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  • Ken Ilgunas

A trip to the Alps

A few weeks ago, I found myself near the town of Berchtesgaden in the German Alps. The following is my account of a two-day solo hike.

Day 1: Berchtesgaden to Stahlhaus

I struck out at 10:30 a.m. for Stahlhaus, one of several sleeping huts for hikers in Berchtesgaden National Park. Berchtesgaden is in southeast Germany on the Austrian border. Designated as a national park in 1978, it’s 81 square miles and home to Kehlsteinhaus, or the “Eagle’s Nest,” a Third Reich building once used as a getaway for Hitler and Nazi top brass, but which now solely functions as a top-of-a-hill beer garden for tourists.

I began my hike in a European heatwave. The temperature was around 38°C (100°F), so I generously applied sunscreen and glugged water. At the Berchtesgaden tourist center, where I picked up a map, a whole bunch of Chinese people got off a bus and crowded around the bathroom entrances.

I wouldn’t see any of the Chinese tourists on the hiker/cyclist trail. Apart from a few guys speaking a Slavic language, I seemed like the only foreigner, and my American nationality, to everyone I’d meet in the hills, would be a novelty.

The first thing I noticed about the German hikers was just how steady they were. Normally I cruise past middle-age women on a trail, but out here if I took a moment to snap a photo or eat a protein bar, I’d soon be overtaken by those whom I’d just overtaken. There are lots of really good looking and in-shape Germans, but many of these hikers didn’t look like they were in amazing shape or anything. There are plenty of lumpy, soft-bellied Germans, yet here they were, gliding up the steep trail with little difficulty. I’ve also noticed plenty of German men with sizable pot bellies (probably from too much sausage and beer), but the rest of their bodies seem hale and hearty, and I’d see plenty of them in the mountains, too. If there is such a thing as a healthy obesity, this is it.

I arrived at the Stahlhaus shelter at 3 p.m. I’d planned to climb a mountain peak, but that would mean I’d miss the three-course dinner meal in the beer garden, so I sat on a bench and did a sketch of the mountains. I tried to write some thoughts down in my journal but my mind, because of the heat, was mush and my memories were melting.

I was, though, quite impressed with the shelter. These German huts aren’t like AT shelters, where you get three walls and lots of mice. The Stahlhaus was well-constructed, offering three-course dinners, a breakfast, showers, and electricity. Camping is prohibited in the park, so if you want to do an overnight hike, you have to rely on these shelters, which cost $27/night. Breakfast, dinner, and my rented cotton sleeping bag liner rental was another $40. That’s $65 for a night of camping! Some people spend five days hiking out here, where nature is definitely not free.

When I arrived, I was surprised to see that the beds were sandwiched together shoulder to shoulder. Four Slavic men were whispering loudly on my bunk level. Two middle-aged German woman came in and took their clothes and bras off in front of us to change into their sleepwear.

I nodded off to sleep quickly, but the Slavic men snored horribly, waking me after an hour. They were on the far side of the bunk, but I found the volume intolerable, and I wondered how they weren’t waking up one another. It was a symphony of snores. (An awful symphony!) There were grizzly growls and grunts. Sniffles and snorts. Whimpers and wheezes. I found it uncivilized, and I thought that if someone knows that they snore that bad, then they ought to stay at home and leave the rest of us unafflicted. But I too was committing remorseless sins in my corner of the bunk, softly farting into the fabric of my rented cotton sleeping bag liner.

Thoughts and Reflections from the Day

  1. Expecting fathers can expect a 34% decrease in testosterone levels when the baby comes. This has me concerned for all the obvious reasons. Will I lose my hair, my muscles, my, umm, drive? Will I eventually get my testosterone levels back? I suppose I don’t want to become what I fear becoming: another unambitious, overweight, and sedated man. I don’t want to lose what I most like about myself. Statistics and hormone levels seem so scientific and therefore inescapable. Would this happen in a tribal setting, where parenting duties are a bit more spread out? Is the testosterone drop typical to men in small, atomized nuclear families in industrialized countries, where the father takes on 50 percent of care-taking duties? Is this an example of how my culture may affect and alter me on a profound (hormonal) level? It should also be said that, as the article states, new fathers also see boosts in loving and bonding hormones, such as dopamine and oxytocin. I suppose I do like the idea of experiencing the world with a new perspective (and body to some degree). (Hell, I’d try out being a woman for a week if such a thing were possible.) There are many lives to live in one life, and there is indeed a part of me that welcomes a new one for a time. Plus, I suppose I was heartened to see so many fit older German men on this trip–something I don’t really see in America. [1] A few days later, on a train, I sat across from a man who must have been in his mid sixties and who was probably capable of kicking my ass. The men here, at least in this corner of Germany, age remarkably better than men in my home countries of the U.S. and U.K. Perhaps physical activity, and hikes like these, are part of the solution, and perhaps statistics and studies can, to a degree, be defied. [2]

