FEAR OF HEIGHTS By Peter Nolan Smith

At the end of the summer in 1989 I hitchhiked north from Perpignan by the Spanish border over to the Provence to visit friends before heading north into the Alps.

Two resistance fighters in their 60s gave me a ride to Col d’Iseran. At 2,764 metres the Haut-Alpes pass is the highest mountain crossing in France. The Marquis combatants spoke of ancient battles, as their Peugeot struggled up the steep incline. Like humans the old car performed better at sea level.

Neither man spoke about Nazi reprisals.

The SS had killed civilians in the thousands.

The resistance had known the cost of freedom and France had learned that lesson as well.

The Germans abandoned France in the summer of 1944. Now they came as tourists. Same as me.

“Au revoir,” the two wished me at the pass. I waved good-bye and pulled on a sweater before setting out on a path leading up into the mountains. The sky was gray and the drops of rain dotted the dust. Autumn came early at this altitude.

The boulders along the trail were monumental. Gods had rolled them down from the heights. The sun came out and torched my skin.

I reached a false col. One more step took me off the cliff. The drop was a thousand feet. I backed off slowly with a tremble in my legs, realizing that I had a fear of heights.

The sun was lowering to the peaks in the west. The night wasn’t far off and I returned to the road by a narrow path.

I saw no people on the descent. Only goats gnawing the grass slopes to the nub.

I smelled the treeline an hour before seeing the firs. The fragrance odor of burning wood marked the return to the land of Man. The sigh of the wind disappearing with the buzz of a chainsaw.

I hitched a ride to Bourg St, Maurice. A night train was leaving for Paris. I turned around to gaze at the mountains. Clouds obscured their peaks. I was sad to think I would never see them again.

I liked the City of Light.

The French capitol had lots of life.

In 1997 I was touring France with my father. Sam Royalle showed up unexpectedly from London. The Englishman had problems and France was a good place to hide from Brixton yardies.

After dropping my father at the aeroport I said to Sam, “I have another week left before moving to the far west of Ireland and the rented car is ours for that time. What a road trip to the South of France?”

“An excellent idea. The farther from England the better.”

I played Human League DON’T YOU WANT ME BABY.

I phoned the Brials. They said come on down.

We listened to French pop music.

I loved Etienne Daho. I knew him from Paris. He was a gallant fumeur.

Olivier Brial’s family was happy to see me. We said nothing about Sam’s difficulties, although both thought that Sam seemed to be on the payphone often.

Brials commented

Women trouble.”

“Ah,” replied the doctor and then said, “That explains everything,”

I had spent a lovely holiday with them in 1982.

His son had told his father that I was the 17th ranked tennis player in the USA. I had denied Olivier’s claim, but the doctor thought I was being humble. He later learned the truth, but to this day my friends in that Catalan city called me ‘Mssr. 17’. It didn’t matter that I sucked at ‘le tennis’. A laugh was a good laugh and I remain a member of the large Brial clan.

Sam was also happy to hang in Carnet-Plage, a nearby beach resort on the Med. Madame Brials cooked up sardines on a wooden fire. His mother had a special recipe. Fire and fish followed by a cold Cote de Rousillion. We ate more than we should as drank twice as much as was good for us, but woke in the morning no worst the wear. Good food and good wine can never really hurt you.

The next day was more of the same.

Like most native of the rainy British Isles Sam Royalle loved the sun and spent long hours working on his ‘bronzage’ between lengthy long-distance phone calls to London.

“Une femme,” asked Mdme. Brial.

“Ouais.” It was a lie, but in truth everything was about world on this planet. Without them none of us would exist. I had none in my life and hadn’t for years. I played Human League’s DON’T YOU WANT ME BABY more than once a day.

Sam said nothing.

As a good friend he understood tha tI had missed love more than once.

Stephani was in Barcelona. She was married with a kid.

Candida was in Paris. We had seen spoken since 1986.

And Barbara was back in America. She lived down south with her husband. A weekend once a month was a romance. Nothing more.

After five days we said good-bye to the Brials. I had to return the rented car to Paris and gead over to Ireland. They gave us food for the road. “Reviens bien-tot.”

