Picture a lush, green valley near the source of Europe’s most legendary river, an epic mountain scene from Lord of the Rings on IMAX. On either side of this fertile plain, the Alps rise up like green soldiers at attention with stone helmets guarding the gates of heaven. Snow patches are still visible in the highest reaches. The region is a trifecta for hikers, a place to bag peaks in three countries, doable in 72 hours. It’s an idyll for cyclists with miles of flat paths through the valley. If you happen to like cheese and wine, it doesn’t get any better—conditions are ideal for high alpine dairy and valley winemaking.

Around the bend, the historic thermal spa at Bad Ragaz lures jetsetter trustafarians, Arab sheiks and royalty.

This is the Upper Rhine Valley at the confluence of three borders in the Swiss, Austrian and Liechtenstein Alps. And did we mention, there are loads of high-paying jobs—that is, if you qualify. How high is the standard of living?  As high as the Alps themselves.

My colleague and his wife own a high-tech flat on the 3rd floor with a sleek terrace…an immaculate floating stage. It’s more like a meterological observation platform, ideal for watching the tempestuous weather that rumbles through daily in stark contrast to my cool and controlled Swiss hosts. The day I arrived, lightening spewed out of a raging black sky, firing down in staccato strikes, accompanied by a wall of wind that blew rain sideways. One of Zeus’s bolts struck a crane operator in his rig, so he exited stage left to the ER, as did a woman who was ironing in the attic. She’s deaf in one ear now.

As a rule, one should never iron in the attic!

I refer to my Swiss colleague as “the Pope.” He embodies the diplomatic and saturnian traits of the neutral pope Martin V, elected (down the road) in Constance, Germany to lead the Holy Roman Empire out of the embittered 1414 crisis of the Great Schism. If you forgot your history, basically three papal dudes were vying for the #1 job in the empire, which had over time become a “situation” for Rome.

The Pope is eager to show me the territory over which he reigns. Overlooking this alpine amphitheater, he points to the solid white 13th century fortress with red shutters. It has no windows in the bottom half which seems odd. The dungeon held prisoners I’m told, so no light for those poor bastards. From here skyward, a conifer forest blankets the north slope that rises up to gray whispy peaks. Cows and sheep graze on brushstrokes of meadowland worked by farmers for centuries. The Pope points up to the rounded rock peak in the middle. “That’s the Margelchopf. Edelweiss is blooming.” More magic words have never been spoken except for Abracadabra or supercalifragialistiexperonalous or whatever that was in Mary Poppins. I am immediately enchanted.

From his private cellar, The Pope pours me a pinot noir from Berneck, just down the road. I let it hoola-hoop around the thin crystal goblet, its sultry legs dripping down the rim in an evanescant strip tease. The wine is complex and smooth; I’m not expecting this from grapes grown on the Rhine’s alpine slopes. “Wow, this is better than good!” A pinot noir with legs and ass! Unlike the thin and watery pinots from my region. I am looking forward to spending the next few nights on his terrace, getting to know this valley.

“Most of what’s grown here stays here,” Pope says. Very little (if any) Swiss wine is exported.

Firstly, it’s too expensive and secondly, the Swiss consume what they produce. The Pope is a rational man, and he knows me well. “Probably shouldn’t finish the 2nd bottle now, tomorrow’s going to be a long, hot day.” He is always right about the weather and he’s right now, so I retreat to a cozy bed.

Tomorrow’s items are laid out on the wooden table: hiking boots and blister pads, two bottles of water, nuts and Swiss chocolate, rain jacket, sunscreen, cap. All set. Down below in the courtyard, I can hear something whirring. Sounds like someone steering a remote-control car around the labyrinth that dissects the residential complex. At first, I’m ready to yell down to tell him to go somewhere else, but before I could, the high-pitched humming carries me off into a Heidiland of peaceful sleep.

A quick Swiss müsli breakfast and a double epresso, and we’re off. After 45 mins of climbing narrow  mountain roads that drivers race up in shiny new Audis, we pull off next to a small waterfall and park. Shoes are laced, walking poles are extended and The Pope, who is a certified hiking guide, leads the way. We start up a dirt road, past wild strawberries and through a pine forest exhaling earthen scents from needles shimmering with morning dew. Around a series of puddles, we cross over the first cattle guard, passing two farmers leaned up against the tailgate talking in thick dialect. They’ve got rolls of fencing matertial and tools in the back. I think of a phrase we heard growing up in the country “good fences make good neighbors.”  “Gruezi miteinander!” says The Pope as we pass. They nod and smile in that way locals smile at city folk; that ‘you ain’t from ‘round here look.’ Polite and friendly but distrustful and distant.

