Mama always said not to take a drink from a stranger. I think she had 45 proof alcohol in mind. But I don’t think she had Claudius in mind.
Claudius is the keeper of the Refuge de Chavan. His personality fits the name. I guess seven years of maintaining a refuge chateau in the middle of the French Alps probably has a way of either confirming or creating a personality of refuge.
The Chateau sits at the top of a hell-bent climb. 800 meters up sounds so different than 2600 feet up, but feels no different on the legs that are climbing up the rock-strewn path (that, incidentally, turned into a rock-laden stream on the way back down since the snow was melting off).
Just as you clamber past the rocks and the snow, right when you’re ready to call it a day, you climb out of the tree line, enter the bowl amidst the mountains, see the peaks you’ve been working towards, and turn happier feet towards the refuge of a cabin with some tables out front for the hungry hiker and some friendly French faces sharing the trail.
One of our favorite things to hear as we travel is “are you lost?” because it means that we’re off the beaten path, that tourists don’t-come-round-these-parts-too-often. Good, we hate feeling like tourists. The three French hikers asked us that precise question as their broken English and our Joey-esque French was exchanged.
No, not lost. Staying at a friend’s cabin in La Cheverie, near Lake Vallon – a tiny locals hideaway that serves as a ski town in the winter and hiking wonderland by summer. We were there in the middle of both, as our hike involved quite a bit of snow.
From the Chateau, we followed the three frenchmen up a steep, snowy embankment to a ridge that allowed us to see down the valley to the other side, and to the beginning of the Alps range.
Without snow shoes, it became time for us to turn around, which involved side-stepping/sliding back down the snow to catch our breath again at the Refuge de Chavan before continuing.
Claudius came outside to greet us amidst our feast of apples and cheese. He explained – via hand gestures and broken English – that he’d lived there for seven years, winters included. And in the winter, the snow would sometimes cover his roof. He would then go in and out of his home by way of the skylight, some thirteen feet above us. Food and firewood were stock-piled for winter, and he said that men from La Cheverie would ski in with bread from time to time.
Amazing. A life like that. Interrupted only by occasional passersby. I sat there and tried to imagine it. I saw my husband’s eyes sparkle at the thought. I wonder – would I find or lose sanity?
Claudius then brought out some “prune de montagne” in a clear green glass bottle with some alpen flowers adorning its side, and little clay shot glasses. “To warm the heart”. Well, I was ready for anything that wanted to warm my heart, my hands, my nose, my ears. Bring it.
“Oofta!” was all that escaped my lips as I downed the amber liquid. Jason and Claudius both enjoyed the quick intake of small breaths that followed. But oh did it warm. My ears, my throat, my chest, and most certainly my heart.
Refuge de Chavan. Is it the man, the mountain, or the 45 proof alcohol that provides such refuge? Perhaps a little of all three.
Mama always said not to accept a drink from a stranger. But I don’t think she had Claudius in mind.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mama! And don’t worry, I follow almost all your other advice!