Thursday, October 2, 2014

from NYC to herding sheep in Switzerland

I hurriedly made my way to the hotel meeting point in my high top rental hiking boots from the 80's to make the sheep hike. I was aware that I looked much like a homeless bag lady about to hike with my mismatched outfit comprised of borrowed oversized sweatshirt from the hotel, my flimsy raincoat, the sporty high top hikers, running capris and my exposed calves sandwiched between them. But I was beyond excited at the prospect of seeing many, many sheep. 

I entered the lobby of the Hotel Julien and checked in at desk in a hurry. Although the hike came with an optional lunch afterwards at one of the restaurants owned by the hotel, I opted for just the 10 Franc hike since funds were tight. I also had to purchase a lift ticket up to the top where the hike would start. After taking care of this I turned around to survey the fellow hikers, waiting in the lobby, presumably for me, and the sheep herder himself. They were all appropriately dressed for the cold and rain. They regarded me with curiosity. I looked ridiculous, yes, but I was going to herd those damn sheep nonetheless. 

The door swung open and in walked a large man, and by large I mean very tall. In an even larger rain slicker. The sheep herder, I presumed. 

I presumed correctly, and after he was finished addressing my fellow hikers in German, he took one look at me and said, "Don't you want to put on some real clothes?"

Touche, sheep man. I laughed, and informed him that yes, I would love to put on something warmer, but poor old me had only these things and it was going to have to do. He warned me that I would be cold, but I told him confidently that I could deal with it. Although now I wasn't so sure.

"Well then, are we ready?" Sheep man said to me and then in German to the rest of the crew.

We went outside with the sky spitting down on us, and sheep man informed us that he would be speaking in German, and then translate to English for me, since apparently I was the only English speaker in the group. I was about to herd sheep with a small group of Germans. Let's do it. We were still standing there though.

"We just have to wait for my son, he'll be along in a minute." Sheep man said.

I secretly hoped sheep man's son would be tall, good looking, and around my age. Although in this get up, he'd probably go running for the hills. No pun intended.

"There he is! This is my son, Ryan" Sheep man announced. Well. He was much shorter than I had hoped, by about 4 feet. But he was super cute. And four years old. Oh well.

We walked along the wet streets, the Germans and I. It was cold and windy, but I knew that this would be nothing compared to what it was going to be like at the top of the mountain. Yikes.



We reached the lift, and all squeezed into one car. It was cozy. Two days in a row on this lift. Good thing I wasn't afraid of heights.

What I didn't realize is that we were going far above where I had gotten on the lift in Furi with the Holland couple the day before. Far, far, FAR above. We passed Furi, and just kept going and going and going up. Sheep man told us facts about Zermatt, and the sheep we were going to visit. The wind blew, and howled. The lift car swung back and forth. I swallowed loudly. 

Sheep man received a call on his phone (how he had reception up there is beyond me). After hanging up he casually informed us that we were the last group to go up to the top on the lift. I stupidly asked, "why?"

"Because of the wind," Sheep man replied. Then we stopped. We were just a lift car full of Germans and me, dangling from a wire in the Swiss Alps, with the wind to play with us how it wanted. The fear was written all over my face and the nice German couple across the way tried to assure me it would be ok. The older man next to them pulled out a snack. Sheep man said it was normal and we'd be along our way shortly. We swung back and forth and the rained pounded against the windows. 

We sat there for about fifteen minutes or so and then moved about three inches. Ten more minutes later we moved forward again, for a few minutes. I could see the top. "You could jump from here!" Sheep man laughed. I managed a weak smile. Finally we made it to the top and I just about threw myself out of the lift. We made it to the start of our hike to the sheep, Schwarzsee.



A ginormous gust of wind whipped at us. The rain pelted through my raincoat. I put both my hoods up and silently thanked my hotel for the giant sweatshirt. Sheep man and his son led the way. 



Despite the weather, and limited visibility at times from the clouds that we were literally walking through, it was breathtakingly beautiful.


Zermatt down below..WAY down below



The wind was relentless. There was no mistake about it..my homeless bag lady get up was not cutting it. I don't suppose there's a North Face store up here anywhere so I could score something warmer I thought to myself in the the middle of the Swiss mountains. I was FREEZING. Sheep man looked back at me, asking, "are you too cold?" I looked at his four year old son, Ryan who was shielding himself with an umbrella, but still plugging along. 


mini sheep herder
Hell, if he could do it, so could I. "Nope! I'm fine!" And we kept on. I was going to herd these GD sheep if it was the last thing I did.

Trail to the sheep
I stumbled along the trail, my legs like jello from the previous day's hike, in search of the sheep and their likely very warm wool. My nose ran from the cold. I was all around very attractive at the moment. Then the clouds started to rise and move around us. It was surreal. The rain was slowing to a drizzle and the wind had eased. The sheep gods were on our side.







This made the hike a little more enjoyable, giving my eyes a break from tearing up in response to the cold wind. 