“I will. Promise.”

And I meant every word.

“So are we heading back to Paris?”

All of France lay before us.

“Not just yet. I have a hankering to see the Luberon Valley and the Alps. It’ll be a slight detour.” I liked driving the small Fiat Uno. It had good gas milage and economy was really important at the French gas pumps.

“I’m in no hurry, mate.”

The yardies back in Brixton were not in a mood to hear about a tour of France.

We exited the Autoroute du Sud at Avignon. The old papal city was packed with tourists admiring the medieval architecture. During the Middle Ages the enclave had been the center of knowledge in Europe and students still thronged to its university.

After a lovely lunch of steack and frites I drove along D901 to Ile-sur-la-Sorgue, a pretty market town. Sam had been a photographer. He liked taking pictures and shot me in front of a small canal.

“Are we stopping here?”

“No, I have a surprise for you. Let’s get back in the car.”

I put on the Velvet Underground CD. None of their songs were in France.

I turned north of D938 and then east on D25 in the direction of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.

“What this place?”

“The Fontaine de Vaucluse is a spring flowing from a cliff. Supposedly it’s the fifth largest spring in the world.”

The Vaucluse ran to the right of the road. The water was the color of cloudy emeralds. The hills were becoming mountains.

The Latin poet Petrarch lived here and fell in love with a young lady of birth, Laura. He wrote several famous sonnets about her and love.”

“Do you know any?”

“No.” My brain was trained in that skill, but I had memorized the highways and byways of the world on maps and through my journeys. I knew my way around the world and said, “Get ready for this.”

I put on Serge Gainsborough’s MELODIE NELSON.
Every second.
Every Note was sexy.

We turned a corner and the ruins of a religious castle sat on a small hill across the fast-moving river. A massive limestone cliff fills the background and Sam shuddered in the passsenger seat.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have a fear of heights.”

“We’re not high.” The road was wide and smooth.

“Yes, but seeing that cliff threw me for a loss.”

“You want to stop?” I recalled the incident at the fake pass above the Col d ‘Iseran. “We’re going into the Alps. They are much higher.”

“No, I’ll be fine.”

The summer in Provence was always dry and the water in the Font was low in the grotto.

“Come the spring and the water rushes over this rocks.”

“Have you swam in it?”

“Yes, but it’s cold enough to give you a stroke. Let’s go. We have a ways to go.”

After a glass of rose wine at a riverside cafe we got back in the car. I let Sam drive.

“I’ll be co-pilot.” I held a unopened map in my hand. I was familiar with this land and directed Sam up the Luberon Valley. Stray fields of lavender awaited a late harvest. In July they robed the valley with purple.

“Over there is Gordes. People drive hundreds of miles to see the charming little town.” The buildings to the north of D900 shone white in the afternoon sun.

“How do you know this road so good?”

“In 1989 I summered with friends in Oppede-De-Vieux, a town of ruins under the cliffs.”

“I think I see it.”

“I had been in Perpignan with the Brials for the summer. Writing a book of short stories. I thought I had written a masterpiece, but with my tying and grammar it ended up more a minorpiece.”

“I like your writing.” Sam had finished grammar school and then a little more of English Private schools before dropping out to pursue his fortune. I was smart enough to never care about fame.

“Thanks.” I pointed to a white gash on the northern face of the Luberon mastiff. “That’s a quarry. I almost threw myself off the edge in 1989.”

“Why?” Sam glanced at the drop and shivered at its height.

“After finishing that book I experienced a down. Like giving birth. I was staying with friends. They had family. I had no one. I thought ‘what’s the use?’ and climbed to the plateau.

I could see the Rhone River, the Mediterranean, and the Alps. It seemed like the right time. I walked toward the cliff….”

“I’ve heard this story before. A baby pig runs out of the bushes and the mother charges you saving you from suicide.”

“Not really. I had suffered an attack of ‘vertige’.”

“Vertigo like the Hitchcock movie?”


“As a kid in England nothing scared me more than Jimmie Stewart hanging on for dear life.” Sam loved the movies.

