Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Air

June 15th, 2016

Air (an essay to complete the four elements, see also “water,” “surface,” and “vital heat“)

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They were burning the fields in Helambu, mountains terraced like a 3-d model of a topo map but nearly as old as human history. First they burn the chaff and straw, then cultivate with short-handled heavy-headed hoes, a design older than the millennium. In the larger fields, a wooden plow is pulled by a yoke of yak, writing simple lines in the soil with a metal tip tapering to a plain point. The plows are carved from a small tree-trunk with a heavy root angled by the winds, water, and rocks where it grew. A handle is mortised at the butt to give the plowboy control over depth and direction. The ashes from the burn are turned into the soil, but only after the fire has filled the sky with a choking smoke. In the villages they heat and cook with wood, often in rooms without chimneys. Instead a hole up in the eaves helps draw some of the smoke from the kitchen. The paths that wind between villages and farms are littered with empty coughdrop blister-packs, an attempt to sooth the irritation of indoor and outdoor smoke. The latter was completely unexpected as I climbed the trail, finally gaining 3690 meters of altitude. Higher than I had ever been but still not above tree line. The forest remained primarily pine and juniper, though becoming more scrub-like as the afternoon progressed. Ahead was a peak the path would go around, but I could see a recent rockslide had sheared off most of its face and the trail rerouted at that point. The foot stones were fresh and there were small cairns signaling the way, but as it turned out, in order to get past the slip, the path went almost to the peak. My altitude sensitive lungs went on full alert. Until this point, the hour estimates printed on my map had been spot on, but the walk from Mangengoth to Thadepati Bhanjyand was listed as one hour and took two and a half. Not sure what the kilometers were, but at this altitude they are of little consequence. The only thing that mattered was the air.

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It is not surprising that Buddhist meditation practices focus so intently on breath. Spiritus is elusive at altitude. Just moving about in the Himalayas is an exercise in breathing, a palpable factor in all activity. Visiting the gompa at Bhraga required not just a long walk up the Annapurna Circuit but also slow acclimation. The general rule of thumb is not to gain more than 1000 meters altitude per day, and I was by no means pushing myself on arrival at the village. On learning I could see the inside of the monastery which was perched high on a cliff above the village, I had to hustle to get up to it in time. Almost immediately, oxygen debt crushed my stamina. I slowed and methodically made my way to the entrance where I was met by an ancient Nepali doorkeeper who instructed me to remove my shoes and compose my breathing, then led me into an exuberance of Buddhist statuary, imagery, and manuscripts. I wandered in a daze, enthralled at the spectacle and the history it contained (I’m sure lack of oxygen contributed to that daze). On leaving, she tied a thin, blue-green string around my neck (which remains to this day), and I breathed one last time the smell of incense and ancient learning before descending some meters to the village and its relatively richer oxygen world.

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Bhraga is on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. As a child I was a voracious reader in a house with a decent but limited library. I remember Maurice Herzog’s account of the ascent (and more important, descent) of Annapurna in the first expedition to summit what was then the highest mountain yet climbed by Western mountaineers. That story remained tucked in my psyche, resurfacing when I read about the circuit. I’ve been trekking long enough to have chucked the “bucket list” mentality over the edge many years ago. My idea was to walk around the Annapurna massif as a sort of pilgrimage, like the Buddhist circumambulation of Mt. Kailash. In my pilgrimage, I would see the villages, people, and countryside but also the places Herzog’s expedition passed, and I would see the mountain that bulked so large in my childhood imagination. Except for ice gear, I carry the equipment necessary to meet most challenges on a trail. The description of the Annapurna Circuit was quick to point out that people of moderate fitness were capable of finishing, so I didn’t worry much about the specifics. My first days out were uneventful, walking without a guide on a well-marked, well-travelled path. As the days passed, I encountered many of the same trekkers, listening to their conversations which almost never mentioned the walk itself. Instead, like a mantra, they repeated the words “Thorung La,” a pass that, at 17,769 ft., was the highest point on the circuit. It soon became clear most of my hiking colleagues were focused almost exclusively on the challenge of that pass. Along with the 1000 meter rule, everyone hydrated relentlessly and many ate lots of garlic, a folk remedy I was most happy to follow. Morning eggs in the guest houses were usually covered in garlic. Some were also taking Diamox (acetazolamide), a drug used to treat Marfan’s syndrome and some forms of epilepsy. It is a diuretic which tends to acidify the blood, causing deep breathing and increasing the blood’s oxygen supply, so it supposedly works as prophylaxis for mountain sickness. For these people, a pilgrimage around and through a remarkable landscape had been reduced to hemoglobin, to blood and oxygen.

