Tag Archives: beautiful

the charm of the Adriatic

looking back on my time in croatia, montenegro, and bosnia & herzegovina, it was a strange time, but a wonderful one.  i was traveling with a friend, which i had not had the luxury of for most of my trip, so i was never alone during these weeks.  but before that, i had just begun to grow accustomed to being alone, and was starting to enjoy the introspection that came with it, and the peace of mind that had started to evolve and emerge from my thoughts.  nevertheless, traveling with my friend dave, who was not a seasoned traveler, forced me to take command of situations with more authority and efficiency than i had ever needed to, and exposed to me just how far my development had come since my early days in london, paris and berlin, of following other travelers i had met like a lost puppy.  i was now the veteran, and it took me by surprise.

putting together this video was really fun, not only because i wrote and recorded the sountrack, but also being able to re-live the scenes and memories.  the balkan states are fascinating, co-mingling the hope of the future with the tragedy of the past, there are few places i’ve been where both sides of that story were always nearby, and i still regret not being able to make it further into the balkans to explore all the other interesting countries in the region.  i will return.  someday.

a winter wander in plitvice, croatia

it was dark, and we hadn’t seen a street sign, a building, even a streetlamp in over an hour. we had seen nary a clue that we were even traveling in the right direction, but had seen no other roads headed in this direction on the map, so we pressed on faithfully into the night, expecting any minute to find a sign.  

the roads toward the interior of croatia were much smaller and more narrow than the decidedly more oft-traveled corridor of the adriatic coastline, thusly making it more difficult for me to progress toward my destinations at the breakneck (and slightly illegal) pace that i had grown accustomed to in rural europe.  despite my frustration, i found a silver lining in the intricacies of the winding country roads, and the fun that came with the need to test my maneuvering skills at a high degree of mastery. dave, on the other hand, didn’t share my navigational enthusiasm.  

whitewalkereventually we found the turnoff we had been looking for and made our way through a tiny town with few amenities or notable attractions.  a light snow was now falling and the ground had accumulated a sheer white layer, making it almost difficult to look directly at with the bright headlights of the car beaming directly onto it.  i approached each turn with a degree of caution, conscious of the fact that i had turned down the rental company on their offer of all-weather tires only a week ago.  

dave guided us to a house, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that he had found on airbnb.  as we pulled into the designated parking space, i humorously remarked,
“…and this is how it ends.  in the pit of some croatian farmer’s barn, never to be seen again.”  dave laughed and exited the vehicle, walking into the house of the property owner to handle the check-in duties while i gathered the bags.  a few minutes later we were claiming beds in our apartment for the night and unwinding from a long day of driving.

@davegurley can't figure out how to use his bed at this B&B… #YoureDoingItWrong

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it was a homely little apartment, but it was just what we needed. it was quaint and quiet, and removed from any hustle or bustle of a normal city.  very different from the place we had stayed the night before in the oceanside town of zadar.  a self-proclaimed “design hostel,” it was clean and minimalist with eccentric aesthetics.  we were the only ones staying in a place that had capacity for at least 80, and our shared-bunk dorm felt like a sick mix between a hospital and a room from charlie’s chocolate factory.  tall ceilings, narrow spaces, the walls were candy-striped with disturbingly contrasted orange and white and the bunks had stiff shutters that could close off from the outside world, allowing the sleeper to create a cocoon.  i wondered if i had missed the part where they assigned me a straightjacket before locking me in the room.  

zadar, croatia
zadar at night

zadar had actually been a pleasant surprise, and i had found myself wishing that i’d been able to stay there longer than the twelve hours i gave it, especially if i could come back some day in the summer.  that

sea organ zadar, croatia
the sea organ

evening, as i walked along the harbor admiring the sunset, i stumbled upon the Morske orgulje, or “sea organ,” an architectural object and experimental musical instrument that produces sound through a series of pipes inset the marble ground i walked upon, powered by the waves of the ocean that brushed up against the side of the marble and into the pipes, pushing air out and producing the unpredictable chorus.  it was truly one of the most uniquely creative things that i had seen on my travels, and also one of the most unexpected.

after a few minutes of unwinding, a knock at the door sounded.  it was the daughter of the property owner with a gift:  homemade rakija.  dave and i both expressed our deep gratitude and accepted the gift, but when we closed the door, we exchanged more knowing glances.

