Book #18: Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 3000ers of the Pyrenees

So pretty much every project with a list of tall mountains goes something like this: “it can’t be that hard to get them all.” And then it is, taking far longer than I expect, for whatever reason surprises me each time. I can blame the Pyrenees for having a ton of beauty and rugged peaks nearby to play with, that happen to not make the official list of peaks over 3000 meters (9,843 feet). Everything that blog followers have seen around La Cerdanya is a hair too short, with the nearest 3000er northwest of Andorra. The farthest one is almost in Basque Country, which was a limiting factor in that I had to cover some distance before I’d even begin to get to most of them, and then had to go even more to get the rest.

As to the meat of the matter, the book contains the 129 peaks over 3000 meters in height, a cousin to my book on the Colorado 14ers (58 peaks over 14000 feet), and the Southern Sixers of North Carolina and Tennessee (40 peaks over 6000 feet).

I’d say the biggest challenge with the Pyrenees is the fact that they span three countries, are rather rugged, and the airport network is sparse compared to the USA. If one is knowledgeable about something, then that confers some confidence, and can make anything possible. Battling the linguistic unknowns of the Iberian Peninsula made this one more challenging than I would have expected. Oh, and mountain waves. There are lots of mountain waves here. Who knew (other than the locals)?

The book is available in English on Amazon in the USA and Europe. A Spanish translation is coming in the near future.

Flights: Andorra, France, Spain: In Pursuit of Inversions

It is no mystery that I used to whine relatively profusely about “that damn inversion” down below. Just over the ridge behind the house, its another world, meteorologically speaking, where things like a “sunny day” or a “strong cold front” do not mean anything. It could be perfectly clear with illustriously dry air in Cerdanya, cross the ridge, and its humid, squalid Mediterranean air, spiced with dust from the Sahara.

In the summer it’s a real issue as the dust and haze will rise at times above 10,000’, meaning that its hazy in Cerdanya also. In winter, on the other hand, the inversion layer drops to varying levels. This year, I decided to chase the very things that drove me nuts in prior years and make something of it, including clouds at higher altitudes on days where I would get beaten around by wind. Honestly, it appears to have been a particularly photogenic start to winter.

Andorra. A relatively ordinary pursuit of mountain peaks.

Yawn.

Overcast layer beneath Pic Carlit, France, indicative of wind. I ignored it, flew near the peak, and got beat to shit by the rotors.

On the way back from Carlit, Puigmal in the background.

“That damn inversion” from Puigmal on another day. Hey wait a minute….it could be considered pretty.

So I decided to descend from 9,500′ to 4,000′. Somewhat workable.

Near Torelló. Pretty if you ask me!

Montserrat. Maybe the inversion doesn’t suck. After staring at that thing for who knows how long and driving by it on the way to Barcelona, I finally went up the cog train on the mountain. The plane is better.

On the way back home…

45kt winds, massive mountain waves, and near 9,500′ terrain. Obviously I am getting bored…and I happen to be able to do it without dying. There are some sneaky tricks.

Classic inversion. Montseny on the horizon.

This image was used in my recent article in AOPA Pilot magazine. 

Where I came from. Each rocky ridge was my emergency landing location, where I would probably bash into some rocks, later to have the carcass of the airplane (and me) skid off the cliff and down into the clouds.


Another evening, with a hazy iteration of the infernal inversion. Montserrat in the background, 40 miles away, with east slope of Coll de Pal in the foreground.

It was quite windy as I rode “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” Had I gone over the edge, the descending winds would have been so strong I would have had to fly to Sabadell and call it a night.

 

Flights: PA, NY: Lock Haven, PA to Buffalo, NY

Where do I begin? This blog normally has one of two characteristics: talking about the flight in question, or long philosophical essays about the futility of existence. This whole flight sequence represents so much chaos and tangential subjects that I can’t even begin to attempt to approach it, so I’ll dumb it down to a flying missive.

The flight was late last year, in the freezing cold, from Lock Haven, PA to Buffalo, NY. It turned out to be more than one flight, the photos hereby compressed into one post. I was not flying the Cub; rather, I was operating a Super Cub. My airplane flies 200 miles before the fan quits, so that wouldn’t work so well over 700 mile legs with no fuel crossing the Atlantic. Believe it or not, I get asked all the time if I flew the Cub across the Ocean. Don’t ask about why I am flying the Super Cub in question, or all the shit that went down afterward. I didn’t steal it, I promise….

The flight in question was written about here on AOPA’s site also.

Ridge north of Lock Haven, PA.

Northern Appalachia. Technically the “Pennsylvania Wilds.”

It is a rather uninhabited place.

Larch trees! This I did not expect at all. Just five weeks prior, I had flown all around tremendous stands of larch trees in the Alps with the Cub. 

This is somewhere near or after the NY border. Its not exactly easy to figure out. I was wandering without looking at the map.

Unforecasted Lake Effect snow. What else is new!

I don’t recall seeing such vivid ice and snow textures from flying the Cub here 20 years ago. That might have something to do with the fact that my grandfather would flee to Florida, the airfield wasn’t plowed, I didn’t have skis for the plane, and general Western New York culture is to hide in one’s house all winter long while bitching about it. 

The shadow looks like a phallus.

The airfield where I grew up and soloed the PA-11 (left to right). My grandfather had sold it in 2016. Short field, always a crosswind, wires on one end. It puts a smile on my face that the PA-11 still flies…

If you’re Catholic and a Buffalonian, this is tantamount to the Vatican. If you’re not, its some basilica in Lackawanna.

Lake Erie, with Canada on the horizon.

Post-industrial wasteland turned into somewhat photogenic marsh with downtown Buffalo lurking in the upper right. Canada is across the water (I was conceived there).

Buffalo, NY – where I was squeezed through the vagina as an infant.