  • I developed an idea for a children’s book about a little tree growing up.

  • Home sapiens, as a species, suffer from amnesia. A giraffe of today lives pretty much the same life as a giraffe of a million years ago, and therefore the giraffe would have little use for a generations-long memory. But we as Homo sapiens, in our 200,000 years, have lived such varied existences, from hunter-gatherers to retail store clothes-folders. Yet we have no real memory for our past lives as hunter-gatherer, farmer-herders, or warrior-craftsmen. No real memory beyond two generations of relatives. No real memory for living in the wild, living according to seasons, looking up at the stars. We’ve forgotten so much. You might consider our collective unconscious, or our “ghost psyches,” as sufficient substitutes for ancient memories, but I think it would do us a world of good to remember well beyond our individual lives.

  • German strangers look at you longer. It’s not quite a stare; it’s more a gaze. They hold their eyes on you for an extra second or two. A Brit might consider this rude, but I don’t mind. The German gaze contains a mix of curiosity, indifference, and sometimes a little bit of warmth.

  • This paragraph is not going to help me if I’m ever a suspected of a homicide, but I’d say that several times a week I impulsively and mentally rehearse acts of violence. It often occurs when I’m walking down a vaguely unfriendly city street that gets my stress levels to increase. I’ll imagine a man or a group of teenage boys attacking me or my partner, and I’ll dispatch them with artful moves or just a burst of bloody head-butting animal rage. I should clarify that I never fantasize about striking someone without good reason. And I should say that I’ve never actually been in a fight, and I’m happy to go the rest of my life without getting into one. Yet, during these rehearsals, there’s a part of me that is relishing the sensations of mentally delivering a savage beat down to someone. I consider these “rehearsals of violence.” They mentally prepare me for unlikely events. It keeps me on my guard. It’s not very different than when I imagine ground balls hit my way, which are supposed to help me be a better short stop on my softball team. I’m pretty sure this is all perfectly normal, maybe more so for a man. These things just go unstated.


Day 2: Stahlhaus to St. Bartholomew’s haus

“German sounds, how do you say, harsh?” asked Michael (pronounced Mick-A-ell).

I told Michael that I thought spoken German, to my ear, sounds beautiful, and that Americans only think it sounds harsh because our exposure to the German tongue comes mostly from WWII movies, where steely-jawed Germans speak their language with an authoritarian bark.

When I told him I was from New York, Michael told me he’d went on a tour of the American West Coast, where he visited lots of parks, but that he saw very few people hiking the trails.

“American are very….” said Michael, searching for a word.

I made a wide parenthetical gesture with my hands around my belly to communicate “fat.”

“Not very active,” he said.

I only had a cartoon map of the mountains with me, so I’d asked Michael for navigational advice. He took a suspicious look at my pack and map and worn-out hiking shoes, and asked me where I was headed for the day. I told him I was going to hike the circumference of Lake Königsee and arrive back in town by tonight (which looked manageable on my cartoon map, but was perhaps a bit too ambitious).

Michael let loose a horrified and disgusted, “Nooooooa!”

I thought quietly, “yes.”

It was a bit too ambitious, but I was feeling ambitious. I had glorious sunny weather with no chance of rain in the forecast. I had a super light pack (that was lacking warm clothes and basically everything except a half a day’s worth of snacks), but it was super light and therefore wouldn’t slow me down. And I had a full and expendable German pot belly that I wanted to burn off. And I felt invigorated and up for an overly ambitious challenge.