My passage over Thorung La was uneventful. A beautiful but bitter cold day, a long steady climb followed by a hasty descent to Kagbeni, it was satisfying and, by walking at a judicious pace, my blood remained well-oxygenated. A few weeks later, on another continent I came to understand thin air. I began the final ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro at midnight, but not before asking the guides about the rationale for such a strategy. We had already spent days acclimating, and it seemed unwise to disrupt diurnal patterns just at the moment we were readying for the big push. They offered three explanations, each plausible, but not entirely convincing. The hike up from Kibo huts to Uhuru peak is less than six km with a little more than 1000m altitude gain. The summit is 5895m (19,341′). For comparison, Everest is 29,029′, and the highest peak in North America is Denali coming in at 20,310′. So the first answer had some merit– seeing the sunrise from the crater rim is an incredible experience. People walk up Poon Hill in Nepal starting at 4:00 am to see the sun rise over the Annapurna massif and Daulighiri, but that is a well-marked and fairly short track. Another reason: it was the wet season and the rains tend to start mid-morning, so they wanted to get up and then off the mountain early. The last, which seemed both patronizing and nonsensical, was actually the best. Hikers cannot see what they are climbing in the dark. It might only be six kilometers and only 1000 meters elevation gain, but it is straight up the highest mountain in Africa. At 11:00, we had coffee and biscuits and by the stroke of midnight were walking out of camp, each wearing a headlamp directed at our feet. We soon discovered that rain the day before was snow up high, and within the hour we were in ankle-deep powder, each of us following single file, seeing only the terrain illuminated by our headlamps and concentrating on the footprints directly in front of us. This went on for six hours. Initially, I treated it the way I do all long treks. Walking is an opportunity to think, but walking and thinking at high altitude is a curious and subtle experience. I found while I did the Kili shuffle–placing one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe with no space between (very much Pink Floyd’s The Wall walk)–I could maintain a train of thought, but soon the lack of oxygen took effect, and I could only focus on the feet stepping in front of me, step after step, hour after hour. Climbing in snow is physically taxing, and as the air thinned, every misstep or slip interrupted carefully patterned breathing which in turn made me stop to pant, trying to get oxygen balance back. The new snow slowed our pace, so we arrived at Gilman’s point on the crater rim much later than expected. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano– a singular peak rising out of the Rift Valley that characterizes the geology of East Africa. We rested briefly, and for the first time could see beyond the halos of our headlamps. The sun washed across the landscape, making shadows of unbelievable intensity and finally breaking the monochrome of our night walk. By now I was really feeling the altitude. I had crossed Thorung La with little distress, but given the exertion of climbing in snow, I was gasping for air and feeling many of the symptoms of altitude sickness. Nevertheless I continued the last bit of the climb around the crater rim to Uhuru point. There were congratulations all around, but what stunned us all was the sheer magnificence of a clear, rainless morning looking out over the glaciers surrounding a breathtaking crater (and I mean breathtaking in its most literal sense). We soon turned back– lingering at the peak invites many problems including body-temperature drops and perhaps more time sliding down the incline in the rain. We made our long return to Kibo huts, and each step brought more oxygen. After a glorious hour resting, we geared back up and made the descent to Horombo, had supper and slept the sleep of the dead. Emily Dickinson once wrote that “the brain is wider than the sky.” On Kilimanjaro, I learned that a tired, physically stressed, and oxygen-starved brain is no wider than the faint outline of a headlamp illuminating footsteps in the snow.

