Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Over Timmelsjoch and Into the Italian Alps - Day 11

Fernwanderweg E5

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The trip to Zwieselstein brought two minor miracles. The first was, of course, Charles' survival on the treacherous snow field. The second was an 8 oz bottle of Canadian maple syrup that we found in Zwieselstein's tiny supermarket. I must caution my more adventurous readers that this supermarket has since been replaced by an ill-stocked convenience store with little more than carbonated drinks and junk-food snacks. At the time, however, we were able to piece together all the ingredients of an elaborate Lumberjack Breakfast for the entire hiking party.

We treated the Übers to what we imagined would be a breakfast epiphany. Once they had tried our breakfast, we speculated, word would spread through Germany and the entire continent about the pleasures and benefits of the Lumberjack Breakfast. I called home for my favorite pancake recipe, Charles fried up eggs, fatty ham (a decent bacon substitute) and diced potatoes. We offered orange juice and coffee, the whole works.

To our great surprise, the Übers didn't quite get it. Perhaps they were taken off guard by the heaps of carbohydrates, sugar and cholesterol. They didn't seem to know what to make of the maple syrup that I was pretty nearly drinking off the plate. For people who were used to eating their oats raw and their meats in paper-thin slices, it was probably a bit of a shocker. Regardless, we were very pleased with ourselves. My meager morning rations had been making me very homesick.

By the time we had cleaned up, the Übers had a good head start on us. We had arranged to meet for lunch at Timmelsjoch, the mountain pass into Italy.

Our morning hike started uphill from Zwieselstein. There was some confusion here due, I believe, to an overzealous (or sick humored) trail blazing team. The guidebook suggested that we hike up a dirt road but the first blazes we spotted were in the middle of a field. So we climbed the fence and proceeded to wade through damp, thigh-high stinging nettles and field grass up a thirty degree slope.

We soon found ourselves running back and forth, like desperate squirrels, searching for rocks with painted red and white stripes. Eventually the blazes disappeared entirely and we were left standing like idiots in the middle of the field. So we trudged blindly upward. The real trail, discovered on later hikes, is the dirt road that runs up the left of the field. Our farce concluded when this road crossed the field about a quarter of a mile up. Wet with dew, and exhausted from bushwhacking, we clamored over the stone wall and onto the real trail.

We soon passed through a pine forest and then out into fields again, this time with a proper trail and miles of open grassland. The sky seemed vast and beautifully blue after yesterday's fog. We were now crossing the high plains of the Ötz valley. A road ran through the center, taking traffic up to Timmelsjoch, our lunch meeting place and half-way point and the psychological (if not the actual) half-way point between Zieweselsteain, Austria and Moos in Passeier, Italy -- our destination that evening. As the trail opened up, Charles walked on ahead. My energy was lower than usual, and my pack felt heavy.

Sheep grazed lazily on the alpine grass, bored and unattended. I found water in a stream under a footbridge and refilled my bottles. The trail crossed the road several times as I climbed the grassy slopes of the canyon. It was a pleasant walk, despite my lethargy.

Timmelsjoch stands at the border between Italy and Austria. My first sight of it was an old, dilapidated building on a distant ridge as I climbed up the left side of the Ötz. On the road below, motorcyclists and trailer trucks sped by. The terrain was becoming dryer and more desolate, a marmot screeched in the distance and a hawk circled overhead. The sun and the dry wind evaporated my sweat as soon as it started. I could see Charles, perhaps a half mile ahead, climbing steadily. I was in no hurry. My pant legs were hard and caked with dry dust, and my appetite had not yet returned.

When we got to the top, we met the Übers at the small Rasthaus Timmelsjoch, 8231 feet above sea level. The Übers had taken a long table with a large picture window at one end. The view was impressive, and we happily joined them for lunch. I ordered a weisswurst and, on a whim, decided to try an Almdudler, a soft drink that I had seen all over Austria. It tasted a little like a ginger ale but indescribably better, and I immediately regretted not having drunk more of it over the past week.

The sausage came quickly and was perfectly acceptable but I was starting to feel just a little bit off. The Almdudler helped, and I ordered another. Charles practiced his German and I faded back from the conversation. I was glad that the climbing part of the day was behind us but we still had several hours of weary descent before Moos.

Leaving the restaurant we stepped into the dramatic Passeier Valley at the frontier of Italy and Austria. Down the slope were the remnants of battered buildings and redoubts that appeared to be World War I defenses. Before the war, both sides of this pass belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The slope seemed to have been fortified and defended against the Italians -- perhaps falling to the invaders as the Austrians retreated.

Since the treaty of Versailles, the region of South Tyrol has belonged to the Italians. The German speakers of the South Tyrol are still said to resent their Italian government. These days their solidarity takes the form of a blue apron worn by most German-speaking men in rural towns. This traditional apron is part of their working class heritage but also shows a passive resistance to Italian influence.

