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 few 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.
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 charming 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.
“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.
i 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 or 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
during 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 that. 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.
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…