Friday, July 31, 2009

Zams and the über Familie, Day 8

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Mornings in the "mattress camp" come early -- with lots of zippers. Granted, there is plenty of zipping in the night, as folks slip in and out of their sleeping bags and stumble to the bathroom, headlamp beams thrashing wildly in the musty air. As they pass, others stir and, inevitably, someone else realizes they need to unzip.

But the morning zippers are far more aggressive. They begin usually around 5AM, when I am still hoping that I might snatch at least one hour of undisturbed sleep. It is then that the worst of the zipper-heads strike. "ziiiip..rustle-rustle... ziiip.. jingle, thwap, ziip..shick-shick-shick... bundle-bundle-bundle......ziiiiiiiiip... (repeat ad infinitum)" I have come to suspect that the main difference between a European "rucksack" and a North American "backpack" is that the rucksack has five times as many zippers.

Eventually someone turns on the lights -- usually around six -- undoubtedly to see his zippers more clearly. It is only my legendary self-restraint that prevents me from pelting this chief zipper-head with bits of leftover cheese and a toothbrush.

The only way to sleep soundly in a matratzenlager is to wear ear plugs and an eye mask. If, however, one's left ear plug has somehow fallen out during the night and slipped between two mattresses, there is no option but to rub one's burning eyes and join the early risers. Such was my situation at Memminger Hütte.

I was soon zipping up and down with all the other zipperheads, packing my bed linens and digging around for my missing ear plug. I then proceeded down the creaky wooden steps to the breakfast room where most of the tables were occupied by large parties. Again I picked up my breakfast which included no pleasant surprises, just the same old bread, jam, etc. that I had come to expect.

Charles had already eaten (or perhaps chosen not to) and was deep in conversation when I came outside to meet him. The man's name was Dietrich. He was a physically fit 40-something with substantial calves and a white baseball cap on his head. They were speaking in German but as I joined them they shifted easily to English. When I complimented his language skills he replied "No, my English is not so good. You should hear my son, his English is excellent and his French is even better."

"Then I look forward to meeting your son," I said.

I did not have long to wait. Robert, Dietrich's son, was a fourteen year old wunderkind. His English was, indeed, excellent -- even his accent was convincing. He was well-versed in history, science and pop culture and had an incredible thirst for all things "American".

Robert's mother, Haike, was young, attractive and energetic, with dark hair and a bright smile. She was not as talkative as Robert and Dietrich and often deferred to Dietrich when it came to hiking decisions. As a family unit, they were an impressive group. Dietrich was an admirable father-figure, handling maps with manly skill, carrying the lion's share of the load and, most impressively, still commanding the respect of his teenage son. Charles and I secretly began referring to them as the Übers. This was short for "Über Familie", our clandestine nick-name for this impressive little team.

We hiked across the bottom of the crater with the Übers and up the scree slope at the far edge of the bowl. Robert stuck close to Charles and me, peppering us with questions about the States. Although we could not tell him anything about his favorite band, KoRn, we did manage to fill him in on what it was like to live in Boston and Manhattan. We took turns entertaining him with stories of misspent youth and were both thankful for someone new with whom to pass the time.

The climb from the bottom of the canyon to the top of Seescharte, the needle's eye through which we would need to pass, was an arduous hour's hike. Charles and I both started out briskly to show that we could keep pace with a teenager -- of course, we could not. Dietrich and Haike started the climb more slowly, hanging back at first but eventually catching up with us as we huffed and puffed our way up the steep slope.

"You started too fast." Dietrich admonished us. "That is how you get so tired. If you start more slowly you do not have so much trouble next time."

He was right, of course. We soon came to realize that Dietrich was generally right about many things.

Just before Seescharte (the top of the pass) was a vertical scramble to a small rock-framed vista. Through the notch were another hundred miles of rough mountain silhouettes layered as far as the eye could see. The view was staggering.

We had realized that we would be hiking on the same schedule as the Übers all the way through to Bolzano. We were all quite happy to have more companions but, with so much time at our disposal, we split up as we hiked down the other side of the mountain.

It was not long before the ground leveled off in a large, lush plateau. We entered a muddy forest with towering conifers, like giant Christmas trees. The rich, muddy earth was pockmarked with the tracks of cows and horses. There were rivers to cross on bridges made from logs and scrap wood. The forest had an ancient, lived-in, feel to it, as if it had been carefully managed for centuries. The trees were well spaced, occasionally there was a stump where a tree had once stood. Then, after another river crossing, we discovered a green, mossy field, studded with small log cabins. It was like an enchanted village from a fairy tale -- no roads, no people, just well-built cabins in an idyllic setting. If we could have stopped, we might never have left.