“oh man.  good thing they only gave us these small glasses, this stuff smells stronger than the cherry stuff we had the other night,” dave warned cautiously.

“it is!” i spat out as i coughed down my first sip.  “way stronger!  i think this is peach flavor too.”  we did our best to finish the drink (which i estimate to have been about 2.5 shots worth of alcohol), but neither of us could make it all the way through.  apparently this was the old man’s special recipe, and he distilled it right there on property.  impressive, but not for the faint of heart.

the next morning we arose early and set out to find plitvice lakes national park.  after a 20 minute drive, the windy snow-covered road led us to a parking lot that seemed out of place with the rest of landscape that we had grown accustomed to seeing.  we deduced that this must be the place.

following an oddly unnecessary footbridge over to what appeared to be an empty visitor center,  a tourist bus pulled into the lot and parked while we attempted to figure out where to go and how to pay for whatever it was we were supposed to be seeing.  i laughed as 5 people got off the bus that could hold probably 50.  eventually we found a walking path and assumed that if there was a pay booth somewhere, clearly no one cared if we paid or it would have been more obviously located.  we started down the path perplexedly defiant.

bird's eyethree minutes later we were staring down a cliff surveying a wintery panorama of emerald blue rivers and lakes fed by icy white waterfalls.  i had never seen anything like it.  like a croatian iguazu, we had found a legitimate natural gem in the harsh balkan cold, and there was no one around to spoil our enjoyment of it.  dave and i excitedly bound down the switchbacks until we were at the water’s edge, walking on man-made wooden planked walkways across the water and staring up at the looming waterfalls.

the ice and frigidity of winter had obviously restricted the water flow, somewhat muting the normally powerful display of water in nature in this protected croatian landmark. but we knew we were getting to see a very different side of an oft-photographed sight, and the narnia-like effect that the white winter had on the place gave the atmosphere an eery yet striking touch that made me forget about the bitter cold and enjoy the moment.

dave and i separated for a while, wandering toward different parts of the park and periodically meeting back up in different areas to make sure we weren’t lost.  during that time, i tried to focus on being present, enjoying the moment and not worrying about the future or plitvice walking on waterthe past, or letting my mind wander too far along pointless reveries.  i was getting better at this.  i remembered back to the beginning of my journey, being a total mental mess, roundaboutworried about where i was going in my future, sad and victimized by my past, and always paranoid and conscious of the strangers around me and what they plitvice down in the valleythought of me.  rarely did i have these concerns any longer. occasionally i might be aware that i was out of place in a situation, or i might want to impress someone appropriately, but seldom did i have any social anxiety about my foreign status or my ragged appearance.  i just didn’t care anymore, and i felt liberated.  and nowhere more did that carefree comfort truly reveal itself than when i was
away from congested society and out into the raw of nature.  the worries of life and society seemed to fall by the wayside whenever i wandered a dirt trail among the trees and the rushing water and an unending sky. a light snow and fair breeze coerced the water gently from its course atop the cliff to the basin below, transforming a calm stream into a drifting cascade.  it was peaceful here, and i never wanted to leave.

dave and i reconvened aboard a ferry that carried us across the main lake and to a new section of the park for us to explore for a few more hours.  eventually the cold won out, however, and dave and i decided it best to seek warmer temperatures.

A duck relaxes comfortably in the frigid Croatian winter in Plitvice National Park.

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The next day we were on the road again, and before long we were slipping and sliding our way through the streets of zagreb, the capital city of croatia.  a heavy, wet snow had been falling for hours before we arrived, and still fell, as we searched for parking near our hostel.  we checked into yet another modern “design hostel,” impressively marked with comfortable yet minimalist furniture, modern decorative art, and clean lines throughout the architecture.  croatia knew how to put together a solid hostel.

we spent another pair of days exploring the old and new in a city that dates back at least a thousand years.  exploring old churches and cemeteries, and a few bars in between, zagreb seemed to be a large city without much of the draw that tourists journeyed to the adriatic coast for.  but there was charm in that.  it was a different side of croatia, more business-like, more straight to the point, and the unassuming nature of it put one at ease.  it was easy to go about your day and take the city in without feeling the pressure to make sure you had checked off all the necessary boxes to prove to yourself it had been worthwhile.

colorful rooftopsour time came to an end however, and dave and i said our goodbyes to croatia.  we rose early before the sun and city, and sped hurriedly to the airport.  in our early morning haze, we pulled up to the front gate of the departures section and began preparing to offload our luggage.  we both sat uncomfortably for a moment, not sure what was wrong.  suddenly, it hit me.

