On our third and final day of hiking, we decided to cut our losses. Courtney woke up with so much neck pain she could barely turn her head and I had a bad limp in my Achilles tendon. The night before, at Refuge des Mottets (a converted dairy barn), we all sat at long tables for dinner, making conversation with fellow hikers from around the world – Sweden, Israel, Japan. The sisters who owned the refuge fed sheet music into an old music box, cranking sing-along tunes that celebrated our shared diversity—culminating, naturally, with John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
We decided to cap our day at an “easy” ten miles – hiking up to Col de la Seigne, at the border with Italy, before continuing north, and stopping at La Villaise to take a bus that would bring us to Courmayeur. The sun cast a perfect shadow across the cavalcade of mountains, and we marveled at the valley of braiding streams as we entered—like smugglers, customs-less and passport-free—into Italy. It was true what our new friends had said over dinner: the only difference when we crossed the border was that passing strangers said “Bonjourno” instead of “Bonjour.” It felt weird and somewhat anticlimactic to be finishing the hike early. Still, we were proud of ourselves: 35 miles over three days in the Alps was nothing to scoff at.
In Courmayeur, we stayed at a little bed-and-breakfast run by an older Italian woman who we communicated with in Courtney’s high school French. We hadn’t reserved ahead since we didn’t plan to stay in town, but we got lucky – most of the hotels we passed were already booked up. It was a room out of an old storybook—ornate wardrobe, sink and wash basin in the room, shared bathroom with a pull-string shower cord. Outside were wooden shutters and a wrap-around balcony; we could almost see Belle walking by on the street below us, her face buried in a book.
From our balcony, we had a great view of the gelateria, where we celebrated our achievements with a double hazelnut scoop. But we could also see the finish line to the Tor des Géants, widely touted as the world’s toughest endurance trail race. Courmayeur was Tor-crazy – hotels were booked with competitors (and, in some cases, their families), local suppliers were hawking ultra gear, and nearly every shop we passed had a sign out front inviting trail-weary finishers in for a drink or a bite to eat.
We just so happened to be in town for the final days of the tenth annual race, which drew nearly 2,000 athletes from 80 countries. Competitors were tasked with a feat of athleticism so herculean as to appear inconceivable: 200 miles of running and over 78,000 feet of elevation gain over six days (though the winners finished in less than three). It made our backpacking in the Alps feel like, well, a jaunty stroll by comparison.
Every fifteen minutes or so, we could see another competitor cross the finish line, their hiking poles held as high as their spirits. Pretty soon, we didn’t have to look when we heard the sound of claps and whistles to know that someone was being overcome by an enormous sense of accomplishment. It was like a soundtrack that punctuated every moment of our day in Italy – ambling down alleyways, eating risotto dinner, recovering with cat-cow stretches on the porch. It didn’t let up even as dusk fell. And yet, I still liked to believe that in the quiet of the night, as Courtney and I lay down in bed – dreaming of our first day of non-hiking – that they were also cheering for us.