The Mapes and the Mountains

14 Sep

In this first set of Switzerland pictures by my sister-in-law, Rhonda Mapes, Barth was driving us into Switzerland from Italy and toward Bern, where we would be staying several days.  Gwynne, my oldest niece, had considered going the route that consists of a long tunnel from Italy into Switzerland, but when Barth decided not to take the tunnel, he inadvertently chose the scenic route.  He has a fear of heights and  had eight other people besides himself in the van for whom he was responsible, so he was under pressure.  At first we were driving on flat land, but then, all of the sudden, we were climbing a mountain.

During our car trip and later when I returned to the U.S., I tried to figure out why I was given such a fright.  I have driven switchbacks in the Catskills, in Pennsylvania when headed to a conference in Towson, Maryland, and in the Rockies, especially in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, but also in various National Parks.  In addition, I drove Highway 1 from Los Angeles to San Francisco during the night.   The Highway 1 drive was nerve-racking, but I couldn’t see the ocean.  The Alps are taller than the Rockies.  It’s also true that American highway engineers often try to design highways that have longer loops.  The switchbacks we experienced were unusually tight.  However, people who drive through the tunnel miss quite a lot.

 

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The pictures are beautiful, but they only suggest our height above the valley floor because of the smallness of the farm buildings.  In actuality, we were thousands of feet above the farms.  I think the railing makes the valley look closer  than it is.  Jim Gwynne could  probably explain how a painter creates the illusion of depth that the railing tends to dispel.

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At one point, Barth started to sing “Edelweiss” in an attempt at gallows humor.  Apart from Rhonda, everyone was nervous.  I was afraid to take pictures because I had the sensation that if I leaned to the left the car would be more likely to flip, although I knew intellectually that was not the case.  Gwynne, who was sitting in the front of the van, said she was pressing her foot against the floor every time we went around a bend.  Rebecca said that her worst fear occurred when we encountered fog on our way down the mountain, which was, in fact, pretty scary.  I actually can’t relate how Coleman felt because he was lost in the American West of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, by way of earphones no less. If intentional, it was definitely a smart way to depart the scene.

The view, however, was spectacular.  It is an “awful scene,” as Shelley describes it in  his famous poem about one of the Alps, Mont Blanc :

Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine—
Thou many-colour’d, many-voiced vale,
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail
Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne (12-17) .
Shelley uses “awful” in all its meanings–the viewer of the Alps has both a sense of wonder and a sense of terror when  viewing the greatness of nature in all its splendor.

 

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Barth said that he was grateful he had ordered a rental van that was standard shift, because he thought it gave him better control.  Every time he came to a bend he downshifted.  Of course, with an automatic car,  there would be a natural tendency to ride the brakes, which is definitely not as safe.

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This picture indicates a comforting scene with trees one almost feels as though one could touch.  However, a hurtling car would definitely plunge through them.  Part of what makes driving in the Alps scary is the lack of knowledge of the drivers who are coming toward you.  We tried to look ahead for oncoming cars, so Barth could pull over on the shoulder when he knew that someone was coming.

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The last two pictures suggest the depth of the view more concretely.  In the very last picture you can see the road we had covered (in the background).  The viewer immediately grasps the beauty of the stark scene, made more evident by the interplay of the dark and light clouds.

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