“Weer yew frome?” asked the tall chain-smoking Italian sitting across the granite table from me.
“The United States.”
“No, weer en da yew ess?”
“Salt Lake City, Utah.”
“Ah! Yew-tahjazz. Kahl Malon… eh… Joan Stoct-tone… Coach Sloan.” He smiled and pulled on his cigarette. I smiled back.
It was just past seven in the morning at the Campana Efra, a small stone hut along the Via Alta Vercasca, an alpen wandern or alpine walk in the Swiss Alps with a rating of 6 that equates to easy fifth-class scrambling with the aid of iron ladders and cables attached to the most exposed sections. I, along with my great friend Stephan, who was still asleep, were three days into the five-day trek and until last night had not shared a hut with any other hikers. After three days of solitude I was open to the companionship of the two Swiss and four Dutch we had shared the bunkhouse with last night.
The man wasn’t really Italian. He was Swiss from the Ticino Canton. In a slow accented drawl he told me how years ago he had played college ball in New Jersey. Maybe before his hair began to grey and he smoked like a chimney, he had played professional ball in Europe. I didn’t ask. As the cigarette in his fingers burned low he removed another from the pack and lit it with the butt of the one in his hand.
We both looked west. The new dawn was creeping slowly down the horizon. The waning moon hung high in the blue sky. First distant glaciers dispersed between summits lit up. Then the sun line crept lower into the valley below. Passing the rugged grass covered peaks it traveled down to tree line and deeper. It seemed strange to have a tree line below 7000 feet, but at this latitude it was so. Old ranch houses constructed from granite sprung out of the golden grasses of September.
Speaking again he explained how the cheese makers of the past would leave the tree-choked villages below and gather their stock of cows and goats from the high grasslands. From these quaint mountain buildings that are only accessible on foot, they would make an aromatic cheese that contained hints of herbs, alfalfa and flowers during the summer and fall months. Once a week the women would come from below with loads of wood and food for their men. The word “romantic” came to mind.
Rustico, country style, cheese from Ticino is still being produced by driving the cattle down into the villages below where the dairies are near the roads and modern conveniences. Most of the mountaintop dairies are no longer used save a few that we have seen. Many of the stone structures have been transformed into huts and private cabins and some have gone into disrepair.
“Wow! That’s amazing.” I thanked him for sharing. We sat there in silence while he smoked his cigarette down. From below in the village of Frasco the church bell rang 8.
The Ticino man snubbed his butt into the ground and stood up. Pausing, he turned to me with a huge smile.
I smiled back, “Utah Jazz!”