Sidney Haines, age 13, has been visiting the Alps with her family, the founders and owners of Alpinehikers, almost every summer since she was a baby. These are her reflections on her 2019 summer trip.
Sometimes I can’t keep up with my own mind. My thoughts remain concentrated on what’s in front of me, the task at hand, and the important things, until they don’t. I suspect that some things in this world are a little more than worldly, because when they cross my path, they have a tendency to take my mind with them. I get swept out of the present and into the torrent of the fantastical and that which lies just beyond words. I pace at the border of the possible and the imaginable and see how far into the foggy forest of the metaphysical I can go. The shape of a cloud creates dragons in the sky and a simple phrase folds in on itself and gets more complicated the more it layers. Maybe magic truly exists in these things that pull my body away from my mind, because when I’m stuck in a silly, overly-poetic fog, it feels like the closest thing to magic.
Occasionally I’ll try to find words that can describe the space in between reality and fiction, but so far, this has only ended in disappointment and a feeling of being very small. I’ve come to the conclusion that when you try to put the immaterial and fantastical into something as material and technical as language, the clashing values crumple in on themselves like a paradox in a time-travel movie. I still try, however, because my brain is wired to process things in the form of words, and each attempt brings me just close enough that I feel like I could get it right if I was just that little bit smarter. For the most part, I’ve learned to resist the urge to attempt this impossible poetry, but not always.
The less connected I feel to my surroundings, the harder it becomes to ground my mind. Take a trip I took to Europe for example. I got on a plane and sat for eight hours and ate mostly snap pea crackers and ginger ale all day. I left at two in the afternoon and it was twelve in the night and the sun was shining bright in the sky there in London. The airport I was in was larger than anything I’d ever stood in and succeeded in making me feel tiny and very, very mortal. And I had never been enjoying my own mortality more. I’d had a whole dizzy eight hours to completely disconnect from my own reality and ascend into the space between there and somewhere else entirely, and I was being suddenly jerked halfway back down by the blinding midnight sun. It burned away the weariness in my body and left me only a very empty stomach and an overflowing mind. I was completely swept away by the sudden thought that I, a small mortal, was experiencing the closest thing I ever would to magic.
Everyone wants to step into another world. They want to be hurried off to Hogwarts in a rush of excitement and discovery. They want to find magic hidden deep in their veins and expose themselves to an invisible world sitting beneath their noses. They want to see towering clockwork cities that spin with the earth and mermen with magic that bends with the tides. Golden moons and grey suns and elves that sparkle in the night are all things that are out of our reach. However, there is a completely new world that lies close to us, ten short hours away. A sleep deprived, dizzy, hungry world with a building so big it feels like it could fit all the space between earth and heaven and a sun shining in the middle of the night.
Part of the allure of a fantasy word is that it is something so completely different from our own. It’s an option to experience something outside of ourselves and our own world. And while no one on another continent shoots fireballs out of their hands or rides on a broomstick, they live so differently that it’s almost as good. No one talks the same, they use sounds and words foreign to my own mouth. Each one gives me a thrill like I’ve overheard a magical incantation. In London, things are different in small ways that feel like a wonderful little secret when you notice then, but in other parts of the world the differences only grow. At the edge of France the food is all different. In the Swiss Alps you step into mountains and fields of flowers that you’ve only seen in photographs, and they feel as foreign and fantastical as the floating islands you only read about in books. In Italy, everything feels slower. I never noticed the frantic pace of my own American society until I stepped out of it for a week. People aren’t living in a race against each other to be the strongest and smartest and prettiest and most successful. They live how they feel comfortable and they go where life leads them.
Everything was familiar but nothing was the same, and it all felt surreal and mystical and ultimately peaceful. The places my mind drifts that are in a reality of their own may be hectic and dizzy and rapid, but they are where I’m most comfortable. They feel warm and familiar and safe, even as I tread metaphorical territory that I’ve never walked into before. A city and a town I’ve never been near feel the same. The hazy mental space is the closest I’ve felt to magic, and a foreign country is that in a physical form. And in that hazy space in the airport, I got so close to putting this connection into words, and I got so close to describing the wordless form of magic and travel and another world, but in the end I had to step out of the midnight sun and back into my own body. I stepped back into my beaten leather boots and the aftertaste of snap peas and all my logic and I slipped back to reality.
It was months later when I tried to write what came to mind in London, and while it feels like a watered down, stretched thin version of what I wanted to express, I’m edging closer and closer to what I want to learn to say. I know I can never express my most abstract thoughts, but I know that this won’t be the last time I try. I may try my whole life to use words where they can’t be used and make shapes out of the shapeless, and I will never succeed, but I will find comfort in the haphazard poetic scraps I am left with and the knowledge that the limitations of a human mind will keep me here on earth. I will return on another day to the sun that shines at midnight and I will return to place beyond material, but just until then I’ll be mortal. I’ll be flawed and physical and entirely possible, yet all the more magic because of it.