The Kindness of Strangers

Solitude is a writer’s prerogative, and as my feet wander the earth, my brain wanders the terrain of my creations. It mostly works out. This last week was a challenge, with a painful falling-out with someone dear to me, and the supportive editor-spouse traveling to the land of his birth, to ponder on his origins and connect with his tribe. As usual, I packed my hiking pack, made some snacks, and got underway, ready to challenge myself with a difficult route. A funny thing happened though.

I was on the train which runs along the Walensee, the place I wrote about in my previous post. As I sat there, waiting for my stop, I heard voices—English speaking voices, some with American accents. It looked like a group was going on a hike. I curiously asked, and was invited along to the Zurich Outdoor Meetup excursion. Solitude is a prerogative, which also becomes a habit. I declined. I listened to everyone laugh and chatter. The leader asked me again to join them.

Underway by boat to the trailhead
Underway by boat to the trailhead

He made it easy to say yes to a route I’d already taken. (I don’t like to repeat routes or plots.) Well, this time, I wasn’t complaining about the crowd; I was part of the crowd. Two young American accountants from Zurich chatted easily with me; then I had an interesting talk with a doctor about how important it is for patients to assume some responsibility for their own well-being. It made me think again about differences in culture.

Like my heroine, Peppa Mueller, I’m Swiss in character and expectations, yet attracted to the ease and friendliness of Americans and other expats. The loose jokes, the voices ending on an uplift, the gangly ease of it all, creates a breezy feeling, sparkling like the lake of the water itself.IMG_4491

You have to write alone. But once in a while, it’s good to come out of your shell and gather impressions.

Then and Now: Walensee

I wrote this at Easter; the companion trip will be posted above. It’s interesting that in this post I complain about all the people around, and in the next post, I join a group and completely enjoy myself.

Just because the weather is warm, and no snow lies on the ground at 800 meters, where I live, doesn’t mean the places I want to hike at are snow free. I used to try hikes in March or April, only to be turned back by snowfields. I hate hiking in snow. It’s not the discomfort so much. The stuff is slippery. A misstep on a moderate slope turns into a quick slide into the valley below. Also, the snow covers paths, vastly increasing the chances of getting lost.

That’s why I have my go-to places early in the season. One of them is the path on the sunny side of the Walensee. That side of the lake has steep towering cliffs that rise to form the Churfirsten, a mountain chain that divides this part of Canton St. Gallen from the Appenzell.

IMG_4199The Churfirsten side of the lake also has no roads, since it’s too steep to build on. The biggest village, Quinten, which is about the half-way point, is accessible by foot, mountain bike, or ferry.
It’s Good Friday and the weather is more than good when I reach Walenstadt, the village at the mouth of the lake that’s the starting point for this hike, which is described as 7 hours. (Those who wish to do less can hike until Quinten, and the take the boat across the lake to the railway in Murg.) I take the main road towards town, passing the pretty painted house to my left, and continuing on until I come to the square with the town hall building. There, I turn left and follow the road along the lake, passing this old grocery store, now closed. IMG_4192After the harbor, there’s a big recreation area. A well-marked trailhead to the right has signs to Garadur and Quinten. The wide path is gravel, and easy to navigate. Now the ascent begins, up, up, and up to 800 meters, at Garadur. The farmhouse has a tap where I refill water. Garadur itself no longer has the beehives and big organic flower garden, but it’s still a place of peace. Meadows alongside the farm lead to the edge of the cliff, where far below, the lake shimmers in the sunlight.
The first glimpse of the pebbly beach occurs 45 minutes after leaving Garadur, but it will be another thirty minutes along the shore line to reach Quinten and the small harbour. There’s an almost Mediterranean feel to the air today, with the fresh blue of the sky and the brilliant turquoise water, and the wind making tiny wavelets. The air is dry and crisp.
Quinten’s two restaurants are open and packed. Apparently many people

Doorway in Quinten
Doorway in Quinten

had the same idea I did; the trial is crowded too, by my standards. I haven’t had my visit in the woods to relieve myself. The little artisan stores tucked into houses are opened too, offering local wines, made in quantities too small to be exported, and jams. Little figs the size of fairy fists are popping out in the trees; they can only thrive in this protected microclimate. Gardens are bright with hellebores and lilac scents that air. I pass through Quinten, hoping to leave the crowds behind, but get only intermittent respite. After about an hour, I wind down the trail towards some more open meadows. . Now I’m close to the beautiful falls, and cross the bridge to continue on.
The first clue that I’ve reached civilisation is the Restaurant Burg Strahlegg. Fat fluffy chickens wander around, pestering diners. After this, the road is paved and open to traffic, although normally there isn’t much. As I pass beaches and the Burg itself, which is a ruined fort, there are more cars than usual, which turn into a plague of black SUV’s. Still, there are periods which are traffic free, and quiet. I pass through the long winding tunnels, and soon can see the town of Weesen ahead My destination, the Flyhof, is right outside of town, seven minutes from the outermost bus stop. In the 12th century, when the venerable building was built, it was part of the women’s cloister. It’s undergone many changes since then, but the walls, thicker than my outstretched arm, and the timber cross-beamed ceiling speak to its historic antecedents. My single room has leaded glass panels and a wide wooden sill that serves as a table.