Michael asked me if I had a head torch. I said no. He involuntarily shook his head, swallowed his disgust, and proceeded to help me out with my route planning as well as he could.

At these elevations, I’d have to walk through a number of ice fields. These were fields of hard-packed snow along mountainsides. If I slipped, I could slide all the way down into a cluster of coccyx-bashing boulders, so I took my time and grabbed two pointy rocks, which I thought I might use as ice picks should I slip and slide feet-first down the mountainside. I crossed paths with two German women wearing fashionable hiking garb and carrying trekking poles. They didn’t bother to slow their gait over the ice fields, and I felt, with a stone in each hand like some uncouth and barbaric caveman. Later, in the woods, I’d break off a pair of branches from a fallen tree, which I’d use as makeshift trekking poles. In just 24 hours, I felt like I was hurdling back into a different time, and it felt fantastic.

As I walked downhill into alpine woods, it reminded me of everything that Scottish forests are missing. There were insects everywhere. Butterflies fluttered in front of my advancing feet. The forests, mixed with pine and broad-leaf trees, were alive with birdsong. Look closely and there are probably lines of ants marching perpendicularly across the trail. The alpine meadows were a healthy green with pink and blue and yellow flowers. A chamois (a tawny mountain goat-antelope hybrid) heard my footsteps, hid in a tangle of the forest understory, and, when I passed it, sprinted down the rocky slope at a speed that would have been life-ending if it had tripped. This was a forest alive and well and reasonably ecologically whole (though Germany still lacks the presence of brown bears).

The path was well posted with signs advertising the next mountaintop and sleeping hut. I took note of how accurate the time indicators were. If the sign said it would take four hours to get to the next destination, it would take me four hours. If I took a fifteen minute break, it would take me four hours and fifteen minutes. Trails that had a blue dot meant they were easy. Red meant difficult. Black meant challenging. I thought this was all worth noting because in the U.S., if you were to pick up a trail brochure at your local state park, “challenging trails” are designated that way if they’re merely over an hour on a rocky uphill path. Here, a challenging trail might require ice picks, crampons, and a helmet. And it’s actually challenging. In Allegheny State Park, an uphill two-hour hike, might be accomplished in 45 minutes by someone fit.

I thought about my nighttime sins, and I wondered if anyone has ever been killed due to a fart. I’m guessing it’s happened at some point. Maybe, in an earlier civilization, you’re marching with a prisoner or slave or someone you hate, and they let out a defiant boiled cabbage fart. When it comes to being angered by a fart, the smell, I think, is secondary to the impertinence of the emission. Sometimes a fart is emitted, not as a consequence of natural body rhythms (in which case it’s mostly forgivable), but to purposefully annoy or rebel or defy, and that’s when I think someone has probably been clobbered over the head with a heavy club. If it’s hot and humid, and the smell is prolonged and amplified, that’s all the more reason for an execution. I’m sure it’s happened in Florida.

The fart that most riled me was released on a winter’s day in Coldfoot, Alaska, in my dorm room, which was small and very warm. I was playing Scrabble with a male friend and a female coworker. My friend let out something silent and toxic and didn’t claim ownership of it, leaving the girl to possibly imagine that it was me. I was revolted by the smell, but more by the thoughtlessness (or purposeful mischievousness) of his emission, for I suspected that the expulsion was more voluntary than involuntary. In a formal setting, in a room with three people, it’s impolite to leave ownership unclaimed. I kept my mouth shut, thinking that I ought not embarrass him, while leaving, in the air, the humiliating possibility that she’d attribute the unclaimed smell to me. I asked him after she’d left the room, and his mischievous grin confirmed everything. I never found out to whom she’d attributed the sin.

Back on the trail, I walked past a thin middle-age man named Christian, also a solo traveler, who enthusiastically initiated conversation and who helped provide more advice. “Are you telling me a joke?” he asked when I told him where I planned to hike by the end of the day. “Do you have a torch?” he asked. “Yes,” I said.