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Air signals its presence in other ways, perhaps most directly by moving. In Nepal climbing to Tilicho Lake, I watched the snow on a mountainside break off, sliding into a ravine a couple of kilometers from where I walked. There was no danger the avalanche could reach the trail, but in a few moments the clear sunny day was filled with airborne ice crystals moving east fast and wet. About 20 minutes later, the same ricocheting wave recrossed the path, this time moving west, once again covering me completely in ice. The Tongiriro Crossing on New Zealand’s North Island involves altitude change though nothing like Kilimanjaro. The edge of the Red Crater is a little over 1800 meters and when I was to cross during my hike of the Te Araroa Trail there was still snow, a lot of it. Tongariro is one of those hikes that swiftly changing weather can make dangerous. My morning started out cold (down at low elevation) and wet, though there were glimpses of sun, and the cloud cover did not look significantly different from a typical New Zealand morning in late Spring. My plan was to first hike to the Ketatahi Hut which was about 18 km, so I hoped to get there mid-morning and would then have a sense of how the weather would play out. Early on the hike went well, a long road walk followed by well-designed and maintained paths. When I emerged from the bush and started hiking the alpine tundra the temperature started to drop, and the wind picked up. Still, I was well dressed in wind/rain gear, ready for what I thought would come, but the rain intensified and the wind was soon gale force. At times it actually pushed me off the trail. The last kilometer or two were otherworldly– horizontal rain, freight-train wind, and no clear end in sight. Then the hut appeared (not a moment too soon). The first thing I saw when I got to the door was a sign redesignating the hut as a temporary shelter. It was not an overnight site any longer because of a recent eruption which had dropped rocks through the roof and disrupted the foundation. I went inside, stripped off wet clothes, and with shivering hands made an early lunch. As I did not get appreciably warmer–the wind by now was bashing the sides of the cabin– I spread out my sleeping bag on the table and crawled in, which soon got my body temperature to a better range. Before long some Department of Conservation people showed up to work on the hut, surprised to find anyone there in such weather and relieved that I had decided to return down the way I had come. I packed up, headed back into the maelstrom, and could feel the temperature creep up as the altitude decreased. While hiking back down the mountain, I thought about Thoreau in The Maine Woods where he climbed Katahdin, though he did not achieve the summit. His description of the mountain is some of his best writing, and I was thinking about how to him Katahdin was a cloud machine, making its own weather. He did not end up posing at the top for pictures the way Appalachian Trail thru-hikers do today, but he experienced the mountain in all its weather fury. From that perspective, his was a successful climb, as was mine that day on Tongariro.

Another of Thoreau’s mountains is New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, a place where the air asserts itself insistently. It is a mountain with a constant flow of tourists. I remember one day climbing it through the Tuckerman Ravine with one of my sons. Like Katahdin, Washington is also a cloud factory, so on nearing the summit the mist came in. Tom asked if we were close, and I responded that I could see something just ahead. As it turned out, that something was the bumper of a car. We summited through a parking lot, then stood next to tourists in street clothes waiting our turn to snap a picture by the sign at the peak. Flat and exposed, Washington is situated at a point where major storm systems from the south and the west converge. It can have temperatures as low as -35 and, at 231 mph, the highest wind speed ever directly recorded by humans. It is no wonder that in the past 150 years, almost the same number of people have died on its slopes. Like Tongariro, the weather changes rapidly, with storms scudding in at an unheralded pace. Standing at the peak, ignoring the cog-railway and full parking lot, watching the clouds mark the wind direction and speed, is to experience air as air.

