Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Mountaintop Experience

On the mountaintop above Locarno, Switzerland

A Mountaintop Experience
travel memoir
by Greg Larson

          It’s always good to get out of the daily humdrum routines, to venture out into the world and gain a different perspective. Our recent travels to Switzerland allowed us to see a mixture of Italian and German cultures and understand the changes that occurred in their civilization through the centuries.

          At first, I noticed simple things that were different from our American culture. As our train rolled through the Swiss valleys on a sunny morning, I noticed women opening the upper floor windows of their houses to wipe the sills clean before hanging out the down-filled bedcovers for daily “freshening.”

          Through trial and error we discovered that directional signage for hikers and motorists was much smaller than what we see in the U.S. and at times they were non-existent. More than once we took a wrong turn while hiking because we missed a street sign or hiker’s arrow on the small plaques mounted on stone walls underneath overhanging branches.

          Everything in Switzerland seemed to be on a small scale; from trucks, trains, and street widths to elevators, chairs and bathrooms. At the historical Hotel des Alpes in Lucerne, the rooms were equipped with recently renovated bathrooms. The bathroom tile, sink, and mirror sparkled, but the space was small. While showering in the stall with the sleek glass door, I reached to scrub my back, only to smack the hot water lever, which increased the water temperature and caused me to squeal in pain.  After doing this twice, I decided to rethink my body movements.

          The biggest revelation came on a sunny day in Locarno, when my wife, Gretta, and I decided to travel up the side of the Alps at the edge of Lake Maggiore and the city of Locarno. After spending the morning at an outdoor cafĂ©, where we indulged ourselves with the best cappucino and brioche along the lakeside, we picked our destination: Cimetta (a small mountaintop), about 4,000 ft. above the lake. The first mode of transportation was the funicolare, an incline cable car, which transported us up to the church of San Francesco, where the bells chimed over the city of Locarno. At that point, we transferred to a large modern gondola which raised us to a spot high on the mountainside. After snapping photos and walking on trails in the nearby woods, we savored a lunch of pasta and beer at an outdoor restaurant with a stunning view of the lake and the surrounding Alps. I had no premonition of the mountaintop experience awaiting me.
Our trip up the mountain began on the funicolare
The gondola lift put us much higher on the mountain
          For the final mode of transportation on our climb to Cimetta, we boarded a simple chair lift. While riding through the larch and birch trees, I turned to Gretta and asked a rhetorical question, “So when you go to heaven, do they just keep putting you on a different lift?”
At the top, snow-capped peaks were visible in every direction
          The view at the top was heavenly, with snow-capped peaks visible in every direction. The boats far below on the lake seemed to be in a different world. The sun warmed our bones as we walked the granite path to the uppermost knoll on the mountain.

          At the top, I realized my eyes saw more than I viewed. When I looked towards the city and the lake below, I saw the tourist side of the mountain: the trains, boats, gondolas, parasails and mountain bikes. I saw an advanced civilization of industry and technology, which I’m glad exists. The planes, trains and credit cards are what got me here.
Parasail above Lake Maggiore
          But when I turned my back on the lake and viewed the wilderness of the Alps, it all changed. In the dead silence and still air of the mountaintop, I faintly heard many bells, some tiny, some big. Peering over the railing, I noticed the upper hay meadows a couple of miles in the distance. I couldn’t see any goats or cows, but I knew they were there. The bells continued to tinkle in the clear mountain air. I saw an agrarian existence in the lesser-traveled valleys, a simpler way of life. I visualized the simpler way of life being overtaken by a rising tide of a growing population and advancing civilization.
Tinkling goat bells were heard in the distance
          What, at first, seemed profound while I stood on the mountaintop was just a moment of clarity which revealed the obvious: things change as our civilization and population advances. It has happened through the centuries all over the globe in different settings and cultures. The typical pattern started with nomads and tribes being pushed out or changed by people who were more advanced. Aboriginal tribes on different continents existed into the 20th Century before being discovered, but eventually patterns and customs were diluted by modern society conveniences.

           Agrarian societies were transformed by the industrial revolution, and now technology and computers have changed the world with a post-industrial revolution.
Rustici - remnants of an agrarian society

          Will the bells on the goats and cows be replaced someday with GPS transmitters? I don’t know. I like the bells. The low-tech solution still seems to work. Will the mountain valley grazing land become little villages of vacation homes? Yes, the remote valleys in Switzerland are being invaded to a degree. In the Ticino Region we witnessed some of that transition during our visits to the sparsely populated valleys. At different locations along the hiking paths, the rustici huts originally used as barns for the animals were being transformed into weekend retreats or vacation cabins. Some of them were quite fancy, with new doors and windows, wood-burning fireplaces and solar panels.
Modernized rustici cabins
          As hikers, we were voyeurs, invading the simple life in the remote valleys in an attempt to witness something pristine before it becomes too over-run with tourists and visitors, and . . . hikers.

          After our day on the mountaintop above Locarno, Gretta was sitting in the apartment, tapping away at her computer tablet screen.

          “What are you doing?” I asked.

          “I’m checking the train schedules for our trip to Lugano tomorrow. These online schedules have all the current times and track locations. This is so much better than when I traveled through Europe in the ’70s!”

          Good thing, I thought. I hope our civilization chooses the good things that come along, without discarding the good old things that work. I remembered earlier in the day when I heard the bells from the mountaintop. Maybe I will get to hear them again sometime. If not, I want to remember that sound forever.