We took a dark-green train from Zurich to Chur, a bright red train from Chur to Samedan and, finally, squeezed into a cherry rail-car with wood-slat seats and windows open to the warm smell of hay.
The little engine whirred up to the mountain village of Pontresina and dumped us off _ me, my husband Tao, my mom and dad.
Hiking boots were slung over our shoulders, for it was summer and we had come to walk the alpine paths where the wildflowers bloom. We also had come to celebrate wedding anniversaries (45 years for my parents, five years for Tao and me), our 30th birthdays, the end of Tao's long nights on call as a pediatric resident.
"Celebrate everything!" my parents have taken to saying as they approach their 70s. Good health! Good minds! Good teeth! All these things, still good, still here, but who knows for how long?
So Tao and I figured, why wait? We splurged. We had come to be with my parents. We had come to eat chocolate.
The secret to eating chocolate in Switzerland is that you burn it off hiking. The secret about hiking in the Alps is the trains: cog trains, chairlifts, gondolas, even horse-drawn carriages will take you to the top of many peaks. In most cases, you can also ride back down.
On our first morning in Switzerland, we clambered into a funicular, a sort of vertical train, that rose gently through a fir forest before ascending steeply above the tree line into fields of gray scrabble, mossy rocks, melting snow. Lining the stream beds and spilling out of rock crevices were Queen Anne's lace, lavender bells, pink alpenrose, tiny blue forget-me-nots each with a dot of yellow sun, wild purple pansies no bigger than a two-franc coin.
At the top, we could see the length of the Upper Engadine glacial valley: sparkling St. Moritz lake, parasailors floating like human kites, a toy village far below. At 8,000 feet, the sun feels hot, the air, cool. There are hardly any bugs. Perfect walking weather.
Before we could take a step, my dad began scrounging around in his fanny pack for the chocolate. I love chocolate, especially Swiss chocolate, because it lingers, smooth and elegant on the tongue. I broke off a piece. The brown-and-silver wrapper looked suspiciously familiar. Hershey Bar with Almonds. In Switzerland. Not only that, Dad had 23 more bars stowed in his roll-a-board suitcase back at the hotel. He had gotten them cheaply from a Chinatown sidewalk vendor while visiting my aunties in New York.
I had forgotten my dad's penchant for bulk bargains, and it made me realize how rarely I see him these days. A whole box for $5, he exclaimed. Cheaper than one bar of Swiss Lindt chocolate! He exaggerated. He beamed.
We walked. Carved wooden signs told how long it would take: Alp Languard, two hours; Pontresina, five hours; Val Roseg, all day. We crossed chalky glacial streams on boulders and plank bridges, the trails leisurely traversing the mountain, in no hurry to get anywhere.
Hiking in the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges near our home in Seattle, Tao and I inevitably have a destination. Usually the destination is the summit. In Switzerland, the paths amble, gaining altitude gradually. The summit is not the goal. After all, you can ride to the top. So the goal becomes the walk itself. What you see along the way. Whom you are with.
We were with my parents. And to my parents' joy, we shared the paths mostly with older people, folks with white hair and curved spines, their faces speckled by the sun and lit by beautiful smiles.
"Bonjour" or "Guten tag," they greeted us. My parents smiled back, commenting on how cute and vigorous old folks were in Switzerland. They have lately taken to pointing out cute old folks, perhaps because they delight in the obvious contrast. My parents' hair is still thick and black, their eyes bright, backs straight. They look a decade or two younger than 70 years and often less haggard then their own kids.
But you can never tell if it's going to be a good day for my dad's knees. When his knees are bad, he feels his age dragging him down. My mom, at those times, seems to sag a little, too. In the Alps, every day was a good day. My parents walked for hours. They wore us out.
So the days went. We took the train to different hiking towns, often rode up, almost always walked down, ate hungrily at night, slept deeply under poofy white comforters. Pontresina. Zermatt. Saas Fee. Murren. Meiringen.
One of my favorite walks was down from Pontresina's Val Roseg, a snowy glacier mounded like coconut ice cream on a blue plate. For four hours, strolling alongside a gurgling brook and under dappled larches, my mother talked story after story about her old friends in Hawaii, her home 50 years ago.
There was Betty who married a rich guy who was a milquetoast, then ran off two weeks later with an Air Force pilot _ dashing, if you like the pomade type _ and wouldn't you know it, the milquetoast guy turned out to make a fortune in prefabricated concrete slabs. Wartime, you know; they used those slabs for the air landing strips. So Betty lost out, you see, but because she was the type to marry for money.