Bry Lyn – Literally the loonie bin. After untold decades of confining the disturbed in unpleasant circumstances, it fell into some form of disrepair, and now the state is spending $100MM to make it pretty.

The Peace Bridge, with Canada behind me. The longest undefended border in the world.

Buffalo City Hall. So I am told, someone jumped off the top in the 70s and ended up literally shishkabobing himself on the flagpole. The City, in turn, moved the flagpole further away for the next one. What a planet we live on….

Electric Tower (foreground), old Gold Dome Bank building behind.

Something on the waterfront. Its amazing what state money buys these days.

Larch trees again. So here is the funny thing: I had no clue larch trees existed in New York until I left living there. I first “discovered” them flying in Montana in 2015, then researched them, finding that they come as far south as where I spent two decades living.

This infernal barn has remained in the same state of disrepair since I have formed memories. Paint it already!

Larch trees! I mentioned to my wife that I do not recall ever seeing anything like this and thought I was going crazy. She confirmed she doesn’t remember them in New York at all, either, so it must have been an exceptional year for them. I suppose that whole overblown “spiritual connection” bit is in full swing.

Letchworth State Park.

Middle Falls. 130 feet tall. I visited here often and, since we’re on the reproductive theme, happened to have also gotten married at the building in the foreground.

Train bridge. I cannot confirm or deny if a bowling ball was ever dropped off of it.

Upper falls. Getting late in the evening and photography challenging in a much faster airplane.

Lower Falls. They are much larger in reality. The only good shot I have is straight above, obscuring the dimension of the falls. I really do like this park quite a bit.

Flight: Spain: Aigüestortes, Valley of Benasque, El Turbón

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Episode IX: Country of Origin

Little did an innocent pair of shoes know that it would spawn a philosophical fusillade. The product of the cobbler in question is a pair of shoes my wife painstakingly ordered from Denmark, appropriately adorned with a small cloth tag stitched in the rear leather seam of the Danish flag. “Why, they are Danish. They must be better,” I thought, glancing at them while eating dinner.

Or are they?

And for that matter, where are the shoes, branded from a region in the United States, that are supposedly superior in some respect due to their point of origin? (“Made in China” flashes into my mind).

Americans have deluded ideologies about what things mean in Europe. I know this fact because a) I am American b) I was fed these delusions and c) I have come to Europe and therefore understand that many of them are false.

To dissect this bit of Schadenfraude, one must start with the weather.

I am a weather nerd, par excellence, to the point of crazed obsession. With that as a foundation, one could understand why I would fixate on the differences between American and European weather, though I still can’t figure it out. Oh sure, its “maritime” in a good portion of Western Europe, though I don’t find that the description cuts it. The weather here is tame, mild, and slow. When it does change, it is not the advent of the apocalypse, it is a sort of oozing from one weather system to another. Or, if it changes rapidly, it just changes. It is not associated with tornadoes, flash freezes, or other divine wrath typically associated with a weather system in North America.

“But what of those [insert weather drama here] I saw on the news in [insert location in Europe here]?” As a baseline, such weather drama is not as common. Secondly, it tends not to destroy as much stuff, as Europeans don’t do things like build slapstick plywood houses five feet from the ocean in hurricane zones. Third, weather drama is more likely to be a stagnation of a weather pattern as opposed to a level of violence. In America, a snowstorm is measured not only in quantity, but also speed at which it falls and violence of wind. To receive six feet of snow without menacing hatred spewing out of the sky is unlikely. Europe gets its weather overages when it begins to do something, and won’t quit, like rain, snow, heat, or cold. It gets going, and keeps on going. One foot of snow becomes three, which becomes six, which avalanches and destroys the train track…for the first time in centuries. In America, we hope to sell our real estate development to the next sucker before he or she realizes that it was well known the building site was crap and is susceptible to a known disaster.

Now, why does this weather fusillade relate to….shoes?

One would assume a suite of illustrious products manufactured in exotic sounding European destinations would be superior in every respect, because of some deep-seated knowledge of local weather conditions coupled with millenniums of wisdom, culture, and tradition. Surely, Swiss coats are better, because the Alps are so rugged and wintry? French wine must be due to the best vinicultural regions in the world. Same for Italian olives, and the acorns that pigs eat before becoming Iberian ham. Wood cogs made in the Netherlands must be due to some form of regional expertise, like skis from Norway, or gloves branded with something from Verbier or Zermatt.

At the same time, where is the Buffalo snow shovel, or the Great Lakes snowblower, or Montana outerwear? While there are a few brands, and there are some regional fixations around surf culture and elitist ski destinations, there is a surprising lack of regionally-infused product marketing.

Take, for example, where I was raised. South of Buffalo, New York, at the northern edge of the Allegheny Plateau, it is a dream team of misery: lake effect snow, cold from Canada, low pressure zones born of the eastern seaboard, wind from the wide-open lakes and high terrain, and a constant splash of moisture from Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic Ocean. It’s a hell of a place to live, up on a hill scoured with nasty wind, blowing snow, frequent blizzard conditions, and epic snowfall rates off the lakes. I remember more than once driving by reference to “feel”, where I could only tell if I was on the road because the tire would leave the pavement to the shoulder, so I would correct to stay on the road, totally unable to see past the hood of the car. Add frequent power outages, wood frame housing, wild animals, a driveway almost one kilometer long, no cable television, no cell service (for the longest time), and the advent of high speed internet merely a decade ago.

Why the hell is there not regionally branded gear to conquer this misery?

I haven’t a clue. Buffalo, to my knowledge, does not manufacture, design, or market anything used to combat this kind of crap. Snowmobiles are bought out of Canada, machinery from whomever sells it, and basic tools (snow shovels) from China.

