A Swiss Homecoming (‘Quand je suis vingt et un, je travaillé ici’)
Somewhere along the way I made the decision to ride across the Alps from northern Italia into Suisse and find the allage of Lengnau in the Jura Valley of western Switzerland, and try to locate and visit Polly and Erwin Stuck who had graciously hosted me for two months in 1972. I was one of the best decisions of the trip. To regress, in 1972, age 21 and just freed from the military draft for the Vietnam War by a sufficiently high lottery draw, I took a hiatus from my rather aimless wanders through my junior year at the Uni of Oklahoma and, with two like-minded friends, took a six month travel to Europe. After two months of touring we tired of sleeping in the rear of our VW van and, running short on money, visited the Stucks of Lengnau. The family of my travel companion Bob had hosted the Stucks’ son a couple of year previously while he was in Oklahoma on foreign exchange, and we felt confident the Stucks would like to repay the favor treble. It worked, they loved us, we loved them. It was like being home for a while in the middle of our great travel adventure. They found the three of us jobs, Bob and Ben in a watch factory and me in a nearby nursery/landscaping business, and put us up in an uncle’s spare apartment. The Stucks took us skiing in the Alp that springs and on weekend picnics and walks in the nearby Jura Mountains. We scrimped together the funds to buy three record albums, The Rollings Stones’ Get Your Ya Yas Out, Paul Simon by same, and Neil’ Young’s Harvest to play on the apartment record player. Life was good.
I think the decision to make a ride to Lengnau from Italy firmed up one day on a day-trip ride out of Sienna, Italy when I ran onto a Dutch Cyclist about my age. He had ridden across the Alps on his way down from Holland and he convinced me that if I could ride the 12% grades in northern Tuscany the Alps would be no problem, longer climbs but less rigorous grades. And I had been riding pretty tough hills consistently for the last two months, since some hot and rigorous days in northern Thailand, so his reassurance confirmed my budding plans.
When I was initially planning the five-month bike tour with Eleanor it had seemed a great idea to run the trip to Lengnau and look up the Stucks, but the logistics felt too much to overcome so I had left the idea in the back of my mind. Then I encountered a young lady on my flight to Singapore for the start of the trip in Hanoi who had grandparents in Lengnau, an it seemed destined that I take the trek through there. As soon as I made the decision in Sienna I bought a good Swiss road map, spread it out on a table in the campground, and began to plan the assault and the accompanying mapping, calculating; and dreaming. To this day I love sitting down with a map and routing a bike trip. I determined I should train to northern Italy from my current lcation, Sienna, and start teh attack form there. I chose Como, at the base of the Alps and on the shore of beautiful Lake Como as the starting point and researched the Sienna-Como routes. In order to bring along the velo I had to book through five connecting trains:
Sienna—Empoli, 8:52 am to 9:45 am
Empoli—Pisa Centrale, 9:55 am to 10:27 am
Pisa—Genova Piazza Principe, 10:48 am to 1:43 pm
Genova—Milano Centrale, 1:58 pm to 3:45 pm
Milano-Como S. Giovanni, 5:30 to 6:19 pm
I routed a six-day, 400 km ride from Como to Lengnau, over three alpine passes; Spluga (at the Italian/Swiss border, where it became Splugen), a 30.2 km climb with average grade of 5.9%, 20.4 km Oberalp with grade of 4.4%, and Susten, a grinding 17.4 km climb averaging 7.5%. I figured this plan provided for riding each of the passes on a separate day and allowed some rest time, and would give me a layover day in Lengnau if I did in fact find the Stucks at home on Jungfraustrasse.
By the time I reached Sienna in central Tuscany in May my trip was in its third month; Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Turkey, and Greece were behind me and Schweiz, France, and Ireland remained. I was feeling a bit stale and needing something to inject some challenge and freshness into the daily grind of coffee, food, ride 60 miles, campsite. The Sienna-Lengnau journey did just that. The day on the trains up to Como included dead-out sprints between trains, bike and gear in tow, packed between relaxing rides through the countryside of the Tuscany, Liguria, and and Lombardy regions of northern Italia. On the first train, Sienna to Florence I visisted with an American expatriate of 30 years on her way to Florence for the day. On the Genoa train I met a cheery New Zealand couple on their way to Rappallo from Cingue Terre where they had hiked the five vilage walk the prior day. On the train to Como from Milano I met two young fresh-faced innocent looking German lads from Leipzig, also headed eagerly up to take on Sluga Pass.
