Traveling through Switzerland by train is absurd. I was raised in Colorado, home to 53 peaks higher than 14,000 feet, so I thought that I was over mountains. But I hadn’t seen the Alps. Alaska notwithstanding, I’m confident nothing in America can prepare you for them. A gradient fading from lush greens to crisp snowcaps runs up mountain slopes in a way so picturesque I had assumed it belonged to fantasy. And they’re so sharp and steep, like petrified fangs biting into the sky. It seemed silly to place those hills back home in the same category as these true mountains.
Such a landscape would be impossible to traverse quickly without tunnels, so most of the train ride is spent in shadow. Then the darkness tears away in a blur of concrete, exposing the most breathtaking landscape you’ve ever seen. This happens over and over. The last of these increasingly stunning unveilings showed me my destination: Interlaken, appropriately set between two crisp lakes wrapped in Alps.
I discovered Interlaken through a combination of serendipity and irresponsible travel planning. I had three days to kill between leaving Italy and returning to Amsterdam, and thought it might be nice to spend a little time outdoors. I figured that any place in the Alps was as good as any other; all I needed was a cheap place to stay. So I cropped a Google Maps view around Switzerland and northeastern France and searched on the word “hostel.” Take a quick look through that list and see if you can guess which item caught my attention. I’m sure you’ll agree that the only acceptable answer is “Mystery Hostel.”
Some brief internet research indicated that I should probably avoid the Mystery, but the town where it was located seemed like a winner. I booked a more reputable hostel in Interlaken and was primed for my Swiss adventure. But that’s not exactly what I got.
I’d seen the word “tourist” crop up a few times while reading about Interlaken, which didn’t put me off. After all, shouldn’t a traveler stay in a place with amenities geared towards the traveling lifestyle? What I didn’t realize was that the word “tourist,” in this instance, was not so much meant to imply “traveler friendly,” but rather “This town has a Hooters.” I’m not kidding. I was looking for a weekend in a friendly Swiss backpacking village and instead I got girls in orange hot pants serving spicy chicken wings to lecherous Americans.
Interlaken is weird in many other ways. Across the street from the train station, for example, is a full-bore, Wal-Mart-style department store. It’s got groceries, clothes, electronics–the works. And it’s on the second floor of a mall. To manage the awkward situation of having dozens of customers with full shopping carts who need to get down to the ground floor, the whole center of the mall is taken up by two inclined moving walkways. I can’t explain how odd it was to see a line of European shoppers descending at a slow, shallow angle with their carts in tow–somehow reminiscent of cows to the slaughter–but I wanted desperately to release a full basket from the top of the walkway and watch it careen through the shopping center. It bet it could build up a good head of steam by the time it hit the bottom.
Stranger still were the snippets of the local teenage culture I witnessed around town. I arrived on a Friday evening, too late for a real excursion, so instead I wandered the streets after checking into my superb but empty hostel. I strolled through the heart of Interlaken, a giant public park too overgrown for public use, even in the perfect weather. The teenagers congregated, via bicycle, around the benches surrounding the park, and just kind of hung out there all night. The girls looked, pretty much, like normal teenage girls. The guys, though, were preposterously thugged out. Comically so. Their pants sagged to heroic depths, their hoodies were loose and covered in designer prints, and their hats could only have clung to their heads by way of some incredible static field. They looked, essentially, like back-up dancers from an old Nelly video, except, you know, white and Swiss.
My growing sense of surreality spiked whenever I took the time to notice where I was. I would walk down a street with a McDonald’s and a Casino, then stop, look upwards a few degrees, and remember I was surrounded by towering, beautiful mountains. And I did, the next day, break free of Interlaken’s Americanized grasp by taking a bus for about five minutes into an authentic, The Sound of Music-style village, complete with fluffy white sheep. I hiked up a trail jutting out of a street called Wanderweg, and managed a decent climb by following paths set up by an evidently bankrupt fitness company. After I wore myself out (who knew the Alps would be so steep?), I sat on a rock wall overlooking some abandoned alpine train tracks and dug into my lunch of bread, sausage, and chocolate that I picked up on the cheap from that second-floor department store.