hey friends, brandon here. i’ve been working on some of my own music lately and i wanted to share a little sketch of something i was recording last week for practice purposes. there are no lyrics yet and there are definitely some mistakes in here, but i wanted to share it with you all. the song is called “my wandering mind” enjoy!
that night martín and i readied our things so we could simply get up and leave the next morning. we had to be on the other side of town by 730am, so we needed to be up early. we also made sure to leave the bars a little earlier to allow time to pack, because you never want to be that guy that wakes everyone up in the middle of the night to stuff his clothing back into his backpack. so we weren’t overly surprised to find that the other 10 beds in our room were completely empty. it was actually a minor relief, not only because i didn’t want to have to tiptoe while packing, but also because in the week that we had been staying in this dorm… martín and i had both agreed that we had some really weird roommates.
to start, there was the strange finnish couple who had not spent a day sober since we got there. every time we saw them there was a handle of vodka or rum very nearby and halfway empty, and they offered to share with anyone who would listen. admirable for sure, but when someone is so drunk they can barely stand, sharing a drink with them isn’t always the most attractive invitation. i rarely saw them leave the hostel, and if they did it was to go buy more booze. they would spend most of their days smoking cigarettes or marijuana on the balcony patio and washing it down with alcohol. they also hung their laundry to dry all over the patio, effectively and unintentionally condemning it for anyone else to use or enjoy. i felt a little schadenfreude when a heavy morning raincloud had breezed by the city and soaked all their laundry that they had forgotten to remove the day prior. these two were a mess, and they disgusted me.
then there was a group of american students from southern california, studying abroad in granada, and taking an extended weekend in barcelona. they meant well, but they were just obnoxious. one larger, jolly fellow with three materialistic, typical california girls who were consumed by fashion and status, and generally didn’t really care about anyone other than themselves. they would come back from the bars extremely late and extremely drunk each night, after everyone else had gone to sleep (or passed out, in the case of the finnish), and they would turn the lights on in the room and loudly talk and laugh and careen around the room like pinballs as they got ready for bed. these types of hostel roommates are the worst, especially if you’re staying in a “quiet hostel,” instead of a “party hostel” (yes, there is a distinction in europe).
then, there were a trio of guys from somewhere east, i couldn’t be
sure. i wanted to like them, as they seemed well-intentioned enough, but two of them simply cost me too much sleep, as they were both heavy snorers and had been positioned on opposing sides of my bed, creating an amplified stereo chorus of suffocation each night i laid my head down to sleep. when traveling, i always pack ear plugs, which normally will drown out 90% of noise. but in certain cases, bigger weapons are needed, which calls for my noise canceling headphones and ipod. these two guys were so loud that i failed to drown them out with my backup plan, and i ended up tossing and turning and trying to choke myself out with my pillow in an attempt to find some semblance of rest. nothing worked, hence i could not be friends with these assholes.
let me clarify: i understand that many people suffer from snoring and sleep apnea. it’s an un-fun and involuntary condition. but if you are a chronic snorer and you are wanting to sleep in a common room with other people, you owe it to your roommates to either seek some kind of treatment (there are mouthguards that limit the noise and make it easier to breathe, as well as sprays that can lubricate your throat and make it easier for air to pass into your windpipe, etc.) or pay a little extra for the private room. it’s just common courtesy.
and then lastly, and probably martín’s and my favorite of the group: el vampiro (the vampire). after martín and i had been in the bon moustache for a few nights, we had gone out to buy some provisions so we could cook ourselves a cheap meal at the hostel. as martin was preparing the rice his special way that he really likes (sticky and slightly overcooked, but with a tasty seasoning), he suddenly looked up at me with a start and exclaimed “OH MAN!”
i looked back at him with concern while i prepared a large salad (which he refused to eat. martín apparently doesn’t eat vegetables. he swore he would begin eating them when he returned home after i issued him a stern lecture on why vegetables are essential to his health), wondering if we had forgotten a key ingredient in his rice dish.
“did you hear the guy next to me last night? HE SCARED THE SHEET OUT OF ME MAN!” martín managed to get the words out amid a confusion of anger, excitement, and laughter. the last guy in our hostel had been a very reclusive dark-skinned guy from paris, france. he wore eccentric clothes and had a very effeminate nature and was extremely thin, to the point of wondering if he was malnourished. probably not the case, as his clothes were clearly not cheap, but every day we would get up and as we were leaving, this guy would come back to the hostel and go straight to bed. when we would return at the end of the day and begin getting ready for sleep, he would just be getting up and getting ready to go out. by the time i had brushed my teeth, he would already be gone. but the previous night, he had stayed in, for some inexplicable reason, and just kept sleeping. we don’t know. he never talked to anyone, wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone, really. very strange.
“it was in the middle of the night, maybe at like 3 am, and this guy, he just screams at the top of his lungs, like ‘AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH’ and i got so scared man. wow, i fell out of my bed!” we started laughing. everything martín said in english was just enhanced by his accent. it made things even funnier, and his delivery was perfect in its casual effortlessness.
“I am scared of heem, man. Como un vampiro…” he trailed off and i started laughing even harder. it was the perfect description. a vampire. for the rest of the week, whenever we would see el vampiro, i would shoot a quick glance over to martín and show him wide, terrified eyes, or i would flash my teeth, as if to suggest an old-fashioned, vampiric neck-bite was coming. it was definitely not my most mature of behaviors, but sometimes when you’re in the middle of the circus you just gotta have fun with the clowns.
needless to say, despite how much we really did like the bon moustache hostel, we were ready to leave our roommates. we awoke the next morning, mounted our packs atop our backs and stepped out into the street, just as a torrential downpour descended upon the city. i’m sure somewhere, karma was laughing at me.
