Travel Letters: From Chamounix, France (1866)

DEAR WILLIAM, — I write to you to-night from the foot of Mont Blanc. I do not in the least expect the letter to be worthy of the place, but here I am in the Hotel Royal. Early this morning, George Strong and I left Geneva (about which I will not tell you anything, except that the lake is one of the loveliest things on the earth), in the back boot of a big lumbering diligence, with five horses, and set our faces towards the Alps. For five broiling hours the country was tame and dull, and nothing seemed to foretell Switzerland, except the increasing number of horrid-looking people with goiters on their necks, who came with idiotic grins to beg by the coach side. About noon, the hills began to gather round us, an occasional snow patch was seen up among the clouds, now and then a waterfall came hurling itself down, and saying something in the Alpine tongue, which we hadn’t yet learned to understand. At one o’clock (I want to be exact about such an important moment in my life), we drove into the little village of St. Martin, and, turning suddenly to cross the gray, small river Arve, which had been brawling at our side all the way, the driver pulled up his five horses, and there was Mont Blanc, as vast, and grand, and white as one has dreamed of it, twelve miles off, they said, though it might as well have been twelve hundred, it seemed so unapproachable and far away, although we saw its whole outline, and the ridges in its snow, and the great black needles standing up out of the white distinctly. Well, we had a pretty good lunch at the town on the other side of the bridge, called Sallanches, and then, leaving our diligence behind, took small carriages and started for Chamounix. It was awfully hot. Our brains sizzled and steamed. I have been as hot only once or twice ; never hotter. And the snow peaks were looking down, and making cool fun of us all the time. By and by, we came to a steep hill, and had to get out and climb three miles. When we reached the top, Mont Blanc was nearer and plainer, and we could see the great glaciers running down the sides, and almost catch the sparkle of the intense white snow on top. Then the heat broke up in rain, and it poured down, first in great big Al-pine drops, and then in sheets, for the next two or three miles. When this was over, a great rainbow came, tied itself like a sash on the white shoulder of the ridge, and fell down across its white robe to its feet.

We entered the valley of Chamounix, passed along by the foot of the Glacier des Boissons, saw the Mer de Glace in the distance, crossed a lot of boisterous little streams, that came down just fresh from the great calm snow, rattled over a bridge across the Arve again, and were in the village ; secured rooms in a sort of supplement to the hotel, which is called the Crystal Palace, and found ourselves just in time for the six o’clock table d’hôte.

Chamounix as a village is principally three great hotels, with no end of little ones. All the other houses are connected in some way with Alpine tourists. It is safe to ask at any house for an alpenstock. The general appearance of the town reminds me of Gorham, only there isn’t a railway, and there is Mont Blanc. It is raining guns tonight, but my pair of big shoes, with nails in the soles, are out already for to-morrow. Meanwhile, a flash of lightning every now and then cuts across a gap, through which you can look at the snow, that has laughed at some thousands and thousands of rain-storms.

There, young man, sometimes you complain that I don’t tell you what I am doing. Look at that ! I flatter myself nobody ever made more out of a day’s ride than that ; certainly you will know at least how I got from Geneva to Chamounix.

At Geneva, I found letters, all whose burden was the great Philadelphia visit. One from you, one from father, one from Mr. Coffin, and a little slip from Fred. I am rejoiced that all went off so well, and now I depend upon hearing about the new Reverend’s future plans. Four months from today I shall be on the ocean. The Ville de Paris made a passage of nine days lately, so I think you and Robin may look for me on the 26th. Now good-by. Glory, glory, gloriation ! ten more weeks before vacation.