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Today when people speak of a medium they might be thinking of a trafficker in the spiritual realms but more likely are referring to a communication medium. I currently teach in the newly re-named School of Literature, Media, and Communication, where media finds itself squarely in the middle, sandwiched between an elderly media form and the study of how to get the message through as clearly as possible. At least since McLuhan (actually since Plato), people concerned with effective communication focus not just on the message but also on its medium since, obviously, its specific affordances configure the messages that pass. Idealists desire transparency, the mythic state where the medium recedes to such an extent that the message stands clear for all to see and understand. In Remediation, my old friend and colleague Richard Grusin makes the distinction between immediacy and hypermediacy, where the first characterizes the push for transparency while the second calls attention to both the limitations and the affordances of the medium itself. Similar to Heidegger’s tools “ready-to-hand” and “present-to-hand,” immediacy and hypermediacy are engaged in a constant dance. One leads for a moment, then the other, as the message is passed and its medium registered. In the last half-century, we have come to think of information moving through a medium as fundamental to the maintenance of society and vital for continuing life through our very genetic structure.

In a climate-controlled environment (at least in the West), air rarely shows itself as hypermediacy. Instead it seems textbook immediacy. Indeed, except for startling instances of dense air pollution (or to a trekker on the Helambu circuit during spring field preparation), the primary characteristic of air is its transparency. Something invisible, beneath notice, surely does not carry a message of consequence, but of course it does. We respond somatically to changes in air pressure. We feel deep in our souls the freshness of a clear cool morning. We feel the oppressive weight of water on a humid day, and a stiffening breeze signals a change in the weather. The down on our cheek trembles in the slightest current of air or shift in temperature, but what makes air so clearly a medium is its very transparency. To experience the big outside on an exceptionally clear day is to be enthralled by its clarity, by exactly that which you cannot see. As William Carlos Williams says in the first poem of Spring and All:

under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

* * *

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

The transparency of the air there does not withdraw in the face of the immediacy of the object–it produces it, enables it, and mediates it. Air is our first medium.

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T. Hugh Crawford

June 13

June 13th, 2016

Brusino  to Chiasso 22 km

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The last day on a long-distance trek is obviously one of mixed emotions. The trail has been home for a month or more, you are in a particular rhythm that is comfortable, and the non-walking life never holds much appeal. Nevertheless, there usually is some need for rest and refueling (I’m 10-15 lbs. (or 7 kg) below my normal weight), and of course there is the sense of accomplishment that comes with completion. So it is a day you want to be over while you try to savor every moment. Like yesterday, this one started with a long, hot, steep climb up from Brusino. I almost never stop, even to rest, on an ascent, always trying to keep up the momentum, but today about halfway up, I just sat on a rock and looked out over the lake below and listening to music. I was glad a hiker came down and roused me from my reverie, or I might not have finished. After the peak, there was a long fairly smooth track into Mendrisio. A large, undistinguished industrial town and, at least according to one guide, the actual end of the T-ST (the #2 signposts seem to have stopped there). I rested there briefly, then pushed on to Chiasso, a town right on the Italian border. There in the city square they had a huge outdoor TV screen set up with row upon row of chairs, showing the Eurocup games. My hotel room window looks directly out onto the square and the screen, so my end-of-the-trail celebration will mingle with the celebration of fans watching the Italy-Belgium game. I doubt I will sleep early tonight.

494 kilometers– FINIS!

T. Hugh Crawford

June 12

June 13th, 2016

June 12
Lugano to Morcote 12km

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Sometimes on American long trails, people arrange transportation support so they can hike a stretch without a full pack. It’s called slack-packing, something I try to avoid as carrying the pack is very much part of walking. Today however, I had a short but very steep leg of the Trans-Swiss Trail, starting in Lugano and ending at Morcote, a tiny village at the tip of a peninsula. Continuing on requires a boat ride across the lake to Brusino. The same boat returns to Lugano, so I decided to leave my pack at the hotel and return by boat in the evening. G–, a Camino peregrino who lives in Milan, took the morning train up for a day hike, and what a hike it was. The day started cloudy, but soon the sun burned through. The temperature and humidity climbed. In this past year of backpacking, I’ve been mostly walking in springtime, but it is now summer in Ticino. The first part of the trail went up the steps alongside a cable-car–for a very long time. By the time it veered off to switchback through the woods, I was completely drenched with sweat. I thought of those many days of soaking wet hiking on the Appalachian Trail in mid-summer. It took several hours to reach to peak above Lugano only to see dozens of tourists looking fairly cool and fresh, wandering the platform by the mountaintop restaurant. Of course they had ridden the cable-car. I’m just glad it did not pass us on the way up as I might have had to resort to the Mount Washington tradition of mooning of the steam-train passengers on their way up. From the peak, the trail followed the ridge for about 8 km, occasionally passing through beautiful mountain villages, until later in the afternoon when it became steps down–steps that seemed an eternity. On the ridge just above Morcote is a magnificent church tower and chapel. As it was Sunday, the doors were open so the path went straight through, coming out by the cemetery before descending to the lake-level town, where we had just enough time for cold drinks and a snack before catching the boat back to Lugano. It was the most beautiful day I have had on the Trans-Swiss trail.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 11