7 hours later we were in madrid. we’d saved a lot of money by taking the bus, but the train would have been about 4 hours quicker. these are the tradeoffs you make when backpacking. we arrived and went straight to the metro to ride the train to the tribunal station, in search of a hostel that martín had found on a useful app that he had been using called “hostelworld.” collecting all the relevant hostels, guesthouses, b&b’s, and campsites within a city or area, the hostelworld app allows you stat-rank all your potential accommodations by price, location, availability, and user rating, and it does so at no additional cost to you, the user. after meeting martín, i used this app to find every single accommodation for the rest of my trip.
this was to be martín’s final stay before returning home to uruguay, so he had selected the highest rated hostel in madrid, a newer place called room007 chueca, located in the chueca and malasaña neighborhoods, which would become my favorite neighborhoods in spain over the next week. i remember thinking the name of the hostel seemed a little cheesy, but the pictures had looked pretty cool so i went along with it. when we arrived however, i changed my mind. this place was great.
room007 chueca is a modern urban hostel with a cool, fashionable design, and a comfortable and clever use of space. the rooms aren’t overly crowded and have a very clean atmosphere that makes it easy to relax. there is also a terrace on top of the hostel with a kitchen, a big tv, large bean bags to sit on, and an outdoor patio that looks out on the city below. within minutes of checking in, martín and i were already in awe of the place. but we were also starving.
we went down to the woman working the front desk, a woman in her early to mid 20s with brown-rooted blonding hair and eyes whose depth seemed to reach for leagues beneath the sea of blue. she had a light dusting of freckles that gave her a girl-next-door look which she had tried to cover up a little with makeup, but thankfully they still shined through. i was spellbound, so martín did the talking.
“excuse me…” he began in english before quickly realizing he wasn’t speaking to me, so he could speak his native tongue much quicker with a spanish girl. they spoke for a few minutes in a speed that i failed to follow along with, and when martín had obtained the information he was after, he turned to me and woke me out of my trance. there is something enchanting about listening to spanish women speak. we americans will often poke fun at the way they pronounce the “s” but the way women and men do it in spain is different. men power through the “s” (as men do tend to do in most things. we muscle our way through things rather than utilize technique), often letting their tongue push up against their teeth and even separating their top teeth from bottom while making the sound, creating a “th” sound. meanwhile women gently play with the “s” on the tip of their tongue and roll it around, never really making contact with the teeth or the roof of their mouth, giving the sound a breathier effortlessness that i found intoxicatingly sexy.
“due! come on! i’m starving man!” martín doesn’t ever pronounce the second “d” in “dude,” and i was lost in a reverie of blondie’s “s” pronunciations. i snapped out of it and sheepishly backed away from the desk and out the door as she flashed me a confused smile. rejoining martín on the street, we made a beeline for a place called “el tigre del norte,” or “the tiger of the north.”
if you have friends whom have been to spain before, one of the things they undoubtedly have talked about is tapas. tapas, for the uninitiated, are quite simply, little plates of food. there are myriad variations/preparations/varieties out there which i won’t go into because i honestly don’t know them. i just like to eat them. but they are a perfect way to sample a lot of different things at a restaurant rather than commit to just one plate, which is something that i often have a problem with.
one of the coolest things about tapas in the originating country of spain, is that traditionally served, they are a free accompaniment of your drink order. wine or beer, historically you would receive a plate of food at no extra charge with a variety of different cheeses, breads, cured meats, olives, fried snacks, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, and always delicious. additionally, when at a more traditional tapas bar, patrons are not seated like they would be at a normal restaurant. they are standing up, milling about, socializing and interacting in this most social of environments. it’s always a lively and energetic atmosphere, and one that america routinely fails to replicate when a new “tapas bar” pops up in your neighborhood.
unfortunately the “free” part of tapas has gradually disappeared across most of spain. most places charge separately for the drink and the food now, and if you want a place that will still serve you food for free along with your beverage, you have to search for it (the further into andalusia you get, the easier it is to find these types of places). luckily, our lovely front desk woman had pointed us in the right direction, as el tigre del norte is one such place.
martín and i didn’t exactly know what to expect, but we wanted a cheap tapas place, and if i’m being honest, we didn’t really believe that the food would be free. we had planned to go into el tigre, get a beer, try some tapas, then go find a place to get a real dinner, and then go out and hit the town, find some dive bar with cheap beers and good people watching.
el tigre is a stripped down place with mounted animal heads on the walls and next to no seating. there are large barrels standing on end which you can stand next to and use as a makeshift table to rest your beverage and small plate or napkin of food. we leaned up next to one and signaled for a couple beers. the waiter came around a few minutes later with drinks and asked us if we wanted tapas. we both eagerly said yes, and a few minutes later we were brought plates full of bread, cured meats, and cheese. it was a messy but delicious concoction. martín and i looked at each other, surprised, and then immediately devoured everything on the plate. a few minutes later, the waiter came by again and laughed that we had already eaten everything. “quieres mas?” (want more?) he inquired. martín and i looked at each other again with surprise and looked back at the waiter “si!” he brought us another plate full of food and killed it again within minutes. we hadn’t even finished our beers yet.
