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.


South of Aigüestortes.

Refuge on the shores of an unfrozen alpine lake.


Alpine lake that is beginning to freeze.


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.


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.