Austria, pt. 2: the hitchhike

 

old cemetary in salzburg, austria
old cemetary in salzburg, austria

i made it to salzburg, austria, but i was still a 2 hour train ride from my destination in the austrian mountains in hallstatt.  i still am not completely sure why i was so hellbent on getting to this remote mountain town, but i had seen it pop up enough times on those stupid links that people pass around on facebook titled “20 places to go before you die,”  that i think i was beginning to become afraid that if i didn’t find this town, i might actually die.  and so here i was.  but once i had found a hostel to stay at and dropped my bag and set off in search of a decent meal, i quickly realized that salzburg was a beauty in its own right.  once again, as had happened a half dozen times already on this trip, i lost my appetite and started ambling up and down narrow cobblestone streets, wandering with no direction and no purpose and only the desire to let my eyes consume as much as they might.

salzburg is not a very large town, so i was able to cover the entirety of the old downtown area in only a few hours. a few bridges, a couple clocktowers, a cliff-dwelling majestic castle, and plenty of narrow, foot-traffic-only streets with charming buildings keeping watch for hundreds of years, all these things make for quite the quaint and unexpectedly enjoyable experience.  i picked a damn good place for a stopover.

after hunger eventually got the best of me, i started searching for a place to eat.  i eventually settled salzburg castleon a place that claimed to be mozart’s favorite place to eat (and they wouldn’t lie about that, right?) .  that was significantly intriguing, so i decided to grab a seat.  there was no room so i had to settle on a place at a tiny empty bar in the corner of the room, which was more than fine for me.  i order some grilled veal with potato dumplings and a beer to wash it down.  i had never tried veal before, but after seeing it on just about every menu in austria, it was time to give it a shot. the meal was incredibly delicious.  it was so good that i decided to double down and see how the dessert was.  i had never tried austrian apple strudel before so i ordered some, and that was even better.  i think it may have been the best dessert i’ve ever had in my life.  similar to an american apple pie, it was a little smaller than your average slice, but the apple filling was less sugary and the crust was baked to perfection.  there was a dollop of cream on top, but not the overly sweet, sugar-infused cream we used in the US.  this was just pure dairy cream that offered a perfect compliment to the already perfectly-sweet applestrudel.  if there had been more room in my stomach, i would have ordered another, but i’m sure my wallet is grateful i did not.  i headed back to my hotel and went to bed early so i could get a start on trying to figure out how to get to hallstatt.

the next morning i arose early and walked to a bus stop nearby.  i boarded a regional bus headed for a neighboring town called bad ischl.  from there i would catch a train that would take me to the small town across the lake from hallstatt named obertraun (everytime i hear the name of that town i imagine it’s not a town and is just a giant transformer hiding in the austrian alps).  from obertraun i would take a boat across the lake right into the center of the small town of hallstatt.  my plan was to spend a couple hours photographing the town and just enjoying it’s atmosphere.  i would then head back into obertraun where i could take a cable car high up into a high mountain face above the town to a pair of ice caves located deep within the mountain.  if there was time i would ride all the way to the top of the mountain to the 5-fingers viewing platform, a sky deck with 5 different platforms stretching in different directions with visibility for ages.  from there i’d jump back on the train and head back to salzburg by sundown.

none of that happened.

i arrived in bad ischl to learn that the section of the tracks heading into obertraun was under construction, so i would need to board another bus that would take me directly into hallstatt. that didn’t seem to be a big deal, but i was slightly concerned about the lack of notifications with which this all was going down. the machines didn’t tell me this when i was buying the tickets, the bus & train operators weren’t saying anything, and i barely had any time in between transfers to figure this stuff out and get to the right mode of transportation.  i was worried about getting back.

hallstatt juts out into it's watery shoreline
hallstatt juts out into it’s watery shoreline

nevertheless, 30 minutes later i landed at hallstatt and what i sight had reached my eyes.  the town has a population of less than 1,000 occupants and is situated right in between the mountain and the lake that adorn the landscape.  and when i say “situated” i mean that if you live in hallstatt, your house is either on the water or it’s in the side of the mountain.  and the houses are small. each one seems like it is practically built on top of the other, but they are constructed in such a charming, connected way that it doesn’t feel overly crowded.  it feels like more of a community.