the waiter brought us the bill and we were shocked to find out that we had only been charged for 2 beers total. we had obliterated 4 plates of food, and the beers hadn’t even cost 2 euros each. this place must be heaven. we ordered another beer each, mainly out of guilt for consuming so much food and paying so little. but i was full now, and i couldn’t even finish my beer. eventually we left, in search of more adventures in the vibrant madrid nights.
we drifted down into the malasaña neighborhood, taking in the soul of the place. according to locals, the summer had stretched into autumn, and madrid had been extremely warm… until today. The temperature had dropped considerably and the night air was cold, but it was hard not to let the energy of the city get into your bones in a positive way. sporadic, short rains would attack the streets, so our walk was punctuated by short sprints where we would seek shelter until the cloud passed. the rain eventually won, however, and martín and i ducked into an interesting little watering hole where we could get a drink and maybe meet some madrileños.
the place was dimly lit but smartly decorated. this was not a dive bar. the beers were a little expensive but they were at least large. the patrons were decidedly all locals and were of the young professional variety, and everyone in the place seemed to be directly engaged in conversation with someone they had met there purposefully, so martín and i accepted the fact that we were not going to make any new friends here, and engaged in casual conversation amongst ourselves.
after a beer and into the second, martín and i had already laid waste to a couple appetizers and bowls of bar nuts, i had been very curious about martín’s decision to take this trip. it had occurred to me earlier in the night that i had been traveling with him for over a week now, and i didn’t actually know that much about him. sure, we’d had a lot of great times already, and he had become a great friend in such a short time, but i didn’t know anything about him from before our chance meeting on that bus in barcelona. before “the road” had taken over. so i began peppering him with questions about his past, his work, his future, and as always, he responded with a patient enthusiasm, that someone else would be taking an interest in him, but also a shyness that i had come to expect from martín whenever he talked about himself. martín is a very humble person, and i loved that about him. it wasn’t long before the conversation had gotten into a very dark and moving place, when martín had begun to share with me his reasons for traveling.
now that i had been traveling for an extended period of time, one of the things i had forced myself to learn to do is make friends, no matter how short the shelf life of that friendship would be, i would do it because i had to. i am a social animal, and i need to socialize (even if i paint myself to be a curmudgeonly loner, and i do value my personal time, i still crave social interaction). and now that i had done it enough, i had begun to become a little more selectively specific with who i would make friends with. i’d started to notice patterns or behaviors in others that i recognized in myself. it’s usually in the eyes. they say the eyes are the window to the soul, and this is never more true than in the eyes of a traveler. some travelers are adventurers, they are fearless, they haven’t a worry in the world and their energy shines bright with a twinkle in the eye. while other travelers are merely tourists, and they take everything in with a wide-eyed infancy and a temerity that most seasoned travelers can identify quickly, and either are enthused by it and want to help that person along in the journey by showing them things they may not have the courage to see on their own, or they are annoyed by it, and try to avoid the tourist altogether (in this journey, i have been both the tourist and the seasoned traveler. i’ve also been both the helper and the avoider as well).
the type of traveler that i am drawn to and identify most with, however is the seeker. the soul searcher. the aimless wanderer, seeking to understand greater mysteries about his own existence and the world around him. he (or she) does not seek to place labels nor assign blame, but instead he only asks. to learn more about nature and his fellow man, that another’s story might provide a better understanding of his own, this is the seeker’s engine, and the wondrous destinations of the world are the fuel. and one need not hear a word from the seeker’s mouth to uncover his disguise; they need only look in his eyes. it’s all there. a seeker has seen the world for what it is, bad and good. he has seen how beautiful life is, but he has also experienced pain and loss, and he walks a tightrope delicately somewhere in the middle, the weight of both heavy upon his shoulders. he knows joy and he knows sadness, but he does not know one without the other, for they are both of the same. and his conflict is visible, though barely perceptible, at the eye of the seeker. only another seeker can see it, because the seeker is adept at blending in with the world around him, so he has learned to hide the complexity of his nature, because the world doesn’t like complex. it prefers simple. and so the seeker hides in plain sight. but his search for authenticity is never dormant.
martín was a seeker, and i had known it within minutes of talking to him, but i had never pressed him for detail. and that detail was now being shared with me in a raw, soul-baring way. martín had come from a happy family, loving parents and an older brother who all cared for him. martín had finished school and become an accountant in vibrant montevideo, uruguay. he was tall, handsome, amiable, and people liked being around him. he had a girlfriend he cared deeply for, and everything seemed to be lining up for a perfect life, when the unthinkable happened. martín’s mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in both her liver and pancreas. she underwent chemotherapy treatment, but it was too late. within 8 months, the cancer took her life. the family was devastated.
martín had been clearly shaken. his mother had been the glue of the family, and now she was gone, leaving martín to question a lot about his own life and purpose. he didn’t know what or where the answers were, but he wasn’t finding them at home. he had honest conversations with his girlfriend and family, then quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to spain. over the next 4 months he traveled all around europe, from the northern reaches of germany down to the southern beaches of italy, martín wandered aimlessly, but with purpose, unsure if he’d ever be able to explain his journey to anyone and have them truly understand it to its core. but travel, he did, and he was now at the end. his return to uruguay was in 2 days.
i didn’t know how to respond. in the last few weeks, i had met some of the most incredible people and i had heard some of the most moving stories, but this one was the most shocking. i couldn’t possibly place myself in martín’s shoes, so i didn’t try. i just sat there dumbfounded and sad while martín shared his story with me. i listened intently, unconscious of the bar around us. a group of four had moved into the table next to us and they were shouting at the top of their lungs at a level disproportionate to the noise level of the rest of the room, but i didn’t care. it struck me that martín wasn’t sad anymore. he seemed to be at peacewith his journey and with himself.