“damn!  this is a rental car!  where’s the rental office?!”  i exclaimed, suddenly wide awake.  dave looked back at me blankly.  panic set in, we were already likely late for an international flight, and we had forgotten to return our rental car.  

dave turned on his iphone, hoping he could locate the rental office nearby, while i pressed the gas pedal, determined to find it the old-fashioned way.  

cemetery walls“i don’t get it.  google maps says we’re on top of it,” dave said, perplexed.  we both looked around.  nothing.  i drove to the end of the airport road.  nothing but office buildings, no rental lots.  i turned around and went back to the entrance of the airport loop. dave kept poking at his phone screen with futility, much like he had the entirety of our time in the balkans.  google maps didn’t have as high an adoption rate here as it did the rest of europe and the US thus far, hence the wild inaccuracies we had experienced almost everywhere we had gone.  

little yellow houseafter a few minutes of driving around in a panic and yelling obscenities at dave’s iphone, i hooked my head left and searched east, across an empty field and down what appeared to just be a service road.  i whipped the car illegally across traffic and sped down the road without saying a word.  dave, recognizing that i was in one of my zones, said nothing and held on for dear life, trusting that i knew what i was doing.  i barreled into a parking lot and up to the front door of the europcar rental office.  dave stared at me incredulously.

zagreb cemetery“how did you see this?!” he exclaimed as we walked briskly to the door.  i didn’t answer, frustrated as i realized that no one was at the office yet.  someone was late to work.  annoyed, i repeatedly rang the bell and pounded on the door, unconcerned that no one could hear it.  

a few minutes later another car entered the lot and 2 men in ties rushed in to open the office.  embarrassed, he was aware that i knew he was late. i said nothing and noticed that he was working at a pace faster than what he normally might.  he processed our paperwork and drove us back to the departure gate.  dave and i grabbed our bags and sprinted through check-in and security, barely making our flight.  
as the plane climbed into the morning sky, i exhaled deeply, relieved.  dave began laughing, unprovoked, and it was only a matter of seconds before i was laughing with him.  

“i don’t ever want to fly with you again” i said jokingly, and our laughter grew even louder.

i would miss croatia. and bosnia and montenegro as well, and the mysteries of what lay beyond the boundaries that dave and i had pushed haunted me.  i would be back someday, to explore sarajevo, and bucharest, and albania, and macedonia. to sail from the northern tip of croatia all the way down to the southern isles of greece, when the summer sun beats down upon the blue sea and is cooled by the mist on the skin and the tradewinds blowing through the hair.  i would most definitely be back someday.

but now i returned to amsterdam, to celebrate the new year with the dutch, at the party of a lifetime.
keeping warm by Brandon Miquelon
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today’s song has been out for a few months now, but the more i listen to it, the more it becomes a part of me.  it’s called “dark bird is home,” and it’s by the tallest man on earth.  it’s a song about separation, and learning to grow and cope with change and loss.  this song makes me feel so many emotions when i hear it, and it has earned a place on my eternal rotation.  tallest man will be performing in denver, co this summer and i plan on attending.  feel free to join me.

a reunion in the ghost towns of cinque terre, italy

i had been in genoa for a couple days doing nothing when i finally received an email from dave, written in a brief and rushed manner:

“finally got rebooked.  boarding now from germany, see you in a couple hours.”

a few hours later i was wandering around the empty streets of genoa trying to find my friend dave before he got too lost and i couldn’t find him.  i rounded a corner and saw him standing underneath the facade of a large university building, squinting at the signs in italian, searching for any kind of english or guidance as to where he should be going.

