Gord's Gold: Oberammergau

I stepped off of the train around sunset. I was in Oberammergau, Germany, and it was the end of the line. The train tracks ended at the snow-covered station there, and I was one of three or four people who got off the train, and I was the only person not carrying skis. I had on ski pants, a heavy down coat, gloves, a hat, and a rucksack with everything I would need for the next four days except food. I had no reservations, and the sun was setting fast.

I whipped out my guidebook, and I stumbled onto a name. Gästehaus Gerda Schwarz. The description sounded nice, so I followed the directions through town from the train station. I crossed a small bridge that ran over a barely-running, ice-choked creek that was steaming – “like a young man’s dreams,” as it were - in the late afternoon light, and turned into a decidedly residential section of town. I slipped several times on the sidewalks, which were shoveled but still slick with ice and snow. It was, in a nutshell, 10 degrees and getting colder down by the Ammer River that day.

Miraculously, in the age before phones with GPS, I found the guesthouse, and I knocked on the door. A kindly older Bavarian lady greeted me, and in my horrible American-Saarläänisch accent, I greeted her in return. I explained my need of a room, and she thought for a moment, and then she rather apologetically explained that she had no more rooms to let out that night because everyone was down from Munich to ski – except for one room. It had been her daughter’s room. It was on the third floor, where she kept all the linens. There was no en suite bathroom – only a sink. There was a toilet outside the room, but there was a queen-sized bed. I could have it at a discounted rate, if it would suit my needs. I agreed enthusiastically, and since it was colder than I had felt perhaps in my whole life, I decided on the spot that I likely wouldn’t need a shower while I was there, anyway. Sweat was nearly out of the question.

I paid her for the first two nights, accepted my key, and hauled my gear upstairs to the third floor to unload. I watched as the mountains cast shadows over Oberammergau, and I decided to trek back to the main thoroughfare to acquire some food. I ended up going to the grocery store and getting a loaf of bread, peanut butter and jelly, and two bags of gummy bears. I was nearly broke, and I had used most of my money on train tickets.

I went back and made myself a cold sandwich, ate half a bag of gummy bears, drank some water, pulled out my notebook, and I settled in for the night to write and decide what I was going to do the next morning. I went to bed at 8:30 with the intention of being up bright and early the next day.

I woke up the next morning, dressed in warm clothes, and splashed water on my face. I went downstairs to enjoy the continental breakfast, which was actually worthy of that name. I had a bowl of hot oatmeal with brown sugar and two slices of bread with hard cheese and meat, along with a steaming cup of tea.  I read the newspaper at a table by myself, and then returned to my room to put on my gear and head out for the morning.  

It was Sunday, and in Bavaria in those days, that meant that everything was closed and nobody was working. Only a few poor sods that had to drive buses were working intermittently. I had elected to pay a visit to Schloss Linderhof, one of Mad King Ludwig’s fairytale castles, and so I made my way to the appointed bus stop to hop a ride to the next town over.

Of course, the bus timetables had changed, so I was forced to wait. In the meantime, the church bells began to ring. I watched with no small degree of interest as people began pouring out of their homes and heading up the snow-choked sidewalks to one of the two Catholic churches in town, one of which, St. Peter’s Kirche, happened to be right beside the bus stop. Within five minutes, everyone was safely inside the confines of the church – except for one lone man, who came running down the sidewalk and careened through the kirkyard and through the door right as the call to mass began to sound. I smiled and stomped my feet, thinking it might be nice to be warm in mass right then, although I was an unbeliever at the time.

It was so frigid that morning that I pulled my heavy scarf up over my mouth, and my breath froze crystals to the outside of the scarf, and when I remarked to myself that my vision suddenly felt a bit blurry, I realized that my breath had indeed condensed and frozen my eyelashes together. The air was almost painfully dry, and it was so still that you could hear a branch crack. It was bright and sparkling and brittle, and it was cold.

