“What do you want me to bring you back from Alaska?”
“You. In one piece.”
“Come on, what can I bring you?”
“Just come back for Christmas and birthdays, at least.”
That was over a year ago. I was in Norman, preparing to leave for Alaska on a five-week trip which would end at the beginning of August, and I would return to Oklahoma. Only I didn’t. I stayed in Alaska, found a job, worked through the school year and then traveled to Europe. At least I had come home for Christmas. I missed all the birthdays but one. My son turned five on Christmas Eve.
Now, in Switzerland, on the thin voice thread carried through the internet, I asked him, “What do you want for your birthday? Something special, come on.”
“Well, it would be a really unique gift if you could bring me some of the water from the Reichenbach Falls.”
It was Thursday. I had five days left in Switzerland. “I passed by Meiringen on the train on my second day. I wish I had known then.” I wish I had thought of it myself. Of course.
Reichenbach Falls. We had been there together in 2007, eight years ago. I was twenty-seven. He turned thirty on our trip together. Among the many places we had planned on our seven week backpacking tour of the Alps, we traveled to Meiringen because we both loved Sherlock Holmes, and this was the fabled place of his death– so thought his best friend John Watson, until Sherlock turned up again, two years later. But this waterfall was the place where, in the stories of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes fell a fateful fall in his clash with his arch-rival, Moriarity. This classic detective had become someone special to both of us because of his focus on logic and observation, deduction and argumentation.
He and I had taken the cogwheel train to the viewing platform and hiked ghe path to the top of the falls. We ascended to a guesthouse overlooking the valley and shared a meal on the terrace. Despite the many blunders we had both made in planning our adventure, the mishaps and inconveniences along the way, this day was untouchable. A triumph.
I checked train tickets. 120 francs to go there and come back. I thought about it.
On Friday afternoon, I kept thinking about it. At lunch, Sebastien said to me, “You know, I’ll buy that wine from you.” I had purchased four bottles of inexpensive French wine on a recent shopping trip in Ferette, a French town just across the border, but one glass of red had given me an aching headache the next morning, and I wouldn’t be drinking all four bottles before my departure on Tuesday. Thinking quickly, I suggested to him, “I’ll trade you the wine for that old bivy tent you’ve got in the utility room.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, without hesitation.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I had been eyeing that tent for a while, neglected as it was and used more as something to keep the door open than to its purpose. It was small enough to fit in my bike luggage, and I had been considering whether I could use it to camp while cycling through Denmark in the coming week, but I wasn’t sure what price to offer to Sebastien for it. The wine had cost me 11 euros. It was the best deal on a tent I’d ever made.
That evening, Nanda and I discussed weekend plans. He intended to hitchhike to Bern starting Saturday morning. Sebastien had already left to visit a friend and would be gone overnight. After my daunting 50 mile cycling fiasco to St. Ursanne during the European heat wave, I needed to know how far I really could cycle under decent conditions before I made my final plans for Denmark. While Nanda and I talked, I packed my bike luggage with a change of clothes, my journal, camera, phone, travel gear, tent and sleeping sack. It was really a liner, not an actual sleeping bag, but in the warmth of July, it would be sufficient. I checked a few routes online and made a final itinerary of regional cycling paths from Pleigne to Meiringen in my journal. I dressed in cycling clothes and aired up the tires.
“Where will you stop to sleep?”
“It doesn’t matter. I have a tent. I’ll just go as far as I can and then find a field somewhere.”
Thunder rumbled through the sky. I glanced towards a darkening grey sky. “Is that coming this way?”
Nanda nodded. “Seems to be coming towards Delemont.” This was the town to the south, through which I would pass on my way out of the Jura mountains.
“Good luck hitchhiking.”
“Good luck cycling.”
It takes eight minutes to ride a bike along the seven kilometers between Pleigne, at 809 meters above sea level, to Soyhieres, at 400 meters. My route would take me south through Delemont and Moutier along 64, the Lötschberg-Jura route, which passed through the narrow Gorge de Moutier, a thin ravine through which La Birse coursed a winding path through the Jura mountains. Then I would head northeast along 54, the Arc jurassien route, which follows a green valley spreading out in gently descending elevation to another south-facing gorge, which allows final passage through the northwestern range of Switzerland.
I made it as far as Moutier, and as the grey skies darkened to black, rolling thunder echoed off the walls of the gorge. I considered every cave and hollow a possible campsite as I attempted to pedal faster than the approaching storm, always glancing towards the sky to estimate the direction in which the clouds would roll. The first few raindrops had not yet begun to fall, and I still had time. I passed through town, felt the rushing weather-changing gusts blow pastme, and glanced again at the sky. With the wind whipping around me and the dark sky full of clouds, it could have been Oklahoma on the eve of a tornado. A ache of familiarity rippled through me and I shook it, sure that I could still get in a few more kilometers before pulling over to set up camp and await the downpour.
Eventually I saw my opportunity, and swung off the road under a shaded path which led to a grassy meadow. Ideal. Invisible from the road and sheltered from the south by a short rise. I locked up my bike, set up my tent, shoved everything inside, changed into my other set of clothes, scooted into my sleeping sack, and waited for the rain to come.
It started gently, then increased and spattered all sides of my little bivy, blowing one side against me so I could feel the raindrops drumming against my back and legs. I wondered how long it would take before the rain seeped through the fabric and began to drip into my clothing. I closed my eyes and let my thoughts tumble loose.
2007. Seven weeks of backpacking through the Alps. I had planned the wrong trip for him. He had wanted to meet people and explore their philosophies. I had wanted to conquer the alpine passes. I had taken him to a place where he didn’t speak the language, to the most difficult hiking route and I hadn’t helped him prepare or train. I always expected him to carry his own weight. And despite every disadvantage, he had tried anyways.
Listening to the sound of the rain, I crouched into a ball and pulled my hat down tight. I counted the seconds between the lightning and the thunder as oblivion and memory contended for my headspace and the blackness came.