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:

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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.

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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

Of Origins and Onerous Ascents

IMG_0490Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

Oh, it really wasn’t that onerous. But it was hot, and the 500-meter ascent (a third of a mile) of the mountain of Mythen took place in little over an hour.

It’s summer, and time to explore Switzerland, the home of my fictional heroine, chemistry prodigy Peppa Mueller. Though Peppa is apolitical, she’s proud of her homeland, especially after further misadventures land her in the political chaos of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the height of the 1950s IRA campaign.

Switzerland officially began with a written agreement, a pact, between representatives of rural communities in 1291. Their names are recorded: Werner Stauffacher, Walter Fürst, and Arnold Von Melchtal. The country of Switzerland is called Schweiz in the native Swiss-German dialect, and the state that Werner Stauffacher came from was called Schwyz, so plainly, the country is named after that first kernel. Schwyz and the states from which the other men came were collectively known as “forest communities.” Each of the leaders brought ten men. We’re not talking a huge, well-equipped army here. I imagine a mostly illiterate group of clannish men, with pitchforks and scythes as weapons. Then, as now, the Swiss just wanted to be left alone to tend to their cows and fortunes.

Schwyz and the other two states, Uri, and Nidwalden, are tiny, even for Switzerland, which is itself the size of New Hampshire. They’re known as the inner part of Switzerland. Though the landscape is mountainous, the mountains pale in comparison to the western and southern parts of the country. “Big” Mythen, which I climbed, is 1811 meters, (almost 6000 feet), but in the western state of Graubünden many peaks are over 3000 meters. Mythen is composed of a big peak and a smaller one; the big one rises starkly out of the still wooded landscape, a tower of reddish rock. The ascent, built by a local man in 1864 for the sum of 3000 francs, consists of steps hewn into the rock. Since a few accidents took place, the ascent has been additionally secured with chain railings. It’s steep, but safe, though I wouldn’t recommend it in rain. The Swiss Alpine Club designates it as T3.

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Once at the top, there is, as always, food and libation to be had. The hospitality is not as warm as in a family-run establishment, but it’s cozy enough, and has the usual wine, local cheeses, and homemade fruit pie (Kuchen). The lowlands lie spread beneath, dotted over with the crystalline sapphire blue of various lakes.

View from Mythen

A brief rain squall drives us all inside, where I notice the heraldic emblems on each chair. Apparently, all the donors of the association that manages the restaurant have their own family crests. The surly little man running the place tells me that everyone has a family crest. His own family has been in the area since the sixteenth century.

Heraldic emblem on chairback
Heraldic emblem on chairback

I get ready to descend, noting that the bathrooms cost exactly one franc. Since I don’t have a coin of that denomination, I’m looking forward to reaching the thick old forest that surrounds the peak. After a lovely wander through pines and thickly mossed rocks, I head down to the town of Schwyz (in the state of Schwyz). A few examples of lovely architecture grace the old town.

Door, town of Schwyz
Door, town of Schwyz

Mad women. Furious girls.

Feminism photoMulti-tasking. Nowadays, for a woman that might mean checking your phone for messages while changing your toddler’s diapers, while scheduling your bikram yoga class, so you can work on your dissertation afterwards. Women (at least in the West) have many choices these days.

As the old postcard shows, in Peppa Mueller’s day, women had a lot to do as well. Think of Betty, Don Draper’s wife in Mad Men. She had to cook steaks, fend off the amorous attentions of Don’s boss, make a mean cocktail, and grind her groin against the Maytag washing machine for some satisfaction. (Don was busy with other ladies).

In order to understand Peppa’s eccentric choice to collaborate with Ludwig Unruh, gentleman poisoner and dapper anthropologist, we have to understand what life was like in the fifties for girls.

Here’s Ludwig talking, trying to convince Peppa to work with him.

“You think a scrap of paper from Radcliffe will earn you respect? You’ve been out in the world now. You’ve seen a woman’s place. You can expect at best, a life of refined confinement, treated as a mix between a domestic servant and a concubine. And at worst, imprisonment, perhaps a spell in a mental institution, till they’ve broken you.”

He does kind of have a point, doesn’t he?