TRAVEL JOURNAL 19: THE WWI BUNKER

As soon as the tourist office was open the next day, I was in front of the desk asking about buses, anywhere, we didn’t really care as long as it was away from this place, which a quote from 1864 in my guide book called “a wretched little hamlet”.

The only bus, which was really a huge van, only takes you 4km along the flat easy part of the trail, leaving you in the middle of nowhere to hike the rest of the 11km mostly up mountain switchbacks.

It was clear we were just going to have to do it, despite the Teenager’s half serious attempts to break a leg and get airlifted out. We stocked up on more canned ravioli at the store before taking the tents down and heading to the bus just after a noisy group of four American girls camping next to us left.

The bus dropped us off at a parking lot in La Ville Des Glaciers. The Teenager had happened to notice an unusual hill from the bus, and wanted to check it out in case it was an old bunker from the war.

It WAS an old bunker. I’m not sure if we were really supposed to explore it, but it wasn’t fenced off or anything, so we wandered around it looking at the holes for machine guns until we found a heavy metal door with seven locks propped open at the bottom of the hill.

The Teenager had never been so excited about anything else on the entire trip for the whole summer. He ran back to where my dad was waiting with the packs and grabbed a weak flashlight and his phone and we creaked the door open and went inside.

The floor was paved with grooved stones and sloped down. Plaster was flaking off the damp walls, and there was litter and graffiti from decades of squatters, the earliest I saw dated from 1935. Little supply rooms and dark corridors lead off the main hall. Rose got too scared and ran out to wait for us outside.

It reminded me a little of scenes in horror movies or computer zombie games where the door suddenly slams shut and mummies start leaping out of the dark passageways at the group of people who are inexplicably stupid enough to get themselves in that kind of situation, but I didn’t say anything about it until afterwards because it was too spooky, especially with the flickering flashlight and the cell phone on 15% battery.

Around a bend past vacant supply rooms with wooden doors left hanging open, empty bunks loomed out of the darkness, opposite metal shelf hooks. We wondered about the men who had slept here – was there a conflict? Had any of them been wounded or died as they lay here in their bunks? What were their days like, the jokes, the stress, the daily tasks full of ammunition and survival?

Then I saw a half eaten box of crackers sitting on one of the bunks and realized someone might still be living here. I suggested we head back, but the Teenager was too excited.

I told him I would wait outside while he explored, but he said it was way too scary to do alone, and begged me to keep going (not sure how it was less scary with just his old mother there) so we went down a dark side passage with visions of stumbling upon a crazed homeless person in my mind.

Huge pipes were embedded in the wall, and a large room (kitchen, mess room? )opened on the right. It led up to a machine gun nest with metal rebar handles along a narrow tunnel leading up. Light was pouring down from here, and when we had clambered up we found the metal porthole-style door hanging open. We admired the view of the valley from here, a clear shot towards the only pass through the mountains.

I was all for climbing out, but the Teenager wanted to go over the whole thing, so we went back down and continued down the main passage. The floor was damp, and beads of water gathered on the ceilings inside the little storage rooms. Blooms of mold covered the debris on the floor. It ended with a latrine and a large machine gun nest built for big artillery.

Bright daylight leaked in. There were butterflies all over the wall of the tunnel here, and I carefully plucked one off the wall, entomologist style, to bring my dad. We also noticed that the pipes running along the walls were speaking tubes that led into the nest, which was able to be closed off by a sturdy metal door.

We followed all the rest of the tunnels, finding other large rooms and climbing up the metal ladders into the artillery galleries and nests, however you call them. When we got back, Rose’s curiosity got the better of her fears and she wanted to see more of the bunker. We walked down the last dark corridor to an artillery gallery, and read some of the graffiti on the walls.

On the way back, a rat ran almost over our feet and disappeared into a drain pipe. Everyone screamed and then laughed.

I brought the butterfly to my dad and he identified it as a tortoiseshell butterfly that was hibernating. He took a few pictures and released it. It was time to begin the day’s hike.

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