Fuzzy alpine flower

I chatted with Sheep man and his adorable sheep herding son as we made our way to the sheep themselves. Ryan knew a bit of English and he was a charmer. I told him I was very excited to see the sheep. He smiled and probably thought I was nuts.


There's the homeless bag lady hiking in the high top hiking boots I told you about...

After about an hour or so, I could hear bells. Sheep man pointed up yonder and I knew that we were about to be amongst the sheep. And then we were..



Sheep man inhaled deeply with a satisfied grin. "Do you smell that?" he asked me. If he meant the sheep shit that filled my nostrils, then yes, yes I did. 

I nodded, and he replied "It's the best smell!"
We both loved sheep..but I had to draw the line there. Sheep poo would most likely never be my scent of choice.

Sheep man then wrangled one of the little devils to show us the cool characteristics of these black nosed sheep.






Then, I took loads of pictures...(and named each and every sheep, naturally)...









Sheep close up!

Sheep in the mist

There was even a black sheep of the family!



Before the herding began, Sheep man explained that once a week it was important to give the sheep their treat of dried, salted bread and lead them out to pasture. This would be how we kept them on track on the way out too. I tried my hand at giving one of the sheep a little taste before we started herding.



And then we were off!



I felt like one of the herd, following along in the middle of the pack, hopping over streams with the sheep, and navigating the terrain. The sheep were surprisingly quite nimble. I, with my jello legs, was not. Then I realized I was supposed to be helping direct these guys. Sheep man and one of the Germans were calling out something to them that sounded like a cross between an auctioneer and a yodel call.
So I tried my own version:
"Come on buddy, this way" I directed, and they listened! I was rounding these bitches up! 




And then this happened:



AND I COULD NOT STOP LAUGHING.

Eventually, I pulled myself together and kept on.


Hold onto your hooves..we're going downhill!



We arrived at the pasture location apparently, and the clouds were engulfing us. I peered through the mist at all the sheep. It was unbelievable! Just as I wondered if they'd accept me as one of their own, or if I could at least snuggle into their warm wool, Sheep man said to me, "From New York City to herding sheep in the mountains of Switzerland!" That just about summed it up! It was amazing and unbelievable and undoubtedly one of the coolest things I have ever done. 

We milled around, socializing with the sheep as they chewed their grass and hopped around on rocks. I took an obligatory sheep selfie, obviously.


One thing I was sure of..I was super glad I had opted to rent these hiking boots, if anything just for the fact of the sheer amount of sheep poop I was stepping on.






I had the chance to feed some of the sheep the remaining tidbits. I could feel their hot breath on my hands as they crunched loudly on their snack!




One of them attempted to inspect my backpack, and I decided that might be a good time to introduce Heinrich (whom I had nestled in my bag) to his family, for the book I was making for my niece, of course. 

The Germans were definitely going to think I was crazy when I pulled Heinrich out and started snapping photos of him with the sheep. I explained my project to Sheep man and kindly asked that he translate to them what I was doing. He did, and they all smiled and nodded, exclaiming in German that it was such a cute idea. At least I think that's what they were exclaiming.

Heinrich, meet your sheep family..



They were none too impressed

Even Ryan joined in the fun, as he was curious about Heinrich. I convinced him to take a picture with us..



Then Sheep man set up a little picnic of sorts for us, and whipped out a huge chunk of meat on a bone. He announced that we'd be having a little snack of cheese and this meat he held up in the air. How lovely..except then he announced that the meat was from a very prominent aged sheep and would be delicious. I couldn't cover the sheeps' ears fast enough! I looked around in disbelief. How could we eat the sheep meat in front of THE SHEEP. 

It was probably one of their great uncles
So I took the wine they cracked open, cheers-ed to the sheep, and tasted the cheese. It was good cheese. But the meat..I just couldn't do it. Not with them all...standing there. 

We took a group shot..me and the Germans on our herding expedition (and Ryan, whose cheeks were full of the sheep meat).



Then it was time to head back. We left the sheep to their grazing, and I bid a sad farewell to my new wooly buddies. I really loved them. But, I was wiped. Between the hiking the day before, the drinking the night before, and the hiking in the cold rain that day, I needed some rest. Luckily there was a jeep waiting for us to take us to the departure spot and restaurant for the lunch portion. I had opted out of lunch, but Sheep man offered me a hot tea, and I explored the surroundings, making another a new friend.



 Sheep man said I could either hike back down to Zermatt for a couple of hours, or take the lift. I was clearly going to take the lift. I thanked him and realized I hadn't yet paid for the actual hike, just the lift ticket. I told him this, pulling out the 10 Franc, and he waved me off.."don't worry about it, glad you could make it!" So nice.

"Thank you!" I yelled as I waved goodbye. I would surely miss Sheep man and his mini sheep herder.

I was so glad that I had decided to do the sheep hike. It was the perfect way to spend my last day in Zermatt. Now I felt ready for about a 3603498503845 hour nap.





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