Alpnach, the Alps, & a Lot of Cheese

alterity n. The state of being other or different; otherness.

By the time Obwalden finally cleared up, I was chomping at the bit to get into the mountains.  My time in Alpnach was flying by, and I still hadn’t really done much hiking.  Ten days seemed like so long on the front, but five days in and I could hardly believe it was half over.  Time flies when you’re having fun, or so they say.  Before the weather fully cleared up though, Sinah and I made an attempt to get some hiking in, deciding we just couldn’t wait for it to clear up entirely.  So long as we stayed off the high peaks, reserving those for clear days when we could experience the full view, we would be fine. 

On Tuesday, we headed out without any real plan in mind; we would just see where the trail took us.  The nice thing about Switzerland is that literally everything is a hiking trail, whether it be paved roads or overgrown paths.  It’s virtually impossible to get lost because eventually, you’ll either come upon a honey yellow “Wanderweg” sign pointing you in the direction you need, a house, or an actual road.  And if all else fails, just walk downhill and you’ll be in civilization soon enough.  “Wilderness” is a bit of an ambiguous term here, but even the “wild” mountains by Swiss definition aren’t really that wild by my own.  You can feel like you’re deep in the woods, on a steep scree slope, and suddenly, you’ll emerge right next to some alpä, or the summer cabins utilized by farmers when they take their cattle up on the mountainsides for the summer months.  You’re never really away from civilization in Switzerland.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still beautiful and very fun to hike, but it doesn’t have quite the same wild element that I am used to.

So on Tuesday, we started out by wandering some of these lower hiking trails through the valley, first crossing across the valley to a small nature preserve set right along the wall of a large cliff that dropped off into some murky, slow moving water just above a little dam.  I used the easy walk to expand my Swiss/German, asking Sinah all sorts of questions and saying, “Grüezi!” to everyone who passed by to perfect the exact way the Swiss say it.  From there, we turned around and walked n the opposite direction, toward Lucerne.  The trail in that direction, unfortunately, passed right by a military base and thus for a good twenty minutes, the peace was shattered by the constant training runs of military helicopters, you know, for all that fighting in wars that Switzerland does.  I find it so odd that one of the most stereotypically pacifist countries in the world is so military oriented.  They even have compulsory military service for all young people.  Sinah opted to do public service for a year helping the disabled as opposed to military service and I can’t say I blame him. 

Eventually, we made our way up to Alpnachstad, the train station from which the Pilatus Bahn train, the world’s steepest train, ran up to the top of Pilatus.  We began hiking the Pilatus trail just behind this track, but since Pilatus wasn’t our goal for the day, we diverted off to the East up to a smaller sheer rock mountain called Loppert.  While the hike was fairly easy, it did ascend to a surprising 886+ meters at Renggpass and by the end, we were climbing off trail to actually reach the very peak of Loppert.  Standing on the edge of its cliffs at the highest point, we looked up to Pilatus and its twin peak Matthorn looming and looked down to see Lake Lucerne on one side and the valley of Obwalden on the other.

By Friday, the weather had cleared up and for once I could see the top of Pilatus starkly against the bright blue sky.  It was predicted to be clear until the early afternoon so Sinah and I got an early start, wanting to push it to the top before the clouds moved in.  Obwalden is situated in such a placethat weather gets caught between the mountains framing each side of it and thus finding clear days on these mountains is rare indeed.  A part of me feel bad for the tourists who pay so much money to take cable cars and trains up these mountains simply for the sake of the view and don’t actually end up seeing anything.  The other part of me finds a sadistic satisfaction in that.  If they can’t even put in the effort to climb it, then maybe they don’t deserve to see it, but that’s the pretentious hiking purist in me talking.

