Saturday, 7 January 2012

Winter's Bone

There’s a farmhouse on the road through Villard Haut, tucked into a tight little corner of the road. It’s so far up that it looks down like a royal butler on Seignus, the highest settlement on the other side of the valley. I’m pretty sure it’s the last building on the way up the mountain.

This is one of those broken-down, added-to French mountain buildings where it’s hard to see where the habitable bits begin or end. Corrugated iron roofs, drunken walls with holes in, a large barking dog tied to a rope, incongruous lace curtains in a couple of windows, a snowmobile from about the time Jimmy Carter entered the White House. There are doors everywhere, but it’s not clear which one you’d knock on. First sight, Emma nailed it: Winter’s Bone.

This afternoon I wound my way up through St Brigitte in the van, toward the pull-in where you can park and walk into the mountains. On to Villard Bas, then a second-gear creep into Villard Haute. When I rode up here on a road bike on New Year’s Day, the road was clear enough for narrow tyres. There’s been a little snow since then, but really just windblown flocante.

Round the bend at Winter’s Bone, suddenly there’s thick, packed-down snow on the road. You can usually roll over this, especially with a two-tonne van bearing down on the tyres. Keep the gas pedal steady, and we seem good. Then the tyres start to spin a bit. OK – still moving forward. Then not.

It’s a strange sensation when something that normally does one thing – in this case, pressing on the gas pedal to move forward – apparently begins to produce an opposite effect. Suddenly two tonnes of van doesn’t seem such a great thing. Take a moment to reflect that the thing that was helping me by pressing the tyres down, gravity, is now the enemy. We slide back down what suddenly looks like a very steep, curved road, with a nasty, expensive, and possibly painful bang at the end.

A bit of brake pedal, a bit of handbrake – somehow movement eases, then stops. OK, good, think. Snow chains in the back. Foot off the brake pedal, and the van starts to slide again. Not good.

Sit with my foot back on the brake pedal, paralysed by stupidity and slow-wittedness for a moment. Shift into first gear, turn off the engine – thinking that I’m royally fucked if this doesn’t work, because the brakes are servo and I won’t get started again before we hit terminal velocity – and lift the clutch. Success: the front wheels lock. If you can call being precariously parked on an ice sheet in the middle of a road to nowhere success.

Scared, cold fingers make slow work of the anyway-laborious job of getting the chains on. Every second, I expect the van to skid back over my hand/arm/leg. Obviously the fact that I’m typing this demonstrates that a) it didn’t and b) the road home was successfully driven. “Chill out in the mountains,” they said, “it’s the most relaxing place.” Pah.

As I roll back past Winter’s Bone, a man who could be any age between 45 and 70 waits on a balcony. His sweater has holes in it, the baggy trousers he’s wearing were once some sort of grey colour. He’s trained a couple of strands of lank hair over a bare pate: people do have standards, even up here in the mountains. He’s been watching the whole thing.

I look over; he raises his beer bottle and nods.

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