Chasing Memories in Grindelwald, Switzerland

It was Christmas Day, 1983, and we were on a slow train bound for the Swiss Alps.

You could actually open the train windows in those days, and I remember holding my head close to the frosted glass. The crisp air making my eyes water. My breath turning to steam and slipping through the crack between the panes like puffs of smoke.

Outside, it was all white mist, black trees, and frozen waterfalls.

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We were on our way back to Saudi Arabia after our required annual touchdown on US soil. New York, London, Paris, Grindelwald, Rome on this trip. All big cities except this one. This tiny town at the end of the tracks about which I knew nothing.

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When I say end of the tracks, that’s not just literary license. The train literally dead ends in Grindelwald and must back out of the mountains all the way to Interlaken. Dad shared that fact with us on the trip, and, as a kid, I found it fascinating. Like box canyons or blind alleys or cull-de-sacs.

The extremity of a thing, beyond which there is only the impassible wilderness.

Grindelwald was that to me. The edge of a snowy civilization, and I was all jangled nerves and bottled-up joy to get there.

It would be incorrect to say that the Grindelwald of 1983 was a sleepy town. There were dozens of hotels and restaurants. I remember entire stores dedicated to Christmas decorations and ski rental shops. Cars with snow chains making their way slowly along the main streets.

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It wasn’t sleepy. But it certainly wasn’t bustling either. It felt…empty. Like everyone had decorated their homes and store windows for the holidays and then left the lights on, choosing to spend Christmas on a warm beach somewhere.

Neither my brother nor I knew how to snow ski, and Mom and Dad weren’t interested in taking lessons for themselves, so we opted instead to rent a couple of sleds. They were of a simple construction, with no steering mechanism. You steered the thing by leaning hard and dragging one hand or the other.

After a couple of short runs along the empty back roads, Steve and I met up with some local kids who were hiking up the big hill leading out of town, carrying their own sleds on their backs.

The roads were hard-packed ice, and we had to hike in the snow along the shoulder to stay upright. And a long hike it was. Ever up and away from Grindelwald, the town falling away below us until it was only a dark cluster of boxes and winking lights in a white infinity.

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I’ll admit that I was a bit scared. We had been walking for over a mile, a blinding snow had started falling, and that road was steep and┬áslick. But the other kids were already getting a running start, hitting the ground with a whoop!, and careening off toward town.

Not to be outdone, my brother and I shot after them.

And what follows next is the reason I fell in love with Grindelwald as a kid.

A blur of ice and snow. Barely maintaining control. Narrowly missing rock walls and telephone poles. Adrenaline and terror and the ignorance of youth. Impossible, dangerous speed.

We. Passed. A. Bus!

And when the mile-long run was over, we continued sledding all the way through Grindelwald, on to the road leading out of town, and then along that road for what seemed like another mile.

Once we stopped laughing and caught our breath, Steve and I hiked to the top again. And again. And again. And again.

And that’s how I would love to remember Grindelwald. My brother and I sledding the most epic run imaginable.

On this trip around the world, I wanted to return to Grindelwald and show Angela and Ben this magical place from my childhood memories. The mountains were still there. The Eiger and the Jungfrau, unchanged and resolute.

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However, the Grindelwald I once knew is forever gone. Still beautiful, it has grown up to embrace its ski-resort status.

Grown up. Like we all do.

And all I want to do is go back and tell my younger self to sled it one more time.

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