It was hard to get to sleep last night because I kept reliving the moment we crested the summit and saw that our cable car back to town was closed. It was a minor trek, on well worn paths with sofa-worn people from every nation skittering trekking poles across a trail that was wide enough to pass the semi trucks supplying the expansion of the summit lodge. It was utterly crowded, but still fun to be up there. So we walked along the road from hut to hut, a hut being a restaurant with a panoramic view of the Austrian Alps. We ate at the last one and planned our next day, a cable up the opposite side of the valley and 6 hour round trip hike to a summit. It was an ideal place to plan because we could see the entire mountain from our table. After the usual gymnastics of getting and paying our bill, we walked on beyond the hut, still on the gigantic trail, but completely alone for the first time that day. It was probably around four o’clock. At around six we had gained the barn at the crest we had aimed for and were having a good time. Our hikes often bring out candid, natural conversations that don’t happen organically otherwise. Eliza had questions about penises, we reviewed the relative merits of various cows. At the ridge, we realized we would have to move quickly to be make the last cable car down, at around 7:20.
It struck me that there was now no one else on the mountain. Only the construction crew were still up here and they were packing up, hosing off the concrete mixer, loading into 4x4 vans. On our way up, we had transferred to a second cable car before we started hiking, and that cable was motionless. The LED sign seemed to indicate, in German, that the last departure at been at 4:30, a significant difference from my interpretation of the timesheet we carried. We went off-trail, cutting down across the field where paragliders had been launching earlier to reach the main cable station, but we had caught a glimpse of it from a hill and seen no motion, lights, or people. Eliza began to cry, deducing correctly and immediately that this whole thing was my fault and asked my “WHY” between sobs as she pieced together a picture of what the next several hours might be like, based on how far, how spectacularly high, how fast the car had taken us earlier that day.
Laura went into crisis fuck-it mode and was in good spirits. I held Eliza’s hand and tried to talk her down into a state that wasted less energy. We had about 3 hours of low light left, but as we got a view of the town below, I did mental comparisons to views of towns below other summits and realized we would be hiking in the dark. Large trucks and worker transports barreled past us on the tiny road. For one stretch, electrified cow wire on both sides of the road kept us from inching off the road and we huddled uneasily to the side as they went by at full speed.
Having stopped crying, Eliza declared, “STORY.”, invoking our permanent deal, made years past on another hike on another continent, that she would walk so long as I keep telling. So I launched into it with commitment born of desperation and it went pretty well, Eliza holding my hand and pulling it out of me as fast as I could think it, transports whizzing by. There was a trail that cut across the switchbacks of the road, and I had paused to study it on the map while there was still light. It was taking a long time to reach the trailhead, and I was glad we had headlamps. I imagined what this phase of the hike would seem like when it was all over. When there was light in the sky and we were still on top, before anybody fell down or got hungry or thirsty. Before my storytelling became like a drive-in movie we all clung to, walking steeply down in a dark forest. Before we got lost. Back when motorized vehicles still moved on the mountain and there was some chance we could have negotiated a magic carpet ride to the bottom.
Hearing another transport behind us, I moved us off the side as it passed. On a whim, I made eye contact the the driver of a transport and stuck my thumb out. It was a lame, halfhearted hitchhike, and he kept going. Eliza asked what I was doing. “I’m hitchhiking.”
“Oh! that’s not how you do it. You have to put your arm way out.”
“You’re right, we can do better with the next one.”
But then, past the next switchback the transport stopped and we ran to catch up. Two guys moved out of the rear passenger bench and crowded into the front cab. At the driver window I said Danke Schoen, loaded Laura and Eliza into the two seats now available, and hopped into the flatbed in back.
It was fast, and at least as exciting as the cable car had been hundreds of feet above the trees. Like jumping into a river and being suddenly passive as everything went by around me, trees whizzing over, rock to the right, space to the left, curious farmers, then towns. In about half an hour we were out at the train station in Mayrhofen. When the workmen rearranged themselves again, I saw how deeply dirty and bone tired they were. Their street clothes were painted with dirt, the hue of which extended up into their faces and hair, indistinguishable from sunburn or suntan. One of them was of African descent which was notable because we had seen so few black people since Slovenia. There must be a lot of competition for construction jobs with the refugee situation being what it is, but they were all covered in the same dust and seemed of the same weary tribe.
“Bitte.” A couple of them said, and got back into the van-truck as we oriented ourselves on the sidewalk. We were within the sensory radius of an outdoor hotel restaurant, serenaded by the sound of silverware and jewelry, levitated by the smell of roasted meat and schnitzel. As we walked into the town the concentration of rich tourist dinner activity overwhelmed us.