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

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