In 1997 I hiked the Alpine Pass Route (APR), a 340 km (211 mi) trail that spans the breadth of Switzerland. Starting in the village of Sargans on the border with Liechtenstein, the route traverses sixteen mountain passes before reaching its western terminus at Montreux, located on Lake Geneva. Although I’d been hiking and backpacking for many years prior to the APR, for all intents and purposes that was my first “long-distance” hike.
The Swiss Bombadil
One of the most memorable aspects of the APR was meeting and spending time with Marc, a 66-year-old gentleman who hailed from the Bernese Oberland region. Marc had a sage-like quality that struck me from the moment we met. He had spent his entire life in the Alps and had trodden many of its vast network of pathways. In his youth, he accompanied his father and grandfather, and as he got older, he introduced his own children and grandkids to the wonders of walking in the Swiss mountains.
When Marc spoke of his ‘hiking life,’ the abiding connection he felt for his native region shone through in every word. The way in which he described each valley, peak, meadow, cirque, and lake was as if he was talking about a beloved family member or a dear friend. The same applied when he mentioned local fauna, such as the sure-footed ibex and chamois, or the majestic golden eagle. No detail was too trivial or small. The warmth in his voice was equally evident in his deep smile lines and weather-beaten countenance. He was like a Swiss Tom Bombadil – without the endearingly silly songs and yellow boots (though he did have a blue jacket). Speaking of footwear, one of the many things I remember about Marc was that he had been using the same leather walking boots (they were Raichles) for 33 years. He told me that he needed to go to his village cobbler every three or four years to resole them!
If you’ve gotten this far, you may be wondering why I’m reminiscing about an elderly Swiss chap I met almost a quarter of a century ago? What’s the story behind the story?
Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary (and the positive in the crappy)
When I met Marc, I was in my mid-20s – a wayfarer whose imagination brimmed over with dreams of experiencing the world’s far-flung corners. In contrast, he was an ambulatory homebody who was on a first-name basis with every root, rock, and blade of grass in his local area. Despite this difference in our ages and hiking dispositions, Marc may have influenced my outdoor life as much as anyone I’ve met.
In him, I sensed a mutual affinity with the natural world that went beyond the norm. I remember writing in my Spiral notebook journal at the time, “I wonder if I’ll still have the same twinkle in my eye and skip in my step forty years down the track?” However, I also discerned another quality to which I aspired but hadn’t fully realized until then – the ability to identify and embrace wonder within the parameters of my everyday life. Or, to put it another way, find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
You might be thinking, “that doesn’t sound so tough in a place as beautiful as the Swiss Alps.” Perhaps, however, I would counter with the following points: 1. Familiarity can be a harbinger of disinterest, irrespective of how aesthetically pleasing a landscape may be, and; 2. The weather was uniformly crappy for the two days Marc and I spent hiking together.
Regarding the first point, whether on trail or off, the wide-eyed curiosity we have as children can often be dulled by the repetitions and responsibilities of our everyday lives. The reverse seemed to be true with Marc. In his case, familiarity had led to a more profound level of appreciation. Every natural feature and creature meant something to him. As for the second point, he was hiking in wet and wild conditions on a trail he’d done countless times before. Unlike myself, he wasn’t on a schedule; he had no train or flight to catch. And yet, there he was happier than a St.Bernard with two tails and a bottomless food bowl. He was out there simply because he loved it. I’ve never forgotten that.
Not long after saying my farewells to Marc, I finished the APR and flew back to Mexico. The beauty of the Swiss Alps had left an indelible impression, but perhaps more importantly, there was a change in how I felt about the daily walks I took in the mountains around my home. I’d always loved these hikes and had never taken them for granted, but after returning from Switzerland, I made a concerted effort not to overlook the little things simply because they were familiar. That shift in perspective was subtle rather than seismic, but by upping the awareness ante, I started noticing more of nature’s mini-miracles, and the feelings of union I had for my surroundings grew even stronger.
In the years since my trek across Switzerland, I’ve had the good fortune to do many more long-distance hikes around the world. Among these trips have been ancient pilgrimage paths, well-known classic trails, and challenging routes in remote backcountry areas. I’ve enjoyed them all, and some of the most memorable times of my life have occurred during these extended wilderness journeys.
However (you knew that was coming), it’s the little hikes on trails I’ve done hundreds of times that I ultimately cherish the most. Just like the consistent and unbidden small gestures of love that are more important than grandiose gifts in a relationship, these regular walks represent the cornerstones of my ‘hiking life.’ They are the paths I walk on chilly mornings, in the pouring rain, on steamy mid-summer days, at sunrise, at sunset, and sometimes under the light of a full moon. They are the portal through which I endeavor to see the “world in a grain of sand.” And for this gift of perspective, I need to say thank you to a venerable Swiss gentleman with the most well-worn pair of hiking boots I’ve ever seen.
- Alpine Pass Route
- Arthur’s Range Traverse
- A Natural Progression
- 100 Classic Hikes
- A Long Absence and a Return to Alaska