Herein lies the dichotomy: wind, cold, and life threatening conditions as found in the lake effect regions of New York are a serious minority in Europe. Normal winter in Europe does not feature these things; exceptional storms may. The average temperatures in Scandinavia are not freakishly cold; they merely sit not too far below freezing due to latitude, thus making what precipitation falls in the form of snow. If one wishes to really get frisky about comparably miserable winter weather, I suggest looking to Russia, though I had a Muscovite tell me that it was more brutal in New York than Moscow in the winter. Yet, we know the Russians as being a culture suited for the cold. Then again, they don’t produce anything other than vodka to cope….and furry hats.

So what is the point here? It probably has more to do with the weather. As I munched on my tariff-protected and brutally expensive Swiss hamburger (yes, the beef tastes better than Spain – it probably has to do with grazing on alpine grasses), I got to thinking that the dominant meteorological difference has to do with the lack of massive temperature differentials. Southwest, west, northwest, north, and sometimes south of Europe features water with temperatures that have a progressive gradient, whereas North America has a witch’s brew of ingredients: cold and dry from the northwest, warm and dry from the southwest, cold and moist from the northeast, and warm and moist from the southeast. That, coincidentally, is the reason Tornado Alley in North America is the most ferocious in the world. Europe doesn’t have the same thing going on, so it is dependent less on the direction of air movement than the presence of highs or lows. Highs and lows can move slowly at times, whereas the changing wind direction in North America brings rapid energy and moisture content changes. Europe is dependent on lift and forcing, also featuring different terrain, which creates bizarre regionalisms that do not exist in most of North America.

As for consumer products, well, it’s probably not due to some severity of weather in Europe that drives the creation and marketing of regionalized offerings. Imagine if we took all of the people in the Great Lakes, declared them a country, and left them there for 500 years. Instead of bitching about the weather followed by retirement in Florida, or the purchase of products from elsewhere to solve a present problem, in-“nation” purchases would be easier than a border crossing, forcing the development of regional products. It’s not to say that Norway’s weather is worse than Alaska, it is to say that the Norwegians have been stuck in Norway since Leif Erickson, whereas Alaskans can move to Hawaii without a problem. Eventually if someone is forced to stare at a problem long enough, they’ll find their own way to solve it.

I suppose instead of looking for Buffalonian snow shovels or the latest farm fashions from Nebraska, I should recognize that our regionalisms in America have more to do with contraband. Moonshine from the South, meth from West Virginia, pot from California, six shooters from Texas, street violence from South Chicago, Gangs of New York (ha!), political corruption from DC, hookers from Vegas….need I say more?

Vall d’Aran.

Serravilla.

South of Aigüestortes.

Refuge on the shores of an unfrozen alpine lake.

Aigüestortes.

Alpine lake that is beginning to freeze.

Aigüestortes.

Island on unfrozen alpine lake.

Lac de Mar.

Somewhere around the border of Aragón and Catalunya.


Southeastern slopes of Vallibierna.

Same thing, looking east.

Valley of Benasque.

West of the Valley of Benasque, looking northwest.

El Turbón, looking east. This peak sneers at me from Cerdanya, as it is rather high for the Pre-Pyrenees and sticks out pretty far south.

Baciero.

El Turbón.

South of Bonansa.

Panta d’Escales, Aragón in the foreground, Catalunya in the background.

Muntanya d’Adons.

Near Tremp.

On final for runway 07, La Cerdanya.

Closest thing you’re going to get to an airplane selfie.

Flight: Switzerland, France, Spain: Alps to the Pyrenees

I am running a bit behind here with the blog, the obvious fact being that the photos take place in the autumn, while it is yet late winter, and the that a few nudniks have been whining that they can’t keep track of my current exploits from the blog without having to undertake the unpleasant task of interacting with me directly. It has been a hell of a winter with additional tragedy and aggravation that I will spare getting into, though suffice it to say that my flying slowed down for a while and I will be able to catch up the timetable soon enough.

Our return to Spain was planned, as the expectation was to be in Switzerland for a few months. An epic adventure that it was, I sadly found myself leaving in advance of some incoming storms.

I had successfully flushed out initial concerns about my grandfather’s recent passing, finding myself somewhat numb during the nearly six-hour flight, focused on getting the job done, which was a success with only one fuel stop due to tailwinds. While it cost roughly 6 hours and $140 to get to Spain with the Cub, it cost $600 and 24 hours to take two trains, two taxis, a flight, a hotel shuttle, and a short walk to get back to the chalet before our departure some days later in the car. It’s funny how an old and slow airplane can beat modern public transportation at times.

Climbing out from Sion, Switzerland.

Crossing the border into France. Winds were light, so I snuck low through the pass toward Chamonix.

Rounding the bend with Mt. Blanc in the rear. Larch trees are in color.

Mt. Blanc from Megève.

Heading toward Grenoble.

Looking back at Mt. Blanc again.

Getting closer to Grenoble, with famous poor air quality in the valleys of the Pre-Alps.

Other side of Grenoble, about to see what’s on the other side of the haze.

What’s on the other side. The clouds on the horizon are over my intended fueling stop in Valence.

At least there are holes in the clouds, so I can circle down.

Valence, below the clouds.

Valence, above the clouds, after refueling.

Approaching the southeastern Massif Central. On the way from Germany to Spain, I went along the coast. On the way to Switzerland, I went right over the top of the Massif Central. This time, I wanted to ride the somewhat rugged looking edge where it begins its descent to the Mediterranean. In this case, I am showing the semi-arid nature of the place, with hills in the background. Its not terribly impressive on its own, though is a big part of weather in the South of France.

Convergence of L’Homol river (left) and Cèze River (right).

Some sort of bridge for which I am too lazy to figure out where it is.

These hills are beginning to look like east Tennessee and western North Carolina. Before someone has the panache to declare that the meth labs and moonshine operations of Appalachia are equal to French culture, I must point out that I have been preached to that the rural hinterlands south of Buffalo, New York, prodigiously near a massive garbage dump, are “similar to the Rhine Valley; that is why the Germans settled here.” Hmmm…nope. Don’t kid yourself. Appalachia, whether the Great Smokies or the northern reaches of the Allegheny Plateau, is not Europe.

