Photo courtesy of Jungfrau Region, by Jost von Allmen
It's been a long journey from an island in Florida to an Alpine village in Switzerland, by plane, train, boat, cog railway, gondola, and foot, but now I've reached my goal. I am looking at the spot where, 35 years ago to the month, I sat on a stone bench and looked at a view that made me believe in God.
That moment of personal change was in 1981, which I spent studying Marxist literary criticism at Oxford, and until which time I was an agnostic, sure of nothing except that nothing could be known of the divine (or Divine). That summer, I took my barmaid's savings and a friend from New Jersey and set out across Europe with a Eurail pass, the paperback Let's Go: Europe, and a 40-pound backpack. Most of the trains and buses, the hitchhiking and the treks, and coffees and meals of bread and cheese (and cheese and bread) have escaped my memory, except for one walk outside the village of Gimmelwald.
At age 20, I'd taken my first gondola ride up from the valley, to a place without cars, almost without trees. Gimmelwald was 4,500 feet above sea level, inaccessible by car, and the most beautiful spot I'd ever seen. Even the youth hostel amazed me: it had no warden, no check-in procedure, and no evident rules: boys and girls slept in the same rooms! I was told that the warden would be back in the morning, maybe, to collect payment; she was busy tending her goats.
In a rush of anarchistic freedom, I dumped my pack and left my traveling companion at the youth hostel, and set out for a late-afternoon hike. I took a circular trail that led up the mountain and away from the village, and quickly I was out of sight of anything man-made. Heaven!
What was in sight then—as now—were the Alps, looking more astounding than any photo or painting I'd ever seen. The last sun shone dim in a corner of sky, wide slopes lay in lavender shadow; the air was cool and delicious. Of all of it, the staggered array of mountaintops most drew my attention and emotion—the vast beauty excited and humbled me. In my naïveté, in youthful wonder, I decided that my awe was no mere evolutionary reaction to my environment, but an evoked response to an intentional act. Despite my Marxist education and anti-religious views, I felt that the wonders in front of me had not just happened by chance but had been created for human beings: thus, I felt, there must be a Creator.
Photo courtesy of Jungfrau Region
Now, age 55, I've come back to Gimmelwald. The young woman I was in this place would be very surprised to know that she was to become a writer, a lesbian, something of a Christian, something of a Buddhist, and not much of a Marxist anymore.
In trying to return to the exact spot where my changes began, I'm pretty sure I've found the right path, starting uphill of the gondola area and the back of the hostel. It's a wider path that I remember, and it's paved now, but as I round a bend I recognize something that has not changed: a stone bench, built into a stone wall that has been here for hundreds of years. It overlooks an opening in the fir and spruce trees that reveals a wide view of blue and white mountaintops. This is exactly where I sat. These are the peaks, these are the snow-pastel colors, that so amazed me when I was a girl that I felt overwhelmed by humility amid grandeur.
I suppose I was expecting to feel it again.
But I don't, really. Now, breathing a little hard from the climb, I stand and look again, and while the view pleases me, it doesn't change my world view. It is not my first time to travel and revel in magnificent scenery, and I am not twenty-two years old. Now, I think that the wonder I thought lay in front of me was at least as much something that I carried inside.
On this trip to Switzerland, I have brought a small, smart, rolling carry-on for luggage instead of a backpack. I travel on trains, boats, buses, trams, gondolas and cogwheel railways on first-class Swiss Travel Pass. That is to a Eurrail pass what tea at the Ritz is to a meal at McDonalds. I write about places in a notebook instead of reading about them in Let's Go, and I have no companion—I prefer solo travel now.
And on this trip to Switzerland, though I still appreciate the panoramic views of snow-topped mountains and flower-filled valleys that I watch out the large Swiss train windows, what I love most is the pure, quiet atmosphere. The air is so clear that colors are brighter than anywhere I've ever seen. Breathing it is like taking a drug: an uncut elixir that excites the senses.
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