The Great Outdoors

Day 562 – 13 September, 2016

Even though it would cost a small fortune to travel there, even though it would take 6 hours with three connections, even though I would have to stay 10 minutes away in a neighboring village, I was determined to see Hallstatt, a small mountain hamlet in central Austria. All of the logistics were telling me to skip it, but I had developed an iron determination that this time the travel karma would not beat me. I was going to make it happen. I was so stubborn to this end, in fact, that I couldn’t remember why I wanted to go in the first place.

As it turns out, Hallstatt was exactly the fairy tale town it claims to be. Set on a lake by the same name, the backdrop is a steep alpine vista. The town itself is tiny, only a population of 923. I had to stay in Bad Goisern, a short distance north. The reviews of Bad Goisern were mediocre at best, but I found it quaint and friendly with plenty of hiking and bike paths right out my front door. The train to Hallstatt stops on the opposite side of the lake with a connecting ferry that finishes the journey. The small chapel and community cemetery were so picturesque that they could not be ruined by the hordes of selfie stick-wielding tourists milling about. And there were lots of people. I can only imagine this is par for the course, a daily occurrence, in such a lovely mountain village. As a result, the locals struck me as rude and impatient. Not outside of the typical Austrian demeanor, but I couldn’t blame them for being intolerant of tourists trespassing on their property or narrow walkways bottlenecked with oblivious tour groups.

I have a very distinct reaction to these crowds. I will subconsciously (or consciously) turn down a little-used side street or a dark alley. Whichever direction I turn, there’s usually a reason that it’s empty (not much to see!), but i can always breathe better when I’m away from all the people so I continue taking “short cuts” or alternative routes. I knew after a brief visit to Hallstatt I wanted to walk up the adjacent mountainside to see the abandoned ancient salt mine more than 3000 years old. The masses will take a cable car up the mountain, but I did the opposite. I walked up instead. It was a relatively leisurely stroll up a wide switchback gravel path. I got some great views with nature as my soundtrack, successfully avoiding the squawking tourists. At the top, the salt mine was packed with visitors so I didn’t actually take the tour, yet I got what I came for – stunning scenery. According to my map, Bad Goisern was 11km distant. There was a little arrow pointing the direction. In typical fashion, a sparkle grew in my eye and without another look behind me, I was again heading away from all the people.

This time I really found solitude. At times, the path was relatively flat and narrow, winding around the mountain. I was sheltered between the steep slope on my left and trees on my right, effectively blocking the view. I could hear the highway traffic down below as I followed along. An estimation it would take about 2 1/2 hrs to walk back to Bad Goisern, I was on that trail for more than 4 hours without seeing more than two people and a dog. Evidence of efforts to protect Hallstatt from falling rocks were littering the mountain. A series of metal fencing, now rusted, had been constructed to catch tumbling debris. I welcomed the exercise, but the path itself was somewhat monotonous and I was wishing for a new view. Well, at just about that moment, my path came to a dead halt. A tall narrow bridge leading across the highway, which was visible 50m below, was completely blocked with fencing and a pad lock. Ummm……?

Without my map app on my phone, I probably would have cried and then turned back. I wouldn’t have had the slightest clue what to do. Even though the map did indeed show that crossing the bridge was the way to go, I was able to decipher an alternate by a side route going down to the highway, walking along the busy highway for 500m, and going back up on the other side next to a sign that said “private property” (or at least what I think said private property because I don’t speak German!). Crisis averted. The views opened back up and I had it all to myself on that empty trail.

A different day took me to Dachstein Salzkammergut in the neighboring village of Obertraun. Again a mountain trail would take me to the top, but there were several different levels of attractions at Dachstein and I was afraid I would spend too much time climbing. So the cable car it is! The high speed cable car packed visitors like sardines so definitely not a ride for anyone with an aversion to heights. I snuck into a pocket next to the window and watched us rise to 2000m above sea level. That day I toured an ice cave, the dry mammoth cave, hiked to two separate viewing platforms, and a random view from inside a shark. Dachstein was busy, but not too much so, even though it was a warm clear day. I don’t think I wiped the smile off my face the entire afternoon – I never grow tired of beautiful views or the pure weight of our smallness in the universe. I took hundreds of photos of the exact same crisp blue lake and emerald green alpine landscape, confident knowing that each photo represents how many times I looked at the horizon and thought, “wow, that’s beautiful!”

Fully satisfied with the perfect weather and quality time well spent near Lake Hallstatt, it was time to move on to the rainy streets of Salzburg. As chance would have it, I had only a few brief hours in Salzburg where it didn’t rain. Known for its connection to The Sound of Music, the city heavily touts the Sound of Music tour, which I just couldn’t stomach in the drizzly weather. With a leaky umbrella, I tried wandering the streets of the old city until I just couldn’t bear walking in soaking shoes any longer. I did see Mirabell Gardens in my brief rain-free window and then returned two more times in a downpour when I was out for a morning run. The Hohensalzburg Fortress overlooks the old city and even with my best effort, I couldn’t summon the motivation to slog up the wet walkway. It’s ok, though, I ate some fantastic meals in Salzburg and I have been lucky without too much rain in 561 days so I probably deserved it.

However, as fate would have it, the one day I ventured outside of Salzburg for a day trip to the Werfen Ice Cave, the clouds parted and the sun was shining again. I was so excited about the serendipitous change in the weather that I donned my hiking shoes again and boldly decided to climb to the ice cave instead of taking the cable car like everyone else. When I bought my ticket for entrance only instead of the combo ticket, the cashier showed me a picture of the trail. “Sometimes the trail looks like this. Are you afraid of heights? Do you have good shoes on?” The photos showed a narrow mountain path, but my experience so far in Austria was that the trail is never as bad as they say. “Looks good,” I told her.

So now is when I tell you I almost died on that path, never again to overestimate my abilities or underestimate routine warnings. Not one other person was dumb enough to climb that route so I was in it alone. Occasionally I was under the cable car and I could see people pointing out the window, likely saying, “how did that person even get up there?” I had my hiking shoes, but I brought my messenger bag that day instead of a backpack, which greatly threw off my balance. In three separate places, the path was entirely washed out by rock slides and scree. I could see tenuous footprints that I tried to mimic all while giving myself a pep talk about not sliding off the mountain. Incredibly steep without sturdy rope assistance or barrier markers in many places, I vowed if I could arrive at the top, I would not be climbing back down. Surely they would sell a one way ticket down on the cable car.  

When I finally reached the safe reinforced public path, leading from the top of the cable car to the cave entrance, I nearly kissed the ground. The ice cave is the largest in the world and was equally impressive. To preserve the integrity of the cave, they have not introduced electricity. We walked on a steep metal staircase carrying kerosene lamps listening to our Scottish guide proudly tell us the cave’s history. There were ice monoliths deep in the cavern which held particular shapes. The most famous one was said to look like an elephant, although I found it looked remarkably like a shark after years of melt and reformation. We had 700 steps to walk up in the cave and then 700 back down on the other side. The crowd grumbled and wheezed while I smiled to myself that at least there was a railing to prevent any sliding back down to the bottom.

I took the cable car down, but in the future, I still choose the hard way.

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