By Aubrey Clyburn
For my new year's resolution, I'm going to try to write a lot more. So to close out 2019, here's another story from last summer.
The first thing you notice when you are an anemic American tourist trying to kill some vacation time by climbing a small Alp is that you have somehow overestimated yourself once again. This became apparent to me approximately twelve steps in, when I realized that not only was this hike going to be more immediately vertical than I expected, but a small hole was beginning to eat into the sole of my long-abused sneaker. I suppressed a sigh until the energetic-looking people just in front of me were well on their way, and then sat down to reassess my position.
I had wound up in Interlaken – well, “wound up” is a rather cavalier term for what I had done; I had gotten on a train on purpose to go to Interlaken – and I had two and a half days to spend there, so it seemed appropriate to do some hiking. I picked Harder Kulm on the strength of its being nearby and not too tall, and with the promise of snacks at the top. The pamphlet in the hostel lobby said it was a mere 756-meter ascent, which seemed perfectly reasonable to me, and everyone on the internet said the view was well worth the time and exertion required to attain it. Of course, the same view could be had by paying something 30 Swiss francs to take the funicular straight up to the top of the mountain, and dozens of people were happily availing themselves of this option, but not I. I was tough. I was a world traveler now. And I had a lot of feelings to work through, which is a topic for another time. I was going to climb this mountain on my own two feet.
I was woefully unprepared. For one thing, I was picturing hiking as it is done in places like western North Carolina, where the mountains are old and begin gently. There’s elevation, all right, but the incline is steep in few places, and the trails can at least be counted upon to start out nearly flat.
Not Harder Kulm. No. I strode past the cheery yellow post that signaled the beginning of the trail and was promptly scaling a cliff. Well, I wasn’t, but that was how it felt. The supplies I had brought with me consisted of a notebook and pencil, wallet, Chapstick, and an old Altoids tin filled with assorted painkillers, crammed into the little gray bag I had been carrying around Europe for the past six weeks. I might have brought a water bottle, but I don’t really remember and I do not trust myself to have done such an obvious thing. And, as I have mentioned, my shoes were wearing dangerously thin. I should not have been allowed out on my own, but alas, I was masquerading as a grown-up and no one was there to stop me.
Now, the signpost at the beginning predicted that it would take me about two hours to climb the trail. Two hours, I reasoned as I sat there retying my battered shoes, is not a terribly long time. Besides, I walk fast. I bet I can do it in less. No matter how bad this is – and how bad could it be? – it will be over in less than two hours. It took me three and a half.
The beginning wasn’t so bad. Buoyed by optimism and a desire not to press my feet too hard into the rocky ground, I made it a full twenty minutes upwards without incident. I managed not to fall whenever I tripped, and wasn’t lost or hungry or being pursued by a bear. (Did bears live here? I wasn’t sure they did, but I also wasn’t sure they didn’t.) However, I was struggling up a particularly steep cluster of rocks when I was swiftly passed by two people in brightly colored, high-tech-looking exercise gear, running up the mountain. This seemed singularly odd to me, and I would have categorized them as passionate outliers had it not happened again. And again. And again. All of them had poles in each hand and a certain zealous intensity on their faces. Meanwhile, I was out of breath from walking at what seemed like a 45-degree angle. The comparison was not encouraging.
Somewhere along the way, I emerged from the endless woods onto a gravel road, marked by another yellow signpost. This proved alarming because its arrows pointed in two different directions, neither of which was labeled with the trail that I thought I was on. My feet were beginning to protest, I did not yet feel a nature-induced refreshment in my soul, and my Chapstick was proving to be a useless addition to my putative survival kit. Before despair could overwhelm me, however, a friendly face appeared from the woods. He was a native of Interlaken, quick to assure me that the town is not all tourists, and happy to point me in the right direction, which was, in fact, exactly the way I had already been going. He kindly accompanied me for the next twenty minutes or so, during which time I learned that the colorful runners were carrying on a noble tradition of doing impossible-seeming things simply because you can. One pair of friends, he told me, managed to run up and down the mountain fourteen times in a single day, utilizing every possible combination of trails, and averaging thirty minutes per run. “Wow,” I said, trying to hide how hard I was breathing.
My new friend left me at a scenic overlook to continue his own journey, with well-wishes and a couple of landmarks to look for. I sat there for a good ten minutes, during which time two more well-prepared fellow hikers passed by and offered me some of their granola bars, unprompted. I could have cried. But, still clinging to the shadow of my masculinity (if that is the word I want), I declined, and they went on their merry way.
The trail went on, and on, and on. I passed through a field that was supposed to contain cows but was full of small blue flowers instead, which was fine, and may have taken one or two inadvertent shortcuts through a forest that was definitely haunted. No fewer than four times I thought, “Now, this is surely the top,” only to turn and find yet more trail. Then I spotted a yellow swallowtail butterfly dancing around a mossy rock, and suddenly there it was: the very, very top.
I hauled myself up the last few steps onto flat ground. There was an expansive roofed structure under which dozens of picnic tables sat, and there seemed to be a restaurant that belonged to about half the picnic tables. The other half were occupied by patrons of the decidedly less swanky snack stand, which was lined on either side by kiosks full of magnets and keychains. An accordion cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was playing over the speakers. Off to one side, jutting out from the snack-and-souvenir area, was a giant triangle of glass, where you could walk out and view some mountains. And then, oh my god, there were the mountains. I pushed all the way out into the apex of the triangle and stared out at the view for which I had given my time and exertion. It was as if I were standing on Mount Olympus, looking down at all the world. The bright aqua lakes glimmered up at me, like robin eggs in their giant green leafy nests. Bigger mountains still, the real Alps, stood on the other side, clouds swimming lazily below their peaks, and the sky went on forever above them. I looked, and looked, and looked, and looked, and then I went and bought a four-dollar croissant and sat down.
I savored my rest on top of the mountain. I read a few informative plaques, took the required photos, watched the butterfly some more. I tried to count sheep on another mountainside. And then, when I had had about enough of that, I took one more look out at the landscape and started down. There was a renewed spring in my step, and another half-inch of height in my posture. I took great pleasure in telling people coming up the other way, “You’re almost there!” I felt confident that, if they asked, I could give them directions. After all, well. I had climbed this mountain. I knew. I was practically an expert. Not one of those people, for the record, needed my help or encouragement, but it made me feel much better to try to give it to them. By the time I reached the bottom of the mountain, the sole of my shoe was worn completely through.
Anyway, I’m moving to New York City in about eight months or so, and I am, as always, woefully unprepared. But I have new sneakers, and several notebooks, and a first-aid kit of sorts, and a persistent faith in the kindness of strangers, and I think I’ll be all right.
Thanks for reading!
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