I trudged along the desolate mountain road, sweating in the heat. There was dense forest on either side of me and a series of sharp bends ahead. I was roughly two miles from the Swiss village I was aiming for.
My rucksack was heavy and painful; two days earlier I’d lain out all day reading and had got viciously sunburnt, despite the light cloud covering. I was only seventeen and pretty stupid.
I’d been walking for over an hour and couldn’t bear the agony any longer so I took my rucksack off my back and tried to carry it in my arms. It was impossible. The bag was gigantic and heavy; it contained all I needed for my six-week trip. So then I tried dragging it along behind me, but I could see it was going to split if I kept that up.
Cursing myself for having attempted to walk from one village to another, I heaved it back onto my shoulders, wincing in agony, and carried on. I had a European inter-rail card which gave me free rail travel, but it wasn’t valid in Switzerland, and I’d always wanted to visit the Lauterbrunnen valley – I’d seen a photo of it in a magazine. Except at that moment, I wished I’d never heard of it.
I had discovered Swiss trains were expensive. Everything in Switzerland was extortionate – and my budget was tiny. I stayed some nights in youth hostels but I mostly I took overnight trains (free accommodation, you see) and zig-zagged my way back and forth across Europe. Night train from Berlin to Florence, then a train the next night to Paris, then back to Germany. Sometimes I slept in the seat, and sometimes on the compartment floor in my homemade sleeping bag. If the train was busy I had even slept on the corridor floor and forced people to clamber over me as they stumbled down the train in the middle of the night. I was seventeen and pretty stupid…
When I realised my journey through Switzerland was going to cost me the equivalent of a week’s accommodation, I broke a promise I’d made to my mother when she’d reluctantly agreed to allow me to go travelling on my own, despite my youth (I went on and on at her for months). I promise I won’t hitch-hike.
I could imagine what she’d say: you’ve got free travel throughout all of Western Europe, why on earth go to the only country that isn’t included? I don’t know. Maybe just because I’m a stubborn person – and I really, really wanted to go to Lauterbrunnen.
Before my first attempt at hitching, I planned to only accept lifts from women. But I had to abandon that pretty quickly – women rarely stop for hitchers. So then I decided I’d only take lifts from men who ‘looked ok’. But what did I know about men when I was seventeen? Not a thing.
The first man who gave me a lift was horrified when I told him what age I was (he had a daughter of similar age), and he went out of his way to take me exactly where I was going so that I didn’t have to hitch another lift. I got out of the car with stern warnings ringing in my ears not to do it again.
The second man who picked me up gave me 20 Swiss francs and told me to get a bus next time. That was when I decided I wouldn’t do it again; it obviously wasn’t safe.
It was the next day that I found myself walking the final section of my journey to Lauterbrunnen, from where I was going to head into the mountains to Gimmelwald, a village with no roads, to stay in a tiny youth hostel that had no electricity and was perched at the edge of a cliff. I had decided to walk – it was only five miles – and I would have managed fine except for the blasted sunburn that made my shoulders feel as though they were on fire.
I heard a car behind me. Don’t hitch a lift, Fiona. It’s a deserted road, it’s not safe.
But I was in such pain! The car was about to pass. I stuck my thumb out.
The vehicle roared past and I felt a crushing disappointment. Then I saw red brake lights, then white reverse lights. It was coming back for me!
Two long-haired men, both dressed head to toe in denim, emerged from the battered two-door car. They grinned and spoke to me in what sounded like German. I didn’t know what they were saying – and I didn’t like the look of them.
But it was too late. One of them pulled the front seat back and indicated I should get in, while the other came round behind me and took my rucksack off my back. He put it in the trunk of the car.
I shook my head and took a step backwards. But they kept speaking in German and pointing into the car. What else could I do? They had all my possessions, and even if I wanted to resist, what chance would I have against two men?
I climbed into the back of the car and was trapped inside. That’s it, I thought, feeling terrified. I’ll be raped and murdered, just what my mother had said would happen.
‘Du bist Englisch? They asked me.
‘Scottish,’ I whispered.
‘Hey, I love Schottland! You have whisky and the monster in the lake!’ The man in the passenger seat turned round to beam at me and I saw kindness in his eyes. I smiled back cautiously. ‘Hey, you like this music?’ He turned up the heavy metal and both men shook their heads violently in time with it as the car screeched around tight corners towards the waterfall of Lauterbrunnen, which looked even prettier in real life than in the magazine, with the Eiger, the Jungfrau and the Schilthorn towering high above it, crisp white peaks against the blue sky.
They turned out to be two lovely young men and we spent the day together in the Swiss mountains; they walked with me all the way to the tiny youth hostel at the edge of the cliff and told me not to hitchhike again.
And that’s all I really wanted to say: most people everywhere are nice (although if my seventeen-year old daughter reads this: don’t hitchhike. EVER)
Gimmelwald hostel in 1988 and 2015
For another tale of misadventure, this time in Scotland: Walk of Terror
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