Thursday, February 21, 2008

A View From the Top

In the summer of 1988 I traveled to Europe. I went with an outfit called the Kentucky Institute for European Studies. The tour put us in Italy for a month and after that you could opt to fly home or stay on for another month on your own. I chose the latter and activated a Eurail Youth Pass that allowed me to ping pong around central Europe. It proved to be one of the best experiences of my life.

I was all over Italy and I went north to Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. Saw an incredible amount of art and ate a hell of a lot of good food. Because of the intensity of that trip I sometimes feel as if I was gone for more than just two months. More like I spent a lifetime there. Travel is intense. Real travel that is: not a trip to a theme park or Las Vegas. Travel... The word has the same root as the word travail and implies something that is both experienced intensely as well as endured. It implies a level of awareness.

One of the places I visited that summer was Mutters, Austria. It's a small village a few miles down the road from Innsbruck. I was traveling with a fellow by the name of Kyle and we'd arrived in the Innsbruck train station late in the evening, late enough that most things were closed, and it was looking like we were going to wind up roughing it on the benches until early morning. Fortunately for us, Kyle had an old copy of "Europe on Five Bucks a Day" and in it he found a number for a boarding house in Mutters. When he called, a woman by the name of Kattie Wolfe answered and she was so excited that someone wanted to stay at her place she offered to drive down and pick us up at the station. We went to the front entrance and within minutes one of the first BMW's ever made screeched to a halt in front of us.

A stout Tyrolean woman was stuffed behind the wheel and she motioned for us to hop in. Had I known what sort of driver this lady was I might have had second thoughts. She took off like a shot into the night. Up the sides of mountains and around hairpin turns at dizzying speeds. The whole time yammering about the merits of her beloved Austria. Did we know how great the Austro-Hungarian Empire had once been? Were we at least familiar with the achievements of Arnold Schwarzenegger? I maintained a white knuckled grip on the dashboard and agreed through tightly clenched teeth, anything to offset the negative effects of high G-forces.The roller coaster ride ended in the center of Mutters. Her place was one of those charming little houses that seemed to spring up naturally on the sides of Alps. I had seen replicas of them in American homes, miniaturized, with clocks on their faces. In a flash Katie showed us to our rooms and told us how to find the kitchen. Kyle and I collapsed into two of the softest feather beds ever made.

Morning came and we were both reluctant to rise. The blankets were soft as butter from years of use and the room was just cold enough to be pleasant if you were under cover. But the smell of breakfast was compelling. Kyle went across the hall to shower first and while waiting I threw open the shutters to get a view of the Alps. Breathing in the cool mountain air, I thought... I could get used to this.

Downstairs, we ate homemade bread and jam as Katie told us her story. She had been a midwife during World War Two but had retired a few years before. Now she ran the boarding house and made her homemade jam. She encouraged Kyle and I to get out and do some hiking, see some of the beauty of the Tyrolean Alps. We wasted no time. The trails and forests around Mutters and Innsbruck were breathtaking so we stayed on at Katie's for several days. In time I would accompany our hostess into the surrounding hills to help pick berries for the jam. While gathering, she would tell me stories about the war, sad stories about love, loss and hope.

I discovered that over the last few years her business hadn't been doing too well because living in Mutters put her a bit off the beaten path. In response to this Kyle and I would stop in at the train station every morning and strike up conversations with American backpackers. We would ask where they were staying and when they said a hotel we would just shake our heads and tell them how they were missing out. Intrigued they would ask about our arrangements and we would chat up Katie's place in Mutters. In no time, another group of Americans were experiencing high G's on narrow alpine roads...Gaining a new appreciation for Austrian culture and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This arrangement proved ideal for a number of days, especially since Katie was kind enough to give us free lodging, toast and jam every time we snared her a bunch of Americans. About a week into the stay, a couple of guys from Florida expressed an interest in climbing the large mountain that loomed just to the south of Katie's house. She heard us speaking and said we would enjoy it up there but we should only go to the first peak that was visible, the one to the right, and not the main peak as it was above the snow line and somewhat dangerous. The next morning the four of us made an early start and spent the next four or five hours attaining the summit that Katie had pointed out. It was beautiful up there. We were well above the tree line and I remember the dark rocks contrasted sharply with the blue sky. The view was fantastic and we could see the city of Innsbruck laid out in the valley below.

I felt young, strong and full of beans in a way that I've seldom known since, so when Kyle suggested we press on to the central summit (above the snow line) I thought...Why not? Why not? Well, Let's see, there are scores of reasons that now come to mind that escaped me when I was twenty. We could fall to our deaths... The weather could turn before we got back down... You know, death by exposure. Hell, the only thing I was wearing was a pair of faded Levi's, a short sleeve T-shirt and a pair of old worn out sneakers. No socks of course, who the fuck needs socks when climbing above the snow line in the Alps?

Thinking back on this I wonder how the hell I could have been so stupid. The whole effort was a monument to assholery. But it seems fortune favors fools, so off we went. Our luck held and the weather stayed perfect. But even on a hot day in summer the temperature was chilly at high altitude. I doubled my pace to stay warm. Real smart when navigating paths that are no more than twelve inches wide in places. On one side, slick, cold, stone. On the other...the abyss. I'm reasonably certain that there were some drops that measured in the hundreds of feet. A couple of spots were so narrow my back was pressed flat to the wall, arms spread out with palms turned toward slick rock. From heel to ball of foot there was purchase but my toes were in the air. Yes, we were stupid, stupid boys.

In time, the summit was attained: upon arrival I was shocked to come upon an enormous cross. I suppose it was some fifteen feet tall and made of wood. Later I was told that pious men of the surrounding villages carry the large timbers up there, place them and maintain them as a testament to their faith. Surrounded by clouds and blue sky it was hard not to be moved by this powerful symbol.

At the foot of the cross there was a brass box secured to the wood and above it was a small plaque written in German listing several names. Inside the box we found a leather bound book and pencil. The book was filled with entries, people from all over the world who had been to the summit. The excitement they felt at having arrived there was evident in their writing. I placed my mark with theirs at the foot of the cross, and then turning, I drank in the view I'd just risked my life for.The valley that contained Innsbruck stretched away to the horizon, flanked on both sides by high mountains. The air was impossibly clear and I wondered how many miles distant my eyes were seeing. Up high in the white world of cold stones and ice the valley looked rich with vibrant greens. It shimmered in my eyes like an emerald and unconsciously my hand reached out for it. As I was looking, a small object raced from my peripheral vision into my line of sight and disappeared into the distance with tremendous speed. A bird...screaching past me on a gust of wind. I think in the time it took me to realize what I'd just seen that bird may well have crossed into Italy.

As wonderful as it was on that peak Kyle and I realized that we had to get the hell out of there quick. It was already late in the afternoon. The thought of traversing the paths that led to the summit in darkness were enough to motivate us. The way down proved to be just as harrowing as the trip up. By the time we arrived at Katie 's place in Mutters night had fallen and the rest of the boarders were sound asleep. Kyle and I retreated to our room and collapsed into our beds completely spent.

That night I did not dream...There was no need to.

I woke up late, hearing the voices of the other guests downstairs in the Kitchen. Kyle and Katie's voice carried and I wondered what they were arguing about. Walking into the kitchen, Katie struck me on the top of the head with a jam covered wooden spoon. She was furious that Kyle and I had not listened to her and had pushed on to the central summit. Turning to me she asked if I had noticed the little plaque on the cross with the list of names. When I said yes she said, "Those are the names of climbers who have died up there!"

"You stupid, stupid, American Boys."

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