the air moved ever so slightly with that cool, crisp mountain nip, not windy, but also not still.  i gratefully drew deep breaths of freshness after 2 hours of stale oxygen on a bus.  as i wandered the streets of the quaint village, i started to wonder what the history behind this place was, and how it came to be.  it was not likely to have been a weekend getaway for wealthy city-folk or royalty;  it was too old and too small.  the architecture was too intricately simple and functional, as though constructed lovingly by craftsmen who would then stay to appreciate their creations, instead of left to be appreciated by the masses.  i snapped as many photos as i could, but i honestly couldn’t find an adequate way to capture the soul of the city.  unsatisfied with my photos, i elected to climb higher up the walking paths carved into the mountainside between homes.

hallstatt swans bathe by the waterside
hallstatt swans bathe by the waterside

eventually i had seen about all you could see in a few hours.  it really isn’t a large town.  i decided it was time to find my way over to dachstein and see what the ice caves were all about.  i was dismayed, however, when i learned that another side effect of all the transportation chaos was that the buses were not running according to normal schedule as well.  i asked someone nearby and they said they were pretty sure the next bus wasn’t coming for another 2 hours, and the day was already half over.  that wouldn’t give me enough time to explore the caves and make it back to salzburg to my room.  i consulted the map and surmised it was only 6 kilometers to dachstein.  i decided to walk it.

…after 2 km, i realized that this was kind of dumb.  it still would not leave me enough time to explore the caves and i also wouldn’t know the pick-up point for the bus because i hadn’t seen the drop-off point.  but now i was too far.  if i went all the way back, i would have to admit defeat and i wouldn’t see the caves.  if i pressed on, i ran the risk of not even making it home that night, and there was no accommodation that i was aware of that was available in this remote area.  i was paralyzed with indecision.

halstatt dock reflection
i stuck my thumb out and waited for a ride.

i’ve never hitch-hiked before, and in most parts of America, this is illegal.  we are told from a very young age to never do this, because it is very likely that we will be kidnapped and chopped into little pieces.  i don’t know what the likelihood of that actually is, but nevertheless the possibility is real, so hitch-hiking has never even been an option for me before, but here i was.

the first car approached, and i put my hand back in my pocket immediately.  i was struck by an inexplicable and unreasonable fear.  convinced i was being a coward, i shook my head at myself and stuck my thumb out again after the car had passed.  i’ll get the next one.

the next car approached and i hid my hand behind my back this time, still consumed by this undefinable and irrational fear.  i laughed out loud.  “for godsakes, you pussy, just man up and do it!” i said to myself aloud.

as i extended my thumb out to the road again, a pickup truck rounded the bend.  it was a toyota hi-lux, a really cool pickup with a functional ruggedness that is inexplicably unavailable in the US.  i was too busy admiring it to notice that i still had my thumb out when the truck came to an abrupt halt and an austrian man in his early 40s peered over at me, waiting for me to enter the vehicle.

“oh,” i thought, “is this how it works?  what do i do?  do i wait for him to open the door?  do i just hop in?”  i realized that everything i knew about hitch-hiking was from watching movies.  i had been so preoccupied with the thought of even working up the courage to do it that i had not even thought what to do after i actually did it, or if i would even be successful.  i laughed internally at myself and the situation.  after a few seconds (which felt like an eternity) of watching the man’s face silently evolve from “sure i’ll give you a ride” to “well are you getting in or not?”  i grabbed the door and swung it open, pivoting my backpack from back to front so i could hold it in my lap. i hiked one leg up into the cab of the truck and hopped in from my other leg, landing in the seat and staring right down into the long barrel of a huge gun.  i hadn’t noticed a large rifle laying up against the seat, the butt on the ground and the barrel in the air.

