Almost Over… 


Four days of fog, heavy wind, cold rain and what happens to people on what was to have been their dream vacation of riding horses, hiking, driving through splendid vistas?

Add to this the lack of a proper bed, aching, brutalized joints and a ridiculous load of laundry and you have, “I wonder what the suicide rate is in Iceland.”

the lounge section of a sofa made long enough by the addition of sofa pillows and an arm chair — all the real beds were up stairs from hell that could only climg on all fours.

stairs from hell

Lois hit the wall yesterday; I hit it the day before when I couldn’t ride horses and had to go “home” in the sodden grey day. I had resources, but I still felt lousy because my body isn’t able to do everything I wish it could any more.

And it can’t be over soon enough.

Today the sky lifted some and as we drove from Hellnar to Rekjavik blue skies emerged, the wind died down some and it was altogether more pleasant. We went to Thingvellier — the site of Iceland’s government from Viking days. I learned of it from reading Njal’s Saga and it has fascinated me for more than fifteen years. It is in the geographical center of Iceland — which the Vikings knew — and it is, coincidentally an enormous rift along a fault line where the North American and European continents are pulling away from each other.


The Thingveller photo by Lois Maxwell

Travel is a great teacher, both of new lessons and reminders of those we have forgotten.



In Switzerland, when someone asked where we were going next, and answered, “Iceland,” the response, universally, was;


Now, in Iceland, all I can do is laugh at that.

We arrived at the airport in Rekjavik where we were to pick up a car we were renting from the same person whose vacation home we’re now staying in. The car is an older Grand Vitara with the clutch from hell. The vacation home — which is nice enough, and located on the dramatic and wild Snaefellsjokull Peninsula, has no bed down stairs, and horrific stairs to the top floor, so I am sleeping on a make-shift bed assembled from the lounge part of a sofa, sofa pillows and a chair… The weather is abysmal and makes sense of every bleak Icelandic film I have ever seen. The wifi doesn’t work except on my friend’s lap top which I am enjoying the use of now.

The landscape is beyond beautiful, exceedingly dramatic, and I like it very much. Icelandic horses are all around, including on the menu. This makes sense to me as there are at least as many horses per square mile here as there are cattle in the San Luis Valley — but I would find it difficult to knowingly eat horsemeat. The small Icelandic sheep wander everywhere. It’s lambing season and the tiny ones follow their mothers into the road.

Lois went to ride Icelandic horses yesterday. I went, too, but when I saw what I would have to do to get up on one (which isn’t far, mind you, these are small horses) I knew it wasn’t going to happen for me so I returned to our “haven” to watch the rain and further plan the feature film I’ve begun which will be called “Icelandic Clothesline.”

This trip has made me very, very aware of my physical limitations and the top of my list right now is finding out about joint surgery as soon as possible after I turn 65.

I love Icelandic sagas, and we went to Bogarnes to the Settlement Museum and saw museums of both the settlement of Iceland and Egil’s Saga (which I love). The museum was really a work of art, original and evocative and brave.

In the photo above — taken at the Settlement Center — Skallagrim, Egil’s father, is telling Egil (the little boy) that he cannot go to a party because he’s too difficult to deal with even when he’s sober and impossible when he’s drunk. Egil is three…

Not having internet and not being able to get around easily and comfortably, and having recently walked and stayed in the “ancestral valley” in Switzerland has renewed my interest in the novel I started writing last year and it might just happen that the Schneebelis make it to America after all.


Big Disappointments


Yesterday was cold and rainy, but I was excited that I was going to meet Mrs. Anglo-Swiss at the main train station in Zurich. We got there in good time, asked where the train from Mrs. Swiss’ city arrived, and waited. She never got off. Meanwhile. Mrs. Swiss arrived at completely the other side of this immense station and waited for us, finally going to the main entrance.  We all waited for an hour or more before giving up. Since I didn’t get a Swiss SIM card my phone doesn’t work as it usually does, but even so I would not have been able to receive messages from Facebook without wifi.

We went to a Starbucks where I logged on and learned the whole sad story. This has made me think aboutour dependence on these machines. 20 years ago we would have been a lot less casual about setting a meeting point but we assumed we’d connect and/or be able to message each other.

