Mark Twain, who died 100 years ago, is primarily remembered as the fictional chronicler of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finnâ€™s Mississippi River adventures. But Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) is also one of the best travel writers since Alexander the Great, turning phrases like few could. He described the then-Sandwich Isles as â€œthe loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean,â€ arguably Hawaiiâ€™s best, most-quoted promotional slogan. Twain regaled readers with tales of his â€œvariegated vagabondizingâ€ at Europe and the Holy Land in 1869â€™s bestselling The Innocents Abroad and at Hawaii and the Wild West in 1872â€™s Roughing It. Twainâ€™s Innocents follow-up, 1880â€™s A Tramp Abroad, is the itinerant authorâ€™s fanciful account of traversing Switzerland, with some of the wildest mountain exploits since Hannibal crossed the Alps. (Of course, Twainâ€™s â€œtrampâ€ refers to trekking — and not sleeping — around.)
A century after Twainâ€™s 1910 death, I went to Switzerland — which Twain called â€œsimply a large, humpy, solid rock, with a thin skin of grass stretched over itâ€ — paying homage to the humorist from Hannibal, Missouri. I embarked on an Alpine odyssey, tramping around the Swiss Alps in Twainâ€™s footsteps, comparing his 130-year-old words to whatâ€™s there now.
As Twain wrote in Tramp, Lucerne (Luzern in Swiss German) remains â€œa charming placeâ€¦ the beauty of the lake had not been exaggeratedâ€¦ [itâ€™s] alive with fishes, plainly visible to the eye, for the water is very clear.â€ Twain doesnâ€™t mention the swans currently riding Lucerneâ€™s currents, but continued: â€œwe were content to enjoy looking at the blue lake Lucerne and at the piled-up masses of snow-mountains that border it all around — an enticing spectacleâ€¦ for there is a strange and fascinating beauty and charm about a majestic snow-peak with the sun blazing upon it or the moonlight softly enriching itâ€¦ we concluded to â€¦ excursioning around on a steamboat, and a dash on foot at the Rigiâ€¦ we had a delightful trip to Fluelen, on a breezy, sunny day. Everybody sat on the upper deck, on benches, under an awning; everybody talked, laughed, and exclaimed at the wonder scenery; in truth, a trip on that lake is almost the perfection of pleasuring. The mountains were a never-ceasing marvelâ€¦ they climbed high enough toward the sky to meet the clouds and veil their foreheads in them.â€
I, too, became a tramp aboard a â€œpleasure steamer,â€ departing from the boat landing near (Lucerneâ€™s train station) on aquatic excursions across Central Switzerlandâ€™s â€œLake of Four Forest Cantonsâ€ to Rigi and Mt. Pilatus (named after a remorseful Pontius Pilate who, according to legend, drowned himself there). En route to Pilatus we lazily crisscrossed the placid pond, stopping at ports-of-call named Hertenstein and Alpnachstad, floating beneath brilliant sunshine, light brightly reflecting off occasional ships wafting by. Evergreen water mirrored the encircling verdant mountains, created by that greatest â€œgreenieâ€ of them all. Yonder I glimpsed hamlets with chalets that Twain called â€œfar-away homes look[ing] ever so seductiveâ€¦ so remote from the troubled world, they dozed in such an atmosphere of peace and dreams — surely no one who has learned to live up there would ever want to live on a meaner level.â€ Cruising, I felt sans souci, without a woe in the world. Like Twain, I did â€œmy best to get all I possibly could of it while it should last.â€
What Twain dubbed â€œthe big panorama all before usâ€ unfolds from on high; the Jungfrau and Eiger are glimpsed from afar. I ascended 6,953-foot Mt. Pilatus via the worldâ€™s steepest cogwheel railway. Twain rode 5,905-meter Rigiâ€™s train: â€œIt seemed incredible that that thing should creep straight up a sharp slant like the roof of a house — but there it wasâ€¦ doing that very miracleâ€¦ The locomotive-boiler stood on endâ€¦ it and the whole locomotive were tilted sharply backward. There were two passenger-cars, roofed, but wide open all around. These cars were not tilted back, but the seats wereâ€¦ enabl[ing] passenger to sit level while going down a steep incline. There are three railway-tracks; the central one is cogged; the â€˜lantern wheelâ€™ of the engine grips its way along these cogs, and pulls the train up the hill or retards its motion on the down trip [at] three miles an hour… up or down, the locomotive is always at the lower end of the trainâ€¦ The passenger rides backward going up, and faces forward going downâ€¦ [I]t started abruptly downstairs, and I caught my breathâ€¦ One expected to see the locomotive pause, or slack up a little, and approach this plunge cautiously, but it did nothing of the kind; it went calmly on, and when it reached the jumping-off place it made a sudden bow, and went gliding smoothly downstairs, untroubled by the circumstances. It was wildly exhilarating to slide along the edge of the precipices, after this grisly fashion, and look straight down upon that far-off valleyâ€¦ the train came sliding down, and when it reached the right spot it just stopped — that was all there was â€˜to itâ€™ — stopped on the steep incline, and when the exchange of passengersâ€¦ had been madeâ€¦ moved off and went sliding down again.â€
My Pilatus descent was minus railway but nonetheless adventurous. I actually zoomed down Switzerlandâ€™s longest summer toboggan run (Pilatus also boasts zip lines; somehow I resisted). Then I hiked to Krieneseregg, but my luck started running out: it began raining, although not, as Twain put it â€œin dead earnest,â€ and I had rain gear. However, while hoofing it I realized the cable cars would soon stop flying, and gamboling all the way down a soggy Pilatus was daunting. Pressing on, I reached Krieneseregg minutes before the dayâ€™s last gondola; airborne I swooped 3,369 feet down to Kriens where I could catch a bus back to town. Aloft in the cable car, the bejeweled beauty of the glistening, white-topped Alps was dazzlingly psychedelic, as I breathlessly beheld Lucerne in the sky with diamonds.
Best Western Hotel Rothaus: Kloster Strasse 4, CH – 6003 Luzern
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Featured photo by Edwin Lee
Photos by Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. was interviewed at Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine â€œ48 Hours,â€ and National Public Radioâ€™s â€œSavvy Travelerâ€ interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production â€œHula Girls,â€ which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampellâ€™s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.