i have no idea what my face looked like, but there is no way it was anything more stoic or polite than full-blown panic.  in my mind’s eye, i imagine i looked like “ham” from the movie “sandlot” when the beast gets a hold on the vacuum during mission “retrieval suction,” right when their scheme is going perfectly to retrieve the ball signed by babe ruth.  except i (thankfully) didn’t scream like he did.

i hate guns.  not in the political “we-need-immediate-gun-control-you-should-give-up-your-freedom-immediately” sense of things (though if i do feel that debate does have some merit and my country does need to begin having that discussion sooner rather than later, regardless of what side of the issue we all find ourselves on), no my hatred of guns stems from painful personal experience.  i grew up in a rough neighborhood in southern salifornia during the turbulent 90s, where gang violence and police corruption were fueled by racial tensions and spilled out onto the global stage when rodney king was beaten unconscious by four police officers and it was all caught on tape.  while my parents did their best to shelter my siblings and i from what was going on, i wasn’t blind, and i saw what was happening all around me.  my brother, sister, and i managed to stay away from the worst of the neighborhood violence and gang activity, but there was no way to completely avoid it.  from police stand-offs in the empty fields near the neighborhood to gang members showing up to my brother’s little league baseball game and shooting out the outfield lights in the 4th inning, these things were enough to make a curious young mind wonder “what would the world be like without guns?”  my thoughts on the subject were sealed when, at 13 years old, one of my baseball buddies was shot dead only blocks from my house by my sister’s friend because her mom kept a loaded shotgun in the house and she thought threatening him with it might get him to stop teasing her.  say what you will about gun safety, but i don’t care.  guns still make me nervous and i don’t like being around them.  regardless of the circumstance.

so there i was, frozen for a moment, half in and half out of this pickup truck with the good samaritan on his way somewhere, now wondering why the hell he’d stopped for a hitchhiker when austrians reputedly never stop for hitch hikers.  i looked at the man’s face and quickly decided he didn’t look like charles manson, so he probably wasn’t going to cut me into a thousand pieces.  i got into the truck and we sped off.

and speed, we did.  this man drove like he had a wife on the verge of giving birth in the passenger seat.  i quickly grabbed the frame handle between the door and the windshield (affectionately nicknamed the “oh-shit! bar” by my redneck friends back in arkansas) and held on for dear life.  i kept staring at the rifle like it was a jug of nitroglycerine, ready to explode at the slightest nudge, and tried my best to keep my leg from brushing up against it.

“where going?” the man asked in very broken english.
“dachstein ice caves” i replied cheerily, trying to mask my nervousness.  he looked at me hesitantly for a moment, as though i had gotten the answer wrong on a quiz show but he didn’t want to tell me yet.   it was quiet again for another minute and then he persisted.
“where from?”
“united states?” i said to him in question form, as if to ask “have you ever heard of it?” i was so nervous about hitch-hiking for the first time that i was completely losing my composure, and i was now talking to this guy like he was mentally handicapped instead of just having a language barrier.
“yes? yes?”  he said, gesturing his hand in a circular fashion and trying to get me to elaborate.
“oh, Colorado, Denver.  Rocky mountains?”
“ahh yes, yes. Colo-rado!”  he exclaimed, enthusiastically.  the more we talked, the more convinced i was that i was not going to die.  but i also wondered how much further we could go before i reached the end of this man’s limited english, and what would happen then.  “i like rocky mountains! you like austria?”
“yes, very much.  your country is very beautiful, and so nice.”  i offered.
“you like…” he took both hands off the wheel for a moment held both his hands up in fists parallel to the ground and made a shaking gesture. he didn’t know what the word was.  i sat trying to figure out if he was trying to ask me if i like jackhammers.
“…mountainbiking!”
i’m not really a mountain biking enthusiast, but who doesn’t like mountain biking?  “yes, i like mountain biking.”
“okay!”  he said confidently and then pulled over the truck to the side of the road. he popped the truck out of 2-wheel drive and shifted to 4-wheel drive and then proceeded to pull the vehicle completely off the road and into the trees.  i was now scared for my life again.

