The adventurous, twisting and turning, and sometimes tumbling journey called life, one day, leads writer George Hruby, alone in the moment … with Napoleon Bonaparte.
In his own words ….
Sometimes, we need to become lost before we can find what we are looking for. Sometimes, we find something … that we were not even looking for. Thus, the day that I found myself alone in the rain with a man named Napoleon Bonaparte. The moment lost in time across nearly two hundred years found us both with each other in this one single moment. A moment where a 45-year-old man, but five-foot-five atop his white horse, would ride away from me to his destiny at a place called Waterloo. How could I have ever imagined such a moment … with such a man … a world icon … a legend … a tragedy.
Somehow, through circumstance, I ended up as this rolling stone …. rolling across the world. Rolling through time and lost civilizations. Somehow, the universe just kept me on this path where I have found myself alone in the moment, under extraordinary coincidences and circumstances, and; suddenly thrust into a single, intimate moment inside their lives. Lives of those that the world only knows through the pages of history books, movies, … and legends. Why it was that my lone path would be made to cross theirs in such a moment, I cannot say. But, the moment when it happens, is a sacred one between you and them … and with your very soul.
Like many living in France, my winters found me in the Alps at the ski resorts. While those with me skied, I however, ….. went walking instead. As I did not ski, I went for the enjoyment of exploring new places and experiences while my friends enjoyed their skiing.
Thus, in this one week, I found myself in a place in southeastern France called Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur. A popular ski resort up in the Alps, I spent several days discovering the old nearby village.
I found myself watching so many people enjoying skiing. The ski lifts. The restaurants and pubs. Sleigh rides. And yet, I could not but help wonder as all these sites and sounds swirled around me, the reason this small medieval village ever found its way here in the first place.
Horse sledding at Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur, France
I could not help but wonder of once-upon-a-time, a couple thousand years before, of how the Romans came across these very mountains, along a road that now laid below me on the valley floor below. Somehow, most people have not the slightest clue of such things. Perhaps most people simply are born without a flair for nostalgia? I am not one of those.
Many days here were filled with extreme cold and snow, as well as rain and fog. Clouds that were always moving fast on the winds. Indeed, if the winds broke open a hole in the dark storms that prevailed, you were allowed to see the Alps in the most magnificent and breathtaking views given under the heavens. Where the sun bathed the mountain tops in all of their glory. Where greens and blues, and grays and browns all seem to come together in one beautiful mosaic.
The Alps above La Fare-en-Champsaur, France
I enjoyed exploring the old village I was in including going in every store, market, and restaurant that was there. Exploring. And of course, seeing and studying the old medieval buildings of the village including its old market square where remnants of it still stood in the snow and rain.
Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur in the Alps, France
Every day here, I decided to take a different road leading out of the village. Walking out by myself into another adventure, I never knew where I was going or what I would see, experience, or discover.
One day for example, I wandered upward from the village. I hiked for hours on a serpentine road winding up into the mountains. I saw small clusters of houses built upon their older versions, some dating back to medieval times. Soon however, all the houses seemed to disappear. The entire hike found me in total aloneness. No cars came or went on this road. No people were seen or heard from any of the houses along the way. The silence of the white covered forest was broken by the sounds of snow falling off of tree branches, a falling pine cone, the calls of bright blue birds, and running water through crystal clear streams.
At a certain point, I saw a dirt road in the snow and slush, and decided to explore where it went. It was atop of mountain of its own. It went winding through a forest along the edge of the mountain top, revealing a large drop off the edge of the road facing outward. Completely alone, I trudged through the snow, enjoying the evergreens and once-in-a-while, and of course, the brightly colorful birds that seem to keep me company. Some had shades of bright yellow, some of bright blue, and yet others in red. Big pine cones laid all about on the ground.
Suddenly the road opened up to an opening which ended the road with a circular dead-end. And to my left was to my amazement, a small church, a small cross at the top of it, out here in the middle of nowhere. It now sat here in front of me, surrounded by a wall.
Small church in cemetery in the Alps – Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur, France
I was amazed that a cemetery could be so high up in the Alps. So high above all the villages below. Up here where the dead laid so alone. So away from the living. A part of the forest and the peaks of the Alps.
Alone, I spent time with all of them in this tiny cemetery. Walking in the snow, I visited each and every gravestone, taking in each one’s own story. Indeed, some of the gravestones dated back centuries. Back to times when things were much different then. The old were buried here as were the infants, and as were men and women of every age group. Some were married, and some not. But, all ending up right here in this lonely, quiet, peaceful, and tranquil spot on earth. Way up high here in the Alps.
Chapel and Cemetery high up in the Alps, Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur, France
Each day like this was filled with discoveries during this week. As I headed down later this day back to the village, I looked down into the valley below. I decided that my next day of exploring would be going ‘down’ the mountains, instead of up. I would explore the valley down below.
Looking from Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur across valley towards La Fare-en-Champsaur, France
On this particular day, the rain fell and the cold tried so hard to get through the clothes and jacket I wore. My wool ski cap was pulled down the sides of my head to keep my ears warm. I tried to figure out my way down the mountain from the village to the valley below among a world of white and fast moving clouds that darted through and between the buildings all around.
I was struck by seeing on street-after-street, the signatures of history in this village through stone and wood remnants of its past. Serpentine streets led me pass buildings dating back to the middle-ages, while others from the 1700’s and 1800’s; and then intermingled with modern homes in a nearby neighborhood. The side of the mountain was indeed checkered with periods of humanity that had crossed this village in the Alps through the strings of time.
The distance between Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur and La Fare-en-Champsaur was not even half-a-mile but the distance from my ski-lodge was over four miles. Taking my time however, I managed to eventually work my way down to the valley below.
