When I picture my experience of being at Usciolu, an experience that has several parts, I first see a small window through which only blackness is visible. The window is set in a wall of wood. The wood is marked by lines that are no doubt imposed by my imagination. These lines might be the spaces that separate log from log; they might be the patterns of a veneer. It’s the color of the wood, not the form, that clearly reveals itself. Think of the tan and red hues of certain warm sands and skins. There are only a few decorative objects in the room: photographs and a child’s inscrutable crayon drawing hang on a high-strung thread. One of the photographs features a man—not young, not old—standing at ease in a doorway. It is the 1970s or 80s, judging from the photograph’s tint and the man’s haircut and the way his jeans fit him snug in places. The image embarrasses me. I’m seated at a small table opposite the wooden wall and its little window and there is no way for me to dissociate that view of warm wood punctured by a void from the sound that accompanied it: a whooping, hollow howling. We don’t often hear such wind in New York. It’s a searching, primeval sound, the kind heard in movies and evoked in books featuring stark landscapes and existentialism. It seeks to excavate everything it touches.
Usciolu is the name of a mountain hut—a refuge, it’s called—in Corsica, the French island that nestles up to Italy and is bounded by the Ligurian Sea to the north, the Tyrrhenian to the east, and the treacherous Strait of Bonifacio to the south. The island’s west coast faces the Mediterranean Sea and I would lead with that body of water, but I’m concerned about the accumulating connotations. Just as the word Mediterranean suggests a certain resplendence, the word Corsica—Corse to the French—turns anything anyone might say about the island into a vision of sun-kissed sumptuousness, all bikinis and expensive handbags. But Corsica is not Ibiza; for one, there is no electronic music scene to speak of. There are beaches and some of those beaches are lovely, but in the interior you’ll find a desolate, alpine landscape. The music of Corsica—especially the gorgeous, polyphonic lamentu—carries the melodic calls mostly of men who sound as if they have had devastating adventures and lived to chant about them. Thirty thousand wild boar, hunted seasonally, fatten themselves on fallen chestnuts in Corsica. Napoleon Bonaparte was born there. People die from exposure and fall off mountainsides. W.G. Sebald wrote several essays about the island. One of them, “Campo Santo,” describes the Corsican belief—a belief Sebald says lasted decades after World War II—that some of the island’s people have the ability to leave their bodies at night and go hunting; in the animals they kill, these mazzeri see the countenance of someone they know, maybe a family member, and that person is then doomed to die within a year. “What lies behind this extremely bizarre superstition,” Sebald writes, “…is the awareness, arising from the family’s shared suffering of an endless series of the most painful experiences, of a shadow realm extending into the light of day, a place where, in an act of perverse violence, the fate we shall finally meet is predetermined.”
I’d begun the day—the day at the end of which I sat at a table opposite a wall and its window—at Refuge d’Asinau, about ten miles southeast of Usciolu. Refuge d’Asinau and Refuge d’Usciolu are two of sixteen publicly run refuges dotting the ridges and valleys of the Fra li monti, popularly known as the GR 20, a 110-mile trail that crawls up, down, and along the mountains that form Corsica’s scoliotic spine. Geologically speaking, the island belongs to the Alpide belt, which connects Europe’s mountains to those of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The Atlas Mountains, the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Zagros, the Karakoram, the Himalaya: they’re all part of the same geologic array. The summit of Mont Blanc, the Alps’ highest point, reaches 15,781 feet; I think of Corsica’s mountains, which top out at 8,877 feet, as the partly submerged foothills of the tremendous Continental range. They don’t take you nearly as high as the Alps, but because Corsica’s mountains are newer, they are characterized by more crags, boulders, and scree. As far as terrain goes, they are said to be among Europe’s most difficult mountains to traverse. It wasn’t until 1972, when the alpinist Michel Fabrikant waymarked the GR 20 route, that hikers without ropes could scale in relative safety the exposed pitches of some of the island’s sheerest massifs.
