My mountain of courage

By

My husband races thoroughbreds. My siblings - all four of them - run marathons. Though I once ran from a herd of curious cows, my usual is a two-mile stroll most mornings. Sometimes I feel a need to excel at something besides planting ferns.

So early one day I set off alone to traipse up and down Switzerland's Mt. Rigi, I, who blanch when I climb a ladder and it gives a wiggly wobble.

It was the picture-perfect adventure.

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A train ride along the shores of Lake Lucerne to a town tucked behind the mountain. A cable car lift part way up the slopes. A brisk trek to the peak and a 10-minute rest as I surveyed the Alps stretched out to kingdom come, innumerable pinnacles drenched in an unearthly light.

I finished off my sandwich and hiked on back to Mt. Rigi's shoreside base, where I caught a boat to the city of Lucerne. All told, I had legged it for five hours up and down that burg.

If nothing else, I was certainly in shape.

There was, however, one slip-up. I took the wrong path down, and instead of the pleasant hike for vigorous walkers along a gentle gradient, I descended Mt. Rigi's face.

Therefore, despite its being a blue-bright afternoon and a popular mountain visited daily by hundreds, I met only one couple the whole way down - just as I started the descent - and they obviously were not comfortable with my solo status. Or with my shoes. They murmured to each other in German, pointed at my Nikes and then at their stout boots, and shook their heads with worried frowns.

I gave my politer version of "Bah, humbug" and blithely followed the trail that zigzagged and zigzagged across the steep slopes beneath pines by the thousand. From time to time it crossed my mind how easily I might hurt myself on one of those knotted roots. Yes, I should have worn boots; it would have been a very long night waiting for the next passerby. And then what? An evacuation by helicopter?

Finally, the path more or less leveled out into a two-to-three-foot ledge along sheer cliffs. I took one glance - and firmly kept my eyes upon the narrow walk ahead, feeling an odd drag on the left side of my body: All that empty air was trying to pull me off. (My prayer was simple:. OK, Father, OK....)

That was bad enough; then came a couple of spots that appalled me. Something like metal fire escapes were erected over clefts in the mountainside.

I clung to the rails, so light-headed my feet seemed to belong to somebody else.

But around Rigi's waist the diagonals are milder, and the trekking was through small meadows and exquisite glens. There were no markers and few worn spots; this side was rarely used. I eventually lost the trail, but glimpses of a road not too far below implied that if I just kept heading thataway, it'd probably take me to the port and the steamboats that act like gaudy buses throughout that vast and beautiful lake.

It was an afternoon of brilliant sunshine, and I was tickled to be out of doors. My arms swinging triumphantly, I, who am not bold, had negotiated a mountain. Not that it was a bare-boned, brazen burst of jagged granite, just one of the milder Alps rising like a great beached whale. It was, nevertheless, no puny foothill. And I had done it.

Ryland the Undauntable.

Ry the Spry.

So there I was, striding through an uncut field, when I saw them: three brown cows - that dusty brown of the famous Swiss dairy kine, bestower of Emmental and Tilsit and Gruyre cheese, all thoroughly munching their day-long repast.

But were they all female?

In their present positions I could not examine every detail of their anatomy. Mightn't one be a bully beef, not exactly massive, but formidable nonetheless? Dairy bulls, by the way, aren't just grumpy; they are as mean as junkyard dogs.

And all three of these were horned.

I must explain that my stride had collapsed into a skulk. I crept along the fence, trying to pretend I was a shadow, a twig, a leaf.

Not once did Gertrude glower - or Hildegarde or Thor. No furious charge. No scramble through barbed wire. No plunge into that steep ravine. And at field's end I crawled out safe and sound.

I was almost disappointed.

And I didn't mention those cows when I wrote postcards home.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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