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Springtime in the French Alps

by John Tarleton
April 1998

EOURRES, France — Eourres (rhymes with Eeyore) is a tiny "ecologique" village of 70 or so people located at the back end of a long, winding mountain valley in the foothills of the French Alps, 125 kilometers south of Grenoble. The road into the village peeters out a little ways past Chez Gerard Schmidt and turns into a hiking trail. The sun was shining gloriously on my first day in the valley and I followed the trail up into the mountains.

The predominant flavor in Eourres is French granola; middle-aged hippies who have settled far back into the mountains and their smiling, long-haired children. The dense stone houses with red tile roofs that they have moved into in the past 20 years are nestled against the side of Montagne de La Marre. Seen from above, Eourres is a reddish, clay-colored speck set against a strip of bright green fields and the broad, powerful mountains that thrust up out of the Earth. Criss-crossed by fast-rushing mountain streams, the valley is in fact an arid, intermountain zone that receives 300 days of sunshine per year.

"It's the sunniest place in France," one of my co-workers told me when I showed up to work on a local organic farm.

The slopes are mostly covered with scrub brush and thinly scattered pine trees. The building of the Alps began 100 million years ago when land masses from the north and south pushed in on an ancient seabed. And as the seabed folded, great ridges and valleys formed. Sweating profusely, I shed one layer of clothes after another as I billygoated the final 1,000 feet up to the summit. The Austrian and Sylvestre pines with their budding cones became shorter and thicker. One could almost feel the tension in the thick, low-lying branches as the trees braced themselves year-after-year against the wind and the cold. The trees then gave way to a few tenacious bushes and finally the desolate, yellowish grass that covers the summit (elev. 5,000 ft.) of Montagne de La Marre.

Arriving at the top, I found a carefully constructed pile of rocks and a small stone tablet with an X in the center that was marked with a mysterious inscription: IGN-1949. Pivoting on the X, I looked north to the snow-crowned High Alps. According to a local farmer, area villages still stake competing claims to having once hosted Hannibal and his elephants.

Stepping off the X, I examined the small pyramid of rocks more closely. The sun darted in and out behind harmless white clouds that the wind pushed along, and I breathed in deeply as the brisk, refreshing air blew across my bare skin. Looking amidst the rocks, I found a cluster of a half-dozen orange and black-spotted lady bugs and a tiny spider spinning a single thread.

Standing in my shorts in the brisk, early spring sunshine, it was hard to imagine that a couple of days later I would pass Good Friday crawling on my hands and knees weeding carrot beds in a greenhouse while a mournful rain pelted the plastic tarp overhead. And that by Easter Sunday everything would be covered in a white glaze while heavy gray clouds shuffled back and forth across the valley.

Still charged-up, I loped back and forth across the grassy summit; watched the mountains behind me suddenly come crashing down on the blue-domed sky when I tried doing a backward handstand; jotted some notes; put all my sweaters back on and finally sat down to wolfishly devour a half-loaf of whole wheat bread and a pungent slab of goat cheese. Contented, I curled up by the stone marker and read a few chapters from a book of essays by the pioneering French aviator Antoine St. Exupery.

Quite an afternoon!

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