The Story of
The White Place
By Bruce Silton
Copyright 2009 Bruce Silton
There is a glossary of foreign words and uncommon English words with their definitions at the end of this story.
The White Place
(July 7 – 8, 1992)
You can reach The White Place from anywhere. Wherever you are, the road begins. And though there are no easy ways that I have found, there is for each, at least, a way.
I know the one that is mine. It begins high on a hill in Kilchberg, where Mama lives…
Maria’s home. The lovely Swiss town of Kilchberg. The name means simply “Church Mountain”. It stands on a green and pleasant hill that looks out over the Lake of Zürich.
Kilchberg. Where Mama lives even now. Where Maria, her brother Tinu and her two sisters — Eva and Sass — were born and went to grammar school.
Where Maria learned and played the cello. Where Papa served on the school board, where he fought his winning fight for the right to build the house of his dreams on sleepy Conrad-Ferdinand Meyerstrasse — long ago.
Where sheep still mow the steep lawn across from the family home (though the rest of the town’s sheep seem to have vanished — what with condos popping up amidst their meadows).
Zürich, the ancient and the new. It lies but a few kilometers to the north at the head of the Lake, with the River Limmat flowing from the harbor through the city and thence northwest towards the Rhine and the German frontier.
The University. The park of linden trees. The Opera House. Zürich. Where we spent so many holiday mornings walking the old streets, each year admiring newly the great Reformation churches — the Fraumünster, the Grossmünster.
Shopping the shops that tease the eye, that touch the nose — that devastate the purse. Shopping the shops and filling our sacks and our car. Windproof parkas, thick wool socks and mountain maps. Sweet gifts of cookies and chocolate for my family and friends in the States. Flowers for Mama. Special foods from the health food stores that we would soon eat in the high places to the south.
July 7, 1992. I kissed Mama on the cheek and said goodbye. Alone, I started down the steep hill, heavy at heart, heavy with rucksack, suitcase and boots. The tarred paths with the familiar houses closed in on either side: berry bushes and grape vines, pear trees and roses and bees filling the air with a fragrance and summer song that are to me always and forever Kilchberg.
At the railway station in the town center I bought my round-trip ticket and boarded an ultramodern double-decker heading south.
Through the late morning and afternoon, changing trains twice, I travelled deeper and higher into the Swiss heartland. We rolled quickly, leaving behind the Lake of Zürich and the city of Chur. Snow appeared on the peaks above me. The train began its spiral snake-dance near the Albulapass, one of the three mountain routes that link Switzerland’s northern cantons to the magic valley of the south, the Valley of the Engadin.
Lunch was eaten to the last crumb. I tried to read. I tried to sleep. I was alone for the first time in eleven years and heading into a land we had so intimately shared. The names and pictures reeled by: Ftan, Sent, Guarda, Scuol, Zernez, Val S-charl, the National park, the Macunseen…each a place we owned simply by our will and effort, our love and courage as a pair of beings. We had been to the Engadin so many times, and here I was, alone, nearly drowning in memories and emotions and physical pain.
Before dark the train reached the mountain town of Samedan, where I would spend the night at the home of Maria’s niece, Konni, a fine mountaineer who would join Tinu and I for the next day’s hike.
In case it got rough.
Dinner. A shower. Night came. Sweating and freezing by turns under a down comforter, I prayed to God for decent weather. Not sun, not clear skies, no, Lord, just enough weather to reach the top and get down. The Swiss weather had been truly awful for nearly two weeks. No more rain, please, no rain!
Sleep held me, and my sides locked up as they often did. Part of me was still dead from the battle in Mexico. Face, arms, hands, legs and feet were rusting together like an old engine.
I awoke at dawn and drove my desire to live down through the limbs, thinning the body oil and forcing my hands to unwrap, my feet to uncramp. Fear…
Tijuana, mid-March, 1992. I watched her from the doorway as she lay there resting, breathing, dark-blue sweatshirt and black cotton pants, her yellow-white hair pony-tailed and alive, even in the shadows of the hospital room. The being shone with will and interest. She ignored most pain. She always had. “David, climb Piz Grevasalvas for me,” she spoke quietly and firmly. She knew what to say. “Do you remember it, near the top of Malojapass, where the Engadin Valley meets Val Bregaglia, where we stayed in that farmhouse in the village of Bondo? I remember the Steinmännli at the top of Grevasalvas, feathered in ice. Go up there again for me. Go with Tinu.”
Just before Christmas, when it had gotten real bad, she had written to me, “I had a realization on what help is. Help is giving a being life so that the being can create life on his own.” And now she was granting me life and a reason to live when she would be gone. Climb that mountain, David. Get Tinu and walk to the top.
Morning rose cold and grey from the valley floor outside my window. But dry! No rain on the ground! No new snow in the heights! And if the snow already on the slopes and ridges was not too deep we would make it.
