Mystery Solved. The next morning, The Pope’s wife hands me the newspaper as I’m walking toward the terrace with an espresso. There’s a front page cover story about an 18-wheeler loaded with wood, totally ablaze on the Swiss Autobahn, exactly where we had seen the dark smoke from the mountain top. The authorities closed the highway for many hours, causing severe traffic jams. The article says the incident is still under investigation.
“We haven’t had this much excitement since you showed up,” the Pope says.
“I think the truck-on-fire story is shady.”
“What’s shady?” he asks.
“It means not believable.”
“I don’t understand.”
“C’mon, how often does a truck just completely catch fire and burn up? I think it was set on fire. Swiss DEA agents were onto the driver. I bet it was filled with drugs. Probably a mafia deal gone bad.” The Pope looks at me in utter bafflement. Such an idea would never cross his innocent chocolate-covered brain.
My knees are screaming from yesterday’s long hike. It’s the going down part. My illiosacral joint is jacked from ski racing tendonitis and I need to address it if I want to keep hiking. When I see these Swiss and Austrian elders hiking with ease into their 80s, I want to join their ranks. While my friends leave for work, I plunk myself down on the settee, both knees packed with ice, and do nothing but read all day and stare at the mountains. When they return, it’s hammer time. We ride bikes to Vaduz to look around the capital city of Liechtenstein, a tiny sovereign principality with 37,000 inhabitants. It’s a tax haven and trust bolthole where the reigning Prince Hans-Adam II lives in his castle fortress taking care of his rich children below. It takes only 30 mins to pedal there and I’m shocked at how tiny the royal city actually is. We stop at the Esquire for an Aperol spritzer where the clientele is dripping in decadence. It’s a plastic surgery festival, one woman’s lifted cateyes and engorged lips looks like the original mould for skanky blow-up dolls. My friends aren’t comfortable in this swank environment, but I am loving the Liechtensteiner freak show.
From here, we bike back along the Rhine Valley 45 mins to Austria where we have dinner in a lackluster pizzeria. Then back home by dusk to Switzerland. Three countries in an evening—all by bike!
After a day of rest, The Pope wants to take me up his boyhood mountain, the one we see from his terrace that he’s climbed a hundred times. “Let’s see if we find some Edelweiss,” he says. I’ve never seen it growing in its natural habitat. I compare Edelweiss to mythical creatures, it’s the unicorn of the plant kingdom. It’s not a showy or busty plant, she is rather modest and humble very natural almost bland. She’s no Marilyn Monroe. I wonder how Edelweiss ever got its mystique at all.
The trailhead to the Margelchopf starts through a sloping mountain meadow, the local ski kiddie hill. Up through a scraggy forest recently felled for timber, so the usual post trauma plants are coming up to fix the soil and hold the space for later species: stinging nettles, yellow docks, burdock and other prickly things that most would consider noxious weeds.
We pass through the electric fence into a barnyard where one brown cow weighted down by full udders is waiting at the door to go in the barn. We continue up, up up until we reach that treeless space on the mountain I love so much, where time seems to stand still and nothing down below matters. We can hear the distant rumbling of the cars on the Autobahn and chiming cow bells, but the air is still. It starts to cool as go higher, but the sun is warm on the skin. There is a certain high you get, here it’s called a Mountain Rausch, a buzz of sorts in the rarified air. The sky is deep indigo blue and not a cloud in the heavens. A young, fetching man runs past us in purple Crocs with his Australian shepard. He’s over the knoll and when we reach it a few minutes later, there’s no trace of him. He just Poof, disappeared like magic. There are many ultra light runners in these mountains, but this is the first time I’d seen one in Crocs. We don’t talk much when we’re hiking and that’s how we like it, but it’s important to stay alert and focused, and keep sure footing.
We’re walking along a grassy, narrow ridgeline and The Pope points straight up. We have to climb up that rock face in order to find the Edelweiss. I look up and think okay, this will be interesting. Metal bars are drilled into the rockface for holding. It’s short stretch of climbing until we reach a small grassy stage and there on the very rim of this Edelweiss is blooming everywhere, not one or two like I’d imagined, but whole families. I had pictured it only growing in the deepest recesses of the Alps, but here, right next to civilization! A sign of hope, perhaps. Oh, how I want to pick just one to prove they exist, a tiny memory to have and to hold. But no, these damsels are protected and rules are obeyed here.
You never forget your first Edelweiss.
On our way back down the mountain, he points to a farmhouse where he bought the cheeses, we’ve been enjoying on the terrace in the evening with our wines.
“Let’s stop in a buy some more. I need a beer anyway.”
“Which cheese do you prefer?”
“Both of them, the softer young one and the aged cheese.”
We join four farmers who are sitting at the picnic table talking in dialect so thick even The Pope has to listen carefully.
Best cheese around they say, not everyone has the gift of cheesemaking. Apparently, this particular farmer is the cheese whisperer. He is young and handsome, his wife is also, but their devil-spawn child is a future sociopath in training. He’ll probably be really big and scary after all the cheese he’s eaten in his life. We’d seen him earlier at the cow barn harrassing the help and pushing the cows. The kind of boy who gets pleasure from killing small things and burning ants under the magnifying glass. He decides to sit across from me and sulk and pout when I ask him questions. Little fucker. Good thing he doens’t have me for a sister, I would have beaten the shit out of him, as regular as daily milking.