The 101 kilometer day out of Como took me along the east side of glacial Lake Como to Belagio where I caught a short ferry across an of the lake to Varenna. I cycled beside upper Lago di Como and north past Chiavenna, where the climb toward the pass started in earnest, to a beautiful campsite in Campodolcino. I pitch my tent among small travel trailers which it appeared were left there as weekend getaways, and went to sleep energized and excited for the next days’ rides, surrounded by the snow-capped Alps.
The entry to my trip journal for Saturday, June 7, 2003: Across Spluga Pass to Thusus (Switzerland) campground, 64 kms. Climb to pass was steep and constant. Smelled the hot brakes of descending vehicles. Lots of tunnels. In the dark of one got vertigo and had to dismount and push out. After breakfast left campground at 9:15, reach pass summit at 11:15. Scenery got increasingly prettier on the ascent, but spectacular after the summit. Saw lots of cyclists all day. Two East German youths from prior day left campsite before me and I didn’t see them again. Talked to a cyclist from Chur on top of the pass who gave me pointers on smaller roads to take west. The climb was quite a rush. Felt great to make the summit, then descent was spectacular! A switchback thru high steep mountain meadow just after the pass must have had 10 turn-backs. Day summary: Ascent to pass in Italy, 19 km, 8.6 km/hr average. Descent from pass and ride in Suisse, 45 km, 23+ km/hr average.
The next day was a recovery ride, 71 km, west through Switzerland to beautiful campground in a high valley near Disenti. I had decided to ride the remaining two passes in one day, so took it easy on the day between the climbs to give the legs some time to recoup.
My journal entry for June 9, 2003: Across Oberalp and Susten Passes to Campground at Merigen, 98 km, 14.4 km/hr average. Woke early with the climbs on my mind. Left campground about 7:00, to town to a cafe and found croissants and coffee (8.6 SW Fr), and 2 Fr Snickers candy bar from the train station vending machine. Got a Coke, M&Ms, and a ham sandwich for the road, and a cream-filled pastry to consume, and felt prepared. Left Disenti about 8:00, reached top of Oberalp, 24 km, at 10:00, average 10.0 km/hr. Ride was hard but felt strong and stops for photos were sufficient to catch snacks and water with. Had clear early morning, no wind, excellent for riding, views wonderful. Got a photo and ate my food at the top. Descent to Andermatt and on to Wassen (21 km) was down, down, down, down—would estimate 1000+ meters. Got lunch of spaghetti and a rest in Wassen. Started climb to Susten at 12:09, immediately upon leaving town. Summit was at 63 km for the day (18 km net climbing). Climb vey hard for me. I would ride 30 minutes and take a break, that help. Scenery was great but I was almost too fatigued to enjoy. Reached Susten summit at 3:09, three hours exactly. Had a bratwurst and bread, and pie, for “lunch” (actually my 4th meal on the day). Took an hour and a half break on top. Luckily the sights on the descent were more dramatic than on the way up so I could take it in. Continued 35 additional kms to a campground in Meiringen, got in about 6:00. Very tough but satisfying day. Happy I went ahead and tackled both passes now.
Getting both passes covered in one day allowed me to shorten the trip by a day and have two leisurely days finishing off the ride to Lengnau. I rode into town on a a highway that had ben built since I was there in 1972 and I didn’t recognize the palce. After I stumbled onto Jungfraustrasse, the streets the Stucks lived on, my memory reoriented me to the town. I recognized the road I had used to commute by bicycle to work in a nursery in nearby Pieterlen and let my instinct carry me back there. After a little wandering around I saw a sign to Stauffers’ Gartenbau. A woman came out of the house and I thought I recognozed her as Camila, the daughter who, four at the time, had played joyfully around the garden while I worked. Soon Mr. Stauffer came out and I had my big moment to deliver in French the sentence I had been practicing on the ride through the mountains, “Quand je suis vingt et un, je travaile ici’ (when I am twenty-one I work(ed) here). It worked - he understood, smiled warmly and invited me in