Grand Prize Gold Winner: Headlights

By Marcia DeSanctis

There was danger, even in the presence of angels.

February is not the ideal time for a road trip to northern France, but the moodiness of the sea, wind, and sky appeals to a certain breed of loner like me, drawn to the echoing voids of the off-season. Coastal Normandy is famous for its dramatic weather, and in winter, it grows wilder still, with thrashing winds and squalls of frozen sleet that churn up from the English Channel. The region is a sweep of battlegrounds and fortified castles, stone-cold Norman abbeys, and craggy ports that have hosted centuries of departing and returning soldiers. Here, God and war forge their strange alliance, as they often do, and the backdrop of tempests, tides, and occasional shards of sunlight render it fertile ground for ghosts and their keepers.

I had endeavored to Mont St. Michel to seek some perfect solitude. One night was all I could spare for a brief reconciliation between me and my universe, an instant quelling of the racing brain. I had always wanted to spend a night in the small village beneath the monastery and the dead of winter seemed an ideal time to do it—with the theatrical weather but without swarms of visitors filing into the one narrow street. I hoped, just for a spell, to experience the abbey as the pilgrims had, in this place that brings such wonder to the eye that only heavenly devotion and fear of hell could have conceived it. Over a thousand years ago, men had achieved the near impossible and built a church atop a 276-foot granite rock in the middle of a bay slashed by monster tides and some of the fiercest currents on earth.

To get there, let alone ferry construction materials on their backs, meant to brave wind, fog, quicksand, and a rushing sea. Later, pilgrims were obliged to wait for low tide to cross over to Mont St. Michel, but there was always risk, one the faithful were willing to take. By the time they arrived to commune in silence with the resident monks, they had already weeded themselves out and proven their piety along with their mettle.

I suppose I sought some clue of the divine here, as well. In France, I often venture into the dusky wombs of cathedrals, basilicas, and rural parishes. While inside these limestone temples, I look for proof of the almighty (signs anyway) and the wisdom of saints. In Europe, crosses loom over every village, admonishing me with very little subtlety of what I can never really abandon. I’m a committed former Catholic, but the church I was born into and raised in still whispers to me daily. It is a firm, plaintive voice that offers one truth: This is who you are. 

I’m not brave enough to have renounced my religion outright. Instead, I chucked it aside. Sunday school did an excellent job of teaching me everything and everyone I was meant to fear. But not long after my confirmation, I began to crave adventure with boys—a definite no-no with the nuns. Soon word sunk in that women were outcasts in the church and the Pope was okay with that. Eventually, I learned that some of the priests in my native Boston might be criminals. I slipped away, stopped going to mass. All that I absorbed from catechism—guilt, sin, purgatory, mercy, the promise of heaven and intense dread of the alternative—still unwittingly shapes my life.

Most of the time when I enter a church, once I cross myself at the holy water font, the outline of faith emerges, as if this ancient gesture tracing out a crucifix on my head and chest offers entry not just to a place of worship but also to comfort and certainty. When I’m in a pew, the sacred space above me intuits my secrets, listens to and forgives them all. For what if not salvation would the ancients construct these elaborate structures, embellish them with statuary and stories told in colored glass? It is safer to believe, and in a church, I do.  And then, it dissipates as soon as I exit from sanctuary to sunlight.

These bursts of affinity with something ancient and vast bring not exactly euphoria, but calm. We mortals are not the most important force on earth, so I can get over myself already. Maybe, at Mont St. Michel, with its near miraculous back-story, I’d again find that holy, ethereal sunbeam I never stop chasing. All I needed was a few minutes.

Days earlier, I had passed through the Normandy battlefields under a wintry sky that one moment was glazed soft pink and the next, opaque under a concrete wall of sleet. It’s the least I could do: hike through spiky gorse, cross the beach and imagine the final heartbeats of all the living boys who had died exactly where I stood. I drove to cemeteries and gravesites and to the great Tapestry of Bayeux. The story of William the Conqueror, the local bastard turned king, unfolds in staggering detail on this thousand-year-old strip of linen. In one scene, Harold, the eventual usurper—at least from the point of view of the French—rescues two soldiers from the quicksand of Mont-Saint-Michel. Even then, the perils of this forbidden place were fabled and feared.