I suddenly found myself standing in the middle of a bridge looking down upon the Le Drac River. With heavy snow along its banks, it flowed fast. In the rain, my plastic rain hood from my jacket was now pulled tightly over my head. I took in the majestic beauty of the Alps now on both sides of me. Even with dark gray, fast moving clouds, rain, and patches of fog, what I could see was so incredibly beautiful and breath-taking.
Getting across the bridge, I was suddenly on the other side of the river, in La Fare-en-Champsaur. The small one-street town laid to my right but I decided to walk straight up a street leading into where some of the residents of the town lived. One house had a backyard with lots of animals including a cow. Several cages contained various fowl including one with a huge rooster. It was multicolored and a giant. It was a breed of chicken I had never seen anywhere else in the world. I was amazed.
When I had seen enough of the neighborhood, I slowly wandered back down to the two lane highway called Highway-85 leading into La Fare-en-Champsaur. I decided to go walk into town and explore what stores they may have had open. It was lunch time.
I found that the highway was quiet with hardly a car going by. No people were outside at all in the rain and cold. They were all in the small town’s one opened restaurant that had swirls of steam and smoke coming from chimneys and vents atop its roof. Not one store did I find open. So ‘French’ to be closed for business at lunch time, I thought. I had seen enough.
I started walking back towards the bridge when I suddenly saw in front of me, alongside this highway, a tall, thin monument. It was on the same side of the road as the river. On its top was an eagle and in the middle, the effigy of a man and a few words written below in French. I slowly read it. It was so cold. The rain dripped off of my face as I read. Once or twice, I used my hand to wipe the water away from my eyes just so I could see, to read the words.
It was at this moment that my breath got taken away. When I was done reading, I looked down at my watch. Then I looked back up at the plaque.
You see, it was exactly 198 years earlier in 1815, on this very day, March 6th, at almost precisely this very same hour, that this particular 45 year old Corsican, standing only five-foot-five, sitting upon his white horse, had stopped exactly right in front of where I was now standing. He had just landed back in France after being exiled the year before to the island of Elba, just off of the Tuscany coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Having escaped the island on February 26th, with 700 soldiers, he landed at Golfe Juan just days before on March 1st. He was now on his way to Paris … back to reclaim what he rightly believed was his …. “France.”
Napoleon Monument at La-Fare-en-Champsaur, France – Photo Courtesy of Retro Tourisme Blog
And so, on this very day, at almost this same very hour, Napoleon Bonaparte stopped his horse exactly where I was at. It was a cold, snowing, and rainy day on and off that March 6th in 1815. Exactly as it was this very day for me. This man atop his white horse was now accompanied by nearly 1000 men. They were on a forced march to nearby Grenoble. There, they expected battle with French forces garrisoned there. It was here that the man upon his white horse decided to give his men a rest.
Trying to muster some food and warmth for his men, he would spend the day here just as I was.
Legend said that his oldest Grenidier named Gentillon, who came from this village was allowed by Napoleon to go in advance of the column so that he could meet with his peasant father and kiss him before he continued on north.
It was also said that during this day, Napoleon ventured across the river and up to the same village from where I had come. It was said that he entered the market just as it was closing. That although the mayor did not like him, the men in the village loved Napoleon and offered to ring the bell in order to help recruit more men to come fight for him.
That night, Napoleon stayed in a small lodge located up above La Farie-en-Champsaur before moving on the next morning.
I stood there in the rain along Highway-85, in front of that monument. I looked at the inn across the street thinking of the one that was there in 1815. I thought of this one street town that day so long ago. The villagers crowding around Napoleon. The column of hundreds of men marking through. Officers upon their horses. Equipment being pulled along in wagons and carts. The snow, the rain, the cold, and the fog and fast-moving clouds that seem to speed through the air.
I thought of the timeless Le Drac River that had witnessed the Romans ride by and now was witness to Napoleon on this day in 1815. I thought of what was still here …. and what was no longer. How rivers and stone prevail while humans are but spirits upon the winds of time. We are all ghosts.
I stood there and imagined this 45-year-old man upon his horse that day exactly where I was standing. If only he could have seen his future. If only he could have known this day what lay in wait for him. This man who in his early twenties, as a young military officer in the French Army, amazed all. He was a Brigadier-General by the age of twenty-four. He had fought wars his entire life. It was all that he had ever known. He became Emperor of France by 1804.
He would be at the walls of Grenoble by the next day. Instead of a battle with French soldiers there, Grenoble’s 5th Regiment gladly joined Napoleon’s march to Paris to take back the throne as its Emperor.
Painting done of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812, in his study at the Tuileries in Paris, by Jaques-Louis-David
And, although burned down later in history in 1871, he would arrive at the Tuileries Palace in Paris by March 20th , 1815. The palace had once stood across the street from where the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre now stands.
As Napoleon Bonaparte rode away from where I was standing, this same day in March of 1815, he would ride into world history and infamy just months later at the Battle of Waterloo on Sunday, June 18th with over 200,000 men. He had no idea what was coming his way on this one day …… March 6th of 1815.
As he rode out of this small one street town that day, just months later, after the Battle of Waterloo, he would be forced to abdicate his throne. He would then be exiled again. This time, to the island of St. Helena where he would spend the rest of his life until his death in May of 1821 at the age of 51.
Napoleon abdicated in Fontainebleau 4 April 1814 by Paul Delaroche
While many people may go looking for Napoleon in such places as museums, palaces, and military academies, …. for me, this is where I found him in his truest form. And for me, in a most intimate setting. Where it was just him and I on March 6th, in the rain, snow, and cold of La Fare-en-Champsaur.
I walked away in the rain that day, reminded that we are all but …. fragments of time.