Thursday, August 30, 2012

Zurich: European Enigma

Arrived in Zurich, Switzerland after a 12-hour flight from Portland on Wednesday, August 22. My goal? To see the Swiss Alps. Daughter Gina, a frequent traveling companion, arrived on August 27.

Zurich provides contrasting styles: much of the town’s ancient center (above and below) has been carefully preserved yet contemporary buildings abound. Frequently acknowledged as one of Europe's most livable cities, it's also quite pricey: very few street people here.

A modern financial center with the best public transportation system in the world, the largest city in Switzerland also has a grungy feel that would be reminiscent of parts of any American metropolis.

The good news for residents of Zurich is that they are usually well paid, with top-flight health insurance and other amenities. The bad news is the town in quite expensive, with perhaps the highest cost of living in the entire European continent.

The guide on our tour of the city noted that the cost to rent a modest flat starts at about 2,500 francs (about $2,500) a month. The cost to purchase a modest home begins at about 3,500 francs; as a result, only about six percent of the locals own their own home, she said. Everybody else rents or lives in public housing, including a large number of senior citizens.

Zurich is, nonetheless, beautiful and the quality of life is quite superior. Positioned on the north end of Zurichsee (Lake Zurich), the town was initially a Roman encampment known as Turicum. Germanic tribes arrived in about 400 A.D.

In 1336, craftsman and traders seized power from the nobles, establishing “guilds” which controlled the city’s fortunes. In 1351, Zurich joined the Swiss Confederation and became a key player in the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Due to its neutrality during both world wars, Switzerland became a haven for expatriates from other countries: Vladimir Lenin hung out at the Café Odeon plotting his return to Russia. Irish author James Joyce, in his self-imposed exile, taught school here and is buried in Zurich. Swiss hero Albert Einstein was a fugitive from Nazi Germany.

While walking down to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in the city center, Gina and I could overhear German, French, Italian and English speakers, as well as people speaking languages from around the world, including Indian, Japanese and many others.

The predominant language, however, is German, though it’s an interesting variation, or dialect, called Swiss-German (Schwyzertsch). Most have no trouble understanding High German, but in private, many speak the Swiss variation, as different to German as Dutch.

Even the servers at my hotel, X-Tra, were from somewhere else: Mike from South Africa; Faiz from Burma; and Vladimir from Latvia. Zurich, much like Munich in Germany, is truly a cosmopolitan city.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Trekkers Antique Show: Denouement

Despite the late start on Sunday, August 5, the timing of our trip up Buck Creek Pass couldn’t have been better for our party of antique trekkers, for a number of reasons. Even when less than optimal, the weather always ultimately had a higher purpose.

Leaving the trailhead at Trinity at 3 p.m. would not have been ideal in most cases, and the temperatures were warm and black flies were out in force. Fortunately, we had the sense to stop at the 3-mile camp, a versatile spot with many tent sites and easy access to water.

The next day, thunderstorms blew through the Upper Chiwawa River and a light-but-steady rain kept us cool as we plodded up the trail. As a side benefit, the modest precipitation suppressed the black flies for a full 24 hours. Later that day, the sun reappeared and provided a nice veneer of alpenglow on Helmet Butte (below).

On Monday, the weather cooperated with clear blue skies, which provided stunning backdrops for Glacier Peak, Tenpeak Mountain, Buck Mountain, Fortress Mountain (above, behind the antique trekkers) and a plethora of other peaks on the crest of the Cascades.

Fog rolled into Buck Creek Pass on our last morning, but once again, the cool temperatures kept the bugs at bay as we headed to the barn, allowing for pleasant hiking down the trailhead to Trinity.

Best of all, our band of trekkers –- all experienced backcountry travelers –- survived the ordeal with knees, ankles and psyches intact, along with classic memories of our journey into the wilderness.

But at times, between the relentless attack of the black flies and the heat -- and the exertion required to lug 40-pound packs from 2,000 feet to nearly 6,000 feet at Buck Creek Pass over 10 miles of painful, uphill plodding -- some grousing was bound to occur, and it did.

How come this is fun? Actually, backpacking in the wilderness isn’t really fun; that wouldn’t be the word that I would use at all. Does it look like anyone is having fun around here? If it was fun, everybody would do it. Except for the USFS wildlife biology team on the trail of the elusive grizzly bear, we only saw two other people on one of the most popular wilderness trails in the State of Washington.

No, "the here and now" is a sacrifice to the future. Backpacking takes you to a recollective Valhalla, for which you must suffer. The pleasure, though it begins when you reach the trailhead and enjoy a beer, increases every day after you’re done and peaks about a month afterward. "Wasn't that great?" you ask, clearly forgetting the pain.

Everything -- all the blood, sweat and tears -- contributes to the effort of crystallizing a final opinion. Hate it now. Love it later.