“so did you find what you were looking for?” i asked him earnestly. “yeah I did man. i think this is what my mom would have wanted me to do.” i didn’t dare ask him about the thing that he had been searching for. i knew better. each seeker’s journey, destination, and discovery is completely different, and there’s no real way to explain it to another person. even if martín tried, i still wouldn’t be able to comprehend it in a way that was as meaningful to him, even if our stories were exactly the same. it’s why the journey was his, and why i had my own.
we left the bar and headed back to the hostel. i was conflicted about everything. i now felt like i really understood martín, but it’s not like we had solved any major mysteries, we hadn’t brought his mother back, and we hadn’t found the key to happiness. and what’s more, i felt stupid for having traveled with martín for such a significant amount of time and only just now learning this very crucial and defining thing about him. i wasn’t sure if it was because i had been too occupied with myself or if the timing for such a conversation had just never lined up. i looked at martín. he seemed to have a peace about him that i wasn’t sure if i’d ever possess. i knew it was a product of his travels and i hoped that it was something i might one day grasp at the end of mine, but i wasn’t confident in that possibility. either way, i was grateful for having been even a speck on the horizon of martín’s story. there were so many questions I wanted to ask him, but i didn’t even know how to put them to words.
as we neared the hostel, a sudden truth struck me that brought a clarity to my confliction. martín was not a collection of the tragedies he had endured any more than i might be a collection of the joys i may have experienced. we are not the things that happen to us. but we do find small definition in the way we react to the events of our lives. much the way a beautiful sculpture is not formed with a single blow from the hammer, the artist carefully guides the stone from one shapeless mass to a beautiful masterpiece. one strike at a time, the hammer to the chisel, the chisel to the stone, we are formed. martín wasn’t a man who had lost his mother, he was a man who was living a full, magnificent life, a life which happened to have a tragedy along the way. but that tragedy had only been one small part of the greater impact of a mother whom had guided him to a beautiful existence for more than 2 decades of his life before her own journey had come to an end, leaving him to continue on his own. and this is how her memory lives on. as not one strike in the sculpture of martín, but many.
and so the seeker seeks on, thankful for the gift of time he had.
this week’s track comes from a brand new collaboration out of chicago, called “monakr.” the song “diamond” was written after founding member saam lost his uncle to cancer, and it is now the lead single for the project. i found this song to be particularly appropriate to today’s story, and i hope you enjoy…
and for those following along on spotify…
hey everybody, Viss here with your music monday mix, and this is an epic one.
anytime you go on an adventure, whether it is a day-trip to the mountains, or a six month journey around the world, you are going to encounter a wide range of activities, from traveling downtime or active exploration. both of these mixes are a journey in themselves. they rise and fall with some familiar songs and some that are going to give you a new listening experience.
this mix is a modern take on the old school mixtapes which were recorded onto blank cassette tapes and passed along to anyone who wanted them. after collecting the majority of music for this mix i decided that it would be best to have it split into two groups, so i decided to go with the “A side” and “B side” mixes. the “A side” is going to have more traditional instrumentation while the “B side” is going to have a more electronic feel.
i hope that you enjoy these mixes as a whole and use them to provide some added substance to your own adventures as they have done to mine!
i woke up the next morning sorer than i had in months. it was the good kind of sore, the kind that reminds you that you had earned it, and any other unhealthy foods you could get your hands on. but i was also inexplicably restless. after i had gotten home from the previous day’s hike, i had been looking forward to a couple beers and a good in-depth conversation with my new french friend, jean, about life, love, his adventures in colorado, and everything in between. i was disappointed however when i returned to find his bunk empty and a note on my pillow with an apology on it, informing me that he had a received an urgent call from home and he’d left switzerland early. i crossed my fingers and hoped everything was okay, and lamented that i would likely never see him again. another casualty of the wander. it was something i was still learning how to deal with, even after being abroad for 2 months already.
i started to re-evaluate what my gameplan was. it was october 29th, and i was up on the alps in a ghost town. this was what i had wanted. i had wanted an epic hike in the alps and i had wanted to escape the hustle of the city, and i had gotten that, but now for some reason my feet were beginning to itch for a new destination again. the quiet solitude had quenched my wanderlust for only a day. Continue reading spain, pt 1: barcelona; minding my misconceptions
the train ride to zermatt was going well and without incident until i reached visp and had to switch trains. the trains in switzerland thus far had been very nice and very efficient, always on time. but i suddenly was in doubt of that observation when the train made a routine stop and then an announcement was made stating that the train would not be going any further due to construction. fresh off the salzburg debacle (where basically the same thing happened, plunging me into a day filled with chaos), i immediately got off the train and started looking for a backup option like a bus or similar alternative. after looking around for a bit and getting confirmation that there were definitely no more trains going the correct direction, i noticed a few other people scrambling around in an aimless panic. i laughed briefly to myself, knowing exactly how they felt, but i was also experiencing a weird confidence that was completely foreign to me. despite the fact that nothing appeared be going how i needed once again and there seemed to be a subdued panic setting in on the station, i unexpectedly felt more in control than i normally would have, and i wasn’t losing my cool. i calmly found a man in a red vest who seemed to be an employee of the train and asked him if there was a bus that i needed to take to continue on to zermatt. he pointed me to a bus on the other side of the platform, and i thanked him graciously as i left him. as i passed the small crowd of confused tourists, i noticed one guy standing alone on the fringe with a lost look on his face. it was a look i was all too familiar with. it expressed exactly how i had felt any time on this trip when i felt completely helpless or lost and couldn’t understand any of the languages being spoken around me, and didn’t know what to do to remedy it. i had felt it in paris when i’d had trouble figuring out public transit and couldn’t get any parisians to help me, i had felt it in austria during “the hitchhike,” i had felt it in northern germany when my friend had been late picking me up and i didn’t even know if i was in the right city and couldn’t understand a word that was written or spoken by any of the drunk clubgoers around me, and i had felt it countless more times that i can’t even now remember. i threw him a lifeline.
