Chinese,” he added for final effect.

I broke up my journey from Lawrence to Calgary over four days, timing my arrival for September 1, driving up in my tornado red VW Beetle (on that note, which nincompoop advertising agent thought it was a good idea to qualify a shade of red as “tornado”, given that these cars are sold in places where lives and livelihoods are lost because of tornadoes?), which was blessed in Latin when I acquired it in 2010 below, though Father Beseau, who performed the blessing, cautioned that it did not come with any guarantee! I like the portal symbolism of all of the doors being open (including the roof and glove compartment), this being emblematic of evil leaving a thing receiving a benediction.

Kansas has some fetching scenery, including the Flint Hills and the Tallgrass Praries, but when you drive west through this vast state along the straight route of the I-70, several hours and several hundred miles of prairies becomes fatiguing. This continues for an hour or so into Colorado until the horizon reveals the first glimpses of the Rockies, which get closer and closer, and more and more impressive. It would be an inspiring sight even without it breaking the overdose of prairies that leads up to it, and although I’ve done this route several times, the excitement of approaching this mountain range is always sharp and tangible. I come from the north of England and very close to the Lake District; in fact, I saw the Lake District’s peaks every day at school (well, on days of visibility), though in typically English fashion these summits are really hills masquerading as mountains.

Rocky Mountains, I-70 west of Denver, courtesy of cobalt123 on Flickr

Mountains are very evocative. We might think of the Paramount Mountain logo that precedes a Paramount Pictures production, or perhaps skiing, or the ranges that scar maps of the continents. It is then quite interesting to compare mountain scenery with the sea, both natural features that many people love to visit or have depicted, because mountains are not only pleasant but we also use the trope in a range -pun intended- of negative ways. We have to move mountains on occasion to achieve things. We can be overloaded with mountains of paperwork and the petty and pedantic among us might delight in making a mountain out of a molehill. Unlike the sea, which we know cannot be tamed, there is something threatening about mountains. They are timeless -old as the hills-, vast, and stable. As such they will outlive us whereas our days are numbered and, in a sense, their silent enormity taunts us, imprisoned as we are by our mortality. Our response to this is pretty farcical. We talk of “conquering” mountains, yet this is absurd for climbing up a rockface, one of the few pursuits even more futile than politics, and reaching a pinnacle does not assert our superiority. I’ve always found it a little disturbing that just as a young woman, Elizabeth II, was crowned Queen in 1953, it was deemed of great importance that a man conquer the previously untamed Everest in time for the coronation.

On that note, I have been struck by the almost complete absence of mountains in fairy tales, at least the dozens of French ones I’ve studied. I have only found one occurrence in a story by the delightful anti-patriarchal Madame d’Aulnoy (who unsuccessfully tried to frame her much older, unreasonable husband for treason and have the executioner’s axe perform a durable divorce) of a boy brought up by eagles on a mountain. The French word for wilderness is désert; I always have to explain to students that it doesn’t only mean sandy deserts. The French term is fascinating for a wilderness is defined by the fact it is deserted, that is to say that there are no people. The English term, wilderness, is both aggressive and negative, for it highlights the wild undercurrent of nature, pitting us against it with savage nature ready to take us out. I love such cultural revelations to be gleaned from terms used between the respective languages.

It was thanks to a mountain that I decided to devote my life to French. As a freshman studying a required poetry option in my first year, I remember the day on which we studied “L’Isolement” (Isolation) by Alphonse de Lamartine, a nineteenth-century Romantic poet.  In this poem, he is seated on a mountain and gazes down on the valley below. Over five stanzas he builds up the idyllic scene, piling descriptions on descriptions of the wondrous vista below his feet when, suddenly and brutally, he interjects a line that changes everything and utterly destroys what the poetry has created for us: “Un seul être vous manque, et tout est dépeuplé !”, “One person is not there, and all of this is desolate”. The person who is missing is the great love of his life, Julie, who died young thus depriving him of the happiness they were to have together. But, again in French, the term means depopulated, barren of life, bereft of people, rather than the tamer wilderness and desolation of the English, which are more inanimate than human. I was 23 years old but this line of poetry convinced me that I had to give myself to a language that could produce something so potent.

Today’s cufflinks are by the Danish designer Hermann Siersbøl whose work also featured in this post. They are sterling silver and bear his maker’s mark of HS. He is one of my favourite designers and this pair most likely dates from the second half of the 1960s. They feature his characteristic organic style, though the shape leaves no doubt that these suggest mountains. I had the choice of acquiring a similar pair by him in a rectangular shape but opted for these unambiguously mountainous ones, despite their unorthodox form. While I thought this was a perfectly random selection on my part, it seems that, on reflection, mountains have played their role in my life’s path.