As I sit on the plane at the start on a new journey, I have just finished reading about the end of another. The story was in Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X The Alps, and the journey itself was both long and extraordinary (not always in a good way); the book is an account of Brandon Wilson and his wife Cheryl hiking along Europe’s famed Via Alpina, a multiple national hiking route taking travellers across peaks high and low in Italy, France, Switzerland, amongst other stops.
Trekking is Hard. Whew.
An ongoing theme in this book are the hardships and hassles of our couple as they attempt their journey. It seems the universe has conspired to stop them. At first the daily thundershowers and personal injuries, miss planning issues, and a lack of clear route markers seems comical, but at 100 pages it starts to wear on you. Perhaps that was the intention – to illustrate the story – and it left me wandering if I would be able to make the trek myself. At times I found myself cursing them for making stupid decisions and almost irrational acts, but then again how many of us haven’t done something stupid while mesmerised in a foreign land under the duress of hunger and thirst?
Throughout the destinations, Brandon provides a bit of cultural and historic background – brief but interesting, particularly if you take note of how the villages shift and change when borders are crossed, or even just the next valley over. Along the way it seems experiences arrive across every hill; you really don’t know what to expect. I suggest checking in the map now and then for reference to follow along.
One funny anecdote that I actually have personal experience with is the mountain snow. You see, I actually have trekked through a tiny portion of the via alpina that slides around the towns and villages above Interlaken. And I, like our travellers, hiked in the dead of summer – think cold beers and hot fondue on terraces in the warm summer nights, hot sunshine and wearing shorts.
I woke up early from my pensione, scarfed breakfast, and then after a long gondola ride, headed out on foot. The day was long, the road was good. And then, probably 90 minutes en route, the trail narrows. Not a gorge or hills, but now. Yes, there I was, wearing shorts and sunglasses and a tshirt, with snow up to my neck on either side. (I have no idea how the trail path was carved out).
I pressed on, thinking how bad could it be (a phrase that rings true often in name of book). Alas, after the trail turned to ice, and the road narrowed, I realised that I was not on the trail but on a glacier.
In the book, they press on. Me? I went back to my pension and had a beer.
The Jazz of Travel
One concept that is brilliant woven throughout the book is the metaphor that travel – more specifically travel planning – is like jazz. It’s true. Jazz is a mixture of planned riffs and notes that rides on a wave of serendipity, shifting and adjusting in the heat of the moment.
Travel is like that too. I personally like to have a plan and structure, with lots of room to explore whatever catches my fancy and while not worrying about where I will sleep that night. I know other people who like to have every little thing planned out including all meals of the day (this would be my mother who would doubtedly disagree), and then there are people like Brandon and Cheryl whose travel style would, at times, freak people out. (To their credit, they learned some lessons along the way – you can’t improvise everything, and sometimes you just take the cards you’re dealt.)
The lesson here is, to continue the metaphor, all of us have our own musical pretences. Know what yours is, and be mindful of it.
Buy the Book. Don’t Hike the Via Alpina.
This book is a great read for those who are desperate for some adventure but for whatever reason can’t get themselves over to the nearest Swiss alp. I think the book is a bit long and could be tightened in places, but perhaps the intent is to mirror the journey of the travellers themselves, and their trip covered so many places and experiences it would be hard to pick what to leave out.
As for the Via Alpina? Well, that I wouldn’t recommend except for the most intrepid. You see, near the end of their journey, our friends found out that the Via Alpina was meant to be a series of threads, a way to interconnect communities and provide visitors with a sampling of the terrain. It wasn’t meant to be hiked end to end. The author does mention work has taken place since their adventure to improve the maps and markers of the route.
That’s not to say their journey was for nought. They learned a lot about themselves and a lot about European alpine life in the process. And who knows what you’ll learn – you will just have to read it and see. I leave you with this parting thought from Brandon about life on the trails, including a quote from one of my favourite authors.
The pure joy in his eyes reminded me why I take to the trail. It’s the fresh air, the heart pounding, air-gasping pace; it’s the lure of something new around each bend and the freedom to explore. It’s the sweat and starain to accomplish something measurable each day. It’s the memorable views from a mountaintop. It’s reducing life to its primal essentials and finding satisfaction in the smallest things: a hot shower, a warm meal, a soft pillow, or a word of encouragement. It’s the new people you meet every day and experiences shared. It’s the personal peace you find when you reconnect with nature and the Universe. Could life get any better?
I’ve always thought Henry David Thoreau described it best when he said:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if i could not learn what it had to each, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
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Special thanks to Brandon Wilson for providing us with a copy of his book. Learn more about our editorial policy on reviews here.