Part 1: The hills were alive . . .

From the Lauterbrunen Valley in Switzerland—views like this were the rule, not the exception.

We've been home from Europe for just over a week now and I've had a curious avoidance to writing about this beyond-our-expectations trip.  Not that we’ve been sitting around eating bonbons—nor wondering what to do with all our free time since returning—but I finally realized last night that writing a blog post about the trip officially makes it “over,” “finished,” “done”—part of our history—and there’s a part of me that doesn't want to acknowledge that this long-awaited trip is now in our rear view mirror! 

The vast majority of me, however, simply delights in the reality of it and relishes the memories, which I’ll now transfer from iPhoto and my mind (with what I know will be inadequate words) to offer you a description of Paul's 60th (plus 1) rite-of-passage journey.

The idea of doing this trip was launched by our dear German friend Gertrud, who had hosted the girls and me on each of their rite-of-passage journeys at age 21.  After my third and final daughter trip with Julie, Gertrud asked, “And what about Paul?  When will his rite of passage journey be?”  That set the wheels in motion five years ago and his 60th birthday was deemed the appropriate milestone. 

But God had other plans, and Paul’s 60th birthday was marked by the birth of our first grandchild, Brandon, so plans for Europe were happily postponed for a year. And so it came that his 61th birthday was celebrated in Gimmelwald, Switzerland, with a hike to the top of the Schilthorn (an almost 4000-meter peak rising from the Lauterbrunen Valley.)

The trip came on the heels of an intense summer, as previous posts record.  Ten weeks were dedicated to family camp (including orientation and other preparations), followed immediately by Julie and Derek’s wedding on August 21.  Only 2 days after returning to Bedford from the wedding, we flew to Zurich.  We briefly considered postponing our departure when the doctor said I had a touch of pneumonia along with a lot of bronchitis, but with Hurricane Irene making her way up the coast, we knew we had to get out before she arrived.  And we were so glad we did!  Thankfully, the Z-pack antibiotics combined with lots of prayer cured what ailed me, so our trip was unhampered.

The first week of our 17-day trip was shared with our chosen family friends, John and Marilyn.  Starting with renting a car, we replicated the trip I made with the girls, with one major adjustment: maps were replaced by a GPS system. I must say, that change alleviated most of the “breakdown” moments I had had navigating in unknown lands, guided with little more than poor maps in hand.  What a gift to be GPS-directed!!

The 21st-birthday rite-of-passage journey focuses on clarifying life purpose, so the girls were each given a new leather journal in which to record God-sightings and life lessons learned on the journey, as well as Gail MacDonald’s book A Step Farther and Higher which has an excellent chapter on how to write a life-purpose statement. (More details are found in my book Raising a Trailblazer: Rite-of-Passage Trail Markers for your Set-Apart Teen.)  I did give Paul a new journal—possibly his first ever, since journaling is not his cup of tea  :)—and suggested he record reflections of his journey to date and thoughts about his “second half.”  He smiled and put the journal in his backpack.  

Our first stop was Interlaken, and on a indescribably gorgeous spring-like day, we took the Jungfraubahn” to the “Top of Europe.”  The trilogy of snow-topped Alps—the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau—are well known ice-climbing peaks, as well as hosts to a cogwheel rack railway to the Jungfraujoch, billed as the highest railway station in Europe.  From the top, on a clear day. you can see forever—360 degrees of forever—and we took it all in.  We were overwhelmed, to be honest, by the majesty of God as shown in creation.  Being able to hike in light clothing to the backpackers "hut" was a real treat.  Great time!  Our stop in Grindlewald on the way back to Interlaken was also quite magical.  That sweet town is everything you imagine when thinking of a little Swiss hamlet at the base of gianormous Alps, with flower-bedecked chalets dotting the velvety green meadows and the sound of cow bells in surround-sound.  LOVE it.  Also taking advantage of the day were hundreds of para-gliders, whose colorful chutes made a garden in the sky.  We were mesmerized by it all.

From the Top of Europe” on the Jungfrau, we enjoy incredible views from every angle.

Hiking to the JungMonchHuitte, we enjoy very balmy weather as we walk on the glacier.

Loving every minute of it . . .

Next stop:  Gimmelwald, the home of Walter’s Hotel.  It was a hike to get there, after leaving the car parked in Lauterbrunen and taking with us only what would fit in our daypacks, but well worth it.  The incredible beauty surrounding us minimized the physical challenge of hiking the six miles—but my hiking companions did tire of me saying, “It’s just around the next bend.”  There were many more bends than I recalled.  :)

I was most excited about staying at “Walter’s” even though it was the least comfortable place we stayed on the trip.  The girls and I fell in love with Walter, a now 87-year-old Swiss gentleman who runs his hotel to benefit an Indian tribe in South America.  He’s remarkable.  He does most of the cooking and for years managed the hotel on his own.  He now has a “business partner” in Tim from England, who spends from May to November helping Walter run the place.  The hotel is largely unremarkable, but its quaint, family-oriented simplicity embraces you and the intangibles fill in the gaps.  Fortunately, my three traveling companions loved it too.  :)
Arriving at Walter’s Hote-L in Gimmelwald . . .

. . . we’re amazed that 87-year-old Walter is still running the place.

