Sunday, June 28, 2009

Into the Foothills, Days 2 and 3

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Day 2: Arbon to Höchst
It is fair to say that we were both amazed by how much that first day destroyed us. We crawled out of bed around 8:30, sore but thankful for Rudi and Margrith. Charles was coughing deeply, so I braced myself for the inevitable and wondered if I had the cojones to hike on without him. My sore hip was giving off cowardly twinges.

Rudi left for work before we awoke. We had said goodbye the night before but I still felt bad for sleeping so late. Our breakfast was already set by Margrith: cheese, toast, boiled eggs in egg cups, hot chocolate and tea. It was a tremendous spread and I ate like a pig at a trough. My body, back then all skin and bones, craved calories. Charles ate sparingly however, and this confirmed my suspicion that I might be nearing the end of the "guided" part of my tour.

But it was not in the purview of Dr. Death to make quitting easy on Charles, so I carefully avoided opening the door to that discussion. Instead I complemented Margrith's unique rotating cheese knife and made grand offerings of American hospitality which I could never hope to fulfill. Afterwards we both thanked Margrith warmly. She had already packed us a generous bagged lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, tomatoes and freshly picked fruit from her own backyard orchard. With these in a plastic shopping bag (no room in the packs) we slogged it back to Bodensee.

The section we intended to hike, from Arbon to Rheineck, Switzerland, was very similar to what I have already described: sidewalks and gravel paths along the side of the lake. The only difference was that the heat was more intense and Charles was coughing up blood. I felt certain that the moment of truth was at hand but Charles hung in, complaining only of blisters. My hip had not recovered so I made up my mind to lighten my pack at the next available post office.

I longed to dive into the clear water of the lake but was determined to match Charles for stamina and self-deprivation. I also didn't want to suggest anything that would slow down our progress toward the mountains. If solo hiking was inevitable, I first wanted a glimpse of the higher altitude terrain.

During our frequent breaks I devoured the sandwiches and fruit that Margrith had prepared for us. Charles was not interested in eating, which I took as a bad sign. Still, he was stoically silent about quitting. It was shortly after noon, following another coughing fit, when I finally broke down and asked him whether or not he would continue with the hike.

"I just need to get to the mountains." He said, repeating his assertion from the previous day. "The alpine air will cure me of this, I'm sure of it."

I hadn't realized how determined Charles could be. It was hard to believe that a guy who was coughing up blood could continue with something so strenuous. Yet he had no intention of quitting. He even seemed a little offended that I had assumed he would. As if to underscore his determination, he picked up the pace and we made it to Rheineck in good time.

When we arrived in Rheineck, just on the Swiss side of the border, it was only 4:30. There Charles continued with his phoenix-from-the-ashes recovery. At an outdoor cafe, from which we could have lobbed meatballs into Austria, Charles ordered and ate a hearty dinner. I did the same. My spaghetti bolognaise was delicious, and for the first time we revelled in our progress. Over several cold beers we closely examined our map and determined that we might still make some distance before nightfall. Although we could have easily found lodging in Rheineck, Charles suggested that we head for the next pension on the far side of Gaissau, Austria. I was thrilled with the idea, though I would regret it soon enough.

As soon as I heaved my heavy pack onto my shoulders, my beer-strength deserted me. The one mile remaining could not go quickly enough. Thirty minutes later, at the door of the pension, I rested while Charles went looking for the master or mistress of the house. Charles was unfamiliar with this particular pension. On his previous tour he had slept in a patch of stinging nettles nearby. That turned out to have been a lucky choice, oddly enough, because when he did finally locate the owner he was told, rather sharply, that this was not a pension at all and did not offer rooms. We were trespassing and he wanted us out of the yard.

There was no other building in sight that could match the guidebook's description. It was almost certainly the place where the pension was said to have been. We pressed on, disheartened, toward the next small town -- about two and a half miles further. Perhaps, we considered, the guidebook was not to be trusted.

