Alps Log – Aug 2009

[Editor’s note:  The following is a compilation of entries during my 10+ day hike of the Haute Route, from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland, i.e., my bar trip in August 2009, plus a brief jaunt to Corsica.]

Day 0

I’m nervous. Should all matters go wrong, here’s what this vacation looks like: I’m lost, lonely, and wet; my pack tries to drown me on land and my mutinous legs refuse to cross the Col de Pafleuri on day 6; my back is broken and I’m riding cable cars like a chump. Or not.

At the airport weigh-in, my full pack is 31.9 lbs. I throw my carry-on (camera, books) on the scale and I’m married to a 40lb behemoth for the next three weeks, sans water. Nice to meet you, Bertha. I swear on my future torn hip flexor that i am never again lugging an SLR up a mountain. Ugh.

Genevè airport

At the gate, rain delay. I listen to French language tapes. I don’t speak a lick of French and I am mispronouncing every phrase “Raul” is telling me. What I really need is to hear at least four different French speakers say the same sentence, so that I may parse out the commonalities and distinguish important syllables, and ignore those aberrant phrasings that after Take #37 wherein the voice actor may have had gas, or is smoking a cigarette, or whatever circumstance that is now affecting my pronounciation of “hello I don’t speak french; where is the toilet?”. I believe this is how babies learn to speak.

This is my first time in Europe. I will admit I am sad to see this continental viriginity go. The cachet from travelling so much on less worn paths, to more developing nations, was addictive. You could argue I haven’t let it go totally.  After all, my inaugaral visit consists of me walking for fourteen days in the mountains, avoiding most major European cities. I do wonder what cultural diffferences await me on the other end. I’m compiling a list of common American expressions to avoid, those that surely will not sit well with the Continentals, given their history. The list ranges from: “Oh, don’t take such an entrenched position” to “I am so tired I could sleep through the Holocaust”.

It’s an overnight flight, and i have difficulty sleeping. We land safely on the runway, and then the plane confinues to drive forward. I remark how strange this is to my neighbor. By the time the plane hits the open highway, I realize I’m dreaming. When the plane pulls up to a hotel lobby, which is currently hosting a prom, I realize I am dreaming deliriously.

Touch down at 8:15. Stage 1 begins.

Because you are wondering, I am posting this using free wifi at the Chamonix tourism office. I am waiting for the damn camping store to open from its lunch break.

Day 1

8am. Arrive in Genève. I don’t see beyond the arrival gate. I take an Alpybus for 25€ to Chamonix. Sleeping in the van means I miss the entry into the valley. When I awake, I am surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and well-healed frenchmen on holiday. Everyone is non-plussed about everything.

chamonix

I buy up maps, groceries, and camping fuel. I sign in at the Maisson de High Montagne. The ranger tells me I cannot do my hike alone because it is too dangerous, there are crevasses. I start to cry. Everyone is embarassed about everything. When I show him my route in my book, he realizes I meant Argentiere the TOWN not argentiere the refuge located on the glacier. Smiles around. Language barrier getting in the way exhibit A.

Lunch: fromage au bleu1 and a fresh baguette. And a bananana. Eaten on a bench in main street. Some of the women here are quite captivating. After my french fails, I try to communicate with them in international language of I-am-taking-photos-of-you-with-a-long-telescopic-lens.

street of chamonix - 2

Stage 1: chamonix – argentière
Dist: 9km
El gain: 214m
Key guidebook quote: “..if on the first day out from chamonix your legs and lungs complain, then you’ve probably not done enough to get fit, and the crossing of Col de balme will be less enjoyable than it deserves…”

Day 1 is really a warm up. 2 hrs to a nearby town mostly through a valley. My bag is digging into my shoulders. I think it’s 10 lbs too heavy. I’ll never enjoy day 6 with a bag like this. I dream up a plan to shed weight: Go to the Poste and mail shit home.

Arrive in Argentiere, a cozy French town. Backpackers and climbers everywhere. I find the campground in town. For my 7€, it has hot showers and electrical outlets.

Once I make camp, the overnight flight catches up with me and I pass out cold.

[posted from Restaurant Escale wifi in le chable. Free if you’re polite and sit for a drink]

Day 2

Pleasant night’s sleep. The inhabitants of the tent across from me strike up conversation. Paul and Kate are Brits, and in line with my travel quirks, I ape their mannerisms and slang. I tell them that I’m simply “shattered”, and that my french is “shite”. They ignore this oddity and give me a bit of a pep talk, saying that my legs will find their rhythm after a few days. My spirits are bolstered. They are also hiking the haute route, but today are taking the variant through refuge de les grand. I may see them in Champex in two days.

Eager to shed weight, I stop by the post office. And it’s closed. For a french feast holiday. Shit. Well, if I can reach Trient before 17:00, maybe I can mail it from the Swiss side.

Today’s plan is to hike from argentiere to trient, crossing the Swiss/French border on the Col de Balme.2

hiking out of argentiere

Stage 2: argentiere – col de balme – trient
Distance: 12km
Elevation gain: 953m
Key ironic guidebook quote: “…a convenient and relatively undemanding stage…” -Kev Reynolds

The key ascent from Le Tour to the Col de Balme is a path that falls under a chair lift that can take tourists and hikers up to the Col. I scoff at the thought of cheating. This will look quaint in about 24 hours, but hey look, now i’ve gone and foreshadowed. It is a tough ascent for me, lacking in beauty or viewpoint. TMB hikers headed in the opposite direction are treating to views of the snowy monster Mont Blanc all the way down.

With each step, I am itemizing which items to mail home. Water filter, hostel padlock (!!), reading books. Maybe I could send home my stove, pots, and fuel, and just eat in cafès and refuges. Maybe I should send home my tent and sleeping bag, and live in the dormoirs and refuges (at about $50/night). How much to compromise? What defeats the spirit of the trip? Or pricks my pride beyond tolerance?

I reach Col de Balme and I am deliriously happy. The view is smashing.

mont blanc

look ma ima ona hill

Great descent too. I opt for the variant through Les Treppes which adds only 25 minutes.

Refuge du Col de balme 2

I find my way to Trient, but my legs are starting to buckle. If I can barely handle 5 1/2 hours, how am I doing to 7hours on day 6?? Operation Shed Weight is going to happen. I’m on vacation dammit. I should be enjoying this. I ask for the poste office. It’s closed! They celebrate the same damn holiday. Tomorrow? Tomorrow is Sunday, and everything closes in Switzerland. …

At the “campsite” near the Refuge du Le Peuty (CHF 4), I met two French couples and another Brit, Kevin, all finishing up the TMB. If there’s one thing I loathe more than loving couples in the city, it’s lovebirds on the trail. Yes, we can see how you love each other, and support each other, and lick each other’s wounds in sympathy. Yeah, we all know you’re going back to the same tent after this, why don’t you hang a flag for it outside your flap.

The Brit and I grab spaghetti bolognese from the cafe in Trient, across from the church. He also buys me a beer which I’m not sure was wise to accept in my state.

Day 3

6am. wake up, stand up, and throw up. Several times. Violently. Then I use the toilet, also unpleasantly. No appetite. Dizzy. What. The. Fuck.

Stage 3alt: trient – col de forclaz- bovine- champex
Dist: 16 km
El gain: 929 km

Instantly opt for the less demanding Bovine trail. The classic 1300m ascent of fenêtre de arpette will have to wait for another life. I reach my first viewpoint at Col de Forclaz (300m elev. gain, 1 hr). I throw up twice more along the way.

At the Col, I put down my pack, buy a coca cola from the shoppe, and ponder my plan of action. Ten minutes later, a bus pulls up to my exact spot. Two minutes later, i am on that bus, in such a flurry of activity that I even leave my hard-earned coca-cola behind. The phantom taste of the bottle’s balance remains with me.