We conquered the Schilthorn on Monday.  This was the big one.  The impending hike unsettled each of us with questions of “can we do this?”  I had hiked it with Lisa and with Julie (it was closed when Kari and I made our trip in early May 2001), and in both cases, I was thoroughly challenged.  Long story short, we did make it, and I must say it was very fun for me to be in the “You can make it!” cheerleading role that I had been the recipient of on the two previous hikes.  :)  The first 2/3 of the hike we enjoyed gorgeous, springlike weather, but clouds moved in and during the last third, we were enveloped.  Most disappointing was getting to the top and being able to see nothing.  :(  That was overshadowed by the incredible joy of making it to the top alive which truly required “leaving it all on the mountain.”
Our hike to the top of the Schilthorn starts out under clear blue skies.  We loved walking behind this waterfall.

Still clear, the views of the opposing Alps are spectacular.

We were glad to get these cloudless photos early in the hike.

Though it looks like we've made it to the top, we still had a long way to go.

The top at last! The clouds and we arrived at about the same time.

Making it to almost 4000 meters, we were thankful, spent, and only mildly disappointed that we couldn't see a thing.  

I think Paul breathed a huge sigh of relief once we had conquered the Schilthorn.  Sort of like taking a final exam.  Once done, the rest is easy.  

So with sore feet and exhausted bodies, we took the gondola down to Murren and made our way back to Walter's for his delicious meal of lamb, rice, and mushrooms before hitting the hay.  The beds could’ve been made of nails and we wouldn't have noticed.  :)

On to the Cinque Terre on the northern coast of Italy we went, after hiking down from Gimmelwald, through Steckelborg, and across the unbelievably alive-with-natural-beauty Lauterbrunen Valley.  From waterfalls to wildflowers and everything in between, we were constantly “oohing” and “ahhing” and snapping photos like crazy.  Absolutely lovely!

Our drive over the Susten Pass was likewise spectacular on that springlike day, and such a different experience than when Lisa and I had decided to take that route in 2004 since it was clearly the shortest distance between two points on the map. That day was not springlike, but rainy and foggy, and making the drive on the two-lane road (without guardrails in many places) was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done.  With trucks as our only real companions on the road, we had a white knuckle drive I hope to never repeat—and we couldn’t see a thing.
Driving the Susten Pass on our journey from Interlaken to the Cinque Terre, we had backdrops like this.  :)   

How different it was to drive the Susten Pass on a clear, beautiful day!  The vistas were incredible, and though the roads were the same narrow two-lane unguarded windy ones Lisa and I drove, we enjoyed every minute of the 45-minute journey because we could see everything.  A great spiritual lesson recorded in my journal.

We arrived in the Cinque Terre just after sunset on Tuesday, August 30, and settled in to a great hotel overlooking the water.  After a good night’s sleep, we hit the trail, hiking between the towns of Monterroso, Vernazza, and Corniglia.  It wasn't lost on us that we were overwhelmed by the beauty of God's creation in the Cinque Terre—though it stood in sharp contrast to the kind of beauty we had loved in Switzerland.  From the ice peaks and glaciers of the Alps, to the warm “liquid ice” of the Ligurian Sea . . . From the verdant green meadows and blossoming flowers growing wildly or meticulously placed in window boxes, to the dusty, cobbley footpaths which wended through vineyards and terraced gardens producing fresh basil or rosemary—or orchards of olives, fig, or apple trees, we were reminded over and again of the amazing diversity of creation, and of the vast spectrum of what we consider “beautiful.”  We drank it in as we hiked a good 10-12 miles that day, interrupting the sweat-producing exercise with dips in the refreshing sea at least twice, and indulging in gelato the same number of times.  We capped the day with fresh caprese and delicious seafood eaten on the porch of our hotel room as the sunset melted into the western horizon.  It really doesn’t get much better than that.

In Cinque Terre, we begin our first hike from Monterroso to Vernazza on a gorgeous day.
What a difference 24 hours makes!

We rewarded ourselves with dips in the Ligurian Sea to be refreshed after our
arduous and quite warm hiking in the Cinque Terre.

We continued the reward with gelato . . . the best!!

We delighted in the sunset from our balcony in Manarola as we ate our dinner.

More hiking in the Cinque Terre, with unbelievable sights along the way.

We did more hiking the next day before packing up and heading to Florence, but not before indulging in more gelato.  “Carpe Diem!”

We had a full day in Florence, and we packed it in.  We toured the Uffizi Museum as well as L’Accademie, which houses Michelangelo's statue of David.  We also walked almost 20 miles as we explored this historic, artistic city.  We continued our love affair with gelato in Florence.  :)  We had a great time, but preferring hiking mountains and swimming in oceans to museums in general, we weren’t sorry to drive out of Florence on Saturday morning, Sept. 3, only 36 hours after arriving. 

From the Piazzale de Michelangelo, the overview of Florence was amazing.

A great dinner outdoors was a fitting end to a great day of touring Florence.

The drive from Florence back to Zurich was the only part of the trip we'd rather not remember.  Apparently everyone in Europe decided to end their holiday on the same day and through the same route, which also happened to be on a day that several key roads were closed for repairs. So the 6-hour trip ended up taking 11 hours, and our small window to explore Zurich closed as we made a painfully slow trip to the airport.  Fortunately, the Nugents weren't flying out until Sunday morning, so their return flight was unaffected.  We took advantage of our setting by talking endlessly about our family histories, our hopes and dreams, and eventually even defaulted to singing. It seemed fitting to break up the challenge of being held captive by traffic by singing “The Grumbler’s Song” and that definitely added levity to our situation.
This was our view most of the 11 hours it took us to get from Florence to Zurich. Yikes!

We sadly parted ways with the Nugents at this point, and they returned to the States to rest their weary muscles and sore feet and to revel in the accomplishments experienced and the beauty seen.  Our days together were packed with wonderfully unforgettable moments and we'll cherish them always.  
We headed to the small town of Zug to hang with some dear friends . . . and part 2 will pick up there!