Once Upon a Time…

From “The Examined Life” 1997

The trail in the drawing is one I took once when I was outdoors with my friend back in the day. We were in Switzerland, his home country, on the Berner Oberland, in the famous region of the Eiger. We’d gone up to the Jungfraujoch, done our sight-seeing, and gotten back on the Jungfraubahn to return. Instead of riding all the way down to the station at Grindelwald, we got off the train at a station up the mountain and walked the rest of the way down to Kleine Scheidegg. It was the dream hike of a lifetime and I wished then (and even more now) that it had lasted longer.

A lot of summer hiking in America’s national forests means hiking with cows. Range cattle can be sketchy. One of the few times I was ever afraid hiking on a trail alone I had accidentally gotten too close to a calf, between it and its mom. Realizing my predicament, I froze. I knew better than to keep going when the calf in question was in front of me and a small herd of “moms” was behind me.

The cow that was closest to the calf, lumbered past me and backed the little cow against the the closed gate I needed to go through. (Here we can debate “need” vs. “want”.) Slowly a red cow whose coat matched that of the “endangered” calf came up the hill a couple of friends behind her. Soon the calf was protected from one lone woman hiker, her dog and her hiking stick by a 4000 pound phalanx of bovine nannies. They lowered their heads.

Disappointed, I turned around.

In Switzerland, on that lovely winding trail, we were accompanied by Swiss cows. Swiss farmers love their cattle which, for the most part, aren’t raised for steaks and burgers, but for milk and cheese. In spring, Swiss farmers dress up their cattle in flowers and bells and take them up to the mountains and, when fall comes, decorate the cattle again before bringing them down. The word “alp” means “pasture.”

Our hike started more or less at the red dot…

About 1/3 of our way down the trail to Kleine Scheidegg, we were slowly approached by three cows, the bells around their necks sending happy songs across the mountainside. Raised the way they are, Swiss cows aren’t suspicious of people. Their bovine curiosity brought them to us and together we all walked down the hill.

I didn’t take a photo of this, so I had to draw a picture of the trail. I didn’t put people or cows in it. Maybe if I were drawing it today, I would.


12 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time…

  1. This all sounds lovely, Martha! Such a benefit to be able to draw, since you could even go back and make another drawing from memory with the animals and such included:)

  2. One of my favorite places during a big tour of Europe by car was the Swiss Alps. Beautiful, from the rolling hills and mountains to the chalets/homes to the placidly grazing cattle. (The one public bathroom along the route…not so beautiful.) I’m not surprised you remember that day so fondly.

    I, too, get to deal with roaming cattle in the national forest here in Idaho every summer. I hate having to hyper-vigilant for them all summer, to keep my dogs from chasing them. But I’d far rather worry about encountering cattle than the sheep that run on a different part of the forest. In addition to doing so much damage to the landscape, their guardian dogs are threatening to people and dogs; the Basque shepherds rarely intervene. The sheep move daily, several miles, making a huge circle over the course of three months, so you never know exactly where they are nor will the FS tell you with any precision. If I hear the bleating of sheep ahead in the distance, we turn back. Since moving here, I’ve learned to tolerate cattle and loath sheep.

  3. Fascinating tale of cows and how they protect their own. What a cool (even though potentially not so cool) experience for you. I love how they are dressed up and wear happy song bells. 🙂

  4. I was once caught in a traffic jam of decorated cows coming down for winter. I think my car and I broke several Swiss laws that day. But it was an experience. I wish there were phone cameras in those days; I would have had the photo of a lifetime.

    That walk down towards Grindelwald is lovely.

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