Its a bit too dry and rugged now for the Great Smokies.

And then it suddenly starts looking like Wyoming or northeast Utah. 

And changes again. For this one, I do not have an American comparison. Why not just call it what it is: the western Massif Central of France?

The valley between the Pyrenees and Massif Central, where the Tramontane wind screams.

Eastern foothills of the Pyrenees. This particular knoll in the distant center was on my first flight path while escaping the Fatherland.

Sneaking over a pass into the Pyrenees. 

Entering the Val du Capcir, not far from home.

Coll de la Perche, France, about 15 minutes from landing. The forests here remind me a bit of northern Montana, only due to elevation, coverage, and the fact that they are in flat areas. Lets not get ahead of ourselves about either place as they are distinctly different.

Flight: Switzerland: A Requiem for Larch Trees

Since most people probably do not know what a larch tree is, I will explain. It is a pine tree where the needles change color in autumn, fall off, and grow back again in spring. Most pine trees are not larches; they are ultimately a minority and found in unique locations, such as the northern Rockies, and the Alps. I’ll get in to some common locations another time.

For some bizarre reason, I have had this overblown “spiritual” connection to them, if anything because they are eternally out of reach and represent that which lies over the next hill, where I currently am not. Anyhow, I had a mental note that sections of the Alps have quite a few, and I wanted to make sure I saw them.

I also had another objective on this flight. My grandfather had passed away the week prior, and I was due to take a long flight back to the Pyrenees with the Cub a week later, before our immigration allowance went kaput in Switzerland, which happened to coincide with a notorious seasonal turn in the weather. Since proper airmanship involves a continuous monitoring of one’s mental and physical health, a recent loss tied so close to aviation is something that requires controlled re-introduction, so I took this local flight in Switzerland to see how I felt, without the pressure of a six-hour flight involving three countries. Although my wife got me to agree “not to fly around Mt. Blanc” on this flight, I summarily wedged myself in a bunch of tight Swiss valleys, chasing dying pine needles and loving every second of it. In a nod to my grandfather, he never could understand why the grieving process should last more than a day, so…suck it up and get back in the plane?

Pierre Avoi

Veysonnaz, with west end of Sion runway on the right side down in the valley.

Val d’Hérémence, birthplace of European witch trials! 

Dent Blanche with some orange trees beneath it and an intrusive shadow in the middle. 

Dent de Perroc. 

Mont Collon and the deceased Glacier d’Arolla beneath it. I would not fly here in a faster aircraft as its rather tight. Glad I am not doing anything dangerous.

Bottom of the north slope of the Grande Dent de Veisivi.

Somewhere above the Rhône River valley.

Rhône River valley, filled with autumnal haze spewing forth from Lake Geneva. Sion Airport (my origin and destination) is down in the murk.

Vineyards getting in on the action.

Flight: Switzerland: Oberland, Interlaken, Grimselpass, Jungfrau

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Volume VIII: The Witch Trial, a Celebration of Human Stupidity

As promised, the “rant of all rants” …

This flight was the pinnacle of all that I could have imagined. Weather and visibility were exquisite. It was autumn in the Alps, with a “Colorado blue” sky, light fall colors, and epic terrain, flying over Interlaken and other destinations, fulfilling dreams I have had for well over a decade. Little did I know, during that very flight, my grandfather (who restored the PA-11 and is the source of my aviation inspiration) would be spending his last day at home before heading to hospice that evening and dying the next morning. I wrote a moving piece on AOPA about the flight and my history with my grandfather, the part of the story that is touching and most would like to hear. I suggest reading it here and enjoying some of the photos. I will include photos below that I did not include on the AOPA post, following my esoteric posting schema.

One may wonder why I was wandering around the Alps, having the time of my life, while my grandfather was being carted off to hospice.

This is where it gets interesting.

Sparing the mechanics of how I found out from a friend of a friend of a friend that he was dying (as opposed to hearing the news from those who occupy the family tree), one must dial the story back about a year. I called my grandparents for one of my many regular calls, and instead of the typically brusque handoff to my grandfather, my grandmother informed me:

“I don’t want to talk to you. You said something bad about the church.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You wrote something bad on that internet thing of yours.”
“I have no clue what you’re speaking of.”
“Pat told Eileen that you said something bad on that internet thing about the church.”
“Grandma, I don’t write about religion on the blog, so it’s impossible I bothered to say anything at all about the church.”
“I don’t want to talk to you. You’re an apostate.”

Little did I know that the above statement was the pre-tremor for a temporal time warp, where I would find myself transplanted to Taliban-administered Pakistan, just prior to being stoned for blasphemy.

In the ensuing month, her iPad mysteriously broke, and it was determined, as proof of my Satanism, that I conjured the Devil, from Spain, to break it from a distance. Any doubts or misinterpretations about the content of my “internet thing” were confirmed as abject practice of Satanism when I broke her “internet thing” using the power of my mind. The fact that it was taken to church authorities for an evaluation and exorcism, and they determined that it was not affected by demonic activity, meant nothing.

The thing is, my grandmother has elected a faith that is, well, rather enthusiastic about things, including an under-penalty-of-death prohibition against lying, but what else is new, that part was apparently a symbolic interpretation. In the ensuing months, I would attempt, clearly in vain, to correct this dose of craziness, and the antics for which phones would get slammed on the handset, and religiously-infused epithets would get hurled would be analogous to grandma’s fervent love for the Christ. Although church authorities blessed the iPad as free of demonic influence, this quite resourceful matriarch managed to find some church friends to impress Apple’s functionality into the service of the Lord, blocking my incoming texts. While I am not convinced of her mental equilibrium, one must give her credit for resourcefulness in waging war with the Devil.