Rather than take the miserably steep path up the front side of Pilatus by the railway, we began out ascent by looping around the back side of the mountain, going up the longer, but more gradual trail that took us up to the saddle between Pilatus and Matthorn, not to be confused with Matterhorn, the mountain of all mountains in the Swiss Alps. I asked Sinah what “matt” meant in order to figure out why one was simply more matt than the other but he said its meaning didn’t make any sense in the context of a mountain, so who knows the secret behind the Swiss naming system.

As we drew up to the neck of the saddle sandwiched directly in between the two twin peaks, about an hour and a half faster than the estimated hiking time on the signs, we stopped for a quick snack with the cows that were free grazing in the field.  Switzerland is much like Montana, in that cows probably outnumber the people, and yet for having grown up in a place where cows are as common as crap, I would still yell, “Cow!” every single time I saw one, as I do with most animals.  If only I were so excited to see people.  Thus far, we had not actually run into many people at all, save for a few elderly people slowly making their way up the mountain and the occasional farmer.  I hoped it would stay that way.  After our snack, we first went to the right, where the trail to the summit of Matthorn wound sharply up a steep and rocky grade, actually lined with thick steel cables and rebar rods supporting the precarious rock. 

We ascended to the top, around 2,100 meters in elevation to find absolutely no one at the summit until a kindly elderly couple joined us as we were eating lunch. Of the two peaks, Pilatus gets all the attention because it’s more visible from below and has a more distinct peak, but Matthorn was just as, if not more so, spectacular.  At its bald peak stands a massive wooden cross, a guest book (three guesses as to what I wrote in there), and some rust brown gratings around the side to support the mountain and keep rocks from falling on Alpnach far below.  I joked about them being in place to catch clumsy hiker like myself when they tripped and fell down the mountain.  The views from the top were utterly spectacular, a 360° panorama of both Obwalden and Nidwalden and the dramatic Alps rippling like a seas of blue peaks, including the 4,000 footers like Jungfrau (which translated to Virgin I might add for some odd reason).  By the time we reached this point, the day was no longer perfectly clear.  A light haze had moved across the sky, obscuring the contrast of the lines, and clouds occasionally hid the very tips of the far mountains, but it was still the clearest day I had seen, and would see, during my stay in Switzerland.  

Eventually we descended back into the saddle and started up the opposite side, equally as steep, but covered in annoyingly loose scree as opposed to solid rock.  Be bowed our heads and pushed upward, ignoring the burning in our legs and the aching in our feet.  After about twenty minutes, half the estimated time for the final ascent, we reached Pilatus Kulm, standing at 2,128 meters.  Pilatus is kind of the symbol of the area.  From down in the valley, particularly from Lucerne, Pilatus does look spectacularly impressive, towering over the city far in the distance with its three little rock crags stabbing at the sky like the prongs of a crown.  Add in the mist and clouds that usually shroud it, it is rather eerie. 

It’s no wonder that during the 14th century, it was actually forbidden for people of Lucerne to make unauthorized journeys to Pilatus for fear of angering the “ghost of Pilatus” and other supernatural energies at work there.  One common myth of Pilatus was that fire-breathing dragons once inhabited its peaks, and since not a single Pilatus dragon has ever been killed (though a skeleton was supposedly unearthed in a cave), some people still believe that on pale moonlit nights you can see shadows of the dark scaly wings sweeping over the land.  Another common myth was that Roman governor Pontius Pilate had been laid to rest in the lake near the base of Pilatus and the man’s tormented spirit surfaced every year on Good Friday in attempt to wash his bloodied hands.  Most of these superstitious were dispelled in 1585 when a parish priest of Lucerne and a group of his followers threw boulders in this lake, even going so far as to wade in the shallows. When no insidious spirit appeared, they claimed to have broken the spell.

