Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Via Alpina - 10 Days Solo, Prologue

Via Alpina Trail Signs
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I am packed and waiting, writing in my notebook some deepish-type thought about air travelers as insignificant dust particles. I pause to glance around the space-age Chicago O'Hare terminal and realize that 90% of my writing is doomed to be best appreciated by black spores in damp basement boxes.

I am killing time at a layover in Chicago, waiting for Lufthansa to take me to Munich. I'll be hiking alone in the Alps for ten days before heading to Venice where I'll meet my wife. My wife doesn't hike. She has more sense than I do. She prefers "normal" vacations. You know, the kind where you relax, stay in a hotel and eat delicious food. I, on the other hand, wear my vacations like hair shirts. There will be time for cappuccinos and artwork after I've done a good, thorough penance.

It would be lying to say that I wanted her to hike. Many people find this revelation shocking. Honestly, though, I love her even more for our mutual frankness on that subject. There are some things we do very well together and some things we just don't. At this point "roughing it" falls into the latter category. Three years ago she announced, quite firmly, that she'd had quite enough of "roughing it". We had just finished renovating the condemned Victorian apartment building. It had been a year of pure torture: January in Providence with no heat; three months of thick, brown hot water; nine months of a shower lined with plastic garbage bags and bats flying out of the fire-scorched bathroom ceiling to do laps around the kitchen, etc, etc... I'm probably stupid enough to do it all again but, for her, the whole thing was just a little bit much.

This morning that all seemed like ancient history as she dropped me at the Providence, T.F. Green Airport. We were sad but resigned when we said our goodbyes over a shared nacho platter and two Bass ales. Then we played peek-a-boo through the bullet-proof barriers as I negotiated the maze of blue belts to the X-ray machines. When I looked back over the crowd of baggage inspectors, she had disappeared. When we meet again again in Venice, I'll be relaxed enough to kick back with some seafood risotto by a dark, moonlit canal. Right now, I'm ready for exercise.

The seats in Chicago O'Hare are just comfortable enough to keep me off the floor. Barely. I can't quite say why I like airports so much. The food is the flavor of cardboard packaging, the staff is dismissive at best, and there's nothing to do here but wait. On the other hand, there are no responsibilities. And flying... there is something so unbelievable about flying. I get into an aluminum tube with wings and, incredibly, it flies me wherever I want to go.

After an hour lay-over, I am sitting in my window seat inside a trans-Atlantic jet. This seat even comes with my own magic television and headset -- free with my ticket! Could I possibly be happier here?

The captain's accent is Midwestern and reassuringly confident. He'll stay awake while the rest of us sleep. It's kind of like having my dad at the wheel of the station wagon when I was a kid. Riding at night, with the back seats folded down under my pillow, I never felt safer.

It's twenty minutes of taxiing, turning and waiting before the pilot gives his orders to the crew. The attendants strap into handy little shelves that pop down from the walls. The engines fire again -- this time with feeling -- and the plane crawls, then sprints, then rockets forward. Gravity pulls us back in our seats as the nose lifts off of the runway. Every seam in the airplane wrenches to adjust to the pull of the two massive jet engines.

By the time the rattling settles down we are soaring over the countryside, breathing strange, metallic air from screw-down vents that chill balding heads like my own. The television sputters to life and the attendants unbuckle from their shelves. I watch a few brainless sitcoms then read for a spell. After a sticky airline meal, I grab two airline pillows and fold up the arm of the vacant seat beside me. I wrap my legs and shoulders in a blanket and, with the benefit of many months of research and five previous trips to the Alps, try to visualize the next two weeks.

I'll be starting my hike in Scharnitz, Austria, a stone's throw from the German border. I'll hike on the Via Alpina "Red Trail" for about seven days, staying in the alpine huts and tiny villages that I find along the way. By day seven or eight I should be in the bustling town of Oberstdorf, Germany, where eight years ago I had a memorable dinner in an outdoor beer garden with my old friend Charles. Then I'll turn south to hike three more days along the Via Alpina's "Yellow Trail". This northern section of the Yellow Trail is identical to my old, familiar E5 route. I will follow these paths to the quaint little town of Zams. Up the road from Zams is a small city called Landek. From there I hope to catch a train to Venice.

At least that's the plan. I have no real idea what this trek will be like. Even in August, the weather in the Alps can be fickle and dangerous. I am hiking alone and must be cautious. The trails I am hiking may not be well-traveled. All things considered, I may need to take some liberties with my itinerary.

This will be my first completely solo hike. I have always hiked with friends in the past but, as I get older, everyone else becomes busier. Money and time becomes a major obstacle. So, if I want to keep hiking, I will need to hike solo more often. Happily, I've never had a hard time making friends on the trail.

On this thought, sleep finally overcomes my upright position and carries me off, mouth hanging open, snoring like a bear in a cave, no doubt.

Leki Hiking Stick in the Alps

Next Week: Meilerhütte

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