As one could imagine, talking to my grandfather got more and more difficult, though I did the best I could. We last spoke some months before he died, for which my forensic investigation after the fact indicated that he was not feeling the greatest and likely gave up. While he didn’t support my grandmother’s…..ahem….enthusiasm, I don’t fault him, as he was literally spending the night sleeping in the same bed with a maniacal fire-breathing zealot.

It didn’t occur to me the apparent supernatural power that was in my possession until talking with someone else about the whole affair. I casually mentioned that I must be the Antichrist, for merely hearing my words would result in the conjuring of Satanic powers and the destruction of the faith of the godly. This person looked at me in horror and proceeded to undertake a confirmation that I wasn’t in cahoots with Satan, lest said individual would suffer the same fate.

It then occurred to me: just because someone else thinks I have the power of Satan…..suddenly gives me the power of Satan. This is incredible! I wish I had figured this out before, as I could have had hours of pleasure toying with their minds.

What I couldn’t get my head around during this episode was the fact that, because “Eileen said that Pat said that…” it was enough to convict a [purportedly] adored grandson of heresy, without any official proceedings. This faith is one that has a rigid sense of judicial order, for which all sins are to be confessed, categorized, and adjudicated based on severity. Literally, one person had a tryst with a sea cucumber (!!!) and it was referred to higher tribunals for evaluation (bestiality, excommunicated). Another poured honey on his nether regions and obtained a large quantity of ants to crawl around (???) for apparent pleasure (masturbation, slap on the wrist). How is it that “Pat” suddenly can send someone to eternal damnation, without any elaborate ecclesiastical proceedings?

Basically, what I had experienced with this unfortunate episode of social excommunication was a modern-day witch trial. When we start talking witch trials, then a remarkable chapter of European history opens, for which I can re-interpret my adventures here with a historical summary of abject and unintelligible hysteria, insanity, stupidity, and bloodshed. I invite you to join me on a tour of European idiocy, for which my grandmother paid memoriam to, by subjecting me to it in the 21stcentury.

It all starts with kicking the tires in the Val d’Hérémence in Switzerland. My wife and I were thinking, briefly, about living somewhere around there, and my findings on Wikipedia indicated that the first witch trials started in the 1300s in that valley, later spreading to the entire continent. We decided not to live there.

Before one begins to think that massacres are restricted to northern Europe, one must note a sign that I have seen on the French side of the border, on the Mediterranean motorway, that says “Pays du Cathars” (land of the Cathars). In the 1200s, certain lovers of Jesus (Catholics) didn’t like other lovers of Jesus (Cathars) and decided to kill them all….roughly 500,000 of them. It was particularly pernicious that the besieging forces ordained by the Vatican had difficulty discerning who in the Languedoc was Catholic and who was Cathar; thus, the policy was to kill them all and let the Lord sort it out. This holocaust took place all the way up to where we are in Cerdanya.

Now, one might presume that we can blame the French for all of this silliness. After all, the Val d’Hérémence in Switzerland is in the French speaking area, and the mass slaughter of the Cathars was mostly in France. Let’s not let the Spanish off so easily. At the Council of Lérida (64nm away, landed there in the Cub) and later the Council of Tarragona (75nm away, landed the Cub there also, terrible airport), the Catholic Church under the Aragonese monarchy made a series of determinations, based on the heresy of the Cathars, that created the structure that led to….the Spanish Inquisition.

The Spanish Inquisition had many faces, though devolved into an elongated witch trial that lasted for centuries. While there was technically a theological structure to the proceedings, accounts indicate that events differed little from my experience with my grandmother. Two neighbors might dispute, one storms off, and two hours later, a thunderstorm roars up “from that direction” and messes up the other neighbor’s vegetable patch. Wailing accusations of witchcraft to the local church, the person would be carted off for interrogation, where they would summarily be brutally tortured to extract a confession. Even though all accused witches would be executed, the confession route was a bizarre fetish, for which it was also a requirement to name co-conspirators, of which all witches apparently had. They were offered two options: confess (naming guilty accomplices) and be strangled; fail to confess and be burned at the stake, while techniques to extend life and suffering while on fire were employed. Naturally, one found that “witches” nearly unanimously had conspirators (who were then interrogated and executed – how did Europe survive?). If it were me, I’d name the jerk of a neighbor that made the accusation.

In the middle of the orgy of death in the Middle Ages, a French bishop wrote a treatise identifying the potential for a conflict of justice, as there was incentive to falsely name conspirators that may not have existed, for the sake of a more amicable death. He later confessed to witchcraft, naturally practicing his Satanism with the aid of others, and was executed.

I noticed something interesting about witches and witch trials. The witch is generally someone ugly, socially non mainstream (“cat lady”), and disliked. The accusation was absurd. The community didn’t like the person. Result? Kill him or her! Win-win for everyone (except the poor bastard that gets burned at the stake).

As history showed, the people did get sick of the vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire and theocracy, particularly after the printing press and Martin Luther showed up, the heretical act of translating the Bible into local vernacular having been committed in Germany. After all, if we give the power to the people and let them interpret the Bible, that takes the Church and its miscarriages of justice out of the picture.

Well….not quite.

Enter Münster, Germany, 1528 to 1531. In a fantastical, hilarious, absurd story, a washed-up Dutch actor turned street preacher stirs the locals into a frothing religious hysteria, fed by this newfangled document called “The Bible” (in German), formed a good old pitch fork and torch mob, and kicked out everyone from the walled city except their crazed brethren. What then results is the street preacher steals all of their money, has sex with their virgin daughters, runs naked through the streets screaming that the end is coming, and it all comes to a head in a local Armageddon, where the feudal lord’s mercenaries get completely drunk, try to storm the city, and lose to the naked lunatic street preacher, who now ends up heralded as having divine power. The feudal lord gets new armies, storms the city, nails the street preacher’s genitalia to the city gates, and everyone dies. Little did the Branch Davidians know that the first Waco, Texas raid actually took place 465 years prior.