IMG_4218
I eat early, since I’m alone, and dressed in the next day’s hiking clothes, and a pair of old felt slippers that I carried. My meal, with generous wine, costs more than my room, but it’s worth it. A thick fresh chunk of Atlantic cod grilled and accompanied by German asparagus is heaven. Many restaurants make the mistake of not draining the asparagus completely, and then covering them with Hollandaise sauce, which gets diluted from the water, but not this one. They may have grilled the asparagus, and the sauce is swirled on the side, along with some raspberry vinaigrette. Because I covered a seven-hour IMG_4224trial in much less time today, I splurge and get a strawberry-rhubarb crumble. If you don’t like rhubarb, you should pass, but to me, the sour, moist rhubarb blends perfectly with the sweetened sour cream topping, and there’s a glass of an Austrian Chardonnay, Unplugged, to finish.
A wonderful hike and dinner, which for some reason I finish with reading a memoir about a man’s military service in Rhodesia and South Africa. He seems to have had fun, but I wonder why it is that violence and oppression can masquerade as a rewarding profession. I keep reading though, in the quiet old former cloister by the peaceful lake. I never claimed it made sense, did I?

Freedom and Blue Skies

Last week I hiked up to the Segnés Pass, 2627 meters. It wasn’t a pretty sight, me scrabbling up those last few meters, grappling with my sticks in one hand, scrabbling for a handhold with the other. At the pass itself, there’s an old military barracks that’s been repurposed as a simple guesthouse. From it, a young man watched me with concern, and offered help. “I’m alright,” I said, faintly embarrassed.

And I was. Because I saw this:

IMG_0554

Altogether, my hike was more than six hours, an elevation of 1200 meters on foot, and the same down again. Why do I do this?

To answer the question, I need to tell you a bit about how I grew up. Like most households, mine was run by my mother. As a venerable old person, she lives a tightly circumscribed, almost cloistered existence. Shifts in temperature distress her; she makes minute adjustments in her curtains and windows to control her environment. Last time she was to travel, she cancelled because the heat was turned off in her apartment, and she didn’t want to return to a cold home.

In other words, she’s like a beautiful hot house flower. Precious orchids thrive in glass houses, which could be a prison of sorts. It was for me. As a child, I had insomnia, and my dreams were marked with images of flight. I like nothing better than to see endless sky and distant vistas spread out before me.

Freedom. Freedom to go where I want, when I want. The freedom that comes from knowing I can take some discomfort. Maybe I’ll be sweaty, maybe it will be windy, I might even have a blister. I can handle it.

IMG_0542
Village of Elm. Taken from my hotel room

 

My hike begins in the village of Elm.  In October of 1799, villagers bore witness to the hunger and desperation of General Suvorov’s Russian army, fleeing the French under the command of General Molitor. Starving and barefoot, the 17,000 Russians, Tartars, Kalmucks, and Cossacks resorted to boiling goatskins taken from the villagers, and bolting them down, with the hair still on. Despite Suvorov’s efforts to maintain discipline and order, some soldiers killed livestock and ate it raw. The villagers, forced to accompany them as guides for the mountain crossing, fled under the cover of dark, leaving the soldiers to make their own way. Over 2000 of the emaciated, weakened men perished in the same range I’m about to hike.

I intend to climb well-fed, and I know where the pass is.

I’m staying at the Hotel Segnés so I can get an early start the next day. Dinner is whatever’s on offer, which happens to be a tasty lasagna, with a big fresh salad, and dessert. For a Swiss meal it’s a bargain, which is a good thing, as Elm doesn’t offer a variety of restaurants.

I’m up by six and fed before eight. Since I don’t want to hike more than 7 hours, I’m taking the cable car part of the way up, through the Tschingel ravine, named after the Tschingelhörner, the hornlike peaks where I’ll be crossing over into the canton of Grisons. (Graubünden). The majesty of the dark and gloomy ravine is marred by an ongoing silly recording broadcast loudly in the cable-car.

            I escape the cable car and head up. The “horned gods” are Tschingelhörnerawaiting. I draw closer and closer to the Martin’s hole, a circular break in the peaks. The church in Elm is lit by sun pouring down through the opening twice a year. Legend has it that Martin was watching his sheep, when a giant climbed over from the neighboring canton, with an eye for some mutton. The brave shepherd fought for his flock, and flung his shepherd’s crook at the intruder. Instead of hitting the giant, the crook flew into the stone wall Martin's Holeand shattered it, creating a hole. Much thunder ensued. Presumably the sheep were saved, hopefully not for General Suvorov’s starving army.

            As mentioned before, the old army barracks is right at the top. There, I spend close to an hour chatting with Patrick, the young Austrian who serves me soup and warm tea. The simple stone hut isn’t much of a tourist draw, and not busy. Patrick has arrived for his three month stay fortified with books. He’s just finished a book by the Dalia Lama. I suspect he likes the freedom up here, and the quiet.

Segnes Pass Lodge

Then I’m off to the other side, Canton Grisons. After a tricky descent, which is secured with some wobbly chains, but is still very steep, I arrive at a flat high plateau. Streams spread out like a web over the short grass and isolated clusters of brilliant blue gentians. As I descend off the plateau towards the Swiss Alpine Club hut Segnés, the flowers become numerous. There are thousands of yellow buttercups interspersed with white yarrow and more gentians. Some wild pinks and the orange of hawkweed dot the grass. I follow the famous Flims waterway down to Foppa, where I catch a ski-lift down to Flims itself.

In the mountains above Flims
In the mountains above Flims