The German language is not harsh, and Germans are not all preoccupied with discipline and efficiency. That’s how most Americans think of them. Oftentimes Germans and their trains are late. And the people are warm, convivial, and cheery. They’re sensual: they love to eat and drink and be out in nature. On my three trips to Germany, I’ve taken note of the fact that I get smiled at here by women far more than usual. It’s a twinkly smile that opens up from their initial curious gaze. I might call it flirtatious. Amorous, even. Is there something about me that is appealing to German women? I never get this look in the U.K. I never got this look in Central America. Almost never in the U.S. For a happily taken man, there’s nothing to be done with such a smile, but it nevertheless brightens my day.

I’d hiked from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., arriving at St. Bartholomew’s haus just before dark. On my map, I saw a squiggly black line (black denotes a challenging trail) that would lead me back to civilization, but it was too dark and clearly too dangerous, and this section alone was another 3.5 hours, and I knew from experience to trust the time estimates, and that 3.5 hours meant 3.5 hours.

The church grounds were empty, and I planned on sleeping on a bench outside for the night and catching a cheap ferry back to town the next morning. I found a couple of hikers in their mid-twenties in the same predicament, and they warned me that, if I was caught camping in the park (with or without a tent), I’d be fined $1,000. A pair of unhelpful rangers showed up in a boat, with flashlights and binoculars, searching for would-be campers, and they said we had to either continue walking or call for an emergency rescue boat to pick us up.

This seemed crazy! It was perfectly legal to risk death on a steep mountain trail in the middle of the night, but it was a $1,000 fine if I slept in the woods or on a park bench.

The young man called emergency services for a boat ride without determining how much it would cost (we heard $280 from the ranger), and I was left with the options of illegally (and probably successfully) sleeping in the woods, or shamefully taking the emergency boat ride and splitting the outrageous bill with the couple.

“I should have never called them,” the young man said, reflecting on all the money he’d have to dish out for a five-minute boat ride.

They were young and kind and I’d developed a bond with them when we discussed why we shouldn’t embark on a late-night death climb. I wanted to selfishly abandon them so I could keep my money and figure things out on my own in my own thrifty way, but I thought there was something wrong about leaving a younger and more cash-strapped couple, with whom I’d felt a sense of fraternity, with the whole bill.

An hour later, the boat arrived, shining bright lights onto the shore that made me turn my face away. The whole situation was absurd. There was a rescue boat here where none of us truly needed rescuing. I felt weirdly compelled to pay for something I certainly didn’t want or have to pay for. The couple climbed the ramp and entered the boat, negotiating the rescue price down from $550 to $280. I could have turned away and had a memorable night out in the woods, but out of a sense of what was right, I hopped on, and, with great grief, paid a third of the ticket home.

Thoughts and Reflections from the Day

  • I had an idea for a memoir, written unlike any other, that comprehensively collects all thoughts, flowing from one to the other, sort of like those of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. But actually comprehensible. I won’t do it. I like to keep good portions of my life private. And most of my thoughts are mundane and nonsensical. But I think someone ought to undertake the project because there’s a need for such a book. I don’t think any art form has really ever captured how meandering and mundane and amazing the flow of human thought is. In memoirs, or blog entries like these, we only get a carefully curated selection. We don’t get the sad memories, the rehearsals of physical violence, the humiliations, the grand dreams, the amazingly random stream of unconsciousness, the nonsense. I can’t think of one book or movie that’s close to capturing this. Montaigne? Joyce? Maybe, but even with them there’s plenty of careful curating and narrating.

  • I’ve never seen a solo traveler from China. I’ve seen plenty in large groups in European cities and American national parks. But never an independent man or woman. Group travel (especially when you’re crammed in a bus with members of your own homogeneous country) seems like a pretty lousy way to travel. They’re not trying to talk in English. They’re not engaging in a personal way with Americans or Germans. I suppose they’re at least soaking in some views and making cultural observations, but it seems like an impoverished form of travel. (The Chinese, by the way, are now visiting more international countries than any other nation.)

  • ”You’re scaring me,” is a good way to successfully deter an overzealous suitor.

Dangerous-seeming ice fields

[1] To my surprise, there are actually plenty of obese Germans. About 24 percent of the adult population.

[2] It may not matter if there is a 1/3 drop in testosterone levels since there is a wide range of what’s considered normal (about 300 to 1,000 nanograms per deciliter of blood). Apparently there’s little benefit to having high testosterone within this range; all that matters is that you stay within it.


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