On the border between Italy and Austria, two intrepid adventurers follow local mythology into the mountains where an incoming storm tests their resolve. This story was chosen as the winner of the Unexpected Adventures travel writing competition.
“It’s a family business, this hut Pfitscher-Joch Haus. Five generations. These mountains—this is my home. All the wanderers—hikers; the border here of Österreich and Italien.” A smiling man with deep lines on his face like a topographical map brings us our speck nudel soup and bier. The mountain hut is nearly empty, and he swings a chair out and sits. “This is Alto Adige, or we say Südtirol. English you may say South Tyrol. Most beautiful place in the world. We are our own. In Italy, yes, but we speak our own Deutsche. Language does not often recognize borders. Neither does culture.”
“Wanderers,” Ben says. “Same word in German and English.”
“Stories in these mountains,” our host continues. “Wars. Maybe you are walking the same path that Hannibal took. Who knows? Stories on stories.”
“Any mythical creatures in these mountains?” Ben asks.
“No unicorns or dragons. Only real mythical creatures.”
“Like the Goldenhorn, the steinbock that guarded a great treasure in the Alps. Wild mountain goats with twisted horns. You may see them. Then there are the Uomo selvatico, the wilder Mann—the wild men of the mountains.”
“Wild women too, Wildes Fräulein. They go by different names in different languages.”
Ben looks incredulous, “And—they’re real? You’ve seen them?”
The man laughs, “I’ve seen many strange things in these mountains. Enjoy your soup! Guten appetit! Oh, and use caution for the next couple of days, there is heavy weather coming in.”
The trail runs from Munich to Venice, winding up over the Austrian Alps and the Italian Dolomites, with little mountain huts placed along the way. Though we have a German guidebook, we can’t read it; though we have a map, the marks are too small to be of much use if we get lost. We head into, for us, terra incognita. Explorers.
Ben and I are brothers, on our first trip together out of the States. We chatter happily about girls, about the journey ahead, about the weather. The first drops of sweat trickle in the green, still air of the forest.
Then the mountain weather descends:
The tiny town of Stein, old farmhouses with huge rough-hewn beams. An old stone church with a steeple and tiny circular windows. We camp just outside town in a copse of trees and wake to the rush of rain on the tent fly. Sigh. Skip breakfast; nothing to it but to get hiking, get to the next hut as quickly as possible.
Swaddled in raingear, we start up the road out of town and back into the mountains wreathed in thick gray clouds. Loud rain on my hood and pack cover. Ben and I walk in silence, plodding up the road that gets thinner and the trees sparser. My rain jacket holds for about an hour in the heavy rain before I feel cold water trickling through.
An hour up the road we finally spot a tiny turnoff and a half-faded trail blaze. Our lungs carburetors, our thighs engines.
The trail squishes, creeks brim almost to the footbridges. The town disappears below in the mist and rain. The hut is at the top of this mountain, at a pass called Gliderscharte. A roof, warmth, hot speck nudel soup, maybe even a beer.
A peal of thunder makes us stop and look at each other. Distant but unmistakable. Flash in the clouds, fifteen seconds, then thunder. Another low grumble from the mountains and the rain slows to a mist. We’re closer to the hut than the town, even though it’s downhill.
“Let’s go; we can do it.”
We hike double-time. Ben’s in front, boot prints leaving little puddles. Clouds thicken, and the dying light seems to cast no shadows. The trees shrink to nothing.
The storm hits. A roar of thunder and wall of water. Wind flails our rain covers. Rain pours off the mountainside like the storm is trying to wash it away. We’re high above the trees, the tallest things on the mountainside. The roar of a swollen creek in the valley over the sound of the rain. Lightning rips at my eardrums, and the world below is drowning in water. Losing light and hiking at night in a thunderstorm…I’d throw my whole backpack into the valley if I thought it would get us to Gliderscharte safely.