“hey man, if you’re headed to zermatt, follow me.” he looked over at me, relieved to hear english. the truth is, he was of asian descent, so i wasn’t even sure if he was an english speaker, but he picked up his backpack and followed me over to the bus. people had started to figure out the train company had a contingency and were now starting to swarm, but my new friend and i were able to squeeze on to the first one just before it pulled away from the station, leaving dozens of people to wait for the next bus to scoop them up. there was no seating left, so we had to stand in the middle with our giant packs for a 20 minute ride. not the most comfortable thing ever, but at least we didn’t have to wait at the platform for the next ride in the cold of the quickly fading dusk. up here in the mountains, once the sun was gone, it got cold. fast.
on the ride up i learned a little about scott. he was american, from california, and working as a senior project manager at an aerospace company. he was currently on a quick vacation after finishing up a business trip to europe, and had decided to detour over to the swiss alps for an off-season snowboard session before heading back home. scott was a cool dude, i really liked him. he had a calm demeanor and was dressed a little too neatly to be of the backpacker variety i was accustomed to meeting on my trip. he also had a more introverted nature than a lot of the people i had been meeting, and i think something from his corporate background had called out to me on that platform, i can’t quite nail it down, but there’s something ethereal about people who have something in common with you that just shouts out to you in the strangest moments, if you are open to it.
as the bus pulled to a stop, everyone piled out and realized that we were still not at zermatt, but rather another train station. i called to scott in the crowd and pointed at another train that appeared to be ready to leave. i walked over to a machine and bought a ticket, and scott followed suit. scott joked about the chaos and lack of appropriate signage to let people know where they were supposed to be going. i laughed and sympathized with him, sharing with him that this had recently happened to me and this was why i seemed to be moving along without incident. as we rode along in the train i asked him more about his plans for zermatt and if he had any suggestions on where to stay. he suggested a small hotel he had reservations at, but after hearing the price i knew my budget wouldn’t allow for that. we exited the train and went our separate ways, but agreed to meet back up for pizza an hour later after i’d had time to secure a place to sleep that night.
i wandered over the bridge to the west side of zermatt and relievedly located a tired but charming looking building that could only be a backpacker hostel, called jugendherberge matterhorn hostel. the building looked old, and it was old, marked by lots of old, aged wood, some areas in mismatched colors like the trimming or where signs were posted to let passersby know that this was the cheapest place to find a bed in zermatt (which still isn’t that cheap. i paid 30 swiss francs per night, roughly about $30 usd – which is on the more expensive end for european hostels – but i had come to expect this from switzerland. it’s one of the most expensive countries to travel to in europe). i eagerly entered the building, happy to get out of the cold, and got a room. the proprietor was a friendly swiss guy who had laughed when i asked if he had any beds available. “it is off season, my friend! there’s nobody here!”
as i got settled in, one of my 2 roommates politely introduced himself to me. the room was average dorm size and the beds not particularly large or comfortable, but they would do, and out of the 6 beds in the room, we 3 occupants were squished into the corner via our assigned beds. i joked with my new roommates about expecting more guests. 1 didn’t laugh, a japanese guy who spent every waking moment i saw of him connected to a tablet or a phone. the other, the one who’d introduced himself, snickered appreciatively. jean was a frenchman who was in zermatt for a quick extended weekend of skiing before he returned home and began to look for work. tt sounded like a pretty typical thing to do for someone who lived in the area, since zermatt was near both the italian and french borders.
“and you? where do you call home?” he inquired.
“well i was living in denver, colorado before i left the states,” i answered earnestly. jean suddenly got a very excited look on his face. he enthusiastically shared that he had actually lived in boulder, colorado for the last few years, and loved every minute of it. he had loved the ski resorts in colorado, in fact he said he liked the snow better there than even the alps, but he’d had to leave somewhat abruptly due to some issues with his immigration status. i responded sympathetically, but i noticed a hint of pain in his voice. not interested in glossing over meaningful things, i pressed him for detail.
“hold on, what did you mean about your ‘immigration status?’ did you get deported?”
