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.
Sounds like heaven to me. If you ever get the time, those journals etc would make for interesting reading, especially if there are more photographs like the last one above to go with the words.
I thought i’d lost these photos. In the preparation to move house I’ve found boxes and boxes of my history. I haven’t found what I had hoped to. A box of 8mm film reels with footage of my late Mother ..and me weeing on a beehive aged 3.After finding these pictures I felt the need to blog about them and think if I was ever to write a book based around the years I spent travelling, this post would look something like the first chapter.
Lee Martin says
I have a feeling of envy running through me which is unusual for me! It really does sound like an amazing experience. Moreso, I am not sure I have ever felt that ‘present’ feeling. Maybe when I was a baby! It’s a shame we no longer have ‘our time’, just humans emptying their minds once in a while, to breathe and feel human alive once more.
Shaun Armstrong says
Hi Christian – a fascinating insight, as always. Strange how life is put into place by the most extreme “fast” experiences (birth of child, death of family member) or the slowest as you recall here. Wise words are they 😉 Looking forward to the book…good luck with the move.
Hi Christian,Your post made me think of this song of Eddie Vedder from the music of Into the Wild http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cy6iwP9Ux3A
Society by Eddie Vedder love it.. http://beta.mflow.com/user/Documentally/h22326/1
Richard Arblaster says
Great story, would be great to read the journals if you decide to put them online 🙂
You’ve really had the most amazing adventures.
Thanks @Hedgewytch & I will write up the ones I can’t talk about for when I am safly dead.. 😉
This reminded me a bit of my experience tree planting, however at the end of each day my isolation would end as the van picked us up to go back to camp, still a good memory despite the hard work.
Yup @Cogitate I did some time tree planting. One of the hardest jobs i have done. Frozen ground. Middle of nowhere. Back breaking. Very rewarding though.
"One of the hardest jobs I have done. Very rewarding though"Doing what you have to do, right now or right then when you had to plant those trees, it seems that made you feel good…Shouldn´t we do this everytime we tell ourselves that we shouldn´t do this or that or when we KNOW that we will have to do it sooner or later anyway? A bit of Sunday food for thought… Thanks again for your post Christian
Mike Cadogan says
Jo Brodie says
Definitely not for me, but a fascinating read 🙂
Thanks @JoBrodie I’d love to go again. If I could put the family in stasis. 😉 They’d not like it at all. There’d be little isolation though. What with the wifi/3G/solar set up I would no doubt try to build. 🙂
Gordon Tant says
Christian, you say about writing them up, you have the means and the tech around you to upload them in so many different ways, make an audioboo(k) of them, and host them on a seperate blog
Lee Martin says
Gordon,Sounds a great idea. Maybe a collaboration? I have apparently got an excellent radio voice. I could narrate! 🙂
Gordon Tant says
I'll try this again,It would be cool for a social media collaboration, between several people.
Wow! What a great experience to have had. I couldn’t agree more about the need to take time out and reflect, clear the head.
Jemima Kiss says
Such a beautiful story and so well expressed… hippies and hermits indeed! I had a similar self-imposed exile while travelling. That kind of time and space is such a luxury… makes me rather envious now as I don’t think I’ll have that again until I retire.
Don’t forget you get holidays @JemimaKiss I’m all for off the beaten track no reception retreats.. Is a week enough though?
enjoyed that Christian