Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Did Go Back (and Up and Down) Again

In life-before-our-Gap-Year, there were weeks of days that passed by and I can’t recall the particulars of even a single one – not one tiny detail, not one single image. But the memory of the day I hiked from Grindelwald, Switzerland to the Kleine Scheidegg pass as a solo backpacker in July 1977 is as crystal clear as the blue sky under which I made the 14-mile round-trip trek. It was my first real hike ever and I can conjure up every detail. I remember what I wore (clumsy shoes that stood in for hiking boots, blue knee socks, cotton navy shorts and a flowered blouse I’d made), what I ate (yogurt, cheese and a hunk of bread), what I heard (the bleating of goats and the clanking of cowbells), what I saw (the most beautiful valley and dramatic snow-covered peaks) and most of all, how I felt (exhilarated). I’d spent a mere ten hours in the Grindelwald valley 35 years ago, yet the memory was indelibly vivid for each and every one of my senses. When Joe and I undertook the very same hike as a duo, I was elated to find that the often-distorting lens of nostalgia had neither magnified the location’s beauty nor exaggerated the thrill of accomplishment.

What a difference a day makes. Sweltering in the upper 80s heat when we left chaotic Turkey, we were soon shivering in the cold drizzle of pastoral Switzerland with temperatures in the 50s. The blistering sun of the Mediterranean and the recurring calls to prayer were now behind us -- no more olives, no more eggplant and no more southern warmth. We were in the land of bread, cheese, muesli and brisk but polite demeanors -- talk about contrasts! Flying from and to countries not part of the European Union meant suffering through interminable lines after arriving in Basel and the dour officials at passport control. Is a genetic inability to smile a job requirement for becoming a border control officer – especially in Switzerland? (Although we encountered them just once, the passport officials in Turkey managed to sneak in an unsanctioned grin as they inspected our paperwork.) After an uneventful train ride to Interlaken where we transferred to the red, wooden-benched cog railway that carried us well up into the valley, we arrived in Grindelwald in thick fog and mood-dampening rain. I saw a pair of 20-something backpackers arrive on the train with us and wondered if their soon-to-be-made memories of the village and the surrounding mountains would be as indelible as mine. Would they return some years in the distant future, as I have, to relive them?

Beni, extreme sports aficionado and owner, with his equally enthusiastic about the outdoors wife Connie, of the Hotel Lauberhorn, picked us up at the tourist office and drove us in his van about a mile out of town to our home for the next eight days. The conditions were so dismal and the cloud cover so thick, that we could have been in Kentucky for all we knew with nary an Alp in sight. We were so thoroughly exhausted after our long day of traveling and temporarily dismayed by the weather that we just crashed and slept like babies under our fluffy Swiss duvets.

The sun woke us up the next morning and we nearly fell out of our platform bed when we turned and saw the spectacular north face of the Eiger staring in at us through the sliding glass doors of our room. This magnificent peak had been hiding behind the clouds on our arrival but now filled the view from our little chalet dorm. Until that startling morning moment, the sightlines from our room in the Hotel Bel Soggiorno Taormina, Sicily over Mount Etna in the distance had topped our list of most beautiful views, but the snow-topped Eiger peering into our bedroom immediately bumped the Hotel Lauberhorn up into the top slot. The mountain’s rugged magnitude was not only magnificent but humbling as well as we sat in awe on our little balcony.

There was little time for relaxation in Grindelwald. Our hotel owners were off to hang glide and mountain bike for the day and we were determined to start hiking in earnest to prepare for the six-day Tour du Mont Blanc we would undertake the following week. My reconstituted Kleine Scheidegg hike of 1977, the centerpiece of our visit to Switzerland and this time to be experienced with Joe, was a perfect replica of what I’d remembered for oh-so-many years. We first made our way down to the base of the valley in Grund, crossed the bridge over the pale green chalky river that thundered down towards Interlaken and then started the 4,000-foot relentless climb up, up and then further up to the pass (the Swiss don’t believe in switchbacks, preferring to head straight up to the destination at hand).

There’s hiking and then there’s “wow” hiking, where each and every view is followed by an exclamation of awe. From the tiniest little flower to the rugged vistas of the encircling mountains, our ascent to the Kleine Scheidegg was without a doubt, “wow” hiking at its best and I had to remind myself to breathe and to just put one foot in front of the other as we took in the scenery. An abundance of Alpine wildflower fields filled with a riot of colors -- yellow buttercups, purple asters, pink campions and blue gentians – embellished the way. How does nature manage to paint the landscape so perfectly, I though, with just the right mix of delicate and vivid colors? As we followed the trail across farm after farm, the only sounds on the winds were the deep clangs from the huge Swiss bells hung on the necks of munching cows (it’s astounding how much racket they make when all they’re doing is eating) and the wind chime tinkles of the little bells dangling from bearded goats. Unlike being taken through a perfectly orchestrated pastiche of a distant paradise at Disneyworld’s Epcot, this mountain paradise was very real with all the sights, sounds and smells that go along with the reality of Switzerland. We were in an Alpine wonderland and it was glorious. At long last and when my lungs were just about to give up on working so hard, patches of snow and fields of ice from which ice-cold streams sprouted crossed our path, signaling our final approach to the crest. The hike was billed as a four-hour trek, but we’d made it to the Kleine Scheidegg ridge about a half hour earlier than we’d expected. There we were at the snow line, looking straight up at the big boy triumvirate, all commanding attention in an imposing row: the Eiger (13,025 feet), the Mönch (13,448 feet) and the Jungfrau (13,642 feet). Wow!

After devouring some wursts on the terrace looking over the western-facing side of the pass across the chasm to the village of Mürren suspended precipitously on a mountain terrace, we started our three-hour descent down to Grindelwald. Practically crawling by the time we arrived back at the Hotel Lauberhorn, we had yet to resolve the debate about which had been more difficult: going up or coming down. The ascent was a killer for our aerobic capacity but the descent wreaked havoc on our knees and our thighs. While I’d hardly been in great hiking shape at 21 in 1977, I was, after all, just a kid with 21-year-old lungs and 21-year-old muscles and no matter what shape I was in at 56, my body parts were 56-years-old with plenty of years of wear and tear. At the end of our trek, we were feeling every single step we’d taken and were so exhausted and sore that we couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever want to do anything but sleep. I lay in bed unable to move as the result of having realized a dream that had lain dormant for 35 years; I fell asleep immediately and slept about as soundly as I ever had.

There are no words to describe the reality of reanimating a place that existed for so long as a cherished memory, having it come alive once again, and sharing it with my beloved. Yes, time can so often warp memory but in the case of my Grindelwald hike, it certainly had not. I had fallen in love with the valley on my very first date 35 years ago and now that I had returned, I loved her all the more. Yes, I had gone back and yes, it was better than ever.

Pictures of our adventures:

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