Cowlateral Damage by J.C. Elkin

Cowlateral Damage

J.C. Elkin

It was late September in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley, the lush pastures sparkling with frost-melt under the retreating shadows of the Alps. As we drove past chalets draped in geraniums, the sun warmed us like the mulled wine we would order in Mürren, a postcard hamlet halfway up the Schilthorn. There, where no cars were allowed, the Alpine breeze could transport an American tourist to the pages of Heidi, which was precisely what my aunt had in mind.  

As with all pilgrimages, the journey was arduous, requiring a train and gondola ride that ran infrequently. And this particular day, the lowlands were rank with the scent of manure.

“Eww, Julia!” my husband teased our toddler, “Do you need to go potty?”

“Nooo,” she protested, kicking his seat. “It’s the cows. The cows are gassy.”

Her big sister snickered, plugging her nose.

“Poor Julia,” my aunt sympathized. “I believe you, even if I can’t see them.”

It was true. We hadn’t passed any cattle yet, but the funk was strong. I was musing where they could be when a police cruiser with flashing lights came inching down the center of the road at 15 kilometers per hour. The officer slowed and waved our Honda Civic toward the shoulder.

“Oh, great,” my husband said. “Construction! Now we’ll never catch the train on time.”

“Are you sure?” my aunt asked. “I didn’t see any road work signs.”   

Again, she was right. There had been no signs, so we kept the motor running.

Our new car, purchased in ’88, shortly before receiving military orders abroad, was roomy enough for a young family and small enough to be gentle on gas. Yet even with petrol at four times the stateside price, our tiny sedan had not proven as economical as we’d hoped. Built to American standards, it had presented unique challenges under the Swiss bureaucracy. In order to buy insurance, we’d had to invest $2,000 (US) to retrofit it with halogen headlights, beige blinkers, an official speedometer posting kilometers per hour larger than miles, and a hand-crafted muffler.  

We were on a first-name basis with our mécanicien and the agent d’assurances who had helped us navigate the labyrinth of repairs and registration. Despite the headaches, though, the car had served us well—from Christmas tree shopping in the Jura to sledding in the Engadine and touring most of western Europe.

The officer strode to our vehicle, eyeing us like the foreigners we were.

Guete Morge. Könne Sie Schwitzerdütsch reede?”

Neither of us spoke Swiss German.

Je parle français, and I speak English,” my husband replied.

Gut,” the policeman replied. “Park on the verge of the road and break off your motor. The Alpabzug comes.”

“What did he say?” I asked as he strolled away.

“Park on the shoulder and turn off the engine. I think we’re going to see the Dèsalpe,” he said, his eyes bright with surprise.At least that’s what the French call it. I read about it in the weekend section of the newspaper. It’s a festival to celebrate the milking cows’ return from their high summer pastures. It’s a big deal, a really momentous occasion. We’re lucky!”

He pulled up to the grassy embankment and hopped out, camera at the ready. My aunt and I, holding the children’s hands, stood behind the trunk for safety.

We heard the animals before we saw them, their great bells clanging a cacophony of copper, bronze, iron, and brass. First came two chestnut draft horses pulling a wagon with the farmer’s family perched on parade. Then came children driving half a dozen white goats with wooden walking sticks. Everyone, young and old, wore traditional costumes: the beribboned girls in colorful dirndls with laced bodices and aprons, and the guys in dark suits embroidered with edelweiss and trimmed in red piping. They sported hunter-green fedoras or floppy peasant caps. Even the goats had red bows. Then came the cattle—Guernseys, buff-colored like our car and just as tall. On their heads were bouquets of pine boughs and wildflowers, and around their beefy necks, they wore huge bells corresponding to their productivity: the bigger the bell, the better the milker. The champion led the parade, weighted down by brass that hung to her knees.

“The poor cow,” my aunt crooned, “having to carry all that weight.”

She had a point. The bell must have weighed 30 pounds. Ironically, there was a move afoot a quarter-century later, in 2015, to outlaw even the traditional 12-pound bells when it was found that they damaged the animals’ hearing, but farmers and the tourism bureau prevailed in that fight.

The lead cow trotted down the center dotted line with the rest of the herd fanning out behind her in a flying wedge formation. With too few herdsmen, the livestock owned the road, and they knew it. One of the leaders headed to the grassy shoulder in order to graze. Then another followed, and another, until soon they were overflowing the road.

“They’re headed straight for us!” my husband said, his voice rising with alarm.

“Mooo,” said the girls, making finger horns on their heads.

“Aren’t they just the most adorable creatures you ever saw?” my aunt exclaimed.

“Girls, up here on the hill!” I called, reaching for them.

The herd picked up speed, and just as they reached our car, one bovine hip-checked another such that she belly-flopped onto the hood of our Honda, sliding forward with front hooves outstretched like a kid on a Slip-n-slide. She bellowed; the car groaned, and a loud crunk issued from the bumper as she slid over the hood and eased off the fender with surprising grace. It was over in five seconds. Five dumbfounded seconds, and not a photo to show for it. Nothing but a crumpled hood slimed with milk and drool, and a side-view mirror hanging limp from its wire—another $2,000 in repairs.

“The poor cow,” my aunt said.

“My poor car!” my husband said.

“My God!” I said. “We were lucky, all right. Lucky we weren’t killed.”

When we returned to town later that afternoon to file an official report, we learned that ours was one of five vehicles damaged by the herd that day, for which the farmer’s insurance company, Winterthur (motto: Acting Responsibly), had to settle claims. We received compensation only when our Winterthur agent, a personal friend, intervened on our behalf, the farmer claiming that the spectators in their parked cars were at fault. 

We made it to Mürren that day to nurse our warm drinks on a terrace overlooking the Jungfrau. And, of course, we bought a cowbell to commemorate the occasion. We have it still and ring it to commemorate momentous occasions like graduations, weddings, and car accidents.

About the Author

Jane Elkin is a language teacher, singer, and graphologist, inspired by a long memory for minutiae. She is the author of one chapbook, World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom, and over a hundred other works of prose and poetry appearing in such publications as Ruminate, The Best of, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Popula, and Angle. The working title for her major work-in-progress is Mother’s Ink: A Momoir in Handwriting Analysis. To learn more, visit