“not exactly,” he replied, and then slowly began to recount how he’d been in a 3 year relationship with a girl who had finished up her degree at the university of colorado (he also had attended there as part of an exchange program, and then had come back after graduating). things had run the usual course, being the most amazing and meaningful relationship that he had ever been in during the first year, but the following year, after she had graduated, things had started to get very tense. his girlfriend had landed a great job right out of college, but he was having trouble finding work as a french immigrant (despite that his english is good and he is a college graduate). they had started to talk about marriage, and citizenship for him – and had even filed paperwork, but the timing just wasn’t right, especially since he didn’t have money or work, and they had been fighting a lot. suddenly he had been offered a great opportunity that he would need to move back to france for, but the girlfriend had been very unsympathetic, even hostile, and had started delivering ultimatums. she refused to leave her job to relocate to france (for the life of me i don’t understand that one), and she refused to convert their relationship to a long distance one, regardless of the time constraints. jean was trapped in a tough spot, as she had threatened to break up with him if he made the wrong move, but he didn’t really have a “right” move. during this rough patch, there had been some complications with the immigration paperwork and he had been denied an extension on his visa. the only option if he wanted to stay in the US would be marriage. jean then made the difficult decision to end his relationship and return to france. he had been back in europe for 2 months and decided he needed to get away to clear his head, so he’d arrived that afternoon in zermatt.
once again, here i was talking with a complete stranger, and they were spilling their very personal and intimate stories to me, with seemingly no concern or inhibition.
i was fascinated by jean’s story, and i could feel his pain, despite the fact that he was maturely trying to mask or dull its effect on him. he shared that he hadn’t been sure if he was in love with her, especially during all the conflict and stress they had been enduring, but now he knew. he had been in love with her. and now it was over. for some reason, i always find myself drawn most to the people in this world whom have experienced real loss. people who have been bruised and cut, whose wounds are never too far from the surface, but whom still find a way to carry on. jean had been cut, but he wasn’t bleeding out. he was carrying on.
i had been so enraptured with jean’s story that i forgot that scott was waiting for me to go get a pizza. i apologized to jean and excused myself, and making plans to get a 6 pack of beer and drink it at the hostel after tomorrow’s events (he was going skiing and i aimed to go for a long hike) and finish the conversation. he said he was interested in my story as well, and i promised to share it with him.
i met back up with scott at his hotel on the other side of the river after a sprint through the brisk night air. we wandered down the empty streets, devoid of any activity and few options for dinner. we made it all the way back down to the train station where we found a pizza shop that was open for another 30 minutes. we each got a pizza and a beer, and resumed our conversation. we mainly talked about backpacking, where i had started & my basic route, and i shared little tidbits of knowledge i had picked up along the way. overall it was a good night, and the pizza was a welcome sustenance, as i had not realized how hungry i had gotten.
the next morning i arose early and procured a map from the front desk of the hostel. the proprietor was preparing the breakfast (available for an extra 8 francs. holy hell, switzerland is expensive), but there was no one in the lobby. since he wasn’t overly occupied, i asked him if he had any suggestions for walking trails. i had a couple ideas, but i was quickly realizing that this area had hundreds of walking paths and it was not easy to get to the trail heads without knowing exactly where you’re going or taking a gondola. gondolas in zermatt are expensive. i was not interested in paying for transport to get somewhere i could walk, so that eliminated a lot of the trails i thought might be possibilities. also, according to the proprietor, during this weird time of year at the very end of october, the weather does weird things, so while there isn’t a ton of snow on the ski slopes, the snow still falls and it turns quickly to ice. and since the mountain is empty, the resorts don’t have a heavy incentive to keep up the same maintenance on the trails as they do in the summer or winter. so they simply close some of the walking paths. after crossing off a majority of the interesting looking hikes, there were still 2 available that I had been interested in: the 5 seenweg, or five lakes walk, or another more difficult trail that definitely had some ice, but i could probably scurry around if i was careful. it was my intention to attempt this hike. i wanted a challenge.
i spread a map out on the table and started marking entry and exit points to the trails, as well as break points and then started readying my pack with cliff bars and my camelback water reservoir. in my focused preparation, i had failed to notice that a few other people had entered the lobby and began eating breakfast. they had all been watching me, and to be fair, i did look a little weird compared to everyone else in the hostel. the rest of the hostel guests were vacationers who were here off-season for a short jaunt in the alps without crowds, they all clearly had decent jobs and were well dressed, whereas i, with my scraggly bright red ginger beard, furrowed brow, and warm, well-traveled-in clothing… well i looked like i’d been sleeping under a bridge for the last few years.
“where are you going?” a delicate voice with an korean accent whispered to me. to my right was a petite woman eating breakfast with a playful smile. i think she had been watching me for a couple minutes.
“oh, just gonna head up to the fresh air and clear my head. not entirely sure just yet, but i’ll figure it out as i go.” i smiled politely. ordinarily i’d slow down and make friends, but morning was starting to evaporate, and i had come to the mountains for one thing only: to commune with nature by myself. i had spent too much time in cities the past 2 months, and this was to be my escape.
“wow cool, you are mountain man” she giggled. i cracked a smile.
“ah no, not really. i just like to be outside.” as much as i would love to think of myself as a true mountain man, and as much as i probably looked the part, i’m not. i’ve only been tested a couple times in the wild, and i had experts with me and plenty of supplies, and never on anything longer than a couple nights. but i didn’t mind letting this pretty lady’s imagination make its own assumptions about me in the meantime.
we chatted plainly for a few minutes while i finished my preparations, exchanging the usual information – where are you from, what brings you here type questions. i was surprised to learn that katherine was actually from new york, not south korea like i had expected (to be fair, she was born and raised in seoul, south korea, and now worked for a major airline with new york as her base). i noticed another pair of eyes in the room curiously looking over at us, eavesdropping on the conversation. i was trying to figure out how to excuse myself politely when katherine respectfully but quickly asked “can i come with you?”
“uh, sure! yeah if you really want to…” i had been caught off guard. i looked her up and down quickly and noticed that she was in shape, but definitely did not have the right gear. i also knew that manhattan didn’t exactly have a wealth of challenging hikes available, so there was a good chance that this might not be a good idea. but i also had been trying my best lately to say “yes” to as many things as i could, in keeping with the mantra of the traveler, so i tried my best to adjust my expectation.
