Mont-Blanc in the distance
I had spent a fair amount of time in this region, as a 21 year old Ski Bum working at ski resorts in France and Switzerland. The village of Chamonix in particular, was a real blast from the past. When I woke up in the morning and saw the Mont Blanc Massif from the window of my hotel, I nearly started weeping. I had forgotten just how incredible and immense the Alps are. I had also forgotten just how good the coffee and croissants taste when they are fresh from a French bakery. I love the Alps.
After my race, I was extra motivated to return to the place that I had spent the most time: Leysin, Switzerland. After dropping out of the race, I got my broken-down-post-race self on a bus, a train and then a Cog Train to reach this place. In this beautiful Swiss village, located high on a green mountain side, I relaxed, recuperated and reminisced.
December 1990: Leysin, Switzerland
It was a Happy, High Alpine Land of Sunshine and Swiss Chalets. It was a pretty little village, perched high on a mountain slope, with a expansive view of the Mont Blanc and the Dents du Midi. It was everything you think of, when you think of Switzerland.
From the valley below, the Aigle-Leysin Cog Train climbs 1,047 metres to reach the village of Leysin. In winter, it's a vibrant ski town full of international students, visitors and ski bums. A mountain place of rolling hills, jagged peaks, historic Swiss Chalets, churches, chocolate and cows. Frequently, there would be a sea of clouds in the valley below and we would find ourselves skiing under a clear blue sky, surrounded by snow capped mountains. We were the Happy People of Leysin. When we descended from our mountain perch, to the town in the lower valley, people would know where we were from. While their complexions were pale and grey and their demeanor grim - we were happy, smiley, tanned and white toothed.
100% Pure Sunshine - It was exactly how I remembered it.
It was paradise for this 21 year old ski bum. I worked as a ski instructor, skied hard, survived on the red wine, chocolate and pasta diet. I worked hard, partied harder and slept periodically. I had so much fun, that I returned for another ski season and even for a summer visit. The Swiss treated me well, my french language skills improved ten-fold, and I even managed to save some money.
In summer, I returned to my Happy Place while traveling across the continent on a bicycle. I had been bicycling for a few months by myself and I was craving some familiar company. I climbed the impossibly narrow road and a dozen hair pin bends, in the heat of the day with a big smile on my face. My bicycle was weighed down with camping gear and panniers, but cycling had turned me lean and strong. I blazed up the mountainside, full of joy, elated to be back in Leysin.
I followed up this epic ride with one of the biggest drunks of my young life. On the same day as my arrival, I went for beers with a friend. On the patio of the Club Vagabond, elated to be back in Leysin, I sat in the sunshine from 2:00 in the afternoon to 2:00 in the morning. I had a moment of clarity at 2:00 in the morning, when I got back on my already laden bicycle and doubled my friend down the mountain. He perched himself side-saddle on my back bike rack and we rolled off down the mountain road. I somehow managed to navigate the 3 hair pin bends from the top of the village to the bottom of the village, without hurting myself. I can still remember it, how my balance and vision came together for a perfect moment and we flew down the road, pure joy, giggling hysterically, perfectly balanced and aligned for a moment in time.
I had come back to Leysin to enjoy a break from my cycling vacation, but specifically to enjoy 3 blissful summer days of camping and Rock and Roll at the Leysin Rock Fest. The Rock Fest was a big deal - it was 3 days and 2 nights long, it drew some big name acts and it was a non-stop Party. I pitched my tent quite accidentally, next to 2 Canadian boys who were also traveling on bicycle. They were cute. I immediately challenged my new neighbors to a little friendly competition: Betcha' can't stay awake all festival!
The festival was a comical exercise in drunkenness, sleep deprivation, dancing, music and the joys of youth and freedom. I didn't kiss anyone, but I certainly would have liked to. After a day and a half at the Festival, one of the boys succumbed to the disease of too much fun, too much sunshine and too much booze. After the 2nd sleepless night, we were down to 2 people standing. In the early hours of a brand new day, a new challenge was issued: Betcha' can't climb that mountain!
We got on our bikes, strapped a loaf of bread on the back rack and a bottle of red wine in the water bottle holder and proceeded to cycle, hike and push our bicycles to the top of a pass. For the final assault up the green slope of the Tour D'Aie we pushed ourselves skyward, sobering and smiling, until we reached our destination on top of the world. There, we collapsed to the ground and uncorked our bottle of red wine - for breakfast. High above the clouds, perched upon the mountainside and overlooking the jagged peaks of the Alps, we took it all in. The Lac Leman sparkled blue in the valley below, as we sipped our wine, ate our bread and enjoyed a clear-headed moment in our own mountain paradise.
It was my winter months in Leysin that were the most memorable. The ski bum lifestyle was good and 100% Pure Fun. Without a doubt, I had the time of my life in Leysin and surprisingly, it taught me a lot about how I wanted to live my life. There's no doubt I left a few brain cells in Switzerland, but I think I learned a lot from my time spent there.
I matured, but I didn't realize until later. I learned to speak French, I learned to ski well, I learned how to be independent and self sufficient. I learned how to drink, I learned how to be flexible and I learned how to think on my feet. Most of all, I learned how to enjoy just living in the moment. It's a simple idea that I have carried with me into adulthood.
I remember screaming out loud when I para-glided for the first time. I ran off the mountain kamikaze style, because I was terrified. I was still "running" through the air, when my friend told me I didn't need to run any more. We weren't on the ground and I was flying!
I drank lots of cheap red wine, I ate chocolate for breakfast, bread and cheese for lunch and pasta with for dinner, with more cheap red wine. I invented the chocolate sandwich: a chocolate croissant, with Nutella stuffed with squares of Swiss chocolate. I got fat.
Occasionally, when we were staggering home in the early hours of the morning, we would stop by the garbage bin out back of the bakery to look for Day-Olds. We'd find bags of Pain de Chocolate and croissants and take them home for future meals. Eventually, the baker stopped putting them in the garbage and just start leaving them out for us. You're making too much noise! He would shout at us en Francaise. Come in and have a coffee to go with your stale Croissant! And please, be quiet.
Sometimes, a place really can change your life. I fell in love with the Mountains in Leysin. I discovered the pleasures of a life spent living outside. I realized that there are good people in mountain towns, making a life and a place for themselves in the outdoor world. I discovered that this was something that I wanted for myself and that all of these things are what makes living in the mountains, a unique, wonderful lifestyle.
Thanks, Leysin! Through the haze of youth and some amazingly good times, I took home some incredible life lessons. I also learned that life is better when it's lived joyfully, spontaneously and with glee. Sometimes, we all need a reminder of this - and my trip back to Leysin was exactly that.