I’d decided to walk the trail as a farewell—a toodle-oo wrapped in a little bit of a fuck you—to my time in Europe. I’d spent the previous two years in Florence at an outpost of the American university where I teach. It had been a difficult two years. People sometimes sound surprised to hear this: having a bad time in Italy is like having a bad time in Brazil, where I also once had a bad time. The dried fish roe with butter and bucatini and the pistachio pesto and the pecorino with pear sauce—it was all, needless to say, sublime. I did, though, come to think of Italy as a country maybe too transfixed by the wonders of its own cuisine. Well. Of course I would think that. Almost everything about my life at the time just sucked. The details don’t matter: it was simply one of those lost, lonely periods of disappointment and sadness. I had the recurring vision of hungry hands wringing my heart dry of its blood. As I fell asleep, I was startled awake, as I’ve been on and off throughout my life, by the figure of a phantom spider lowering itself toward my face.
Let me say, too, that I often felt uncomfortable being a West Indian American of African, Sindhi, European, and Carib descent in Europe, the cradle of whiteness, the birthplace of the modern experience of race. If the sentences of my inner discourse were punctuated by exclamation points, I’d pepper my characterizations of Europe—of race in Europe—with them. But my inner discourse is forever punctuated by ellipses, the sentences in which I speak to myself end in unspeakable assumptions. My self-consciousness was boundless, nearly pathological, especially in Italy, where during the summer of 2013, political ralliers threw bananas at Cécile Kyenge, the country’s first cabinet minister of African descent. Consider, too, that Roberto Calderoli, a member of Italy’s senate, likened Kyenge’s features to those of an orangutan. One of Italy’s local Northern League councilmembers suggested in a Facebook post that Kyenge should be raped. And these are just three examples of the onslaught Kyenge endured during her ten months as minister of integration. It’s worth noting as well that in Italy, black soccer players are subject on a regular basis to the racist chants of people in the stands. I don’t mention all this to single out Italy as a bastion of intolerance and racism. In fact, the Kyenge incidents, if not the bigotry of soccer fans, postdate my time there. But the environment that made gross mistreatment of Kyenge possible was one I knew when I lived in Florence. And for someone whose feeling of not-belonging accompanies her everywhere she goes, someone in whom such feeling finds a place to nestle even when she is in her own city, someone who imagines herself to be persona non grata in ogni luogo, such an environment has its effects. Browsing the aisles of a shop, would I be unduly monitored? Having a chat over a glass of wine, would I be fetishized? Would I not only overhear conversations in which racism and xenophobia functioned as a kind of social currency, but also listen to others—I am difficult to place—attempt to exchange that currency with me? I would and I would and I would.
As far as Italy went, I felt most at home in Sicily. I dug the island’s cosmopolitan vibe. Corsica has some of that quality too. Its flag features la tête de Maure, the cryptic profile of a black Moor with a bandana around his head. Blackamoors—ornamental representations of people of African descent, including representations like those on the Corsican and Sardinian flags as well as any number of European coats of arms—are easily problematic. But in the case of the Corsican flag, the symbol’s obscurity mitigates the offense: Corsica’s Moor was originally a blindfolded, bejeweled woman slave whose pearls were removed and whose blindfold was turned into a headband by Pasquale Paoli, the 18th century patriot who led the island’s liberation from the Republic of Genoa and revised the symbol to suit his vision of a free, clear-sighted populace; the Moor was a lieutenant who’d been sent to kill the Corsican who’d set free a woman abducted upon the orders of one of the Kings of Aragon (the lieutenant had paid for his king’s command with his own head); the Moor was a symbol imported by Peter I of Aragon and Navarre and represented his defeat of four Moorish kings during the 11th century Battle of Alcoraz; the Moor was St. Maurice, an African patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire. If you look up la tête de Maure, you’ll see that the most touted legends—especially those attached to souvenirs—favor one of several beheaded Moor theories. I’m more partial to other hypotheses, but appreciate the island’s apparent embrace of ambiguity. No matter what theory you subscribe to, there is a black man on Corsica’s flag and he stands for self-determination and fortitude.
The Corsican expression often invoked in the island’s push for independence from France—Souvent conquise, jamais soumise—suggests, in any case, that a number of peoples have passed through. And they have and I like that. Though I know the same could be said of almost any place, there are certain places—these are often islands—where I have the sensation of feeling the flow and fusion of cultures. I can feel it in Trinidad, the island from which my family hails. There are also places where I feel no such thing: though my perception of Florence has since changed, it was for several years such a place to me—an insular city that invites the world to tour its collections, marvel at its architecture, delight in its wine and food, but absorbs into its fabric none but its own.