“oh thank you! are you sure?” she could sense the hesitation in my voice.
“yeah definitely, it’ll be fun! go get a backpack and some warm clothes on and be quick about it. we need to leave soon if we’re going to get back before dark.” she scurried up the stairs and disappeared.
“hey, I couldn’t help but overhear you’re going on a hike… any chance i could tag along as well? i’m wesley.” a hand to my left was extended to me. i shook the hand and looked up to see who was attached to it. a tall, good looking canadian guy was standing there with a smile on his face.
“yeah sure, why not, grab your stuff. we leave in 5 minutes.” wesley bolted out of the room to grab his things. what just happened? my plan had been to go on a hike and push myself a little physically, and suddenly i had just become ranger rick, guiding a bunch of tourists through a place i had never been before… the swiss alps. and i still didn’t technically know where i was going. i looked across the room to see the proprietor of the hostel wiping his hands with a dish cloth, laughing.
“you should go on the 5 seenweg hike. it would be unwise to take them on the other one,” he offered. i shook my head and laughed. i couldn’t have predicted this if i tried. about 15 minutes later wesley and katherine had made their way down the stairs and were ready. they didn’t have any food for the day, however, so we needed to stop by a grocery store. i wasn’t thrilled, but i knew i couldn’t take them on a 7 or 8 hour hike with no food, so we walked 15 minutes across town to the only grocery around. while there, despite my stubborn pride in having already had food ready to go, i picked up a few fresh fruit items, knowing it would be more appetizing than just my cliff bars. we finished up the shopping and headed for the trail head. i was silently thankful the other two had forced me to go shopping. now i could have a real lunch.
it took us about 15 minutes to get back across town, and then another 15 minutes just to find the trailhead, as the mountain neighborhood roads were not marked clearly and didn’t follow any logic other than what the terrain offered when they were built. we were way behind schedule at this point, and i was starting to get grumpy about it. i decided to just keep my mouth shut and lead on.
katherine and wesley chatted cheerfully behind me, and it wasn’t long before we had our first full view of the matterhorn and the zermatt valley below. my attitude problem was instantly gone. the views on these mountains were absolutely breathtaking, and there wasn’t a soul around us to ruin it.
the 5 seenweg, or five lakes trail, is exactly what it sounds like: a lovely meandering walk that takes you through five different bodies of water in a large loop around the mountainside, fraught with clear and direct views of the monolithic matterhorn. i will say that, to call these bodies of water “lakes” might be a bit of a stretch. a couple were little more than ponds (particularly grunsee and moosjisee), but they are still beautiful. it isn’t a particularly grueling hike, but it does have a few sections that can get pretty steep, and will definitely wear you out if you don’t take your time.
ordinarily this hike can be completed in 3 hours if you pay to take a tram and don’t stop too often for pictures, but good luck with the latter of those two components; everywhere you look seems like it is straight out of national geographic coffee table literature. Adding to our time crunch was my stubborn refusal to take the tram, so we started our hike straight from zermatt, trekking to the little hamlet of findeln (which is only accessible by foot, or skis if the season is right), and then onward up the mountain to the actual 5 seenweg walk, and ultimately walking all the way back down into zermatt again.
during the hike, i got to know wesley and katherine quite well, as we labored through our trek together. since the 5 seenweg is lower in elevation, and doesn’t have any true summits in it, the temperature stayed well within manageable, and we only encountered light ice a couple of times, none of which was dangerous. this was a relief to me, as i wasn’t sure if the tennis shoes the other two were wearing would be adequate on the trail, but they held up fine.
as we walked along, wesley’s youthful energy shone through, and he excitedly talked about his life up in canada, how he had grown up extremely far north, up in the arctic circle, where it could get extremely cold, but there weren’t as many scenic mountains to climb like in the alps. katherine meanwhile seemed overwhelmed by the beauty that was all around us, always stopping to take photos at any chance she could get. i didn’t mind that at all, as it offered me an opportunity to dig my camera out as well and snap some photos. i had needed to make sure that i kept moving us along because i knew that once the sun set, it was going to get very dark and very cold, and we would be stranded. so i continually prodded the two to keep moving, and i felt bad about it, because i also wanted to stop and enjoy the landscape as much as possible.
we made it to the highest point of the hike, to stellisee lake, and as we were snapping photos, we noticed a commotion off to our left. about a hundred yards away was a herd of free-roaming mountain goats. we quickly scrambled over and began following the goats, taking photos and videos, watching the mischievous little devils battle each other, ramming their horns into each other and trying to establish their dominance. at one point, i got a little too close and one of the adult goats backed me down, chasing after my gopro camera as if to inform me that i was not welcome among their herd. eventually the goat herd got far enough from the path that we let them go and resumed our trek, cognizant of the impending darkness that would be descending soon.
but along the way it occurred to me that i was extremely glad that these two strangers had joined me. when the day began, i had a very specific plan and idea for what i wanted this day to be, and suddenly i had allowed that to be wrestled away from me, and i had been a little sour about it for a few fleeting minutes. i had started the day wanting to conquer a mountain, to climb to the top of a summit and take some risks, and feel a triumph over something. but now here i was, on the back half of a 7 hour journey, and i was actually thankful that i hadn’t done that. i had changed my perspective, and i was now on a more leisurely and more enjoyable trek with a couple of beautiful and innocent souls who would likely have overpaid to board a gondola and ride up to the top of some scenic overlook that would undoubtedly have been breathtaking, but they wouldn’t have earned it. but this? this was work. this was sweat. and i could see that despite the exhaustion, they were having the time of their lives. i felt proud of that.