Unfortunately, since then, Pilatus has gained a lot of popularity and people are no longer afraid of it.  In fact, there’s even a gondola and a train that will take you right up to the peak!  Because that’s true mountaineering.  As one of the biggest tourist attractions in Switzerland, aside from Matterhorn and Jungfrau, the top was jam packed with people wandering about on the concrete platforms outside the train station and hotels.  The entire complex looked a bit like a space station and the modernity of it all really detracted from the wild satisfaction that comes from summiting a peak.  Rather than feeling that swell of accomplishment and adrenaline as I pulled to the top, I felt only disappointment at all the people getting the same view as me, without putting in any of the effort.  Now there’s a metaphor for life if ever I’ve heard one.

The view from Pilatus was much the same as it had been on Matthorn, save for it replaced Lake Sarnen with Lake Lucerne, but Pilatus simply wasn’t as satisfying because of all the people.  Nevertheless, we wandered around the top for a little while, through the tunnels blasted out of the mountain to see essentially the same view just from different angles.  At various points, there were actually groups of yodelers singings for the tourists.  Yodeling is actually quite different from the mental image I think many people hold of the art.  In fact, they are most often small groups of men who form such tight harmonies that the sound produced is beautiful, echoing, and haunting.  Because Sinah had free tickets for the train down, we actually decided to take it, rather than the hike the incredibly steep downhill path.  Though a part of me felt like the tourists I so begrudged, I justified it as being able to experience the world’ steepest railway.  Plus, the uphill is what truly matters.

We got back in the early afternoon, exhausted from the climb and the heat of the day and collapsed on the couch and hammock on the covered porch of Sinah’s house.  For the next several hours, I lay there with my eyes closed, drifting in and out of consciousness, as Sinash played relaxing tunes on my ukulele.   I tried not to concentrate on the fact that he had never even played a ukulele before and yet was a thousand times better than me (not that I claim to be any good).  Then again, music is what he does with his life.  Guitar to him is writing to me, so I tried not to let it undermine my self-esteem too badly.  We eventually plucked up the energy to walk down the street for kebabs are Alpnach’s version of a fast food restaurant called McOne, though it was nothing like a McDonald’s to which it sounds similar to.  It was also incredibly expensive.  For a reasonably large kebab, it was nearly 10 francs though something of that size would have cost maybe 3€ in Germany.  For my tap water alone, we were charged 2 francs.  Drinks in Switzrland are mind-bogglingly expensive.  I spent most of the time while we were waiting to order starting at the menu and pointing every single ridiculous price out to Sinah.  “8 francs for a shot of Jack Daniels?! That’s extortionate.  How do all pay for stuff like this?”  He somehow seemed less blown away by it than I was.

The next day we were aiming for royalty: Rigi, the Queen of the Mountains, so named because it is central viewpoint of Europe, and boy are the Swiss proud of it.  In fact, they’ve actually draped an enormous Swiss flag over the side of the mountain above the village of Vitznau that you can actually see all the way from Lucerne.  We got an early start, catching the train to Lucerne where we boarded a ferry that would take us to the base of the mountain.  Sinah had tried to ask his parents for the car that day but as they had plans to use it themselves, we were out of luck.  Mostly me, considering how expensive it would be for me as a non-resident to get over and back (close to 50 francs in case you were wondering).  Though Sinah’s attempts at getting the car failed, he walked away with a bright and colorful 100 franc bill from his parents to pay for our trip.  I tried to decline, feeling incredibly guilty.  There was no way I was accepting such a generous gift from them, but Sinah and his mother managed to convince me, mostly by making me think saying “no” wasn’t going to do any good.  I am still unsure of what I have done in my life to deserve all the kindness I get. 

The ferry ride was stunning, from the sunlit Lucerne slowly shrinking behind us to the Alps growing larger and larger, a lazy morning mist drifting through them.  Pilatus in the distance was more stunning than ever, massive and bold against the blue sky and reflecting off the glassy surface of the lake, dotted with little white and red sailboats.  Mark Twain perfectly summed up the view in front of me: “Pilatus’ every vein and muscle and tendon is vividly distinct. He sits in the flooding sunshine and has very much the air of consciously enjoying it.  He is the very symbol of majesty, solemnity and benignity this morning.”