The going was slow. Our feet burned and our shoulders ached. We found ourselves hiking on asphalt roads through corn fields, uncertain of our direction, only hoping that the next town would eventually appear beyond the green wall of corn.

We arrived in Höchst an hour and a half later, once again totally shattered. After several false leads we found a "zimmer frei", a vacant room, at an inn on a residential side street. There were two twin beds and a small private shower which felt like Shiatsu to my wasted muscles. As I showered I stamped soap into my laundry and then hung various pieces over every knob in the room. Charles had already announced that he would take a brief nap before doing the same. That was his way of saying goodnight.

Day 3: Höchst to Bregenz
I am not a superstitious man but there may be something to be said for the power of faith healing. The moment we entered the Allgäu (pronounced OW-goy) region, Charles' bronchitis started to disappear. We awoke feeling strong, ready to enter the foothills.

The town of Bregenz, Austria was a short walk from the pension. It was there that Charles bought new hiking poles with carbide tips and a large tin of herring which he stuffed in his pack. The carbide tips were an improvement on the rubber-tips of the poles he had left on the train. They would, as I have already suggested, save Charles' life several days later. I also bought a pole, a Leki Wanderfreund, that has been my walking companion for the eleven years since.

I took the opportunity to unpack and send back several items, via post, before we hit the mountains. My pack was now blessedly lighter and we both felt optimistic again -- Charles with his herring and I with my lightened load.

We hopped on the bus to Lingenau, about eight miles southwest as the crow flies. The bus ride was part of the hike recommended by our guidebook. We would, otherwise, have wasted another day walking along roads and gravel bike paths. Instead, we were dropped in Lingenau and proceeded to tackle our first 1000 feet of elevation. It seemed like a dream after the roads we had suffered. The trail was soft and my new cane-style pole gave my hip just the cushion it needed. Like Charles' bronchitis, my hip was healing nicely.

When we arrived at Pension Hubertus in Hittisau we were greeted by Frau Hubertus herself, lounging in a folding chair in the front yard. She was a jovial woman, middle aged and with the red nose of a heavy drinker. Beside her was a muttish dog that she said was a pure breed but she had forgotten what type. Charles asked her, in German, how much was a room. She replied somewhat awkwardly that it was 270 Schillings. Charles translated for me that the price was just over $20 for the night.

"Why are you speaking English to him?" she asked Charles.

"We're from the States." Charles replied in German.

"But why are you speaking English to him and not to me?"

After several confused seconds we realized that Frau Hubertus hardly spoke any German at all. She was English, from Dorset, and had precious little interest in the local culture and language. Having married an Austrian she had found herself expatriated to Austria and longed for English speaking companions.

She showed us to a comfortable room with two twin beds. We chatted for quite some time and, over a bottle of beer, she offered Charles a job as her translator and desk manager. Her husband, it turned out, was in Geneva for a knee operation. He was away a lot, she said, and judging from the pictures of Herr Hubertus and some Austrian ski bunnies, we drew our own conclusions.

Charles did not decline the job on the spot but seemed to be seriously considering it. As we entered the town square, to all appearances an historic alpine village, an outdoor polka concert was just getting started. We took folding seats in the audience. A pair of attractive, chesty fräulein in traditional dress made their way through the sparse crowd offering free schnapps. Between them they had two shot glasses, a jug of clear liqueur and a dishrag. As the first fräulein filled one glass, the second wiped the other glass clean with the dishrag. Then they swapped glasses and moved to the next customer. They worked their way through the crowd this way and eventually offered me one of the glasses. I declined their hospitality but their quaint, open friendliness was unforgettable.

In a restaurant nearby, all post, beam and stucco, we had a wonderful meal of sausage, potatoes, a light salad and beer. Listening to the music as it drifted through the warm August evening I could see why Charles might consider staying behind...

Next week.
No Sleep 'Til Sonthofen


  1. Love being a armchair hikers :) Glad you can reflect and share so clearly, notes must have helped! With appreciation and love, Mom & Dad

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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