I stood in the middle of a dirt road surrounded by green mountains leading to slate peaks brushed in bright snow, lost somewhere in the German speaking part of the Swiss Alps with my best friend, Joanna, and her younger sister, Joedie. We were backpacking to Rinderalp, a dairy farm overlooking the Simme and the Diemtig Valley in the Bernese Oberland.
When a local farmer passed us for a second time barreling up the road in his tractor, we smiled and waved.
“Hallo,” we yelled, blocking the almost non-existent dirt road.
When he stopped, Joedie pulled out her German dictionary. We all laughed together – that uncomfortable laugh right before you awkwardly dive into something you’re not quite sure how to approach in the first place.
“Sprechen Sie englisch?” she asked.
“Nein,” he smiled shyly. His hair was fiery red and he looked like the country boys we had grown up with in the rural area of East Tennessee.
Joanna and I nudged Joedie closer to him.
She began speaking short German sentences as she thoughtfully construed them, and he answered in rapid succession. Joanna and I had no idea what he was saying, but Joedie was able to decipher that Rinderalp was up. At least we knew we were on the right mountain.
“Danke” we said in unison – this was the one German word all three of us knew by heart.
Joanna, Joedie, and I grew up about fifteen minutes apart until I moved to another city in high school. But Joanna and I kept in-touch, and continued to meet up for trips whenever our budgets allowed. This time we were visiting Joedie in Switzerland where she was finishing up her study abroad program in college.
“Paul might actually beat us there,” Joedie said.
Paul was Joedie’s Irish friend from the university who was meeting us at Rinderalp. He had a girlfriend, but Joanna and I were both a little intrigued with a guy who practically invited himself along on the trip when Joedie told him about it.
“What time did he leave?” Joanna asked.
“Around three after his class ends I think,” she said.
“I hope he doesn’t beat us– we left three hours earlier,” I said as we passed a farmer’s backfield and walked through a gate with a sign that said “bitte schliessen,”meaning “please close.”
The hike to Rinderalp was a combination of paved and gravel roads, wooded trails, and grazing pastures. Eventually we got to another main road that looped further up the mountain to balding spots with cow pastures. There at the top stood a dark-timber lodge with two entrances to the house.
“Do we go to the front door?” I asked after looking in the covered entrance at the back where various black tubes and metal equipment lined the walls where apparently they milked the cows.
“I don’t know,” Joedie studied the printout she had brought with her about the lodge.
We looked at each other, not quite sure what to do next.
“Hallo,” a man said, appearing on the porch. He had grey-blue eyes and a medium frame. “Mein Name ist Gotti.”
“Oh, that’s the lady’s husband who I made the reservation with,” Joedie whispered to us.
At first Gotti spoke to us in German, but after a few confused exchanges, he switched to French, a language we could understand better since Joedie was almost fluent and I had studied it in college.
Gotti brought us inside and introduced us to a mid-twenty-something woman who was about our age. She smiled and continued fixing dinner as he offered to show us to our room, leading us through the kitchen to a narrow ladder staircase.
The second floor looked like a barn loft with several rooms off to the side. There was a chester drawer in one corner of the main room and a small exposed sink. I assumed all of the rooms were for visitors. Our room was beside one full of hay. It was long and the ceiling sloped with four twin beds and another narrow loft above the main entrance.
We dropped off our stuff and walked back downstairs to eat. Gotti and the lady smiled, both nodding as we walked into the dining room with windows overlooking the pastures and rocky Alps.
Above the door, a sign said “das gras wächst auch nicht schneller wenn man daran zieht,” which translated, “The grass does not grow any faster if you pull it.”
“This is so quaint,” Joanna practically squealed before sitting down at the wooden table.
As I looked out the window, a man wearing a toboggan with hiking gear came bounding over the mountain top and up the drive to the lodge. Joedie knocked from the inside of the window to get his attention.
“Paul’s here!” Joedie said, getting up and walking to the front door. A big grin broke out on his face as she went to meet him.
“Just in time for dinner,” she said, before introducing us to Paul.
“Nice to meet you ladies,” Paul said in his thick Irish accent. “What did you think of the hike here?”
He smiled and sat down.
“We took a couple of wrong turns,” Joedie laughed.
“Yeah, we didn’t get here much sooner than you,” I said.