I am riding waves of nausea and the Swiss public transit system, in concurrent stops and go’s. The way to Champex by transit is not direct. First, a bus to Martigny, then a train to Semblancher, then a platform transfer to Orsières, then a final bus to Champex. If you have forgotten your Swiss alps geography (shame, reader), this is essentially making an “n” shaped path, where walking would be an “_” through the Val de Arpette. Lesser men may consider using the autobus on the haute route to be a sign of weakness or sexual infirmity. Tut tut, I say, it is a fine time to observe the Swiss transit system at its finest: swift, clean, efficient, timely, and, on this particular branch, even branded with fuzzy wuzzy St. Bernard dogs. Each bus unloading cartfuls of eager backpackers, Switzerland clearly knows its mojo is the mountains.

taking the bus

The failure of these French language tapes has motivated me to start Selfish Crab’s Language Program for Travellers. Here at SCLPT, our 30 minute comprehensive program teaches you four essential phrases: “sorry”, “English”, “thank you”, “please”. The bonus supplement will teach you “how do you say…”. Because the SCLPT program believes you should be able to learn shit on your own, in the wild, to fill in gaps of knowledge you need. Here’s what we don’t teach you: we won’t waste 4 lessons like those OTHER GUYS teaching “excuse me do you understand English?” Whether someone speaks English will be perfectly fucking clear in about 15 seconds. “Hello” and “bye” are universally understood, and no one’s impressed you learned to butcher their language from the get-go, on step zero (I’m looking at you, “nihao”). Order now.

3pm. I wake up and I’m in Champex. Campsite (CHF 14). Make camp. Throw up 4 more times, now in front of my tent. Orange like my dried mangoes. At one point, don’t even have time to turn and hunch over: it’s all over me. Have I been descriptive enough? Do you feel like you’re right there? That’s my role here. To put you in my size 10’s.

I try to sleep off whatever it is. Drifting in and out. Can’t even bother to walk 10min to use the Internet.3 That’s how bad it is. (some longtime readers are probably now reaching for the telephone number of the Swiss Heli Rescue, I know). I reach for a diversion: I’m reading Revolutionary Road. 30 pgs in, it’s excellent.

Dinner: banana. tentatively.

Fever through the night. New idea: I soak a rag, wipe my face. Leading diagnosises are bad water (which makes me nervous about drinking any water), dehydration (which means I need more water), sun stroke, exhaustion??? WTF do I have? Mental state: all time low. It rains at night; the dripdrops wake me; I drag my pack into the tent with me; I hope for the restorative powers of sleep; I hope for a better morrow.

Day 4

I feel better. Tentatively. I knew my
body could tough it out. Me and this ol’ jalopy can get through anything. I drink your tap water right up.

Stage 4: Champex – Sembrancher – Le Chable
Dist: 13 km
El gain: 104m
Time: 3.5 – 4 hrs

Another valley hike. A tour through “working Switzerland”, even though I’m fairly sure half these houses are ski chalets in the winter.

day 4: overlooking "working" Switzerland

I reenact at least one of the photos in my guidebook. Gorillapod and remote trigger syngery.

Sembrancher. Post Office. CLOSED. from 10:30 to 15:45. Is lunch time not the busiest time for the post office? I don’t care if this is town square has pleasant French and Swiss architecture, give me open and available parcel delivery services….

farmer's valley

2 hrs through beautiful open value pastures.

Le Chable. Post office. Yesssssss. I buy two parcel boxes, drop my tent, sleeping bag, civilian clothes, water filter, stove, and a book in two packages and mail it to myself at the post office in Zermatt, for my pickup in
a fortnight. I am over 8 kgs lighter, skipping gaily. And with that, this trip has shed all delusion of a Wooley Survivorman Vision Quest, wherein I eat the flesh of animals I trap and nightly bathe in a tub of my own testerone. No, this is now my Happy Euro Jaunt Across the Alps, where the only hunting and gathering will be whatever i can gather into my shopping cart at Migros supermarket.

I find a room to stay (60 CHF, bed and breakfast). And head to the market to find something I can eat without needing a stove, or a spork. I find canned ravioli, a loaf of bread, and a carton of orange juice. I sit on the street curb, pry open the top with my can opener, and tear into it all, ravenous. Wait a second, this isn’t cheese fillng. I look at the ingredients in French and German: it says “schweinfleish”. Fuck is this pre-cooked??? French cooking directions say “20 min something something”. I seek out a pedestrian. “<excuse me, do you speak English?>“. “Yes I do.”
“Can you, um, tell me if this is raw, or, uh, cooked?”.
“This? You should warm it up.”
“I know. But is it okay to eat out of the can?”. I am now asking hobo questions to Swiss locals.
She laughs (LAUGHS), “yeah, you can, if you must, but it won’t be very good.” She walks away with her child in hand. Say goodbye to the strange hobo man.

I have decided to supplement these posts with some travel-inspired fiction. Lest you be confused–if, say, you are deaf to the fictional or ironics keys– I will delineate such entries with curly braces, the fanciful curves of the bracket instilling a phantomorgasmical air. (look at what a lighter pack does, I’m even becoming a little dandy.)

{ In Le Châble, I have taken on a new lover. She believes me to be an American writer of mild acclaim. Will you put me in your next story, love? she says. Certainly not, i say, there is adequate literature on trollopes and horse hair. She is ravishing, and tonight I oblige her. We are intertwined, she likes to tell me, do you not see? It is like a destined chemistry–how you say Le Magique Mysterié– between our two bodies. I dismiss her, Chemistry is a rubbish notion; is it ‘destined chemistry’ when a virtuoso lays his hand on any violin? Playing well is playing well. She purrs, then you have the fingers of Charles Mingus. I roll my eyes and pull blanket tighter around me, exposing her artificial appendage. She won’t care. It won’t get cold. }

Wireless Internet access. And sleep in a double sized bed. Above Escale restaurant.

Day 5

First day hiking with the light pack.

Stage 5: Le Châble – Clambin – Cabane du Mont Fort
Dist: 9km
Height gain: 1636m

DSC_1991

My first trail landmark, Cafe La Ruinette, doesn’t exist anymore. It’s become Foodmorp, a neon cafe with a Comic Cans awning. Thankfully the parking lot sign still says “parking for customers of cafe la ruinette only”. I wind my way through Villette, where every building is old and wooden in a highly flammeable way. This would be a quaint neighborhood, but the BMWs out front paint a different picture.

DSC_1996

A bald Canadian passes me in the first 30 min, but I use him as my pace car. Hit my hour milestone in only 50 minutes! I am beating guidebook time. Hot dog. I celebrate by taking a 10 minute break, and lose my Canadian rabbit. The ascent is steep, but well marked, and I plod plod plod along. That’s the key. I hit Le Clambin (guidebook 3 hr and 45 min) in 3 hr 15 minutes! I relax at a restaurant, order a coca cola, consider flirting with the pretty waitress. Now I am in vacation.

Last high point hit at 4hr 30min. People are jumping off the mountain and paragliding (?). Lunch: nuts, bread, banana.

just another family picnic

Google: “is it still littering if it’s biodegradable?”

I bump into Paul and Kate, the brit campers from day 2, trudging their way up, still in full packs. We chat. They’re my favorite people on this trip to chat with. His patient sunshine melts her steady frump.

on the way to Refuge du Mont Fort

We walk together to Cabane du Mont Fort, which actually a ski chalet with lodging in the attic. Ski lifts are everywhere, spoiling the illusion of isolation. We’re to close to Verbier, the alps skiing capital. Earlier arrivals have been sunning themselves on the deck when we pull up in late afternoon. We get a once-over by the crowd in shades. Someone wolf whistles the size of my pack. The bald canadian is there. “I was wondering what happened to you,” he says. He’s Dan, is Swiss/Canadian, and a deadpan. He also winds up being my bunkmate.

DSC_2025

I say hi to another young couple. She’s Dutch, her name starts with Marg-, ends with -ette, and does somehing french in the middle. Frankie is her scruffy boyfriend. He squints and talks into the sun, in a low drone. Nonchalent. Yeah, climb a mountain, no worries. He says, with nary an expression, “your pack’s quite big there, eh?” He’s a Kiwi. Is every experenced hiker a tool? I tell them how I got sick on the third day, and how I used the bus to get to champex. Their faces remain expressionless. I can tell I’ve dropped 10 notches in their regard. I am rookie superplus apparently.

two people viewing mountains

Aside: I realize people, notably couples, flock to Paris, even for mere weekends (“getaways”), huffed up on romance, and eager from love. (disclosure: never been to Paris, though given above, is that a surprise). Readers, i ask you, where is the City of Enmity? That destination where tourists travel to employ that city’s natural drear and lack of charm to bespoil a relationship. One day, a woman turns to her boyfriend, “honey, you know what would be nice? Why don’t we take a weekend trip to Liverpool? Just the two of us.” I suppose after a while, no one will bother going. They already know what’s on the menu. Like with “honey, we need to talk.” There’s no talk needed after that. All the talking’s done. (Author’s note: I just tried looking up the antonym of ‘romance’ and my dictionary app said “what the fuck is wrong with you? Go outside, get some fresh air. Maybe meet somebody nice.”)

