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Easy walks in those glorious Alps

One dollar and fifty cents a gallon of gasoline is finally going to slow us Americans down. We have been in a hurry from the time our forefathers set foot here. Speed has been our master, not just in travel but in our whole way of life, not just in travel but in our whole way of life. We are paying for it! Gone are our craftsmen, because a machine can turn out a thing a hundred times faster. Elegance and pride are no longer in the product, and as to durability, it functions with a built-in obsolescence. We put up with plastics and plywood --they are faster.

Fast foods replace leisure dining by candlelight. On almost every corner we can stand to eat empty calories, cooked in seconds and downed in minutes. We cross the oceans and beat the sun. We drive from city to city at speeds that make leaves on trees appear as a blur and to our kids, bark is what the dog has, not a tree. We see birds fly but we don't hear them sing. The sound of the great outdoors is the whine of tires and its smells are exhaust fumes.

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Maybe a dollar and a half a gallon is a blessing -- it's bringing back the good old shoe leather. From hiking boots is the best way to see a bee gather its nectar, to hear the throb of a frog, taste a ripe apple, or smell the mulch in a pine forest. The Sunday afternoon drive is becoming a thing of the past. By droves we are getting back to the European tradition of the Sabbath afternoon family walk.

Travel by feet is slow but meaningful. It gives your head time to rework itself after a fast week in our computer society. And, do I have a walk for you!

If you want to hike in the same style as driving in a Cadillac, you must walk in Switzerland. What a memorable holiday this will make! Come join me.

I have done it many times, and each trek has been as rewarding as all the other things I have done there, be it my balloon trip across the Alps down into Italy, a fast bobsled run at St. Moritz, a glider flight around the Matterhorn or such a mundane sport as skiing at sun-swept Arosa. They all have their thrill; but hiking Switzerland has a charm of its own.

Hikers go first class if they have well broken-in boots that fit. It is truly the Swiss national sport. If you walked every marked trail -- official trail -- in that tiny country, it would be the equivalent of walking the equater.

Hiking in Switzerland should not be confused with the growing sport of backpacking. Although you can backpack there, and many kids do it, hikers need not be concerned with methods of survival. In fact it is just the opposite. Since the whole country is geared for the walker, his needs are cared for in a style that has made the Swiss innkeeper world renowned. Safety is no problem, whether one is alone or in a group. Swiss cities and its countryside have always been free of these problems.

Age seems to make no difference. If people are old enough to walk, or still can, you will find them on the trails. As to age, one experience stands out. I came down to breakfast at the Monte Rosa hotel in Zermatt, early one morning, all decked out in my finest hiking gear. My boots, worn and well broken in, were shining brightly, thanks to the Swiss gnome who cleans them each night if they are placed out in the hall before you retire. I always liked the dashing look of knickers and high, brilliant red socks. I don't remember the color of my shirt and tie but I know I had a blue sweater casually thrown around my shoulders.

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The sun was announcing a magnificent day ahead and I walked to my table with a step as springy as the weather. At the next table sat an elderly couple. As I hung the strap of the backpack over my chair I greeted them cheerfully -- something one always does at small hotels in Switzerland. The lady struck up a conversation by asking where I was headed. Without even hearing my answer she said that she wished they were younger so they, too, could join in. She felt so left out of things because everyone left the hotel each morning and returned for supper. I took out my map of the area and told them that they could hike if they wanted to try. After much back-and-forth discussion I convinced them to take the walk to Zmutt, an easy two hours. All they would need was a pair of strong shoes. Off they went, minus 20 years.

The evening at dinner they were elated. They could not thank me enough for encouraging them to try. The view from this easy walk is spectacular. It took them all day to go and come back. The path is well cared for and smooth enough for a bicycle. The signposts insure one's direction, and benches all along the way made it a delightful day. They were elated with their accomplishment. As the waiter brought their first course the lady leaned over to me and whispered, "Tomorrow morning we're going out and buy Dad a pair of knickers."

All the ski areas turn into a hiker's paradise once the summer comes. Mountain flowers replace the snow with their own kind of splendor. Each community takes it upon itself to care for the walkers' paths with the same care as they do for the skiers. Walkways are ingeniously drained so they won't wash out. They are kept as clean as a family garden and marked well with signposts that give the hiker the average walking time to the next place. At the end of the "time" there is usually a hut where one can rest and sit on the veranda and have a refreshing cup of tea. My friends, the elderly couple, raved about their lunch at Zmutt. They had a wurst and a bowl of soup, and under other circumstances they would have forgotten about it.

The network of trails in Switzerland covers every possible kind of conditions and scenery. Each canton has a selected group of footpaths under its own exclusive supervision. The whole system is posted with signs by the Swiss Footpath Protection Association. Uniform yellow signs make the going easy enough for a child to follow. Although most people think of the hiking as something that is done in the high country of the Alps, it is done throughout the low country as well.

There are six major walking tours one can make all under the auspices of the Foothpath Association: through the Central Lowlands (from Romanshorn on Lake Constance to Geneva), a tour along the Alpine foothills (from Rorschach on Lake Constance to Vevey on Lake Geneva), the Alpine pass (from Montreux on Lake Geneva of Sargans on the Liechtenstein border), the Jura ridge (from Zurich all along the northern low ridge of mountains down to the French-speaking section near Geneva), the North-South route (from Basel on the French/German border to Lugano in the Italian speaking section), and the Rhine-Rhone river valleys (from Lausanne to Chur).

These six walking tours cover the little country from border to border. Nowhere in the world will you see such a variety of scenery, from semitropical to Alpine, in such close proximity, along with a striking difference in customs and cultures. The architecture is as varied as the landscape.

Interestingly, you can hike in Switzerland any way you want. On one of my first walks I simply took a train from Zurich for 20 minutes to the little town of Affoltern. At the station I picked up the signposts and cut across a valley and rolling ridge to Muri to see a most beautiful baroque church. The trek across the meadows, through the pine forests and along the Reuss river, where I stopped to have lunch and dangle my feet in the cool water, was as magnificent an experience as the church I went to see. You can go alone, or in the Alpine regions you can hire a guide to take you into the more remote places.

Hiking with a group is a lot of fun. The Swiss have a pamphlet that lists 76 different communities that sponsor walk weeks. They range from botanical walks, keeping fit walks, overland tours, glacier walks, mineralogical walks, high-altitude walks, autumn walks, spring on the lakes walks, art-history walks, slim yourself walks, natural history walks, walking for elders, embroidering walks (don't ask me for a definition), and just walks.

There is an American guide who is unique. Fred Jacobson, who started hiking in Switzerland in 1959 while he was a student at Yale, now offers walking tours in conjunction with Swissair. I've hiked and also climbed with Fred, and he knows his business. His hikes combine the pleasures of walking with the special enjoyment of rustic country inns. He has five tours of 17 days each, from June to September. Each tour is planned so that you will be in two separate areas. There could be nothing better for the experienced hiker than a trip with Fred.

Details of all these ways of getting on your feet in Switzerland can be gotten from the National Tourist Office. The problem is that there is so much to choose from, with such variety, that your right foot may want to go in one direction and the left in another. This much I can promise you: After a morning hike in the clear, fresh air, like the old folks, a wurst and a bowl of soup in a rustic inn or a mountain hut will be a meal to remember, and thanks for all of this will be due to the price of gasoline.

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