In 1999 I found a piece of paper in my backpack. On it were the co-ordinates of an Alpine valley on the Swiss Italian border.
I had been given the location a year before by a man I met in Laos. He’d promised me if I arrived at that spot on a certain day, he would teach me how to be a ‘Pastore’ (Shepherd/Cowherd).
I was coming to the end of a decade of travel. Not wanting to slip straight back into society, I felt this might be the perfect transition. It was the kind of job I had always wanted to do. So true to my word, I journeyed into Switzerland and after a train, a bus and a cable car… I hiked the 6 hours up into Ticino.
He was expecting me.
He showed me how to tend to the 37 head of cattle. How to forage for mountain food. He showed me how to operate the mechanical winch that would bring up the bulk of my supplies from a village 1000 feet below. After three days of tuition and guidance, he felt I was ready and left.
Over the coming months there were three lodges I’d live in as I drove the cattle slowly up the valley. Simple dwellings, getting more basic as I ascended the mountain.
At the lower levels in the hight of summer there was little need for clothes. I didn’t need money so I didn’t need pockets. The villagers who owned the cows bought my supplies and the nearest person was many hours walk away. I did have Jimmy to talk to. A super smart Bergamasco dog who knew more about cattle than I ever would. Apart from him, the only intelligent contact I had was a chance encounter with two lost walkers and a brief visit from friends who braved the epic hike.
It’s still the strangest job I’ve had. Dotted across the Alps there were others like me I never got to meet. Hippies and hermits, happy with the isolation and basic living. While in the top cabin, a helicopter would fly supply drops up to me. Continuing on to other Pastore across miles of mountain range. Once every two weeks I’d run like a mad man to unhook the swinging load. Cheese, salami, flour and most important of all… Wine. The first load also had a clean dry mattress. It was to replace the one in the highest lodge, above the tree line. A glimpse of the pilot giving me the thumbs up, my only human contact for the last remaining months.
This was one of the best times in my life and yet may sound like hell to some. I keep meaning to write up the journals I had so much time to fill. The ramblings of a young man in a strange chosen isolation. His main link to the outside world, an old solar powered radio. There was also a basic mobile phone. But it was only to be used should a cow die in a stream. Polluting the villagers water in the valley below. It never happened.
I’d count the cows in the morning and evening. In between I’d forage for boletus and other edible mushrooms. I’d write poetry, songs and stories; carve wood and play with a camera. The only piece of tech I owned.
Sometimes I would just sit and think. As the days passed I felt I had less and less to ponder and that thinking became meditation. Either that or the catatonia of a madman. With an empty mind I became more present than I have at any other time in my life. I highly recommend it. It was in this strange place I found I really got to know myself. I didn’t like some of what I saw. But seeing those things helped me make tiny adjustments. In the hope I could better myself.
You may not now live the life where you have occasions to feel ‘present’. I know I rarely do. I like to blame the society we live in. We have a choice to a certain extent. But it seems that while keeping up with the swirling chaos, standing still is frowned upon. But having taken the time to experience the ‘now’. To feel present. I feel I have this datum to look back on. This knowledge that there is a place where time slows down. Where stress and worry falls away.
Next time you feel everything getting on top of you. Next time you feel there is too much to see, think, read and do. Just make a moment your own. That moment can be as long as you want. I guarantee if you manage to feel present It can feel much longer than it is.
I was still at school when in 1986 Ferris Bueller said – “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
It was 13 years later when I understood what he meant.