While Twain commented generously on Pilatus there, his main focus was actually Rigi, which he popularized when he documented his climb up Rigi in chapter 28 of his travel memoir A Tramp Abroad.  He called Rigi “an imposing Alpine mass, six thousand feet high, which stands by itself, and commands a mighty prospect of blue lakes, green valleys, and snowy mountains.” To be specific, it reaches an elevation of 1,798 meters, just under 6,000 feet.  Mark Twain climbed this mountain in 1878 with his friend Joseph Twitchell, though the two of them took several days to make the hike that would take Sinah and I only a couple hours over their exact path.  His hike, however, was filled with humorous shortcomings and poor decisions that leads me to believe Mark Twain should have perhaps stayed behind the typewriter. 

As mentioned, Sinah I started our hike in Weggis at the ferry port.  Twain once called Weggis “the most charming place I have ever lived” and the town takes a great deal of pride in that sentiment, even erecting a memorial stone of Mark Twain in gratitude.  We began the estimated four hour climb upward, tracing the very trail Mark Twain took.  One different on our hikes already, however, was that Twain attempted the climb on a “dark and drizzly and cold” day whereas ours was sunny and cloudless, too hot if anything.  For a while, the trail alternated between actual trail and road but by the time we reached Felsentor at 1,100 meters, it was mostly all the trail for the rest of the way to the summit.  Felsentor, a “prodigious natural gateway[…] formed by two enormous upright rocks, with a third lying across the top” is just about the halfway point of the hike.  Legend holds that it was once home to a forest hermit by the name of Onuphrius who protected the animals and aided people who sought him out.  One day, after living over the age of 100 years old, he passed away and the mountains darkened until the sun came out revleaing a stony likeness to him standing at entrance of the natural stone gates.  Today, he greets hikers and sstill protects the region, which is why people say that animals are almost impossible to hunt in the area.

The stretch from Felsentor to Rigi Kaltbad was easily the worse, a long, steady loose rock trail out in the open with no shade protection from the harsh sun.  It didn’t help in the slightest that my hiking boots were finally showing their age and rubbing at my feet.  During the previous day’s hike to Pilatus, I had noticed a blister forming on my left heel, which I promptly poked and drained after getting home.  For this hike, I had covered it in Band-Aids to no avail.  It still stung with every step and by favoring the heel, a new blister was forming on the side of my big toe.  I don’t like complaining when I hike and I sure don’t like letting physical pain slow me down so I kept on pushing, hoping that I at least wasn’t tearing the blister sopen.

I was almost even excited to see the touristy resort area of Rigi Kaltbad by the end of it, and that’s really saying something.  Though Twain and Twitchell stayed overnight at Kaltbad on their hike, we only stopped for a quick lunch break and a re-doctoring of my foot before continuing on.  Rigi Kulm was in our sights now and my heel would not be sorry to leave the uphill behind.  Two hours and 10.9km later, we stood at the very peak of Rigi, feeling rather accomplished at the time we had made, especially when considering how long it had taken Twain. 

Just as Pilatus had been crawling with tourists so, too, was Rigi, as anything would be if it also contained hotels, restaurants, and mineral spas and could be reached by cogwheel railways or seven aerial cableways.  Go into the mountains just isn’t what it used to be, apparently.   Though the tourists were actually probably in greater numbers on Rigi the overall area of the summit was larger and it at least felt a bit less crowded.  And the view was stunning indeed.  With views of 24 cantons, 13 different lakes, primarily Lake Zug on one side and Lake Lucerne on the other, a sea of jagged peaks to the south, the flat rolling hills reaching up past Zurich to Germany’s Black Forest to the north, and fields of cows descending from the summit, the view encompassed everything that made up Switzerland.  Overall, I preferred the hike up to Pilatus, but the view on Rigi was better overall, and both were inferior to Matthorn simply because Matthorn had been tourist free.