A group of old Japanese men show up. They carry SLRs and are soon drinking scotch in the patio. 2 hours later, a complete matching group of old Japanese women arrive, with their guide. Of course.

sunset

Dinner: tomato soup, salad, spaghetti bolognese. Delicious, though I can only slowly pack it in. Still not 100% yet. I sit with the aforementioned group because they seem like the only ones that speak English. Everyone eventually warms up after Swiss wine. Margerette is a mechanical engineer doing environmental technology. Lots of engineers or scientists around here. The Brit I met in Trient was a nuclear engineer! I don’t remember what Frankie does; I’m sure it’s nothing useful. The general consensus of what I’m now going to call “my poor showing on day 3″ is exhaustion. I landed on an overnight flight and started hiking the same day. Too much too soon.

Bedtime. I try to get along with my no-smile Canadian rommate. I offer him some soap. These gestures can go a long way. No dice. A good night sleep, nonetheless.

Day 6

The day of glory has arrived. Three cols in one day.

Stage 6: Cbn du mont fort – col de termin – col de louvie – col de prafleuri -cbn du prafleuri
Dist: 14km
Height gain: 885m
Time: 6.5 hrs
Key stern guidebook language: “long and tiring stage… could be the toughest say of the walk so far.”

Head out at 8:15. Everyone else seems to havei gone already. I tend to linger, like a musty foot odor. My foot odor tends to linger too, now that we are on the subject.

Chamois sighting

The walk around Sentier de Chamois is breathtaking. It’s a high ledge walk around to the Col de Termin, with naked sheer views of mountains just south. The path is dangerously lovely; you cannot take your eyes off the view. Three old frenchmen ahead stop, look upwards. We have our first chamois sighting, a female, bounding off the rocks high above.

Sentier des Chamois

The first mountain pass, Col de Termin, is the prettiest of the three, a true dividing line between two worlds, one lush, one rough. There I meet an elderly couple, day hiking to Lac du Louvie. They’ve lived in Switzerland for 30 years, and have the deeply tanned skin to prove it. And before that? Berlin, they say with a sort of veiled hesitation that invokes a myth of a buried past, of subterfuge of some degree, of flight from men in trenchcoats, and, somehow, fascism. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were carrying gold bullion, wrapped in silk hankerchiefs, in their packs.

Col de Termin - 1

I linger at the Col. Hear click clack, slow plodding pole strikes. It can only mean Paul and Kate again. We chat. They share some sweets with me. Kate mentions their last trip to New York. They couldn’t believe how big everything is. She goes off on about restaurants found on nymag.com, Dallas BBQ, and 2 lbs rib platters. Awesome, now I’m hungry AND homesick.

View of the Grand Desert

The next pass, Col de Louvie, is a wasteland. Scenic like a landfill. The land beyond reveals a gash of a valley, raked by the Grand Dèsert glacier. I have certainly seen my fill of glaciers this year. Yeah, they can be poignant and beautiful (e.g. deep blue Perito Moreno Glacier). But they are a violent, geological bully, dragging boulders everywhere, reshaping at their will.

IBEX

Col de Plafeuri. Another haul, but at least a cloud spares me the sun. The land beyond has been used as a quarry a few times, and looks the worst for it. Descending, I turn a corner, and surprise, 10m away, an large male ibex is taking a shit. I might join it. It voices a shrill bark, brandishes its large scimitar horns, and tells me to fuck off. I instead think : photo-op.

The vastness of wilderness

Down a hill finally to the Cabane de Prafleuri. In total, all in, it took me 9 hrs. Not bad. Not even wiped. Just a long day. Bald Canadian is sitting on a patio chair again. Spotting me, he ironically applauds for me. Or earnestly. A mixture, let’s call it.

Cabane de Prafleuri - 2

Dinner, served at 6:30 sharp: barley soup, salad, and pork with squash gravy. I have four bowls of soup. Soup is an amazing thing. Hell, after hiking 9 hrs, any hot salty water with flavor is pure genius. The same table mates as past night. Frankie grills me about New York. I try to give him the skinny on a non tourist tour of duty. To me, its all about neighborhood walks, people watching, and food. Traveling always makes me feel fortunate to live in NYC. It is a privilege really.

I just reread my entry from day 3. What a wuss I was. See, that’s why we do not hang out with Big Pack Crab anymore. That guy is a loser.

The Cabane says their water is non potable, but like hell I’m paying 8 francs for bottled water while sitting on top of a glacier. I ask them for boiled water, put it in my aluminum canteen, and employ an old science trick: spinning the hot cylinder under running cold water. In three minutes, it’s room temperature and drinkable.

I sleep in a room with a large row of 10 beds. Ear plugs muffle out whatever the hell that couple in corner thinks they’re getting away with.

Day 7

Wake up 3am, eh. 5am, ugh. 7:05am by a knock on the door. The hut guardian barks: “eat breakfast now, the kitchens closes.”. Whoops. Throw it down. Everyone has left. I’m out by 8:10am.

Stage 7 alt: Cabane de prafleuri – lac de dix – cabane de dix- col de paiz – Arolla
Dist: 17km
Height gain: 837m
Time: 6.5 hrs
Key assuring gudebook quote: “…by now you should be well into your stride…”

lac de dix - ALT

Much of the morning is a leisurely stroll alongside the dammed Lac Des Dix. I put the finishing touches on my opinion of Europe and its denizens in relation to the States: (1) If people in Pennsylvania only spoke french, yeah, I would probably speak five languages too; (2) Europeans don’t know shit about Americans.

Pass a herd of cows. They were musically inclined. Though, could have used more cowbell? Pass Paul and Kate at Paz de Chut. They’re taking the more direct way up the Col de Riedmatten. I’m taking detour.

welcome to mars

climber's respite

A climb up atop a morraine wall. Pass Mike, a retiree from Tasmania. At the top of the saddle, there is a view of a giant pyramid of rock, using a glacier as a necktie. I love with this one. Specks crawl in from the right– climbers– yeah, this thing must be a climbers dream.

Cabane de Dix

I stop at Cabane Des Dix for lunch.4 Can’t read the menu, but one item has a picture of a plate-sized hash brown, laced with pork, a slab of greyere, and crowned with a fried egg. Yes Yes, thank you, please, goodnight. I would later learn this is somewhat of a national Swiss dish (at least on the German third of the country.).

Best Dining Experience of the Trip

Confession: I haven’t tried fondue yet because that is a cheese party not for a party of one.

I cross the Glacier de Cheilon. It’s apparently stable, no crevasses, no crampons. I pause in the middle. The glacier is a dimpled white tongue, unspooling from the beast of a mountain, down to my boots. I could be slurped up in a blink. The loose boulder fields to get here are a pain, but this is worth it, right here.

Crossing Glacier de Cheilon - 1

Scramble up to the pass. Decision time. The notched window at Col de Riedmatten OR the near-vertical ladders at Col de Chèvres. I know what Big Pack Crab would have settled for, and that’s me no longer. I prepare for the ladders: I secure every item, cinch every strap, say a prayer, and record a video goodbye to everyone just in case (since destroyed, don’t worry I didn’t mention you). Let’s go, three points of contact, up all 30m, like a robot, not even thinking about the sheer drop, 1, 2, 3 points of contract, oh man oh man, why is the ladder shaking, okay, that’s just me, why am I shaking, fuck fuck, now I have to move laterally to a rock and a third ladder, almost there, steady, steady, no point dying now, cmon, YES. Let me never do that again.

self from Paz de Chevres - 3

Skip skip down to Arolla, with valley views and clear trails. The Mont Collon introduces itself, nice to meet you. Get into town in time to get cured meat and cheese from the market. Room at the Hotel du Glacier. Inside is a wood laden labyrynth of hallways and passageways. I get lost twice inside. Barely working wireless here, fire off one email to family and a blog post before it quits on me.

Arolla

It was another 9.5 hr day. I’m a slow poke. Goodnight.

Day 8

Light day. Valley walk.

Stage 8: Arolla – Les heuderies – La Sage
Dist: 10km
Time: 4 hrs

Mont Collon

The walk is an easy one, almost entirely downvalley. Viewpoint at Lac du Bleu, which is surrounded by cowpies. Couldn’t find a tiny hamlet mentioned in the book where I can find fresh milk and cheese, but I did find the buildings where all the cows let go. Pleasant countryside smells.

diary farm - 2

So far, travelling alone has not been an issue. Perhaps it’s the nature of the trip, a quiet hike, that suits being solo. Were this a typical euro city-pillage, the crowds of people would surely make me lonely. While cafès are places for mixing, there’s nothing askew about eating a sandwich alone at a mountain paas. Or perhaps it’s just my introverted nature. I’m not the easiest person to travel with, as evinced by the pile of discarded travelmates. Though neither demanding nor particular, I often need a quiet recharge. and travelmates generally feel all seasons of my mood. And so forth.

