31 August 2011

On the Road to Find Out 3

(Continued from Part 2.)

With only a few days to spare after returning from Lucca, the family--this time the whole family including Hazel Dickens and Annabelle Lee--hit the road again. The itinerary was short and fast and would eventually turn a bit intense. We were to drive to Luzern and overnight with our long-time friends Monika and Christen. From there we would take the train to Engelberg, the bus to the Luftseilbahn that would take us up to the Fürenalp. From the Fürenalp we'd hike a few hours up valley and stay overnight at the Blackenalp. The next day we would continue up the valley and cross the Surenenpass which would take us along a lengthy ridgeline to the enclave of Brüsti. From there, natürlich, we would take a cable car back down to Attinghausen, bus into Altdorf, and then take a train back to Luzern. Kein problem! Genau.

Saturday was perfect. The day pretty much summarized everything that you imagine as Switzerland: blue skies, a few puffy white clouds, green alpine pastures and valleys, melting glaciers, blonde children, happy dogs. Fresh milk. That sort of thing.

For the most part the day progressed as planned. We were excited for Hank who, though he has been hiking for a few years now, hasn't been on an overnight backpacking trip, albeit a backpacking trip without much in your backpack as well as the benefit of a roof over your head, full meals, and a bar waiting for you at the end of the day. We meandered, stopped for a picnic, and spent the first day at a leisurely pace.

At about the halfway point we heard a kind of scream, a maniacal yell of sorts, that finally and completely took our minds and bodies off the busy streets of Luzern, away from the hordes of tourists in Engelberg, and even far from the beer-drinking, sausage-eating crowds who would venture no farther than the restaurant at the top of the Fürenalp. The maniacal yell sounded something like this and was followed by the sound of a giant zipper opening above our heads and for the next 36 hours or so contemporary Switzerland would remain 3,000 feet and at least a hundred years below us.

What sounds totally bizarre in fact is totally bizarre but is also an example of traditional Swiss alpine customs and practices still in action. Turning our heads upward revealed the source of the zip noise: a long cable rising about 1,000 feet from a grassy knoll to a higher, less accessible notch of a pasture at the top of a cliff band. Hovering above us, riding the cable down to the knoll, was a hand cut bale of hay. The maniacal yell was a fairly typical call of an alpine herdsman used, in this case, as a warning that a new hay bale was being released from above.

Another two hours brought us to our destination for the night: the Blackenalp. An alp is a remote working farm used primarily in the summer by a herdsman and his helpers. It also doubles and triples as an inn for trekkers as well as a place to find a hot meal and a cold drink. Included with the price of a bed is dinner and breakfast the following morning. Switzerland and the rest of the Alpine countries are so dotted with these inns, chalets, huts, and/or refuges that it's possible to link up an entire summer of crossing up and over high altitude passes and country borders without ever dropping down into the valleys to stock up on supplies. It's a great way to experience the (semi) solitude of backpacking without packing quite as much stuff on your back.

The Blackenalp consists of a barn equipped with milking stalls--used twice daily--a main building with upstairs room for maybe thirty travelers, a large dining room, large kitchen and workspace for cheese and butter production, and a partially buried cellar for all things dairy. Separated from the main buildings on a grassy knoll is a small chapel (room for twelve) whose bells are rung every night as a show of appreciation for the day's work.

The smell of rich, grassy milk permeates the Blackenalp and, indeed, is the reason for its existence. Though the herdsman watches over a total of about 500 head of livestock, split between cows and calves, steers, and sheep, the profits from milk, cheese, and butter go straight into the his pocket. Income is also generated through money collected from trekkers for room and board and additional sales of food and drink. The bulk of the herdsman's income, however, is paid to him by a local cooperative of livestock owners who hire him to tend their animals for the summer. The Blackenalp itself is under the ownership of the cooperative who, in turn, lease their high valley pastures from the State. Not a money-making proposition--at least for the herdsman and his assistants--but this is also why so many traditional customs, practices, and rituals still persist.

For example, there are few things more traditional than the food the alpine herdsmen eat and for our night's stay at the Blackenalp we were treated to the most traditional of traditional meals: Älplermagronen and fresh Apfelmus!