“need some help, gringo?!”  i called out as i approached.  he spun around and looked at me and burst into laughter.  i gave him a big hug, grabbed his bag and walked him to the hostel, where the hostel manager, a thin, lively man named carlo, was giving a few of the guests a little lesson on how to prepare noodles in italy.  we got dave checked in and situated in the dorm room and hurried back down to be a part of the action. Continue reading a reunion in the ghost towns of cinque terre, italy

switzerland, pt 2: the blind leading the blind

Beard swag. #switzerland #zermatt #swiss #alps #beard #trekking #instatravel #madmax #ApocalypseShades

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the train ride to zermatt was going well and without incident until i reached visp and had to switch trains.  the trains in switzerland thus far had been very nice and very efficient, always on time.  but i suddenly was in doubt of that observation when the train made a routine stop and then an announcement was made stating that the train would not be going any further due to construction.  fresh off the salzburg debacle (where basically the same thing happened, plunging me into a day filled with chaos), i immediately got off the train and started looking for a backup option like a bus or similar alternative.  after looking around for a bit and getting confirmation that there were definitely no more trains going the correct direction, i noticed a IMG_2263few other people scrambling around in an aimless panic.  i laughed briefly to myself, knowing exactly how they felt, but i was also experiencing a weird confidence that was completely foreign to me. despite the fact that nothing appeared be going how i needed once again and there seemed to be a subdued panic setting in on the station, i unexpectedly felt more in control than i normally would have, and i wasn’t losing my cool.  i calmly found a man in a red vest who seemed to be an employee of the train and asked him if there was a bus that i needed to take to continue on to zermatt.  he pointed me to a bus on the other side of the platform, and i thanked him graciously as i left him.  as i passed the small crowd of confused tourists, i noticed one guy standing alone on the fringe with a lost look on his face.  it was a look i was all too familiar with.  it expressed exactly how i had felt any time on this trip when i felt completely helpless or lost and couldn’t understand any of the languages being spoken around me, and didn’t know what to do to remedy it.  i had felt it in paris when i’d had trouble figuring out public transit and couldn’t get any parisians to help me, i had felt it in austria during “the hitchhike,” i had felt it in northern germany when my friend had been late picking me up and i didn’t even know if i was in the right city and couldn’t understand a word that was written or spoken by any of the drunk clubgoers around me, and i had felt it countless more times that i can’t even now remember.  i threw him a lifeline.

“hey man, if you’re headed to zermatt, follow me.”  he looked over at me, relieved to hear english.  the truth is, he was of asian descent, so i wasn’t even sure if he was an english speaker, but he picked up his backpack and followed me over to the bus. people had started to figure out the train company had a contingency and were now starting to swarm, but my new friend and i were able to squeeze on to the first one just before it pulled away from the station, leaving dozens of people to wait for the next bus to scoop them up.  there was no seating left, so we had to stand in the middle with our giant packs for a 20 minute ride.  not the most comfortable thing ever, but at least we didn’t have to wait at the platform for the next ride in the cold of the quickly fading dusk.  up here in the mountains, once the sun was gone, it got cold.  fast.

IMG_0549
zermatt’s humble size pales alongside the monolith of the matterhorn

on the ride up i learned a little about scott.  he was american, from california, and working as a senior project manager at an aerospace company. he was currently on a quick vacation after finishing up a business trip to europe, and had decided to detour over to the swiss alps for an off-season snowboard session before heading back home.  scott was a cool dude, i really liked him.  he had a calm demeanor and was dressed a little too neatly to be of the backpacker variety i was accustomed to meeting on my trip. he also had a more introverted nature than a lot of the people i had been meeting, and i think something from his corporate background had called out to me on that platform, i can’t quite nail it down, but there’s something ethereal about people who have something in common with you that just shouts out to you in the strangest moments, if you are open to it.

as the bus pulled to a stop, everyone piled out and realized that we were still not at zermatt, but rather another train station.  i called to scott in the crowd and pointed at another train that appeared to be ready to leave.  i walked over to a machine and bought a ticket, and scott followed suit. scott joked about the chaos and lack of appropriate signage to let people know where they were supposed to be going.  i laughed and sympathized with him, sharing with him that this had recently happened to me and this was why i seemed to be moving along without incident.  as we rode along in the train i asked him more about his plans for zermatt and if he had any suggestions on where to stay.  he suggested a small hotel he had reservations at, but after hearing the price i knew my budget wouldn’t allow for that.  we exited the train and went our separate ways, but agreed to meet back up for pizza an hour later after i’d had time to secure a place to sleep that night.

