We’ve all had our idealistic visions of places crushed at one time or another. Maybe it was that time you found a McDonalds while driving through the “quintessential” New England town, or that moment you realized Christmas time in New York City is really just throngs of pushy tourists getting in each others way as everyone tries to take a picture in front of the Rockefeller Center tree. At this point, your hopes may be dashed. You’ve started to believe idealistic places are overrated. Well, I have good news for you; you Debbie Downers, you doubtful souls, you who have lost faith in ever finding a place that is all you hoped it would be, not some dissatisfying tourist trap. It is my pleasure to inform you that Heidi’s world really does exist! Welcome, my friends, to the Swiss Alps. Once you enter, you may never want to leave.
After three trains and a cable car, we had finally reached the tiny town of Murren. Suspended above a nearly vertical cliff face that drops over 1000 feet to the valley floor, the village was like nothing I have ever seen. Swiss chalets lined the narrow, windy streets, and small homes boasted little fenced gardens filled with flowers and produce. However, my glimpse of the idyllic village was brief as we headed from the cable car to the funicular (a cable railroad on a steep incline) station, my family eager to reach our destination after a long day of traveling all the way from Florence, Italy. When we reached the top of the track, I stepped outside and regained my bearings.
The funicular, it seemed, had dropped us off in Middle Earth. The first thing that greeted me, and would continue to haunt me for the rest of my time on the mountainside, was the silence, an overwhelming, real, absolute, beautiful silence. I had become so accustomed to the dull roar of humanity. Now, all I could hear was nothing at all, and somehow, it was the loudest thing I had ever heard.
Trudging along a narrow dirt path in unwavering fog with our L.L. Bean suitcases, our family looked like true American tourists. We were excited. We were in a landscape that held infinite promises, a place that had the potential to awaken some dormant part of ourselves. Soon, wildflower meadows extended as far as we could see, sloping off into the unknown. When we finally rolled our luggage to a stop in front of the small guesthouse we would call home for the next three days, the owner came out to greet us. A friendly “surfer dude” from California, this was not at all the gruff mountain man we had expected to own a hotel 8,000 feet up in the Alps. He cooked vegan food and had a ponytail. This trip was only getting better.
On the first night, it was the white abyss that got me. We sat nestled on the side of the Shilthorn, a 2,970m peak which faces the Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger, some of the tallest and most famous mountains in Switzerland. The knowledge that these massive giants stood just beyond the wall of white was overwhelming. I wasn’t the only one who felt the lost in all this space.
“Everything is just so big. It’s a lot to take in,” my brother Robert said.
And then there were the cows. We were determined to find the source of the occasional jingle of cowbells we heard through the fog. As the evening set in, we explored the meadows and streams around the hotel until we found the herd. Extremely friendly, some cows walked right up to us and reveled in our attention as my brother and I took the opportunity to do a photo-shoot with our new bovine friends.
Perhaps the singularly most powerful moment of my time in the mountains was the first night. It was 2 a.m. I awoke suddenly, jumped up, and pulled open the picture window. The clouds had finally cleared, and staring at me from across the Laterbrunnen valley was the largest mountain, the largest visible entity I had ever seen. I just stared, awe-struck.
I thought I had found the most beautiful place on Earth.