The bus pulled up, brittle as well but belching out intermittent coughs of steamy smoke. I climbed aboard with my little bag, handed the smiling driver the fare, and told him where I was going. I was the sole traveler on the bus that morning. We attempted to have a conversation as he drove the bus around one of the local abbeys and over the mountain roads, but his heavy Bavarian accent proved difficult for my skill level, although he was highly entertained by the wretched combination of American and Saarlandish that I brandished like a child playing knights brandishes a wooden sword.

He dropped me off at the Linderhof ticket shop, where I bought my tour ticket and bypassed the opportunity at a trinket. I stomped my feet on the ground, hoping they would warm while I waited for the tour to begin.

There were perhaps eight of us that morning. The tour was in German, which eliminated the obnoxious American tourists that I had grown to loathe over the course of my time in Germany, and the castle was cold. It was perhaps a bit warmer than the outside, if only for the reason that there was no snow inside, but our breath came out in white puffs, and the gold that shimmering on the walls could have cracked in the frosty temperatures.

I marveled at the one-of-a-kind porcelain chandelier, the hallway made to mimic Versailles, and the dumbwaiter that lifted the entire floor so that the mad king never had to suffer the company of his servants. It was a grand home for one lone, strange man who loved peacocks and Wagner and who would later die under mysterious circumstances in the middle of Lake Starnberg (Starnberger See).

The tour, however, ended rather sooner than I had originally anticipated, and I soon found myself again outside in the bright morning light, stomping my feet and hoping that it might warm a bit. I walked around and looked at the frozen fountains and snow-covered grounds, and when I realized that I was another two and a half hours until the bus came, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Over on the far side of the grounds, there was a sign pointing back towards Oberammergau, and it read 12km/7 miles. I thought to myself that I had certainly run more than seven miles at a time before. Surely with all the walking I did every day, I could walk seven now! Why, it would even keep me warm! Yes, I would get a real taste of the Bavarian Alps and walk back to Oberammergau!

Ladies and gentlemen, I got a real taste of the Bavarian Alps that day, if only in the low altitudes. I had my CD player and headphones with me, as I always did back in those days. The only CD I had, however, was an old Gordon Lightfoot mix CD that I had made some time ago. I put my headphones on, pulled my hat back down over my head, and set off down the trail.  

It was probably the most beautiful hike I have ever done in my life. After the first mile, the trail was no longer perfectly clear, but instead of taking that as a warning, I went on. “Up here in the Northland, up here in the snow…” I looked at the mountains jutting aggressively skyward, the trees brushing the sky with their green and white branches, and the amazing brightness blazing down from above, failing to warm the cold in the air but blazing nonetheless.  

“Over the mountains I go… Blackberry wine…”

I hiked past a sawmill that looked like something from a fairytale or a Christmas story. The saws were silent, but there were sparkles falling from the trees onto the stacks of cut wood, and I wondered who exactly it belonged to.

Then, as if on cue, I heard the tinkling of sleigh bells. I thought it was a hallucination at first, but as I walked back out of the woods and into a small valley, I saw a horse-drawn sleigh making its way in the opposite direction. I was floored, and I wondered if I had landed in some alternate universe, where entire villages still went to church, people still had their own sawmills, and some folks went for rides in horse-drawn sleighs with bells on the traces.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself on what I thought was a hiking trail but turned out to be a cross-country ski trail in the winter. That would have explained the two-foot deep snow. I was effectively chased off of the trail by angry Germans. I learned a valuable lesson that day: Don’t get between Germans and their outdoorsmanship.

As the sun sank lower into the sky around 3pm, the result of short days in that part of the world at that time of year, I began to wonder how far Oberammergau actually was and how much longer it was going to take me to get there. The snow was still knee-deep, and I was exhausted from hiking through it with no skis or snowshoes. “Sundown, you better take care,” indeed!

