Saint Gotthard Tunnel

Nearly two months into my European odyssey in 1973, on a train from northern Italy to Switzerland, a weary traveler and somewhat of a lost soul, I entered what I recall as the Saint Gotthard Tunnel, under the Alps, and emerged into a completely transformed world and a new chapter in my existential journey with fresh insight into the human condition. (Note that I may have actually gone through a different tunnel of comparable length, as noted by someone who read this piece with a good knowledge of Western European railway geography, though at the time that was my recollection.)

It was early November when I boarded the train in Venice headed across Northern Italy then under the Alps to Interlaken, Switzerland. My now lengthy trip was beginning to feel like one long ordeal and I was pretty tired out and longing to go home, yet determined not to do so until my money ran out. Add to my own personal ennui having spent the last few nights in Venice, a city that has a history of romantic ennui with its soot-stained brick piazzas, copious pooping pigeons, and looking like it had been raised out of the Adriatic and still in need of having the water damage cleaned up.

I recall the train left first thing in the morning on a sunny day with a temperature in the fifties. It was mid-afternoon before we reached the famous tunnel, an astonishing nine miles long, dug under the Alps between 1871 and 1881 at the cost of at least 200 worker’s lives lost. The sun still shone in a cloudless sky when we entered the south end of the tunnel, and though the actual time might have only been about ten or fifteen minutes, in my spent psychological state it seemed like quite a while, long enough at least for the blackness to capture my attention and my imagination.

Alone, rattling along in the all-encompassing blackness, a sense of dread flowed through me that the world, or at least my world, had suddenly ended. It was a month earlier on my trip that I had watched on German television the start of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, and then met an American soldier on a train, called back to his base to counter an imminent Russian military move against Israel. It all felt like the world was coming apart with me right in the middle of it an ocean away from home and family. And still the train careened down its path under the world.

From total blackness the train emerged from the north end of the tunnel into the other extreme, a white-out blizzard with thousands of large snow flakes impacting against the window of my train car. I recall it was ten or fifteen more minutes before I could see anything but white out that window, as the train found its way out of the snow squall. From my now cozy seeming compartment I could see a winter wonderland of evergreen trees punctuated by the occasional wood and stone houses all decorated in a thick icing of fresh snow. The train finally pulled into the station at Interlaken, my intermediate destination and transfer point to another train that would take me up to the mountain town of Grindewald.

I only had time to buy and eat some way to expensive railroad station food before I boarded my train to my final destination. The snow continued outside at a less frenetic pace as the train climbed upward into the mountains, stopping at every little village along the way. It was late afternoon and the end of the school day, and at every stop dozens of Swiss school kids either boarded or debarked from the train. They sat in the seats all around me, with their rosy cheeks, brightly colored hats and backpacks, laughing and chattering in what sounded to me like German, full of energy and enthusiasm for the daily adventure of the ride home from school.

I was a lonely soul surrounded by all this joyous youthful energy and hope for the future, and the irony of this scene was not lost on me. I had my reasons to be sad and reflective, but the world was full of other people with reasons for hope and joy. The view of the Swiss winter wonderland out the window was appropriately stunning and I was headed to what by all accounts was a gorgeous little town at the base of one of the world’s most photogenic and storied peaks. Not enough perhaps to get this eighteen-year-old to shelve his angst, but enough at least to give his darkened places glimmers of hope.

I arrived in Grindewald in the early evening and checked in to my youth hostel. On its upstairs balcony I looked out over the valley below at the lights of the town, though darkness and clouds obscured the view of the Eiger across the valley from my location. Like most youth hostels I stayed at I found other English-speaking older youth and young adults to talk, swap stories and even venture into town for a beer with. My extreme wave of angst had passed through me and moved on for now.

The next morning brought blue sky instead of clouds, and out on the hostel’s balcony, there across the little valley where the town nestled, was the amazingly huge mountain, with its jagged peaks gleaming white and silver and filling half the sky. I had somehow found my way, on my own, to one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world with a whole lifetime of additional adventures ahead of me. Yes I was still homesick, but I knew at some level that I had the courage and the agency to seek out and find a place like this. Other destinations would be attainable in the future when I was ready to seek them.

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