Selfish Crab Language program Course 2 syllabus is out: learning how to say “um” and “er” in the native tongue and accent.

valley up

During my early afternoons and nights, I have been reading Revolutionary Road. So far so good. Is anyone surprised that Frank Wheeler, whose characterization so far is an adrift graduate with potential in hand and no place to spend it, is a Columbia College graduate? Shocking, what with all that mobility. I was waiting for his friend, the engineering-alum-turned-consultant, to enter the frame. The writing also so far is great, light-handed. We’ll see if the book’s intregrity survives this upcoming scene with John the “mentally insane” neighbor. Sounds like a thin device for some straight talk by the author.

cable car toy

Now halfway through this trip. I was secretly hoping for some color of inspiration to befall me, some glimpse at the whole of love and happiness. None as yet. I also find myself consumed by the idea of marriage. Being of that age and of that mind wherein like beings are prone to, well, wed, I, on occassion, share the sickly urge to join hands and hearts and sing under the tree of matrimony. These last years, I bore witness to a wave of weddings, of dear friends, where the brilliance of love dazzled the eyes and raked the jealous heart, where that love witnessed was so potent that whole poems could be penned with a single dip of the quill in its store, or simply, where that love promised a future. Weaker witnesses may resort to the tearing of hair, and, of course, snarling. But I remain vigilant toward that easy bear trap. What buoys my unjoined heart is the sight of a foolish and rushed union. I’ll take my time, thanks. My sometime hope is that my would-be wife would be my muse, my target of salutations, my sparring partner, my finisher of scotches, my editor, on even days; I, hers, on odd days; and on Sundays, grocery shopping.

Les Heuderies from a distance - 1

In Les Haudères, old dark timber houses form rows of pastoral charm. I bump into Bald Canadian, he had gone and smashed his knee. Looking for ibuprofen. All I have is tylenol, which I forget is not the same thing when it comes to swollen bloody knees.

YES TWO DUDES DRINKING WINE ON TOP OF A GIANT BARREL

Lunch: bananas, salami, bread, dark chocolat. Meet a German kid, sitting on the bench. He’s hiking the Haute route in the opposite direction. Funny, we’re meeting nearly exactly halfway through the trek, at the halfway point, halfway thru the day. We swap tips going both ways. He remarks this route is popular among Anglo-Saxons. Comin from a German, for some reason, this phrasing tickles me.

Hiker/Tourist

dinnermate

La Sage is yet another small hamlet. I’m lodged in the dortoir above Cafe-Restaurant L’Ecureuil. Dinner: vegetable soup, pork loin with mustard and beets, flan. I eat with Mike, the tasmanian retireè. He’s 68 and hiking this thing alone. Used to be a geophysicist, has three adult children scattered all over, wife died when children were young. I try to get life advice from him, but he doesn’t take the bait.

The view from Cafe Restaurant L'Ecureuil, upvalley

Nightcap at bald canadian’s nice Hotel du la sage. pendànt and cheese. I don’t see him again.

Day 9

Wake up. Cloudy. Totally “socked in.”

Stage 9alt: la sage – col de torrent – barrage de moiry – grimetz
Dist: 10km+
Height gain: 1253m
Time: 7hrs

Ascending Col de Torrent

Minus a charming sunshower yesterday, weather thus far has been perfect. Not today. Low visibility. Can hardly see down the valley.

clouds clearing

Reach Col de torrent in under guidebook time because I have no reason to stop and take pictures. The cloud cover is complete, both views. Up all this view with nothing to see. I pass the 20 Japanese crew from cabane du mont fort. They wave hi, i flash back the fob sign.

Japanese descend to a lake

Taking a detour today. Since it’s a weekend, the Cabane de Moiry and the chalet du moiry are booked solid which means I’m walking an extra 2 hrs north to the town of Grimetz. Skipping Zinal altogether.

lac / glacier de moiry

Lac de Moiry, a dammed lake under the Moiry icefall, is a turquoise shade of beautiful. As I near it, I notice a marathon mountain bike race has occupied my trail. Cyclists whip around the bend, as a race volunteer station cheers them on in boisterous French. A flyer ad pinned to a post politely says: “CYCLE RACE 22 AUGUST, VERBIER-GRIMETZ”. I have these bastards for the next 3 hrs? I try to walk along the trail, but quickly lose my appetite for this. At one point, the trail is slender switchbacks down the height of the dam, and there’s no room for both of us. I wait, cycles fly past me. Thankfully someone slips in the muddy trail, and their body twists violently with their bike, and unfolds on the trail “AHHHH” he calls out for first aid. Racers dismount and carefully walk by him. And now so do I. Sick of this, I reach the road and walk an hour and a half to Grimentz on Swiss roadway, past honking traffic, through at least one tunnel.

the path to Grimetz

Dinner at Grimentz

Dinner: soup, and “croût torrent”, which is ham, cheese, egg, over toast soaked SOAKED in wine. The town is flush with racers. Lots of people drinking. I need to get out of here. My room above Le Mélèzè is a clean single, with a tv! No channel’s in English, not even the movie channel airing Spanglish. Free, strong, wireless throughout the place. I binge. Go to bed at midnight. Whoops.

Day 10

Roll out of bed at 7. Late start. I’m sort of freestyling it today, this far north is the edge of my map, and my book is rather terse about this alt path (“take a signed route on footpaths and tracks to Mission, then steeply uphill to Hotel Weisshorn.”) At least got some maps from the tourism office.

Le Mèlèze restaurant

Stage 9: Grimetz – Hotel Weisshorn – Cabane de Bella Tola
Dist: 9km?
ht gain: 800m?
Time: 5hrs

Riverside walk to Mission, yet another charming village set in the Swiss valleyland. Slow boring haul uphill, covered by forest.

I reckon there are three hallmarks to a mature, adult intellect: craving context, understanding agency, and discerning falsehoods. I’m sure there are others, but I like these three.

INTERLUDE. Your friendly Alpine movie critic here, with a few reviews for you: (500) Days of Summer, seen shortly before leaving, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, seen on the flight over. Spoilers ahead.

500 Days of Summer. Enough cutesy tricks to convince me it was a firsttime director. Zooey as Summer Flynn (too-clever character names– firsttime writer?), Joe as Sanguine Looser, apparently. Enjoyable, but a bit gutless at the end. Here i was, ready to take the punch in the stomach, ready to interpret this as a wounded pulldown of true love, when they let the movie run an extra 10 minutes, and, aloha, Joe proceeds to meet a smoldering, olive skinned girl with almond-shaped fuckme eyes, who happens to share the same love and career, architecture. Wink wink. Two and a half stars, (minus half star for not enough alpine mountain scenes.)

Wolverine: bloated emotionless letdown. Largely a movie made by committee with the exception of two fine casting decisions (liev Shreiber made a sufficiently burly Sabretooth, and Ryan Reynolds works as gabby Deadpool.). No, seriously, what backroom deal did it take to get will.i.am cast in any acting role, let alone as Maverick. Did he promise not to produce a song for the soundtrack? And was anything in the last 30 minutes shot in the real world? Dear director hacks, your CG is one-tenth as good as you think it is. Nonetheless, lots of great mountain scenes to enjoy here, particularly in Banff, Canada. Two stars.

END INTERLUDE

LUNCH

Hotel weisshorn is old (1882). i can’t believe they used to shlep supplies up here everyday back then. Now it plays host to tourists and weddings. Lunch: fromage anniversais, salami, fresh apricots (in season), banana, bread. Nap.

hotel weisshorn from afar

Another hour and half to the cabane du bella tola. Except that i misread my tourist map, and nearly confuse it for the Refuge on top of the summit Bella Tola. Burn another hour getting straight. Arrive. I’m the only overnight guest. Cabane has fine facilities. Best view yet from a cabane. The hut guardian looks like Bill Nye and speaks with a deep French voice. He wears a chefs outfit the entire time I’m there.

Dessert at Cabane de Bella Tola

Dinner: vegetable soup, hare with pasta and radish, raspberry mousse. I am delighted. Sunset’s something else and I take a few inspired photos. I go to bed deeply satisfied.

Sunset over Hotel Weishorn - 2

Cabane de Bella Tola

flowers, at Cabane de Bella Tola

Day 11

Final leg of my detour and will be rejoining the main route at Gruben. Another late start at 9. I’m either getting fatigued or cocky.