June 11th, 2016

June 11
Isone to Lugano 23 km

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A word about the Restaurante Vedeggio in Isone. I have met so many friendly accommodating people on my walkabout, but Daniela and her staff were amazing. The restaurant was full of Isone soldiers (there is a base there) and some locals, but they made every effort to make me comfortable. They kept bringing meatballs on toothpicks, bread with cheese, ham, sardines. They made a special main meal of pasta, pesto, cheese and vegetables. Very plain but delicious. They asked if I wanted dessert and when I said no, she brought out a local cake– sort of a light brownie with peanuts– the cook had just made. It was all repeated at breakfast–just one of those times when the place was just a good place to be. It even made the morning walk out in the rain positive. Sorry to say that mood only lasted until the trail decided to cut up through an unmowed (hip high) soaking wet pasture. Not the best way to start a trek. After a pretty squishy hour or so, I found myself up on a ridge in a beech forest looking down on the clouds in the valley. I stopped cussing the trail builders when they settled into transverse path– the kind Bennett and I call “Shenandoah.” It was most of the way up the ridge and ran level horizontally. Like in the Virginia Shenadoahs, it would follow the ridge into the gorges where the freshets, full from last night’s rain, crossed the path filling it with rushing water. A little dance across the stones and once again, the path circumscribed a long level loop to the next water. Late morning those loops brought me closer to the gunshots I heard earlier in the day. My initial assumption was there were hunters nearby. It was Saturday and the sportsmen were out. As the shots intensified, I thought perhaps there were some military maneuvers going on, which prompted me to get out the ugly hat. When I started New Zealand’s Te Araroa, I bought a kiwi bush hat. Oilskin, broad brimmed, perfect for the rain I experienced daily. When I didn’t need to wear it (it was hot), I would hook it to a carabiner on my backpack. One day while descending through some dense gorse, it was stripped off. I only missed it later in the day, too late to try to retrieve it. The next day I found myself in a town with a sport store and bought a running hat– very light, cool, and dried fast. It was the perfect hat, so the very next day, while crossing a farm I was not supposed to be on, I climbed a ridge and was hit full force with some of that New Zealand wind. I tucked my new perfect hat into my belt and hastily descended to get out of the wind and away from the trespass I was committing. On arriving in town, I discovered that new hat was now gone–not even 24 hours use out of it. The town had a sports store, actually a hunting store, which sold ugly hats. They are well-made and functional. The fabric is light and breathes, and the bill is split symmetrically so it easily folds and fits into a back pocket. The problem is that it is a bright blue camo pattern. Without doubt the ugliest hat I’ve ever seen (unless you are a fan of “Duck Dynasty”). The owner pushed a bit, noting that I was entering into a hunting district and needed high visibility (I did encounter many hunters on both islands). I bought it, probably on the assumption that I would soon lose it like all the others. Well, today (7 months later) I could still pull out the ugly hat, placing it squarely on my head so the trigger happy gun owners just down the ridge would, I hope, see me. Before long, the American in the blue camo hat passed the shooting club where dozens of breached shotguns lay on tables while the members opened boxes of more shells. In another 100 yards, the hat returned to my pocket. As the day progressed the path moved inexorably closer to Lugano. The ridges soon had what were clearly weekend homes, but the trail also worked its way through some amazing birch forests. It is not just the bark and shape of the trunks. The leaves of birch trees change the light of the forest in an indescribable way. Before long though, the path became sidewalk and the suburbs of the city. On gaining the main square I found some sort of rural, traditional dress/dance/sing/eat thing going on. Lots of very large people roaming the streets in almost incomprehensible clothing. The dancing and the singing were fascinating, but as the afternoon wore on, so did the beer. Nothing like a drunken 18th century cosplay crowd. Of course everyone’s good humor was also stoked by Switzerland winning their first round of the Euro cup. Lugano, the city is how I remember from visiting many years ago. Now to plot out the end of the Trans-Swiss Trail.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 10