My mother stopped to take a breath, inhaling the cool air. She seemed so content, tromping along in her chunky suede hiking boots with the wide red laces, babbling about whatever came to mind. I wondered why this story surfaced now, in Switzerland, and I recalled that Switzerland was neutral territory during World War II. Ah, the war _ and prefab concrete slabs.
It was amazing, really, that we could amble happily like that for four hours a day, for two whole weeks. Since we moved to Seattle from the East Coast five years ago, we see my parents only once or twice a year.
At their kitchen table in Connecticut, I nag: Watch your cholesterol! Soy sauce is pure sodium! Call the doctor about that cough! Dining out in Seattle, they hint _ no, they demand _ grandchildren.
All of this has to do with the passage of time. I do not want them to pass with time. They do not want more time to pass without grandchildren. On vacation, time stops; Switzerland is neutral territory. So we stepped around the nagging issues and walked on. Mom talked about old times; Dad drew little pictures with colorful markers; Tao recovered from residency; I ate chocolate.
Mostly we all talked about food. For my family, food is memory. Fermented black beans and steaming long grain rice, spicy paella at Thanksgiving, my grandmother's pickled watermelon rind _ still good, still crunchy and still in my parents' refrigerator five years after her death.
When I was growing up, our meals were never bland, even when money was tight. "You can't take it with you when you die," my Chinese-restaurateur grandfather used to say, "so you might as well put it in your stomach."
Food has always been my parents' one luxury.
Now, walking through Switzerland, we talked about the meals we had just eaten, collectively re-creating the tastes even while the food was still digesting. A few days before we were scheduled to return to the real world, Mom insisted on a side trip to Lauterbrunnen to see some waterfalls. The falls are actually the convergence of three glaciers, a mega-meltdown. That she wanted to visit them struck me as odd, as this was not a trip for seeing the biggest, fastest, highest. But we went anyway.
Trummelbach Falls are, indeed, spectacular. They corkscrew 1,400 meters down a mountain, gathering force and rock, plowing through pitted caverns. The spray makes the stone stairs slick, so as we walked, Mom clutched my arm and shouted to be heard.
She was saying something about how happy she was we were all able to come on this trip together. Yes, I nodded, of course, me too.
I wondered if these waterfalls, the convergence of three glaciers, had some kind of special significance to my mother. A good friend once told me after her mother died that she felt some peace because even though her mother was no longer with her, in every circumstance, she knew what her mother's reaction would be.
I will never have that kind of peace. Even when my mother was clutching my arm, shouting at me, I could not fathom her.
I knew these waterfalls have nothing to do with Betty and the prefab concrete slabs, but I couldn't figure out what they did mean. Perhaps Mom was seeing them as a fountain of youth? Or recalled something she heard from one of my aunties?
She shouted again _ she was glad we were hiking now because in 10 years or so, when she and Dad hit 80, they wouldn't be able to do this anymore, walk the Alps like this. Probably this is the last time they will come to Switzerland, she said. "The body deteriorates as you age, you know ... "
This is true, I knew, but of course I said, "Don't be silly, we'll be back. Look at all these old people with their high-tech telescoping walking sticks _ why, they must be in their 90s. Of course we'll come back."
As I spoke, I knew in my heart that maybe we would not. Every hike comes to an end. People die. Trummelbach Falls, though, they'll always be around. My mom knew this, and it is why, I guessed, she brought us here.
My mom knows that someday, perhaps way, way in the future, I will stumble across Trummelbach Falls while flipping through magazines at a supermarket checkout or listening to NPR in the car, and I will be reminded of this afternoon, the power of water, the relentless rush of time, how happy she was that we were all here, for a moment, together.
Quickly, before Trummelbach Falls started flooding out of my eyes, I concentrated on dinner menus. Remember in Saas Fee, those green ravioli stuffed with Gorgonzola? I asked. And then, the veal! The veal in ... wait ... how did they prepare the veal? Was it in a cream sauce? A brown sauce? Consomme?
Already I could not remember. I felt panicked, afraid I would forget this trip, what it is like to be my parents' daughter, to walk with them day by day, to argue over which train to take, to break bread and Emmentaler cheese alongside the trail.
The veal of just three days ago had already slipped away. But we had dessert after that. Fresh figs, candied orange rind, thin slices of fudge with walnuts. We had coffee. We had two weeks together.
The memory lingers, like chocolate, sweet and dark and achingly complex.
Paula Bock is a reporter for The Seattle Times.