“Just out of reach, but the real sell was Kim Novak. Hitchcock love blondes. According to him blondes made the best victims like virgin snow only showing the bloody footprints.”

“Eve St. Marie in THE BIRDS.

“Grace Kelly.” Sam spoke the dead princess consort’s name with reverence. She had died in a car crash over seventeen years ago. Her daughter Stephanie survived the accident. She was no Grace.


“And Princess Diana.”

The woman who might have been queen had died in a car crash in Paris.

Less than a month ago.

Sam and I had laid flowers before her Kensington palace. The pile was chest high. The mourning tears could have filled the Thames.

We drove in silence listening to France-Inter on the way to Gap. I fell asleep most of the way and awoke on Route 85.

“The emperor traveled this way to Waterloo.”

“Which he lost to Wellington.”

“Thanks to the Irish and the Scots.”

Over a third of the Duke’s army was Irish.

“Fuck off. We Brits did all the fighting.”

Even to this day the Brits don’t admit a debt, but Sam was a friend. He always saw right in the end.

We drove though the foothills of the Alps. The radio station faded in and out. I liked these mountains. Some of them were over 12,000 feet high. The sunset sun set on the snow fields lying like broken teeth. Sam looked at me and said, “Magic.”

Our fear of heights was conquered by the beauty.

We stopped the night in Bonneville-sur-arc.

The hotel restaurant served trout. We ordered them and a bottle of white wine.

Arriving in our rooms I opened the windows. The mountains glowed with the moon. I lay bed and mumbled, Magic.”

That night I dreamed of Stephania.

She was no Princess Grace.

She was real. It was a good dream for one without sex.

The next morning Sam woke and joined on the small terrace.
“The Alps.”

“Nothing like it on the East Coast.”

“Nor in England.”

“Are you okay?”

“You mean my fear of heights?”


“And your fear of heights?”

The Golden Gate bridge was on the other side of the world and Sam answered, “None.”

We had a breakfast of croissants, coffee and Calvados.

“You think you can handle a small hike. I did it in 1989.” I told him aboiut the resistnce fighters and the false pass.


I pointed behind me.

My Calvados tasted of Normandie.

A flat land.

With good apples.

“I think it’ll be okay.”

I ordered the l’addition from the waiter. The bill came to 40 francs.

Less than $3 each.

We had another Calva before hitting the road.

On the way up D902 Same tuned to me and asked, “So now I realize this entire trip has been like reliving the past again.”

“Not at all.” I was good at lying to myself. Most people were.

“Perpignan, the Alpes, and then Paris. What do you want o relive there?”

I had never told him about Auggie. She was secret and I said, “Just drive.”

In 1989 I fell in love with her.


It’s a city made for love.


Karine was from Avignon, Why hadn’t I called her?

And Gussie.

My life was meaningless. Bob Dylan’s DON’T THINK TWICE was playing on the radio.

Every word was as familiar as the road.

My mind was talking to itself.

It wasn’t saying good things.

“Stop here.”

Sam was right. I had been here before. I had been everywhere before.

Col d’Iseran.

On sunny day.

Sam didn’t care about the telephone.

I didn’t question my lost lives.

We headed up the trail.

Same as before.

Sam wasn’t scared,. Neither was I.

We headed up the path.

I wasn’t thinking right.

Life, Mountains. Heights.

I stood at the precipice and stepped closer.
Nothing had changed.

Sam grabbed my arm.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Sam’s body was in earthquake mode.


“Wrong, we’re going to Paris.”


The word was magic and I stepped back from the cliff.

“I like Paris.”

“And so do I.” Sam crawled on his hands and knees back to the car. At the car he regained his breath.

“You okay?

“Yes, you?”

I nodded and handed him the key, then we drove through the night to the City of Light.

Nothing was tall in Paris other than the Eiffel Tower and we both felt safe in our Hotel.

Even on the fourth floor.

Because Paris offered life and we knew just the bar to make that happen.

The Cafe le Flore.

Wine, women, and Welsh Rarebit.

And best of all it would never be the Alps.

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