Stage 11alt-a: Cabane du Bela tola – Bela Tola – Meidpass – Gruben
Dist: 10km
Ht gain: 444m (+600m)
Time: 3.5 hrs (+2.5hrs)

screw the rule of thirds

Since the book says today is a “relatively undemanding stage”, i decide to tackle the top of the Bella Tola as a sidetrip (3065m, up an “easy path” to a point “claimed by some to be the best viewpoint in the Alps”). Reach the top a little before noon. As i take the last few steps, the wind picks up and the path of stones shakes underneath me. The viewpoint is worth it. Some of the big boys have cloud veils, but still a sight to see, 360 degrees.

Meidpass

I cross the Meidpass. The Meidpass means crossing a linguistic barrier, too; now i’m in the German-speaking Wallis region of the country. I know even less German than French. In fact, my entire German vocabulary consists of words learned while playing realistic WWII shooting games in college. I try saying “Hello” to a passing hiker, but I instead yell “Sniper!”

descending from Meidpass to Gruben

Descend to Gruben, which is another lovely swiss hamlet. You don’t get a chance to use the word hamlet everyday. Can’t believe people actually live in these villages that consist of 10 buildings or less.

GRUBEN

Dormitory space in the attic of the Hotel Schwarzhorn, which is run by a miser of an owner, whose pretty daughter is running reception. The owner denies me access to the wireless, makes me use the payphone cabin to call my next night’s hotel, and looks as if she has hansel and grettal locked downstairs. In revenge, I try openly flirting with her daughter, but instead yell out “Covering fire, left flank”. Dinner: tasteless broth, thick mud-bread, dry pork slice over oily pasta, flan with old whipped cream shot on top.

lady readin a book outside

Paul and Kate, the chatty Brits, appear! I’m happy to see them. We catch up. I tell them about my grimetz detour; and they, their horror story about trying to camp around cabane de moiry, pitching their tent at night, in what apparently was a bull field. Telling the story, they interupt each other– “no he didn’t say we couldn’t camp there”– trying to ensure their viewpoint is represented– “no, the bulls would have left us alone and gone back to sleep”– it’s entertaining. We make plans to meet up in Zermatt. They’re jetting ahead by train tommorrow to gain a few extra days. Bedtime for everyone.

{ Before departing New York, I bumped into an old classmate, one I hadn’t seen since graduation, one whom I had adored from afar since the first day, a sort of crush so consuming and dangerous that it later resulted in some trouble with a local street gang. I ushered her into a pub for a drink– I insisted– what choice did anyone have? I have been trying to bump into her for years. And now it’s happened. She was still button cute, a fair look that belied the fact that she was bursting with brainpower, demonstrated in the intervening years by becoming head research chair at a prestigious thinktank. I engaged her in conversation, pumping for information, exploring her favored topics. When the well ran dry, my hardened infatuation too had evaporated. She had a demeanor of hyper seriousness; she ran a bit haughty and cold.

{Maybe we needed another round? Another round could have tolled a bout of nostalgia– or honesty, ha-ha, I admit that crush, she admits knowing– gosh everyone knew– I mention getting into that fight, she uncoils, surprised and delighted by old heroics, a romantic ellipsis transpires… No, no more rounds. Another time then? No. She was moving. Across the country. Next week. Oh. And that was that. We parted ways with a congenial hug. Lacking regard for my normal level of cowardice, I reached in deeply for a goodbye kiss. And in that kiss, I transferred every sentiment reserved, every what-if thought, every thread of future thinking we could have been together, to her. It was a kiss on the cheek, but she still got all that stuff I just mentioned. She staggered home, assumingly taken aback by such brashness. I never saw her again. }

Day 12

Last pass of the entire trek today. I wake up and it’s raining.

Stage 12: Gruben – augstbordpass – St.
Niklaus
Dist: 16km
Ht gain: 1072m
Time: 7 hrs

I put on full rain gear, secure all my items, and walk out of the hotel. The sky has cleared.

Turning around

The ascent is gentle, despite the scary numbers. Easy over grassland, pleasant through pastures, up a ridge in rock. A few cows leave pies, one frazzled sheep shoos me away from his harem. I pass Tasmanian Mike; glad to see he’s still ticking. The clouds have parted enough behind us, what will be beyond at the pass?

cool guy at augstbordpass

Reach the Augstbordpass. I’m here 30 min under time. Cloud city, but after a long break, it also clears. I see mountain ahead. Behind me, I can see yesterday’s Meidpass directly across the valley. Augstbordpass is my favorite pass of the trek, every step, a varied pleasure. A worthy climax to the high route.

On the descent, I pass a family hiking with their dog. The dog, unleashed, flops along the trail, on and off, roaming toward whatever whimsy, its tongue flapping, deliriously high with new scents, god, I’ve never seen a dog so joyous. I can relate, boy.

I walk down further, and chat with a couple headed the same way. Nora is Finnish, and Peter-jung is from Holland (hollandaise?). They apparently share a passion for salsa dancing, which is the circumstance of their meeting in holland. She does a three-step with a flourish to accentuate the point. He tells me he is an IT consultant, then leans in to encourage me to ask Nora about her job– or “her lifestyle, really”. “Holland”? “Lifestyle”? Was Nora a prostitute???

I ask. She is a… horse whisperer, except she refuses that label. She is a trainer, specializing in troubled horse-owner relations. She travels country to country, gig to gig, although she is currently assisting one noted Horse Master whose name now escapes me. “Gretzel Mandable”? I cannot be far off. I ask her the secret to her powers. She tells me, in a deep tone, about the necessity of selflessness when dealing with animals, who, to varying degrees, can see through our “human masks”, the horse being especially sensitive, and the dog being nonchalent due to an eagerness to please. Her side speciality is dealing with internal strife in humans that animals can detect. She shares the horse’s gift for empathy. She’s getting very intense, and I tell them I have to tie my shoelaces, no really, it’s okay, you go on ahead, yeah, yes, I’ll catch up with you, yup.

Twara viewpoint

Twara viewpoint - 2

tasmanian taking in the view

I reach the fabled Twära viewpoint, where the cover photo to my guidebook was taken. I try to recreate it with my tripod and remote, but don’t quite pull it off. Mike the Tasmanian catches up with me. He’s walking with an elderly couple and a young woman. She offers to take a photo for me, I return the favor. She smiles at me; she’s thin, lithe, Italian? I chat more and quickly become cognizant that something’s not right with this one. I decide she’s the autistic daughter of this old couple, but Mike later tells me she’s their guide. Whoops.

jungen, down the valley

Reach St. Niklaus. My plan is to bus up to Gasenreid to get a head start tomorrow on the new high mountain path Europaweg. I ask the tourism bureau about the road ahead. Tomorrow’s weather is bad, and there is a landslide zone, requiring a full detour down to the valley and back up again. Eh. The case is made for skipping it and heading down directly to Zermatt tomorrow, thru the classic valley walk.

I stay in the dormitory in the Bahnofbuffet, the restaurant above the railway station. The miracle of the modern, electric, light and quiet Swiss rail makes this possible. In the common area, I meet “Ambrose”, a sometime Swiss local. He has splotchy skin, protruding ears, long shoulder length hair that is somehow thinning on top, a broad creepy smile. He looks like an extra from Lord of the Rings, except he had to spend substantially less time in Hair and Make-up. He tips me off to the open and free wifi at the Bäckerei, near the café du monte rosa, thereby making him a good guy after all.

Wifi till nightfall. Bedtime.

Day 13

Last day of the Haute Route. Unbelievable.

Stage 13: St. Niklaus – ZERMATT
Dist: 19km
Time: 4.5 hrs

The path is a straightforward valley walk, never straying too far from the river, or the railway. I have trouble following the guidebooks’ narrow street path out of the city, so I just start walking south to zermatt, it’s all the same.

a doozy of a front porch

I walk along the railline. A bright red train, the emblem of the Swiss Railway, slides toward me. I raise my poles and nod at the driver. Through the window, of the lead car, moving so fast, nonetheless, I can see, the fingers wrapped around the controls, uncurl slightly into a wave, his head nodding back. It is a look we shared. I glance at the passenger cars, four window topped cabins, filled with bald- and silver-topped heads, faces beaming upwards for a glance of the Alps. I nod again, knowingly of his cargo and of his burden. It was a look we shared. Selfish crab, friend to the swiss railway.

