It’s that time of year again. We’re beating the same familiar paths back to the biology building; we’re moving into new apartments or dorms and realizing we remembered to bring the decorative pillows but forgot the kitchen knives set; we’re running into friends and how’s your summer been? and mine was fine and are you glad to be back? and yes, definitely but if we’re being honest, not sure I’m ready to “school” again.
Sometimes it can be hard to get back to classes after a summer of adventuring and exploring, especially when you realize you’ll be confined to a concrete jungle for the next four-ish months. However, there is hope! This past summer I went on a brief but memorable two-week trip to the Alps in Switzerland and Italy to study Geology. While the trip is over, I am glad that I went, because it opened my eyes to an important concept: school and spending time outside are NOT mutually exclusive. I had some great experiences on this trip, both academic and otherwise. Learning about the formation of glaciers is always interesting, but it is really helpful to have a lifesize model in front of you, and be able to munch on your anything-and-nutella hiking snack while you listen to your professor.
The entire trip was a blast. We did a lot in two weeks, from hiking up 1000 meters in five miles (and then allll the way back down), to eating three very rich Italian courses and then being served dessert (not to mention Italian wine), to spontaneously jumping into Lake Como on a brief car ride stop (then running back out when the sky flashed lightning ten minutes later), etc. The whole trip got us out into what they dub “the field,” our beautiful planet Earth. While we can’t always expect to be able to listen to lectures on mantle rocks and then actually go see exposed mantle rock, we can add a little of the outdoors into our course loads: consider taking a biology class this semester (or next, if it’s too late) that takes you on field trips; look into studying abroad in a great outdoors-oriented location; even start looking for a class or research opportunity abroad for your next big break – doing stuff like this can count towards academics, including that “Major in Mountains” (what we really want).
So now, I leave the rest to you. Don’t let your school experience keep you inside. Try a class that helps you explore. Studying abroad (even on a brief trip) in the mountains enabled me to see the beauty and importance of geology in a way that a classroom never could have. And all the extra tidbits, like exploring castles at night in Bellinzona, befriending shepherds while on a hike in the Valmalenco, eating a ton of pasta in Italy and trying Götterspeise in Switzerland, ordering cheese from a street market vendor in Chiavenna, etc. gave me a taste of the culture of the mountain people. Now, take a deep breath, start planning your next trip, and get ready for another great semester.
Until then, use some of these fun trip anecdotes to help tide you over as we plunge into the grind…
One of my favorite hikes was our first big one, on a path called the Cardinello, along the Splüggen Pass – the shortest pass through the Alps, excluding train routes that cut through the mountains.
I could hear the words of my professor in my mind as we walked in silence, through the soft patter of steady rain: “This used to be the pass the Romans took,” he said. “They went this way because it was the shortest and most direct route through the mountains. But it took time to create. Many lives were lost in the process.” Glancing down at the precipice ending in a charging river beneath us, I could understand why. Slowly and laboriously we made our way up the mountainside, and came to pause outside of a shepherd’s hut. We all piled under the small awning, enjoying a brief respite from the rain. As I surveyed the wet landscape, one girl broke the silence – “Does anyone else feel like their hands are stinging and tingling?” Some of us nodded earnestly. “That’s stinging nettles,” our professor responded nonchalantly, “Nothing to worry about,” he added, marching off into the rainstorm, the sound of thunder resounding overhead and a bolt of lightning outlining his back as he laughed maniacally (ok the last part may be an exaggeration). After about fifteen minutes of wandering the hillside, searching for our trail marker (a red-and-white striped flag), we paused in a clump of trees, waiting as our professor went ahead to check for it. As I stood there in my rain jacket, I looked out to the view behind and couldn’t help but be awestruck by the beauty.
I have to admit, even then, at my coldest and wettest point, I loved the hike. The rain/mist/adventure of it all thrilled me. “We’ll have to go higher,” our professor called back to us, “There’s no tree cover to help us cross this,” he added, gesturing towards a wet slope ending in a steep drop to the river below. We didn’t need telling twice. Following as he climbed up steep, slick rocks to gain higher ground, I could feel my legs start to ache from repeatedly hoisting my body up, but I pushed on, carefully picking my way up the slippery rocks. Soon after, when energy was waning and things were starting to look bleak, the girl in front exclaimed, “Look!” pointing excitedly at an extremely faded red line with the vestiges of white paint underneath. We all cheered as we stepped onto the trail, new energy fueling us. Wow, I thought to myself, breathing heavily as we climbed the last back-breaking incline up to the top, I wonder if he lost the trail on purpose, to make the “struggles of the Romans” more relatable Fortunately, after this, we drove to Chiavenna, Italy, to recuperate and dry off. We got to spend the evening relaxing, browsing around the town, and test-tasting their gelato-making skills (they passed the test). We also got to examine the stonework and architecture, sketching and cataloging doors dating back to the 1500s-1700s (and a little, elderly Italian man smiled at me, asking “architetto?” when he saw me sketching doors in my notebook).
Another one of my favorite adventures was the night we rode a cable car up to see the sunset in Pontresina, Switzerland. When we emerged above the treeline, a gorgeous panoramic view met our eyes. Mountains surrounded a low valley, with house lights sticking out like small pinpricks in the fading sky. The colors, though, were the true masterpiece. There was soft a burgeoning red, salmony-pink, deep violet, etc. all mixed in the sky, wisps of clouds interspersed. We watched the sky slowly turn to black, leaving the houses below like a miniature Christmas town. Standing there, with my classmates and newfound friends, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was, that I got to study this beautiful land and explore it, simultaneously.
I’ll bore you with one last anecdote … My favorite hike a day hike up to Piz Chamanna Segantini. When we started out, I wasn’t sure how the it would go, due to the fact that our teacher had mentioned to a classmate that this hike “even made him tired,” which is saying something, since my Swiss professor was something like an ibex on the trails (if you don’t know what that is – basically a super mountain goat). My pack was pretty heavy, stuffed with extra layers (just in case the weather changed at high altitudes), but as we steadily climbed, the rising sun over our heads, I knew I wouldn’t need them for a while. I was a tad nervous because it was also my day to give a presentation, and I spent part of the hike attempting to simultaneously dodge rocks and review the paper I had written a while previously. Fortunately, my nerves seemed to melt away once we reached the presentation spot, which provided a gorgeous distraction.
After an hour and a half more of arduous climbing, we made it to the “piz,” and got to enjoy a breathtaking view from a mountain-top cafe. And, what’s even better, our teacher generously bought each of us a drink of our choice. I chose the only viable option: a steaming cup of hot cocoa. We hiked back a ways along the Ibex Trail, and actually spotted one, scampering along the mountain ridge! We ended the hike at a ski lift, where we each (in pairs) caught a ride down, feet dangling over the mountainside. The perfect end to a tiring day in the classroom.