There was a motorway and a single main road running through the Rhone valley. Halfway up the mountainsides dirt tracks ran through the vineyards to chalet villages. I never took these high roads, I just stared up, mouth open in awe as I cycled straight through the middle of the lowlands.
The next day was short. I found no campsite and, at one point during sunset, in the twilight, bat like shapes began to appear in the sky. Hundreds of them. Black and fluttering. They seemed far off and small at first. Moments later, I was being hit by a swarm of moths. The wind was against me and so the creatures whizzed through the air like humming, furry bullets hitting me in the face and chest and getting caught in my hair. This lasted for half an hour and, by the end, once the strange event had subsided, I was exhausted. I began looking for places to wild camp.
Since that first night in the english forests, I had seen only campsites. I’d looked for wild spots but had been too afraid, but something felt safe about Switzerland, about this valley, full of vineyards and groves and before I knew it I had rolled my bike down an embankment beside the highway and pitched up my tent in the dark. After weeks of possible wild camp spots in peaceful woodlands and farming backroads I eventually set my first real wild pitch up fifteen metres from a roadside and railway line. I fell into a long sleep, regardless of the sound of cars or rushing of trains that ran on through the night.
Camping feels prehistoric. Closer to nature. Closer to the world we left behind long ago. A thin layer between you, the trees, the air, the stars. To hear the wind at night. To fall asleep to sound of it, moving the leaves, moving the grass. Knowing that you can roll away your home, that your walls are not permanent. For three weeks I had lived like this, but within the confounds of a campsite.
On the face of it you might think wild camping is just a campsite without showers, without toilets, without fences. But theres more to it. It’s the excitement of the search before hand. The fear you feel during, without protection. The pure freedom – that you are living where you please, answering to no one, paying no one. Stopping when you like, where you like. It’s the joy, the elation in the morning when you realise that you did it, you made it through the night and that you woke there, surrounded by nothing but the land behind and the land ahead, the sun rising, the moon fading.
If you haven’t tried it, I recommend you do some time. Take a tent and hike into a forest, beyond a lake or over a hill you’ve never passed before and settle down for the night. You wake when the sun rises. You need to pack up and get everything away before anyone passing in their cars or on foot realise what you have done. Whilst it should be allowed, its usually not because, in this world, today, there is no such thing as unclaimed, free land. But, to be packed up and cycling on your bike before the sun has even passed the horizon, before the rest of the world has woken, knowing that the day will be a long, full, productive day is something worth seeking.
Just after dawn, on a wall beneath some grape rows, surrounded on all sides by the blue shapes of mountains in the half darkness, I ate a breakfast of bread and jam and looked over a map of the Alps Pete had given me.
I studied the distances and contours. The roads were long and winding as they tried to make their way through the crevices, the valleys. These were some high mountains. I looked at the map again and to a small road, not far from where I sat, that wound its way up into hills across a ridge known as The Simplon Pass. That was today’s destination.
The morning flew. The sun shone down on fields full of grass and flowers – buttercups and poppies, yellows and pinks. Cowbells rang out. Timber buildings ran up the hillsides. I passed churches and ruined chateaus mixed among the villages and retail parks and petrol stations until, finally, I reached Brig where, at it’s centre, a crossroads formed. Ahead the road continued on through the valley. To the south, the way rose into shadow. A river rolled in off the mountains and down through the heart of the town and, high above, a wall of deep, dark forests and rocky peaks loomed. This was my path.
The roads formed s-bends as I cycled upwards, moving from grassy fields to tall pines to grey and rocky cliffs – in and out of the mountain itself, through tunnels along the edge of great canyons, passing abandoned timber mills, the voids becoming dark and deep. Half of the mountainside was colorless and cold, the rest golden and brilliant, covered in deep green forest. Up here, at around a thousand metres, I still saw small chalets and cabins perched, perilously, upon the side of rock faces with no obvious roads or tracks leading to them. How people lived or farmed there was a mystery. I tried to picture the scene in the winter time, white snow upon every ledge and treetop. Small lights twinkling. Smoke from the cabin fires drifting across the mountainside. I put my head down and continued to grind away at the pedals.
It was dusk when I reached the final tunnel. It was under construction, lightless and damp and controlled by temporary traffic lights. They turned to green and the line of cars drove upwards into the tunnel, leaving me alone to pedal slowly through complete darkness with the dripping sound of water echoing all around from rivers running overhead, leaking in through cracks in the stone roof. After ten minutes of this I road free of the tunnel and passed a long line of trucks and cars, all waiting for the last vehicle to exit. Instead they saw me, a guy on a bike strapped with bags, pedalling slowly past them towards the summit. Up ahead I could see the pass backdropped by the white peaks of true mountains. Behind me a pink and blue haze and the soft outline of far off ranges in all directions.
From up there the Alps, for the first time, looked grand, majestic. Not frightening or even vast, but as I had always imagined; flowing, tranquil, lush and green and deep and dotted with life. Farmers and trekkers warm inside their cabins, and the lights, glowing and twinkling in the towns far below, back in Brig and Sion from where I had begun, like diamonds. Prey birds circled against the pastel skies. I could hear their calls. Frost was forming on the strawy grass that covered the pass.
I rolled my bike off the road and away from a small cluster of hotels and cabins that lay at the top. Beyond a few hills and beside a small tarn I came across a strange object – a statue, upon the heath, built from granite or slate, built right out of the rock in the shape of a giant eagle, almost forty feet tall. I stood on the border of two countries. Switzerland and Italy, divided by nature, by a two thousand metre wall of stone and ice. The statue at its peak stood bold and proud, a silhouette in the nights sky.
One by one the stars began to appear. The pinks turned to purples and the purples to black and then, there, in the darkness with a tent pole in my hand, the sound of laughter broke the silence. Two more silhouettes appeared next to the statue. Two girls holding skis.
What are you doing here? they shouted down to me in heavy Swiss accents. Why do you sleep here?
Camping, I replied. Come over here, come drink with us. We have a bed to sleep in… they continued.
I was tired, exhausted and there were people invading my private wilderness. The instinctive words No, but thank you, were resting on the tip of my tongue. But, some strange notion suddenly came over me. On the mountain, in the dark, meeting two strangers beneath the stars, my sigh turned to laughter and I began walking over towards the statue and the girls. The time had come to stop pushing away and start pushing towards and I shouted back… Alright!