Switzerland part deux Ð Magic on the mountaintop
November 3, 2005
Some may say there’s more to life than wandering the world on a bike, listening to Bob Dylan and taking photos. For them, that something more may involve a career, family, marriage or salvation. If that is their bliss, then more power to them.
As for me, well, I guess I’ve never really fit in. I’ve always worked to live, not lived to work.
As for affairs of the heart, they hang from my neck like a series of train wrecks.
And so be it.
This leaves me with the last subject of salvation. This has always been easy.
Give me two wheels, a camera, perhaps Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” and some distant back road and you’ve opened the Book of Revelation.
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I was in just this state of grace recently when I pedaled to the base of Switzerland’s Grimsel Pass. I had spent the morning pushing upwards into the velvet green and speckled hilltop villages of some of Switzerland’s most spectacular high valleys. Each sparkled below a strand of glistening white peaks. It was the kind of scenery that prompted an instantaneous vocal hootenanny. Or as the Swiss refer to it – a yodel.
“Yeeeeeaaaahooooo!” I hooted as I climbed. Then I climbed, and climbed some more. I continued climbing until I was stopped in my tracks by a perpendicular wall that rose 2,000 feet before me: Grimsel Pass.
Ever the sucker for punishment, I donned a Kong-sized smile and bolted toward the summit. Then I spotted something ahead of me. It was a person moving – a micro-dot on the horizon. I curiously pedaled faster wondering who else would be crazy enough. I had to know who …?
It was Walter from Wiesendangen – that’s who. At 61, Walter was hardly the Lycra-clad cowboy or Swiss weekend warrior. He made his assault on the summit casually, and in style. Dressed in a pair of slacks and dress shoes, Walter completed his cycling ensemble with a collared shirt and an old-school mountain bike. His laid-back smile looked as if he were riding to a luncheon affair.
“Gud morgen!” I shot out when I caught up to him.
“Morgen,” he smiled back politely. Unfortunately, with my greeting I’d used a third of my German vocabulary.
Walter barked out a row of sharp consonants in Swiss German.
“Instoutmialite,” I apologized. “Nicht sprechen sie Deutsch?”
Walter dribbled out what little English he could muster. After we had both made a few hack attempts, we each pointed at the summit then agreed to make the climb together. For the next hour-and-half came another wondrous, and nearly wordless, exchange.
At the summit of Grimsel, I shook Walter’s hand and said goodbye.
“Say hi to Arnold Schwarzenegger for me when you get back,” he said on departure, then he dropped down one side, and I the other.
Two days later, I reached the cosmopolitan city of Lucern.
I rode through Lucern to the main train station, where I was once again greeted by the warm smile of Alex “The Swiss Hammer” Grobet.
The next morning, we loaded our bikes and rode onto a ferryboat from Beckenried, across Lake Lucern to Gersau. From there it was a blur of Swiss townships: Brunnen, Altdorf, Erstfeld, and Andermatt, where we ascended the slopes of Oberalp Pass.
After an overnight stay in the village of Sedrun we cycled to our destination at the village of Waltensburg/Vuorz. Waltensburg is the kind of mystical place one envisions when thinking of Switzerland.
Perched 3,000 feet above the valley, Waltensburg looked like a sprinkle of rustic village dwellings, spiked by a classic church-top steeple. As I gazed at that the slow pace of villagers drifting among its streets, it reminded me of something straight out of a fairy tale.
Sometime later, Alex got a chance to show me around. We walked through the heart of the village, mingling with locals, milk cows and castles. In the midst of all the beauty was always some kind of curious Swiss-German sign.
Everywhere you turned there was a big bold sign ending in exclamation points. They were the visual equivalent of being yelled at. I had to ask Alex what gives. We came upon a rather drastic sign spelling out five harsh warnings in blood-red letters with dagger-like exclamation points. Whatever it was, it had to be something serious. I asked Alex what it meant.
He said it was a list of warnings not to pet the sheep dog. I was perplexed. Could a thousand years of bred behavior be knocked loose by a simple pat of the head?
It must have read something like this:
“DO NOT PET THE SHEEPDOG!”
“DO NOT SCRATCH THE SHEEPDOG!”
“DO NOT RUB THE BELLY OF THE SHEEPDOG AND COO KIND WORDS!”
“ROMANTIC INTERACTIONS BETWEEN YOUR PET AND THE SHEEPDOG ARE STRICTLY FORBIDDEN!”
“IN FACT … DON’T EVEN LOOK AT THE SHEEPDOG!”
We continued through town talking about Swiss and American culture and all points in between.
Besides mention of the president, nothing could get the Alex’s blood racing more than mention of American “Swiss cheese.” Real Swiss cheese, Alex informed me, was a handcrafted art form and came in as many varieties as there were mountain towns in Switzerland. America’s practice of peddling a single mass produced cheese labeled “Swiss” was, at the least, full of holes.
Alex decided to let me in on the real world of Swiss cheese. That morning Alex and I stumbled through the doors of Waltensburg Mountain Cheese Shop, owned and operated by his uncle Otto Bircher. He and his assistant, Alli Erdze, had been crafting their own special brand of Waltensburg cheese for nearly 25 years. On a good day, the two could put out 85, five-kilogram wheels. Alex and I stood witness as the two blazed out the day’s batch.
When we were done, Alex and I packed up a couple of blocks of Waltensburg, along with a couple of loaves of bread, some warm clothes and Swiss chocolate, before we strapped on our hiking shoes and headed out for a hut-to-hut hike in the Alps.
From Waltensburg, we ascended along a forest of splendid greenery through the next village of Andiast. From there, we continued, on a long strand of singletrack to an area known as Alps Mer to Panixer Pass near the 7,000-foot elevation mark. Clouds drifted over the landscape like giant curtains, momentarily exposing towers of monolithic rock, before shutting them out of view.
The last morning, Alex and I woke up and gulped down several cups of coffee before making toward our final destination at summit of Kistenstoekli Peak.
When we finally reached the table-top summit, the rock leveled out, and we were treated to a 360-degree panoramic view that could set your optical nerves on fire.
I rotated my gaze among the steep angular glaciers, soaring peaks and turquoise-blue lakes, dawning with angelic-white waterfalls. I was quite simply in awe.
We spent some time making photographs and commenting on the wonder of it all. As usual, it couldn’t quite fit into words. The experience seemed to once again put me in touch with something bigger than myself, like I suddenly, favorably, fit in.
Alex offered up a high-five and made one of his daily inquiries: “Well, dude, are you happy?”
I looked once again over the sweeping vista. Clouds were breaking without and within.
“Yeah, dude, I am happy … I’m happy.”
The only thing lacking was a little Bob Dylan.
Where in the world is Rick Gunn?
When: Oct. 10-25, 2005
Where: Grimsel Pass, Lungren, Lake Lucern, Stanstadt, Oberalp Pass, Sedrun, Waltensburg/Vuorz
Mileage log: 4,350-4,820
Elevation: 1,500-9,000 feet
– Editor’s note: This is the 10th installment in a series of journals written by former Appeal photographer Rick Gunn, who is traveling the world by bike. Along the way, he is raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.