In the central town square of Ascona, Switzerland, I met a wiry old man who drove a clean white van. He was an Italian-speaking Swiss gentleman, tiny and bald with a herringbone snap bill cap and a faded dress shirt. Twice a day, he drove his customers up into the nearby hills, departing from the bus station area, the Autosilo. I yanked a two-Franc coin out of my pocket and gave it to him. I could have taken a bus, but the old man’s operation looked far more interesting. As we then motored up a steep curling road, we passed multimillion-dollar mansions fronted by elaborate stonework, wrought-iron staircases, and flowing ivy—each overlooking the dark blueness of Lake Maggiore below.
Only a few more minutes went by before we arrived at the bottom of the very hill I’d read about in college twenty years earlier: Monte Verita, the mountain of truth. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, this utopian colony welcomed anarchists, vegetarians, nudists, radical artists, and a detoxing Herman Hesse. Modern dance pioneer Rudolf Von Laban and psychologist Carl Gustav Jung also showed up. In the same vein, philosophers, Buddhists, exiled poets, and a variety of unconventional loners all traveled to this hill at one time or another.
The driver didn’t know my visit to Ascona would involve travel writing as counterculture genealogy, searching out troublemakers from bygone eras in a perpetual attempt to validate my own failures in life. Eventually, the white van pulled up to a spot where the asphalt road gave way to a cobblestone path that snaked its way up into the Monte Verita property. I disembarked with my rolling carry-on suitcase and managed to slobber enough Italian to say: Dove e l’Albergo? Looking at me through the open window on the driver’s side, the man lazily motioned with his arm and pointed up the path. A destra, he said. To the right.
I pulled my carry-on roller up the path, its wheels bouncing all over the cobblestones, and within fifty yards, the path curved to the right, taking me up to the property. Peaceful, white, and almost antiseptic, the main complex now housed a renovated Bauhaus-style hotel, plus a restaurant, a patio, and a small conference center. It was the last week of October, the end of the season, with the property soon about to close for the winter months.
“Not many people arrive at this time of year,” the young woman at the front desk said, in English, but with a faint Italian accent.
She was right. Except for the sportcoat-clad, pipe-smoking academics finishing up their biochemistry conference, I was the only one staying there. Inside, the hotel looked and felt like a hospital as I walked down the silent graying corridor to my room.
Moments later, while standing on the patchy front lawn and waiting for my tour guide, I was positioned to look back down at the village of Ascona. Through a smattering of wild olive plants, regal oak trees, and earthy foliage in every shade of green, I saw Lake Maggiore far below, as it faded into Ascona’s cobblestone streets and super-expensive retail shops. Across the lake, sloping elephantine hills rose above the horizon. A constellation of sailboats dotted the water, just little white specks from my vantage point.
Even though Monte Verita was now a conference facility, I was convinced the landscape radiated nostalgic countercultural vibes, so I began thinking about the first time I ever read about this place. Inside the Clark Library at San Jose State University, a five-story ugly cement building with enough angular windows and red Spanish tiles to look progressive, I discovered a book called Mountain of Truth: The Counterculture Begins, Ascona, 1900-1920. My undergrad life unfolded within music academia, but I wanted to study every other creative discipline imaginable. I was never satisfied with just music, so I often buried myself in the Clark Library, reading art books.
At the time, San Jose was more like thirty suburbs duct-taped together and the university was located in a half-boarded-up downtown that hadn’t yet recovered from the post-WWII suburbanization of America decades earlier. A new hockey arena had just emerged to huge fanfare, eventually also used for $150 U2 concerts or Tony Robbins motivational seminars. A clunky light rail system was just getting started, but any useful neighborhood retail had long since collapsed. There was barely a shred of culture except stuffy highbrow arts organizations. Even though San Jose was my hometown, it was a difficult place in which to find anyone interesting.
