Morning Mountain Swim

22 May

Lej da Staz at dawn, Engadin, Switzerland. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

I live out of a bag the size of a microwave.

Every night I unpack my life and every morning, I shove it all back in, half-hoping that I’m not forgetting something important—which I always do. I check my pocket for my passport and then forget the rest: the adapter in the wall socket, the balled-up sock that rolled under the bed, my toothbrush, a shirt on a hanger, an umbrella, my favorite hat. Like Hansel and Gretel, I leave my own trail of traceable crumbs on hotels and trains and in the backseats of taxis.

In the past month, I have slept in 24 different beds in 24 different hotels. Some are wonderfully fancy with uniformed bellhops and monogrammed slippers—others insist that shampoo and soap are the same substance—but each is special. At 11,000 feet, in the bunk bed of a mountain hut, I watched a full moon rising over the glowing white glacier. At the impressive Kronenhof, I enjoyed the magnificent spa, then checked out a bike and rode to the next village over to listen to alphorns play.

But of all my favorite homes in Switzerland, my favorite is the Hotel Lej da Staz, hidden away in a circle of pine forest at the bottom of a mountain in Engadin.

The hotel itself is very fine, yes—a dark-stained wooden chalet of just ten rooms, historic, with green shutters and fuzzy white edelweiss sprouting in the window boxes. The stairs and floorboards creak when you walk on them—there are no secrets in these halls. Downstairs in the restaurant, the chef turns out artful meals night after night and on every rough-hewn table stands sit glass jars filled with handpicked forest flowers. All of it is so very nice . . .

. . . but it’s the lake that I love most—the Lej da Staz in Romansh. I arrived before dinner and checked into my room, patted the red woolen blanket on the bed, then unzipped my suitcase to feel more at home. Dinner was at seven, so I walked down to the lake to take pictures and saw the swimmers.

A German family—mother and father, two children, jumping from the wooden dock into the water, laughing, shaking drops from their hair. The water smelled clean—like the mountain. I was dressed for dinner but walked to the edge, leaned over and thrust my hand into cold, wet lake.

So cold.

“About 18° to 20° Celsius,” one Italian boy shouted from the water. I watched him ride his bike up and lean his bike on the bathing sheds, then kick off his shoes and throw himself into the water, splashing backwards with his arms, happy.

As a child I used to swim endlessly, always watching the adults back on the beach or the edge of the pool, feeling sorry for them all dressed and dry and stilted.

Now I had become that adult, all business, dressed for dinner at seven and staring longingly at the lake, wanting. I waited a full minute or two, and then like a robot, walked back to the hotel, creaked my way up the stairs and changed into my swimsuit. Five minutes later I was back on the dock, knee-deep in the water, goosebumps on my calves, my toes shining gold from below.

18° to 20° Celsius is colder than your average swimming pool but warmer than the Atlantic in winter. I knew only that much. The sun was still there, warming my back, encouraging me to just get in already—and so I did.

A single splash, my body flung forward like a dog, hands up and out, bracing for that coldest moment, when head and hair dive beneath the surface.

And there I hung, submersed in the Lej da Staz, washed by the alpine cold, suddenly very free.

Then a breath of air, a few strokes and one strong kick—I pushed out to the very middle of the lake, now alone in the water, jubilant.

It was my first real swim of the summer—in the outdoors, uninhibited, refreshing, floating on my back and watching the sky change from light blue to the indigo of late summer evening. The water no longer felt cold but just right—it felt like swimming in a lake in the Swiss Alps in July.

Only when I felt cool and washed and ready did I return, touching my feet on the smooth, sun-warmed stones on the bottom of the lake, drying on the dock in the slanted sunlight.

I was more than forty minutes late for dinner and despite this being Switzerland, nobody seemed to mind.

Then in the morning I did it again. Before seven o’clock—I was the first one to creak down the stairs and walk down to the lake—like the only human on earth.

There was no traffic (private cars are not allowed at the hotel). A few birds chirped the dawn, but otherwise, I listened to the greatest silence I had known in this country. So silent I could hear the forest leaves move in the breeze. I could hear my toes dip into the water—colder than the night before—I could hear my lungs gasp when I took the plunge.

Before seven o’clock, I swam out into the middle of the lake. I watched the morning mist rise up like a hundred departing ghosts. The sunlight glimmered around the crest of the mountain, then overflowed the high ridge and turned the forest below from one dark mass into focused, individual trees.

My singular body disrupted the smoky glass of the lake into endless ripples. The ducks woke up, and with the sun, the mist disappeared completely. I swam across the lake and back, then dried off and went in for breakfast.

Inside, the other guests were waiting and watching—there are no secrets in such a small hotel.

“We saw you out swimming from our window,” they confessed. “Is it not freezing?” they wondered.

“Na—it’s perfect. 18° to 20° Celsius,” I answered while they all nodded and contemplated whether or not they would go swimming, too.

For their sake, I hope they did. It’s not “the tourists” who swim in Lej da Staz; nor is it “the locals”. Everybody swims in Lej da Staz. All day you can see folks hike or bike from nearby St. Moritz or Celerina, at lunch or after work, warm and sweaty, ready for a break. Like me, they approach the water slowly, one toe at a time, and like me, within minutes they are splashing happily in the water, feeling young and reborn.

And yet the lake seems always empty and natural, a world apart from everything else in this valley. There is no noise—only the ducks and the ripple of little lake waves hitting the reeds.

Too soon, I left Lej da Staz, my damp bathing suit stuffed into my microwave-sized suitcase that I call home. A week later, I came to the city of Lucerne and was shocked by the urbanity of it all after weeks of nothing but the pure nature of the Alps. I wandered the streets, surprised by the cars and busses and the heat of the city. I stopped by a shiny chocolate shop and stepped inside, grateful for the air-conditioning. I sampled chocolates and bought a bag to take home.

“Will it melt?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“It’s chocolate,” she said with a smile, then counseled me to keep it out of the heat.

“18° to 20° Celsius is the best temperature for keeping chocolate,” she said, then asked me why I thought this was so funny.

“No, it’s not funny—you’re absolutely right. That is the perfect temperature, isn’t it?”

We both agreed.

The best swimming pool in Switzerland, the Lej da Staz (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Morning Mountain Swim

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