Corsica is just a few hours’ ferry ride away from Livorno on the Tuscan coast and I wanted to say goodbye to Europe there, on that island, in a naturally rather than socially forbidding environment. I left Florence early on a May morning. After traveling by train and taxi and ferry and bus, I arrived in the evening at Porto-Vecchio, Corsica, about thirteen miles south of the trailhead in Conca. I remember eating dinner—a rabbit stew—outside and alone in the dark at a small restaurant tucked away on one of Porto-Vecchio’s hilltop lanes, eager to go to sleep and eager to walk away from both the Continent and myself.
Refuge d’Asinau, where I’d begun the day that ended at Usciolu, was damp and surrounded by cows and their dung and run by a guardien who had the unfriendly, stringy-haired look of a man who likes heavy metal music. When I arrived at Asinau, I bought a beer from the guardien, chose a bunk, and paid about thirty euros for the beer, the bunk, an evening meal and the next morning’s breakfast, along with a loaf of bread and a can of sardines for the next day’s lunch. I should have purchased more food, but having walked for only two days thus far, my body’s needs were still unknown to me.
Dinner at Asinau was a sausage and bean stew, and some bread and sheep’s cheese. I sat where I didn’t feel I quite belonged, at the head of the table—the guardien had directed me there. A quiet couple was seated mid-table and a family took up the table’s far end: a man, two women—sisters, it seemed—and four rosy-cheeked, cheerful children ranging in age from about six to seventeen. They were a beautiful, rugged-looking family and spoke French and I told them in my halting form of the language how wonderful I thought it was that the younger children were hiking the trail. The man explained that his family lived year-round in the Swiss Alps. He offered each of us at the table some of the brandy he had carried over the ninety miles they’d walked.
A pair of young men from Antwerp sat on either side of me: Carr and Michiel. They had been seated on the hut’s patio when I arrived and had, at the time, seemed standoffish. But at the dinner table, after I shared a few words with the Swiss family, Carr and Michiel began to talk with me; at least Michiel, the one who spoke French, did. He was a cyclist, something I once was, and we shared our thoughts on a few professional racers. After the Swiss family went to sleep early in the evening, Carr, Michiel, and I stayed up a little while longer; we could hear someone snoring in the dorm room and we laughed at the sound’s omen: there might not be sleep at Asinau. As it turned out, the ronfleur—it was the man of that quiet couple seated at the dinner table—slept within a few feet of me and filled the night with his snorts and grunts. The next morning, as I prepared to leave for Usciolu, Carr, with whom I had thought I shared no language, said to me in a thickly accented English: Last night: it was a disaster. It was an endearing if terse observation and the only one Carr relayed directly to me that day.
I like to think of myself as a generous person: I don’t have money, but do you need help moving? Can I offer you my time? My energy? My love? Can I make you dinner? These are all I really have to offer and they are yours. I think of myself this way, but if I am being honest with myself, I must admit to a certain calculus. If I help you move, how long will it take before I tire of carrying boxes and resent that I’m not sure which to pick up or where to put them? If I make you dinner, will you enjoy it? Will I feel enlightened by your presence and you by mine? Will we feel connected? You don’t have to answer yes to any of these questions. I will help you move, make you dinner, love you, and so on and it will be wonderful to have done so. I’m just saying the questions are there, hovering, and they quietly compromise the spirit in which I give of myself.
What if any questions were on Michiel’s mind that morning? Only Carr, Michiel, and I were walking north; the others at Asinau had come from the north—they were near the end of the trail, the place where I’d begun. How strong is she? How fast? Will she entertain us? Will she irritate us or offer us some relief from each other? If they had known how I would slow them down, how ill-prepared I was for the climbing that day, I imagine they’d have had no questions; they’d have left Asinau before I crawled out of bed. But they did not know and Michiel suggested we walk the ten and a half miles to Usciolu together. “You should not be walking alone,” he said.