“It was really pretty though,” Joanna said as she reached for the clay pitcher of warm, spiced orange tea.
Gotti came into the room as Joedie introduced him to Paul who also spoke French. After the introductions, we all smiled at each other and immediately began passing around an iron pot of macaroni and mild Alpine cheese that sat in the middle of the table beside a dish of homemade apple sauce.
“Who wants to go for a brisk walk?” Paul exclaimed before we had barely finished eating. His dark curly hair was messy from his afternoon hike, and his arms and legs looked almost too long for his body, but there was something very friendly and likeable about him.
The air was clearing as we walked atop the mushy cow field. There were a few patches of snow that hadn’t melted yet, which contrasted strangely with the array of wildflowers in the fields. As the sun lowered in the sky, the neighboring towns, and white roads winding along mountain crests and down the valleys looked ethereal. Even the surrounding cows seemed lulled into a deeper state of relaxation in the setting sun.
“So what do you call those?” Paul asked, eyeing my white socks and ballet flats.
“They’re the warmest shoes I packed,” I said. “The athletic socks are an added bonus.”
He laughed and shook his head, then reached out his hand towards me.
“Do you want me to carry you over the puddles so your feet don’t get wet?” he asked.
There was something mischievous in his eyes.
“Uh, no thank you,” I said.
He laughed; as if he was determined we were all going to be friends, then grabbed me around the shoulders and pretended to throw me off the mountain before trotting down a slight incline where the snow hadn’t melted. He reached down and made snowballs that he mockingly threw at Joanna and Joedie.
We walked back to the lodge where Gotti had started a fire in the stove. I felt deliciously warm and it almost felt like fall rather than spring as I sat down at a wooden table on a bench with a view of the Alps through the window.
Joanna heated up milk for hot chocolate and we began playing card games in the front dining room. Everyone in the house but Gotti had gone to sleep as the fire crackled.
There were games stored in the room, but we weren’t quite sure what to do with them.
“All of the directions are in German,” Joedie said, looking through the games before picking up a half full deck of cards.
We decided to make up our own game, a rendition of pin the tail on the donkey.
“Basically,” he said, “you just balance the card anywhere you can on whoever we choose as the donkey. If a card falls off, then you’re the donkey.”
“Since you thought up the game, you’re going first,” I said.
Gotti just looked at us curiously from the other room and shook his head as we divided up the cards.
“What’s it like having three girls balancing cards on you?” Joanna laughed as eyed where to stick her next card.
“Not so bad,” Paul winked.
After balancing the half deck of cards on him and drinking our hot chocolate, we were too exhausted to stay awake any longer.
“I’m ready for bed,” Joedie yawned.
“I have to go the bathroom first,” Joanna said.
“Me too,” Joedie said, racing Joanna out of the room and to the bathroom.
Paul and I turned the light out in the main room to go upstairs. He moved closer behind me just as something nudged my leg. I jumped, flipped on the light, and to our astonishment it was the herding dog who had snuck in.
Paul and I looked at each other, his eyes gleamed. I thought he had somehow grabbed by leg, and he seemed to know exactly what I thought.
“Where’d this guy come from?” he asked, reaching down to pet the dog and smiling back at me.
After laughing until our faces were red, we climbed the stairs to our loft. Upstairs, we all shared the giant room and layered wool blankets and down comforters to stay warm. I’ve never slept so well in my life.
The sun rose around 5 a.m. and you could hear everyone stirring downstairs. We didn’t get up though until Paul had to return to Fribourg around 9 a.m.
We said goodbye and I thought about how strange it was to meet people along the way in your travels who you will probably never see again. Brief moments are shared and then the routine of life continues.
“Nice meeting you, Katie and Joanna,” he said.
“You, too,” I said, stretching. “Good luck with the rest of your life.”
“Thanks,” he smiled mischievously again.
I lay in bed a bit longer, listening to the Swiss-German I could hear them speaking in the kitchen below our room. It was sing-songy, with a lulling melody of high and low notes, sort of like life. But sometimes you have those brief moments—maybe on top of a snowy peaked mountain in Switzerland—where you have nothing to do but enjoy the people and scenery around you.
In those quiet moments, I’ll always remember: “The grass does not grow any faster if you pull it.