Suddenly, there’s no more climb. Broken slabs of rock like tombstones. Gliderscharte. There’s no color in the world. Moonscape. We look for lights, a hut, a sign. Should be close. “Where is it?” says Ben.
“Should be close…” The trail winds through the pass, shadows looking like shipwrecks. Every turn is dark stone and mountain. “Should be close…” A long dark lake, black opaque water. No hut. No hut. No shelter, no hot soup. And for some reason, it’s the loss of the soup, the tiny shred of comfort amidst the rain and darkness that upsets me to near despair. “The soup,” I murmur, as if someone poured a steaming bowl into the lake.
“C’mon,” Ben says. “We’ve got to get off this mountain, before we lose the light entirely. If we try hiking by headlamp, one of us will fall off a cliff or break an ankle.”
Scramble down slick black rock. Ben’s right, this is getting more dangerous by the minute. Cold comes with the dusk and shivers through soaked clothes. I’m watching my feet carefully when I almost step on a bone. There’s a human skeleton next to the trail. I emit a strangled gasp and shiver colder than the storm. Someone died here and rotted away and we’re going to die here and rot away and all because we got lost and someone threw all the soup into the lake on Gliderscharte…
“Jesus H. Crimini Christmas,” Ben says, looking at the skeleton. “Who would mess with a dead sheep?” He picks up the skull, obviously not human. One leg has two knees. He laughs. I chuckle weakly.
It’s night. We have to camp, look for a spot to pitch the tent. Jagged rocks, not a flat bit of ground. There’s some small yellow light out there in the blackness of the mountains, something beyond the circles of our headlamps. “Are you seeing that, Ben?”
“Yeah, a town?”
But it’s just a single point, with a warm, flickering quality—is it the hut? Too small. A cabin. We’ll ask to camp. The cabin is tiny, a large shed, really. It’s a different world in there, a little pod of warmth and dryness. Ben knocks and there’s a stillness inside and I realize there’s a person on the other side of that door, someone that lives here on the edge of darkness. A knock on their door in the middle of a storm at night.
The door opens. An old woman, backlit by the warm glow, surveys us. What to say? It’s like we’re on a ship out at sea, frantically waving at a lighthouse.
Wordlessly, she opens the door further and motions for us to enter. Wordlessly, we do. Ben and I inhale sharply, a wave of warm, dry air. A stove, a table, a cot. Cackling wood fire in a stove, a pot of steaming something. The woman takes a glass bottle from a tiny cabinet, pours thin, clear liquid into two glasses the size of thimbles, and hands them to us. Half a mouthful and we splutter, “Danke.” The spirits could eat the rust off the door hinges.
“Grappa,” the woman says in a voice like woodsmoke, the faintest smile on her lined face. “Deutsche? Italienisch?”
“American,” says Ben.
The woman shrugs. She speaks no English; we speak no German. She goes to the steaming pot and ladles something into a bowl. Then she says the only other German words we know, “Speck nudelsuppe.” She hands astonished Ben a bowl and then me. Tears leak out of my eyes. We sit on the floor; she sits at the only table and gives us chunks of heavy bread to dip in the soup. It’s the best meal I’ve ever had.
She lets us stay in a small hay barn next door. Smell of hay and earth. Warmth of the soup and grappa and hay. No sleeping pad necessary. Danke we say over and over. For everything, danke.
The morning is a dazzle of sunshine. I haven’t seen the sun in years. We knock on the door just to thank her once more, but the cabin is empty. Danke. On the way down, a massive mountain goat jumps across the trail, impossibly long horns twisting out of its forehead. A reek of musk. Danke.
Matthiessen on the Himalayas:
“The sun is roaring, it fills to bursting each crystal of snow. I flush with feeling, moved beyond my comprehension, and once again, the warm tears freeze upon my face. These rocks and mountains, all this matter, the snow itself, the air—the earth is ringing. All is moving, full of power, full of light.”