I start reviewing the stages of the trek in my head. I wonder if I have been adequately relaying what I’m seeing on this entire trek experience. It’s like this: imagine leaving your house and going for a stroll. Along the way, you happen upon one of the most beautiful natural sights you’ve ever seen. The magnitudes humble you; you feel ephemeral and irrelevant. You stop moving, because you don’t really matter anymore. You raise your camera to your eye, wanting to capture this vision that fills your senses. You will lower it, disappointed. It may be indescribable like a labyrynth; do you mention every gripping turn of ice, every sharp face of rock, every jagged shadow? You move, turn, shift, noticing how the mountain shifts in relation to you. There’s a flat rock nearby, and you sit on it. You unfold a parcel of food; fresh bread from the local bakery, a wedge of local cheese and salami, cut by the grocer, a banana. You fill your canteen from a stream. The wind whispers, sheep bleat, and a distant cowbell rings. This is lunch. You pack up, move along, and, what’s this, you see yet another one of the most beautiful natural scenes you have ever seen– this time a panorama of valley, rock, and glacier. Tomorrow, you will go walking, and it happens again. And again. And again. For two weeks. You are numb with bliss. Welcome to the Alps.

I pass a massive rockfall near Randa. In 1991 it severred the railway thru the valley, and now it’s terrifying me. Fragility is not a quality you want in massive stone walls. Lunch: you guessed it: cheese, bread, sliced meats, and fruit. Picnic in view of weisshorn and its companion glacier.

On the trail, ahead of me, walks a couple of climbers. I stare at their packs, watching their gear swing.
A helmet: the smoke of dangerous acts. A rope: to bind cowboys. An axe: an axe! What creatures greet them on their ascent that they require full battle axes? I am just a walker, and these are true mountain warriors.

Walk slowly along the last kilometer or two; don’t want the peaceful solitude to end. But it does. The number of hikers coming the other way increases steadily. Elderly hobbling along. Teenagers, running, in jeans, blasting music from their mobiles. The entrance into town from the north, as the book warns, is indeed an anticlimactic. construction site.

zermatt

Zermatt. Hordes of people. Trains pull up every quarter hour, belching out more people. Young, elderly, families, climbers, bushels of them all. The town has famously banned automobiles (they’re all dumped in a car park downvalley in Täsch), but in their place, are infruriating electric van-karts, owned by hotels, putt’ing around to pick up passengers. They zoom around like tuktuks. The street shops range from souvenirs stalls to rolex watches boutiques. Restaurants, branded, gilded, fancy, are a plenty. This is one of the great alpine towns in Switzerland and I’m already itching to get of here. I can’t even see the Matterhorn; it’s raining.

tour group

Post office, where I pick up all my gear, mailed on day 4. Funny, doesn’t feel as heavy now. Decide to camp, to save on francs, since I’m going to be in town til Sunday. The campsite (guidebook: “functional, no frills, but well used by climbers and walkers alike”) is north of the rail station. Campground is indeed “functional”, but it’s clear that “no frills” means a “shithole, with highway-reststop level hygiene in the bathrooms”. Also, half the grounds is now a busy construction yard, with jackhammers, and moving cranes, and all. Home sweet home.

my home for 4 nights

I set up camp, and it rains. Hard. Harder. Pouring. I stay in my tent, finish off my trail food for dinner, and go to bed. Funny, this wasn’t how i pictured the conclusion to my trek. Where was the grand entrance,? The (Swiss) red carpet? The large celebration, complete with adoring fans holding “marry me!!!” signs? Christ, I forgot to even have a nice scotch tonight. Ah, well, you made it, anyway. You’ve demonstrated courage, endurance, and flexibility. Congrulations, self.

Day 14

MATTERHORN

I have about four days here in zermatt, and on hiking some of the better day trails around the Matterhorn. Today: Trift gorge and Höhbalmen viewpoint.

DSC_2640

I’m taking my sweet time today. Nice walk into the Trift gorge, a view of the Triftgleischer. At the lip of the gorge, the restaurant Edelweiss. The view across is lovely, but my peace is soon crowded by stout Austrians. Continue onward. Reach the pretty in pink Hotel du Trift. Lunch. Nap. Two hours on a single stone.

Hotel du Trift

weak jump

Two hours later, continue upwards to the viewpoint Höhbalmen. It’s a lovely viewpoint, one recommended to me by Bald Canadian. Matterhorn is visible, though backlit. I’m surprisingly taciturn about this thing. A bench here. I sit on it, and read Senator Ted Kennedy’s obituary, cached.5. Linger. Linger. Descend back to town. Pass a few curious herds of sheep. I almost get into a fight with one, but we resolve our differences.

endless photos of sheep - 4

On the street, I bump into Frankie and margerette, the speedy Dutch. They’re carrying souvenir bags and look rested. We swap trail gossip, then run out of things to say. We say our farewells casually.

Wifi intel in Zermatt: free and open in front of the fancy Walliserkanner restaurant, free and open near the train station, source unknown, free at mcdonalds with mobile registration. free with credentials at Grampi’s and countless others.

Dinner: rösti (that glorious Swiss hash brown dish) at Restaurant Weisshorn. Alone. The rösti at cabane de Dix was still the best I’ve had. It was crispy and fresh; this is a soggy afterthought. The dining couple seated across from me rock in laughter. They catch my eye and strike up a conversation. My geo data is quickly ascertained, and the husband offers that they had been to Shanghai, glorious city, so modern, and brags he can name 18 other cities in China, all so modern. Yeah, I’m sure you remember your bus tour itinerary too. “so modern”. I love your country, too, buddy. It’s not the shithole I was expecting either.

Wander the streets. I consider going into a pub for a drink, but think the better of it after a glance inside. Scores of men, downing pint after pint, the taint of camaraderie, slaps on the back, god, I hate them all. I hate the stench of people, the thick smothering love-me filth, the smiles stretched like pig skin canvases across a frame, the insipid laughter rolling like a bowling ball down an alley, roaring into a crescendo of crashing amusement.

Days 15-16

Daylight. I’m sleeping soundly in my tent. It’s a beautiful clear day, but I have already decided today would be a rest day. After walking kilometers for every day for over two weeks, a day’s rest would be nice, thanks.

Breakfast made after a supermarket run. I have been eating a bar of chocolate a day, trying as many types of this Swiss specialty as is nutritionally permissible. This tasting strategy is probably negating all my gains (or rather, my losses) from hiking, but it’s alright, I can continue to get by on my boyish charm still, right? That never gets old.

Find a cafè with wireless and settle down for a while. Hot chocolate. I finish Revolutionary Road. 3 dL of beer. I try to digest the meaning of the book. I try writing a few more posts. I pen a few emails.

I go for a walk, camera slung behind me. This town reminds me exactly of Lijiang, with its old town charm hollowed out and served into a distinct neighborhood to the cartable masses, with a pretty iconic mountain in the background.

"i chose to climb"

I visit the climber’s graveyard, where fittingly, one of the best views of the Matterhorn can be had from town. Each headstone tell a concise story. “Michael 1968-1985, Died on the northern face,” one reads. The members of the first party to ascend the Matterhorn (half died tragically on the descent) are there.

I check out the souvenirs shops, debating whether i need more junk. Got to say, the Swiss have a great design to work with. Take anything, make it red, slap a white square cross on it: instant Swiss gear. Unfortunately they don’t stop there; they also slap an elegant “SWITZERLAND” on the front too. Must everything be so obvious? A
small logo above the breast, a wink, an inside joke. We were there, we know, you weren’t, you don’t, you’ll have to ask (“oh this old thing? Why Johnny and I got this in Zermatt, Switzerland, hey honey, do you remember when we went to zermatt, yes, zermatt. Zer-matt. Two T’s. No, that’s in Spain. Zermatt. You lost your glasses there. Yes. Yes. That was Zermatt. Anyway, I got this in Zermatt.”)

Somehow it’s dinnertime. Tonight is my dinner date with Paul and Kate. We dine at Chez Gaby and swap final tales of our last few days. We do some more Brit-American comparisons. On the menu is something called “Chinese Fondue” which instantly has my defenses up. Google tells me this is, in fact, just hot pot, but I still suspect it involves something with gongs and ching chong wing wong. Anyway, we all have röstis (this now my third). We talk smack about the Dutch. They head back on a train to Täsch, where they’re staying, but not before we exchange email addresses and wish each other well.

I go to bed. When I wake up the next morning, I have a feeling in my bones. I half-unzip the tent flap. Clouds. Down to the trees. ugh. I go back to bed. Hike to Schöublehut (7hrs round trip) cancelled.