Soon the trees gave way to pasture land. In the field was a herd of blonde horses and cows and another small cabin encircled with a rough hewn log fence. In the Memminger Huttesmall enclosure was a picnic table and a trough with a faucet for drinking water. Charles remembered this cabin serving a decent snack, so I ordered us a cheese plate and two radlers.

The Übers stopped by but only briefly. We asked them if they would be staying in Zams and Dietrich answered that they were going to a hut just a few miles further. The Übers were exceptionally thrifty, as most Germans seem to be. They would hike through a swamp to save fifty dollars. Charles and I were quite the opposite. We found creature comforts too tempting to resist.

Our cheese plate was loaded with thick slabs of a white local cheese. It was smooth and came in round thick slabs, very much like a provolone. There was more cheese than bread and, looking around, the reason was obvious. There were cows all around and, ostensibly, plenty of milk. Bread, on the other hand would have to be brought up by ATV from the village several miles below.

After eating our fill, we packed up the leftover cheese and continued on our way. We soon found ourselves walking down a trail hewn into the side of a mountain on the left of a great, green gorge. The way was shaded and, through the cleft in the mountains, we caught glimpses of the town in the valley below. We were still at the height of an airplane, however, and the town was still miles away. What we thought was Zams turned out to be Landeck, and we realized our mistake as we rounded the mountain to the east.

The woods grew thickly on the south side of the mountain and our trial became a seemingly endless series of switchbacks over trails of sand and pine needles, each Alois Bogner Memorialturn bringing the streets of Zams just a hair closer. Half way down this leg we found a boulder with a plaque telling the story of Alois Bogner who met his end in these mountains, perhaps under this very rock, back in 1862. The boulder told his story in poetic detail, or so Charles informed me. If you read German, you can enjoy it for yourself.

For some reason, this short walk was tiring us out. Our knees protested the relentless downward slope, as did our thighs. Seeing the town for so long in the distance was much harder than coming upon it by surprise. The first thing I would have was a Coke, I decided, and if we could find it, I wanted to eat pizza. I had lived far too long on German fare. We were close enough to Italy that I should be able to find something more rich in carbohydrates. I wanted the things that one takes for granted in any small town.

The trail finally spilled out on a dusty service road. We studied the map for a moment, then took a right on the road and a left, over a covered highway, protected from winter weather, to a quiet street at the edge of town. Someone had been kindly enough to actually erect a fountain for hikers. I filled my bottle but did not drink too deeply, saving my thirst for the Coke I had promised myself. From the mountain, the way to the center of town had seemed obvious but, once on the ground, it was more difficult to navigate. We looked at our map again and headed southeast, through quiet streets, then briefly due east, along a rushing turquoise river by the name of "The River Inn". The water, opaque and churning, was startling in color. This was probably the result of dissolved limestone but it looked distinctly minty to me.

We turned right (southeast again) onto a main thoroughfare, past a supermarket and several restaurants -- two with pizza! By 1:00 we were standing in the center of town, facing the ancient Postgasthof Gemse, operated by the Haueis family since 1726.

Inside we were met by a friendly old woman in a blue and white house dress. We requested two single rooms and she led us slowly up a broad, leaning, cantilevered staircase -- full of charm and beauty but nerve-wracking in its creaking and sagging. I would have moved more quickly if our hostess had not been leading the way. As it was, I hugged the wall.

The floors were covered with aging Oriental carpets, and the walls were decorated with a dozen or more heads of various horned beasts. Stuffed foul stood on mounted wooden perches, and pictures of mountain goats were interspersed with those of generations of Haueis mountaineers. All were photographed against dramatic backdrops which gave the impression of a vigorous and daring lineage.

Our rooms were immaculate, mine with the Virgin Mary (no pun intended) in devoted prayer above the bed. I tossed my dirty pack in a corner and admired the clean, flat, sheets and show-white down comforter piled high in the center -- much too clean to enjoy until I had taken a good hot shower.

"I wish I had the Virgin Mary over MY bed," said Charles, after our hostess had departed.

"You can have my room if you want," I told him. He declined, and I was secretly happy that he did.