Konni and I drove down from Samedan. Past St. Moritz. Past the turnoff to Silvaplana. Toward Malojapass. At eight we parked at a spot marked as “Plaun da Lej” (Plain of the Lake) on our map. As planned, Tinu soon drove up in his Alfa, greeting us with his usual cheery hello. A last coffee by the lake and we began the long haul to the top.
The farm-vehicle road from Plaun da Lej turned into a gravelly path that wound through a pine forest. Above the treeline, at 6,000 feet, we reached the shepherd’s village. From there the trail was marked only on the maps. Of the red-white-red blazes that might have been painted on the stones, all seemed to have been erased by the ultraviolet and grim weather.
A light rain began and stopped. Began again. And stopped.
After two hours we broke for fruit and nuts and sweets. “Konni,” I asked, “what does Grevasalvas mean?”
“I think it means ‘The White Place.’ Looking up from the floor of the valley it appears white when the sun reflects off the snow and rocks on the upper slopes.”
We finished our food and went on. Gradually, the high summer pastures gave way to great slabs of quartz-inlaid granite. “Alert! Alert! Alert!” whistled the marmots at our approach. Firm-crusted snow, first in patches, then as broad fields, buried the dips and rises. We broke through now and again to the ankles, to the knees, plunging to the waist, wriggling up and out of our body-holes onto the surface. Konni rarely went through.
Nearly noon. We started up the summit ridge. Ice on the rock but not steep. And not dangerous. Snow scattered by the action of the wind at 10,000 feet. I pushed ahead as fast as I could go, sweating, panting, caring not to be first, but truly caring to arrive, to be true to a code of honor that is older than the oldest songs of Earth.
I was on top. I looked around. The view was hidden by the dense clouds around me. Our “little-stone-man” was smaller than my memory told. Weathered down by mountain living. I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind at all!
“Maria, we made it!” I sang inside and out.
“Yes,” she replied, “we are together.”
Tinu and Konni arrived. Photos. Lunch. Hard-boiled eggs, yesterday’s bread and tomatoes. Wind and clouds for dessert and a snow bed to nap on. They talked in Swiss-German while I dreamed…
Lunch in Zürich. Thick slices of sweet and sour fruit pie — pear, plum or cherry — bought from a vendor’s wagon. Or perhaps whole grain rolls and three kinds of raw milk cheese (mild for Maria, sharp for me and soft for us) eaten on the wide lawn of the Globus Department Store.
And in the late afternoon, with the summer sun still warm, we’d join the traditional search for a perfect table at a perfect cafe near that most perfect of Zürich’s glorious boulevards, Bahnhofstrasse. Coffee and cake. GUTER Cafe und Kuchen! Holding hands and rubbing knees, laughing and embarrassed by the outrageous ticking of my new Swatch, watching the handsome crowds of well-dressed Swiss, the usually pleased tourists from every point of the compass weaving around and about our tiny table on the sidewalk.
5:30 P.M.. Time to go home. To Kilchberg. To Mama’s. Dinner on the balcony, entertained by the last sailboats racing a storm for home pier, the hot-air balloons rising and falling in the growing dusk to the east.
Mama, Maria and I walked after dinner into the darkening sky, across the grainfields, stepping briefly through a forest’s edge and around the town church before turning for home.
Mama settled in her chair by the lamp with the Zürich newspaper. My wife and I sat at the diningroom table poring over the hikers’ charts, elegant creations of the finest cartographers, exploring in our imaginations impossible mountains we had never seen.
What would we find? How high? How difficult? How many peaks of 3,000 meters? Passes? Glaciers and crevasses? Ski lifts — wounds on the summer landscape — to be avoided? And the Swiss Alpine Club, would their huts cling from some eagle’s eyrie? Or be placed with concern for mortals like us (just good hikers) to reach with safety for a long night of friendship, canned food, coarse blankets, a mattress-on-the-floor and a starlit stroll?
My worries were behind me. The spirit was light. Konni led the way. We glissaded for half an hour, back the way we had come — down, down, down the east side of The White Place, literally skiing on our boots, avoiding the rocks by a whisper of space (or so it seemed), an occasional hard tumble but exhilarated by the speed and drama of descent. Did Konni fall even once?
Cracks in the surface of the snow appeared and spread. We stood still. A tiny avalanche formed, it’s waves of crystals slid beneath our feet and with a light hissing sound the top layer of snow swept on down the slope.
Boulder-hopping began where the snowfields ended. Across a boggy pasture, rich with dung. And there a tiny pond filled with a trillion tadpoles. I dawdled and dug small chunks of white quartz from the soil, dumped them in my pack and hustled to catch up.
The trail. The path. The treeline. The village. Farmer’s road, Plaun de Lej, our cars by the lake. Done.
Tinu’s car wouldn’t start. He was utterly unconcerned. After a warm goodbye, he went off to call for road service.
Konni started her car. At the last moment, I looked in the direction of The White Place. I felt through the space around me for that perception, that sensation and knowledge of Maria that had been with me since she left her body on March 31st. She was gone.