Thursday, August 27, 2009

E5 Epilogue

Hiking In The Alps

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Bolzano, Italy, known as Bozen to the German speakers in the region, once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Just like the rest of South Tyrol, it came under intense pressure to become more Italian during the earlier part of the last century. The city has, more or less, capitulated, though the region as a whole is still quite ethnically divided. Consequently, as we were soon to discover, the German language is of little or no use in Bolzano.

By the time we stepped on the bus in Moos in Paseier, we had both decided we were done with our hiking trip. We had some regrets about not completing the entire section of the E5 from Konstance to Bolzano. Nonetheless, we had done the lion's share of it. The remainder was child's play compared to the hundred miles we had already covered.

Looking at myself in my hotel room's full-length mirror the previous evening I had seen a skeleton. My ribs were visible above a sunken stomach, my cheek bones protruded. Maybe it was just the fluorescent overhead bathroom lighting but, at least in that light, I was beginning to resemble a starved prisoner of war.

Charles had other concerns. He couldn't stop thinking about his office and the problems to which he should be attending. Being so far out of touch at a time of crisis was hard to endure. We still needed to make it back to Paris somehow and then, if luck was with us, catch an Air-Hitch flight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Thinking about the time this would take was practically giving him hives.

The bus dropped us off at the train station in Bolzano. The station was striking to look at but, much like the region itself, it had a peculiar split personality. The right half was all grey Doric columns and Greek styling. The left half was more Mediterranean in design with a tall, square clock tower and reddish brown shingles. Clearly one half had preceded the other but it was hard to tell which might have come first.

We said goodbye to the Übers and they went off in search of a cable car to take them to the beginning of the next trail. We were sorry to see them go, not knowing if we would ever see them again, but after 11 days in the mountains we were tired of bunk rooms and ready for some city food.

We entered the ticketing hall and Charles went to the window to buy tickets on the night train while I waited with the bags by the entry way. When he returned he was beside himself with anxiety.

"We're stuck in Bozen," he said. "We may as well find a hotel and settle in."

"What to you mean?" I asked, incredulous. On the board were at least two trains leaving for Paris that very day. "Look at the departures."

"Oh there's trains, " he replied. "We just can't get reservations on any of them... not for the next four days."

I was stunned. Bolzano was a nice little city but we couldn't possibly stay for four days. I shook my head. "That doesn't sound right," I said. "That just can't be possible."

Charles tilted his head and looked at me with a hard, fed-up stare. He was as tired of me as I was of him. It wasn't the first time I had let him do the dirty work and then questioned his results. "Well, if you want to go and argue with the lady, be my guest."

Now nobody likes a know-it-all -- or so I've been told more times than I can possibly remember. My main problem is that I believe myself to have remarkable insight into things that I don't really understand at all. This belief, coupled with a fairly good track record for guessing, has driven many former friends and acquaintances to absolute distraction.

The fact that I came back with tickets won me few points with Charles. He could tell, from the thinly veiled smirk on my face, that I was gloating.

"What the hell?" he said when I gave him his ticket.

"I think you were asking for a reserved ticket," I said -- making a weak attempt at tact. "These seats aren't 'reserved'. We just sit wherever there's an empty seat."

It was probably better that we split up for the rest of the afternoon. Charles went in search of a Döner kebab and I went off to read in the shade. We agreed to meet back at the station thirty minutes before departure.

Bolzano felt tropical after our time in the nearby mountains. Vines tumbled over high, stuccoed garden walls, and everything was lush, fed by no fewer than three glacial rivers. Kiwi fruit dangled from backyard trellises, shaded by their elephant-eared vines. Vineyards anchored the nearby slopes, and the mountains, still capped with snow, were the backdrop of every vista. The homes on the nicer streets were vast and square. They were invariably stuccoed and either yellow, peach or beige in color. Where this wealth came from and how these grand properties continued to be maintained was a mystery to me.

We met back at the station in the early evening and claimed an unreserved cabin on the train. The train was an over-nighter, arriving in Paris the following morning, and we were determined to keep the cabin to ourselves. To do so, we came up with a devious, and blatantly inconsiderate, plan.

Initially, we spread out our bags to make it appear that every seat was taken. This ruse worked well, and soon the train was rolling out of the valley and into the darkness of the countryside. But now we needed to lie down and, somehow, keep others from trying to claim the seats we were using as our beds. I don't know which of us came up with part two of the plan in which we put on our headlamps, shut off the cabin lights and laid down -- heads at the outside wall of the train. Every time the train came to a stop, we would turn on our headlamps and aim them at the door. Anyone who paused to look was greeted by two bright beams staring silently out of the darkness. Needless to say, nobody had the courage to turn on the lights and ask if they could take an empty seat.

We arrived in Paris fairly well rested and took rooms in a youth hostel. We didn't see much of each other from then on. I wandered the city for a couple of days. Charles went right to work with Airhitch and got himself a flight out early the next morning.

Three days later I was back in Boston, at home with my girlfriend and working at my dead-end job. But that trip had changed me. It planted in me a travel-bug and, dare I say it, a sense of confidence that has, so far, been responsible for nearly a dozen European adventures as well as a dramatic career change.

Two weeks later we met to debrief in a bar in Somerville. Instead of reminiscing, we nearly came to blows. We had bottled up so much mutual resentment that we could hardly stand to be in the same room, let alone sit at the same table. I don't think either of us realized just how tired we were of each other. After that evening we wrote off our friendship entirely.

Soon after, I began making landmark changes to my life. I ended my 4-year relationship and moved in with an Italian con-artist, a French exchange student and a nymphomaniac dental hygienist -- but that's a story for another time. I helped launch a Web design company and buried myself in my work. My main goal was to make enough money to travel whenever I wanted. Nothing mattered except my next hiking vacation to the beautiful mountains of Europe.

I was, however, troubled by the thought that I had lost such a good friend. I couldn't even remember the reason. All I could recall were the good times. The embarrassing "Heiße Liebe" sundae; the Übers; the magnificent glacier over Braunschweiger Hütte; the giant breakfast in Zwieselstein.

So I stoked up my nerve and called him. A machine on the end of the line told me that the number had been changed. There was a forwarding number, however, so I wrote it down and tried it. A woman answered.

"Is Charles there?" I asked hesitantly -- not sure if I might have misdialed.

"No he's not. Can I ask who is calling?" she replied.

I told her.

"Oh, it's you," she said, smiling on the other end of the line. "I've been trying to get him to call you."

"You have?" I asked, puzzled. Who was this woman and how did she know me?

"Yes, he is always talking about you and the great times you had together. I told him it was stupid that he was so stubborn and that he should just call."

I left a message and Charles called me back that very evening. It was as if we had never once argued in our lives.

It may sound strange but I feel that our friendship did not really start until after that reconnection. Since then we have hiked many times together (see my Kungsleden travelogue) and many times apart but we have always taken this lesson with us: it is great to travel with a friend but one must have the courage to hike alone and to be one's own guide.

I am pleased to say that we have maintained a rewarding long-distance friendship with the Übers. Robert has come to visit us here, and Charles and I hiked with the whole family again several years later. Robert is now in his mid twenties, with a graduate degree and a fianceé. His English is better than ever, and his parents, ten years on, continue to hike over alpine glaciers.

Hiking a Knife Edge In The Alps

Happy trekking!

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