FEAR OF HEIGHTS By Peter Nolan Smith

At the end of the summer in 1989 I ended my stay in Perpignan by the Spanish border and hitchhiked east to visit English friends in the Luberon.

We had a great time touring the historic valley and drinking wine throughout the before heading north into the Alps.

It was an ancient land. I survived an attack by a wild boar atop a wind-scoured plateau. My money was running out and I left to hitchhike through the Alps to Paris.

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

Neither man spoke of 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 had been rolled from the heights by Gods. The sun came out and torched my skin. Meandering goats gnawed grass to the nub and I headed into the sky.

I reached a false col. One more step brought me off the cliff. The drop was a thousand feet. I stood at the edge, overwhelmed by the desire to fly and stepped away knowing the landing was fatal.

The sun was dropping behind the western peaks. The night wasn’t far off and I descended on the narrow path to a small village in the valley.

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

The next day I hitched a ride to Bourg St, Maurice to catch a train for Paris. I turned around to gaze at the mountains. Clouds obscured their peaks. I was sad to think I might never see them again.

I liked the City of Light.

The French capitol worshipped life.

I worshipped it as well before returning to New York and winter.

After the death of my mother in 1997 I toured France with my father. She had wanted me to go to Ireland and find a woman like my sisters or aunts to marry. I would have rather flown toThailand, bit no good son can refuse a mother’s last wish.

My father and I wandered through the stately Chateaus of the Val De Loire.

We ate oysters and drank wine on the walls of the old corsair port of St. Malo.

I guided him through Versailles. He lowered his head and said, “Your mother would love this.”

“I lmow.”

Sam Royalle from London showed up unexpectedly in Paris. The Englishman had problems and France was a good place to hide from Brixton yardies. He was on the run.

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

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

I phoned the Brials in the southern city of Perpignan.

They said come on down without hesitation.

On the drive south we listened to French pop music.

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

We met them at their place in Carnet-Plage. Olivier Brial’s family was happy to see me. I reminded them of their dead son. We toasted my friend with Cote De Roussillon.

Sam excused himself to speak on a payphone.

He had called the yardies several times on the drive south.

Dr. Brial looked at the unfinished wine glass and commented, “Is there a problem?”

“Woman trouble,” I whispered to them.

“Ah,” replied the doctor and then said, “That explains everything. It is good to see you again, Mssr. 17.”

It was an old joke.

Their 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 remained a member of the extended Brial clan.

Sam was happy to hang in Carnet-Plage, a nearby beach resort on the Med.

No yardie was finding him here.

I visited Oliver’s grave twice.

My future grave was on the South Shore of Boston.

Right next to my baby brother, Michael.

Our last evening at Carnet Madame Brial cooked up sardines on a wooden fire. The fire-seared fish was washed down with a cold bottle of chilled red. 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 along the Med.

We bid adieu to the Brials. I had to return the rented car to Paris and get 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 mileage and economy was really important at the French gas pumps.

“I’m in no hurry, mate.”

The yardies back in Brixton were not waiting to hear about a tour of France. They wanted their money.

We exited the Autoroute du Sud at Avignon. Tourists packed the old papal city. 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 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 French.

I turned north of D938 and then east on D25 in the direction of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. A river the color of cloudy emeralds ran to the right of the road bordered by sheer cliffs.

“What is this place?”
p

“We are approaching the Fontaine de Vaucluse, which flows from a bottomless grotto. Supposedly it’s the fifth largest spring in the world. 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 wasn’t 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 and every note was sexy.

We turned a corner and the ruins of a religious castle nestled on a small hill across the fast-moving river. A massive limestone cliff walled the scenery and Sam shuddered in the passenger 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? We’re going into the Alps. They are much higher.”

“No, I’ll be fine.”

We parked at the end of the road and walked to the source. The summer in Provence was always dry and the water in the Font was low in the grotto.

“Come the spring and the water gushes 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 had spent the summer in Perpignan with the Brials writing a book of short stories. After typing the end I came up here to spent time with friends at Oppede-De-Vieux, a town of ruins under the cliffs. 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. My friends 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 ran out of the bushes and the mother saving you by attacking you.”

“I was a lucky man.”

“I couldn’t have walked near the cliff. As a kid in England nothing scared me more than Jimmie Stewart hanging on for dear life in VERTIGO.” Sam loved the movies.

“Just out of reach, but the real sell was Kim Novak. Hitchcock loved blondes. According to him “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up 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.

“Monaco. TO CATCH A THIEF.”

“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 on a chest-high pile before her Kensington palace.

The mourning tears could have filled the Thames.

We drove in silence listening to France-Inter on the way to Gap. I fell asleep 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.

We climbed through 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 sun set on the snowfields lying on the peaks like broken teeth. The beauty conquered his fear and Sam looked at me and said, “Magic.”

We stopped for the night in Bonneville-sur-arc, a stone village set in an alpine valley.

The hotel restaurant served trout. We ordered two plates and a two bottles 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 in Barcelona. I had visited her several times during my 1989 stay in Perpignan.

She was no Princess Grace.

She was a good dream for someone without sex.

The next morning Sam woke and joined me on the terrace.

“The Alps.”

“Nothing like it on the East Coast.”

“Nor in England.”

“Are you okay?”

“You mean my fear of heights?”

“Yes.”

Sam held up steady hands and answered, I could stand on the Golden Gate Bridge without a problem.”

“It’s six thousand miles from here.”

“I’ll be fine.”

We ate a breakfast of croissants, coffee and Calvados.

“You think you can handle a small hike.” I told him about the resistance fighters and the false pass.

“Where?”

I pointed behind me.

I downed the rest of the Calvados. It tasted of Normandie.

A flat land.

With good apples.

“I think I’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 turned to me and asked, “So now I realize this entire trip has been like reliving your 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 to relive there?”

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

In 1989 I fell in love with her upon my departure from the Luberon.

We had six month, then heartbreak.

Paris was a city made for love.

Katie.

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

And always Gussi.

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.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Yes.” I had been everywhere before.

1989. The Col d’Iseran.

On sunny day.

“It’s time for a hike.”

Sam studied the mountains.”

“You can stay here.”

“Not a chance.”

We headed up the trail.

Same as before.

Sam wasn’t scared and neither was I.

I was thinking about the elements.

Life, Mountains. Heights.

Reaching the false pass I stood at the precipice and stepped closer.

Nothing had changed, not even my urge to fly.

Sam grabbed my arm.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Sam’s body quaked earthquake mode.

“Nowhere.”

“Wrong, we’re going to Paris.”

“Paris”

I stepped back from the cliff.

“I like Paris.”

“And so do I.” Sam crawled on his hands and knees down the pass. 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 at the Hotel Louisiane.

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.

“So where should I go now?” asked Sam.

“Not back to London. You could always come with me to Ireland.”

I was renting a haunted house from the Guinness family.

“Too close to England.”

“Then get on a plane and fly to Bangkok. Stay at the Malaysia Hotel. No Yardies go there.”

“Thanks for the advice.” He slid an envelope across the table. I hoped it was dollars, but we were in France.

“And don’t come back.”

“Not a chance.”

“Maybe we’ll take a trip to the Himalayas.”

“Yardies have long memories.”

“Not a chance part two.”

“Up to you, because I have no fear of heights.”

Not in Paris, Ireland, or Tibet

2 Comments

  1. Posted April 12, 2020 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Great photo essay!! Thanks for sharing. Felt like I was there with you — which would have been blast.

  2. Posted April 12, 2020 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    I wish I had wandered with you through the Alps. Sleeping in the rough. “Gee, I don’t smell
    dirty

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