We found lunch in a grotto-style restaurant and I had my pizza and Coke. It was as delicious as I had hoped, and I stuffed myself without shame. I was convinced that I was losing weight and, not being a hefty guy to begin with, was a little concerned. After lunch we found a shoe store a half mile beyond the guesthouse. There I bought the most expensive shoes I had ever purchased, for a whopping $216. These hard-core trekking boots were made by Lowa and pretty much walked themselves. Once I tried them on, I knew I would blow the bank. My feet had never been so happy in my life.

We walked back to the guesthouse and parted ways. Charles went back to his room to read and relax, I walked to the nearby Esso station and asked the clerk if they sold pens. "Here," he said, handing me a nice new ballpoint. "You can keep it." It was a small gesture but endeared me still more to Zams. I returned to the ancient bar on the first floor of the guesthouse and ordered myself a weissbier.

I had intended to write postcards but was quickly side-tracked by a group of six hikers who were drinking at a corner table. They recognized me from the trail and asked if I wanted to join them for a drink. I agreed, and they all shifted to English for my benefit. Several spoke English quite well and, when I asked if this was common, they replied that it was quite common indeed. In fact, they told me, most every educated German under the age of forty has taken some English classes. If they are not fluent in English, they would be fluent in French. This was news to me -- very good news.

I had another beer and quizzed them about their jobs and where they were from. After an agreeable hour, I retreated to my room to finally take my shower. I promised to meet two of them, Kirsten and Werner, for dinner an hour later.

I checked in briefly on Charles but he was in a foul mood for reasons I would learn the next day. He declined dinner and retired again to his room.

The entire day was a blur of new friends, socializing and gluttony. We met at the agreed upon time at a tavern we had each seen on our way into town. It had the feel of a family-style restaurant and a menu that was easy to understand. I had pizza again and we continued our conversations about Germany, America and our experiences with each. Kirsten was the more fluent English speaker but Werner understood most of what was said. I found Werner engaging, regardless. He had a constant smile etched into his cheeks, and I had the impression that, if he could have expressed everything on his mind, he would have been a very entertaining companion.

It was nearly ten o'clock when I finally fell into bed. The sheets were cool and, with the breeze through the window and one leg uncovered, the airy down comforter was just the thing. I slept there like an innocent child with Mother Mary watching over me.

Next Week
Braunschweiger Hütte

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Memminger Hütte, Day 7

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Charles and I were each hiking solo again. The day before had been a welcome break for both of us. Charles had arrived at Kemptner Hütte shortly after I checked in. After getting his own mattress spot he headed off to find a quiet place to read. I stayed on the deck to read Kerouac and write in my journal, only retiring inside when the sun went behind the western cliffs and the chill of the evening settled in.

In the morning the dining room was a hive of activity. At a busy window I traded a ticket for my "großes Frühstück" ("large breakfast"), then borrowed the unused corner of a table from a friendly family and ate with very little gusto. The "large" breakfast looked familiar but small: three slices of rye bread, tea or coffee (I took tea), some jam, butter and several thin shavings of meat and cheese. If I had not been so tired of German breakfasts, I might have finished it. I would have traded my new hiking stick for pancakes, bacon and eggs. Instead, I ate the perishables and one slice of the bread, wrapping the remainder in a napkin as usual.

The trail from Kemptner Hütte took me south east through a grassy field of boulders and up a well-maintained trail to a notch in the far side of the bowl. At the top were two signs, one a round yellow shield with the menacing shadow of the German Eagle, the other was striped red and white with an Austrian eagle in the middle (what is it with countries and eagles?) This was the only indication that I was crossing from Germany back into Austria. So I passed through the imaginary line of the border and said a final farewell to Germany.

In those pre-Euro days, all this border crossing made it a challenge to keep track of my currency. By this point I had French and Swiss Francs, German Deutsche Marks, and Austrian Schillings all thrown together in the outer pocket of my backpack. Soon enough I would be adding Italian Lira to the mix. I was beginning to feel a bit like a morris dancer jingling up and down the hills. It was rumored that Austrian huts would take German currency. This would be a relief if it proved to be true. I still had at least twenty dollars of unused German notes and coins. It would be a shame to bring them home with me.

The view from the notch was a grand expanse of jagged peaks and valleys. As if in torn patches, white snow glimmered through gray gravel rock slides, adding dramatic depth to the vast panorama. The towering mountains rose, layered for miles, turning pale blue as they approached the horizon. My trail led downward to the valley floor, curving and ducking through scrub pines, around large stones, and across mossy, flower-strewn fields.

