Tramping in the Alps
( Originally Published 1934 )
THE things with most capacity to tire us are the things that we most delicately love. I had been roaming over Italy for many months, seeking forgotten frescoes in far-away hamlets and musing in the sanctity of churches; and when at last I reached Milan I longed eagerly never to look upon another picture nor to enter another church in all my life. My aesthetic sensibilities were tired---so tired that I actually stood in f front of the multitudinous cathedral of Milan and called it a birthday-cake with candles—so tired that, although I had come to town expressly to study the paintings of Luini, I could never bring myself within less than a block of them without wheeling about and hurrying away. My friend Dick was tired also. Every afternoon he de. liberately went to bed, in order to prevent himself from seeing the "Last Supper" of Leonardo. Once or twice I reminded him that Leonardo was his favourite painter. He merely answered, "Go away!"
When people are as tired as that, they need to take a walk. I suggested this to Dick one evening over coffee. He liked the thought of something that might be done with feet instead of brains. "We'll walk," said he.
It occurred to me that Switzerland was near. "Any paintings there?" he asked, suspiciously. "Not one."
"Nothing but chalets."
"Thank Heaven!" he breathed. "We'll start tomorrow morning."
We bought knapsacks, into which we flung such necessaries as a toothbrush, a pipe, and a pocket R. L. S.; we had our shoes shod with heavy iron nails; we arrayed ourselves in rowing shirts and sweaters, golf trousers and leather leggings; we purchased alpenstocks; and we confided our baggage to a tourist company's agent, telling him vaguely to send it anywhere in France and to let us know where it was when it got there.
A train dragged us to Mona, at the foot of the Lago Maggiore; and a steamer slid us up the lake to Locarno, the first town in Switzerland. Dick and had heard of a city named Lucerne and knew from pictures that it sat beside a lake. Somehow we supposed that we must be going thither. So, stumbling on a British tourist, we asked him, "Where is Lake Lucerne?"
He gasped, amazed, and sputtered it was half of Switzerland away.
"Quite so," said Dick. "How do you walk to it?"
The British tourist made a noise like a seltzer bottle, shuffled the pages of his Baedeker, and said that we should have to cross the St. Gothard Pass. Then he read altitudes in metres and distances in miles. At last a native slouched along to save us.
"Which is the way to the St. Gothard ?" I inquired.
The native was wise. He waved an arm at the Ticino River. "Follow that," said he.
We followed the Ticino for two days, the way from its mouth to its source. That was how we found the pass. You can find anything in Switzerland, if only you will let the rivers guide you. They know much more about geography than British tourists. And they are wise in other ways. For instance, the Ticino taught us the jocund sport of Progressive Bathing. The sport is this. At a certain hour every day you throw off all your clothes and leap into the river you are following. You don't have to swim; the current swims for you. But the fun lies in the fact that each day the river is more narrow and more swift than it was the day before. Also it is much more cold. And the same stream that gave you a warm reception at its mouth is most forbiddingly frigid where it trickles from a glacier at its source.
The St. Gothard was our first pass, and we rushed at it with the eagerness of novices. I had never climbed a mountain before that, and supposed that the thing to do was just to walk up its slope. This I tried, until suddenly I slid backward many yards upon my chest, eating earth. Dick imbibed wisdom from my declension, and amazingly discovered that there were such things as trails. After that we climbed more circumspectly.
In the little tavern at the top, where we swallowed beer and cheese, wise ones told us of a stream whose name was Reuss. This was thin and guttery at first; but if only you had faith in it, it would lead you all the way to Lake Lucerne. It was hard to believe in the Reuss, where it issued from a puddle of a pond; but we obeyed the wise ones. It led us down and ever down through a gash in the mountains more desolate than any other I had ever seen. At last it lured us to a valley that had the virtue of homeliness and was inhabited by towns with German names. Between Andermatt and Gôschenen it gathered to a torrent and roared over a cataract beneath the Devil's Bridge. Here we rested. If we had been old and wise, we should have spent that night in Göschenen; but being young, we did not know that we were weary, and resolved to lunge on to Amsteg. I shall never forget the delicious utter physical fatigue of the last few miles. I had no brain. Neither had Dick. He monotonously chanted old Ben Jonson's song, and whenever he came to "Not of itself but thee," he reverted to the first stanza and commenced all over again. Time and time again he drank to me only with his eyes; and to the reiterated rhythm of his droning we dragged our weary legs to Amsteg.
Here we fell into seats at table, and devoured. I don't think that I had ever really eaten before that. At any rate, I had never fully realized the divinity of food. So magnificently did we eat that it was only when we tried to rise from the table that we discovered that our legs had tightened stiff. The landlord and the landlord's son had to carry us to bed ; and while Dick was groaning wearily, "I sent thee late a rosy wreath," I sank into immeasurable slumber.
In the morning we arose and tramped very agedly to Flüelen, the first port of Lake Lucerne. Here we met a polite steamboat that said it was willing to let us sit down all the length of the lake; and we accepted its gracious invitation. Surely that day, of all days, we had a rush of weariness to the feet, a transit that is wholesome for the brain.
Lucerne itself, at the western end of the lake, is a happy holiday of a city, all roofs and spires, behind which the iron-hued Pilatus rises dark. It is a place where natives sing at night in taverns beside a rushing river; and where tourists wear clothes and buy things. Here Dick and 1 loitered for a day or two, because of broken feet—painting them with various kinds of new skin and trying (vainly) to forget them.
Later we forged southwesterly to Interlaken, which is a sort of Saratoga of a place, chiefly notable as a starting point for other places that are beautiful. From there we started on the accustomed tramp up the valley to Lauterbrunnen, in full view of the moon-white Jungfrau, that saintliest of mountains. Lauterbrunnen is memorable chiefly for the Staubbach—a shower-bath of a brook that falls scattery, sheer down a precipitous cliff. On top of that cliff, which we climbed by a serpentining earthy trail, is flung a handful of houses called Marren. It is a homely little settlement, tinkly with cattle bells; but it affords one of the sublimest views in all the Alps. For across the valley stand unveiled the white peaks of the Bernese Overland—the Jungfrau, and the Eiger, and the Mônch—monarchical, serene, stupendous. We gained a nearer but less massy view of these by dropping down to Lauterbrunnen once again and crawling up over the shoulder of the Wengern Alp on the other side of the valley.
No other range of peaks in Switzerland can vie in sublimity with the Bernese Overland, except the Alps of the Valais. Thither, by gradual tramps, we made our way. We settled at Zermatt, a town hidden deep in the valley of the Visp—a valley running narrow, north and south, and therefore darkling in its depths except at noon. Zermatt is merely a place to climb out of. We spent a morning scrambling up over the humpy flanks of the Gorner Grat, until at last we sat upon its summit. There, finally, in the wide air, we felt ourselves upon the roof of the world. Enormous, to the south of us, rose the everlasting whiteness of the Breithorn and the' Monte Rosa, gashed and gouged with rivers of ice; and westward stood alone the Matterhorn, sharp and dark—most terrible of mountains.
We gazed for hours silent, and were healed.
"Now we can go back to Italy," said Dick.