As we sat down in the sunny grass, looking out over the southern Alps, Sinah was in awe of his own country.  “Even though I live here, I still think it’s amazing,” he said.  If we were talking about Montana, I couldn’t have said it better myself.  It’s funny how we can travel all over the world and yet there is still some hidden element to the place we call home.  It can’t be imitated or described, though poets and writers have tried and failed for centuries.  I’m just another in that great legacy of inadequacy.   I have seen beautiful and remarkable things over these last eight months, but nothing compares to Montana for me.  It will always be my home and no matter what wild impulses pull my heart away, I’ll always go back eventually.  It was funny sitting there with someone who felt so similar to me about a place so similar to this, just on opposite sides of the world.

After some time milling around the summit, we started the downward descend, this time going down the northwest facing side, opposite to where we had come up.  Usually I would gladly pick an uphill hill over a downhill but this time the downhill was such a relief, taking the pressure off my heel so much that I mostly forgot the blister was there.  It wasn’t until the jarring impact of our pseudo-trial running started to put pressure on my knees that I started to rue the downhill as usual.  But by then, we were almost to the bottom and soon enough we were in Kussnacht where we caught the train back to the Lucerne.  Once in Lucerne, Sinah wanted to show me more thing we hadn’t had the opportunity to see on our previous trip into the city: the conservatory.  High on the hillside on the opposite banks of Lake Lucerne, a beautiful little music conservatory sits in a green park overlooking the city.  It’s a charming and beautiful place and had there not been a wedding taking place there, I’m sure it would have been very peaceful a well.

We returned to Alpnach sweaty, stinky, and starving.  A quick shower fixed the first two and the barbeque dinner his parents had waiting for us fixed the latter.  That night, one of Sinah’s friends, who had actually lived in Maryland for quite a few years, came over and the three of us, along with Sinah’s father played a card game called Ligretto, which is basically a strange combination of Solitaire and Speed.  Unlike Jassä, however, I quickly got the hang of the game.  After that, we met up with one of Sinah’s band mates, with whom we had actually played Magic: The Gathering with a few nights prior (hey, I already play Lovecraft tabletop games and D&D, why not upgrade my nerd status even more?).  I was reluctant to go in the first place, being bot exhausted from the hike and feeling a bit stressed about getting behind on my blog, but Sinah talked me into it. 

We showed up to Up. a dodgy little building that was blasting heavy metal rock music to all but an empty room.  I could have left right away but against my better judgment, not wanting to be a spoilsport, I sat down and sipped at the massive Hoegaarden beer they set in front of me.  They said it was just a pint, but that thing was bigger than my head, so I still don’t believe it. The longer we sat there, the more apologetic Sinah got about taking me there.  “It’s not usually this bad.  This music is just terrible,” he yelled, or at least I think that’s what he yelled considering I could hardly hear myself think over the music.  But music aside, I actually wasn’t having a terrible time.  I liked Sinah’s friends and I liked being around them, though I guess I would have just as easily liked lying in my couch-bed at home as well.

Eventually, the music for to be too much and as soon as we finished our beers, we left to go to another bar, this one much more lowkey and a lot quieter.  There, we played our way through the typical barroom games: pool, foosball (which only frustrated me because I am so bad at it), and darks (which pleased me because I was surprisingly good at it- usually I made a point to avoid anything that involves both throwing and sharp objects but I was pleasantly surprised).  Yet I was also glad when the night came to an end and I could go home.  The though of my bed was getting more and more tempting and by the time I finally crashed into it, I was all but asleep on my feet.

The following Sunday morning, Sinah’s grandparents Fridel and Ursi, and his brother Elias came over and joined us for a large family (+American friend) breakfast.  I would never get over the food here in Switzerland.  Everything was wonderful all the time and just when I thought the bread couldn’t get any better, Sinah’s mom baked a homemade loaf of bread that was easily the greatest bread I have ever tasted in my life (and that includes Native American fry bread and the fresh basked bread I had in Morocco once).  “This is the best loaf I’ve ever made,” she said.  “Just for you.”

