This, on Roman roads in the Alps.
Though the Great Saint Bernard Pass might seem cut off from the world, especially when the clouds and snow move in again and the familiar figures of the roofers have come down at the end of the day, the roads all crossed here: Celtic, Roman, Medieval, Napoleonic. Everyone came building roads.
The Veragri and Salassi, the ancient tribes of the region, made paths
and came to worship their god of the mountains, appropriately called the "most high," at the summit of the Pass. The famous Roman road-builders came through laying their measured miles of stone, and with them Claudius Caesar, out to conquor Britain and all Gaul. Charlemagne came on his own road, and on it too Pope Stephen crossed, from the Lombard kingdom into the kingdom of the Franks. Two hundred years ago last summer Napoleon mounted the Pass with 40,000 troops on the way to the battle of Marengo, with heavy ornate cannons hauled behind on sleds, along a road built to accommodate them. (Stendhal, at seventeen, was one of the 40,000. He wrote dismissively of the crossing in a letter to his sister from Milan afterwards, but by the time he wrote his autobiography, Mont Saint-Bernard had acquired a more Romantic stature in the narrative of his life, and become a "great feat." Charles Dickens wrote of crossing the Pass as well, and described the hospice and morgue, in a chapter of Little Dorritt; and in J.M.W. Turner's Swiss sketchbooks you find drawings of the monastery.)
Long after came the modern highway, bringing the bright red tour busses which blossom by day like Alpine poppies and vanish again at nightfall; closed by snow seven months of the year. And hiking trails too ascend the mountains to clouded Alpine lakes and Roman marble quarries; plummet down to villages in Switzerland or Italy—the route the seventeen-year-old American pilgrim is taking tomorrow morning, walking from Brussels to Rome in her brown cloak in constant prayer against her sister's cancer.
The bedrock is a cicatrix of half-remembered roads. But I'm fooled by what look like endless paths, in a picture I've taken, criss-crossing the summer stone. Too many paths to count. I'm told when I wonder at their number that I'm looking at the scars of avalanches. These, too, look like ways down from the mountains.
(From my creative nonfiction piece, Crossroads of the Alps, The World & I, September 2001)
image: Christie B. Cochrell, At the Temple of Jupiter