I steered my car among the flooded roads and highways, until, at last, I rounded the coastal route on the Route des Champeaux. And there it was, rising on the horizon like a volcano. The sight of Mont St. Michel is perhaps most sublime when emerging from night or sinking into twilight—now pink, now gold, now white, now black, now white again—but at 2 p.m. on a somber day, it still exerted an astonishing grandiosity. I pulled over into a gully and exited the car to offer myself fully to this encounter. In this heightened state, I could ascribe no words to my emotions that carried both wonder for its beauty and terror for its power.

A few minutes later I parked my car and took the bus along the causeway. I was last here two decades ago, in July. Then, I wore a tank top, and a water bottle sloshed around my purse. The heat had been severe, and I trekked barefoot across the tidal flats, sun baking my back, flip-flops in hand. It was suffocatingly, grotesquely crowded and all of us tourists gazed up hopefully at the monastery, as if vying for a gulp of oxygen. And there he was: Archangel Michael, the prince of them all, commander of God’s army and Catholicism’s literal angel of death. He descends in our final hour to assist the dying and escort us to heaven as long as we proclaim our faith. It was he, during a visitation in 706, who told the local bishop “to build here and build high.” His gold figure crowns the spire of Mont St. Michel and on that sunny day, his wings and raised sword seemed to throw sparks into the sky.

I was surprised when the bus stopped in the middle of a mudflat and left me a fair distance from the bottom of the hill and the village—it was supposed to stop right at the foot of town. The driver instructed me to walk the rest of the way. Indeed, the stormy February weather had made a mess of things, and the approach was also a massive construction zone. Bulldozers and Bobcats were scattered beside the path, as were orange plastic ribbons that formed makeshift do-not-cross fences. It was, I learned, the home stretch for the colossal reclamation project that would return the sea to the bay of Mont St. Michel, which had been partially silted over by centuries of agricultural development. The effect of this silting had been to inhibit the regular sluicing of water to and from the Cousenon River into the bay, so the Mont was no longer the true island it had been when the monks built the church.

The currents, though, were unchanged: still erratic and still deadly. High tide can rise up to 45 feet and water sweeps in at an astonishing 200 feet per minute. Occasionally a video pops up on YouTube of fools who try to beat the sea, fail, and get rescued by helicopter. Also, periodically some deluded danger junkie wanders into the quicksand—there is still quicksand, too—and must be pulled to safety.

Every bit of me was drenched and spattered as I traipsed toward the village, and when I reached the hotel, the desk attendant scurried to welcome me. I was desperate to peel the soaking clothes from my body, and she dispatched me to my room, where I filled up the tub. Steam erupted off my clothes when I draped them on the drying rack. The radiator crackled with heat and the panes of the leaded windows were coated with rainwater. Beyond was a sweep of bay the color of boiling milk. My body ached with comfort in the bath, and I struggled not to doze off.

When I ventured out later that day, the street that strained to accommodate half a million tourists a year was hushed with the absence of people. The biscuit stands were open, though, and the stacks of primary-colored tins of galettes and sablés were the picture of optimism. I climbed to the abbey, and walked around the monastery and the Merveille—the church—stopping at the cloister lined with boxwoods and tidy colonnaded allées, a green respite on this grim day. From here was a view up the Norman and down the Breton coasts and surrounding it all, the sea. It was gray and thick as wet cement while the sky bore the whites of drifting snow.

I wandered through the chambers and chapels, the vacant assembly rooms and grand halls that bore no reminders of their bustling pasts. I stood at altars and under crosses, friezes and seawater-green stained-glass windows. I gazed up at Gothic choirs, vaults, and across to fireplaces, crucifixes, and the gold-cloaked figure of Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Tombe. But I struggled to feel the presence of a deity in these rooms. The best I could do was reflect on the ingenuity of the men who believed in one so strongly they carried boulders across this godforsaken landscape, hoisted them up, and erected a monument in tribute. I yearned to experience this strength of conviction but all I could do was admire theirs. Here, in the emptiness of a medieval abbey, I felt strangely empty, too. I couldn’t even summon a prayer to murmur.