i wandered over the bridge to the west side of zermatt and relievedly located a tired but zermatt stelliseecharming looking building that could only be a backpacker hostel, called jugendherberge matterhorn hostel. the building looked old, and it was old, marked by lots of old, aged wood, some areas in mismatched colors like the trimming or where signs were posted to let passersby know that this was the cheapest place to find a bed in zermatt (which still isn’t that cheap.  i paid 30 swiss francs per night, roughly about $30 usd – which is on the more expensive end for european hostels – but i had come to expect this from switzerland. it’s one of the most expensive countries to travel to in europe).  i eagerly entered the building, happy to get out of the cold, and got a room.  the proprietor was a friendly swiss guy who had laughed when i asked if he had any beds available.  “it is off season, my friend!  there’s nobody here!”

as i got settled in, one of my 2 roommates politely introduced himself to me.  the room was average dorm size and the beds not particularly large or comfortable, but they would do, and out of the 6 beds in the room, we 3 occupants were squished into the corner via our assigned beds.  i joked with my new roommates about expecting more guests.  1 didn’t laugh, a japanese guy who spent every waking moment i saw of him connected to a tablet or a phone. the other, the one who’d introduced himself, snickered appreciatively. jean was a frenchman who was in zermatt for a quick extended weekend of skiing before he returned home and began to look for work. tt sounded like a pretty typical thing to do for someone who lived in the area, since zermatt was near both the italian and french borders.

zermatt goat attention
a mountain goat gives me a little stinkeye

“and you? where do you call home?” he inquired.
“well i was living in denver, colorado before i left the states,” i answered earnestly. jean suddenly got a very excited look on his face.  he enthusiastically shared that he had actually lived in boulder, colorado for the last few years, and loved every minute of it.  he had loved the ski resorts in colorado, in fact he said he liked the snow better there than even the alps, but he’d had to leave somewhat abruptly due to some issues with his immigration status.  i responded sympathetically, but i noticed a hint of pain in his voice.  not interested in glossing over meaningful things, i pressed him for detail.

“hold on, what did you mean about your ‘immigration status?’  did you get deported?”

“not exactly,”  he replied, and then slowly began to recount how he’d been in a 3 year relationship with a girl who had finished up her degree at the university of colorado (he also had attended there as part of an exchange program, and then had come back after graduating).  things had run the usual course, being the most amazing and meaningful relationship that he had ever been in during the first year, but the following year, after she had graduated, things had started to get very tense.  his girlfriend had landed a great job right out of college, but he was having trouble finding work as a french immigrant (despite that his english is good and he is a college graduate).  they had started to talk about marriage, and citizenship for him – and had even filed paperwork, but the timing just wasn’t right, especially since he didn’t have money or work, and they had been fighting a lot.  suddenly he had been offered a great opportunity that he would need to move back to france for, but the girlfriend had been very unsympathetic, even hostile, and had started delivering ultimatums.  she refused to leave her job to relocate to france (for the life of me i don’t understand that one), and she refused to convert their relationship to a long distance one, regardless of the time constraints.  jean was trapped in a tough spot, as she had threatened to break up with him if he made the wrong move, but he didn’t really have a “right” move.  during this rough patch, there had been some complications with the immigration paperwork and he had been denied an extension on his visa.  the only option if he wanted to stay in the US would be marriage.  jean then made the difficult decision to end his relationship and return to france.  he had been back in europe for 2 months and decided he needed to get away to clear his head, so he’d arrived that afternoon in zermatt.

once again, here i was talking with a complete stranger, and they were spilling their very personal and intimate stories to me, with seemingly no concern or inhibition.

zermatt mountain roadi was fascinated by jean’s story, and i could feel his pain, despite the fact that he was maturely trying to mask or dull its effect on him. he shared that he hadn’t been sure if he was in love with her, especially during all the conflict and stress they had been enduring, but now he knew.  he had been in love with her.  and now it was over.  for some reason, i always find myself drawn most to the people in this world whom have experienced real loss.  people who have been bruised and cut, whose wounds are never too far from the surface, but whom still find a way to carry on.  jean had been cut, but he wasn’t bleeding out.  he was carrying on.