By 10:00 the trail had widened to a road, taking me alongside a twisting gorge cut deep by a rushing series of watery cascades. Ice bridges arched over some sections. In others, water tumbled around towers of rock to appear, white and aerated at another bend in the trail. I tried to photograph a waterfall through a tunnel of rock but without the third dimension it proved impossible to capture.

This amazing performance continued for perhaps a quarter mile before the falls flattened into a river. I soon arrived at Holzgau, a quaint little village featuring a small hotel with an outdoor cafe. There I ordered an apple streudel and a "Radler", a local concoction of weissbeer and lemon soda. On an adjacent hillock stood a picturesque church with pointed red roof and a small cemetery. I pondered the church while I devoured the freshly baked pastry. Once fully refreshed, I felt ready to skip the shuttle ride and to tackle the road to Madau -- the base for my next ascent. This was despite the suggestive fact that all the other hikers were waiting for the shuttle bus.

The ensuing three-hour slog turned out to be another prime example of my dubious judgment. I was quickly learning that it never pays to second-guess Germans. The pine woods may have been beautiful but the "trail" was mostly a paved road with little respite for the feet. On the way my boots, already tattered, began to fall apart, splitting at the seams and separating from the soles. I changed to my Tevas for a short stretch but soon realized that this was a worse idea. With a 35 pound pack, I need proper ankle support and cushioning.

To rub salt in my wounds, every half hour the shuttle (a minibus) would speed by in a cloud of grit and diesel fumes, and I would be forced off the road, dodging into the brambles or flattening myself against a wall of blasted rock. I began to think that the driver was out to get me. When I finally emerged from the trees and into the sunlight near the trailhead, I was thoroughly exhausted. Swearing that I would never pass up another bus ride, I gratefully stepped back onto the real trail and began my ascent to Memminger Hütte.

The hike from this point was unrelenting. A thin, crumbling path takes one up the side of a steep valley. Scrub brush and flowers line the sides of the trail which is almost a trench in some places. The way is lined with memorials and a tiny chapel, each dedicated to someone who lost his life on the mountain.

Half way to the hut, the trail crosses a field and then a glacial stream. The field was a beautiful sight, as was the rushing water, and I refilled my bottles, following the example of the other hikers. The water was clear and fresh. I drank an entire liter and refilled it again.

I was becoming quite hungry. There were several old slices of bread in my pack as well as emergency rations of dried fruit and chocolate. I decided to pause for a snack, although what I really wanted was a burger and fries. Still, I had no idea how much further I might have to hike, and the chances of a burger when I got there were somewhat less than nil.

I chose a large, flat rock by the water and was quickly joined by a dozen soft brown moths who fluttered down to settle on my arms and legs. I took this to be a good omen. I later discovered that these little brown friends of mine, who found great pleasure in licking the salt off my arms, also feasted regularly on cow dung. So there I sat, oblivious and happy, covered in dung-eating moths.

I was soon hiking again. The remaining hour consisted of another thousand vertical feet. As I climbed, the greenery became thinner and more superficial. As with the last vertical part of any strenuous hike, every step was becoming a burden. My pack felt like lead on my shoulders and waist, and I reduced my pace to a crawl. I lost track of the scenery and looked mostly at the reddish earth, fixating on the crunch of every painful footstep until finally I found myself staring across the flat green bottom of another glacial bowl. In the near distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile further, stood Memminger Hütte, like a small wooden ranch against a backdrop of colossal, looming cliffs.

I pretty much jogged the final stretch, arriving completely winded with shaking legs and a light head. The vastness of the moonscape was hard to absorb. I dropped my pack on the porch, sat my back against the building and pulled off my dismal boots.

I had been hiking for nearly nine hours, over demanding mountains and hard asphalt. I was ready for a beer and as much dinner as I could afford. I entered the wood-paneled dining room and found a small, empty table. From the menu, scratched on a chalkboard, I ordered the tagessuppe (soup of the day), a vegetable medley that I finished in under five minutes. I moved on to the suppe mit wurst (a pea based soup with hot dog bits). Each meal came with the typical dense rye bread which was infinitely more palatable when dunked in the soup. After this I drank two hefeweizen and felt quite satisfied. I had not yet discovered a staple as satisfying as spaghetti bolognese but, sooner or later, I hoped that I might. In the meantime I tried to remember the names, and consistencies, of the dishes I had ordered, so as not to repeat my mistakes.