Arise again at 9am and make another lazy day in Zermatt. I walk the entire town, all the way to the suburb of Winklematten. I find a pub patio to settle into, Papperla Pub, whose name i didn’t understand until I heard a norwegian say it outloud, at which point I hated it.

By 11am, the sky is completely clear. My lunch arrives, a wrap, and a 5 dL of Kronenburg 1664. A line on my glass marks the exact volume. I am getting a very precise and scientific buzz. Read three of Nine Stories by JD Salinger. After this, I’m taking a break from 1950s American fiction. Everyone is a fucking lush. They drink like they lived through Prohibition and are afraid it’ll come back any day. Another 5 dL of Kronenberg 1664. I might just get quietly drunk here all by myself. The fine thing about drinking in alpine towns is that any flush can be attributed to sun exposure. Hiccup.

I decide the legs could use a stretch. Broad daylight, high sun, there I am, teetering down the glamorous streets of Zermatt, honking people out of my way. Honk. Honk. Hallo. Perdón.

Highly disappointed by the lack of Helvetica in the store signs. This font should be everywhere.

Supermarket. I discover these amazing “paprika chips”, which I’ve decided is merely barbeque flavour. I conjecture that barbeque is not a compelling notion to Europeans. See, I am learning much about other cultures on this trip.

Day 17

Last day in Zermatt.

In the morning, I find a beer left at my doorstep. My tent neighbors, Czech college kids, have left and have given me a present. It pays to be social.

Matterhorn

I walk out to the Schöeblhutt. Takes me 4 hrs to reach the hut, up a long gradual ascent, facing the Matterhorn nearly the whole way. It’s a pleasant walk, through grassland, thru the village of Zmutt, up along morraine walls, alongside the Zmuttgleischer, passing melting glaciers strung around like tinsel. The final view from the hut is exquisite. Diners stare up at the Matterhorn with binoculars, looking for climbers. I see nothing. Glaciers everywhere. Hear the occasional crack and rumble, as ice and rock shift, break, and fall from their perch. A German couple chats me up at the viewpoint. When I travel, I like to assume I’m the first Asian person they’ve ever seen in real life, and try to represent myself accordingly. Politely assertive, charming and winsome, open and diplomatic. Got to set the record straight, person by person, country by country.

Schobielhutt

Slow walk back, realizing this is my last walk through the Alps. It makes me wistful. I soak it up, taking deep breaths, drinking the light with my eyes. I’ll try to carry this memory for a while.

Dinner: Nelly’s bar. Quietly one of the better restaurants in town, in my opinion. Evidence is their refusal to serve rösti. Instead, springbok steak (think African mini-antelope), medium rare. Tender and tasty. Bonus points for the jazz music played overhead, replacing the usual Swiss mix of pop single gems like Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”. Eventually, the jazz standard
“Love and Marriage” comes on, reminding me of Married… With Children. Let me posit right here that MwC is culturally the most British show this country’s ever made. Firmly working class family. Mostly unattractive cast. Near constant lesson to never try to rise above your station. It’s all there.

{ Walking back to camp, I see the girl from my first night in town. She spots me and closes the distance with alarming ease. We are talking. This girl won’t quit. She has the absurd notion that I love her deeply and will never let her go. It probably did not help that, on that first night, I told her, “I love you deeply and will never let you go.” see, problem was that she said it first. “I love you, ya’know.” Just like that, casually. Real breezy. Each of those words are nuclear weapon components– “love”, of course, being the most toxic of them all– assembly in the appropriate order, well now you have a potent weapon of mass destruction. What sort of thing is that to have in your back pocket, someone’s love? A hard line into another person’s soft center. “Are you leaving tomorrow?” she asks. “Yes,” I say. }

My Czech beer and sleep. Goodnight Zermatt.

Days 18-19

Today is a travelling day.

4:30am. Arise to darkness. I break camp by headlamp. First train out of Zermatt to Geneva. I fret about not having bought a ticket yesterday for my 5:38 train… for nothing, the ticket office opens at 5:15 sharply. 92 francs, directly to the airport. I have to transfer to the InteRegion line in Visp, with a 20 minute holdover; he tells me this in a tone suggesting that that is an absurdly long time. The train leaves precisely at 5:38. I set my watch to it. On the train with me at that hour: other airport-bound passengers, commuters, and teenagers going to school. At the transfer, I take my time, using the restroom, which is lit entirely by UV light. My skin is blue, but a common carrier bathroom is exactly where you want an irradiating light; are you listening Penn station?

apparently alot of cruise boats go to corsica

My flight is to Ajaccio, a coastal city on the French mediterranean island of Corsica. The plane flies over the Alps in the most scenic window seat experiences ever. I try to trace my haute route, but it’s too sudden. The woman in the aisle seat gives me a nice introduction to the French people by jamming her camera by my face and
at the window. “Pérdon” will only get you so far, sister.

DSC_2979

Corsica. The Corsican people are fiercely independent and threaten cessession from France regularly. They’re all about Le Corse. Businesses not started by local Corsicans are boycotted, even firebombed. Corsica liberated itself during WWII, two years ahead of the mainland. Ajaccio is the ancestral home of Napolean, and everything is labelled accordingly. Corsica is also home to the esteemed hiking trail, the GR20.6 Thus ends the unconfirmed fact portion of this post.

DSC_2929

I meet my friend at airport. Nancy is a law school classmate, one of those rare breeds, the ones that I actually like. She is just starting her bar trip, due for Paris and Italy. But now it’s us in Corsica. She has an old family friend with a house near the beach here, and I’m crashing the party. With glee.

wild man, famished

Nancy is shocked at my appearance. Two weeks in the Alps have turned me into a wild man: skin darkened to the bone, hair now a mane, my face and body emaciated, testing the limits of my Teddy-bear, anime-character good looks. I give it 1 month in the States and it is back to status quo.

hosts

Her family friend Rosario and her husband Lukas open their homes to us. She is an itinerant Colombian with a heart of pure gold. He is a freespirited Frenchman, nearly a stereotype, complete with French pride and shoulder length hair. They feed us otherworldly food every day: lamb chops, foie gras pasta, saucisse de marteau, feta cheese tuna salad. I’m a proper guest, eating everything and asking for seconds, polite and winsome, my checkmate being a truckload of Swiss chocolate. Mama Crab didn’t raise no sea urchin.

We hit the beach daily. Toes in the sand, napping, reading a novel, intermittent dips, the dutiful scans of the beach. Vacation. French beaches are liberal, natch, and I grow as a person. I hope to reach the level of maturity wherein I am completely unfazed by the sight of boobies in the wild. I am close; could have used a few more days.

DSC_3030

I do not bother seeing much of town, outside one 50m stretch of sand and one evening outing through the old town. The streets are relatively empty. With French summer season officially over (aug 31), the crowds are gone; and only the French vacation here. I can’t decide if the serenity gained outweighs the people-watching lost. Still, it’s vacation.

Day 20

And as suddenly as I arrive, I leave tomorrow. Rosario and Lucas decide to spend my last day on a quiet beach over the mountain. They pack a proper picnic.

Our small car whips up the countryside. Lucas puts in a hissy cassette tape, and out comes old Spanish songs, belted properly by a cantodor, the accompanying guitar starting and stopping. The road is winding and the car dances around the sharp curves, its tail swinging with a flourish, to the music. The sun shines, the grassland is dry, everything is a shade of amber.

A few cars are ahead of us. We shares look of concern over our beach’s exclusivity. But no worries, they eventually turn off at a fork. “The tourist way,” Lucas sniffs.

It’s a short walk through brush, and voilà, small quiet beach, enclosed by rocks and warm shallow water, with a view of the Islas Sanguinarias. Apparently, unlike in the States, empty quiet beaches are a rarity in Europe. Lunch. Drink. Serenity. We play dominos on a beach blanket. It takes me a few games to grasp strategy. Dominos has elements of spades and Big Two, in that you have to count cards to calculate your ability to control a given round. After a few bumbling games, I win a string of three. Lukas wins the next one, and jokingly boasts, “Ah, do you smell that. A fragrance so sweet in the air. It is Victory.”7 Too comfortable and forgetting my status as Most Favored Guest, I retort: “It’s not something one smells very often.” Rosario roars in delight and gives me a high five, but I know I have awoken Lucas and tempted the fates. He wins the next 5 rounds.

A picturesque sunset and we’re home. I help cook dinner by peeling (read: butchering) carrots. Dinner: lentils, carrots, saucisse du marteau. Simple but delicioso. The addition of French mustard surprises me with its sublime heightening of flavor.