i had been so enraptured with jean’s story that i forgot that scott was waiting for me to go get a pizza.  i apologized to jean and excused myself, and making plans to get a 6 pack of beer and drink it at the hostel after tomorrow’s events (he was going skiing and i aimed to go for a long hike) and finish the conversation.  he said he was interested in my story as well, and i promised to share it with him.

i met back up with scott at his hotel on the other side of the river after a sprint through the brisk night air.  we wandered down the empty streets, devoid of any activity and few options for dinner.  we made it all the way back down to the train station where we found a pizza shop that was open for another 30 minutes.  we each got a pizza and a beer, and resumed our conversation.  we mainly talked about backpacking, where i had started & my basic route, and i shared little tidbits of knowledge i had picked up along the way.  overall it was a good night, and the pizza was a welcome sustenance, as i had not realized how hungry i had gotten.

the next morning i arose early and procured a map from the front desk of the hostel.  the proprietor was preparing the breakfast (available for an extra 8 francs.  holy hell, switzerland is expensive), but there was no one in the lobby.  since he wasn’t overly occupied, i asked him if he had any suggestions for walking trails.  i had a couple ideas, but i was quickly realizing that this area had hundreds of walking paths and it was not easy to get to the trail heads without knowing exactly where you’re going zermatt switzerland forestor taking a gondola.  gondolas in zermatt are expensive.  i was not interested in paying for transport to get somewhere i could walk, so that eliminated a lot of the trails i thought might be possibilities.  also, according to the proprietor, during this weird time of year at the very end of october, the weather does weird things, so while there isn’t a ton of snow on the ski slopes, the snow still falls and it turns quickly to ice.  and since the mountain is empty, the resorts don’t have a heavy incentive to keep up the same maintenance on the trails as they do in the summer or winter.  so they simply close some of the walking paths.  after crossing off a majority of the interesting looking hikes, there were still 2 available that I had been interested in:  the 5 seenweg, or five lakes walk, or another more difficult trail that definitely had some ice, but i could probably scurry around if i was careful.  it was my intention to attempt this hike.  i wanted a challenge.

i spread a map out on the table and started marking entry and exit points to the trails, as well as break points and then started readying my pack with cliff bars and my camelback water reservoir.  in my focused preparation, i had failed to notice that a few other people had entered the lobby and began eating breakfast.  they had all been watching me, and to be fair, i did look a little weird compared to everyone else in the hostel.  the rest of the hostel guests were vacationers who were here off-season for a short jaunt in the alps without crowds, they all clearly had decent jobs and were well dressed, whereas i, with my scraggly bright red ginger beard, furrowed brow, and warm, well-traveled-in clothing… well i looked like i’d been sleeping under a bridge for the last few years.

“where are you going?” a delicate voice with an korean accent whispered to me.  to my right was a petite woman eating breakfast with a playful smile.  i think she had been watching me for a couple minutes.

“oh, just gonna head up to the fresh air and clear my head.  not entirely sure just yet, but i’ll figure it out as i go.”  i smiled politely.  ordinarily i’d slow down and make friends, but morning was starting to evaporate, and i had come to the mountains for one thing only:  to commune with nature by myself.  i had spent too much time in cities the past 2 months, and this was to be my escape.

“wow cool, you are mountain man”  she giggled.  i cracked a smile.

“ah no, not really.  i just like to be outside.” as much as i would love to think of myself as a true mountain man, and as much as i probably looked the part, i’m not.  i’ve only been tested a couple times in the wild, and i had experts with me and plenty of supplies, and never on anything longer than a couple nights.  but i didn’t mind letting this pretty lady’s imagination make its own assumptions about me in the meantime.

toblerone matterhorn
katherine would later teach me that the toblerone’s logo was the matterhorn. i’m oblivious.

we chatted plainly for a few minutes while i finished my preparations, exchanging the usual information – where are you from, what brings you here type questions.  i was surprised to learn that katherine was actually from new york, not south korea like i had expected (to be fair, she was born and raised in seoul, south korea, and now worked for a major airline with new york as her base). i noticed another pair of eyes in the room curiously looking over at us, eavesdropping on the conversation.  i was trying to figure out how to excuse myself politely when katherine respectfully but quickly asked “can i come with you?”

