Once we’re in our bunks upstairs, I pull out my embossed leather journal. A dried flower falls out, conjuring the Italian hillside where Pete presented it to me. The entry, dated July 17, 1979, reads, We drank from a crystal stream, smelled the wildflowers and lied [sic] in the grass for hours and I knew, really knew in my heart, things I never knew before: I want to have children, I really love my home and that living near my parents would be really fantastic . . .
Who wrote that? I love children, but, discovering how much I loved traveling and my work, first in film and then as a writer, I chose to stick with being an aunt, not a mother. I don’t regret that, but I also know I’ve missed something wonderful. I do regret that my parents don’t live near me in New York City—but not that I don’t live near their home in suburban Detroit, where I grew up. I close the journal, a little wistful about paths not taken, and look up at the bunk over mine. I wonder what my niece’s life will be like and if she’s having a good time on this trip. As if to answer my thoughts, Ava’s blond hair cascades from the bunk and she whispers, “Hey, tomorrow we cross into Italy!”
Seven valleys, 400 summits and more than 40 bluish-white glaciers make the Tour du Mont Blanc one of the most splendid and popular hikes in Europe. In 1979, we didn’t meet any other Americans on our hutte-to-hutte trek, which made us feel thrillingly far from home. Today, on a grassy slope, as Ava and I eat a picnic lunch of local cheese, saucisson and fruit, we meet a group from New York that includes a woman who ran a MORE marathon and another whose friend teaches at Ava’s high school. The world’s gotten much smaller. And harder to escape, as the occasional annoying chirp of a cell phone reminds me.
But a few hours east, at the Col de la Seigne, there is nothing twenty-first century about the high, windswept border crossing: no customs, no authorities, no flags, only a humble granite brick stuck in the boot-flattened earth with an F (for France) on one side and an I (for Italy) on the other. Too bad all borders can’t be this open—and astonishingly beautiful. At this pass, 8,255 feet up, we’re sitting on top of the world, and the dark green, blue and spiky mountains look like the white-capped waves of an infinite, stormy sea. Mont Blanc’s personality has changed too: From Chamonix, it was serene and regal; now it’s wilder, more volcanic, especially compared with the vast, verdant Vallon de la Lée Blanche below.
“Do you see that col?” Florence says. Our eyes follow her pole to the end of the valley where a saddle, or pass, appears between two skyscraping peaks. “That’s the Grand Col Ferret, where we’ll cross into Switzerland. We’ll be there in two days.”
“Four,” Ava says, “unless my aunt starts walking faster.”
“I can’t walk fast and impart wisdom at the same time,” I say. This threat makes Ava run down the ravine toward the sound of cowbells clanging in the high pastures of the Val Veni. By the time I catch up with her, skidding down scree and slate chips, my left knee has had enough. Huge dairy cows plod alongside us and I think, gosh, too bad you can’t ride a cow. Downhill is harder than it was when I last walked this path. But Ava loves it. She’d like it to be all downhill.
“That would be boring,” I begin, as we step inside our night’s lodge, welcomed by the onion and garlic steam from spaghetti Bolognese. “It’s the uphills in life that make the downhills feel so sweet.” She doesn’t buy it.
I freeze. Utterly unchanged, the dining room of the Rifugio Elisabetta is a portal to 1979: There I am with puffy cheeks and a bad perm, sitting at the long table with the red-checkered tablecloth, next to Pete, writing in my journal: I feel so at ease and at home in these mountains. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m definitely not a city girl.