To get to Usciolu, we first had to climb Incudine, the southern base of which cradles Asinau. This was not the climb of the previous two days’ walks, which had taken me on gradual ascents past the Col de Bavella, an arresting series of enormous, copper-toned, needle-shaped crags that the 19th century British poet and painter Edward Lear once described as “doubly awful and magnificent” when viewed up close. It took just a few minutes of heading up Incudine to realize that those first two awful and magnificent days were not much. I would likely see it differently now, but back then I wouldn’t even have called the climb up Incudine a scramble. It had seemed to me a precipitous ascent, just this side of requiring ropes, and it was made especially difficult by the twenty-five pounds on my back that pulled me downward and outward when I wanted to move upward and cling to the mountainside’s boulders. The top of my pack blocked my head when I tried to look up and so my field of vision was limited. Carr and Michiel climbed in front of me, waiting to take my hand when I needed a pull. “This is dangerous,” Michiel said as we neared the top of the mountain; we had reached a twenty-or-so foot ledge about ten inches in width. “Give me your pack.” I had, by that point, lost all sense of pride in whatever physical prowess I’d imagined myself to have. I gave him my pack and walked the ledge unencumbered.
We stopped to eat lunch on our way down the other side of snow-capped Incudine. It had taken almost two hours to cover less than half a mile and Carr was worried that at the rate we progressed, we wouldn’t get to Usciolu before dark and certainly not before 6:00 pm, the hour that refuges typically serve dinner. I suggested to Michiel that the two of them go on ahead; with the climb up Incudine behind us, I could surely manage the rest of the day’s trek on my own. But he wouldn’t have it. As we walked further down Incudine, traversed grassy, stream-woven plateaus, and climbed to the Arête a Monda, the endless ridge that would lead us to Usciolu, Carr and Michiel stopped every half hour or so and waited for me to catch up to them. When I did catch up, there was only the slightest hint of annoyance on their faces.
“Have you eaten anything else?” Michiel asked at Carr’s encouragement. I was by that point out of food and had finished the two liters of water I carried. I told him I had eaten, though I hadn’t had anything since lunch about four hours earlier. When we couldn’t spot Usciolu anywhere along the arête, which stretched out before us all the way to the horizon, and I saw the length of our shadows as well as those of the boulders ahead of us, I insisted they go ahead and not stop for me anymore. There was no Usciolu in sight, but it couldn’t be far now.
The trail wove a seam from one side of the arête to the other. Each time it threaded its way over to the mountain’s eastern flank, I could see Carr and Michiel racing ahead. At one point, when the trail’s waymarks disappeared and the two weren’t sure of the safest way to proceed along the ridge, I caught up to them. But as soon as we found our bearings they again leaped ahead. Not long after that, a few small structures came into view just below the ridgeline—these I would soon learn were Usciolu’s trekker’s hut, guardien’s hut, provisions hut, and shower and toilet. I watched Carr’s and Michiel’s arrival from a distance.
The two each patted my back fifteen minutes later when I walked onto the balcony where they stood talking with several men who’d come to Usciolu from the north. Usciolu’s guardien, Rémi, leaned against the back of a patio bench, regarded me with a curiosity I first read as disdain, and smiled. He was dark-haired and brown and spoke in a slow, quiet French, one I could understand only a little more easily than the French spoken by Michiel and the Swiss family and the other people I’d encountered thus far. Rémi’s manner was so relaxed and his face so open and the balcony’s view of Incudine in the distance and the clouds approaching us at eye level were so stunning that I experienced for the first time the feeling of having arrived at exactly the place I belonged at exactly the moment I belonged there.
I owed Carr and Michiel a beer—several—and though I felt no appetite, I knew I needed to eat something. We had missed the dinner Rémi had prepared earlier in the evening, but could purchase food from him in the provisions shed. After each showering in frigid, plumbed spring water, the three of us followed Rémi from the trekkers’ hut to the provisions shed, which was stocked with dry and canned goods, as well as wild board sausage, beer, and pungent cheese. I bought a few things to eat, three beers for Michiel and me and a soda for Carr, who didn’t want a beer. Before we left the shed, Rémi invited us to return there after our meal for a glass of myrte, an eau-de-vie that his grandmother had made from myrtle leaves and berries.
