Geneva: Mont Blanc and Other Extremities

In the summer of 2007, my family spontaneously took a weekend vacation to the Worlds of Fun Amusement Park in Kansas City, Missouri. Earlier that year, my brother, then going into 7th grade, had signed up for a trip to the amusement park with our church’s youth group, but had accidently missed out when he confused the departure date for a Sunday instead of a Saturday. My parents, feeling badly for my brother (and probably needing a break from the monotony of summer in Omaha), packed all nine of us into the Ford Excursion and drove the three hours to Kansas City for two days of riding roller coasters and eating funnel cakes.

I know what you’re asking. Why is he telling me about a trip to an amusement park he went on ten years ago when he could be telling me all about Geneva, Switzerland, Mont Blanc? Don’t worry, there is a reason.

As my dad pulled the car into the parking lot at Worlds of Fun, I remember looking outside the window from my spot in the back seat and seeing the park’s biggest coaster, The Mamba. The ride towered 200+ feet above me, its riders just tipping over the first and largest hill of the ride, their gleeful screams already filling the air. For a nine-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, this was an exhilarating sight. I’d never seen anything like it. But, for some odd reason, I remember thinking to myself that I had not actually seen the Mamba—at least not yet. In order to see the Mamba in all of its majestic glory, I first needed to exit the car and then look towards the ride, as the window (perfectly clear, mind you) was obscuring me from a true view of the monstrous ride. I know, it makes no sense; but then, when did the mind of a nine-year-old ever make sense? Of course, as I hopped out of the car to take my first real look at the Mamba, it wasn’t much better than the view I had just beheld in the back seat. The same park, the same coaster, the same everything—just a teeny-tiny bit brighter than before.

I tell you this, strangely enough, because this exact memory popped into my head as I first laid my eyes on the French Alps. Yesterday morning, we all woke up from a great night’s sleep at Hotel Bel Esperance in Geneva, ate a delicious Swiss breakfast (croissants included, of course), and hopped on a bus to go see Mont Blanc. Little did we know, we first had to cross into France to do so. As we crossed the border from Switzerland into the land of cheese and wine, the magnitude of the view before us struck us all like a flash of lightning—with immediacy and tremendous force. The bus drove us directly into the valley beneath the French Alps and, as we drove further, the slopes of the mountains, at first dusted with white, began to envelope us in their beauty. Waterfalls cascaded from great heights, multitudes of pines brushed the ground with their branches full of cumulonimbus snow, and the mountain peaks stared down at us with a royal pride. I know I’m being poet and cheesy, but believe me, I have never seen anything more beautiful.

We drove through the mountains for another hour before we arrived at the ski-resort town of Chamonix (pronounced Cha-mon-nee), the clouds mystifying and obscuring the peaks above us. The entire class got off at base of one of the ski lifts and, after a short break, we took the cars up to the top of one of the mountains. As we climbed in elevation, the snow slowly rose in level and our visibility of the mountain-range around us slowly dissipated. When we finally reached the top, nothing but an obscure blanket of white and blistering snow could be seen from the cliff’s edge. We enjoyed warm beverages in a café just a short walk from the ski lift and then proceeded back outside, where Dr. Weldon upheld tradition and read both a passage from Frankenstein and the poem “Mont Blanc” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

It was as Dr. Weldon was reading that I thought of that moment in the back seat, staring at the Mamba at Worlds of Fun. In a way, I have been seeing Mount Blanc, the French Alps, London, Geneva and even Italy through a window. In reading Young Romantics, Frankenstein, and the countless excerpts, letters and poems by these men and women we are studying, I have spent the past few months preparing for this trip as a young kid in the back seat of a car, seeing these places through the window of their words.

Reading Frankenstein, I could always imagine what Mary Shelley was picturing when she wrote of Victor Frankenstein’s view of Mont Blanc:

“Soon after I entered the valley of Chamounix. This valley is more wonderful and sublime… The high and snowy mountains were its immediate boundaries; but I saw no more ruined castles and fertile fields. Immense glaciers approached the road; I heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche and marked the smoke of its passage. Mont Blanc, the supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, raised itself from the surrounding aiguilles, and its tremendous dome overlooked the valley.”

And just as I could imagine what Victor Frankenstein saw, I could pretend to feel what Percy Bysshe Shelley felt when he wrote “Mont Blanc”:

“I look on high; / Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d / The veil of life and death? Or do I lie / In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep / Spread far around and inaccessibly / Its circles? For the very spirit fails, / Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep / That vanishes among the viewless gales! / Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky, / Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene—”

But, now that I have stood in the very same “valley of Chamounix” that Mary Shelley puts Victor Frankenstein within, I have broken through that window. Now that I have seen the beauty of Mont Blanc and its surrounding peaks—“still, snowy, and serene”, just as Percy Shelley described them—I know this place to be more than just a setting in a poem. Mont Blanc and the French Alps are more than just a place where Victor Frankenstein and the Creature meet; more than a birthplace for their hatred of one another. These mountains are more than just scene of “spirits fail[ing]” and mountains “piercing the infinite sky”. These mountains are real to me. They are real to each and every person who sees them.

Unlike the Mamba at Worlds of Fun, Mont Blanc and the French Alps bested any manifestation I had of these mountains beforehand. They were not just a little bit brighter, a little bit more real. No, they were commanding. They were demanding of my attention. Quite frankly, they were frightening. As Dr. Weldon finished her readings of Frankenstein and Mount Blanc, as if by request, the sun shone, the clouds cleared away and the mountains from across the valley appeared to us. In the moment, I could do nothing but attempt to absorb the beauty that stood before me. But, looking back, I have to wonder:

Maybe the writings of Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley were not the windows through which I imagined the beauty of this place, but rather, they were the way through the windows? Maybe, by reading and understanding the words of those writers from almost 200 years ago help us see Mont Blanc, and possibly even this world, as it really is—a place of inspiration, a place where truly anything is possible, a place where words are not enough to describe.

Until next time,

Spencer

The inside of St. Pierre's Cathedral - The biggest and most beautiful place of worship in Geneva. It also acts as the first cathedral of the Christian Protestant Faith, as Geneva was the safe haven from protestants escaping Britain from the reign of Queen Mary I.
This is Frankie! He's a new statue of the Creature from Frankenstein placed in the middle of Geneva!
An early view of the French Alps from the window of the bus on the highway.
A spectacular view of the mountains across the valley from the ski lift at Chamonix
Your blogger cheesin' with the base of Mont Blanc in the background!
Dr. Weldon reading "Mont Blanc" by Percy Shelley while we stood at the edge of a cliff, staring out into the white abyss of the valley, trying to keep as warm as possible.
The sun breaking out behind the clouds and Mont Blanc coming into view just across the valley.