After dinner, darkness crept into the village while the rain dissipated into drizzle, then mist, and at last a cold, clear night. Spotlights replaced daylight and the building was transformed. From a mottled edifice coated with lichen, tarnish, and rain, it turned pale and fortress-like, stained by shadows from sconces affixed to the façade. The turrets, covered in charcoal slate, had receded into blackness. I descended to the bottom of the village so I could look up at the structure again.

There, perched on the tip of the great spire, was Saint Michael the Archangel, so airborne he seemed to have just touched down. Behind and above him, clouds leaped across the disk of what was now almost a full moon. The light shone on the sword that pierced the sky and his wings spread in both directions. Warmth seeped honey-like over me. I stared and stared. It—he—was spectacular, so high, so permanent, so patient, and somehow powerful. I could not look away until my neck started to ache.

Here, from below, I understood that on this island, faith was proportional to distance. Its power was in the ever-fluid movement of sky over weather over water over stone. The pilgrims must have shared my wonder, exhausted their supply of adjectives and exclamations, even if many met a merciless end on their way here. They ventured to this desolate place with a belief so vast only isolation could accommodate it. Here, now, was the moment I had come for, the elusive crucible of trust and awe and relief. This is who you are. And right then I believed. The simplicity of my certitude caught me in the throat.

At 4:00 the next morning, I gathered my clothes from the heating rack, and woke the desk clerk to confirm with her the special off-hours bus I ordered to take me to the parking lot. I had a meeting in Burgundy at 2 p.m., and it was easily an eight-hour drive. “It is waiting for you,” she said.

The rain had returned, hammering, and the structure on the hill that had choked me up hours earlier had slipped behind the gloom. My epiphany about the divine, too, got stuffed back in my travel bag. There was one lonely sound above the wind: my rubber boots clomping on the path down to the landing area. There was no bus. But given that the day before I had to get off and walk a couple hundred yards to the village because of rain and construction, I assumed that today would call for a similar contingency. So I stepped off the road, switched on my iPhone flashlight and took what I believed was the same parallel walkway toward the place I had been deposited yesterday.

I walked with speed and purpose, anticipating the relief I would encounter when I reached the bus and then, my car. Grit scraped the wheels of my bag, splashing mud on me as I proceeded. All at once, the trek seemed too far and too long. There was no bus, no turnaround, no clearing. There were no Bobcats or bulldozers. Only wind, sleet and desolation.

And suddenly, there was a proliferation of warning signs that alarmed me: “It is extremely dangerous to venture alone into the bay including immediately close to Mont-Saint-Michel.” Passing minutes, then a half hour, leeched my optimism until it hung emptily about me. My parka had absorbed many times its weight in rain and pressed upon my shoulders. The iPhone formed only a wan pool of light before me. I could not discern how close I might be to the water, the tides, blackout. On the bright side, my rubber boots, high and heavy, clutched and warmed everything south of my knees as if they were sentient beings. They seemed to be sacrificing their lives for the integrity of my ankles and feet, and I loved them with all my might.

“Good boots,” I cooed as if they might answer back.

But they were leading me nowhere. I stopped. I still had cell service so I dialed the hotel. “Where’s the bus?” I asked. Panic scraped my windpipe.

“It’s right at the bottom,” she said.

“But it wasn’t there!”

“He probably turned around when he didn’t see you.”

“I took a wrong turn,” I said. The call cut off with an echo of sheer hopelessness.

It seemed absurd to be lost only yards from the third most popular tourist attraction in France. I walked and walked, sloshing through a thin blanket of mud on what seemed like a solid path, disconsolate and captive on the road that had no visible beginning or end, composing my obituary. A mother of two, it would read, vanished in the quicksand of Mont St. Michel. Not embarrassing, exactly. Like a snakebite or a failed rip cord, it was an adventurer’s demise. But I was a traveler, not a daredevil. Exploring is great, but danger is for fools.