After at least three false trail exits and backtracks and one twisted knee, I was limping, wet, cold, and thoroughly beaten down. By that time, I had walked over 10 miles, and I was legitimately concerned about getting back to town before dark. The shadows from the mountains were long, and the sun was sinking low. The air temperature was dropping, and although it was clear and there were no signs of storms rolling in, I had zero desire to find out if any were coming. Remember of course that this was in the days before such information was available at the touch of a button. I had a prepaid cell phone that I put 10 Euros of credit on at a time and that got almost zero reception in the Alps. 

I finally found a fence line, and I ducked under the barbed wire and got out onto the road. It was covered in a slick sheet of ice, but I didn’t care. At that point, I was thrilled to be able to pick up my feet normally, instead of pulling my knees up to my navel to get a step in. I almost ate those words when I slipped and further wrenched my twisted knee, but I kept going. I had to. Dark was imminent.

All of a sudden, I came over a hill, and Oberammergau lay before me. I saw the little trail that ran alongside the river and that led back into town. I almost fell to my knees and kissed the ground, but I just stumbled, zombie-like, back onto the trail and towards the river. I followed the flowing, steaming water back through town. Every step felt like my last. My knee ached beyond anything I had ever experienced before. My hips hurt from wading through the snow, and I hadn’t felt my feet in hours.

I stumbled through the door of the guesthouse, and I know I scared a couple of the vacationers as I grabbed both bannisters to the upper floors and practically dragged myself higher up. I crashed, exhausted, through the door to my room. I immediately drank about a gallon of water, removed my boots and socks, changed into every other article of clothing I had, ate three sandwiches and a bag of gummy bears, and I grabbed my notepad and crawled into bed.  

I got the map out, wondering where exactly I had been that day. I realized too late that nearly all of the trails were closed in the winter for the skiers, and because I had had to backtrack up several branches of the main trail, I had probably hiked around 10 or 11 miles that day instead of seven, and around half of that was through deep snow.

I scrawled out notes about the day for probably an hour, my hand shaking wildly from the horrible chills I was having. I couldn’t get warm. I knew that night what “chilled to the bone” meant. I shivered for literally hours. I was exhausted but too cold to sleep. After perhaps three hours and several sheets of yellow paper, as well as an extra comforter, I finally fell asleep. It was about 8pm.

I woke up around 1am, sweating. The five layers I had on were now too much. I removed most of it and crawled back into bed, but I couldn’t sleep because I was starving. I needed a hot meal, but I had nothing except PBJ fixings, and everything was closed. I ate another sandwich and part of a chocolate bar I’d saved and went back to bed.

I got up the next morning and ate a big, hot breakfast. Gerda announced that I could move downstairs and get a hot shower that day after everyone left. I told her I would move when I got back from Neuschwanstein, the jewel in Mad King Ludwig’s crown.

Yes, I boarded another bus, this time over to Hogenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. The day would require two more uphill hikes in order for me to view the castles. I enjoyed it immensely, but by the time it was over, I could barely walk for the pain in my right knee, but I got to see two of Europe’s most amazing castles, and that made it more than worthwhile to me.

The sky was darkening when I got off the bus back in Oberammergau, partly because the day was over, but also because there was a winter storm rolling in. My new room had a shower in it – actually in it because there was no bathroom – and so I took my first shower in three days and then sat down to make myself another cold sandwich and watch the storm roll in.

That night was probably the first time that I’d ever really heard the wind howl through the mountain passes at night, and it was a spooky sound that conjured images of hikers being lost in the mountains, of Rip van Winkel sleeping on the side of a mountain for 50 years, and the Erlkönig silently stealing children’s lives in the night. Hiking through the woods in Germany at night, as I often had to do that year, and hearing the wind howl and watching the snow blow across the roads and rooftops of that small mountain hamlet, I believed in all the stories that I had read as a child. There was a feeling, not rationally held, that all of it was real, and that if I were to hike out into the hills that night, frostbite would not be the only thing I had to fear. I crawled into bed that night, glad that there were locks on the doors and windows and that I could draw the curtains across them.