After breakfast, I learned how to place a marble board game called Dog with Sinah, Elias, and Ursi.  The games I’ve been learning to play here have gotten progressively easier and Elias and I as a team actually managed to win by a fairly marginal amount.  For the rest of the slightly chilly day, we all laid around, each doing our own small amount of work.  I blogged and went through photos, Sinah practiced guitar, and Elias edited through his master thesis, of which he sometimes consulted me on proper English grammar.  Eventually, fondue called us away from our work.  Cheese fondue is a very traditionally Swiss dish and Sinah had been going on and on about fondue since I had arrived.  This was the one thing I had been looking forward to most.  Normally, fondue is reserved for cold winter nights, but Sinah’s family was willing to make an exception so that I could try it.  It was everything I could have hoped for and more.  Swiss fondue is literally a giant hot pot of various kinds of melted cheese mixed with wine that you dip either pieces of bread or pears into.  The pears part sounds gross (or “gruisig” Swiss-German) I know, but it is actually oddly delicious. 

At we all sat around after dinner, playing games with Pedro and getting a few laughs at his expense, I felt as though I had become part of this family in some odd way.  Maybe it was just me, but these people had taken me, someone they only knew from Sinah’s stories and who, admittedly, probably didn’t sound like the most fun person from Sinah’s last memories of me, into their home, given me a place to sleep, put food in my stomach, with nothing expected in return.  I had grown familiar with their house and their rituals.  I could wash the dishes and put them all away having grown accustomed to where everything in the cupboards was located.  In a weird way, this had become my temporary home.  I guess my ability to attribute the word “home” to something so easily comes from not really having a home for so long, but still.  Once again, as I experience very rarely on my travels, I would be sad to be leaving this place, even though leaving it meant I would actually be going home, or to Philly at least.

The downside of the day was that I had still not accomplished near what I needed to by the end of the day.  I still had two blog posts to finish a host of other random things to do before I left.  Tomorrow, I vowed, I would be productive.  But I’d said those words before.  Remarkably enough, I was productive!  In the early afternoon, Sinah and I took a two hour walk to Sarnen where I could go to the Migros grocery store to buy myself a stock of Swiss chocolate to take back with me.  I was hoping the four massive bars totaling 1.2kg of chocolate wouldn’t cause me any issues going through airport security the following day.  After we got back, I set right to work and managed to write two posts totaling nearly 10,000 words for my blog.  In case you don’t know how much time that takes, it’s a lot. I essentially wrote all day, all the way up until dinner for which Sinah’s mom had made me one final traditional Swiss dish of Alplermagronen, which translates to “alpine herder’s macaroni”.  It’s basically homemade macaroni and cheese, but better, partially because it’s mixed with fried onions and partially because the cheese over here in general is just better.  If only there were a way I could take a lifetime supply of Swiss cheeses back with me, but I’m not sure they would fare nearly a day and a half of travel nearly so well as the chocolate.

After dinner, Sinah and I retreated to his room, where he sat practicing guitar and I worked on my blog, thousands of thoughts running through my mind. The next morning, I would be leaving, not just for my next destination, but for America.  I could hardly believe it. Ten days in this beautiful little place had come and gone in the blink of an eye and I would be returning to the real world for the first time in almost nine months.  I sat there thinking about the last ten days, feeling infinitely grateful to Sinah and his family for everything they had done for me.  They were some of the kindest, most fun people I had ever met and I honestly hope I will return to Switzerland one day if for no other reason than to see them again.  And I also felt remarkable grateful for my life as a whole, for the opportunity to even be over here going this, for all the people who loved and supported me across the ocean, for all the memories and friends I made, and for myself, for working hard enough to get myself here and being driven enough to see it through.  One thing was certain; it had already been a helluva great year and I was anxious to see what Philadelphia had in store for me for the rest of it.  I just had to make it through a few more airports first…