… And other signs seen while trail running in Europe.
It is my last trail run of what has been a great season in the Alps, and I could not ask for a better day. The air holds the promise of colder weather to come, and the prospect of snow before long. The Désalpes celebrations have come and gone, and the herds of cows have been marched down from their summer pastures, paraded through town, lauded by the residents, and transported to their lower-elevation winter homes.
The tourists are gone from these mountains around Zinal, Switzerland, too. The trails are serene, but with everyone departed, it’s hard not to feel a bit melancholy. Within a few days, I’ll be headed home, too. After a season of hard running, I’m feeling strong as I power uphill through the brown and red pastures towards the glacier at the end of the valley. It is one of those moments we all seek when trail running. Everything is working well, and I imagine I can run forever.
Then, I spot the sign. The man on the sign appears to be screaming in terror. His hand is shoved towards me, and his mouth says it all. Which is a good thing, because the designers creepily opted to leave off his eyes, ears, and nose. The message is clear. “You really don’t want to see what I’ve seen, pal!”
I stop in my tracks and stare. It’s Switzerland, I think to myself. Just how bad can it be? Is there an up-ended trash barrel up ahead? A farmer with an untidy yard?
I take a few steps forward, and I see why he’s aghast. The trail— it just… ceases to be. In the distance, some combination of geological forces has created an abyss that would impress even the best Game of Thrones set designer.
The physical precipice is made all the larger by the gap of language and culture between the warning and this American trail runner. It’s not the first time I’ve stopped and stared, slack-jawed, at a sign that’s struck me as more than a bit odd. All season long, I’ve been photographing my favorite, bewildering trailside warnings. I stop and take a photo of the sign, which has me thinking that maybe the Swiss Alpine Club has hired Edvard Munch, of The Scream fame, to design their trail signs. I adjust my plans for the afternoon, and get back to my run. What sign will I see next, I wonder?
In celebration of the cultural and linguistic divide that leads to such moments of head-scratching bewilderment, here are a few of my favorite, confounding Alps trail signs. I know my discoveries are just the beginning, however. How many more of you have stood on a trail in a foreign land or even right here in the U.S., uttering “What the….”, your voice trailing off as your find yourself at a loss for words?
What signs have you seen? I’d love to know!
The Priest and the Sheep
Location: Zinal, Switzerland.
Translation: Priests in vestments thank you for being on alert for a person walking his dog amid a flock of sheep.
Five Languages for Your Convenience
Location: Zinal, Switzerland.
Translation: None Needed.
Commentary: That’s clear enough without a translation—because it’s provided in no fewer than five languages. Even in multilingual Switzerland, that’s a lot. I like the use of the flags here, to more efficiently identify which text is yours. Forget your morning coffee, and finding yourself oddly unsure which language is English? Just look for the Union Jack!
The Red Circle of… Misunderstanding?
Location: Saint-Luc, Switzerland.
Translation: It’s perfectly fine to walk here. Or maybe it’s entirely forbidden?
Commentary: It took me years to realize that a red circle without a slash through it means exactly the same things as a red circle with a slash through it. In the mean time, I unknowingly flirted with danger time and again. (Years after it happened, I now realize this explains my wandering into a situation that resulted in being chased through a field by a mother cow and high-jumping some barbed wire.)
The Mystery Exclamation Point
Location: Arve River, Chamonix, France.
Translation: Be Alert! (But we’re not telling you why.)
Commentary: I’m a fan of the exclamation-mark sign, which is all over Europe. It lures you towards something perilous. What’s next is still a mystery. “There’s something potentially dangerous up ahead. But, sorry, we can’t tell you about it.”
No Meetings Under Rock Falls, Please
Location: Trient, Switzerland.
Translation: Never hold a meeting under rock fall.
Commentary: It’s hard to argue with that logic. (No one ever said the Swiss weren’t thorough, right?)
Location: Near Cabane de Tracuit, Switzerland.
Translation: God is looking out for you here. Possibly for good reason.
Commentary: My childhood was about as free of religious education as one could fathom. So, when I see a shrine built into a cliff, my incomprehension leads to a vague foreboding. Did someone pass away here? Will only the protection of a deity save me from what’s around the corner? Are spiritually uncertain agnostic-Buddhist-atheists like myself doomed?
The Italian Hand of Death, Destruction, and Maiming
Location: Near Rifugio Lagazuoi, Dolomites, Italy.
Translation: You really don’t want to see what I just saw. I’m not kidding.
Commentary: The truth is, this guy has been haunting my Alps trail runs for years. It’s only a matter of time before he starts appearing in my dreams. Here he is again. Cultural note of curiosity: When he’s in Italy, he seems to prefer wearing a baseball cap.
Clear as Mud
Location: Near Meiringen, Switzerland.
Translation: Watch your udder on the electric fence.
Commentary: Homemade signs are personal favorites. This one was in a pasture filled with a herd of cows. As best I can tell, it was meant for them: “Watch out! Keep your udders off the electric fence!” Or maybe that’s a hand? If so, someone needs a drawing class.
No Littering on People’s Heads
Location: Hasliberg, Switzerland.
Translation: Please do not throw litter. It will land on the heads of hikers.
Commentary: It’s bad enough to litter. But tossing your empty, glass container of local yogurt off this cliff can result in manslaughter charges. Consider yourself forewarned.
Scooby-Doo Goes to Switzerland
Location: Val-d’Illiez, Switzerland.
Translation: Even a disembodied Scooby-Doo loves his leash!
Commentary: When did Hanna-Barbera start licensing Scooby-Doo for European warning signs? For a dog that’s missing his body, he seems quite happy—and a bit too energetic. Did he eat dad’s amphetamines?
I Don’t Know What You’re Offering but I Think I Want Some
Location: Cabane des Dix, Arolla, Switzerland.
Commentary: Finally, a warning sign I can get behind—and in perfect English, or so I thought. I went looking for beer, good coffee, and blueberry tarts. The “product?” A shower. Disappointing, guys.
I Can’t Unsee the Swiss Robidog
Location: All over Switzerland.
Translation: Owners of rabid dogs should bring kettles into which their dogs should poop.
Commentary: This might be more of a case of inexcusably poor marketing, than mistranslation. The Robidog company provides waste bags, so dog owners around Switzerland can do their part to keep the country immaculate. But, what right-minded enterprise would name its product one little vowel away from a dangerous disease? And, is the dog supposed to drop its waste into what appears to be a cook pot? (Aside to sign-maker: We don’t actually need to see the poop.)
The Vengeful Toxic Wave of Death
Location: All over Switzerland.
Translation: Beware random, malevolent waves of toxic fluid.
Commentary: This young man is one of Europe’s most tormented figures. He appears in thousands of locations, always being chased by a wave that, if the skull and crossbones is any indication, could be sulfuric acid. If I grew up with these signs as prevalent as they are in Switzerland, I’d never set foot in a stream bed again.
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
- What do you think of these signs?
- What are some of the signs you’ve seen on the trails anywhere in the world? You can share images of your favorite trail signs over on this Facebook thread.