Our friend Reto stopped through Virginia this weekend on his way back to his native Switzerland. As his home country boasts some amazing scenery, we were a bit surprised that he was interested in visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains during his stay. That was fine by us, though, and we had a nice little chalet in mind just a few hours to the west.
The word chalet was coined by the Swiss in the late 1700s, and it referred to the mountain huts of cattle herders. Traditionally, herders would bring dairy cattle up from the Swiss lowlands to graze during the summer months, and they would often make butter and cheese during their stays. Nowadays the word has been co-opted and chalet can pretty much mean any vacation house anywhere, maybe even a PATC cabin.
Our chalet of choice was Tulip Tree near Luray, a chalet with no power or water–probably a lot like some of the early chalets in Reto’s home country (but without the cows and fresh dairy). Tulip Tree is located in a valley just below Shenandoah National Park and is ordinarily easily accessible by a small dirt road. But it had snowed 2 feet last week, so there wasn’t anything ordinary about that road. We parked at the nearby Morning Star Lutheran Church (asking permission first) and backpacked our way in the last mile and a half.
The weekend’s fare was decidedly Swiss-American, with dishes like Sante Fe chili and buffalo wings bookended by a braided Swiss bread called zopf, cheesecake, and the centerpiece of the meal, Zürcher Geschnetzeltes. The latter is a cream sauce with beef and mushrooms served over Spätzle. Not only did we learn how to cook a few new dishes, we learned how to mispronounce a few new words, too.
For the zopf, Reto had carried a bag of flour all the way from Switzerland, so the pressure was on. It was a bit tricky to make, but Reto schooled us on the finer points and we stacked two frybakes top-to-top to create an oven. For a fleeting moment, I felt like a herder.
For the next two days we snowshoed around, we gathered wood, we cooked, we swapped stories, and we enjoyed being out of cell phone range. While the Blue Ridge is clearly not the Alps, Reto did share how difficult it was to find areas in Switzerland without cell access. It’s easy to forget how big a geography we have in this country, as Virginia is actually more than twice the size of Switzerland.
Of course, Switzerland has a few other things going for it, like mountains that soar to 15,000 feet, beautiful mountain chalets with stunning views (and power and water), and friendly folks like Reto. At least that’s what I herd.