I didn’t know what to do with my restlessness and my longing for a more outré kind of place, so I kept returning to the Clark Library. One day, while searching for something else on the fourth floor, I came across Mountain of Truth, and I flipped it open. Apparently, there was a menagerie of artists who visited or moved to one particular mountaintop in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. It was the first such utopian colony of the twentieth century, a radical alternative-life experiment of some sort, and everyone was there. A beautiful stew of inflammatory misfits regularly journeyed to this place.
The book was a solid gray hardback without a dust jacket, just a few years old, but it looked brand new. I was only the third person to ever check it out. The subject matter intrigued me. I stood there in the stacks, leaning against the bookshelf, ignoring the carpet stains and flipping through parts of that book, fascinated with all the characters who spent time at Monte Verita.
Unfortunately, in spite of the lurid and provocative subject matter, the writing was bone dry and pedestrian. I recoiled at one particular passage near the beginning. At the end of the introduction, the author concluded with these lines, when speaking of the visionaries at Monte Verita: “They wasted their time; they wasted their lives. But they deserve our honor.”
I remember standing there next to the bookshelf, thinking the author was the biggest jerk on Earth. I wondered why he would dismiss the group in such a fashion. I couldn’t believe his take on what seemed like provocative history. The way I saw it, these visionaries and artists probably didn’t waste their lives at all. They most likely enjoyed every damn minute. They hadn’t squandered anything. Who was this clown to suggest otherwise?
I read that passage and took it personally, as if I was the one being accused of wasting my time by studying multiple artsy subjects and not hanging out with the business majors or the engineers instead. Older people and parents of friends had told me over and over that I needed get serious about my future. What could I possibly do with a music degree? Yet there I was, reading about an awesome colony of people just like me, multidisciplinary arts wackos like myself, only to see some dry academic snob declaring that these heroes had wasted their lives. What a prick.
I became angry and I wanted to visit Monte Verita entirely because a stuffy old scholar had bashed this fantastic place and its glorious camaraderie of malcontents. I became nostalgic about an era that I was never even alive to witness.
Now, after traveling or freelancing for much of my adult life with no financial future—and no wife, kids, car, house or white-picket-fence happiness to show for it—I wondered. As a dude in his mid-forties often living from check to check like a nineteen-year-old, had I wasted my life? Should I be traveling in Switzerland when I’ll barely have rent money a few months later? With such emotions beginning to agitate me as I stood there on the front lawn, I turned around to meet my tour guide, the white-haired Hetty Rogantini de Beauclair, who was born on this hill.
Hetty was born in 1928, meaning she was the last living connection to the original Monte Verita era. She wore a cream-colored long-sleeved turtleneck and a red vest. She carried the enthusiasm of someone half her age. I never really knew either of my grandmothers, so as we began to walk around the property, Hetty filled the void, at least for a few minutes, providing a colorful star-studded history of this counterculture Mecca.
Monte Verita, said Hetty, began around 1900, attracting Ida Hoffman and Henry Oedonkoven, who together founded the colony. Women took off their corsets. Men sported long hair and beards. Together, everyone pranced around naked. The colony vowed a return to the simple life, away from what they saw as the horrors of the industrialized world. As anarchists, they offered a third alternative after capitalism and communism. Initially, they ate raw vegetables and nothing else.
“The only animal allowed was the donkey that carried the water,” Hetty said as we navigated a path of crushed twigs and leaves that cut through spotty patches of grass. She spoke with a thick Italian accent and had to bring along a few pieces of paper with English notes she’d scribbled down prior to my arrival.
Naturally, the colony attracted intellectuals, radicals, experimenters, and artists of every discipline, she said. Hermann Hesse first arrived around 1907, after which he wrote Demian, his experiment in Jungian self-analysis. Vladimir Lenin came around 1910. The Dadaists Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, and Hans Richter soon followed, returning many times. A few years later, modern dance pioneer Rudolf von Laban established a “School for Art,” attracting a roster of disciples including the dancer Isadora Duncan. Other notables who showed up included the Swiss painter Paul Klee, the mystic Rudolf Steiner, and the Grand Master of the Ordo Templi Orientis, Theodor Reuss, who organized a multidisciplinary conference of his own. Just about every thread of counterculture in the twentieth century could be traced back to Monte Verita, Hetty said.
