We had just arrived in sleepy Kandersteg the night after a long journey from crowded Vernazza. After the baking Mediterranean Italian sun, the cool mountain air of Swizterland was welcome and refreshing. Our hotel, built in the late 19th century, sat across from a racing brook (which the Swiss call bachs) along a gently winding street that was sparsely filled with Swiss-style hotels, chalets, and farmhouses. We were here for a hiking tour, and since the group wasn’t set to arrive until that evening, we decided to venture out on our own that morning. The woman at our hotel’s reception desk told us we could walk up to Oeschinensee, a lake some 5100 feet above sea level. “It’s an easy walk,” she said.
What I later came to understand, is that a Swiss person’s “easy” is what I might call “strenuous.” And when a Swiss person says, “That hike was interesting,” what they really mean is that on said hike they feared for their life. (We did not fear for our life this day. That came later.)
We found the trailhead not far from the hotel. Swiss trails are marked well with yellow signs and red and white trail “blazes” or painted markers. At first the trail led up a paved road. Easy, we thought. But soon the trail diverted us onto a gravel and dirt path alongside a river. We looked up, between breaks in the clouds, to see a waterfall streaming down the tremendous mountainside. Are we going up there? we wondered. Even higher, on the uppermost peaks, were snow, ice, and glaciers.
The path swerved back toward the mountain, and it was up over rock and root, stone and shrub, switching back here and there. We passed other hikers, who said, “Bonjour,” and “Buona sera,” and “Guten Tag,” and “Grüezi,” as the fog grew thicker and the air colder. Soon we had to don our rain jackets and sweaters, which felt strange, since we had just come from the hot climate of the Italian Ligurian coast. Up we went, climbing higher and higher, past dormant ski lifts and wide pastures, and through thick alpine forest, for about two hours, until the fog was so thick we could barely see ten feet in front of us. But we kept going, troupers that we were.
Soon, we began to hear a faint jangling, like those of wind chimes in a breeze. We seemed to reach a plateau, a grassy pasture scattered with stone. Suddenly, we were surrounded by cows. Dozens of them, grazing in this strange, misty pasture, their bells jangling from their necks, with no one else around. Just yesterday we were sweating on a beach, and now we are here, on a foggy mountain surrounded by cows. The moment was surreal, and we both paused, mesmerized by the sound. The cows, wagging their frayed tails, seemed unconcerned by our presence, almost as if we weren’t even there.
It was a supremely mystical moment. The air smelled of manure and cow and rain and grass, was cool and wet, and all was quiet except for the sound of the bells ringing. You can listen for yourself.
Eventually, we broke ourselves free of the entrancing and mystical sound of the cows to make our way to Lake Oeschinen. The fog hung low and thick over the water, like a blanketing shroud. A few people hung around the lake, but it was too cold to swim.
Eventually, we headed back down, passing the mystical cows, the wet and gnarled tree roots and dripping pines, back to the hotel to meet our hiking group. It was our first day in Switzerland, we hadn’t even gone on our first full hike yet, and already we had found magic. The next day, we would hike up to the same lake, where the clouds would parted to reveal the sun. Imagine our surprise, when we climbed up higher than we had the day before, looked down to the valley below, and saw this:
The fog had burned away by the next day’s morning sun, and the full glory of the mountains were revealed. And this was but one of dozens of such vistas we would have on our hikes across the mountains of Switzerland. The journey had just begun.
More to come soon…