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:


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.

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

The Valley of Light

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

My first clue that I’ve returned to the Canton of Graubünden  (Grisons) is the friendliness. People are open and chatty. I’m visiting the Eastern part of the canton, the Surselva, literally “above the woods” in Rhomansch.

Valley view

Rhomansch? That’s the fourth language of Switzerland, left over from the Roman Empire. To further confuse you, the inhabitants of Surselva speak their own variation of the dialect. Luckily for me, they also speak Swiss-German, which I speak as well.

A generous friend is allowing me to use his vacation apartment, so I’m exploring the Val Lumnezia. This week in late May, the valley is living up to its name. The sky shimmers with sunshine. Unlike some other valleys, this long broad valley is relatively dry, and the mountains aren’t as high. It’s accessed through a bus that starts in the town of Ilanz, which is located by a green turbulent river that bolts its way through a canyon. Rafting is popular, but I’m not in Ilanz for rafting. I’m here to get supplies for me and my hiking buddy, as the next day is a holiday. Unfortunately, I’ve underestimated the Swiss holiday fervor. All the stores closed at five instead of six-thirty, which means I have nothing for tomorrow’s meals except walnut pesto and a bundle of pasta. Okaay.

Ilanz old house

On the way to the old part of Ilanz

I have a few tricks up my sleeve though. Find a nice restaurant, relax, order off the menu, and then beg for whatever is transportable. I head towards the old section of town and find the restaurant Obertor, which turns out to be as nice as I hoped. As I enjoy a glass of the local Pinot Noir, which comes from Maienfeld, I discuss my victual challenge with the apple-cheeked waitress. Would I like them to heat up half a kilogram of frozen bread to take with me? Sure. How about some cheeses? Ditto that. A sausage? Now I’m in heaven. They’ve saved my bacon.

It’s still a tight community in the Val Lumnezia. My bus driver introduces himself by his first name, and gives me hiking tips. (If this doesn’t seem abnormal, you don’t know the Swiss-Germans).A woman picks me and my friend up during a steep up-hill climb with a hiking fishing pole and luggage. The passenger on one of my bus rides carries seedlings in a big woven basket from Amish Baskets. On another bus ride, the driver pulls up by a restaurant to everyone’s puzzlement. A minute later, newspaper handoff accomplished, he drives away again, leaving behind a satisfied co-worker who now has something to read with his coffee.

At the end of the Val Lumnezia, where the high mountain plateau Greina begins, I visit the village of Vrin. An old man is cleaning his scythe in the communal fountain. Laundry decorate the wooden buildings, which look like they’re blackened from centuries of smoke. I head towards the one place to eat in the village, a bakery, where I’m greeted by a voluble woman who praises the nut cake her husband makes. After she serves me on the terrace, her husband comes up himself to make sure it was all to my taste. Their cheerfulness aside, it’s hard to make a living in these little villages. The income from the months when the tourists come must make up for the long winter months of darkness and few customers.

Bakery Vrin

Stoked on sugar, protein from the nuts, and caffeine, I head off to look at the Hotel Péz Terri. I want climb through Greina over the pass over into the adjoining canton in 2018, and am looking for a departure point. I like what I see in Vrin. The Péz Terri probably hasn’t changed in fifty years. No corporate slick brochures and spa amenities. The young man who seems to be running the entire hotel talks with me about the best times to do the two to three-day mountain pass hike. He probably inherited the place from relatives; he’s cheerful and helpful, and I bet he’s a good cook too.

Entrance to Vrin's pensionejpg

Everyone needs a nice place to stay—even bugs.

Insect refuge

Insect refuge seen on hike

About five minutes out of Vrin I see the hiking path to Lumbrein on my right. I gladly leave the road, though there aren’t many cars. The two-hour hike from Vrin to Lumbrein is a pleasant walk through woods and glades; not too strenuous. The meadows are filled with dandelions, buttercups, clary-sage, and some yarrow. I rest above Lumbrein before continuing, crossing a brook with a newly constructed wooden bridge. As the end of the valley recedes into the distance, trees grow sparser, giving way to huge areas for grazing. With nothing to block my view, I can see the deep rift of the river valleys opposite me, branching off the Lumnezia. The sky isn’t mottled by a single cloud; the sun beats down; one of the first true days of summer.

Next year I’ll be back to Vrin, and I’ll continue to the high mountain pass.

On my way back to my hometown, I decide to stop off in Graubünden’s capital, Chur, perhaps best known internationally as the home of H.R. Giger, who designed the monster and the spooky sets for Sigourney Weaver’s break-out movie in 1979, Alien. However, I’m looking for a more heart-warming experience, one that celebrates community and local character. Luckily, I happen to have arrived on a Saturday, when Chur’s local market is in full swing.

Chur Marketplace

Ochsenplatz and Market

As tempted as I am by all the bread, cheeses, fruits, and other delicacies around, I have more than an hour’s trip back to St. Gallen, and my own kitchen table. I start scouting for a restaurant, and with luck, stumble upon Emma’s, a communal enterprise located near the Ochsenplatz, which translates ox place. The Ochsenplatz, part of the market that winds through several pedestrian streets, abuts the old city wall and a guard tower. According to my doe-eyed waiter, the old city wall still persists inside the surrounding apartments as well, visible in some of the kitchen walls. Emma’s itself looks like an old cellar on the inside, repainted in soothing pastels. Outside there are tables nudging up against the cheese-seller, who has her market stall right next to me. One of the owners, a young woman in a retro skirt, sits on the steps of the restaurant and chats with a table full of friends while her mother brings out drinks. Every day Emma offers one salty snack, and one sweet. I enjoy homemade smoked salmon rolls enhanced with crunchy beets, along with a glass of a local white wine, a Lauber Riesling Sylvaner. While Emma’s has great wines, don’t expect any bottled water. Since privatization of water creates an increasing threat to the well-being of the world, Emma’s serves fresh clean water from the Ochsenplatz. The 4 francs paid for the local water is donated to a project to improve water quality in Asia. (They didn’t actually charge me for the water, but I paid anyway). Clearly, the people who run Emma have their hearts in the right place.

Snack at Emma's

Emma’s snack of the day

And I got a great cup of Fair Trade coffee.

My last discovery of a rare treasure in Chur:

washing machines

The laundromat

Because while the scene below, in the village of Vrin, is picturesque, it’s not convenient for backpackers or hikers.


The outdoor laundromat, for those with extra time