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Different Paths Through the Swiss Alps

A family savors the beauty of the Engadine Valley and of their precious time together

June 30, 1996|PAULA BOCK | Bock is a reporter for the Seattle Times

PONTRESINA, Switzerland — We took a dark-green train from Zurich to Chur, a bright-red train from Chur to Samedan and, finally, squeezed into a skinny, cherry rail car with wood slat seats and windows open to the warm smell of hay.

The little engine whirred up to the Swiss mountain village of Pontresina and dumped us off--me, my husband, Tao, my mom and dad--hiking boots slung over our shoulders.

It was summer. We had come to walk the Alpine paths while the wildflowers were in bloom. We had come to celebrate wedding anniversaries (45 years for my parents, five years for Tao and me), 30th birthdays and the end of Tao's long nights on call as a pediatric resident.

"Celebrate everything!" my parents have taken to saying as they approach their 70s. Good health! Good minds! Good teeth! All these things, still good, still here, but who knows for how long?

So, Tao and I figured, why wait? We splurged. We had come to be with my parents. We had come to eat chocolate.

The secret about eating chocolate in Switzerland is that you burn it off hiking. The secret about hiking in the Alps is the trains. Cog trains, chairlifts, gondolas and even horse-drawn carriages will take you to the top of many peaks. In most cases, you can also ride back down.

On our first morning in Switzerland, we clambered into a funicular, a sort of vertical train, that rose gently through a fir forest before ascending steeply above the tree line into fields of gray scrabble, mossy rocks, melting snow. Mountain flowers lined stream beds and spilled out of rock crevices: Queen Anne's lace, lavender bells, pink alpenrose, tiny blue forget-me-nots each with a dot of yellow sun, wild purple pansies no bigger than a two-franc coin.

At the top, we could see the length of the Upper Engadine glacial valley: sparkling St. Moritz lake, para-sailors floating like human kites, a toy village far below. At 8,000 feet, the sun feels hot, the air cool. There are hardly any bugs. Perfect walking weather.

Before we could take a step, my dad began scrounging around in his fanny pack for the chocolate. I love chocolate, especially Swiss chocolate, because it lingers smooth and elegant on the tongue. I broke off a piece. The brown and silver wrapper looked suspiciously familiar. A Hershey Bar with almonds. In Switzerland. Not only that, Dad had 23 more bars stowed in his off-brand, roll-aboard suitcase back at the hotel. He had gotten them cheap from a Chinatown sidewalk vendor while visiting my aunties in New York.

I had forgotten my dad's penchant for bulk bargains, and it made me realize how rarely I see him these days. A whole box for $5! Cheaper than one bar of Swiss Lindt chocolate! He exaggerated. He beamed.

We walked. Carved wooden signs told how long it would take: Alp Languard, two hours; Pontresina, five hours; Val Roseg, all day. We crossed chalky glacial streams on boulders and plank bridges, the trails leisurely traversing the mountain, in no hurry to get anywhere.

This is the big difference between the Swiss Alps and the Pacific Northwest, where we live.

In the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, most of the switchbacks zigzag fast and steep, rushing somewhere beautiful. Hiking in the Northwest, Tao and I inevitably have a destination. Usually the destination is the summit.

In Switzerland, the paths amble, gaining altitude gradually. The summit is not the goal. After all, you can ride to the top. So the goal becomes the walk itself. What you see along the way. Who you are with. We were with my parents. And to my parents' joy, we shared the paths mostly with older people, folks with white hair and curved spines, their faces speckled by the sun and lighted by beautiful smiles.

"Bonjour, Guten Tag," they greeted us. My parents smiled back, commenting on how cute and vigorous the old folks are here in Switzerland. They have lately taken to pointing out cute old folks, perhaps because they delight in the obvious contrast. My parents' hair is still thick and black, their eyes bright, spines straight. They look a decade or two younger than 70 years and often less haggard than their own kids.

But you can never tell if it's going to be a good day for my dad's knees. When his knees are bad, he feels his age dragging him down. My mom, at those times, seems to sag a little too. Switzerland, fortunately, is the perfect place to walk if your knees are not so good. In the Alps, every day was a good day. My parents walked for hours. They wore us out.


So the days went. We took the train to different hiking towns, often rode up, almost always walked down, ate hungrily at night, slept deeply under poofy white comforters. Zermatt. Saas-Fee. Murren. Meiringen. Interlaken. Visp.

One of my favorite walks was down from Pontresina's Val Roseg, a snowy glacier mounded like coconut ice cream on a blue plate. For four hours, strolling alongside a gurgling brook and under dappled larches, my mother talked about her old friends in Hawaii, her home 50 years ago.

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