Creeping along the narrow road, we faced the unnerving reality that the other side of a steep mountain lay between us and a straight road. We had steered ourselves wrong. Well, maybe that way was right. Actually, it was definitely right and then left and then right again about fifty five times. Our rented Peugeot had just tackled half an alp. Olivia (my sister), Dean (her boyfriend), and I had accidentally found ourselves at the apex of Switzerland’s Furka Pass.
This adventure had begun in the picturesque ski town of Zermatt, Switzerland where we had spent the day summer skiing, and our destination was Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle. Dean and I had spent the evening before our road trip choosing what appeared to be the most reasonable route for this road trip. We had eliminated any drives through Lichtenstein and Austria, which would have required the international driver’s licenses we neglected to apply for. Also, a highway passing through Italy before returning to Switzerland also seemed like a poor choice because, “why drive more miles and add more border crossings?” Therefore, we chose what looked like the least complicated path from Zermatt, through Zurich, then up to Germany.
The first leg of the journey wound through miniscule, post card towns where our chief complaint was the wildly fluctuating speed limit. Olivia road shotgun, reading aloud about our destination while I passed snacks of raspberries and tomatoes up to Dean, the driver. After meandering past dozens of chalets with dark wooden balconies and slate roofs, we were finally speeding through what seemed like an endless spring green valley when we noticed a street cutting back and forth up the rocky mountain parallel to our drive. We all agreed that would totally be a perfect road for the Grand Tour guys to tackle in one of their death defying challenges and breathed a sigh of relief when our highway continued without turning to toward that mountain.
Then we noticed the highway had started to climb almost imperceptibly off of the valley floor. Weird, but at least our road was wide and straight…until it wasn’t. We were about a third of the way up the mountain when we realized we were on that Grand Tour road. Our chosen route had switched back to snake steeply up the mountain.
My GPS resembled a bowl of spaghetti noodles, and every few feet, we saw memorial markers near the sheer drop off the side of the single lane road.
To make matters worse, we discovered that what would only make sense as a one lane road was carrying two way traffic. At every one of the dozen or so switchbacks, we had to wait on the far side of the street with only inches between our tires and the cliff while oncoming cars inched past. Visions of Bolivia’s “Death Road” filled my imagination as tension grew in the car.
Olivia and I found Dean’s nervous laughter abrasive in the light of the “life or death” experience we believed we were facing. Despite the temperature drop outside as we neared the snow line, my right hand was sweating profusely from its grip on the door handle, but we finally reached the top. Focusing through Olivia’s and my ceaseless warnings to “watch out for that car!,” and “stay away from this cliff,” Dean had gotten us safely to the glacial peak of an Alp. At that moment, I realized all Olivia and I could really do as passengers was trust that our driver would navigate us carefully to the valley on the other side.
Descent from the mountain was no less stressful, but Dean stayed focused, avoiding cars and cliffs, both inches from the sides of the car and often at the same time. Once we reached flat ground, Dean and I switched drivers, so he could basically rest off the effects of shock and a tension headache in the backseat.
I don’t think any of us will forget this alpine pass, known previously only from action movies, such as James Bond. I also learned the importance of zooming in on Google Maps…or better yet, checking with your hotel’s staff for driving directions. More importantly, I learned the importance of traveling with people you can trust in stressful situations. Travel challenges us as we face the unexpected. You can’t plan for every adventure, and you never know what’s around the next corner, but you can choose your travel companions.