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Different Paths Through the Swiss Alps

Bock is a reporter for the Seattle Times

We took a dark-green train from Zurich to Chur, a bright-red train from Chur to Samedan and, finally, squeezed into a skinny, cherry rail car with wood slat seats and windows open to the warm smell of hay.

The little engine whirred up to the Swiss mountain village of Pontresina and dumped us off--me, my husband, Tao, my mom and dad--hiking boots slung over our shoulders.

It was summer. We had come to walk the Alpine paths while the wildflowers were in bloom. We had come to celebrate wedding anniversaries (45 years for my parents, five years for Tao and me), 30th birthdays and the end of Tao’s long nights on call as a pediatric resident.

“Celebrate everything!” my parents have taken to saying as they approach their 70s. Good health! Good minds! Good teeth! All these things, still good, still here, but who knows for how long?

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So, Tao and I figured, why wait? We splurged. We had come to be with my parents. We had come to eat chocolate.

The secret about eating chocolate in Switzerland is that you burn it off hiking. The secret about hiking in the Alps is the trains. Cog trains, chairlifts, gondolas and even horse-drawn carriages will take you to the top of many peaks. In most cases, you can also ride back down.

On our first morning in Switzerland, we clambered into a funicular, a sort of vertical train, that rose gently through a fir forest before ascending steeply above the tree line into fields of gray scrabble, mossy rocks, melting snow. Mountain flowers lined stream beds and spilled out of rock crevices: Queen Anne’s lace, lavender bells, pink alpenrose, tiny blue forget-me-nots each with a dot of yellow sun, wild purple pansies no bigger than a two-franc coin.

At the top, we could see the length of the Upper Engadine glacial valley: sparkling St. Moritz lake, para-sailors floating like human kites, a toy village far below. At 8,000 feet, the sun feels hot, the air cool. There are hardly any bugs. Perfect walking weather.

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Before we could take a step, my dad began scrounging around in his fanny pack for the chocolate. I love chocolate, especially Swiss chocolate, because it lingers smooth and elegant on the tongue. I broke off a piece. The brown and silver wrapper looked suspiciously familiar. A Hershey Bar with almonds. In Switzerland. Not only that, Dad had 23 more bars stowed in his off-brand, roll-aboard suitcase back at the hotel. He had gotten them cheap from a Chinatown sidewalk vendor while visiting my aunties in New York.

I had forgotten my dad’s penchant for bulk bargains, and it made me realize how rarely I see him these days. A whole box for $5! Cheaper than one bar of Swiss Lindt chocolate! He exaggerated. He beamed.

We walked. Carved wooden signs told how long it would take: Alp Languard, two hours; Pontresina, five hours; Val Roseg, all day. We crossed chalky glacial streams on boulders and plank bridges, the trails leisurely traversing the mountain, in no hurry to get anywhere.

This is the big difference between the Swiss Alps and the Pacific Northwest, where we live.

In the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, most of the switchbacks zigzag fast and steep, rushing somewhere beautiful. Hiking in the Northwest, Tao and I inevitably have a destination. Usually the destination is the summit.

In Switzerland, the paths amble, gaining altitude gradually. The summit is not the goal. After all, you can ride to the top. So the goal becomes the walk itself. What you see along the way. Who you are with. We were with my parents. And to my parents’ joy, we shared the paths mostly with older people, folks with white hair and curved spines, their faces speckled by the sun and lighted by beautiful smiles.

“Bonjour, Guten Tag,” they greeted us. My parents smiled back, commenting on how cute and vigorous the old folks are here in Switzerland. They have lately taken to pointing out cute old folks, perhaps because they delight in the obvious contrast. My parents’ hair is still thick and black, their eyes bright, spines straight. They look a decade or two younger than 70 years and often less haggard than their own kids.

But you can never tell if it’s going to be a good day for my dad’s knees. When his knees are bad, he feels his age dragging him down. My mom, at those times, seems to sag a little too. Switzerland, fortunately, is the perfect place to walk if your knees are not so good. In the Alps, every day was a good day. My parents walked for hours. They wore us out.

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*

So the days went. We took the train to different hiking towns, often rode up, almost always walked down, ate hungrily at night, slept deeply under poofy white comforters. Zermatt. Saas-Fee. Murren. Meiringen. Interlaken. Visp.

One of my favorite walks was down from Pontresina’s Val Roseg, a snowy glacier mounded like coconut ice cream on a blue plate. For four hours, strolling alongside a gurgling brook and under dappled larches, my mother talked about her old friends in Hawaii, her home 50 years ago.

There was Betty, who married a rich guy who was a milquetoast, then ran off two weeks later with an Air Force pilot, dashing if you like the pomade type--and wouldn’t you know it, the milquetoast guy turned out to make a fortune in prefabricated concrete slabs--wartime, you know, they used those slabs for the air-landing slips. So Betty lost out, you see, but only because she was the type to marry for money.

