12th June 1901: Misty Mountain Hop

Belloc stopped walking for the day a little past Meiringen where he heard the horrid tourist traders

Today, Belloc made his way towards the Brienzergrat.

The Brienzer Grat is an extraordinary thing. it is quite straight; its summits are, of course, of different heights, but from below they seem even, like a ridge: and, indeed, the whole mountain is more like a ridge than any other I have seen…

There are no precipices on it, though there are nasty slabs quite enough to kill a man – I saw several of three or four hundred feet. It is about five or six thousand feet high, and it stands right up and along the northern shore of the lake of Brienz.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press, pp.206-7)

He began his ascent. It was already raining, and now, as he climbed the mountain, mist fell upon him. By the time he reached the peak, Belloc had – unsurprisingly – met the sum total of no one.

He met people on the other side, though; which is to say, in Brienz, but did not get on with them – no one believed he had come over the mountain.

However, they weren’t unfriendly: Belloc still managed to get people’s advice on which path he should take next – several ways were open to him, though as it turned out, even though it was now June, some were blocked due to winter weather.

In the end, Belloc decided to cross the Grimsel and Gries Passes and via the latter enter Italy. But, the best laid plans…

It was now midday. Belloc had a big lunch before setting out. He had a long way to go.

From Brienz to the top of the Grimsel is, as the crow flies, quite twenty miles, and by the road a good twenty-seven.

The Path to Rome, p.230

Early in the afternoon, he reached Meiringen. He hated it for there he found the tourist trade in full effect. The traders were

… all bawling and howling, with great placards and tickets… saying, “This way to the Extraordinary Waterfall; that way to the Strange Cave. Come with me and you shall see that never-to-be-forgotten Falls of the Aar,”

The Path to Rome, p.222

Needless to say, Belloc made no friends here.

Afternoon turned into evening. flap flap The soles of Belloc’s boots were coming loose. He stopped, not at a cobblers, but at a hotel (?) or private house (it’s not quite clear which) for a meal before moving on again. Foolishly, he declined an invitation to stay overnight. In doing so, he overworked himself; for,

… that sustaining surface which hides us in our health the abyss below the mind – I felt it growing weak and thin.

The Path to Rome, p.226

Coming off the back of yesterday’s mental stress, this is not a statement to take lightly. It’s a very true one, though. I realise this every time I feel unwell.

Presently, Belloc arrived at a new hotel. There, he took a room and was fed ‘hot rum and sugar’. He did not sleep well –

… twice that night I woke suddenly, staring at darkness. I had outworn the physical network upon which the soul depends, and I was full of terrors.

The Path to Rome, p.226

Nightmares. Fed by – ? Deeper problems than The Path to Rome explains.

11th June 1901: A Black Day

Today, Belloc walked from just before Burgdorf to an inn just before the Brienzergrat

11th June 1901 was Hilaire Belloc’s most difficult day on his pilgrimage to Rome. At the end of yesterday’s ‘entry’ in The Path to Rome, he describes how he thought he was suffering from ‘fatigue’ (Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.188) whereas it as actually ‘a deep inner exhaustion’ (Ibid).

I have read The Path to Rome several times but only really took in that line – ‘a deep inner exhaustion’ – when I read the book last year. What caused it? Is Belloc close to a nervous breakdown?

To answer the latter question first, no; if The Path to Rome is a true account of his pilgrimage, he is nowhere near it.

To answer the former question, Belloc has only been on the road for eight days, so I would rule out the stress of travelling as the cause for the exhaustion. It is more likely the symptom. To my mind, Belloc’s ‘deep inner exhaustion’ has its roots in his life before his departure from Toul.

Belloc left the inn where he had spent the night and began walking.

All that day was destined to be covered, so far as my spirit was concerned, with a motionless lethargy. Nothing seemed properly to interest or to concern me…

The Path to Rome, p.189

Part of the problem was certainly that Belloc felt intensely lonely.

I had the feeling that every one I might see would be a stranger, and that their language would be unfamiliar to me, and this, unlike most men who travel, I had never felt before… I had no room for good-fellowship. I could not sit at tables and expand the air with terrible stories of adventure, not ask about their politics, nor provoke them to laughter or sadness by my tales.

The Path to Rome, pp.189-90

As for being among strangers whose language one cannot not understand – I can relate to this. I took my first solo holiday abroad in 2002. It was to Tuscany, Italy. Upon my arrival at the hotel, I had a two hour panic attack because here I was now in a strange land surrounded by strangers whose tongue I did not speak. There was no one here to help me; I was entirely alone.

Eventually, I forced myself out of the hotel*. Belloc continued walking. He had breakfast at the Burgdorf railway station where he lamented the sight of tourists just as my friends and I did with the ‘tourist pilgrims’ at Sarria when we did the Camino this year.

[It was] a day without salt. A trudge. The air was ordinary, the colours common; men, animals, and trees indifferent. Something had stopped working.

The Path to Rome, p.193

‘Something had stopped working’. This line gives me the chills. When applied to the spirit, it seems so profound. It seems to go much beyond just feeling blue or a bit sad. Again, it takes me back to my panic attack described above, and the time I felt ‘holed’ (see post here).

Nothing went right for Belloc today. He was in a deep funk; to make matters worse, he was also let down by those around him. Case in point – a peasant asked him to hold his horse while he – the peasant – went into an inn. Belloc, being a horse lover, was happy to do so, but on the understanding that the peasant would bring him a drink. The peasant did not speak English or French so this understanding was only implicit. It was also not known, or ignored. The peasant went inside and stayed there. Belloc grew more and more irritated at being ignored; finally, he lost his temper; he gave the horse a whack and sent it galloping down the road. Now the peasant – and his his friends – came tumbling out of the inn. Belloc took hold of his staff and resumed his walk.

That evening, he was cheered up by the sight of children dancing. They gave Belloc the strength to continue walking. The weather deteriorated, however, and it began to rain. Fortunately, he was able to find a hotel, and there he stayed the night.

*I’m happy to be able to tell you that once I left the hotel, all was well. I had a brilliant holiday