Now, why would I bring this up?

I could refer to the masthead of the Aspen, Colorado newspaper, “If you don’t want it written, don’t let it happen” (my grandfather loved the quote when I told him about it). It’s more fun to point to a sidebar from the Münster story, as we can’t forget Mr. Luther, who was being protected by Reformationist nobility. Church authorities wanted to “speak with him,” for which his benefactors furnished abundant consternation by denying access. That was something the Church could handle except “he has a printing press!” Luther was printing pamphlets that stirred the locals into more of a religious frenzy and made the whole situation worse.

If it wasn’t bad enough that I am the Antichrist, can destroy faith with a mere look, and can conjure Satan to break iPads from a distance, I have a blog (“internet thing”). If I can eviscerate someone in literature publicly, what sane person…..never mind.

This lends to a greater philosophical question about sanity. I recently had an amusing semi-ferocious spat with a genius, and after commenting on the irrationality and senselessness of the discussion, it was proposed to me that “humans are not rational, so why should you expect anything other than this kind of issue?” After some deliberation, it is a stark realization to evaluate and accept that mankind is glutted with bizarre, irrational, seemingly insane behavior. Western culture has somehow carefully packaged our public presentation of self into socially acceptable, polite, professional, legal, and “normal” ways of interacting with one another, while crime, nearly pathological information biases, and periodic spurts of abject bloodshed burst forth, catching us by surprise…repeatedly. What is our answer? Outrage. Public displays of indignation at statements and actions that do not fit into a carefully crafted mold of socially acceptable public interaction are met with public howling….which does very little, unless you’re a politician caught in the act doing whatever is the latest thing that would result in removal from office. In fact, modern judicial systems are designed to be insulated from public pressure and political influence, expressly due to the propensity of the public to have rapidly changing senses of vengeance, punishment, and justice. Outrage is a relatively powerless response, and we continue to practice it, seemingly incapable of accepting the nature of our existence.

My grandfather frequently commented on the sheer stupidity of humanity as a whole, solving the problem as best he could by finding underpopulated counties to live in, with abundant space between him and the nearest neighbors. It was a pragmatic fact-of-the-matter that proximity to humans meant proximity to mental under endowment, and it was best solved with open space and reduction of human mass. I must say, he was on to something.

Rest in peace, grandpa.

Gordon Fisher, Sr
1931-2018

Vaudois Oberland, en route to stop in Gstaad.

Le Rubli, south of Rougemont.

Thunersee.

Interlaken.

Brienzersee.

Grimsel Hospiz & Grimselpass (2164m / 7100′).

Fietschergletscher. Glad the engine kept working, though I did swoop down and fly 500′ above the entire glacier multiple times on a previous flight. If the engine quit, well, that would have been that.

Between the Scheuchzerhorn and Oberaarhorn, over the Finsteraargletscher.

Upper Oberslchmeer, below Finsteraarjoch and Agassizhorn.

Aletschgletscher.

Aletschhorn.

Upper Aletschgletscher.

Jungfrau, from the north.

Äbeni Flue

Kanderfirn, from Morgenhorngletscher.

Somewhere beneath Blüemlisalphorn.

Descending to Gstaad again.

Vaudois Oberland, on way to Sion.

L’Argentine, before crossing the Bernese Alps to Sion.

Some sort of rock while crossing the pass.

 

 

 

Flight: Switzerland, France, Italy: Vaudois Oberland, Chablais Alps, Mont Blanc Massif

*For new blog subscribers, there are always pretty pictures at the bottom of my long-winded essays.*

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Volume VII: Spectrum of Known & Unknown vs Spectrum of Lies

So, yes, maybe “the spark has become the trend.” That which is unique, interesting, and worth pursuing, previously an outlying act, has now possibly moved into the normal, thereby ruining everything. After my previous manifesto, an ever so tiny shred of sympathetic synapses began firing, leading me to ponder why hordes of hapless fools have decided to normalize ruining my day with their selfies and vapid travelogues.

While it may appear that I have the personality of a plastic bag when around people, I do, in fact, actually speak to humans every now and then, if the person in question doesn’t have the personality of a cardboard box. What I tend to find is a combination of hopelessness at present malaise, with a glistening hope when hearing of my poorly thought out wanderings. I then get indignant, reminding them that such incompetence on my part hasn’t necessarily resulted in a better outcome, and I am told, again, that my life is a continuous orgasm. Since this conversation has happened so many times that I question my own intelligence for continuing to have it, I decided to flip things around a bit.

In a nutshell, the barista I am usually rambling to is stating that my life is better, while meaning that the ability to try new things is in itself the ticket. Sure, that which I try may or may not work, but at least you don’t have to deal with [insert banality here]. Hmmmm.. there is sociological diagnostic potential in that concept. I decided to craft a handy graphic to describe what is happening:

In a nutshell, day-to-day life is about as exciting as minimum-security prison for many people. Anything outside of the philosophical confines of such fatiguing boredom must be good simply because it’s not the misery in front of them. Actually, it can get a lot worse, just look at the third world, or talk to the billion people on earth who live in extreme poverty. But anyway, this blog is apparently about elitist, out of touch issues of superlative self-actualization amongst a world bent on crumbling against itself, so it’s time to practice the fiddle some more before Rome burns.