What else could a person who is surrounded by fresh, flowing milk afford to eat and feed his help that wouldn't significantly cut into his profits? Pasta, potatoes, onions, cheese, butter, and sour cream, of course. Smash a whole bunch of apples that were hauled up on the last supply run and you've got yourself a meal that will fill the belly and knock you down for the night. Wake before dawn, eat a bunch of fresh cheese, butter, and warm bread, wash it down with instant coffee and head out on your four-hour romp around the entire valley to check the livestock. Return to milk the morning cows, work on projects around the property for the afternoon, then leave again for a second four-hour trip around the valley. As soon as the second check is completed the evening cows need milked. At dusk the Älplermagronen and Apfelmus is placed on the dinner table, devoured, and followed by more instant coffee and a glass or two of schnapps. The day's work is done; the life of a Swiss herdsman is a series of ancient rituals.

The next morning we said goodbye to the Blackenalp under cooler temperatures and a changing sky. Within a half-hour a light mist fell and it appeared that we wandered out of Switzerland and straight into the Scottish Highlands.

For the rest of the day the clouds and rain would not lift and would only grow in intensity once we crossed over the Surenenpass and walked toward Brüsti. Pretty, but with a seven year-old to keep happy and positive, constant rain quickly loses its appeal.

Two hours of climbing took us to the Surenenpass. It was here, less than halfway through the day, when the skies opened up in earnest. We took a quick break in the Schutzhütte before launching into another three hours of non-stop rain.

I kept the Lovin' Spoonful on a constant loop in my head. This helped keep the bad spirits away. But it wasn't me I was worried about. Hank did well going down off the pass and even for a while on the long ridgeline to the Brüsti. Five hours of walking in the rain is a lot to ask of a seven year-old--hell, it's a lot to ask of a 42 year-old. Without a tree in sight, without any more huts to take shelter for a while, moods inevitably deteriorate. And they did. And it was difficult.

Persevere he did and eventually we made it to Brüsti and the Berggasthaus Z'graggen was open and the tears stopped falling. Henry drank the two best hot chocolates of his life, his parents and friends drank eight or so Kaffee fertigs (coffee and schnapps), and we rested an hour before the cable car took us back to the lowlands.

In Altdorf we waited for a bus (in the rain) in the city's main plaza. Altdorf is home to the great Swiss patriot and assassin, William Tell. William the brave. William the bold. William the expert marksman. William who broke the rules and was forced to shoot an apple off his son's head for doing so. He did (natürlich!) and was sent to jail for his feat. In a storm on Lake Lucerne he escaped his captors and returned to assassinate the tyrannical Austrian overlord, Albrect Gessler. William's defiance and bravery started a rebellion in the Canton of Uri that eventually led to the formation of the Swiss Confederation. Pretty dramatic stuff though a distant memory from the quiet as a mouse, passively aggressive Switzerland of today.

As is the case with any good legend, the legend of William Tell doesn't quite match the history records. William Tell could have been a real person; he also could have been an amalgamation of several people. The William Tell legend belongs to a group of mostly German, Scandinavian, Danish, English, and even Balkan folk legends that the folklorist Stith Thompson gathered together in the famous Motif Index under the title "Skilful marksman shoots apple from man's head." What this means is that legends with different characters and place names but similar in that they all contain the "apple-shot" motif had been circulating orally for hundreds of years before surfacing in central Switzerland with William Tell as the hero and the Austrian Habsburg overlord as the villain.

Does that mean that William Tell didn't exist? No. Does that mean that he didn't perform the actions according to the legend? No. What it usually means is that over time, starting in the mid-15th century, at least some if not all of the storyline has been altered or modified to meet the cultural, political, and social values of the Swiss citizens. The fact that a statue stands in the middle of Altdorf and stories continue to circulate demonstrates that the legend of William Tell is still a narrative depiction of Swiss values and effects the way the Swiss view themselves in relation to others.

No matter. At five o'clock on a Sunday evening, soaked to the bone and with the rain still falling, even I wasn't that interested in how a 500 year-old legend still determines the value system of a small European country. All we wanted was a warm shower, dry clothes, and a hot meal. In three hours time those tasks were complete. In five hours we were driving back to Geneva.

At some point along the way, Fred Neil played from a compilation CD I had in the stereo. The weather had cleared (natürlich) and in front of us the last brilliant sliver of bright orange hung on to the far western tops of the Jura Mountains. It was a bright, deep, rich orange, the kind of sunset that only appears after an all-day cleansing of the atmosphere. The rest of the family, including the dogs, had long since passed out and I was left alone to the end of a beautiful day and the voice of Fred Neil.

(Continue to Part 4.)

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