My mother stops to take a breath, inhales the cool glacial air. She seems so content, tromping along in her chunky suede hiking boots with the wide red laces, babbling about whatever comes to mind. I wonder why this story surfaces now, here, in Switzerland, and I am reminded that Switzerland was neutral territory during World War II. Ah, the War. Prefab concrete slabs.

It is amazing, really, that we can amble happily like this for four straight hours, for two whole weeks. Since we moved to Seattle from the East Coast five years ago, we see my parents only once or twice a year.

At their kitchen table in Connecticut, I nag: Watch your cholesterol! Soy sauce is pure sodium! Call the doctor about that cough! Out to dinner in Seattle, they hint--no, they demand--grandchildren.

All of this has to do with the passage of time. I do not want them to pass with time. They do not want more time to pass without grandchildren. On vacation, time stops; Switzerland is neutral territory. So we step around the nagging issues and walk on. Mom talks about old times; Dad draws little pictures with magic markers; Tao recovers from residency; I eat chocolate.

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Mostly we all talk about food. Food is an important part of any travel, of course, but for my family, food is also memory. This is something like Proust’s madeleine, only the smells are more pungent. Fermented black beans and steaming long grain rice, spicy paella at Thanksgiving, my grand mother’s pickled watermelon rind--still good, still crunchy and still in my parents’ refrigerator five years after her death.

Growing up, our meals were never bland, even when money was tight. “You can’t take it with you when you die,” my Chinese-restaurant owning grandfather used to say, “So you might as well put it in your stomach.” Food has always been my parents’ one luxury.

Now, walking through Switzerland, we talk about the meals we have just eaten, collectively re-creating the tastes even while the food is still digesting. Sometimes gourmet splurges, like halibut in tomato butter with a view of Alp Hitta. Other times, heavenly street food, like charcoal-grilled bratwurst that melts on the tongue like a hot cloud.

*

A few days before we’re scheduled to return to the real world, Mom insists on a side trip to Lauterbrunnen to see some waterfalls. The falls are actually the convergence of three glaciers, mega-meltdown. That she wants to visit them strikes me as odd as this is not a trip for seeing the biggest, fastest, highest. But we go anyway.

Trummelbach Falls are, indeed, spectacular. They corkscrew 4,620 feet down a mountain, gathering force and rock, plowing through pitted caverns. The spray makes the stone stairs slick, so as we walk, Mom clutches my arm and shouts to be heard.

She is saying something about how happy she is we were all able to come on this trip together. Yes, I nod, of course, me too.

I wonder if these waterfalls, the convergence of three glaciers, have some kind of special significance to my mother. A good friend once told me after her mother died that she felt some peace because even though her mother was no longer with her, in every circumstance, she knew what her mother’s reaction would have been.

I will never have that kind of peace. Even when my mother is clutching my arm, shouting at me, I cannot fathom her.

I know these waterfalls have nothing to do with Betty and the prefab concrete slabs, but I can’t figure out what they do mean. Perhaps Mom is seeing them as a fountain of youth? Or maybe a fertility pool? Something she read about in an old New Yorker? Or heard from one of my aunties?

She shouts again, says she is glad we are hiking now, because in 10 years or so, when she and Dad hit 80, they won’t be able to do this anymore, walk the Alps like this. Probably this is the last time they will come to Switzerland, she says, “The body deteriorates as you age, you know. . . .”

This is true, I know, but of course, I say, “Don’t be silly, we’ll be back, look at all these old people with their high-tech telescoping walking sticks--why, they must be in their 90s! Of course we’ll come back.”

As I speak, I know in my heart that maybe we will not. Every hike comes to an end. People die. Trummelbach Falls, though, they’ll always be around. My mom knows this, and it is why, I guess, she brought us here.

My mom knows that someday, perhaps way in the future, I will stumble across Trummelbach Falls while flipping through magazines at a supermarket checkout or listening to NPR in the car, and I will be reminded of this afternoon, the power of water, the relentless rush of time, how happy she was that we were all here, for a moment, together.

Quickly, before Trummelbach Falls start flooding out of my eyes, I concentrate on dinner menus. Remember in Saas Fee, those green raviolis stuffed with Gorgonzola? And then, the veal! The veal in . . . wait . . . how did they prepare the veal? Was it in a cream sauce? A brown sauce? Consomme?

Already I cannot remember. I feel panicked. I am afraid I will forget this trip, what it is like to be my parents’ daughter, to walk with them day by day, to argue over which train to take, to break bread and Emmentaler cheese alongside the trail. The veal of just three days ago has already slipped away. We had dessert after that. Fresh figs, candied orange rind, thin slices of fudge with walnuts. We had coffee. We had two weeks together.

The memory lingers, like chocolate, sweet and dark and achingly complex.

* For specific information on traveling to Pontresina and the Engadine Valley, see the Guidebook to this section’s companion story on the Engadine on L15.


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