June 10th, 2016

June 10

Biasca to Isone 36 km

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Today I invoke the excessive mileage, short blog-post rule. I wanted to position myself to get into Lugano tomorrow, and the first 20 km was flat, so I did 36 km with the longest climb (except for Gotthardo pass) of the whole trek. In other words, ahhm beat. Given that the first two thirds was through a heavily industrialized area– the Ticino river basin– it was a good hike hidden in the trees next to the swift river, but near Arbedo it became the backside of a concrete plant, then just wound through the large town of Bellinzona and its suburbs. I kept looking up at the range to the east, hoping the trail did not go over it, but of course it did. So at about 27 km for the day, I started climbing and a couple of hours later made it to the ridge top, confirming an observation Bennett made weeks earlier. When you have a tough climb up through woods to a ridge top, the first thing you will see (or hear) are cows in a pasture. I emerged from the birch forest to the clanging of cowbells and greeted by a dairyman driving his herd, then a long switch backing trek down to Isone, a really nice but tiny village dominated by the military, but the Restaurante Vedeggio has great rooms and good people sharing tapas. Will sleep like the dead tonight.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 9

June 9th, 2016

June 9 Lavorgo to Biasca 25 km

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This morning I witnessed something I had never seen. In Nepal, I often encountered woodcutters who not only chopped the trees down with short, curved-bladed axes; they also cut the boards by hand in pit-saws. This morning I watched a helicopter fly back and forth bringing entire cut birch trees suspended on cables to a lumber yard. I have no idea how much an operation like that costs, but the economic differences between alpine Switzerland and Himalayan Nepal are staggering. Hiking in Ticino is different than I expected– not that I am sure what I expected. I guess I thought the Alps would level down after Gotthardo pass into Lugano and perhaps they will, but the past two days have been difficult. The trail usually climbs up on a ridge to pass through those villages I described yesterday, but it also keeps shifting from a narrow paved road to a farm track to a faint line across a pasture, to a steep, uneven rocky path that is difficult to follow. Even reading the finger post signs carefully and consulting th several GPS app/maps on my phone, I made several wrong decisions and had to backtrack. Still, lately the hikes have felt a little too scripted, so this morning as I was climbing a long and deeply switchbacked road up to the Strada Alta, I checked the map and decided it was time for an adventure. Climbing off the southernmost tip of a long road switchback, I struck out into the wild. It was clear as long as I kept heading south and climbing, I would eventually strike the road and the upper town, cutting off a kilometer or two, even if I added time. Early on I found a path, though it was more a game trail than something humans made. At one point a large animal scurried away downhill– no idea what it was, but I kept seeing the symbol on the Bern flag in my mind. I scrambled across rocks, slipped on soft tussocks of dirt, had my share of things slide beneath me, but occasionally found traces of a path, and a quick GPS check showed I was not far from the road in either direction. There were tense moments where a slip would have meant a considerable fall, but I usually found a tree or shrub to grab, and was just glad to be pushing things a little bit instead of following blindly some pre-determined path. After one check of the map, I turned due east, climbing straight up the bank at its most steep, slipping and sliding, but before long came upon a human-made trail which led to the road and the village of Anzonico where I would commence the day’s hike on the Trans-Swiss Trail to Biasca. Apart from a missed turn or two, the rest of the day was a magnificent trek wending its way back to the valley floor through old-growth beech forests which, as readers of this blog well know, is my favorite tree to hike under. Yesterday I was complaining about itching nettles, but today it was all bloody scratches from thorns and rocks, marks of a good risky climb.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 8