Fools like me.

It didn’t seem appropriate to appeal to the almighty, whose existence I pondered and doubted not six hours earlier. So I reluctantly turned to look for Archangel Michael on the spire but he was invisible, shrouded under the veil of winter and night. Maybe that was a good thing. God’s avenger was also the angel of death.

It was so frighteningly dark. I heard the lapping of water amongst the drone of rainfall. I set forth again. The wind swept around me, forming icy walls that I walked right through, emerging colder and wetter than before. There was little chance I was near the bay, because the dreaded high tide was three days away, after the full moon. But this sea is unpredictable, and I also wondered, when I put my foot in a deeper batch of clay, if this could be quicksand. Relief when I kept my stride, but for my level of clarity, I may have been walking in circles.  I pictured my husband, my children, our universe that was miniscule compared to this pitiless place. I craved the sanity of my morning routine: coffee, toast. Life.

And then, lights. Small, low ones seeping through the pearly curtain of vapor to form an incandescent glow. They approached me from straight ahead, and declared to my relief that I was traveling along a real road and not the soggy clay barrens. The car pulled up and someone reached across to open the door.

I never saw really saw him clearly. Blue eyes or brown, pale complexion or ruddy—I haven’t a clue. But I remember the grayish spikes of his hair and the sharp contours of his profile, both outlined from the glare of his car’s headlights, which froze amidst the wall of rain and bounced back through the windshield with the potency of a 10-watt bulb.  His voice was soothing, not quite caffeinated, and very annoyed. It must have been alarming to see my drenched figure shuffling in the inky pre-dawn and then, for this wretched human to take a seat in his car.

“Oh my God,” I cried, “I…”

“What in God’s name are you doing out here?” he said.

“I’m lost and I…”

Au nom de Dieu,” he said. “This is incredibly dangerous!”

“I couldn’t find the bus,” I sniffed.

“Didn’t you see the warning signs?” he asked. He shook his head again and again.

We crawled along a firm, mud-coated road, probably carved by landscaping crews to ease the wholesale re-shaping of the tidal flats. I never asked if the danger he kept pointing out referred to my general foolishness—the weather, the hour of day, my exposure and my solitude. My hunch is that his admonishments alluded to something more ominous: that I had wandered into a truly perilous place where I risked misfortune from construction debris, or more likely, from nature’s force, against which anyone throughout history—the saint, the sinner, the reverent, the skeptic—has been powerless. Mont St. Michel was never a place for the weak.

“I did but it was too late,” I said.

“You are very lucky, Madame,” he said, and as he spoke his voice shifted from reproachful to kind.

Lucky.

He drove to a well-lit turnaround and stopped the car. I should have passed directly through this clearing an hour earlier, but somehow, inexplicably, I had diverged. The bus was there, idling.

“Be careful,” he said. “Soyez sage.”

“Thank you,” I said to his nodding profile. “Thank you.” He brightened with a fraction of a smile, which caused his cheeks to shift upward. The dark swallowed his car instantaneously, as if it had never existed.

I have no idea who he was. I was too cold, distraught, and embarrassed to ask. Maybe he was a worker finishing up the night shift. Perhaps he was a cop on security detail. The site foreman surveying the periphery. I will never know how he found me roaming around this treacherous place in the middle of an ice storm, just when I was ready to call it quits and give myself over to quicksand or dawn, whichever came first.

What is certain is that ten minutes later, I warmed up my car just as daylight glided into place to reveal another soaked winter day in Normandy. As I rounded the highway, I gasped at the distant sight of Mont St. Michel, its jagged black form stark against the soft gray of the sky. How elegant the spire seemed that morning as Archangel Michael emerged, gleaming, from behind the clouds. How worthy of a prayer.


Marcia DeSanctis is a journalist who writes for Travel + Leisure, Vogue, Departures, and other publications. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling book 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, and has appeared multiple times in The Best Travel Writing and The Best Women’s Travel Writing anthologies. Her essay collection, A Hard Place to Leave, will come out in April 2022. 

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