I spent the next two hours wondering when, or if, Charles would arrive. When he finally walked through the door, he looked just as exhausted as I had recently felt. He had started late, he assurred me, and had taken a number of longer rests. His bronchitis was completely gone but he was nonetheless ready for sleep. We confirmed that we would meet in the morning and he headed for the dormitory.

My bunk that night was, again, in the matratzenlager (mattress camp). I was starting to realize that the better rooms were always booked well in advance. Since I did not have the confidence to negotiate a reservation over the telephone, I reconciled myself to more lousy nights of sleep. Even so, I was enjoying the trip more than ever. Tomorrow I would be hiking with Charles once again. He was going to help me to buy some new boots. The hike would be shorter and mostly down hill, and we hoped to find private rooms in Zams.

Next Week
Zams and the über Familie

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I Go Solo, Days 5 and 6

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The rhythm of my boots on the trail puts songs in my head. And once a song gets stuck, I inevitably end up humming it for days on end. So it is only natural that I sometimes add my own lyrics to a tune that has been rattling around in there. It was on day 5 that I started writing The Wanderweg Song, sung to the popular 1920's tune Baby Face. Before teaching you the lyrics, I'll need to cover some background and basic terminology.

Firstly, we were walking on a trail generally known as the Europäischer Fernwanderweg E5. Literally the "European long hiking trail E5". This trail links together a number of smaller trails throughout Europe. Each of these smaller trails, to a German, would be known as a wanderweg -- pronounced "vaunder-vegg". We had started seeing the word "wanderweg" all over the place. It's easy to remember, just think "wander way".

Second, the most typical greeting we were hearing on the trail was "Grüß Gott!", pronounced "groose gut" or "groose goat" (don't forget to gargle your "r") depending on the accent of the speaker. In my song, I favor the latter pronunciation because it rhymes better. "Grüß Gott!" translates, literally, to "Greet God!", which is presumably what any good German does upon reaching the top of the mountain.

With that background, and with the tune from Baby Face in mind, you should soon be able to sing this song at parties and other special occasions. For the American palate, I have written the words in a pseudo-phonetic fashion. That way you can sing it like a true German:

The Wanderweg Song

I love to vaunder on der vaunder-veg!
I getting stronger on der vaunder-veg, vaunder-veg
Nothing is verboten
Ven ve are Groose Goatin'!
I am so happy when I'm on der vaunder-veg!
I get der stronger leg
upon der vaunder-veg
as I get blonder, vaunder-veg!

Yes, there were other verses but none that I was quite so proud of. The song proved quite popular with Germans -- kind of an underground cult classic. Of course I don't like to brag...

The hike from Sonthofen to Oberstdorf was a relaxing, flat hike along a meandering river. The scenery was mostly trees with the occasional farm or small village to break up the monotony. We needed a restful day so there was no complaining en route. In fact, the easy terrain resulted in a significant thawing of moods.

In a shady beer garden in Oberstdorf, we agreed that what we really needed was a little time alone. We decided to spring for separate rooms and to go solo for the next couple of days, only touching base briefly at our nightly destinations. This discussion lightened our mood considerably and, to lighten it still more, we each drank several tall glasses of the refreshing lemony hefeweizen beer that is so popular in Bavaria and the central Austrian Alps.

It was here that I ordered my first accidental plate of Käse-Knödel. I had decided that it was about time for me to start taking some initiative with respect to the language. I knew that Käse meant "cheese" but Knödel was not in my abridged pocket language guide. I did not ask Charles for a translation. "Knödel" sounded like "noodle", and anything resembling noodles would work for me. And I had been living on spaghetti bolognaise, so cheese would make a nice change from the usual meaty red sauce.

Having ordered, we sat back to enjoy the authentic, small-town alpine scenery. The beer garden was shaded by trees and surrounded by a low fence. Outside the fence we watched tourists and natives stroll past picturesque buildings of stucco and rough hewn lumber. The restaurant played an eclectic mix of top 40 rock, classic rock and polka, with little thought to stylistic transition.

Oberstdorf was a bustling little town, enjoying the influx of vacationing visitors from Munich and beyond. We would later learn that Oberstdorf serves as the practical trail head for the most popular section of the Fernwanderweg E5. German hikers shun the section of trail that we had just completed, preferring to arrive in Oberstdorf by train. Oberstdorf also provides easy access to several other hiking and skiing routes, both by trail and by cable car. It is, therefore, a popular destination both in the summer and winter tourist seasons.

