TOUR DIARY: Middle Earth in Switzerland

While I was sad to say goodbye, my last show with the mighty American Aquarium was a doozy. I was honored to join them as part of the Take Root Festival in Groningen, NL, which featured a stacked lineup that included Father John Misty, Neko Case, Kurt Vile, Darlingside, John Moreland, Alejandro Escovedo, and lots more favorites. The festival coincidentally placed me in a dressing room with my old tourmates The Mastersons, which was a very welcome surprise. Though I’d been looking forward to this gig for a while as a music fan, to be honest, I was pretty nervous about my performance because I was scheduled up against Father John Misty’s headline set on the main stage. Who would skip out on that to see me? I worked through a quick soundcheck and then went back to my dressing room to psych myself up for the ego bruising I was surely in for, but lo and behold, the gig was absolutely packed to the gills when I took the stage. By the time I reached my third song, more people than I thought possible had crammed into the room, and “The Oyster and The Pearl” turned into a sweaty singalong for the ages. The more energy the audience gave, the more fuel I had to work with, and quickly the whole thing vortexed into a joyous feedback loop that had me smiling all night. In the end, I learned a good lesson about expectations and the energy we waste preparing for the worst case scenario, and I salute the good people of Groningen and the Take Root Festival both for putting on an incredible day of music and for giving me one of my all time favorite performances.

Before the gig, I spent the morning walking around Groningen, first visiting the colorful Reitdiephaven neighborhood, then watching a dive team recover a sunken houseboat, and finally stopping for brunch at the 't Pannekoekschip (the Pancake Ship). Dutch pancakes are unlike their American counterparts in both size and consistency. First off, they’re huge, so you only get one. Second, they’re often full of cheese or bacon or vegetables or all of the above, which makes them more like a doughy omelet or a dense breakfast pizza. The most important thing to remember with a Dutch pancake? Don’t make any plans after eating one unless those plans include a lengthy nap.

After the festival was a stressful, exhausting whirlwind to get to the next show in Munich, roughly 850km away. I left the festival at midnight and drove until 3am, crashed for a few hours at a cheap hotel, got up early and continued driving straight through until 6pm, when I arrived for soundcheck. The gig was a sold-out blast (I’d played there last year and had a similarly great time), but the next morning I was out at the crack of dawn once again to drive to Bern, CH. I arrived just for the tail end of golden hour and fell in love immediately with the charming houses and sloping streets of the old city. The gig was another magical night, this one a sort of speakeasy show in a funky loft space. Though I was losing my voice by the end of it, I survived, which meant I’d made it through the most difficult part of the whole tour and had earned myself two days off exploring one of my favorite countries in the world: Switzerland

I’d planned these days off way in advance, and my destination was a spot I’d long dreamed of visiting called Lauterbrunnen. There’s dispute over the origin of the name (some say “clear spring,” others say “loud fountain”), but there’s no disputing that it’s one of the most scenic places in all of the Swiss Alps. An unbelievably gorgeous valley hemmed in by 1000-foot cliff faces, Lauterbrunnen is home to roughly 72 waterfalls, and it’s reported that Tolkien’s 1911 hike through the area helped inspire Middle Earth. In the late fall, nearly everything in the tiny village is closed, which meant I practically had the place to myself. Upon arriving, I dropped my things at my AirBnB and jumped on a cog train up the mountainside to the car-free village of Wengen, which offered stunning views of the valley and breathtaking hiking trails.

After sunset, I returned to the valley and found the one open bar in town, which served me a delicious dinner of Alplermagrone (Alpine Macaroni and Cheese, which comes with apple sauce). As I walked home through the empty streets, a mixture of rain and snow began to fall. I stood still in the cold mountain air and tried to just absorb it all as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. A few stars peeked out through wispy clouds, and the imposing cliff walls towered above, impossibly tall in the blackness.

The next morning I woke up at the crack of dawn and looked out my window straight at the town’s iconic waterfall. As much as I wanted to sleep in, I knew I’d only get a few hours of real sunlight surrounded by such steep cliff walls at this time of year, so I dragged myself out of bed to explore the other end of the valley. There I took a series of gravity-defying trams up to the car-free village of Murren. As I wandered around the empty streets of the picturesque Alpine town, all I could hear in any direction was the endless jangle of cowbells echoing off the mountainsides. Paragliders circled below, gently circling their way back down to the ground.

While I would have loved to spend another night in Lauterbrunnnen, I had to start making my way south for the next few shows, so I nabbed a cheap AirBnB in southern Switzerland near the Italian border. My first mistake came when I attempted to take the most direct route there. I should have known something was up when no cars passed me traveling in the opposite direction for a good forty minutes, but I learned the hard way when, deep in the heart of the Alps, I reached an unmarked wooden barrier signifying that the mountain pass ahead was closed due to snow. The only way was back for those same forty minutes, then north all the way around the range and back down the other side. My second mistake was just glancing at the map and trusting that my AirBnB was close to the main highway without thinking about elevation. While the AirBnB was indeed close to the highway as the crow flies, it was in fact all the way up an incredibly steep mountainside, and what followed was one of the most stressful nighttime drives of my life, twisting and turning up narrow switchbacks through rain and fog so dense I could barely see ten feet ahead of me. The turns were so tight I had to rely on my GPS to know when to begin turning, and the road of course had no guardrails, so you can imagine my sweaty palms by the time I made it to the top. I expected to arrive in a town, but what I found was actually just a few small stone houses and a church, each clearly hundreds of years old. There were no signs, no numbers, no lights, no identification whatsoever. I knocked on what turned out to be the wrong door and was greeted by an elderly gentlemen who only spoke Italian, but we soon reached an understanding and, rainsoaked and exhausted, I eventually made it to the right home. My host barely spoke any English either, but when she learned that I hadn’t yet had dinner, she cooked up some delicious pasta complete with fresh meat from their family farm. I slept a deep and satisfying sleep, and in the morning when I awoke, I couldn’t believe the view from my bed.

I savored the view as best I could by sitting out on the balcony with a book of Highlands poetry I’d picked up in Scotland until it was time to peel myself away and roll south for my first Italian shows of the tour. More on that next time…