The next misadventure was at the little church that inspired Martin of Gfenn — it was locked and there was no caretaker to help us out. We did manage to meet Sonja and that redeemed the day. We went together to the pretty medieval town of Greifensee.

Today we leave for Iceland though, honestly, I’m done with this and would really like to go home.

Expedition to the Eiger


Our intrepid travelers started out by car. The fearful leader had spent hours planning the route, but at the town of Lungern, it fell apart. They retreated to Giswil and got on the train, slowing the progress of the adventure, but improving the probability of arriving…ever. Our fearful leader made more sentences in German and discovered they led to conversations in which she couldn’t participate. However, her decent grasp of passive skills — reading and listening — kept them from missing trains.

Later they laughed. “What if I said this morning, ‘Let’s go park our car in a random mountain village and then take a bunch of trains’?” 

I like to read climbing books and one of my favorite is Heinrich Harrar’s The White Spider which tells much abour Harrar’s climbing career but focused on his ascent of the Eiger Nordwand — the north face. A Swiss idiom for crazy is “He has a kiosk on the Nordwand” for good reason. And the name the of the mountain means “Ogre.”

The face is formidable looking and as a climb it’s pure pain. The rock is friable and the mountain makes its own weather. One story is that the ogre was pursuing the young virgin and the monk stepped in to protect her — in this range of three high peaks, the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau.

Our destination was the Jungfraujoch — the “Top of Europe” which is reached by at least two trains, one of which goes through the Eiger. This train has a big role in Clint Eastwood’s film, The Eiger Sanction. When I was there some 20 years ago, the train had simple wooden seats. There were two windows through the rock on the route where passengers could look out. The top, in 1997, had. a nice cafeteria, gift shop and outside viewing platform. Now the trains have plush seats, the windows in the rock have been expanded into areas with restrooms and first aid stations, and the top has a tour with elements of Disneyland. I was minorly appalled by this until I saw a sculpture of the man who had envisioned this railway and tunnel, Adolf Guyer-Zeller. In the sculpture he is integrated into a sculpture of the North Face, with one arm reaching out of the mountain; he is the “ogre”. The floor beneath him shakes and the room rumbles as if explosives are going off, red lights flash and fade. In many ways it is a moving work of art.

Now there is also the opportunity for people to walk around outside on a groomed trail in the snow, an opportunity that seemed mostly to attract Japanese and Korean tourists and their cameras. Our less-than-intrepid travelers were persuaded out (physically assisted!) by some happily enthusiastic Japanese men, but didn’t go far…

I don’t have words to describe the landscape so I won’t try. Surrounding the commercialism, the Tissot watches, the “Chocolate Wonderland,” the crowds of people from all over the world with their bags, cameras, and sleeping children, the innumerable honeymoon couples, is what Robert Service called “The Great White Silence … eternal truths that shame our soothing lies.”

Aletsch glacier

 Alp Horns


My first visit to Zurich was in 1994 and I did not like the city at all. 21 years later, after many subsequent visits, the city feels like an old friend, even its darker history feels like a poorly resolved and largely forgotten fight between siblings. Just a few years ago, Zurich apologized to the Anabaptists (Mennonites) and even put a plaques beside the Limmar where Felix Manz was executed by “baptism” (drowning) back in the 16th century.

Yesterday we had fewer problems navigating. I drove us over the Uetliberg into the city, parked our car and led Lois through Zurich’s ancient and labyrinthine streets. We spent some time in the Grossmunster, and Lois climbed up the tower. It was a lovely day, a Zurich postcard. There were people everywhere enjoying the sunshine, relaxing at outdoor cafes, kids playing.  

At 5:30 we we to meet a friend of mine, Rainer, and his girlfriend, Kirsten, for dinner. They are both historians, one working in the state archives and the other in the city archives. 

I first met Rainer in 2004 when I was writing Martin of Gfenn. I needed help with the historical accuracy of the story and I found him in a Google search — he had published a paper about Gfenn! When we met that first time, he brought along a map of medieval Zurich. Last night when we met he brought me two more maps — on that is of Canton Zurich (including the tiny village of Obfelden where I’m staying now) and the other showing the Zurich war. They are wonderful!!

Dinner was good, conversation even better, and then, more or less out of nowhere, or so it seemed, four men were standing in the middle of the street playing Alp horns. “For you,” Kirsten said to Lois. I had the same thought. 