“uh, sure!  yeah if you really want to…” i had been caught off guard.  i looked her up and down quickly and noticed that she was in shape, but definitely did not have the right gear.  i also knew that manhattan didn’t exactly have a wealth of challenging hikes available, so there was a good chance that this might not be a good idea.  but i also had been trying my best lately to say “yes” to as many things as i could, in keeping with the mantra of the traveler, so i tried my best to adjust my expectation.

“oh thank you! are you sure?”  she could sense the hesitation in my voice.

zermatt grindjisee“yeah definitely, it’ll be fun!  go get a backpack and some warm clothes on and be quick about it. we need to leave soon if we’re going to get back before dark.”  she scurried up the stairs and disappeared.

“hey, I couldn’t help but overhear you’re going on a hike… any chance i could tag along as well?  i’m wesley.”  a hand to my left was extended to me.  i shook the hand and looked up to see who was attached to it.  a tall, good looking canadian guy was standing there with a smile on his face.

“yeah sure, why not, grab your stuff.  we leave in 5 minutes.”  wesley bolted out of the room to grab his things.  what just happened?  my plan had been to go on a hike and push myself a little physically, and suddenly i had just become ranger rick, guiding a bunch of tourists through a place i had never been before… the swiss alps.  and i still didn’t technically know where i was going.  i looked across the room to see the proprietor of the hostel wiping his hands with a dish cloth, laughing.

“you should go on the 5 seenweg hike.  it would be unwise to take them on the other one,” he offered.  i shook my head and laughed.  i couldn’t have predicted this if i tried. about 15 minutes later wesley and katherine had made their way down the stairs and were ready.  they didn’t have any food for the day, however, so we needed to stop by a grocery store.  i wasn’t thrilled, but i knew i couldn’t take them on a 7 or 8 hour hike with no food, so we walked 15 minutes across town to the only grocery around.  while there, despite my stubborn pride in having already had food ready to go, i picked up a few fresh fruit items, knowing it would be more appetizing than just my cliff bars. we finished up the shopping and headed for the trail head. i was silently thankful the other two had forced me to go shopping. now i could have a real lunch.

zermatt wesley pondering
wesley ponders the matterhorn

it took us about 15 minutes to get back across town, and then another 15 minutes just to find the trailhead, as the mountain neighborhood roads were not marked clearly and didn’t follow any logic other than what the terrain offered when they were built.  we were way behind schedule at this point, and i was starting to get grumpy about it. i decided to just keep my mouth shut and lead on.

katherine and wesley chatted cheerfully behind me, and it wasn’t long before we had our first full view of the matterhorn and the zermatt valley below.  my attitude problem was instantly gone.  the views on these mountains were absolutely breathtaking, and there wasn’t a soul around us to ruin it.

the 5 seenweg, or five lakes trail, is exactly what it sounds like:  a lovely meandering walk that takes you through five different bodies of water in a large loop around the mountainside, fraught with clear and direct views of the monolithic matterhorn. i will say that, to call these bodies of water “lakes” might be a bit of a stretch.  a couple were little more than ponds (particularly grunsee and moosjisee), but they are still beautiful.  it isn’t a particularly grueling hike, but it does have a few sections that can get pretty steep, and will definitely wear you out if you don’t take your time.

findeln hamlet, zermatt
findeln hamlet, zermatt

ordinarily this hike can be completed in 3 hours if you pay to take a tram and don’t stop too often for pictures, but good luck with the latter of those two components; everywhere you look seems like it is straight out of national geographic coffee table literature.  Adding to our time crunch was my stubborn refusal to take the tram, so we started our hike straight from zermatt, trekking to the little hamlet of findeln (which is only accessible by foot, or skis if the season is right), and then onward up the mountain to the actual 5 seenweg walk, and ultimately walking all the way back down into zermatt again.

zermatt matthorn reflectionduring the hike, i got to know wesley and katherine quite well, as we labored through our trek together.  since the 5 seenweg is lower in elevation, and doesn’t have any true summits in it, the temperature stayed well within manageable, and we only encountered light ice a couple of times, none of which was dangerous.  this was a relief to me, as i wasn’t sure if the tennis shoes the other two were wearing would be adequate on the trail, but they held up fine.