Then at a portion of the property concealed by overhanging trees, Hetty pointed out relics from one hundred years ago: a rusted outdoor shower pipe, a sunken concrete bathtub half-filled with dried brown leaves, and the remains of a tennis court, all of which the nudists of Monte Verita used.
As we walked around, Hetty continued to school me on the history: In 1926, Baron Eduard von der Heydt, a cosmopolitan art collector from Holland with a penchant for Buddhism and other eastern religions, took over the reins of Monte Verita. Some of the exotic trees he planted still exist on the property. With von der Heydt at the helm, a new era began, and he commissioned the German architect Emil Fahrenkamp to construct the Bauhaus-style hotel in 1925.
“At that time it was the best hotel in Ascona,” Hetty said, as we stepped sideways down a grassy embankment into a large clearing. To the sound of distant seagulls, we stood on a sprawling lawn Hetty said was now utilized for banquets and events. What used to be a concrete swimming pool ninety years ago was converted to an open-air space for meetings, conferences, and performances, complete with a stage and lighting trusses.
With one hundred years of counterculture history crystallizing right before my eyes, I couldn’t hold in my elation. The space-time continuum of my directionless life cohered on Monte Verita. All the years of freelance journalism without a financial plan of any sort had nevertheless led to my presence on this hill. All the people who came here—Jung, Hesse, the Dadaists, dancers, occultists, perverts, vegans, painters, sculptors, men, women, children—they all had my back. I felt like an orphan finally discovering his ancestors. Every ridiculous thing I ever did in my life had steered me to this hill. I was home.
As Hetty and I contemplated the history, the Bauhaus Hotel sat atop the hill, shiny and white. The angular architecture juxtaposed elements of the rational and mathematical against the more fluid, imaginative surroundings of the landscape and the hillside. ETH Zürich now operated the conference facility, which continued to function as a place of research and experimentation, carrying on the tradition of the original colony. The restaurant offered gastronomical delights with spices from the gardens outside, re-imagining the naturalist tendencies of the founders. Eranos meetings, originally launched by Carl Gustav Jung himself, still unfolded on a regular basis. Concerts, plays, and even weddings took place there.
In other words, nobody wasted their lives. And I hadn’t wasted my life either. In fact, were it not for arts and music education, I’d probably be dead now. Arts and music were the only reason I went to college, the only reason I stayed in college. And it was in college that I first read about this place. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.
At the end of our tour, Hetty led me into one of the newer components of the complex, a Zen garden and Japanese tea house, further blurring the boundaries between nature, philosophy, behavior, and science—precisely the intentions of the forward-thinking characters that populated this hill one hundred years ago. Inside the teahouse, homemade blends and international varieties—green, black, white, herbal, and oolong—peered at me from underneath a glass case. Underneath another glass case, I saw a multitude of tea accessories including lacquerware pots, pu’erh knives, and other outré gifts.
An Italian-speaking Swiss woman then sauntered in and joined us. She gave a quick explanation about the teahouse. “Can you speak anything besides English?” She asked me. Everyone in Switzerland had been asking me this.
I said no and all three of us laughed in tune with each other. We sat down on bronze-colored mats next to a wooden table where the second woman had prepared tea in a dainty but austere porcelain receptacle. Could I claim the Monte Verita heroes as my spiritual nonconformist ancestors? I didn’t know for certain, but my arrival at this place illuminated an inner type of light. I was serene even before the tea was ready.
I thought one last time about that solid gray hardback copy of Mountain of Truth I’d seen in the Clark Library nearly twenty years earlier, but without letting it agitate me. The author who claimed those heroes had wasted their lives was wrong. There is no such thing as a squandered life. Combined together, all of my past was preparatory material for the current moment. I didn’t need a Tony Robbins seminar in a hockey arena to understand this.
Hetty and the woman had not seen each other in quite some time, so they needed to catch up in their mother tongue. They spent the next five minutes speaking Italian to each other across the table, so I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. But I was not bothered in the least bit. I was content. And I was beginning to enjoy the tea.