October 11th, 2009
Waking up, I’m completely disoriented, but this feeling has become familiar. For the past two weeks I’ve gotten accustomed to finding myself in strange beds, my first moments of consciousness spent piecing together where I am and if apologies are in order. But not this morning. This morning my two waking thoughts come in quick succession; first, that I am supremely comfortable. I know I’m not in my own bed, because my bed simply isn’t this warm and inviting. This is the kind of comfort you covet from the moment you’re conscious and eventually have to pry yourself loose from. The second thought comes as a moment of realization, quickly partnered with confusion and mild alarm, as I discover I can’t hear anything. Not just quiet, but a complete absence of sound; no creaking from the building, no birds, no wind, not a whisper. My entire life, I’ve never been in a room so quiet. I sit up, putting the pieces together, considering the possibility that I have in fact gone deaf; I am after all now over thirty and warranties on my body parts are rapidly expiring. But I’m not deaf. I’m in Gimmelwald, Switzerland. And I then remember I’m also foolishly happy.
The train from Paris shuttled me through the various rainy provinces of southern France with little to capture my attention until we neared the Swiss border, where mountains began to push their way up beneath the carpets of fields and vineyards. Changing trains in Basel, Swiss guards formed the first passport check I’d seen in some time, but seemed completely uninterested in me when they saw my American passport. I satisfied myself by imagining them to be part of the Swiss army, pockets bristling with corkscrews, tweezers, and foldable scissors, and started on to find my next train. It was about this moment however that I realized something incredibly embarrassing; I had no idea what language was spoken in Switzerland. I had heard of Swiss German, however I didn’t really know what made it “Swiss”. To make matters worse, I had heard people using both German and French in the same sentence, making me wonder if everyone was simply taking the neutral stance of the country to the next level and using a bit of every language just so as to include everyone. As it turns out, I was not far off; depending on the region and the closest bordering country, various parts of Switzerland speak a majority of German, French, or even Italian. Not that it mattered which region I was in, since I spoke none of them, but it seemed at least the decent thing to know how to say hello.
The connecting train from Basel, sparklingly clean and new, glided further in while the mountains around rapidly shouldered their way together and became steeper and steeper. When not grinning out the window like an idiot, I tried with only mild success to strike up a conversation with the stunningly good looking but awkwardly demure girl sitting across from me, who humored me by pointing out landmarks before disembarking and leaving me to plaster myself against the window again. The train traced along the banks of the deceptively difficult to pronounce Thuner See before finally depositing me at my stop in the town of Interlaken.
Interlaken is as old as any mountain town you’d find nestled between the jagged granite toes of the Swiss Alps, but it’s become something of an “eXtreme” backpacker destination. Like a quieter version of Queenstown, New Zealand, the hostels are full of brochures for skydiving, bungee jumping, rafting, canyoning, all the various activities highly sought after by college backpackers in their constant search for new and exciting ways to do things their parents disapprove of. Luckily my arrival so late in the season left the town relatively empty, even if it meant the weather was touch and go. I checked into my private room, a first since I started my trip and a nice opportunity to air out the contents of my pack that was beginning to smell disconcertingly organic, and took my usual orienting stroll around town. The streets were quiet but the rain had let up, showing some promise for the next day. My spirits picked up immediately at the hint of alpine air and the granite cliffs blanketed in fall colors. I was feeling in my element again. The discoveries of a climbing gym a block from the hostel and the quality of the local beer and fondue only picked me up further. Not even the discovery that a Big Mac at the local McDonalds cost $12 could bring me down.
Right on cue, the next day as I took the train up to the base of the Eiger the clouds burned off to a sparklingly sunny day, revealing the surrounding mountains. The further we climbed, the less I could believe my eyes. Deep green valleys highlighted by shafts of sunlight escaping the blockade of mountain peaks were decorated with Swiss chalets, so perfectly laid out that the entire scene seemed like an elaborate train set, dwarfed even more by the looming crags and glaciers. Getting off in Grindelwald, I stood for ages just trying to look at everything, particularly up at the iconic north face of the massive Eiger. I was about as close to crying as I had been in a long time, it was so stunningly beautiful.