I also made more attempts at speaking German and did well enough that Rainer said he didn’t even notice. 

Because the drive home involved a winding mountain road and more navigating, we had to leave while there was still daylight, so we all walked back to our parking structure, stopping on the way outside Cabaret Voltaire for a photo evoking photos we took eleven years ago.

I think most of the time people share elements of their individual experiences. But Rainer and I, eleven years ago actually shared an experience. Meeting last evening we picked up our conversation, returning to those moments while telling our stories of our lives through the intervening decade, here at the “Navel of the World.”

Life’s Labyrinthine Chaos Course


“To travel is to be born and die at every instant.” Victor Hugo

Long ago when I arrived in China with my second husband, and the school where we were teaching did not send anyone to meet our plane, Jim laid down on a bench in the airport and surrendered. His year in China was vastly different from mine, but he remembers it now as the great adventure of his life.

I didn’t surrender. I found a taxi driver willing to take us and our two large trunks to the Bai Yun Hotel. I was exhilarated. The school came and got us the next day.

The frustrations and alienation involved in traveling affect everyone differently, I guess. When my friend came to visit us in China, she was basically freaked out by how different it was, by the suspension of customary values. She was primed to see the evils of communism everywhere and none of its virtues. The dirt, inconvenience, not being able to be a master in communication or even read a street sign drove her to a kind of wall. She blamed me for the ubiquitous cockroaches. She was angry at me for (by then) finding everything normal and accused me of “going along with their horrible system.” Our friendship nearly ended in constant confrontation caused by culture shock.

She felt out of control, alienated from herself, unable to find psychological comfort or ease. She (and my husband also) took hundreds of photographs. Each image tied them to home and normalcy. For both of them it was a way to experience the experience later, when the hard part of living, being, in a different world was over and they had survived it. I’m glad they took all those pictures because now for me, they are memories. That world vanished quickly in China’s rapid development

A few years later she returned to China and having had that first experience was able to enjoy China for what it was.

I’ve been in Switzerland many times and other than the language thing, I feel very at home here. Driving is difficult because the distances between places are so short it is confusing for me, and this is the first time I’ve tried it. BUT I remember my first trip to Europe. I did not like Switzerland one bit. Zurich (where my friends lived) seemed ugly and claustrophobic. It frightened me. I had jet lag — something experience has taught me how to avoid. I never knew where we were or where we were going. Everything seemed random and chaotic and I often felt trapped.

The good experiences in that first trip were the moments when I could slow down the “roller coaster.”

That first trip included a sojourn to Venice. In Venice I rediscovered the posture of the wanderer and the beauty in being born and dying “every instant” that took me to China and stood me in good stead, the willingness to be lost.




One of the mysteries of my life will always be how did I find this little house where I am now staying without a map and without knowing anything about the town of Obfelden. I don’t mean how did I hear about it (Google search) but how I physically located it when we first arrived. Essentially, I drove right to it.

I wonder that especially because yesterday we were lost almost all the time.

One immense difference between Switzerland and, well, the San Luis Valley or anywhere in the American west is scale, so driving between towns is accomplished in the blink of an eye. My navigator has never been here is here before and, unlike a lot of other women, has never had that role in the family car: she has to do all the driving in her family. And then there is my particular psychological glitch which is I often think I’m lost when I’m not.

We managed to reach one destination yesterday that was very important to me and which Lois loved — Kapel am Albis. The chapel itself is part of a medieval monastery. Somewhere in the environs (and we did not look for it) is the location of a war in which one of the Schneebeli  brothers — and a real great x 17 generations uncle of mine was killed in 1532.

Kappel am Albis

Otherwise we saw the countryside and probably oriented ourselves — I hope because we will venture out again soon.

In the evening we took a local Wanderweg through fields and sunset , along a stream and back into Obfelden where, again, we got lost. Finally we went onto a restaurant and asked for help. We got it, directions and the owner printed it a map for us. After 3 hours on foot, your weary and aching blogging hero and her friend managed to return home.

Today more adventures await. We’ll be heading to the other side of the Lake of Zurich to see moreover the sites of the strange medieval Switzerland I know. When Lois gets back to Colorado she’ll have to explain why she saw Bubikon and not the Matterhorn. 