June 8th, 2016

June 8

Airolo to Lavorgo 29 km

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The unstated rules of trail designers are keeping trekkers off of paved roads as much as possible, generally avoiding large towns (unless the trek is a religious pilgrimage), and maximize opportunity for amazing views. Following those rules closely can produce uneven success. Avoiding pavement can at time lead to unnecessary detours up badly made paths while a perfectly good road remains in sight. Sometimes avoiding towns requires long climbing detours to uninteresting places. Today’s walk was a little of that, but also, in parts, the classic example of why those rules apply. The climb out of Airolo was steep but quick, and I soon found myself on Strada Alta which, when it didn’t dwindle into a narrow path and then a field of nettles, was the perfect path for the day. I found myself walking 3/4s of the way up a ridge, looking down onto the narrow river valley, and across to snow capped alps. The treat though was not the spectacular views but instead the little villages gathered around that high road. Their access was a road no wider than a compact car, as were their main streets, but each had magnificent beamed houses, some in stone, the obligatory water trough with constantly flowing water, a bar/cafe, and a church. Every three km, another would appear. The economy here is less certain. There are farms, but it seems clear that many of the people living in these towns are not farmers. Almost as evidence for this observation, for once I saw as much wildlife as if did domestic. Along with the cows and sheep, I almost stepped on a five foot snake– looked like a black snake but held it head up while moving. Later I scared up a chamois who looked at me for a moment before diving into the bushes. Perhaps the village houses could be vacation homes, or even places for commuters. All very puzzling but beautiful nonetheless. In the town square of one, a young girl sat blowing bubbles that drifted across the trail. I stopped at 1:00 for a pint in a restaurant in one. At first it seemed closed, but on entering I was greeted by a table of locals, already hoisting their day’s second pints and speaking in Italian, a language I love to hear. The bartender had a baby in his arms, and served me a pint of Gottardo, an excellent local lager. Everyone was so happy. I wish my afternoon had been as happy, but as often happens on the trail, a combination of small but significant problems makes for a difficult time. My interlude with the nettles, coupled with some wrong turns– some my fault, others because of the quick change in trail surface (road to overgrown field)– and a long final descent on a sharp rock trail made for a frustrating end of the day. Something remedied by an excellent plate of gnocchi for supper.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 7

June 7th, 2016

June 7
Hospenthal to Airolo

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Crossing a high mountain pass always brings a sense of anticipation. Inevitably the path follows a river which dwindles with the altitude gain. All the while walking, you look at the steam knowing you cannot cross over until it becomes the merest trickle. Gotthard pass is riddled with tunnels, roads, and old paths. Trains pass beneath and climb over. Cars speed on a highway that most of the time is tucked into the rock of the mountainside and roofed with concrete supporting the pasture above that bleeds onto the framework. At lower elevations, animals graze on the roof above the highway. The Trans-Swiss trail alternates between cutting off switchbacks with steep, rocky, narrow paths, and following a now closed old road that is a magnificent example of engineering. The road bed is made of cobbles set in a fan shaped pattern and going on for more than 20 km. On the Ticino side, it twists like overcooked spaghetti, inviting sport car enthusiasts but accepting only bicyclists and trampers. The way up felt long but was gradual with the vegetation waning until it was only rock and scrub. Near the top, the road was drifted over with rotting snow, so I could not see the exact point where the water stopped flowing, though I could feel and hear it trickling beneath the drifts. There were points where snowshoes would have helped, but soon I was at the Gotthard Pass village, or now, as this is the Italian Canton, the Gotthardo Pass village. The pass is important politically and economically, but also geologically. The Gotthard massif is the source of four major rivers–the Ticino, Ruess, Rhine, and Rhone–so much of the geography of Europe has its beginnings in that snow I was tramping through today. The source of Hölderlin’s Ister was beneath my feet.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 6