The question is why the unknown, particularly expatriate and travel-related unknown, becomes the default answer as a counter weight to the doldrums of suburban and middle-class imprisonment. If someone is “traveling the world,” he or she is [unbeknownst to me] in a state of ongoing auxetically climactic bliss. Enter the Scale of Lies:


The Scale of Lies is merely a chronological iteration of a similar theme, magnified in concert with the mechanisms for which humans have technologically interconnected. Our minds are associative machines; if we see a photo of people happy doing something, we assume we will be happy if we do that thing. Even worse, we often feel as though we are missing out if we fail to participate. I could throw another dimension here to confuse things: wealth as a social construct. Dating back to British aristocracy, travel as we recognize it and glorious destinations were the sole domain of the extremely wealthy, making the prospect a dream for the barista of yore. I am too young to understand how the average person, if presented with the chance in the 19thcentury to travel the world, would have felt. Would it truly have been an internal experience versus a social demonstration? Probably, though I can’t prove it. Anyhow, enter the silver screen, and now our dreams become mass marketed fantasies. Regardless of what the wealthy actually do, some of their extroverted habits, or at least the habits we know about, have become enshrined as a gold medal in the Olympics of social imitation, teaching us that the things wealth brings are the happiest things on earth, that we would be happy doing them, and our dreams should be filled with aspirations to find ourselves in that position, regardless of the soundness of our economic plans to achieve a quantity of wealth necessary to support such apparent bliss. The associative machine upstairs has now conflated the products of wealth with alleviation from insipid quotidian acedia.

The Scale of Lies shows how it gets worse. If it wasn’t bad enough that we have been duped by tinsel town, a long line of tour operators and capitalists follow behind, selling vacations, products, “experiences,” and illusions, allowing us repeated doses of illusory crack. Social media has merely inserted a coefficient in front of a continuously fermenting brew of delusion: we become the stars, showing off manicured and completely inaccurate perspectives of how happy the social media personality is doing the thing that was sold to him or her, which was learned on the silver screen, which was a product of raging jealousy at antiquated Edwardian wealth inequality.

Here is the conceptual dichotomy endemic to these scales of disinformation: would a person elect these activities, travel to these places, and take selfies in front of these monuments, if a photo had not been presented showing it as desirable beforehand? Further, if a person desired to depart their life filled with a fattening midsection while sitting in traffic in a debt-financed minivan, what plan would an average person devise, in line with their realistic income potential? Of course humans would love to have vast sums of financial resources in excess of their current position; who wouldn’t? Absent a plan to get there, why spend an allotted annual vacation hopping on a plane to act, for a brief moment, like a long dead wealthy aristocrat, merely to return to the doldrums and whine about it?

There isn’t a straight answer to the equation. In many respects, it embodies eponymous philosophies about journeys and the meaning of life. It would be useful to remove repetitive headbanging against the wall and avoid trying the one thing that is certain to not work: traveling to places completely decimated by tourist overload while expecting to discover something significant and meaningful.

Now that I got that out of the way, this flight was the day after the prior one. I was going to skip it, except the next blog post is extremely important, is a rant to top all rants, is directly tied to the flight that happens after this one, and needed to be in chronological order, so I used this flight as fodder to create chronological space before I gear up for the big one. It’s a fitting flight; after all, I took the Cub around a mountain range visited by 120,000,000 people each year and inhabited by notoriously wealthy people while bashing the concept of visiting popular places, as I wrote it while sitting in the most visited country in Europe.

Rhône River, just south of Bex, looking north.

Grand Muveran

Tête à Pierre Grept

Dent Favre

Slopes of Grand Muveran

Villars-Sur-Ollon

Lac de l’Hongrin

Montbovon

Swiss Riviera

Rhône River valley, looking SE.

Chablais Alps with Lake Geneva behind.

Les Cornettes de Bise. France on the right, Switzerland on the left.

Avoriaz, France on the left.

East of Samöens, France.

Pointe Rousse des Chambres

Le Cheval Blanc

Mt. Blanc, with Chamonix lurking below behind the rock in the foreground.

Southwest end of the Mt. Blanc Massif. Italy in the foreground, France in the background.

North side of the Massif. Back in France.

Aiguille du Midi, with Mt. Blanc to the right.

Lac d’Emosson, Switzerland

Martigny

Grand Chavalard

Haut de Cry

Flight: Switzerland, France, Italy: Spine of the Alps to Parc National des Écrins

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Volume VI: Antisocial Media

This is not a rant against social media. That would have to be written as “anti-social media.” This is, instead, “antisocial media.” For those who actually read these illustrious tomes of epic literature, one will note that I serve dishes of misanthropy, iconoclasm, self-deprecation, sardonicism, and yes, antisocial thoughts. After some dinner conversation with the person who mysteriously chose to engage in the seemingly irreversible confines of wedlock with me, the thought hit me (rudely not related to anything we were talking about): “antisocial media! I love it!”

While I can glibly prattle on about the silliness of social behaviors, there is a philosophical undercurrent that rides through life, particularly through the spirit of my isolated, society-loathing flights in the upper atmosphere. Loosely related to, and a cover for, the pursuit of meaning (I am not going there), I find a certain segment of society that is excited by the thought of finding a shortcut in the system of life. I do not mean something so banal as winning the lottery (or for hipsters, forming a startup and selling it to Google); I refer to the concept of taking a simpler shortcut, bypassing material, social, and otherwise superfluous obligations imposed upon us by social trend and finding a more immediate, freer, nuanced, interesting, and exciting way to go about life.

Therein creates the monster.

Yoga and eastern spiritual thought were cutting edge in the 60s and 70s for those looking to escape the confines of western tradition. People literally went to Asia in a time when exoticism was orders of magnitude greater than it is now, shaved their heads, and sat before gurus and monks while seeking an enlightenment, at least that which didn’t exist back home. Now? Oh hell, now everyone does yoga! Quoting one’s guru is common at a cocktail party. What happened? What was once unique became trend, and to many extents now becomes the very societal norm that one wishes to escape. Does fulfillment lie by adding yoga to a suburban commute?