hallstatt solitude
hallstatt solitude

we bumped and bounced down a barely perceptible path through the forest while I tried to make a mental survival plan for what to do if this guy tried to make a move and bury me alive in the woods.  suddenly we ground to a halt and he pointed across me into the woods.  “best mountain bike in all europe!”  i looked to my right, and sure enough, there was a huge mountain biking course, clearly defined and well marked.  i was genuinely surprised, not only because he still wasn’t trying to kill me, but because he legitimately had a mountain biking course here in the middle of nowhere, and it really did look like something you might see on the x games.  they had competitions out here occasionally, he explained to me as we continued to drive alongside the massive course.

eventually we popped out of the woods right into a parking lot next to a cable car lift that takes people up to the ice caves.
“okay my friend, enjoy dachstein!” he said to me.  i hopped out of the truck, thanking him gratefully externally for the ride and internally for not burying me in the woods and using my skin as a lampshade. he pulled away and i walked up to the front door.  there was nobody around.  i didn’t know what i needed to do to go up in the cable car, but it wasn’t running.  i poked around a bit before finding a sign that said in english:

due to recent snowfall, the ice caves are closed.

now i was in trouble.  the public transportation in this region was already completely sideways, and now i was nowhere close to a pickup or drop-off stations. if you had given me a map, i wouldn’t even have been able to navigate my way back to hallstatt due to the creative detour my friend had taken.  and i damn sure wasn’t going into those woods by myself.  i was going to have to hitch hike my way back but, beside the fact that my heart might not be able to take the stress of such an event again, the parking lot i had been dropped off at was the end of the line.  it was a dead end, no cars were coming this way.  i was stranded alone in the woods.

i walked out to the road and stood for a couple minutes, angry at myself for even attempting something so stupid without a backup plan.  iI tried to console myself with the fact that none of the websites i checked had hinted that something like this could happen.  this is just one of those moments that all the famous poets and writers and travelers and deadbeats romanticize and say that this where the real journey begins.  well, i thought, the “real journey” sucks.  i want to sleep in a bed tonight.

before i could get too morose, a truck rounded the bend and pulled alongside.  it was my austrian friend again.  i felt like one of those dogs in the videos of army servicemen or marines coming home from war after years abroad, where the canine keeps yelping so loudly you can’t tell if he’s happy or if he’s dying and his tail is wagging so much he keeps knocking himself over.

he opened the door and yelled to me “i think caves closed maybe.  i ask for you?”  i shook my head eagerly.  he left the truck running and walked over to a booth i hadn’t seen where an attendant was inside.  after a couple of exchanges in german, turned to me and confirmed that nothing was working today, not even the lift to go all the way to the top and see the viewing platform at the top of the mountain.

i was visibly disappointed. had i come all the way out here for nothing?  “what you want?” he asked.  “you like i take you to hallstatt?”
“yes, please.  thank you very much sir!”  i was sad that my plans had gone awry, but i was at least grateful that i wouldn’t be sleeping out in the cold tonight (and it was indeed getting cold).  i still can’t believe he came back for me.  he must have known the caves weren’t running to begin with, and that must be why he gave me the weird look at the beginning of the ride.  still, he had given me a ride and owed me nothing and he came back for me anyway. i still couldn’t believe it.

on the way back to hallstatt he started to speak a little better english, believe it or not.  i think he just didn’t speak it very often, so he was out of practice.  but he was very enthusiastic the whole time and where i had before been on edge and scared, i was now completely relaxed and having fun.  amazing how a few minutes can completely change your perspective.

on the way out of dachstein we had taken a different route back.  my friend introduced himself as gerhardt, he had lived in obertraun his whole life.  he had a gun with him because he is a hunter, and he was on his way to find something to hunt.  this was the best weather they’d had in a month, he explained to me, so he wanted to make good use of the clear blue skies and sun.  he asked me if i wanted to see a traditional austrian house.  “sure!” I told him. why not?  i didn’t have anything else to do for the rest of my day and i didn’t even know how i was getting home yet.  plus, that seemed pretty cool.  we turned down a road that went the opposite way around the lake that we needed to go and we headed into old obertraun.

