Over the years I’ve learned that making plans while traveling is a futile and frustrating exercise. Connections are missed, weather changes, reservations are lost, illness happens. The only certainty in travel is that you will be surprised.
Still, sometimes I can’t help but form a plan in my head, even if I don’t voice it aloud. The day Ryan and I traveled to Great Saint Bernard Pass (GSBP) on the Swiss/Italian border my mental plan went something like this:
- Travel to the pass uneventfully using a combination of trains and busses
- Get settled in at the Hospice where we have reservations
- Seek a Halliburton-esque adventure of some sort the following day
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, that’s not at all how it went.
We were traveling to GSBP as one of my Richard Halliburton destinations. One of Richard’s greatest adventures happened there: he recreated Hannibal’s incredible invasion of Italy by riding a Parisian circus elephant named Elysabethe Dalrymple over the alpine pass. When Richard traversed the pass in 1935, GSBP was a viable candidate for where Hannibal crossed the Alps with 20,000 men, 6,000 cavalry and 27 elephants in the year 218 BC. Since then, however, GSBP has been crossed off the list, and Montgenevre Pass is now the prime candidate. If you’re curious how that was determined, read this really interesting article.
Over the preceding months I contacted every single registered elephant owner in Switzerland and northern Italy to no avail. My request to rent an elephant for a few days and ride it over a high altitude pass was met with polite but blunt refusals. Besides, even if I did manage to procure an elephant, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to ride it over the pass in good conscience, or for that matter without serious objections from the Swiss transportation authority and PETA. So, I reconciled myself to visiting the pass sans elephant.
Still, I wasn’t disheartened, and Ryan and I set off from Neuchatel in high spirits. We even stopped at Montreux again for a picnic lunch and some swimming before continuing to Martigny, changing trains for Orsieres, and catching bus to the pass.
Except that the last bus had left two hours previously. Whoops.
In our first travel fiasco together, Ryan and I were a perfect team. Without scarcely batting an eye we decided to try our luck hitchhiking, even though the guy in the train station office didn’t think it would work. After half an hour in the hot sun watching cars and trucks whizz past us without a second glance, I was starting to have doubts, too. Then, unexpectedly, a red two-door Fiat stopped in the middle of the road. We crammed ourselves and our backpacks into the tiny back seat and were whisked away by an Italian couple.
They spoke Italian, French and German, and we spoke English and Spanish, and somehow we managed to communicate. The guy driving had a herniated disk in his lower back and was on his way to a hospital in Italy. He spoke with grand hand gestures and the classic rising-falling Italian cadence that had me chuckling. In the passenger seat his wife argued with him about where to drop us off, and purred “Ah, Ferrari! Ciao!” when we passed such a car.
They left us at the division of the “old road” over the pass and the “new” (1969) tunnel that cuts straight through to Italy. As they accelerated into the darkness of the tunnel, Ryan and I emerged blinking into the bright afternoon sun. Emerald green hills rose steeply around us, and babbling brooks of clear, cold water splashed down the mountainsides. We hoisted our packs and began the 7 km walk to the pass, following the same road Richard and Elysabethe used in 1935. The adventure I sought had arrived early!
Five minutes into the hike I was positively giddy with excitement, babbling random Richard Halliburton factoids at Ryan as we trekked ever upward. “The elephant, Elysabethe, did her circus tricks in each town they passed through. Can you imagine being a little Swiss child in 1935 and having an elephant visit your town?” Ryan laughed at the thought.
“And near the top of the pass Richard and Elysabethe actually rode through a tunnel of ice. Incredible.” We were now walking along a trail that paralleled the road, and could see the old stone retaining walls that have supported the road since it was built. In my mind’s eye I saw Richard and the elephant making slow progress up the steep road, a swarm of excited children surrounding them, and a long line of cars backed up into the distance. “They created some epic traffic jams in 1935. Imagine what it would be like now!”
As the sun lowered in the sky and misty clouds swirled overhead we finally glimpsed the pass itself ahead of us. One final steep climb and we were there. The road was framed with two five-story buildings. On the right was a hotel-restaurant-shop-museum, and on the left was the Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard.
The hospice is what Richard referred to as the monastery. Nowadays the men who live there are actually canons, not monks, the difference being that canons can leave the hospice and travel around doing good deeds, whereas monks are bound to their monastery. The monks that greeted Richard in 1935 had heard from passersby that a crazy American on a French elephant was on its way, but doubtless they were still astonished when the pair actually arrived on their doorstep. They graciously allowed Elysabethe to spend the night in the stables, and Richard to stay in the monastery.
Mounting the same steps Richard used, Ryan and I entered the hospice and were greeted by a volunteer who ushered us into a communal dining room. A canon interrupted his conversation and drinks with other travelers and introduced himself as Rafael. While waiting for him to find our reservation we sipped hot sweet tea from mugs the size of cereal bowls. Ryan and I grinned at each other–this was going to be an awesome place to stay for the next two nights.
Rafael came back peering short-sightedly at the reservation book in his hands.
“I’m sorry,” he announced, “but you have no reservation!”