So, off the antisocial individualist goes, looking for something that hasn’t been found. What is particularly confounding in our modern era is the combination of an interconnected world, cheaper air travel, growth of travel as a portion of GDP, and Instagram. What would have been found in a dusty university library in 1970 as a source of inspiration and enlightenment now spreads and trends very quickly. Where does that leave us now? I am not sure to be honest, only to say that it completely changes the character of those with the “spark” looking for a way to hack societal norms to find fulfillment by shedding anachronism and obligation. Perhaps even the “spark” has become trend, and maybe we’re completely screwed. It feels like it sometimes…..

As for the flight in question, it took place in autumn, heading from Sion down the spine of the Alps to the last peaks over 4000 meters for a project of mine. The texture was admittedly spectacular.

Charrat and Fully, Switzerland

Le Catogne

Glacier de Saleina

Tête de Ferret (foreground). Switzerland immediate foreground, Italy on leftward descending slopes, France on the ridges and over the other side.

Looking in the direction of Grand St. Bernard. Switzerland and Italy in the image.

Grande Rochère, Italy.

Mt Blanc from Italian side.

Looking toward Aosta, Italy.

Above La Joux, Italy. It gets to be a pain in the rear to find names for this stuff.

So Google has precisely no label for this glacier or the peaks above it. Its like a black hole of geographic nomenclature. If you’re anal retentive (and/or bored) and must know where it is, it is between Bonne, Italy and Montvalezan, France.

Bellecôte, France.

Google is playing hard to get. It will label the passes left and right, the refuge below, the lake on the other side, and not the peak. Its above Méribel-Mottaret, France.

Barre des Écrins

Le Vénéon river valley.

Lac du Chambon

Brèche des Grandes Rousses

Aiguilles d’Arves

Croix de Têtes, among other things.

Fine. “Above Col du Bonnet du Prêtre.”

Lac de Roselend. According to Google Maps, there is a Crédit Agricole bank branch in the middle of the water behind the dam.

Megève altiport with Mt Blanc lurking behind. Its a one way runway. No go around.

Climbing out from Megève.

Mt. Blanc.

Pointy mountains above Chamonix.

Glacier des Bossons.

About to cross into Switzerland.

Martigny, looking down the Rhône River valley toward Lake Geneva.

Grand Chavalard.

Flight: Switzerland: Flying across Switzerland

Chronicles of Existential Dread: Volume V: Pissing in the Fountain of Youth

While I spend enough time dismantling the fantasy of travel, it’s time to move on to smashing other dreams. Here in the land flowing with milk and honey, I find that the milk has gone sour and the honey is being swarmed by angry bees. The Promised Land is fatiguing.

It’s not surprising that those who market properties in various Promised Lands present a place as being superior than it is. Economic development organizations do the same thing, as do tourist boards, and in some cases, entire nations that wish to hoodwink foreigners into spending their money (and being taxed) there. The curious thing is not those to whom obvious economic benefit derives from spreading near evangelical enthusiasm about new Promised Lands; rather, it is those who fall for it themselves that presents a mystique.

I cannot claim innocence. This blog is a testament to my completely deluded notion that Germany, the Fatherland, was somehow Jerusalem. We know how that ended, with my tail between my legs as I fled like a wanted fugitive from the police into France and on to Catalunya, only to piss off the locals with my outspokenness. Well, there is that, and the fact a family member did some genetic testing and found out that, well, maybe I am a lot less German than I thought. Poland….how you’ve always enchanted me, you sexy, stubborn, cantankerous, Slavic, pierogie-laden mistress….

The thing is, I haven’t been able to go to a location and not hear someone telling me about how this location now represents the location to which Jesus, or Buddha, or anyone else superlatively divine is going to literally descend from the heavens and turn everything into gold.

I could go on about the psychodynamic motivators behind such confirmation biases, and I don’t want to. Where does that leave me? For one thing, annoyed that there are treasure maps and bread crumb trails to real estate Jerusalems in all directions. On another, my usual sardonic self. And yet curiously on another, driven to decode the rubric’s cube of life and find another way to crack the puzzle. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here is a glorious flight crossing the Swiss Alps from west to east and back, which is really quite amazing. I would say it’s the Promised Land, except the landing fees are too high.

Serre. Not the Promised Land.

Got shoved close to terrain to avoid the Swiss military, which was shooting armaments into the air. I love how neutral and peaceful Switzerland is.

Italy. Definitely not the Promised Land.

Back in Switzerland.

Italy again.

Back in Switzerland. Vadret de la Sella. Italian border is on the other side of the peak.

Piz Bernina (4049m / 13284′). My wife has a Bernina sewing machine…..

Vadret Pers (background) and Morteratschgletscher (foreground).

St. Moritz. It would be the Promised Land, had the Russians not invaded and made it the most expensive Alpine destination in the whole of the Alps!

Taking off from the highest airport in Europe. I do like the place…..

Albulapass.

Piz Ela (3339m / 10954′)

Some nice textures. Central Swiss Alps.

Switzerland then Italy then Switzerland then Italy then Switzerland again. Look at a map. It will make sense. Dufourspitze (4634m / 15203′) in the background.

Lago de Narèt, Switzerland, looking toward Italy.

Passo Della Novena, Switzerland. They speak Italian on this side, and German on the other.

Landschaftspark Binntal. Clearly I have crossed over to the dark side where German is spoken. Textures are nice.

Aletschgletscher. 

Above Brig.

Bietschhorn (3934m / 12906′). I feel like the Alps are flipping me the bird.

Joligletscher. We visited a village on the other side, they had these abominable snowman looking dolls on the shelf of a restaurant, and we asked what they were about. The guy explained that there was a legend that, back when the glacier filled the entire valley, these people from a nearby village crossed the massive glacier and killed everyone in the other village. Very nice light lunch conversation. I further find it enthralling that it is memorialized into children’s toys. The guy then changed the subject to bemoaning that the [neutral, peaceful] Swiss Parliament had just voted to allow the manufacture and export of some egregious armaments.

Getting close to where French is spoken.

That cloud is dust from a rockfall.