as we drove the people in the small town were all out and about, some working in their gardens, others working on their roofs, we passed some bicyclists, while i saw others herding some sheep in an expansive lot behind their house.  everything was very green, and whenever we passed, people waved to gerhardt and he waved back.  everybody knew everybody.

he pointed out a few minor points of interest, as well as a house he used to live in when he was married to his first wife.  he explained that this wife was very demanding and they were both not happy, and that he preferred hunting, so they got a divorce.  i found that kind of funny, and i think he meant it to be as well, so we shared a laugh over that.  eventually we pulled up to a modest little cottage on a green plot of land.  he got out and beckoned me to come inside.  i walked through the low doorway and into the small house.  it looked like something from “little house on the prairie,” like a small hunting cottage out in the woods for weekend hunters.  gerhardt stooped his large frame low to enter the doorway.  he was too big for this house.  “this my house” he said with a large, proud smile. “almost 500 years old.”

i was stunned.  500 years?!?!  this house was older than my entire country. and it’s founders.  i didn’t even know how to associate a value to that.  it must have shown on my face because he started laughing.  i looked around, there was another room behind the main room, which was a combination of a kitchen, dining room, and living room all merged into one large-ish room (nothing in the house was “large” really).  a woman emerged from the other room and gerhardt introduced her as his wife, and a shaggy pointer hound followed her out as well, gerhardt’s hunting dog.

we headed back out to the truck and drove back to hallstatt, gerhardt’s wife and the dog sitting quietly in the back seat bench of the truck cab. neither of them spoke english, so it was just gerhardt and myself stumbling through our interaction together.
“you want to see hallstatt salt mines?”

one of the things i had read about while researching hallstatt was that it had been a mining community long before austria was even “austria.”  i had been mildly interested touring the mines, but ice caves sounded more badass, so i had planned for them instead.  knowing i had a few hours to kill before i could find a bus back to salzburg, i told him yes.

we pulled into a parking lot on the edge of hallstat and instead of saying goodbye, gerhardt left the vehicle once again.  he walked with me up to a short line of about 10 people and strode directly to the front of the line.  he interrupted the transaction taking place and addressed the clerk.  everyone in line glared at me as if to say “really?  who do you think YOU are?”  i apologetically looked back and shrugged. i honestly had let go of the reins an hour ago, and i had no idea what was going on anymore.  after a minute, gerhardt turned to me and handed me a piece of paper.  it was a tram ticket to the top of the mountain, roughly a 20 euro value.  he gave me an affectionate slap on the cheek, smiled, said “enjoy!” and then got back into his truck and drove away.  i was in shock.

hallstatt viewing platform, with obertraun in the distance
hallstatt viewing platform, with obertraun in the distance

i boarded the cable car and tried to process everything that had just happened in the 5 minute ride to the top.  at the top was a narrow viewing platform that resembled a diving board, extending out over the cliff and peering down a few hundred feet onto the town of hallstatt below.  it was already small up close, but from up above it looked like one of those architecture models you see in the lobbies of important business buildings in big cities.  i took some photos and then continued up the mountain path toward the salt mines.

i’ll save the details of the mining tour, but i can summarize it all up by saying that it is an hour long tour with thoroughly interesting history and a few cheap thrills (you actually get to go down a couple rather large slides in the mines which are surprisingly fun, especially when you see young kids alternating with 60 year old grandparents doing it, you can’t help but smile) but at a the cost of a high price tag (unless you got it free like me) and some built in cheesiness.  its great if you’ve got kids with you, otherwise it’s forgettable.

view from the salt mines. a house stands watch over the towns below.
view from the salt mines. a house stands watch over the towns below.

the history of the town and mines, however, is fascinating.  the salt mine can be dated back 7,000 years ago.  that’s right, you heard me.  there were miners digging salt out of a hole in the side of the austrian mountain before the roman empire. that is crazy, mainly because in western society we tend to look at the roman empire as the benchmark for when the modern world began, but if you think about what salt mining alludes to, it alludes to other advanced societies that knew the value of commodities and trade, which then hints at economics and wealth, and if you look at the mines themselves, you can tell this mining community was a fairly advanced operation.

