Furka Pass. We started dropping the R soon after setting off. It all began when I printed out maps of two possible routes to get from Leutasch, Austria to the tiny country of Lichtenstein. We had barely recovered from our exhausting experience on Germany’s Autobahn, so perhaps that’s why we chose the route that went through only rural areas in the Alps. The road less traveled sounded like a welcome change.
As we meandered through a mountainous valley, we pointed at castles nestled in trees at the edges of cliffs. We marveled at the clean mountain air, the goats balanced on impossibly steep overhangs, the snow caps still quite visible in late June. We could see, from our vantage point at the bottom of the river valley, itty-bitty cars winding up the sheer peaks.
We laughed at the silliness of drivers who would willingly traverse such a treacherous path. Why wouldn’t they simply wind through the mountains as we were doing, safely at the bottom of the lovely valley? What was up there that was worth risking life and limb?
We began to ascend. Deceptively slowly at first, we felt the little SUV begin working harder as it chugged along. A silence settled over those in the car. We no longer made fun of the drivers of the tiny vehicles up high on the mountain sides. Those cars didn’t look small anymore. Clementine asked why there was a silver worm and some little bugs outside her window. The “silver worm” far below was the large river we had been driving beside only a short time ago. The “bugs” were cars.
Furka Pass is famous. It is featured in a James Bond car chase in the movie Goldfinger. The road we were driving on hadn’t changed much since Sean Connery skidded around in his little Aston Martin in 1964. I could swear the flimsy rope barriers around the outside curves were the exact same ones that were there for the filming.
Piles of snow surrounded us. Our GPS told us that the route had opened only one week ago and might still be impassable in some areas. We passed a glacier. I’m not kidding. We actually passed the Rhone Glacier, or what’s left of it.
The traffic picked up, especially the bicycle traffic. We started seeing media vans with satellite dishes mounted on their roofs. Hundreds of bicyclists wove around us. This was not the road less traveled. But why? It was clear from the narrowness of the road and the lack of services that this was not normal traffic.
In places, this pass was only one lane wide. At one point, our mirror scraped the rock face on the driver’s side. At another point, we bumped the back of a trailer carrying spare bikes. There were 12 blind switchbacks within a few miles. And then, we started to see the roadside graves. If only I were making this up. But no. Every couple of miles, there was a stone cross or obelisk perched on the side of the road. Joel told me to appreciate those heavy monuments because they served as a barrier that would stop our car from tumbling down the side of the mountain into utter oblivion. They would protect us better, he said, than the James Bond ropes.
We soon learned that we had somehow gotten into the middle of the Tour De Suisse. This an annual bike race is a proving ground for the Tour de France. And it is also a proving ground for clueless travelers who stumble into a world-famous bike race.
And we didn’t pass the test.
I was hyperventilating into a paper bag. The driver was white-knuckling the steering wheel. Our friend in the front passenger seat was laughing hysterically. Joel was muttering swear words under his breath. Clementine was threatening to puke because of car sickness. My 13-year-old son was shouting things like, “Whoa! Mom! Another gravestone! Wonder who died there.”
Just when we thought this drive couldn’t possibly become more bizarre, a buxom woman wearing coveralls led a cow with a bell around its neck across the road in front of us. The woman shook her long cattle prod at the bicyclists as they streamed past. The large brown cow swung her head toward our window and blinked. It started to rain.
When we finally got back to our beloved high plains for some good ol’ flatlander travel, I bought a shirt that said, “Furka Pass: Shaken, not stirred.” Hey, whoever said a t-shirt has to be truthful?