I love traveling and I love writing. People have often asked me why I don’t put the two together, though I do in many ways. Place has become much more significant in my work over the years and more and more I’ve found myself inspired by the places I’ve visited, coming home filled with ideas and an overwhelming desire to write.
I suppose it makes sense. Traveling, like writing, is largely the act of observing, taking note of interesting details and trying to put them in some kind of perspective. I just returned from a trip to Switzerland, and perhaps it was because the galleys for my new novel arrived the day before and I had taken them along to proofread during the trip that this time I felt not just like a traveler, but a writer who was traveling.
One of the places I visited was Zermatt, a charming town full of historic wooden houses and a church that chimes every quarter hour with a tune that sounds like the first three notes of “Three Blind Mice.” Outside is a cemetery that includes the graves of people who died in mountaineering accidents, including attempts at climbing the Matterhorn. The grave markers for these individuals often have pieces of equipment attached to them, such as ice axes, and generally specify which peak they lost their lives on. I was especially touched by those whose accidents occurred on a descent rather than an ascent. This detail was often included on the stone, an attempt by family members to show that even in the shadow of a terrible loss, their loved one had made one final significant accomplishment only shortly before, and should be remembered for this, too.
Perhaps one of the reasons I feel so compelled to write about Zermatt is that I had a previous visit there, only a short time ago. This past July, I spent several days there hiking the mountains, struck by the incredible beauty of the glaciers and the Matterhorn that appears to almost follow you from peak to peak. No matter where you are, the snow capped peak of the Matterhorn always seems to be just around the corner. In the summer there was the wonderful contrast of the snow in the not so far distance and the blue lakes and hillsides covered with wildflowers. Because of its altitude, with so much above the tree line, and the glacier created valleys that appeared almost like rivers of stone, its natural beauty was bleak at times, and harsh, a reminder of why there were so many graves outside that church.
Riding the cable car to the summit, where skiing is possible year round, I walked first through a tunnel that included a line of gurneys used to carry off the injured and then walked out into a wind that, combined with the high elevation, literally took my breath away. As I stood there for a moment allowing my body to acclimate, I wondered how anyone could ski in such a fierce area in the middle of winter and tolerate the winds in such open terrain.
With those thoughts, I’m not sure why, almost as soon as I returned home, I started making plans for a spring ski trip. Maybe it was just the understanding that in a place where skiing is possible in the summer, it’s bound to be superb in season, which it truly was. But it was also enticing to see a place that I had some familiarity with in a whole new way, and I was struck by how different the mountain looked in winter than it did in summer. Instead of the increased harshness that I expected, the coating of snow seemed to mellow the mountains, taking away the sharper edges. The sound of people everywhere enjoying themselves and, fortunately during the week I was there, non-stop clear skies and sunshine, made the winter mountains seem more peaceful rather than more foreboding.
Everywhere I looked, I kept making comparisons, trying to locate the hiking trails I had walked on before, seeing the same little villages near the bottom, but seeing them in different ways, with their coating of snow and skiers everywhere, basking in the sun. Everywhere I looked, I would see both versions, as though they existed superimposed on each other. It made everything seem alive, yet familiar, a place that I knew in more than one light. And perhaps because of that familiarity, I began developing a sense of ownership, that this was a place I knew and one where I therefore belonged.
Maybe that’s part of the appeal of travel writing, that the places we experience are vibrant and ever changing, that no two people will ever see the same places in the same way, or even the same person on two different days. The details we make note of and use to define a location become part of us, add to our own significance. Being able to describe a place and to attach meaning to those details may simply be a way of claiming a location, or even conquering it.