For Love of a Mountain Hut
It is two minutes past eight in the evening but the sun is still up, filtering through the massive mountain maples, hitting the old hut. The cows have been in the barn the whole day, sheltering from the heat and horseflies, but they are being let out now. And Stifu is watching all of this, lying on the warm grass, puffing into his pipe, sun in his eyes. There is no one this side of the Hohgant who loves his mountain hut as much as Stifu.
You could say it runs in his blood. It was his great-grandfather who came to the hut Oberste Buchhütte in the 1920s, from the village of Eriz in the next valley. Karl looked after other people’s cows, which grazed on these slopes in summer. And in winter, when everything was covered in snow, the cows went down to barns in the valley, and Karl made a living as a mason.
Karl’s son Ernst followed in his father’s footsteps. He started staying in the hut from 1958 on, and, like his father, moonlighted in the winter. He was a part time Schindler, a man who made shingles for roofs. And he went to the farms and was an on-site butcher. And when the summer returned he went up to Oberste Buchhütte and tended to the cows.
And Ernst’s son, who was also named Ernst, followed his father and grandfather, staying in the hut with cows, but going to work in the valley below, driving a truck for a construction company. And there he is, immortalized on the old wood door inside, with his loyal dog Barry, who was a Bläss (the Swiss mountain breed), like every dog in every farm. Almost every Bläss is named Barry (after the most famous of pre-St Bernhards), if they’re named at all, and a lot aren’t named and are just called Bläss, with a farmer who is as surprised that you’d want to name it as you are that he wouldn’t think of one.
And Stifu followed his father, and his grandfather, and his great grandfather. He even took his father’s job, driving trucks for Schwitter, returning each evening after work from the house below (that Karl built in 1926), driving up in his old WRX with the bad brakes, over the Emme and to Mittelste Buchhutte (Mittel being middle), a couple of twists under Oberste Buchhütte (Ober being over), where his aunt Klara now spends the summer.
Klärli, who once was so friendly with a fox it started following her on walks, right until the time a hunter visited these slopes and shot it. Klärli, who invites me for coffee and chocolate biscuits on her little balcony, overlooking the moor of Hennenmoos just under Glunti. She’s just woken up from her afternoon siesta and her stomach doesn’t feel good, but she glugs down a glass of iced tea and is ready for anything. Her husband Martin, or Tinu, was working the slopes above the moor and went over the edge and fell into a ravine. He was hurt so bad he had to call the emergency helicopter service Rega, but was soon back at the hut, ready for another summer.
But there aren’t any helicopters above us now, just the sun as it beats down on the string of huts that follow the slope, from Gememeinenwängen under the cliffs to Glunti to Oberste Buchhüte to Mittelste Buchhütte to Hinter Buchhütte, where Rösi lives with Dänu, one slope above the Emme.
Stifu walks away from the hut, along the little path that hugs the sides of a little valley, and the field suddenly turns into forest, with a stream that you cross holding a steel wire on a narrow metal bridge. A deer feeds above us, unafraid. “All of this used to be fields,” says Stifu, waving over the ferns and underbrush. And a turn later we’re in the open again, between the tributary we passed and the Bütlerschwandgrabe, on its way down to the Emme.
And here in the folds of the mountain lies a hut you’d never stumble upon, even by accident: Schwangeli. A little wood structure hidden from the world on a little sliver of land between two valleys, just under the desolate moor of Hennenmoos.
Stifu breaks out from the shadows into the sun, removing the furry purple fly curtain and already mumbling sweet words to the Gustis (cows older than calves and younger than adults), pipe still stuck between his teeth, smoke puffing out intermittently, filtering through his thick moustache, lit up by the shaft of light in the tiny, dark barn.
The Gustis are let out for the night, and they set off up the slope as Stifu starts cleaning up, stopping occasionaly to relight his pipe, warily keeping one eye out for the new hive of wasps on the wall.
Half an hour later we’re heading back to the main hut, the Gustis romping behind us. Stifu stops as we break out of the forest and settles on the grass, in no hurry to get into the next barn. His stepchildren and girlfriend are tending to the cows ahead, repeating the same steps that he has just finished doing, steps repeated infinitely along an endless series of huts on inumerable slopes over generations of cowherds, the Hirt.