I woke up the next day, ate a good breakfast, checked out, thanked Gerda for her Bavarian hospitality, and made my way back to the train station. There was a fresh six or eight inches of snow on the ground dropped by the blizzard the night before. The sidewalks hadn’t yet been shoveled, so I once more found myself lifting my knees and walking carefully – and most certainly, thanks to my injury and tired muscles, a bit more slowly than I might ordinarily have done.

I sat down on the one lone bench at the open-air train station and waited for the engine to arrive. Once again, I was stomping my boots to keep my feet warm. Gordon Lightfoot was in my ears again, and it felt like a perfect ending.  

“All is well. As I swing up to the border, been through hell. And the service station man agreed, I didn’t look too well. But the mountains and Maryann are calling out to me. And I got my bedroll on my back and everything that I could pack to see me on my way.”

I clambered aboard the train alongside a young woman with her skis, and the train pushed back from the station and began slowly carrying us back north towards Munich. The train wound around the mountains, fog curling around some of the foothills and the trees around them, the whistle blasting at every little crossing we passed. I never saw a car or a person at any of them. The snow was deep, and the world was quiet except for the clacking of the Bummelbahn along the tracks.

I smiled to myself as the train rumbled past the Starnberger See, thinking of Mad King Ludwig, his strange, reclusive life with its odd Wagnerian obsession and his untimely demise in those chilly waters. He nearly bankrupted Bavaria building his ornate, fantastical palaces, although ironically Bavaria made the money back then quite a bit more over the years, opening them up to tourists almost immediately after the mad king was dead. Indeed, Neuschwanstein was the inspiration for the famous Disney castle logo.  

When I hopped off the train at the station south of Munich, there were only a few little piles of snow that had been shoveled away. The pavement was dry, and the air was far warmer. There were quite a few people there, waiting to pick up regional trains and the IC going to west to Stuttgart.

As the IC moved out of Bavaria, the landscape changed and became a bit less mountainous. When the train came around the familiar curve in the tracks to the Stuttgart train station – I had been there before, going to Tübingen and to Stuttgart itself – I knew that the adventure was over, and that in a few more hours, I would be stepping onto the platform in Saarbrücken which was, as my friends and I often observed, a good place to hop a train to somewhere else, but it was also a nice place to come home to.

My adventure in Bavaria was over, but I knew when I was there and after it was over that it would hold an important place in my life. It was the first “long” trip that I did completely alone. I had thought about trying to convince another friend to come along, but in the end, I knew that it was a trip I needed to make by myself. I had had a hard winter. Breakups, bust-ups, and to add insult to injury, I was bust after my wallet got lifted right before Christmas. I knew that I needed to get away and remind myself why it was that I had come here in the first place.

The trip to Oberammergau became, in the history of my life, a symbol of discovery, both internal and external. It was not really an easy trip. Most of it I spent frozen and uncomfortable, frankly, and looking back on it with the eyes of maturity, I did some things that were at least a little bit stupid. But I was surrounded by some of the best scenery and the most amazing structures I have ever seen in my life. As long as I have my faculties, I will never forget hiking along the edge of a mountain, surrounded by towering pine trees, the sun lighting up the world, and Gordon Lightfoot in my ears. I will carry that with me wherever I go.

Last night, I was reminded of the spirit of that trip. It was a trip of self-discovery, originally intended to give me some peace and clarity and for me to sort through things that had been going on in my life. To those ends, it was a smashing success, but it also became for me a moment that defined who I am and what I was: adventurous, self-reliant, a little bit bombastic perhaps, and comfortable in solitude. Maybe even at my best in solitude.

Yesterday evening I went and saw Gordon Lightfoot for the second time in my life, and it was probably the last time I will see him alive. As my grandfather would have observed, time is against him. He’s 81 years old and has been touring for 57 years. I saw him 11 years ago in Kansas City, but I don’t expect I will see him again when he is 91. The likelihood is that by the time another decade has passed, Gord will have moved forever into the realm of memory, and he has very much earned his place in my own book of life.

So on that note, may your adventures be rewarding, may your journeys be filled with joy, and if you have the chance to hear “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” live, I hope that you take it.

Stay thirsty, kids!