The Air Up There

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Kodachrome spring flowers near Lauterbrunnen

walk |verb| to move along on foot; to advance by steps

A year into our marriage, my husband and I decided to revive our pre-martial dream of going to Patagonia. There was however one tiny glitch: our state of newly-wed, newly-housed bliss had left us in a relative state of financial depletion. Not a problem. As young lawyers, we were spry, resourceful and excellent negotiators. All we needed was a window of opportunity. At about the same time, I got a call from the police. Apparently, someone had broken into my VW Lupo – a tiny blueberry of a car that was too cool to be in production for more than a couple of years. (It touched – not literally, thankfully! – an entire generation of law students at my university.) The police was wondering if I knew about it… given that a week had passed and there were no signs of anyone having touched the smashed glass. The Lupo’s guardian, a stuffed frog named Principe, was clearly growing weary of the task. As I mulled over the situation, I realized that not only did I have the real prince now, but my window of opportunity was right before me, shattered and strewn all over the front seat. We sold the car and in a few weeks were on a plane to Ushuaia. One of the most memorable encounters in my hiking history happened out there in a tiny hiker’s paradise called El Chalten. Luís and I had taken an 8-hour hike to a turquoise glacier lake (Laguna de los Tres) that was breath-taking in both beauty and physical endurance. About halfway through the hike, an odd looking pair appeared on the horizon of our trail, coming in the opposite direction. The trail was narrow and one walked in front of the other. But something was slightly off in their dynamic. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As the gap between us closed, I noticed a pair of ski poles connected them – each man holding an extremity. That’s when I realized the second hiker was blind.

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Laguna de los Tres – El Chalten, Patagonia (Argentina)

Hiking is walking with a capital W. It is to me what a car ride is to a cranky baby resisting sleep – a place to disconnect from the static and reconnect with myself. It’s a carved-out space where thoughts can begin to settle and pick the words they want to inhabit, instead of lingering somewhere in the soul as a vague gas-like feeling. Feelings in this undefined state cannot be addressed head on and are basically given free-license to haunt us. It’s a bad strategy. It’s certainly no coincidence that a great many writers incorporate walks into their creative routine and that many people advocate walking to untangle knotty problems, to digest life along with dinner and to solidify bonds – my father among them. He was walking alone in the mountains of Sintra when he decided to marry my mother. The chapel he stumbled upon mid-walk was where they tied the knot – or so goes our family folklore. (Incidentally, Luís and I were both baptized in that church and were married there in 2006.) Walking is also a perfect analogy for life where the best things require a little bit of effort on our part. Earn that view. Let your steps turn into a trail and a trail a destination.

Spring in Switzerland has been tight-fisted, so we took advantage of a brief respite and made our way over to Interlaken this past weekend with some friends. Our first walk took us through a picture-perfect valley lined with thin waterfalls crashing down from cliffs the height of skyscrapers. I snapped away at my camera even though I knew it was a hopeless cause. Technology cannot bring you the taste of the faint mist emanating from the falls, the explosive coolness of the Alpine water in your throat, the existential space hung between snow-capped mountain peaks. The air pressing up against your epidermis like a palm of a hand. You feel a little kitsch repeating how beautiful all those Kodachrome flowers are scattered across the fields like that – as if Someone has planted them one by one, which of course they did. Then there is the luxury of the time to be able to walk through it all, to breath it all in, to let it pump through your bloodstream like caffeine. Facebook, Instagram and Google Glass are no substitute for the authentic experience. They can hint at an existence beyond their pixel walls, but they won’t walk the walk for you.

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The valley of Lauterbrunnen – notice the Staubbach Falls in the back.

The next day’s walk ended up turning into an Aesop’s Fable, complete with a moral and an animal embodying a vice/virtue. For an animal, we had Botox – our pampered princess of a dog. For a vice, we had his cowardice – he’s scared of everything from wheels on suitcases to plastic bags. Now, we can add things that fall out of the sky thanks to a group of landing paragliders, that made the little guy projectile-poop and break into a sprint such was his canine terror. No amount of words or lint rollers can describe the 30-minute gondola ride up the Schwarzhorn in the aftermath of this traumatic event. The plan had been to hike up to the idyllic Lake Bachalpsee – a pristine lake perfectly reflecting the mountain summits around it while embraced by lush green meadows. And the weather report seemed to confirm that that was what we were in for. Totally naïve. A meter of snow, a frozen (unreflecting) lake and an overcast sky (despite the weather report) was our prize. Moral of the story: check the webcam as well as the weather report, dummy – don’t you know global warming is making the weather go all musical chairs on us? The Spring respite was clearly over and I felt cheated by the view Google had promised me (not to mention the 114 CHF gondola ticket). But then I remembered the blind hiker. There are four other senses to go on. How would he experience sitting where I was just then? I guess that was moral no. 2: when life’s circumstances suddenly change on us, we can either stick with the now ill-suited initial plan or adapt our dynamic. Perhaps you’ll find a new way to experience things you loved – like the blind guy – pulling that verb tense into the present tense: love. On the way down from Schwarzhorn, I realized I’ve actually written about this blind hiker in one of my stories. He was so deep down in my psyche that I hadn’t realized my character was him, but there he was.

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Luís, Botox and I in front of Lake Bachalpsee – yep, the frozen white thing in the back.

Somewhere in my in-laws attic in Portugal, I still have my first pair of hiking boots – long since retired. I bought them with my dad and they remind me that I’ve walked a long way since then. And I’ll walk a long way still, even though – just now – the weather is a little foggy. But fog is curious thing – even if you can’t see the final destination, you can always see the next step.

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9 thoughts on “The Air Up There

  1. Looking at the pictures you have here, I love the country & where this place is located.
    It makes me think of places I went with family & a few aunts & uncles & cousins, too! I can tell you that it is a great thing for a dog to feel jumpy a lot. They sense more than we do as their hearing is better than ours. They were given very sensitive hearing & I am glad that I know that from personal experience because I was saved by my dog since I wasn’t able to hear as good as my dog could. This is a great story & love the adventure through your eyes of telling it. Have a great day & hope my blog is of interest to you, too!

  2. I just love the way you describe hiking/walking, as I can totally relate with it: “It is to me . . . a place to disconnect from the static and reconnect with myself.” What a lovely piece of writing.

    • Thanks, Jolandi. Now I’m just hoping the weather in Switzerland will warm-up so I can get back out there. It’s miserable right now! In any case, I’ll be hiking in Morocco in early June, so hopefully some new adventures to write about are on the horizon!

      • I do hope for your sake that the winter in Europe will retreat soon, as I am sure everyone feels that it has lingered long enough. Enjoy Morocco. I am looking forward to reading about your hike there. I’ve never been, but I have read a lot about the country lately, and have firmly placed it on my bucket list. Safe travels.

  3. Pingback: Open-ended stories | From lex to lexicon

  4. I love this event & the way you reach out to touch those things that make everything in your lives bring happiness & a reality to what you do in the present. With your dog, I think that being skittish is from not adapting well to the different places when traveling.
    I do think they hear a lot of different things from their hearing being so sensitive.
    Rodney

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