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Sam Cook column: Reach past language barrier for joyful travel

NEAR INTERLAKEN, SWITZERLAND —The two of us were the only people who stepped off the train at the Swiss village of Niederried. It was a sunny morning in March. The train platform was vacant. Up the hill, a few tidy homes were tucked into the mountainside.

We were looking for a trail. A clerk at the train station in Interlaken, a few miles away, had assured us we would find it.

“Just take the train two stops, to Niederried,” she had said. “There’s a trail along the lake. It’ll take you an hour and a half to hike back to Interlaken.”

With no trail apparent near the train platform, we were momentarily befuddled, a common occurrence when you’re traveling in a foreign country.

My wife and I had found ourselves in Switzerland visiting our far-flung son who was working near Geneva for a few months. We don’t typically flit around the globe like this. But when your kids are seven or eight time zones away, you start thinking about hopping a plane. Here we were. Our son was at work.

A utility worker pulled up to the platform at Niederried. He spoke no English and we no German, but with a few hand signals and a lot of smiling, we conveyed the idea that we were looking for the trail to Interlaken. Big grin. Enthusiastic nod. He pointed up the hill, among the homes.

Sure enough, that’s where we found the simple path. We put the lake on our left and started walking.

Those little encounters with compassionate strangers, solving small problems with no common language, are among the most satisfying moments in travel. If you reach out, you usually get what you need.

Our son had had similar experiences on a couple of ski trips into the mountains, he said. He’d find himself standing at a trailhead, wondering where to catch a bus or a train. But when he asked enough questions and followed enough hand signals, the way would become clear.

“The one thing that doesn’t work is just standing there, doing nothing,” he said.

Wise words for world travelers.

Our trail wound past the back doors of lakeshore residents, past woodsheds and tiny barns and inquisitive goats. We walked through another village and found the trail again.

Rugged mountains rose straight from the shores of the emerald lake. Snow flocked the peaks. Wispy clouds hung in alpine valleys.

In villages, profusions of purple and yellow flowers spilled from window boxes. Old women pedaled bikes along the streets. Even the gas stations were picturesque, camouflaged as houses.

Everywhere you looked in Switzerland was a postcard. South-facing hillsides with geometric vineyards. Handsome dairy farms with their stone barns. A ferry plying Lake Geneva, the French Alps beyond. Green valleys below a castle in Gruyères.

How do people get any work done here? How can they stop skiing and para-gliding and just looking at mountains long enough to make Swiss army knives and milk the cows?

As promised, the trail delivered us to Interlaken. When we got to town, a young Japanese couple wearing backpacks flagged us down near the train station. The man held a piece of paper, a simple map with a hostel circled on it.

Surprisingly, we could tell them just how to get there.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Follow him on Twitter at outdoors or on Facebook at “Sam Cook Outdoors.”