My food arrived after our second beer. It consisted of three heavy cheese dumplings the size of baseballs in a shallow dish of thin broth. These proved difficult to swallow, both literally and figuratively, and I only prevailed because of my extreme caloric deprivation and my unwillingness to admit that I had made a mistake. Afterwards I felt full but my carbohydrate fix had not been satisfied. I compensated by ordering dessert. The dessert menu had pictures so I felt confident in my ability to choose something more satisfying.

I ordered a "Heiße Liebe" sundae. The picture looked amazing: three large scoops of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, cherry sauce, whipped cream and a piece of chocolate that I failed to recognize as a little heart. The waitress smirked and asked, in English, whether we would be needing two spoons.

"No thanks, it's just for me." I replied.

"But it is not common to eat this dish all by yourself," she insisted, smiling a coy smile.

"Don't worry," I said confidently, "I can."

Perhaps, I thought, she was amazed by my incredible appetite. Or maybe she was flirting with me. Either way, I had clearly made an impression. "I think she likes me," I said to Charles after she had returned to the kitchen to make my super-man sundae.

Charles shook his head. "'Heiße Liebe' means 'hot love'" he replied. "She thinks we might be eating it together."

Sure enough, the sundae arrived with two chocolate hearts and two spoons, a set pointing suggestively toward each of us.

After dinner we did a quick survey of town and decided that all of the rooms were either full or too expensive. Luckily, Sonthofen was a short train ride away. So we returned there after our meal and found separate rooms. Despite the peculiar cheese balls and wanting to eat my sundae alone under the table, the evening had been exceptional. Having my own room made it a four-star night.

Oberstdorf to Kemptner Hütte, Day 6

I was going through money at an unsustainable pace. This worrisome situation was caused partly because we had yet to reach the mountain hut system. It was, therefore, some consolation that I would be staying in my first mountain hut this evening.

Our pension, with our glorious separate rooms, served the same breakfast to which we were growing accustomed: a small selection of rolls, thin slices of meat and cheese, wedges of soft cheese wrapped in foil, pre-sealed packets of jam, tea, coffee, watery juice and a good selection of under-ripened fruit. Muesli and yogurt were also an option. It was sufficient but hardly a treat. The compensation was that one could always borrow a few rolls, cheese and jam for handy trail snacks. I always did this on the sly. Morally, I did not consider this stealing -- I was paying for the bed and breakfast -- but it did seem just a little uncouth to be slipping rolls into my pockets.

We ate and paid separately and sat separately on the train. Once back in Oberstdorf, we lost each other in the crowds of the Hauptstraße ("High Street"). Blissfully free, as I wended my way through the cool morning air, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. The sun was drying the window box flowers, grocers and pharmacists were opening their shops, and the mist was rising to reveal the nearby mountains.

I was free of everything for the first time in years. I was completely unreachable by telephone or fax. My mediocre job was a distant memory. I was completely alone yet somehow self-sufficient, and I suddenly understood why Charles had brought me here. It wasn't just because he just wanted someone to torture. That was part of it, sure, but only as a means to an end. Rather, it was because he wanted to share this rare exhilaration -- which could only exist in contrast to the rest of it. Like a runners high, only slower. The irony was, of course, that we were incapable of sharing it together.

At the end of the bustling Hauptstraße, I turned left onto Weststraße and, arriving at a tall whitewashed church, decided to take a look inside. Pfarrkirche St. Johann Baptist is beautifully designed and decorated. It boasts three wooden balconies, a dark wooden ceiling, three cabinet-style triptychs and paintings of poor old Christ's agony, from trial to crucifixion. There are no decorative windows but the clear rippled glass has its own, humble appeal. Random panes are tinted pink from some impurity in the silica. The effect was more honest and pure than traditional stained glass. I sat in the lower balcony and thanked my ambiguous and under-appreciated God for my good fortune.

Exiting the church I made my way out of town toward Spielmannsau. A horse and buggy passed me both forward and back as I sauntered through farmland, past a golf course and finally into forest, emerging on the other side at the hotel and outdoor cafe that marked the end of civilization, at least until Kemptner Hütte.

At a picnic table in the cafe, I ordered a Coke and a apple strudel. Both tasted delicious to my calorie-starved body. I filled my water bottles in the bathroom of the adjacent hotel and then, sitting on a swinging chair in the yard, I ate the remainder of my breakfast: two rolls, some soft cheese, and two packets of jam. No point in carrying the extra weight up the mountain.

