My last post saw me in Oberstdorf, waiting futilely for my shoes, which never arrived. I have since given up on the European post office, and I am buying my shoes as I go along, which is very frustrating since shoes that will hold up to the kind of walking I am doing are very expensive.
I spent the night there at a church that was undergoing some renovation, so I had good cover from any passers-by. That night, it started raining, and continued into the morning of the following day. And the day after that, and the day after that. Each day saw me doggedly fighting my way through pouring rain as I froze my way over a mountain pass, came down the other side, and walked through hours through dense brush that ensured that I remained thoroughly soaked. Nevertheless, I pushed forward out of Germany and Austria saying my final farewells to those countries and waving to Liechtenstein, knowing that my journey would end there. Finally, I entered Switzerland, feet frozen from freshly fallen snow, and descended out of a cloud of swirling gray and white into lush valleys below whose verdant green meadows were assured by the continuous drizzle.
Every rain does eventually come to an end, and this storm was no exception. As I headed down south to the historical Italian town of Tirano, sun crept back into my life. I headed west, passing through southern Switzerland and moving into the canton of Ticino, exhilarated at the good sunny weather and the opportunity to make some good distance.
…only, not. Ticino is a small little area, due in no small part to the fact that the mountains here are steep. Really steep, and really close together. Because of this, many valleys remained relatively isolated until recently, so in addition to this, the trail quality, though well-marked, is poor. Every section was a 1000 meters up and 1000 meters down–some days, I walked more than two miles of solid elevation gain!
One day, I met an old man and asked him for directions. As it turned out, he was from Southern Italy and decided that meeting an American was a perfect opportunity for him to say everything that is wrong with my country. Now I recognize that there are cultural differences between America and Europe, and I also know that it is almost a cliche for Europeans to criticize American politics, but this guy was something else. His conversation could literally be reduced to, “You`re from America? In Europe, we`re not like you *(/&ç()()>greedy/%@# Americans.” I extricated myself from the conversation as quickly as possible and walked away with very negative feelings for this gentleman.
It is an interesting psychological phenomenon that one negative experience can override many positive ones, and I found myself dwelling unnecessarily on this encounter and feeling increasingly negative about Europeans in general, forgetting the many kindnesses and wonderful experiences I had had up to that point. However, as if to keep me on the right track, an hour later, I met Candyman, a Swiss who had hiked the Appalachian Trail. We chatted for a while and shared our dreams and ideas. When we parted ways, he handed me 100 Francs for my journey with the solemn command to spend it frivolously. I couldn`t believe it! I tried, very inadequately, to express my thanks, then continued in wonder at how generous Europeans could be.
This started a chain of interesting encounters I seemed to have on a daily basis. The following evening, I ate out on Candyman`s dime, finishing my meal with a glass of cognac. If I was gonna be frivolous, I was gonna do it right, but I had a difficult time expressing my desire to the bartender, so I did what I always do in predominantly Italian-speaking areas–I switched to Spanish. To my astonishment, I heard a voice from the kitchen reply in perfect Spanish! The owner, it turns out, was Portuguese and spoke all the romantic languages with excellent fluency! He bought me the cognac, and I spent the rest of the evening conversing with him, the chef, and the waiter. In the end, they filled my backpack with fruit and cheese and sent me on my way.
The next day, due to a combination of bad planning and bad information, I found myself looking at a dangerously low amount of food in my pack. As I descended to a hut, I thought I could hear a DJ rocking out in the alps. Sure enough, there was a huge party going on. The manager there, it turns out, is a school teacher who rents the hut from the owners in the summer in order to make money during her off-season, but a friend of hers wanted to have a birthday party in the mountains, so she altered her normal summer schedule to spend a few days partying. They also fixed me up with a goodly amount of grub, then sent me on my way. As I headed down to lower elevations, I was passing small holiday cabins when one young girl greeted me. Her Dad called me over and gave me a beer, which turned into conversation, then dinner. This family was on vacation with their daughter`s gym class, a boisterous, youthful group of adolescents intent on enjoying their summer days. Eventually, a guitar was produced, and we spent the evening singing, playing, conversing (again, in Spanish–the wife was from Brazil, which helped) and drinking (even the teenagers–alcohol is treated so differently in Europe).
The next day, I was coming close the end of my travels through Ticino when I arrived in the small but much-visited village of Sonogno. There was a festival here, as well as many local products, and I spent the last of Candyman`s generous donation on a Sambucco beer and, what I feel is a quintessential representation of the American northwest, a cannabis-infused beer (THC carefully removed). In the course of doing so, I again heard Spanish being spoken, so joined the conversation. Rosmary and Fabian, her son, were visiting their friend Nadia in Switzerland, and they invited me to join them. In spite of the fact that I would lose a day, I did so, and passed a very pleasant evening going to the Locarno Film Festival where we did not watch a film, but where we did eat a lot of very good ethnic food. The following morning, we enjoyed breakfast together and Fabian showed me his magic tricks. I stopped on the bus ride back to the trail to watch some bungee jumpers, then continued my trek.
A few days ago, I came across my perpetual companion on this trail, rain. Fortunately, this section has been filled with some very easy trail which has made enduring the weather somewhat easier. It has also been easier to find unlocked barns, etc. to sleep in. I was lucky as the rain held off while I enjoyed views of the fantastic Aletsch Glacier, the longest in Europe. Yesterday, though, was very wet and cold. I arrived in Leukerbad, a Swiss spa resort, in the evening and ambitiously tackled the Gemmi Pass. At the top, the weather was downright horrible, and I had assumed that there would be some camping options. There wasn`t. There was, however, a single car on the gondola whose door worked. I checked it out. I could just lie down at an angle. I quickly set up shop. That night, however, turned out to be extremely cold and windy, and the metal box I was in seemed to absorb the freezing cold and pass it on to my body the wind and snow shook and pounded my little refuge. In the morning, condensation had turned everything wet and in spite of my wearing almost every piece of clothing I own, I could not get warm. I packed up my backpack, stepped outside, and my heart sank. The whole outside world had turned to a bleak, foggy, white winter. The ground was covered in snow and visibiliy was low. I pondered; was it worth risking getting lost continuing over several hours of high-altitude hiking and a strong possibility of getting lost? I decided that it was not and that I wanted to relax. I walked back down the pass, got a hotel room, and spent the rest of the day enjoying the mineral baths and eating while .
So, I have come to the final third of the red trail of the Via Alpina. In a few more days, I will begin hiking through France and begin a long southern walk to Monaco.
Thanks for reading!
Daniel “Cloudwalker” Liu