but i was also humbled by my new friends. they had taught me something. they had taught me that only doing what i want didn’t necessarily mean i was going to have the best experience possible, and they had confirmed for me that the mantra of the traveler, that “say yes” attitude and “stay open” mentality was the only true way to travel and authentically experience the world.
as the sun set behind the mighty matterhorn, we quickened our pace, trying to beat the darkness back to zermatt. our legs were worn and exhausted, but we made it back into town just as dusk turned to night and the streetlights flickered to life in sleepy zermatt. perfect timing. a perfect day.
today’s track is a piece of relaxed folktronica beauty by howard, from his brand new album, religion. put this on while you commute to work in the morning and you haven’t quite woken up yet. follow the slowly growing playlist below to continue receiving new songs. enjoy…
editor’s note: hey all, miq here. just a heads up: in keeping with my announcement last week that i would be spotlighting more music each week outside of my regularly scheduled wednesday-story-days, i’ve recruited friend and fellow audiophile eric visser to be a regular contributor. we here in denver affectionately refer to him as “viss,” and he brings a really cool perspective to our little community of philistines. viss is a great concert buddy if you need one (probably the most active show-goer i know, often popping into a couple per week in the summers), and will bring a slightly more modern flavor to the fold than my decidedly americana-folky leanings. he’ll be making appearances here a few times a month, so get ready to have an even better soundtrack to your life. i love this playlist that he’s drummed for us and i think you will too…
I have been into all types of music since as long as I can remember and have always loved sharing my fovorites with anyone who would listen. When Miq asked me to do something productive with my life and start contributing to this blog I jumped at the opportunity. What I didn’t think about was how I was going to present each song and make it relevant to the masses who would be reading this. It didn’t take me long to realize that I shouldn’t try to get too deep and should just get to why I love music.
Music is my favorite art form because Continue reading Music Monday: Songs to listen to while looking for dutch oven recipes
i had seen halstatt. it was one of the things on my list that seemed a little more niche and extravagant, and i hadn’t been sure if i was going to pull it off, especially considering all the adversity i had encountered. but i now had a strong sense of accomplishment and pride in myself for surviving the day, as silly as that sounds. i had faced a number of my biggest fears about solo backpacking all in the same day, and i hadn’t panicked. things had somehow just worked out, which was something i had heard people say before, but the paranoid planner in me had never believed them. i’ve always come from a place that the prepared mind is the one who is granted fortune, which i think still is often true, but i knew there was romance somewhere in the no-man’s-land of spontaneity, and one of my primary goals before i set out on this trip was to force myself into that abyss. it had been uncomfortable, stressful, comical, and… wonderful. i didn’t understand it yet, as i was still decompressing and dissecting the day’s events in my mind, but the seeds of experience had been planted in my mind, and i knew that i was already beginning to change and grow from it. Continue reading Switzerland: what the hell is a fondue?
one of the first ideas i got when beginning to write this blog was to buffer some of the more heavy elements of the things i was writing about with simple music recommendations. music has always been an integral part of my life, providing a soundtrack to the legion of thoughts running through my brain at any moment, and helping me define emotions and life experiences with corresponding sympathetic tunes of artistic expressions of pain, guilt, loss, elation, love, regret, and a thousand others. i used to love sending special people mix tapes, which later turned into mix cd’s, which in turn has given way to playlists (ah the hurried joy of technology), and while i still miss the tactile sentimentality of a mix tape, spotify really has made my life a lot simpler and easier as it relates to finding and sharing new music.
i realize it takes a little patience for some of you to wait for a slow building playlist over the course of months in a year when only 1 song gets added per week, so for that reason, i’m going to work on trying to get out lots of little extras each month. things like seasonal playlists, new artist spotlights, and even playlists for specific occasions will start being sent out on the semi-regular. just make sure you have a spotify account and you are following me (brandonmiq or brandon miquelon if your account is connected to facebook), and you’ll have free access to anything i put out there. if you don’t have spotify, well then i can’t really help you. i’m working for free here.
so here’s our first freebie of 2015, my wePhilistines honorable mention of 2014 list. these are all the songs that were basically “leftovers.” great songs that i really enjoyed listening to throughout the year, but was just unable to find a way to fit them in to any of my posts. these genres range all over the board and the artists vary wildly in exposure and popularity, but i’m sure you’ll be able to find more than a few songs from artists you were previously unaware of that make your audio nerve tingle. as always, i say “listen first, talk later,” so here’s the playlist first, and if you’re interested in my thoughts about what makes it a great song, i will list 1 thing i love about each song after the jump…
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 on 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 up 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!
hello friends, i apologize for not having a suitable story out to you yesterday. i am currently roaming the irish countryside and have not had a wifi connection for awhile. in fact, my current signal is very weak and i can’t upload any photos, so instead of a story today, i will leave you with another new song i recorded just before i left on my journey. again, it is modest, without any professional equipment, just a microphone and some instruments in my bedroom. all instruments performed by me, and the song is an original as well. i wrote this for someone i cared deeply for, but i never got a chance to share it with them. so instead, i share it with you. i hope you enjoy it, feel free to share it with others if you so choose. i’ll get you a story online as soon as i can manage it!