On the patio, we dine and talk. Given our make-up, our conversations are a mix of English, Spanish, and French. I only speak the first and surprise some with my occasional comprehension of the second. I try to tune into the French psyche, and, true to the literature, Lucas is game to wax on about the enlightment of France. We all know about the food, the long lunches, the generous vacations, the cultural pride. This suggest the French care deeply in their quality of life, refusing to sacrifice it even for individual material gain. They take seriously what they do, with a high degree of pride and care, demonstrated from the waitress to the CEO. There’s no concept of grinding out a living or checking the boxes. Or so he says.

INTERLUDE: pub tables

Some stories fall through the cracks, some stories die at the publishing deadline. These are the remainders.

Day 15: During my four hour tenancy at Papperla Pub, I may have immersed myself in the surrounding tables. One table featured a local business owner, entertaining two friends. He calls the waiter’s name, Edwin, in alternating singsong accents. They make a joke of formal stilted English (“Thank you so very much Ed-win!”).

My favorite table of the entire trip saunters in an hour after I finish eating. They are an American family, and boy are they ever. A blonde Aspen mother, aloof pepper-grey father tethered to a phone (stepping away every quarter hour to take this one, hun), a brood of four, every one firmly lodged in the awkward era of adolesence. The daughter is excitable, and had
scouted the restaurant like a good herald (“Ma, Ma, they’ve got BURH-gers, Ma, look!). The big one, Lester, has a lumbering gait, and mumbles answers to the good Father’s questions, to which Father pleads directly to Mother, “what did he say? I can’t understand him,” of course in Lester’s presence. Lester, I hypothesize, is not a large taker in the family will. The little one is a prize winner, with a permanent IV of rocket fuel into his blood, rocks back and forth in his chair, a blathering stream of high pitches, like an infant performing a James Joyce reading. The middle one, bless his heart, is the only one with a chance. He’s bright, calm, observant, all demonstrated by his ability to use the WC independently and without incident. On his return: “How’s the bathroom here?” asks the reclined Father without turning his head, removing his sunglasses, or adding inflection to his voice. This is the bastion saint of hands-on parenting.

Daughter: “Mom, can you order for us? I want the piz-ZA.” “Okay, honey.”
Waitress arrives, signalling the climax of this story.
Mother: “okay we’ll have three diet cokes–” “ME too Ma!” “–okay, four diet cokes. And we want the nachos, but can we just have the cheese on the chips, and on everything else, the other toppings, on the side?”
Waitress: “…”
Mother: “and a medium pizza, is that spicey at all? Please, no spices. And I’ll have the seared tuna salad, dressing–”
Waitress: “on the side?”
Mother: “on the side please.”

I have had enough sun, and move to the shade on the other side of the patio.

Day 21

I say goodbye to Rosario and Lucas, trying to express as much gratitude and love as is possible at 7 am. Morning flight to Geneva. I have 24 hours in this city.

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Geneva. A machine at the arrival gate spits out a free train ticket, to go from the airport to the city. Once in the city, guests of any hotel, hostel, or guesthouse are, by law, given a free transport card to be used throughout the city’s bus, tramway/light-rail, or train system. I feel welcome. I grab a tourist map from the hostel and plot my 24 hrs.

giant legless chair art installation in front of U.N. HQ

First, Red Cross Museum. A guidebook description suggested there would be photographs from war time, depicting humanitarian efforts, but it’s more like art inspired by Red Cross history and principles. 11 exhibitions, contained on a single floor. Takes an hour to explore. The place comes across as a love letter to the Red Cross. Probably not worth visiting. Still though, it inspires me. If I had a child, I would send them to volunteer for Red Cross. It would be good for their character and integrity. It’s all part of my plan. Though I am still 59 steps away from having children, I have a detailed child-rearing plan worked out. I won’t elaborate on it, but you can assume a good amount of character building and woodlands is involved. Believe me, everyone’s got such a plan, and more or less, it’s a direct inversion of their own childhood.

A Girl with Translucent Skin and The Stick Bug Accompanying Her

I tour the Old City, up a few cobblestones streets, past the Cathedral, into a bland restaurant across from the Pallas du Justice (court house). I swear I see Kofi Annan strolling down the street, but no one believes me. No sign of Moon.

escape artists

Souvenir shopping on the main shopping street. 3 lbs worth of Swiss chocolate in as many bizarre flavors as I can find. Swiss army knife. Sigg water bottle. The citizens of Geneva are worthy of a good people watching session. Many women, many double takes. I estimate this is the effect of spending weeks in the mountains, surrounded entirely by mountain men and climbers. I get anthropological about my gawking: one may categorize American women as either 1) Fat, with varying levels of comfort, or 2) Skinny. Some women here seem to exist in an entirely different category of Just-Right. They have shape not quite volumptous. Their skin is also noticably blemish-free, but I may be vulnerable to the ruse of cosmetics.

lamb shank

Dinner at the restaurant Les 5 Portes based on a great tip from the hostel reception. I sit alone, outside, on a balmy night. Waiter brings the menu; it’s a giant chalk easel, leaned against another table, for my use. Can’t read a word of it, so I trust his recommendation for Lamb shank. Delicious. I eat, write, and flirt with a new habit: sitting with one’s legs crossed. I am cosmopolitan by inches.

The couple next to me weighs communism against socialism. I google the difference.

Thought: other people’s children. Angelic miracles or relentless growing machines that highlight your own advancing age (“He’s eight years old already!?”)?

I stretch my legs and walk the streets. It’s a Thursday night with few lively parties or active discoteques. I walk guided by a vague sense of direction and a tourist map. I stumble upon Geneva’s “ethnic block”, highlighted by a spate of döner kebab joints on one side and streetwalkers on the other. My pace is now brisk. I reach the waterfront, witness the thumping music of the hotel bars, and turn for home. I walk a dark alleyway shortcut home, a path I would never otherwise attempt.

Bed time. I walk into my dorm room at the City Hostel, and the two Frenchmen are deep in conversation. The room smells ripely of manhood. I crack the window and make overt preparations for bedtime: large brushing motions, loud yawning, flinging of bed covers. They accommodate me by moving their conversation to across their bunkbeds. The French, i have concluded, in some ways, are the Chinese of the West. At a glance: nationalistically self-centered, xenophobic, rude to strangers, strong food culture.

9am morning flight to Newark. Blow the last of my Swiss francs on airport chocolate. And that’s it for me.

So long, Europe.

Epilogue

In all, an outstanding trip. I saw beautiful things, considered life, and returned better looking than at my departure.

The glaring subtext to my adventure had been the impending start of my new career and, more generally, undeniable adulthood. Being in your “Mid-To-Late-Twenties” means your self has reached a hardened, stable state. Hopefully you have taken full inventory of your sharpest weapons and your armor’s chinks. You have a sense of your potential and your limits. You have some career inertia going. Now what, really, is the question.

Hearing I did this trip alone, people have asked me if I came to any grand conclusions about life, believing– justifiably so– that I spent much of my time squating on a mountain top, stroking my beard. Sure, I did indeed contemplate the depth of the human condition, but mostly, I replayed the entirety of my life through my mind. I watched my polite childhood, my awkward growth, my supposed bloom. I traced and retraced where it all went wrong (somewhere in 6th grade, with an ill-fated rivalry). I reviewed my entire career as a romantic companion (a true blooper reel). I surveyed love and measured marriage. I plotted my own life against about those of bright and distinguished stars. I marshalled my every what-if, perhaps-so, dreamy-eyed, phantasmagorical aspiration, and… and… and… I don’t know.

Each day brings me closer to both (1) comprehension of this world, and (2) death, and that’s just something I’m going to have to get used to.

Those days immediately proceeding a return are always the most provocative. You still have that travel state of mind, but are clearly in your comfortable surroundings. Do you use your new eyes to take stock and reevaluate your Everyday? Part of me wants to purge my life and feed reader, and start anew. Digest a few more books. Send a few more letters. Romance a conversation with a bottle of wine. Love someone.

Who knows. How’s that for a conclusion?

  1. which i know from these useful language tapes means “blue fromage” []
  2. col – fr. mountain pass []
  3. Wifi at le club alpin, CHF 5 for 1 hr. []
  4. There’s more of this “non-potable water” nonsense, but I drink it anyway. []
  5. I should hope he made something of his life (he did), Senator Kennedy had more opportunity than any American I can think of. []
  6. but please, Im here for R&R on the beach. []
  7. Trust me, it works in a French accent. []