We brought the food and beer to the patio and toasted each other. I thanked Carr and Michiel; had they not waited for me throughout the day, they’d have probably taken seven rather than eleven hours to get to Usciolu. Michiel waved away the acknowledgment. I downed a beer and picked at my food. It was nearly dark and we began to get cold, so we went inside to the dining area of the trekker’s hut. I passed the third beer I’d bought to Michiel and went back to the provisions shed to get another for myself.
Rémi was seated there in the shed. Before I could request another beer, he offered a glass of the myrte and, curious to know its taste, I accepted his offer. We toasted and sipped. I shivered a little and Rémi suggested we go where it was warm to finish our drinks. He led me to a hut set off from the two others, the guardien’s hut, and pulled out a chair at the table in front of the window that looked out upon blackness. He pointed out the photograph of his uncle, the image that embarrassed me. Rémi’s uncle had worked as guardien of Usciolu for nearly thirty seasons and though Rémi was now taking over the role, from time to time his uncle came up from a nearby village to resupply the station and spend a few days with the horses he kept on the mountain. I nodded, but I did not have many words for Rémi. So we sat in silence for a long time and drank the eau-de-vie de myrte and listened to the wind. The silence between us, the void visible through the small window, and the wind’s work each contributed to my belief—a belief I experienced as a fact—that there was nothing, nowhere, no one beyond that room. After a long while, Rémi remarked, with neither impertinence nor shame, that he had seen me earlier through a crack in the shower door.
I awoke late the next morning and with the slap of daylight and hunger pangs, I knew right away that the previous evening’s lovely emptiness was gone. Every muscle in my legs ached and my knees had swelled to the size of small pumpkins. My pack was there where I’d left it in the dining area of the trekker’s hut. Carr and Michiel, who I never saw again after I’d left the table the previous night to get another beer, were gone. What a ghost I must have seemed, slowing them down and then disappearing. “Don’t walk. Stay here today,” Rémi said. I sat on the balcony all day writing; the air was cold, the sun was hot. I put on and removed layers of clothing—a jacket, a vest—throughout the day, trying to find the right combination. Rémi stopped a few times to smile at my efforts. My hands and face browned in the sun.
In the early afternoon, Rémi called out to no one I could see and then pointed out a man and a mule making their way toward us along the arête. It was the man pictured in the photograph, the now wizened and white-haired uncle. Rémi introduced us and for the rest of the afternoon and evening, his uncle seemed to follow me; he stood sometimes a few feet away, sometimes at a distance, and stared. “He feels he is in love with you,” Rémi explained. And then, as if he had betrayed his uncle, he corrected himself: “You remind him of someone he loved.” As the afternoon progressed, people began to arrive from the north and the south. Usciolu became almost crowded. Rémi’s uncle asked if I would stay another few days with them. He said he would take me on his mule to a village where I could catch a train that would take me to another village twenty miles north of Usciolu and not far from the mountain trail. His eyes teared at my demurral and again early the next morning, after I knocked on the door of the guardien’s hut to say goodbye.
There’s an early Werner Herzog documentary—The Dark Glow of the Mountains—in which Herzog follows Tyrolean mountaineers Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander as they prepare to climb Gasherbrum II and then Gasherbrum I. These are mountains in the Karakorum range, which straddles Pakistan and China. The mountains are 26,361 and 26,509 feet tall, respectively. Messner and Kammerlander would be the first to climb them one peak after the other, freestyle, without returning to base camp and without oxygen. After the two accomplish their extraordinary feat, Messner tells Herzog he is done with climbing, it doesn’t matter to him any more. He instead wants to walk forever from valley to valley, across deserts and through forests, without looking back—there will be no need to look back—and without looking ahead, until the never-ending world stops. Presumably, he says, when his life ends, so will the world. Messner and I have just about nothing in common; he is an extreme mountaineer who has climbed peaks of a completely different order. But that impulse to walk until there is nothing, no perception and nothing to perceive, no past, no future, no self, nothing: I know that impulse. I’m very happy to be here with you and thank you for listening to me, but I would also be very happy to walk upstairs onto Cornelia Street, turn right onto Bleecker, and never stop.
This essay was read at New York City’s Cornelia Street Café in the spring of 2014.