As we descended the slope we could study the shattered fortifications (or what we Unterhalb der Grenze near Timmelsjoch, Italytook to be fortifications) first hand. Goats and cows grazed in the empty foundations. Stone walls crumbled, pock-marked with age or, perhaps, bullet holes. I stepped into the most intact building, its wooden shutters rotting, doors falling off hinges, windows barred. The floor was littered with broken furniture and rusty wire. I tried to imagine what it might have felt like to man such a place in a time of war. The winters would have been merciless, the summers bloody. Now it looked, and smelled, like the birds had taken over.

Dietrich told us that there had been a massacre somewhere on these slopes in the early 20th century. My research has revealed no mention of the incident, however, so I can neither confirm nor deny this story. Regardless, we were impressed both by his knowledge of history and by the fact that we were standing on the brink of such a terrible, beautiful, place.

As we worked our way down during the following hour, the valley became greener. The sound of cow bells echoed off the canyon walls and rocky slope gave way to fenced pasture land. Soon the trail rejoined the road that had come down from Timmelsjoch.

The next stretch was treacherous, along the side of a busy highway where motorcyclists and sports car drivers, high on exhilarating switchbacks, took little notice of the weary hiker. The road was hot and the heat penetrated my boots. The sun burned the back of my neck and I sought shade at every opportunity.

I was still feeling queasy and, when the trail finally diverged from the road, I started to fall behind. The farms in this valley were both quaint and intriguing, clinging to the walls of the canyon like oysters. Near one farm, a generator buzzed away in an outbuilding, powered by a small stream. Goats grazed and farmers toiled, seemingly unaware of the nearby highway linking them to the outside world.

Rabenstein/Corvara In PasseierCharles and the Übers were waiting for me at the edge of the road in the beautiful mountain village of Rabenstein. We hiked through town and a bit further before the trail diverged to follow a concrete-lined river bed. The river was divided into a series of ugly, artificial waterfalls. Even so, angular marble boulders were everywhere, standing by the path and obstructing the concrete bed. Fallen from the cliffs above, they seemed determined to take back the river.

The path, itself, was littered with bits of marble, and there was evidence of quarrying everywhere we looked. I picked up a bright white lump while Robert was walking beside me. "For your girlfriend?" he asked, and I had to admit he had read my mind. I wondered what other talents this insightful young man was suppressing.

Near Moos in Passeier, Italien -- Moso in Passiria, L'ItaliaBefore we reached Moos, Dietrich told us that his family would skip the next several legs of the hike. "The next few sections are not so dramatic," he said. "We will take the bus to Bolzano and continue from there."

This was a surprise to both Charles and me. We had come to consider the Übers part of our hiking party and would regret being left behind. Still, we had not planned to continue further than Bolzano and had no maps of that region. Charles had fond memories of the next several legs of the trail from the previous year but he had to admit that there was far less altitude and much more pasture.

Our path passed a rock wall covered in chalk smears and bolted for climbing. Shortly thereafter we entered the tiny town of Moos in Passeier/Moso in Passiria, a town that appears to be built around three or four small, central hotels. We arranged with the Übers to meet at one of several outdoor cafes in the middle of town, and Charles and I retreated to separate rooms to wash the dust from our bodies and clothes.

My queasiness had been replaced by mental exhaustion and a mild depression. Heavy drinking lowers the serotonin levels in the brain. I have, since, realized that this tends to make me depressed several days after a bender. I attribute my poor performance on this day to my drunken night at Braunschweiger coupled with the physical exertion of the hike. Had it not been for that binge, things might have turned out somewhat differently.

An hour later, when I met Charles in the foyer, he was visibly concerned. He had called his secretary, just to check in, but it turned out that something serious had cropped up while he was out. "I should be doing damage control," he said. He did not go into details but I knew from past conversations that his work-place was a hub of intrigue. From what little he told me, I assumed that someone was taking advantage of his absence for their own political gain.

I probably dismissed his worries without showing much empathy. In this travelogue I have shied away from dwelling on our tension but it had continued to grow by the day. I was still treating Charles as a tour guide more than a friend and failing to appreciate the efforts he was making. I took for granted his help with translations and resented him for not being able and willing to communicate all of my wishes to every hotelier and shopkeeper. The details are not central to this travelogue but the repercussions would alter our friendship in significant ways.

Despite these tensions, we still felt like celebrating with the Übers. We had hiked with this amazing family for what seemed like a very long time. If we were never to see them again, we wanted to make the best of this final dinner. The cafe we chose turned out to be a good one. Robert helped me to order a meal that we both thought might be gnocchi but which turned out to be cheese balls again. Now you might think that, after all of the cheese balls I had endured, I would have dumped the plate into the nearest plant and ordered another dinner. Instead, I gave them another try and, amazingly, they were actually quite tasty. A good Italian cook can make just about any meal great. I drank a large beer and enjoyed a cheese strudel for dessert. The entire thing came to less than $12. Of course, the exchange rate was much better in those days.

With the future of our hike uncertain, we agreed to take the morning bus to Bolzano with the Übers. Then we each retreated to our separate rooms and I, for one, fell directly into blissful sleep.

Next week,
E5 Epilogue

1 comment:

  1. Hello! We are going to do this hike from Solden - Zwielstein - Timmelsjoch. Just wondering how difficult this is - anything too scary?? Thank!! Sounds like quite the adventure you had.


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