Just beyond Spielmannsau the road became a path. The path crossed more farmland before passing into a forest and then up the east side of a gorge. The trail here was steep. I reminded myself to pay attention to the increasingly rocky terrain unfolding all around me. The trail tumbled down dangerously in places, and water dripped, sometimes splashing, from the rocks up above. A cool wind blew through the gorge and I began to notice small patches of snow. Up the wall on my left, over a cliff-side meadow, I could see a small cave in the face of the rock. I was tempted to explore it but, being alone, chose caution over adventure.

Kemptner Hütte appeared suddenly, over a green rim of grass. It was situated at the floor of a bowl of beige rock spires. The final climb was the hardest. It was a near-vertical climb on a zig-zag trail cut deep into green hummocks.

The hike from Oberstdorf to Kemptner Hütte had taken less than four hours. By 3:15 I was seated on the porch, enjoying a hefeweizen. The view from the porch was a panorama of the grassy floor of a crater encircled by jagged cliffs of scree and rock. There was no other building except Kemptner Hütte in sight.

I ordered another beer and a bowl of the "Bergsteigeressen" (hiker's dinner) which was a goulash of beans, pasta, tomatoes, sausage and other odd bits with two slices of hearty bread. I considered ordering another bowl but decided against it in order to stay on budget.

I did not talk with anyone that evening. I am not, by nature, an easy socializer. The addition of a language barrier compounded my natural reservations. I smiled at a few people, though, and wondered if I would see the same group at the next hut. If so, I would force myself to say something to someone.

I slept in the "mattress camp" between two total strangers. On my left was an older man, probably in his sixties, who kept the whole room up with snoring. I was hit by at least two pillows during the night, both presumably aimed at him. On my right was a pretty young blonde who was quickly replaced by her boyfriend when he noticed me looking. He slept with his butt jammed right up to my side for the greater part of the night.

Next Week
Memminger Hütte

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

No Sleep 'Til Sonthofen, Day 4

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We rose early to a sour-tempered Frau Hubertus. In the dim light of a foggy morning, with what must have been a magnificent hangover, the English woman served her American guests a Germanic breakfast of sliced meat, cheese, thick brown bread, butter, jam and tea. There was no more talk of a desk manager position for Charles. In fact, there was no talk at all, just a dark, lurking spectre who would appear from time to time, growl and retreat. After breakfast we were presented with a bill that was twice what we had expected. The previous evening Charles had asked for the room rate and Frau Hubertus had, instead, told him the price per person. It was an honest mistake, and $42 was not exorbitant by any fair standard. Even so, we took our leave in not so jolly a fashion as we had arrived.

This was to be our most demanding day yet. We had planned it that way, hoping to hike a double leg. We needed to avoid a certain alpine hut known as Staufner Haus in which Charles had been ill the previous year.

The alpine hut system requires a bit of background. Scattered throughout the alps are hundreds of remotely isolated huts, each with its own personality. Some are ski huts, mostly empty in the summer, others are hiking huts that close down in the winter. From any given hut, one can count on finding at least one other within walking distance.

Although some huts are privately owned, most are run by the alpine club of their respective country. Many are sponsored by a particular alpine club branch and bear the name of a town or region in that country. All offer rustic accommodations, many serve meals, and most offer at least one local beer on tap. To be ill in such a close setting is a miserable experience both for the victim and for the other guests sleeping close by. Charles had a horror of reliving that experience, and that was our main reason for this doubly long day.

Charles was still carrying a half-kilo tin of fish in his pack. This fish became our mascot as we started our first real ascent. If I were ever to design a family crest for Charles, canned herring would place prominently on his shield. It added significant weight to his pack but, he claimed, it would give him strength when he needed it most.

The first part of our hike was a climb up to Staufner Haus, the hut that we wished to avoid. The uphill hike was tiring but not so harsh as Charles remembered from the previous year. The trail was well-traveled and wide, winding over the grassy foothills that lead to the hut.

We reached the hut around noon but did not stop. Instead we continued hiking until we reached a nearby ski lift with a restaurant. There I ordered my standard spaghetti bolognaise and Charles indulged in a plate of weisswurst. So far we were making good progress. Best of all, we had finally reached real, honest to goodness, mountains. Beyond Staufner Haus, the cliffs were striated where layers of rock had been turned on end by some prehistoric tectonic collision. Between the standing layers of rock, pine trees grew neatly in rows, as if intentionally planted. Overlooking this striking scenery we finished our lunch and continued on our way.