From there I splurged on a ticket on the Jungfraujoch, the highest train in the world that climbed through the interior of the Eiger and emerged just short of 12,000 feet. I struck up a conversation with the Canadian retiree couple sitting across the aisle from me who were immediately accommodating despite insisting that my name was Nigel, and we wound up touring the place together. He was fairly bold and adventurous, she was less so but clearly encouraged by his outgoing nature to tag along. Like most people I’d come to meet in these situations, they were well and comfortably traveled, and we traded destination stories, including our impressions of Australia. Eventually however, our age difference split us up; the altitude had worn them down and they returned to the train, while I headed up the snow field to the alpenhut, perched partway up a rocky slope. The hut was nearly deserted given it was nearing the last train, and staffed by a man and woman who looked like they’d been born and raised on a glacier, serving soup and bread out of the kitchen in back. Settled on one of the hardwood benches looking out the window into the deep snow-filled valleys as I ate my soup with the relish hot food after a hike in the snow gives you, I felt completely in my element. I decided I wanted more of this during the rest of my short time in Switzerland.
Back at the Happy Inn Lodge while looking through the guidebook, I came across a short entry on the small town of Gimmelwald. Set back into the mountains in the next valley over from Grindelwald, the description was gushing but cautionary of how sparse the town was; there was no grocery store, and the only given transportation to the town was a cable car or a five hour hike. This sealed it. I booked my room over the phone, and the next day set off in the rain by train, bus, and cable car to Gimmelwald. The hostel was not difficult to find, as it was the next building up the footpath from the cable car station. Ducking into the front door, I made my way up the stairs to find a nearly deserted common room and a shuttered office. The only two people to be found, huddled around a laptop, turned out to be Americans. Backpackers themselves, Ian and Emily were working at the hostel in exchange for a room, and gave me the rundown on the place; the owners were only there in the morning and evening, the common kitchen was the only option for food during the day, which guests were responsible for cleaning and maintaining, and all your food went into duct tape-labeled baskets. In essence, once you were there, you were a resident rather than a guest. Over the course of the afternoon the few other guests trickled back in from the rain; a few Canadians, another American, an Australian couple, a Kiwi single mom traveling solo. High in the Swiss alps, I had somehow found myself a second home occupied entirely by native English speakers. Stranded by the rain, we milled around getting to know each other, cooking dinner and comparing travel notes. Eventually Petra, the hostel owner arrived, a woman in her early 30s with a perpetual sly smile and a barbed sense of humor. She checked in the day’s new arrivals, gave a well-rehearsed speech on keeping the kitchen clean upon pain of something non-specifically awful, then settled herself behind the combination front desk and bar while a few locals filtered in for a drink. Dinners finished, the kitchen cleaned, and the rain unrelenting outside, the place as a whole did the only appropriate thing left to us; we started drinking.
All this comes back to me as I sit in my bed in the deserted men’s dormitory, staring out the window at snowcapped peaks bold against a clear blue sky. The rain has cleared overnight, and I will get the day in the mountains I’d hoped for. It does not disappoint. With the clouds gone, I’m granted an unobstructed view of the entire valley, the depth, steepness, and expanse of which invites immediate vertigo. Gimmelwald itself is perched improbably partway up the valley wall, where the residents and livestock alike defy gravity to make their living. Enough generations on these 45 degree pastures and the cows are likely to develop two legs half the length of the others. Katie and Heather, two of the Canadians, suggest a hike, which we undertake with enthusiasm until we discover that the loud booming echoing up the valley is not in fact rockfall but gunfire, coming from the firing range set up pointed down the trail we’re supposed to take. One of the range users taking a smoke break outside, his military-issue semi-auto rifle slung over his shoulder, encourages us to go around and take the detour directly behind the target embankment, with the winning assurance, “We’re very good shots!” We reluctantly take the detour, and I’m fairly certain the locals are back in the shack chuckling as they take their shots downrange, the rounds audibly thudding into the massive mound of dirt next to us.
The rest of the hike is less eventful and life-threatening, but unrelentingly steep. The main consolation is the endless staggering views. I quickly realize I could spend months hiking just this area alone. This is where recreational hiking was invented. We reach the Rottstockhutte, which we decide is our upper limit, and I’m hailed as a hero as I share out the cheese, sausage, and fresh bread I had bought from the farmers in Gimmelwald, since the girls had apparently neglected to bring more than a handful of crackers with them. From there we beat our retreat back down the mountain, the ache in our legs completely unable to detract from our enjoyment. The day rounds out much the same as before as the clouds roll back into the valley, and everyone passes the evening like we’ve lived there together for months. And yet, tomorrow most of us will leave, scattering towards our own destinations still to be discovered and explored. Part of me is anxious to see what’s next. Part of me never wants to leave.