The meadow before us features a couple small farmsteads clustered together with trucks parked in the muddy yards, but no life. The valley is empty save for a shallow silvery brook with sandy edges. The grazing party is in the high meadows now. A quick-moving system catches us offguard, clapping a few thundering Hello’s, followed by a short burst of rain to bless the day.

We pull over to let an elderly couple pass, which shockingly won’t be the first time we are outpaced and out-hiked by people well into retirement.

 

After an hour, we arrive in a high alpine meadow with cows and goats grazing in cliques over a massive cascading hillside. It’s the kind of green mecca where leprachauns are born, before finishing school in Ireland. And the bells! A unending cacophony of tones and clangs from of hundreds of different bell shapes and sizes. It is Heidiland. We arrive at our first stop for a break. The welcoming committee is a bevy of agitated geese at the farm entrance and little café. They are having a hissy fit as we come through the wire gate into their realm, so we continue around them up the hill and down again through the back way, near the water trough where bottled drinks are chilling. Teenage boys are mucking the stalls and laughing about something.

I can see the dairy door and the Frau in there making cheese. Once in a while she comes out in her black rubber boots, a large-boned blond Germanic with a deep bosom. The cheese platter we ordered is a mixture of aged cheese and fresh cheese. The soft cow cheese is drizzled with a nutty pumpkin seed oil and slivery rings of fresh onion. A crack of fresh pepper. Chatting with the waitress, she tells us they have 94 dairy cows, sheep, pigs, goats, a trout pond above and the geese. This is where the family lives five months out of the year. Business is obviously good given the brand new Range Rover in the muddy yard. Maybe the geese were trained as watch fowl.

We top it off with a shot of Gentian schnapps, an 80 proof spirit inflused with the root of the tall yellow flower, powerful earth medicine. “To our health, Prost, cheers!” The schnapps gives us the fortitude to carry on. A quote from a 17th century herbalist book informs that the Gentian “being dried and given in powder to any to drinke, will cause much venting or farting, and is given with good successe to helpe the torments of the wind-collicke…” We hope this doesn’t happen. Gentian is a digestive aid, liver stimulant and general herbal do-gooder and in German-speaking countries a panacea for everything. I am delighted to take my medicine in a shot of 80-proof liquor.

Then She appears along the trail, our dearly Beloved, first aid floral remedy to hikers and weary limbs, reducer of inflammation, healer of bruised tissue…Arnica. In full glory. To see her in the wild like this, a rare treat. Here a small patch, and there a golden fairy trail. The bright orange-yellow petals in full sun salutation. I pick one and put it into my underwear on my left hip, a weak area that feels the pressure of a misaligned illiosacral joint. What I would give now for an Arnica salve or rub.

We walk through a cluster of purple Turk’s head lillies, thriving in this high moorland and pasture. Up ahead I can see the mountain lodge with its red umbrellas tightly packed on the wooden deck, providing shade to resting hikers who are spread out drinking beers and eating lunch. It’s hot and sticky.

A blond boy with freckles and a big space between his front teeth, comes barreling down the trail, breathlessly gasping something about goats at the top and his dad chasing them away, his words swept away by the wind as he passed.

We come around a limestone outcrop and up a steep incline along uneven cow paths into the highest alpine meadow toward the summit cross. The sloping field to our left is a carpet of arnica flowers. What a sight to behold. I am dying to run over and start picking when a group of sporty, senior women come walking downhill towards us. A few have strayed in the field of arnica to pick small bouquets for tinctures, it’s easy to make, just steep the flower heads for one month in vodka, shake daily.  Makes a great healing compress. The Pope’s wife says it’s illegal in Switzerland to pick them, but maybe here in Austria? She asks one of the ladies who says it’s okay to pick a few when there are so many. “That’s what arnica is for,” she says, “to help tired, old limbs, and we need all the help we can get!” The women all laughed and kept rambling down the path past us. They were on their way to the mountain hut for refreshment.

 

And that’s when three goats appeared out of thin air. They could probably smell our sweaty legs a mile away and stampeded toward us, tongues ready for action. They had already licked everyone else’s legs who’d hiked by and we were the next victims in a parade of salt sticks. The Pope’s wife was first to get licked up and down. Then they came around to me and gave me a thorough tongue bath. After licking their fill, they bounced over to a couple sitting on the slope having lunch. The goat wouldn’t leave the woman alone and finally her husband gave it smack on the head and the goat understood, shook his head and ran off the with others, disappearing as quickly as they had come.

And then we finally arrive atop the Hoher Frescher in Vorarlberg, Austria. “Berg Heil” we say to congratulate eachother. The Pope points out differnt peaks and the borders of Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. He points to where their apartment is located. And then he notices a large plume of black smoke on the far side of the Rhine Valley. It’s very concentrated. It’s not a smoke stack, but something else The Pope can’t seem to identify. A mystery.