It was 5:00 when we noticed the storm clouds behind us. We were in the middle of an extraordinary ridge walk, completely exposed on all sides. On our left, the ground dropped off sharply to green pastures hundreds of feet below. On our right, diagonal layers of rock formed great downward cliffs, progressively eroding into to a steep grassy slope. To encounter a thunder storm on such a ridge could be life threatening. We picked up the pace, glancing warily over our shoulders, but the ridge went on and on with no visible end in sight. Worse, on the right side of the trail a barbed wire fence snaked on for miles in either direction. It occurred to me that one strike, anywhere along that fence, could light up the entire trail.

Adding to the problem of the storm, we were both starting to suffer from trail claustrophobia. We could have enjoyed ourselves infinitely more by hiking separately for a couple of days. Without space, we became peevish and unbearable, imagining slights and devious motives where none could possibly exist. I remember secretly, and unfairly, blaming Charles for our lodging issues. Charles, tiring of my frequent thoughtlessness, was starting to snap at me.

Really, I was being terribly inconsiderate. I was relying on Charles for everything: he ordered my meals, he found us rooms, he handled the maps. He had even paid for my plane ticket. The only thing he didn't do was carry my pack. And I don't think I had yet thanked him for any of it. Instead, I resented my dependence on him and that made me irritable. All the same, I did not have the courage to strike out alone for even one day. Having since found myself many times in the position of trail guide, I understand well the pressure that Charles must have felt. It is no surprise to me that he was sometimes a little out of sorts.

At about 6:00 we started to notice the play of lightning on the mountains behind us. I am not a cowardly man and am willing to take my chances with all sorts of weather but lightening on a ridge, I'd rather not face. We sped up again and were thankful for a blue patch of sky that seemed to hover over our heads while everything in sight turned grey. From this vantage we warily watched as the storm swept through the valleys on either side of our ridge. Soon the rain was falling like curtains to the east and west. As the evening wore on, those curtains were closing in.

It was 9:00, and we had just stepped onto a road, when the sky opened up on our heads. Fortunately the road took us through the heart of a thick pine forest. That was some consolation, as we would be safer from the lightning if not from the rain. Unfortunately, we still had three miles before the first chance of a room.

As the sky darkened and the rain pelted down, we put on our headlamps and rain gear. Half a mile later, we stopped to look at our map. It was encased in a plastic map bag and difficult to read through the raindrops. As we studied the route, Charles' trail claustrophobia got the better of him.

"Stop looking at me!" he snapped. "Your light is shining right in my eyes!"

I apologized, half-heartedly, and suggested that he walk on ahead. He did so and we continued, both stewing like a dysfunctional married couple.

Two and a half miles later we came to the first pension. Charles knocked as we huddled, half covered by the awning above the door. A moustached man in lederhosen opened it a crack.

"Do you have any rooms available?" Charles asked him in German.

The man looked us up and down and seemed to consider for a moment. We shuffled impatiently, soaked to the skin, waiting for him to show some courtesy and let us in. We must have made quite an impression.

"Nein" he finally replied, and made as if to close the door.

"Excuse me," Charles said, again in German. "Can you at least tell us how far it is to the next pension?"

He shrugged, "One kilometer, maybe two?" and then closed the door neatly in our faces.

Now we had a common enemy and could direct our irritation away from each other. We spent the next mile replaying the incredible scene and thinking up new epithets to hurl back over our shoulders. I remember imagining that this walk was my atonement for sins of the past. Charles was thinking along the same lines, promising God aloud that he would be a better man if we survived. It was all very melodramatic.

Our anger got us through the first mile but, into the second, despair began to take hold. At every turn we expected to see the lights of a town but Sonthofen was still a full hour away. It was there, at 11PM, that we finally spotted the next pension. We had determined that our pathetic appearance had lost us the previous chance. We did not want to risk a repeat episode so, across the street, in the vaulted doorway of a church, we changed into our best remaining clothes. Then we crossed back and rang the buzzer.

The young lady of the house, a dark-haired beauty, hustled us into the hallway and out of the rain. In complete contrast to the moustached man's greeting, she was all courtesy and kindness. Charles was not hungry but I was famished. I asked her if there was a chance of getting something cold from the kitchen.

"I can make you anything from the menu." she replied pleasantly.

"How about a steak?" I asked, testing my luck.

"No problem," she said.

Fifteen minutes later, at a table in the rustic dining room, I ate the best steak of my life. I fell asleep at midnight, feeling very fortunate that I was not sleeping in the church doorway -- or even in the same bed as Charles.

Next week
I Go Solo, Days 5 and 6
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