Cow bells jangled from the far side of a hut as we strolled through the meadow, wildflowers brushing our legs, dramatic mountains rising rugged and sheer beyond the valley. “Have people climbed that mountain?” my five-year-old daughter Alanna asked, pointing to the line of peaks.
“Probably, but I don’t know for sure.”
“Do they need climbing tools to climb it?”
“I think so. It looks pretty steep.”
“I want to climb it.”
I had been hearing this a lot lately, this desire of my older daughter to climb mountains. She had been talking about mountains, about hiking among them and climbing since before our arrival in Switzerland. Now that we were here, riding trains around them, staring out hotel rooms at them, taking cable cars and trams up them, and finally walking in meadows on them, she was talking about them all the time.
I wondered where this talk of mountains had come from. I had a deep love of mountains but it was something I attributed to having spent lots of time traveling among them. But why was that? Where had my own affinity come from? I’d never really thought about it.
The first mountains I ever saw were the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. They weren’t the classic snow-capped peaks of my imagination. In fact, they weren’t impressive at all. To my teenage mind on our first family vacation they were rolling hills with winding roads, mere mountain pretenders that had been misnamed out of some desire by the local people to give their landscape more stature than it deserved. The drizzle we drove through didn’t help, and of course as I grew older I appreciated that landscape more, but my first view of mountains left me longing for the real thing.
I had in mind the Rockies, of course, being a Minnesota boy raised in flat or gently rolling terrain. But first I went east, to Vermont’s Green Mountains and New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and after four years of college headed west where Wyoming’s Grand Tetons finally matched the mountains of my imagination. When I settled in San Francisco the Sierra Nevada became “my” mountains. But I wasn’t satisfied. I needed to see the world’s biggest, the Himalayas. My first trip to Nepal sealed my fate. When I breathed the thin air around Mt. Everest and her cousins I absorbed an energy I had experienced nowhere else, and I returned as often as possible. When my two daughters were born I began to plot our first family trip to Nepal, thinking that when the youngest was five maybe we could manage the long journey and they could handle some easy treks where those magnificent mountains stand high on the blue horizon close enough to feel their power.
But my plans were altered on a trip to Nepal last fall. When traveling in Nepal you expect to get diarrhea, and I was prepared for that. But the bacterial bronchial infection I got later, with high fever and delirium, caught me by surprise. I don’t recall ever being so sick. The doctor I saw in Kathmandu prescribed antibiotics that would begin to show an effect within 24 hours, and she told me that this bacteria was everywhere in Nepal and infection was common. I knew then that if I were that sick, the same infection in a child would be dangerous and I couldn’t expose my young children to it. My dream of taking them to the Himalayas was finished until they were older.
But soon after it occurred to me that if I wanted them to experience big mountains without the risk of serious illness, I could take them to the Alps, to Switzerland, where everything works and disease is as controlled as anywhere on earth. Switzerland entered my consciousness and wouldn’t let go.
So we planned a trip to Switzerland. I had another motive for going, a curiosity, really, about my family. My immediate ancestors had come to the U.S. from Luxembourg, but I had been told that Habegger was a prominent name in Switzerland. I knew there was an engineering firm in Thun called Habegger Motor Works, because I’d seen its projects in some unexpected places: a tram in Hershey, Pennsylvania; a funicular railroad in Penang, Malaysia. I’d even been told that “we” manufactured a tool of some sort that was a household name in Switzerland in the same way that facial tissue in the U.S. is Kleenex or photocopying is Xeroxing. A year or so ago the Swiss Consul in San Francisco confirmed this for me when, upon looking at my business card, he exclaimed, “Habegger? Your name is famous in Switzerland! I had a Frau Habegger who taught me in grammar school. And we have a, what would it be in English?” He made lever-like gestures, then quickly consulted with a colleague. “A wrench? We have a wrench called a ‘Habegger’.”
So I had always assumed that my background was Swiss German, and that I’d find roots in Thun or nearby. Or at the very least I might come home with a wrench named after me. I gave myself thirty days in Switzerland, thanks to generous friends in Geneva who would be away from their house while I was there, and made plans to travel around the country with my family from our Geneva base.
My plans quickly became an even larger family affair. Paula’s father, Eugene Mc Cabe, flew down from Dublin to join us and after we all recovered from jet lag and my daughters had satisfied their immediate needs to feed the swans and cygnets, ducks and coots in Lake Geneva (what turned out to be a nearly insatiable desire), we set off on our journey.
We were staying in Corsier, a quiet village on the left bank about ten minutes from the heart of the city, and two bus rides got us to the Cornavin Station in Geneva with 45 minutes to spare before our train to Bern and on to Interlaken and Grindelwald. What seemed like plenty of time got devoured by the process of choosing the rail passes we would use. I opted for the Swiss Pass, which allows 15 consecutive days of train travel. Paula chose, at the recommendation of her father, the Euro-Domino, which gave her the flexibility of eight travel days in a 30-day period, at a price about 40 percent less than the comparable Swiss Flexi-Pass. We discovered later that that option wasn’t the bargain we thought it was because the Euro-Domino wasn’t accepted on many of the private rail lines in the mountains where my Swiss Pass was, so in the end the price came out about the same.
But the haggling for passes chewed into our time, and the need to feed hungry children who go from angels to demons the minute their stomachs begin to growl chewed into it further. Choosing ready-made sandwiches from a boulangerie should have given us the time we needed, but three of the five sandwiches went onto the grill before we knew it and time kept ticking. Finally we agreed that Paula and the kids would move along to the platform and Eugene and I would wait for the sandwiches, then rush to catch them and board the train.
We had only moments to spare when we reached platform 4 but Paula and the girls were nowhere in sight. The final minutes ticked away and we stood hopelessly wondering what could have happened. I raced back down the stairs heading toward the boulangerie and found them returning to look for us. As soon as we met we realized what had happened. She’d gone one way following signs to platforms 1-6 and we’d gone another following signs for platforms 2-6. She’d been waiting for us at the bottom of the ramp before rising to the platforms.
“We’ve missed it,” I said, frustrated.
“No, there’s one at 2:34 on track 5.”
So we raced back the way I’d come, me pushing the stroller with three-year-old Érne in it and Paula and Alanna running ahead. Up the escalator they bounded, but with the stroller I couldn’t climb faster than the machine would go, and I knew that those seconds lost on the escalator would cost us the train. As I got to the top there was still hope. Paula had one foot on the train and Eugene was right behind her with the luggage. But the doors closed and she tried to keep them open, expecting that they’d bounce back like a typical subway car or elevator door when they hit her arm, but no, they latched on and threatened to drag her away without us. She yanked her arm and a bag full of food out and the doors slammed shut. Seconds later the train rolled away and we stood there aghast, realizing we’d missed two trains to Bern and now had to wait an hour for the next one.
They say you can set your watches by the arrival and departure of trains in Switzerland, and we had just received our first evidence that this was true.
Read the next story, “Swiss Family Habegger: More Adventures on Swiss Trains”
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.