The rocky path led to a lookout point over the Engadine valley, and as a Swiss flag flapped in the wind above us, we all stopped to take in the incredible view. A hundred yards off was the Muottas Muragl lodge—its forbidding name like something out of Tolkien—where a bright red funicular had deposited us after ratcheting up the steep mountainside. Below us were sloping green meadows and faraway villages, and on all sides, looming mountain peaks, their sharp ridges etched into the sky as if by a superhuman razor.
Our troop—me, my wife, Yumi, and our 2½-year-old daughter, Sachi; my parents, John and Catrine; my uncle Thomas, his wife, Susanne, and their 4-year-old son, Valentin—continued up the path until we reached a plateau. Sachi, released from my backpack, ran around in circles and discovered a large, mysterious brown disc on the ground with a large, mysterious white mushroom growing out of it. "It’s a cow patty," my dad explained. I lay down on the prickly grass nearby and closed my eyes. My mother lay down, too.
"Nudel," I said.
It was a nickname for my mom that my brother had invented decades ago. "Ja, doch," she replied in German, meaning "Yes, indeed, that’s me." We tossed the words back and forth affectionately, a shorthand for love.
This would be our last vacation with my mother. None of us knew it at the time—she was happy and energetic and seemed to be doing well—but, then again, we knew she had breast cancer. How much time was left?How many more vacations would there be?Such thoughts were always present on this trip, which was a homecoming of sorts. After my Swiss mother met my American father in the sixties, they moved to California to raise a family. We lived in Switzerland for several years when I was in my teens and visited frequently before and after that, but it had been 20 years since we’d come to the mountains together to hike and swim, cook and eat.
For me, the Alps, especially in summer, deserve their storybook reputation. I say this, of course, as a partisan Swiss citizen, but consider: you’ve got dark-green trains—some with children’s play cars—winding through mountain tunnels; lakes and medieval castles; meadows filled with wildflowers; fresh milk and cheese and, yes, you’ve got chocolate. Sachi was going to love it here. We would make this a vacation tradition, renewed by my young family, which is also an international one, since Yumi is Japanese.
My mother and I had stretched out the planning period, looking at maps together and recalling our many happy summer vacations past (in the mountain village of Kandersteg, by the lake in Lausanne, in Grindelwald beneath the famous Eiger peak). We finally decided on the Engadine, in the southeastern canton of Graubünden, perhaps the grandest of the Swiss alpine valleys. Online, we reserved a week at a house with four bedrooms and plenty of outdoor space in the village of Madulain, population 180, in the upper part of the valley about a half-hour’s drive east of St. Moritz. Here, as in most alpine spots, winter is high season and skiing the sport. But the area also has well-marked hiking trails, several golf courses, and a bike path, part paved, part gravel, that rolls along the bottom of the 56-mile-long valley, from town to town through the fields—car-free, except for the odd tractor. We would definitely be doing some biking, we decided, and buying new hiking boots.