and this timeline isn’t an estimate or a guess, not only have they found mining tools down there dating back thousands of years, in the mid 1700s, a body was found that was thought to be from a couple hundred years previous.  It was only in the 1900s when modern science and documentation was able to determine that this body was from a miner back around 1,000 bc who had gotten trapped down there during an earthquake.

these salt mines were one of the things funding the wealthy lifestyle of the austro-hungarian royalty in their heyday, and people would come hundreds of miles, journeying for weeks on foot in order to work in the mines.  these workers would rarely get days off and working conditions were harsh, to say the least.  miners had to apply to get married.  not for a license, but for permission.  marriage was viewed as a potential distraction from work, and every worker was easily replaceable, so unless you were a big producer with a good tenure, you marrying your love in the middle of the night meant you were likely losing your job the moment anyone at the mine found out.  hallstatt only really exists now because it was the place at the foot of the mountain where everyone slept at night, and generation after generation preserved or added to it, giving it the intricate and charming nature that it has now.  ironic that something rooted in such a tough lifestyle with seemingly little beauty can now be known really for just it’s beauty and charm.    make no mistake though, the founders and workers of the salt mines and of hallstatt were a proud and dedicated group, and it shows in their legacy.

eventually the tour ended and i found my way back down the mountain.  i found the bus stop in hallstatt just as confusing as it was when i left it, with buses coming and going and nobody knowing what was going where and nothing labeled well and no one there to help make sense of it all.  i struck halstatt lakefrontup a conversation with the only other fellow standing around with a beard as long as mine.  he was from barcelona and he spoke about as much english as i spoke spanish, so we found a way to meet in the middle.  i relished the challenge to get a head start on practicing my spanish before i even got to spain, and we talked for a couple hours and agreed to try and figure out how to get back to salzburg together (i am convinced that these types of temporary partnerships are the cornerstone of traveling solo. it truly has saved my ass so many times from getting on the wrong train, staying at the wrong hostel, purchasing the wrong ticket, etc.).  we found out we were staying at the same hostel, so this arrangement worked out even better than either of us could have expected.  i had many questions for him regarding barcelona and catalonia and its complicated relationship with the rest of spain (a topic i’ll save for when i get to spain), we talked about futbol and how “el clasico” was being played that night, the game between fc barcelona and real madrid, the two premier teams in spain and how it is actually a good representation of how the tensions between catolonia and spain are tolerated in daily life.  i was thankful to have met eloi, especially when we had to switch from a bus to a train, and only had about 60 seconds to figure it out, as well as which train to be on, which also did not leave us enough time to purchase a ticket.  eloi and i quickly sprinted across the platform and jumped onto the train just as it was about to pull out, without tickets, and we watched in a weird mix of relief and sympathy as a brazilian couple we had also met didn’t make it, leaving them stranded on the platform.  i yelled to them “come on! it’s leaving!”
“we don’t have tickets!”
“neither do i!”

and then the doors closed and they were gone.  eloi and i guessed that another train might be by again in a couple hours, but it was getting cold out and darkness had begun its descent. i did not envy them at all.

eloi and i made it back to the hostel and found a cheap dinner for a few euros.  we were both departing in the morning for different destinations, so we agreed to meet in the lobby and exchange information before leaving.

————————————–

it’s a new year, so i’ve started a new playlist for 2015 for you to follow, if you so desire.  the first song chosen for the new year is one that i’ve been trying to work into the blog for months now.  i love this song, and the accompanying album is one of my favorites from 2014.  “Field Report” hails from milwaukee, and the band’s name is an anagram of the front man’s surname, chris porterfield (so there’s that).  listening to this song, you’ll love the subdued, worn nature of the singer’s voice, and the beauty of the lyrics.  enjoy…

 

and by the way, i’ve spent a little time creating a playlist of all my favorite 2014 songs that, for one reason or another, never made it onto the blog.  basically the leftovers.  i’ll publish that this weekend for your earholes to be assaulted by.  have a good week!

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