Road 2 Elsewhere, Excerpt #38: Man vs. Cow, High Above Grindelwald, Switzerland

Wherein I discover my aptitude as a hitchhiker, meet another guy named Peter Moore (but decline to buy him a cocoa), and learn how to spell “dirndl.”

THE SUMMER BEFORE I LEFT FOR PARIS, my dad fished an antiquated map of Europe from his shoebox of National Geographic treasures, and vouchsafed it to his wandering son.

He did the same, a few years later, when I was traveling with friends in central Africa, and it was, alarmingly, our only reference for a trip starting in Nairobi, dodging bullets and bombs across Uganda, and over the Nyiragongo Mountains in eastern Congo. I’m lucky I didn’t end up on another planet.

My father’s NatGeo generosity was remarkable. He still hadn’t forgiven me for breaking up his multi-decade collection of magazines when I loaned an issue to a high-school girlfriend, who promptly cut it up for a history presentation. It became a mock-notorious event in our family, as if she had stolen one of my dad’s incisors, leaving a permanent gap.

I did use his Nat Geo map during my time in Europe, though for the most part I considered myself beyond guidebooks of any kind. I wasn’t a tourist. This was my life. For the same reason, I refused to carry a camera; I didn’t wish to interpose any distance or technology between my face and raw experience. I’d store the experiences in memory, via my journals, not on Kodachrome, thank you very much.

But visual aids did help. While scanning my father’s map, before my visit with my college friend Gaffey, I happened to notice that Grindelwald, Switzerland — which my family had explored in the two rented VW Beetles — was pretty close to Fribourg. So before I had properly settled in with Gaffey, I was already plotting an escape from his Studentin Unterkunft (German for “hell hole that students have no choice but to live in”.)

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Another life-long habit: searching for the exit door before I’d even entered the room.

Per the youth-travel habit of the day, we stuck out our thumbs. It was called “hitchhiking,” young ‘uns, and I was great at it. Our first ride picked us up after two minutes by the roadside, the second obliged us after I flashed the “Grindelwald” sign at her upside-down, immediately after we’d emerged from the first ride. We sat in silence during both trips; Gaffey and I spoke French, not our drivers’ German.

Our second ride dropped us at a youth hostel in Interlaken. I stepped up to the desk to sign in, and saw my name inscribed in the guest registry. I asked Gaffey if he had already booked us a spot, which he had not. After a very confusing “who’s on first?” exchange with the hostel manager — ”You’re Peter Moore? Then who is this Peter Moore?” — it came to light that the guest who had signed in immediately before me was also named Peter Moore. I didn’t even have my own name all to myself!

Our host was so astonished by having two Peter Moores in his midst that he palmed me a two-franc piece — a small fortune at the exchange rate of the day — so I could buy my doppelgänger a cocoa and get acquainted. But alternative Peter Moore was not all that interested that we shared a name, so I pocketed the francs, and still feel guilty about it.

The next morning we continued on to Grindelwald.

Gaffey and I spent hours traveling the lovely little paths above, below, and across from this high-alpine town. My favorite part of a great day was our before-dinner walk past Gasthof Glacier and onto the valley floor, and the ascension up the other side. Darkness fell, and I made note of the quiet of the houses on either side of us. Sunset signaled silence; I could love that life if I was deeply involved in a writing project, I thought. If only. Sigh.

We made our way back up to Zentrum Dorf — where there were more dirndls per capita than strictly necessary. It was a floating island, buoyed by clouds and beer.

As we waited at a bus stop, by a sharp turn in the road, I watched a man and his wife turn off the porch light, put out the dog, turn on the porch light, console the crying animal, and stare at us. As young scruffs, we were the subject of some suspicion, evidently. As old, settled people, they were questionable for us, as well.

Finally we walked back to Main Strasse for a prolonged dinner at a joint called Rendezvous, which cost us twice as much as our lodgings. It may have been the beer. And the dirndls.

After dinner, we avoided returning to “the boys” (twenty-five Swiss-German youths who would share a dormitory room with us) by going to watch a high-scoring hockey contest, which ended with a broken glass bottle on the ice and fights in the stands. It’s a grand game. We returned to the hostel in fear at 11:30 p.m.; “the boys” turned up three hours later, drunk and heaving guttural consonants all over the place. They reawakened at 7:30am, when a previously quiet girl turned a vocal instigator. Gaffey and I were driven from our beds.

It was just as well, for tea at the Steinbock restaurant, and the day’s destination — Grindelwald First, a ski area geschlóssen for the season — awaited us. We embarked on a decidedly Fräulein Maria walk (the hills were alive!) among the high Alpine meadows, and speculated about where exactly the skiers descended through the vast open space above the timberline.

As we tiptoed through the late-blooming wildflowers on high, I recalled a childhood walk in the Swiss subalpine zone, when my father faced down a Braunvieh milch cow that menaced us. He simultaneously lampooned, and embodied, his role as family protector.

On some level, he’s still standing right there for me — between me and the cow, between me and ridiculous threats of all kinds.

*On alternating weekends I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (The first entry is here. Most recent one is here. Or dive in here, here, or even here.) It details the story of my road through Paris, London, and god help me, Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living. The story so far: Young Peter has arrived in Paris, occupied a dorm room at the Alliance Française language school, tiptoed out onto the Boulevard Raspail and the Paris Metro, and made the first steps on the road to elsewhere. If it’s too much to read, just look at the illustrations. They’re my favorite part, too.



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Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Where, Exactly? Hope you’ll join me for this picnic.