Riding across the Alps: Meaning can be found among those on the road and those you leave behind
November 2, 2005
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
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, 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, well, they hang from my neck like a series of train wrecks. Seems my slash-and-burn approach to relationships, thirst for freedom, and the subsequent hesitancy at marriage and offspring has landed me at a place on the potential mate list just above the recently deceased, and just below the limbless pygmy.
And so be it.
This leaves me with last subject: 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. Throw in a mountaintop, a chance to connect with some faraway person or place – a chance to grow, learn and give – and I’m about as close to God as one person can get.
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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 upward 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 inspired an impromptu 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 perpendicular wall that rose 2,000 feet before me: Grimsel Pass.
I crooked my neck upward. There before me, my eyes followed a twisted ladder of asphalt that slinked forever into the sky. Continuing my gaze, I followed it as it wound up, past the Rhone River to its source, the Rhone Glacier. Just above that, the road reached its terminus at Switzerland’s continental divide at the snow-lined crest of 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 person moving – a micro-dot on the horizon. I curiously pedaled faster wondering who else would be crazy enough.
It was Walter from Wiesdangen. 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 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. Their perplexing sound sizzled in my head like barbecued bratwurst. “Instoutmialite,” I apologized. “Nicht sprechen ze Deutsch.”
Walter dribbled out what little English he could muster. After we had both made a few hack attempts we pointed at the summit and 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.
I dropped northward for more than an hour, hit the flats, then continued on. Two days later, I reached the cosmopolitan city of Lucern, where, as usual, I felt underdressed. That was until I spied a man walking among the crowd in a spaghetti-strap tank top and high-cut underwear.
“What’s wrong with this picture …?” I thought to myself, then thought again. Who knows? He may have been completely insane, or, just bold enough to start Europe’s next big fashion trend. 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. He was accompanied by his ever-so-cool brother, François.
After pleasantries, we moved on to the nearby town of Stansstadt, where we were treated like kings in the penthouse suite of their uncle Joseph Bircher.
The next morning we once again loaded our bikes and rode on 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. At the top of the pass we said goodbye to François, who had to return to work, then descended the other side like a pair of tumbling dice.
After an overnight stay in the village of Sedrun, we cycled to our destination at the village of Waltensburg/Vuorz. Waltensburg was was the kind of mystical place that one envisions when thinking of Switzerland.
Perched 3,000 feet above the valley, Waltensburg was a sprinkle of rustic village dwellings, spiked by a classic church-top steeple. As I gazed at the slow pace of villagers drifting among its streets, it reminded me of something straight out of a fairy tale.
We rolled through town and up a dirt road to the home of Alex’s friends – Andreas and Karin Bohler-Candonau.
We were greeted by the playful smiles of their children, Orlando Dea, 8, and Luisa Catzina, 13. Later I would meet Karin’s other daughter, Rachelle Zora, 25, who lived in the nearby town of Ilanz.
Over a number of meals, artistically created by Karin, I was brought up to speed about life in Waltensburg. Andreas, it seemed, wore a number of hats – organic cattle farmer, ski and snowboard instructor, writer, director, playwright, etc. In addition, Andreas is a journalist working at the only Retho-romanche language newspaper in the world, La Quotidiana, located just down the road in Ilanz.
Over the next several days, Alex and I would be showered with hospitality in the Cadonau home. Sometime later, Alex got a chance to show me around. We walked through the heart of the village, mingling with locals, cows, and castles. In the midst of all the beauty was always some kind of curious sign.
There was always something a bit disconcerting about the Swiss-German signs. Everywhere you turned there was some big, bold sign ending in exclamation points. They felt like 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, written 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 list of warnings not to pet the sheepdog. I was perplexed. Could a thousand years of bred behavior be knocked loose by a simple pat on 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 everything from Swiss to American culture and all points in between. Besides mention of the president, nothing could get 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 very 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 “Waltensburger 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-kilo wheels. Alex and I stood witness as the two blazed out the day’s batch.
First, Otto pumped milk into a vat that dwarfed the average satellite dish. Then, when the temperature was right, one of them added a coagulating powder that separated the cheese from the milk, then cut it into tiny pieces or curd.
Transferring it into another monstrous container, the cheese was hand-pressed into a giant slab, which was measured out, cut, and and transferred again into single circular forms. After a few hours, Otto and Alli unloaded a herd of five-kilo wheels, which were sent down a long pipe and shelved in a cellar, where they’d be washed in salt-brine weekly, then aged age up to a year. When we were done, Alli treated us to a couple of slices of the aged Waltensburg. It was quite simply delicious. There was no doubt that when Otto cut the cheese, it brought about the sweet smell of success.
When we were done, Alex and I packed up a couple of blocks of Waltensburger, 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 and 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 sun filtered through the clouds like a spotlight, only to shift your attention to a stream, a waterfall or some ethereal mountain conglomerate. We hopped over small valleys and rattled over glacial deposition fields, which crunched beneath our shoes like a great river of rock.
We threaded through the nooks of stratified granite cloaked in a low-scrub vegetation of burnt amber, to a ridgetop where Alex cell-phoned his girlfriend. While Alex whispered sweet-nothings among the surrounding mountain tops, I snacked on cheese and tried not to listen. But something inside me became all ears. Instantly I became acutely aware that there was no special someone in my life. No receptive ear listening below. As Alex and I lumbered on, a great loneliness filled my insides like the looming gray of overcast skies. Alex seemed to pick up on something, and asked, “Dude, are you happy?” Not wanting to bring him down, I lied, and answered, “Yes.”
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.
Just a stone’s-throw from the hut, we scrambled up a steep incline of shale and rock until it grew perpendicular. Then came a tenuous move over a section of icy rock, all the while clinging to a length of chain bolted to the rock. One bad move here, and we’d splatter like pigeon poop on the rocks some 400 feet below.
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,” this time with the deepest sincerity. The only thing lacking was the music of Bob Dylan.
Where is Rick Gunn?
When: Oct. 10-25, 2005
Where: Grimsel Pass, Lungren Lake, Luzern, Stanstadt, Oberal Pass, Sedrun, Waltensburg-Vourz
Mileage log: 4,350-4,820
Elevation: 1,500-9,000 feet
“I been weak, and hard like an oak, I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke. Friends will arrive, friends will disappear. If you want me, honey-baby I’ll be here.”
– Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain”