it was dark, and we hadn’t seen a street sign, a building, even a streetlamp in over an hour. we had seen nary a clue that we were even traveling in the right direction, but had seen no other roads headed in this direction on the map, so we pressed on faithfully into the night, expecting any minute to find a sign.
the roads toward the interior of croatia were much smaller and more narrow than the decidedly more oft-traveled corridor of the adriatic coastline, thusly making it more difficult for me to progress toward my destinations at the breakneck (and slightly illegal) pace that i had grown accustomed to in rural europe. despite my frustration, i found a silver lining in the intricacies of the winding country roads, and the fun that came with the need to test my maneuvering skills at a high degree of mastery. dave, on the other hand, didn’t share my navigational enthusiasm.
eventually we found the turnoff we had been looking for and made our way through a tiny town with few amenities or notable attractions. a light snow was now falling and the ground had accumulated a sheer white layer, making it almost difficult to look directly at with the bright headlights of the car beaming directly onto it. i approached each turn with a degree of caution, conscious of the fact that i had turned down the rental company on their offer of all-weather tires only a week ago.
dave guided us to a house, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that he had found on airbnb. as we pulled into the designated parking space, i humorously remarked, “…and this is how it ends. in the pit of some croatian farmer’s barn, never to be seen again.” dave laughed and exited the vehicle, walking into the house of the property owner to handle the check-in duties while i gathered the bags. a few minutes later we were claiming beds in our apartment for the night and unwinding from a long day of driving.
it was a homely little apartment, but it was just what we needed. it was quaint and quiet, and removed from any hustle or bustle of a normal city. very different from the place we had stayed the night before in the oceanside town of zadar. a self-proclaimed “design hostel,” it was clean and minimalist with eccentric aesthetics. we were the only ones staying in a place that had capacity for at least 80, and our shared-bunk dorm felt like a sick mix between a hospital and a room from charlie’s chocolate factory. tall ceilings, narrow spaces, the walls were candy-striped with disturbingly contrasted orange and white and the bunks had stiff shutters that could close off from the outside world, allowing the sleeper to create a cocoon. i wondered if i had missed the part where they assigned me a straightjacket before locking me in the room.
zadar had actually been a pleasant surprise, and i had found myself wishing that i’d been able to stay there longer than the twelve hours i gave it, especially if i could come back some day in the summer. that
evening, as i walked along the harbor admiring the sunset, i stumbled upon the Morske orgulje, or “sea organ,” an architectural object and experimental musical instrument that produces sound through a series of pipes inset the marble ground i walked upon, powered by the waves of the ocean that brushed up against the side of the marble and into the pipes, pushing air out and producing the unpredictable chorus. it was truly one of the most uniquely creative things that i had seen on my travels, and also one of the most unexpected.
after a few minutes of unwinding, a knock at the door sounded. it was the daughter of the property owner with a gift: homemade rakija. dave and i both expressed our deep gratitude and accepted the gift, but when we closed the door, we exchanged more knowing glances.
“oh man. good thing they only gave us these small glasses, this stuff smells stronger than the cherry stuff we had the other night,” dave warned cautiously.
“it is!” i spat out as i coughed down my first sip. “way stronger! i think this is peach flavor too.” we did our best to finish the drink (which i estimate to have been about 2.5 shots worth of alcohol), but neither of us could make it all the way through. apparently this was the old man’s special recipe, and he distilled it right there on property. impressive, but not for the faint of heart.
the next morning we arose early and set out to find plitvice lakes national park. after a 20 minute drive, the windy snow-covered road led us to a parking lot that seemed out of place with the rest of landscape that we had grown accustomed to seeing. we deduced that this must be the place.
following an oddly unnecessary footbridge over to what appeared to be an empty visitor center, a tourist bus pulled into the lot and parked while we attempted to figure out where to go and how to pay for whatever it was we were supposed to be seeing. i laughed as 5 people got off the bus that could hold probably 50. eventually we found a walking path and assumed that if there was a pay booth somewhere, clearly no one cared if we paid or it would have been more obviously located. we started down the path perplexedly defiant.
three minutes later we were staring down a cliff surveying a wintery panorama of emerald blue rivers and lakes fed by icy white waterfalls. i had never seen anything like it. like a croatian iguazu, we had found a legitimate natural gem in the harsh balkan cold, and there was no one around to spoil our enjoyment of it. dave and i excitedly bound down the switchbacks until we were at the water’s edge, walking on man-made wooden planked walkways across the water and staring up at the looming waterfalls.
the ice and frigidity of winter had obviously restricted the water flow, somewhat muting the normally powerful display of water in nature in this protected croatian landmark. but we knew we were getting to see a very different side of an oft-photographed sight, and the narnia-like effect that the white winter had on the place gave the atmosphere an eery yet striking touch that made me forget about the bitter cold and enjoy the moment.
dave and i separated for a while, wandering toward different parts of the park and periodically meeting back up in different areas to make sure we weren’t lost. during that time, i tried to focus on being present, enjoying the moment and not worrying about the future or the past, or letting my mind wander too far along pointless reveries. i was getting better at this. i remembered back to the beginning of my journey, being a total mental mess, worried about where i was going in my future, sad and victimized by my past, and always paranoid and conscious of the strangers around me and what they thought of me. rarely did i have these concerns any longer. occasionally i might be aware that i was out of place in a situation, or i might want to impress someone appropriately, but seldom did i have any social anxiety about my foreign status or my ragged appearance. i just didn’t care anymore, and i felt liberated. and nowhere more did that carefree comfort truly reveal itself than when i was
away from congested society and out into the raw of nature. the worries of life and society seemed to fall by the wayside whenever i wandered a dirt trail among the trees and the rushing water and an unending sky. a light snow and fair breeze coerced the water gently from its course atop the cliff to the basin below, transforming a calm stream into a drifting cascade. it was peaceful here, and i never wanted to leave.
dave and i reconvened aboard a ferry that carried us across the main lake and to a new section of the park for us to explore for a few more hours. eventually the cold won out, however, and dave and i decided it best to seek warmer temperatures.
The next day we were on the road again, and before long we were slipping and sliding our way through the streets of zagreb, the capital city of croatia. a heavy, wet snow had been falling for hours before we arrived, and still fell, as we searched for parking near our hostel. we checked into yet another modern “design hostel,” impressively marked with comfortable yet minimalist furniture, modern decorative art, and clean lines throughout the architecture. croatia knew how to put together a solid hostel.
we spent another pair of days exploring the old and new in a city that dates back at least a thousand years. exploring old churches and cemeteries, and a few bars in between, zagreb seemed to be a large city without much of the draw that tourists journeyed to the adriatic coast for. but there was charm in that. it was a different side of croatia, more business-like, more straight to the point, and the unassuming nature of it put one at ease. it was easy to go about your day and take the city in without feeling the pressure to make sure you had checked off all the necessary boxes to prove to yourself it had been worthwhile.
our time came to an end however, and dave and i said our goodbyes to croatia. we rose early before the sun and city, and sped hurriedly to the airport. in our early morning haze, we pulled up to the front gate of the departures section and began preparing to offload our luggage. we both sat uncomfortably for a moment, not sure what was wrong. suddenly, it hit me.
“damn! this is a rental car! where’s the rental office?!” i exclaimed, suddenly wide awake. dave looked back at me blankly. panic set in, we were already likely late for an international flight, and we had forgotten to return our rental car.
dave turned on his iphone, hoping he could locate the rental office nearby, while i pressed the gas pedal, determined to find it the old-fashioned way.
“i don’t get it. google maps says we’re on top of it,” dave said, perplexed. we both looked around. nothing. i drove to the end of the airport road. nothing but office buildings, no rental lots. i turned around and went back to the entrance of the airport loop. dave kept poking at his phone screen with futility, much like he had the entirety of our time in the balkans. google maps didn’t have as high an adoption rate here as it did the rest of europe and the US thus far, hence the wild inaccuracies we had experienced almost everywhere we had gone.
after a few minutes of driving around in a panic and yelling obscenities at dave’s iphone, i hooked my head left and searched east, across an empty field and down what appeared to just be a service road. i whipped the car illegally across traffic and sped down the road without saying a word. dave, recognizing that i was in one of my zones, said nothing and held on for dear life, trusting that i knew what i was doing. i barreled into a parking lot and up to the front door of the europcar rental office. dave stared at me incredulously.
“how did you see this?!” he exclaimed as we walked briskly to the door. i didn’t answer, frustrated as i realized that no one was at the office yet. someone was late to work. annoyed, i repeatedly rang the bell and pounded on the door, unconcerned that no one could hear it.
a few minutes later another car entered the lot and 2 men in ties rushed in to open the office. embarrassed, he was aware that i knew he was late. i said nothing and noticed that he was working at a pace faster than what he normally might. he processed our paperwork and drove us back to the departure gate. dave and i grabbed our bags and sprinted through check-in and security, barely making our flight.
as the plane climbed into the morning sky, i exhaled deeply, relieved. dave began laughing, unprovoked, and it was only a matter of seconds before i was laughing with him.
“i don’t ever want to fly with you again” i said jokingly, and our laughter grew even louder.
i would miss croatia. and bosnia and montenegro as well, and the mysteries of what lay beyond the boundaries that dave and i had pushed haunted me. i would be back someday, to explore sarajevo, and bucharest, and albania, and macedonia. to sail from the northern tip of croatia all the way down to the southern isles of greece, when the summer sun beats down upon the blue sea and is cooled by the mist on the skin and the tradewinds blowing through the hair. i would most definitely be back someday.
but now i returned to amsterdam, to celebrate the new year with the dutch, at the party of a lifetime.
today’s song has been out for a few months now, but the more i listen to it, the more it becomes a part of me. it’s called “dark bird is home,” and it’s by the tallest man on earth. it’s a song about separation, and learning to grow and cope with change and loss. this song makes me feel so many emotions when i hear it, and it has earned a place on my eternal rotation. tallest man will be performing in denver, co this summer and i plan on attending. feel free to join me.
i had been in genoa for a couple days doing nothing when i finally received an email from dave, written in a brief and rushed manner:
“finally got rebooked. boarding now from germany, see you in a couple hours.”
a few hours later i was wandering around the empty streets of genoa trying to find my friend dave before he got too lost and i couldn’t find him. i rounded a corner and saw him standing underneath the facade of a large university building, squinting at the signs in italian, searching for any kind of english or guidance as to where he should be going.
“need some help, gringo?!” i called out as i approached. he spun around and looked at me and burst into laughter. i gave him a big hug, grabbed his bag and walked him to the hostel, where the hostel manager, a thin, lively man named carlo, was giving a few of the guests a little lesson on how to prepare noodles in italy. we got dave checked in and situated in the dorm room and hurried back down to be a part of the action. Continue reading a reunion in the ghost towns of cinque terre, italy→
as we had approached tenghir i overheard the sues talking about making ‘smores, which caught my attention. i had been editing photos on my laptop, but when i heard the debate as to the correct preparation methods, i had first been curious, and then alarmed, when i heard sue #2 describing something involving a tea biscuit (the english version of a cookie or a sweet cracker), chocolate sauce, and a marshmallow in tin foil and cooked in an oven or microwave (or some bastardized version of my bastardized summary of her bastardized gross misinterpretation of the american ‘smore). i sat there for a few moments not knowing if i should laugh or cry. the ‘smore is an american institution, and it had never occurred to me that the rest of the world didn’t enjoy or comprehend this poor-man’s delicacy like we did. furthermore, i had assumed that the film “the sandlot” had been just as much a part of everyone’s childhood as it had mine and every other american kid born in the 80s or 90s, and due to that iconic scene in the film where ham teaches smalls how to make a ‘smore, i further assumed that everyone knew how to make one on that basis alone. i had to intervene.
“whoa. hold on. i don’t mean to be the know-it-all, interfering american here, but this is something that i am a resident expert on, and there are a few major injustices i need to correct here…” suddenly, everyone was looking at me curiously as i began to explain not only the proper ingredients and methods for the perfect ‘smore, but also the integral place it had in recreation and pop culture in the US.
so the following morning, i forced our driver to make a pit-stop where we could make a quick supply run. he pulled the van over to a little market that didn’t really have any of what i needed, but i made due with the 6 different types of chocolate bars i bought (because i can’t read arabic), as well as the three different types of cookies and sweet crackers (since graham crackers are apparently a uniquely north american thing), and about 10 bottles of wine we were able to procure from behind the counter (buying booze is kinda hard in morocco sometimes. it’s not as readily available as it is in western society, due to its rocky relationship with islam: technically not allowed). they also didn’t have wire coat hangers, so i bought a bunch of kebab skewers for the ‘mallow roasting. the marshmallows were the only thing that were easy to find. not to worry, however, because my plan was to get everyone good and drunk off the wine so that if the ‘smores were terrible due to my makeshift ingredients, nobody would have a clue.
we loaded back up into the van and shot north for a quick detour to see the todra gorge, a small canyon with steep cliff walls made of red earthen rock and clay, and a trickling river rolling through the center of it. we piled out of the van to snap some photos when zuzu instructed to walk the last mile of the gorge to where he would be waiting for us in the van. i was glad for some physical activity finally. we stepped off the road and started walking along the small dribbling creek bed , hopping from rock to rock and crossing streams of deeper water when necessary via long wooden planks placed there by locals.
we had managed to catch the gorge before the sun had risen too high in the sky, and the early morning sunlight crept slowly down from tops of the canyon walls and from the mouth of the entrance like an inevitable forest fire, an angry demon consuming everything in sight and only limited by time. the shade felt nice, and jeffrey and rachel took off their shoes and began to wade down the creek.
3 hours later we had pulled into another town for lunch and then abandoned the luxury van for a pair of 4-wheel drive SUV’s. as we were loading up the new vehicles, a old woman approached us, attempting to sell us bedouin scarves. my gut reflex responded and i immediately declined politely, but as gugu and surjit began to look (a pattern had emerged with our group. whenever we had been taken to a place where shopping was encouraged – which was kinda everywhere – all the australians and myself had abstained, and gugu and surjit had at shopped and bargained. we all joked that gugu and surjit had bailed out the rest of the group from looking like a bunch of cheap bastards) i realized i really wanted a scarf so i could learn how to tie a headwrap/turban thingy. i wanted to play lawrence of arabia in the desert. before i knew it, everyone in the tour had purchased one, and the woman was holding a roadside course in scarf wrapping.
zuzu herded us back into the 4×4’s and we were off into the sahara via merzouga, cruising across wide expanses of nothing but sand as far as the eye could see. a strong ridge resided directly to the east, which we were informed was the algerian border. not a safe place to wander to. we weren’t worried about it however, as the offroad vehicles bounced and tore their way through the sand dunes, further and deeper, until we arrived a couple hours later to a cluster of palm trees and a grouping of tents and a small building. we had arrived. the sahara desert.
a few young men hurried out from the building and began grabbing our bags to take them to our assigned tents. meanwhile behind us, a grouping of camels had assembled behind us with a few men in brightly colored robes holding the reigns.
“okay my friends! welcome to our berber camp in the sahara desert! tonight we will be having a wonderful berber dinner with some music and big fire under the stars! but for now, we have arranged for a beautiful camel ride up to the top of the sand dunes to watch the sunset!” zuzu led us over to the camels where a group of boys, none of them over the age of 20, began assigning us to camels.
i could barely contain my excitement as i approached my camel, laying on its stomach in the sand. this was one of the things i had wanted to do all my life. i didn’t know many people who had ever ridden a camel, much less in the vast sahara desert. it was one of those surreal moments, and i tried my best to savor every detail and every moment, to preserve it so i would never forget it, but i’m not sure it worked, because even today it still seems like a shadow of a memory. as though someone else had told me a story and i had simply made it my own. i kicked my shoes off and swung a leg over the back of the dromedary between his two humps, and he barked a hideous, throaty protest at me. i laughed back at him. the guide in front of me pulled up on the reins and suddenly the beast’s front two legs pushed up and shot me backward.
“WOOOOO!” i joyously shouted, grabbing the saddle knob and throwing my free arm up into the air, like i was riding a bucking bronco in a rodeo. the camel collected its rear two legs underneath and pushed upward and suddenly i was sitting 8 feet up, on top of the world.
we lumbered off single-file into the desert, climbing higher and further into the sand dunes as the sun began its race to the horizon, causing our shadows to grow until they looked like a herd of shadowy giant spiders making their way across the sand. a few berbers walked alongside our caravan, ensuring the moody camels behaved and stayed in order. they made small talk, asking us about ourselves, telling jokes, even informing us of our funky camel friends’ names. Camby and Suey’s camels arguably had the coolest names, in jimi hendrix and bob marley, allegedly due to their hairstyles, though i didn’t see the resemblance.
we parked the camels in a flat at the base of a steep dune and then all ascended the quick walk to the top, settling in on some blankets the berber guides had laid out for us. i couldn’t believe how incredibly soft the fine-grained sand was as i dug my bare feet deep into the surface, like a bed of cool silk coating the harsh desert terrain. our timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as the sun had just begun its final descent, and the light was beginning to alter and color as it entered the thicker parts of the curved atmosphere. a soft breeze drifted coolly along the dunes, brushing back my hair and pushing loose grains of sand into small swirls that danced along the ridgelines of the dunes. i took a deep breath and closed my eyes, letting the sunlight paint my face with the last remaining warmth of the day before the dry cold of the night invaded the sahara.
everything was perfect. i had made it. the aussies sat next to me, chatting amongst themselves and enjoying the experience, but i was worlds away, quietly savoring the moment and reflecting on my journey to this point. the big decision to leave home and career and comfort, the volcanoes and glaciers of iceland, the canals of amsterdam, the amazing symmetry of paris, the history, intrigue, and elegance of the central european countries, the swiss alps, the poetry of spain, and now the sahara desert. a smile slowly crept across my face until it turned into a mad grin, and i began laughing. how was this my life? how had i gotten here? who did i think i was? i felt like i had somehow stepped into someone else’s life, and i was living their adventure. i kept waiting for someone to look at me and realize that i was an impostor, a fake, and chase me out. but here i was, and i didn’t want to stop.
the night had descended upon the desert and everyone was sitting around a roaring fire stretching up 5 feet high into the black of night, casting its light all around and throwing shadows as far as the leash would allow. nearby a young man was slapping at a bank of bongo drums, introducing a rhythmic symphony into the quiet solitude of the desert. he sang in a low tone, his voice soft but confident, carrying its somber tale to our ears without the need for interpretation.
i looked around as everyone happily sat around the fire, enjoying their wine or other drinks. a few children had joined the musician and begun pounding indiscriminately on the drums as he laughed and gave up trying to control them. the soft melody quickly devolved into chaos. this was the perfect time. i got up and ran swiftly back to my tent and grabbed the supplies. i quickly passed out the kebab skewers and assembled the chocolate, crackers, and marshmallows at a clear space a safe distance from the flames. i gave everyone a quick demonstration of how the ‘smore is made, taking care to show the difference in methods between the patient golden-brown approach and the more to-the-point “just set it on fire” preference. within moments, everyone was crowded around the bonfire, kebab skewers outstretched, and testing themselves at the art of the ‘smore. australians and moroccans alike stuffed their faces with the delicious american delicacy, and i stood nearby, smiling proudly. i watched as the young boys from the bongos took their first bite and smiled wide as soon as they could taste what they were eating. they quickly began begging for more, and i laughed and opened the cache of sweets up to everyone for as much as they wanted.
after a couple hours of shared stories and laughter around the fire, most of the group had gone to bed. there had been some talk of rising early in the morning to watch the sunrise. as the aussies and i headed towards our tents, we discovered an elevated but flat patio area with some chairs and tables nearby. we took the wine and the six of us stayed out under the stars for another 2 hours, marveling at the view. i’m not sure i’d ever seen so many stars in my life. not even 10,000 feet high up in the colorado rockies. out here in the sahara, the milky way seemed to be burned into the dark canopy of night, and it glowed with an eery, hazed permanence. if you stared straight at it, it seemed to lose it’s form, and your eyes would begin to play tricks on you. but if you averted your eyes ever so slightly, your peripheral vision would reveal a wondrous, colorful tapestry with immeasurable depth that would play tricks, this time not on your eyes, but your imagination. my mind couldn’t comprehend its power and its beauty and its vastness all at the same time.
distinct hues of green, purple, and yellow hid among the twinkling brilliance of millions of stars all around, and we sat breathless in the cool night air, our heads tilted upwards in a curious stupor. i felt so small, pitted somewhere between the stars and the sand, with each abyss, above and below, staring straight into my soul with brutal but gentle honesty. there was everywhere to hide, and yet there was nowhere to hide. i was both haunted and at peace at the same time. neither the desert nor the stars cared for where i’d been or where i was going, who i thought i was or who i really was. they demanded nothing from me but truth. my truth. either one could kill me in an instant if they so desired, and yet they sat quietly, the power of their silence subduing me.
i retreated to my tent for the night. “what an incredible place the world is,” i thought to myself as i drifted off to sleep.
this week’s musical arrangement is by a band from san francisco named “geographer.” i first discovered this band a few years ago when they played a small club in denver with a different band i had been really into at the time. 2 songs into geographer’s set and i realized who the superior band was. “i’m ready” is the lead single off their new album, and it perfectly captures an emotion that this post begins to address. it’s about learning to stop trying to define and figure out your life, and begin to start living it. it’s beautiful and perfect, and it brings you as much peace as it brings me. enjoy…
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…
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 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.
“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!