"How did you get your suitcase up here?" panted Trinka Davis. She had one hand on the ceiling of the stair, while the other reached for a suitcase being pushed up the curving carpeted steps by her husband below. I had not the heart to tell the frazzled young couple how easy it was with a backpack, at least not until breakfast the next day. They responded with a rueful tale of their arrival from London by train, the flower parade that had immobilized all streetcars and taxis for two hours, the hostility they attracted dragging their suitcases through the crowd at the parade and their fear that all hotel rooms would be rented if they did not find one soon.
When I packed for Zurich a few days later, they dropped by to learn about my backpack. I pointed out its lightweight metal frame, its subtle shape and the gentle way it made contact with the body through padded straps and broad fabric bands strategically placed and adjusted for tension to fit the back. I extolled its hip belt, a wide, foam-padded strap that in effect transfers the load from the shoulders and back to the hips. The shoulder straps do little more than keep the pack upright. The load carrying is done from the hips down where the heavy leg muscles, among the strongest in the body, can handle the extra weight.
Getting the pack frame in place takes practice. You do not put it on like a coat. You find a place to sit down with space behind you for the pack frame, put your arms through the shoulder straps and stand up. For short hauls down a train aisle or across a station you need only one shoulder strap. Once the pack frame is in place you are aware that it is there, but the additional effort in walking is slight. The weight is centered and well balanced. It is a far more natural load than a suitcase, which must be shifted frequently from side to side. To be fair, I should testify that you do notice the weight when you go up or down stairs or climb hills.
In Zurich I walked from the Bahnhof to the old part of town where I had three hotels in mind. Window-shopping down the Bahnhofstrasse and then over to the Limmat River took a leisurely 15 minutes, and though I was turned away by the first hotel, I just walked up the hill and checked into the Hotel Rothus in the heart of the old town. Hotel porters do not yet know how to handle backpacks. It is kindest of you to first secure the loose ends of the hip belt to the frame, for the dangling daunts them. The Rothus porter, after looking askance, decided to use a two-wheeled hand truck that was chained to the wall. This meant he first had to go and get a key. The hand truck was a metal frame on wheels, ideal for suitcases but lacking somehow when it came to an amorphous shape with its own metal frame. The backpack sagged forlornly and rubbed on one of the tires. Various adjustments were required before the wheel would turn.
Then came the elevator ride. Most elevators in these venerable hotels are pocket-sized. The porter, the hand truck, the sagging backpack with its flailing hip belt and I formed quite a crowd. The shuffle to get us all inside the elevator and turned around the right way was painful because it was all so absolutely unnecessary. I longed to solve the problem simply by hoisting the thing to my shoulder, but I would have been overstepping my authority. We emerged two floors above and I gritted my teeth as we trundled down the corridor, stepping on the trailing straps, bringing curious cleaning women scrambling to see what the scraping, dragging, flapping noise was all about.
Zurich had been planned as a brief, gastronomic, nostalgic stopover on the way to the Alps but the Piccadilly Six caused a delay. This group played Dixieland music at the Casa Bar, diagonally across the street from the hotel. My addiction to Dixie tends to make me an outcast at home since the music is so loud, primitive and out of date. But Zurich is not as blas� as suburban New York. The Casa audience was turned on, as any innocents would be hearing Dixie for the first time. The place was jammed every night with stomping, clapping, head-bobbing young people. By luck I was wearing a blue denim jacket and jeans, perfect attire that made me the object of some admiration in spite of my age. The Casa was small, dimly lit, solidly filled, buttock cheek to buttock cheek at the bar, knee to knee for those seated at ridiculously tiny tables. It was a friendly, jostling clientele, and an atmosphere that could cause a casual backpack-type traveler to tarry.
After three nights of this I pulled myself together and packed for Grindelwald. My technique was improving, thanks to assorted plastic bags I had accumulated. The bags permit you to pack similar things together so that you can preserve a semblance of order. When full, they slide past one another easily as you stuff them in or pull them out. Another tip: roll things that you do not want to wrinkle around a core of something you do not mind wrinkling. One sturdy plastic bag held a double-knit jacket and slacks, neatly rolled, for days at a time without wrinkling.
To get from Zurich to Grindelwald you pass through three Bahnhofs and board three different trains. The tasks to be done in these railroad stations are a backpacking pleasure: walking, mailing postcards, finding places to cash traveler's checks, standing in line to buy tickets and just strolling easily down the long array of departure gates looking for the right train.
In Grindelwald the train pulls into the end of the main street. I cheated. Instead of hiking around, comparing hotels, I went straight to the Weisses Kreuz und Post, where I had stayed before. I had plenty of hiking in mind later. Hikes are better if based on a hearty breakfast. The Weisses Kreuz und Post, while strict about which table you sit at for breakfast, is lenient with the amounts of cheese and superb bread you can cut at its abundant buffet table.
The Alps above Grindelwald are laced with hiking trails and mountain paths as clearly marked as interstate highways. Each destination has a name, even though it may be a solitary, remote chalet. Signs at trail intersections declare direction and hiking time, and advertise refreshment with a silhouette of a wineglass.