Deer in the Headlights


Ich Liebe Schweiz but it might not be always mutual. Why? I look like a Swiss grandma but I can’t understand Swiss German. So when a young woman at the grocery store said, €%~€|#%\#}\%#|€%#.£^%!” To me yesterday because I had improperly brought apples to the cash register (no tag for weight) I could only stare at her. Sigh.

Ich bin nicht ein Dumbkopf….

I did a bit better at the airport when the clerk selling overpriced salads told me to order from his colleague because his shift was over. He didn’t speak Swiss German, but so-called high German.

I have actually studied German for three years with Rosetta Stone and yesterday — my first back in Switzerland in 11 years — proved its value at least in the development of the passive language skills, reading comprehension and listening. The problem is I have never tried speaking German. 

We are staying  in a converted 18th century barn owned by expat-Australians. It’s absolutely stunning — as are the owners. It is in the village of Obfelden in Canton Zurich a few minutes by foot from the village in which my ancestors lived. The house reminds me very much of my little stone house in Descanso. The living room floor tiles came from an old church! The floor is heated. 

Living Room Floor

From our window we can see the total romance of the Swiss countryside — and the Rigi, a mountain loved and painted and described in poetry during the Romantic period.  Eight or ten sheep graze in a small field below us, the cheery sound of their bells says “Switzerland.”

For dinner I had Appenzeller cheese and truly good bread and one of the apples of shame. 😬 Breakfast? Yoghurt from Swiss milk and strawberries… And coffee but no Dusty to share it with. 

Today we will be taking it easy. Lois has gone back to bed. I will go out soon to see where the Wanderweg sign outside the front door points and leads. At least my tiny Swiss German vocabulary in the Zurich dialect is Gruezi! = Hello.

Outside the Front Door


Best Buddies

Me and Cody and my tree

“I want to say goodbye to my buddy,” said Uncle Hank. “Is he already in the car?”

“Yeah.” My wonderful beloved uncle, age 91, followed me out to the garage where Cody O’Dog lay in his accustomed spot on the back seat, ready for the long ride home from Montana to California.

“Good-bye good buddy. It was good meeting you. You take good care of Martha Ann.” Uncle Hank put his arms around my big dog’s neck. The two had formed a solid bond in the five days of our visit.

when they’d said their good-byes and the back door was closed, my uncle opened the garage door and I drove out. Uncle Hank closed the door and as I pulled out of the driveway, I looked back to see my old uncle standing in front of the garage door, saluting us as we drove away.

And that was the last time I will ever see my Uncle Hank.


Lamont and Dude Discuss Diet


“What’s that, Dude? Looks like a T-bone.”

“I’m going paleo. It’s a paleo breakfast. I want to eat healthy, you know? No more burritos.”

“Dude, do you recall your life as paleo man?”

“Uh, I missed out on human iterations in those days. It was all sabre toothed tiger and mastodon.”

“No it wasn’t. You were born into a nice family but you only lived a few days before a dire wolf got you while your father and I were hunting and gathering. I just put you down for a minute.”

“Lamont, are you crying?”

“Anyway, Dude, I’m amazed that someone with as long a litany of lives as you has not realized an essential truth about life. Besides that,

“What’s that, Lamont?”

“We DIE.”

“Duh. I’m not trying to prevent my inevitable death. I’m just trying to live healthier now so I have fewer problems down the road, you know?”

“Again, Dude, you know, I watched a very interesting film about Swedes.”

“That doesn’t make sense, Lamont. You just used ‘interesting’ and ‘Swede’ in the same sentence.”

“And yet you were a Viking.”

“So what about this film, Lamont? What was interesting? Expiring minds want to know.”

“Sweden was an agricultural country, kind of harsh for a land so far north with winters that could be harsh and early and late. There were many years when there was famine and the people had to somehow get through those years. Many people died.”

“Whoa, that’s like so NOT surprising. Lamont, where is this story going?”

“OK, so some genetic scientists discovered that the grandchildren of those who suffered through a famine year are had a higher risk of diabetes, obesity and schizophrenia.”

“I still don’t get your point.”

“The point is, if you want to be healthy, it’s not about what you eat. It’s about your grandparents. Feast and famine leave little ‘notes’ on the DNA as does smoking and a few other things, booby traps, don’t you know?”

“Wow. So there’s no point in this?”

“Well, sure, if you like it.”

“Do we have an A-1 sauce?”