June 6th, 2016

June 6
Wassen to Hospenthal

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Today I guess should go in the long-distance hikers hall of shame. I think I probably only walked about 7km. The trail up above Wassen is still washed out from spring floods and also blocked by some construction projects, so I first walked 5km to the next town to catch the cograil train to Andermat. From there the hike to to top of Gotthard pass was clear. On arriving in Andermat, I checked my room reservation, only to discover that the cheap bunk I had found was not at the top, but instead was in Hospenthal, a pretty town but only about 3km more. My walking day finished at noon, and tomorrow will be more difficult than planned, but I’m in no rush to finish. I enjoyed the first clear sunny day wandering about the town. Hospenthal is set on a steep slope with cobbled streets and old timber and/or stone buildings with a church and old castle tower occupying the same knoll which looms up over the rest of the town. It is, like the other towns I have passed, at the intersection of several of the many transportation routes through the Gotthard area which includes some high trains to the Matterhorn, glaciers, and other sights, but also the several highways and train lines that populate the pass, each continuing to function even as they are displaced by new and faster forms. Just three days ago, the new Gotthard tunnel opened. At 35 km it is the longest tunnel ever built, and will, I imagine, slow the pace of life in the high villages I am passing through as it runs many meters down from these heights, carrying people from Zurich to Milano in record times. The trail today and yesterday was along a seriously rushing river and through fields blooming with wildflowers. I sat on a bench to eat some salami and cheese washed down by red wine and watched the river flow, thinking about how many times in the last year I have done the same– just sitting on a rock next to a stream, or crossing a field in full bloom. Then I thought how rare an occurrence that is in the regular work world for most people. To see such things requires planning and transport, not something that is part of daily movement. I am filled with gratitude to have had the chance to see so much but also puzzled as to why we have made it so difficult for such simple, quiet, moments to occur. The human turn to indoor labor, away from the weather, is a sad and troubling event.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 5

June 5th, 2016

June 5
Altdorf (Eggeberge) to Wassen 27 km

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Although the walk up the river valley today was glorious, it was hard to cast off a melancholic pall. It was difficult to say goodbye to Bennett. After breakfast (his last Swiss buffet of cold meat, cheese and bread) we rode the gondola down together, parting at the street where he turned back north to his train station and I turned south to work my way back to the trail and then on to Wassen. Much to think about–how my youngest son has become an adult and a friend. At the same time, I kept thinking about the relatively sudden death of an old hometown friend, Ricky Wilkins. Ricky was diagnosed with lung cancer which progressed rapidly, and he died yesterday. He was my brother’s age, so he was two years older than I am, but he always was a character in my youth. Growing up in a very conservative, rural community in the middle of the Vietnam war, it was difficult to get a clear understanding of world politics– particularly one that fit what we were learning as true American values. The news did not seem to line up with the ideal. Ricky was a musician but also was someone with a strong political conscience– something that was difficult to formulate and hold in that time in the Shenandoah valley. I remember well the universal condemnation there of Muhammed Ali (then Cassius Clay) when he refused draft induction. It is telling that they died on the same day. I learned from Ricky as a young man what was at stake when you took a view contrary to the political consensus, even if it was clearly the correct one from any moral stance. I left Woodstock Virginia in 1974, pretty much never to return, and so lost track of Ricky and his musical peregrinations which included a long stint in Nashville. We reconnected a few years ago through social media where I found he was still fighting the good fight against social injustice and bigotry, and he was still a musician, bringing people together through a medium that has the real strength to do that. In the summer of 2012, when Bennett and I were hiking the Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail, Ricky and I were in contact trying to see if we could coordinate a time for us to come off the trail to hear him and Amanda perform. It is hard to project times well when you are hiking distance and, by the time we got to Shenandoah county, he was playing elsewhere, so I missed my chance for that reunion. Now it seems I’ve missed it completely. My thoughts are with Amanda and their children today.

T. Hugh Crawford

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