as we walked along, wesley’s youthful energy shone through, and he excitedly talked about his life up in canada, how he had grown up extremely far north, up in the arctic circle, where it could get extremely cold, but there weren’t as many scenic mountains to climb like in the alps.  katherine meanwhile seemed overwhelmed by the beauty that was all around us, always stopping to take photos at any chance she could get.  i didn’t mind that at all, as it offered me an opportunity to dig my camera out as well and snap some photos.  i had needed to make sure that i kept moving us along because i knew that once the sun set, it was going to get very dark and very cold, and we would be stranded. so i continually prodded the two to keep moving, and i felt bad about it, because i also wanted to stop and enjoy the landscape as much as possible.

we made it to the highest point of the hike, to stellisee lake, and as we were snapping photos, we noticed a commotion off to our left.  about a hundred yards away was a herd of free-roaming mountain goats.  we quickly scrambled over and began following the goats, taking photos and videos, watching the mischievous little devils battle each other, ramming their horns into each other and trying to establish their dominance.  at one point, i got a little too close and one of the adult goats backed me down, chasing after my gopro camera as if to inform me that i was not welcome among their herd.  eventually the goat herd got far enough from the path that we let them go and resumed our trek, cognizant of the impending darkness that would be descending soon.

but along the way it occurred to me that i was extremely glad that these two strangers had joined me.  when the day began, i had a very specific plan and idea for what i wanted this day to be, and suddenly i had allowed that to be wrestled away from me, and i had been a little sour about it for a few fleeting minutes.  i had started the day wanting to conquer a mountain, to climb to the top of a summit and take some risks, and feel a triumph over something.  but now here i was, on the back half of a 7 hour journey, and i was actually thankful that i hadn’t done zermatt wesley lookbackthat.  i had changed my perspective, and i was now on a more leisurely and more enjoyable trek with a couple of beautiful and innocent souls who would likely have overpaid to board a gondola and ride up to the top of some scenic overlook that would undoubtedly have been breathtaking, but they wouldn’t have earned it.  but this?  this was work. this was sweat.  and i could see that despite the exhaustion, they were having the time of their lives.  i felt proud of that.

but i was also humbled by my new friends.  they had taught me something.  they had taught me that only doing what i want didn’t necessarily mean i was going to have the best experience possible, and they had confirmed for me that the mantra of the traveler, that “say yes” attitude and “stay open” mentality was the only true way to travel and authentically experience the world.

as the sun set behind the mighty matterhorn, we quickened our pace, trying to beat the darkness back to zermatt.  our legs were worn and exhausted, but we made it back into town just as dusk turned to night and the streetlights flickered to life in sleepy zermatt.  perfect timing.  a perfect day.

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today’s track is a piece of relaxed folktronica beauty by howard, from his brand new album, religion.  put this on while you commute to work in the morning and you haven’t quite woken up yet.  follow the slowly growing playlist below to continue receiving new songs.  enjoy…

 

Switzerland: what the hell is a fondue?

halstatt lakefront
hallstatt, austria on a clear day from a distance

 

i had seen halstatt.  it was one of the things on my list that seemed a little more niche and extravagant, and i hadn’t been sure if i was going to pull it off, especially considering all the adversity i had encountered.  but i now had a strong sense of accomplishment and pride in myself for surviving the day, as silly as that sounds.  i had faced a number of my biggest fears about solo backpacking all in the same day, and i hadn’t panicked.  things had somehow just worked out, which was something i had heard people say before, but the paranoid planner in me had never believed them.  i’ve always come from a place that the prepared mind is the one who is granted fortune, which i think still is often true, but i knew there was romance somewhere in the no-man’s-land of spontaneity, and one of my primary goals before i set out on this trip was to force myself into that abyss.  it had been uncomfortable, stressful, comical, and… wonderful.  i didn’t understand it yet, as i was still decompressing and dissecting the day’s events in my mind, but the seeds of experience had been planted in my mind, and i knew that i was already beginning to change and grow from it. Continue reading Switzerland: what the hell is a fondue?