LOOKING BACK: Firsts & Near-Firsts  (June - September 2016)

Take Nothing for Granted
In late June, at the end of our second week in the Dolomites, it was finally warm enough to eat dinner on our balcony. Bill was holding a ceramic bowl of hot food, lifted up a tad to reposition his white plastic chair, and when he sat back down, the chair collapsed under him. He laid there in “fallen chair pose,” holding his bowl level, not quite knowing what had happened. Both back legs of the chair had snapped off. Lucky for us he wasn’t hurt and he had narrowly missed banging his head on the concrete wall. 

Mittagsscharte Summit: the view we didn’t see 6 weeks prior because of the unscheduled hail storm.
We were cresting our second summit for the day around dinnertime on what turned-out to be a 13 hour hike from Selva when it began to hail. Forecast as a 0% chance of any precipitation day, it was annoying enough but the wind was so strong that it blew the hail into our ears. We were doing tight switchbacks near the top, so both ears got pelleted. We didn’t stop to put on our hooded jackets because we assumed that we were almost to the top and that conditions would improve on the other side of the saddle, neither of which were true. 

Pay Your Money & Take Your Chances
Darn it anyway, Bill bought T-Mobile chips for our phones when we arrived in Germany to both make calls and access the internet but he couldn’t get his phone fully activated. A trip back to the T-Mobile shop triggered some fiddling and shrugged shoulders. The staff couldn’t make it work, said they’d seen it before, and that there would be no refund. It was quite a shock after so many overseas connection successes under much more difficult conditions in the last 16 year to walk away empty handed.

Once in the Dolomites and once in Austria, we happened upon Kneippes in the last mile or so of our 20 miler’s. Tired and eager to set down our loads for the day, it was tempting to pass them by but fortunately, we didn’t. Named for the concept developer, Kneippes are cold water wading pools designed for relaxation. They typically are fed by water diverted from a nearby river and are usually  a feature in a tiny green space.

So rejuvenating on a hot day in Ortisei.
Kneippes are designed to stroll through, then sit or walk around a little, then stroll again, almost as a meditation. I however use them as a serious physical therapy interventions. And they are divine for our hardworking feet clad in minimalist shoes. 

The one in Austria had both the traditional wading trough with mid-calf deep water and a deeper, small wooden tub filled with even colder water. I happily lingered for almost 20 minutes in the tub wishing I could submerge my knees as well for a more complete therapeutic treatment.

Our lovely Passo Sella wellness area claimed to have a Kneippe but I couldn’t find it. The housekeepers cleaning the spa didn’t know where it was but the front desk staff assured me it was there. Finally I spotted their interpretation:  2 rows of about 20 widely spaced, drinking-fountain-like spouts of water coming out of the floor to ankle level. It was hardly the therapeutic emersion my achy calf muscles were crying out for.  

E-Bikes (Electric Bikes)
We’d seen E-bikes here and there in the Alps over the last few years but in 2016 there was an explosion in their popularity. Bill guessed that it was a price drop that fueled the shift. We were especially surprised to see them used by some of the mountain bikers that shared our hiking trails. 

Their very best use to our eye was to have an E-bike be an equalizer between a pair of riders with only the weaker rider having the power assist or when one member of a riding group was pulling a trailer. Unfortunately, most of the riders we saw were easy to spot because they weren’t sweating or breathing hard and often not even pedaling. Oh well, I guess it is a different sport.

Two Wheels of a Different Sort
One day in Austria Bill spotted a Segway-like wheelchair. The middle-aged woman was sitting on a 2, not 4, wheeled device. Can you imagine the maneuverability advantages?

Confronting Fear
We climbed the stairs to the top of a 40’ long tube slide in a forest playground above Lech for the view but I ended up contemplating the slide instead. There were only dumb-old, short, open, slides when we were of sliding age and I realized that neither of us had ever gone down a tube slide. The thought of doing so as an adult frightened me.

Conquering unknown fears in a 40’ tube slide.
“Fear…umm, that’s something that creeps in with aging” I thought. I remembered my bold mother becoming more fearful as she aged and vowed not to succumb, but there it was, staring me in the face. I looked inside the slide, watched the 3 kids taking turns in it, and contemplated the social and personal issues of hopping in. I finally told  Bill that I was thinking about going down it but that I was still far from a decision. 

Bill said that we were too big and that he was afraid he’d get stuck. I was gripped by anxiety about hurting myself: perhaps my neck, my back, my hands or my precious knees.

After way-too-much deliberation, I slowly took off my hat, pack, and glasses and asked Bill to block the kids from entering until I reappeared at the bottom. It was fast at the top, the bottom, and a stretch in the middle, but I was able to regulate my speed to match my nerves. I survived, and Bill took a turn. He didn’t get stuck. We each took 2 more trips down with Bill embracing a higher top speed than I. Whew!

I’d pushed several of my edges to the limit one morning on Zugspitze mountain outside of Garmisch by going up a long, loose, steep slope alone and on all fours but my award for “Never Give Up” went to an attractive, 30-ish woman I saw later that afternoon. She had a heavy pack with ropes and a helmet suggesting she was headed for the klettersteig (German for via ferrata) near where I had descended around noon. She was powering herself up the trail on 2 metal crutches and one leg—the other leg was missing.

A Helping Hand
We were cycling on a somewhat difficult Austrian river route between Bach and Hofen and hit an abrupt 12% grade right after eating lunch. I had headed out a minute or 2 before Bill and was giving it my all, expecting success, when I  caught a glimpse in my peripheral vision of a rider who was too close to me. I can’t track a perfectly straight line under those conditions and my anxiety shot up as I envisioned a nasty collision. At home, I would have urgently told the rider I needed more room but couldn’t begin to imagine what to say to the presumed German speaker.

At the peak of my anxiety and speechlessness, I simultaneously felt the lightest of touch on my back and felt my speed pick-up. A man I still couldn’t see was giving me some of his power while we both pedaled.

I had giggled with delight and thanked him profusely in English while I was shifting gears to reflect my increased speed. He released me when the grade briefly slackened and reapplied the assist when it got steep again. We parted with him saying something in German or Dutch and me speaking in English.

I stopped at the top of the hill and twisted my torso to watch for Bill when I saw a woman with a big, knowing grin on her face coming up the hill. No doubt his companion and no doubt she knew how much I had appreciated his gift that she likely had received in the past.

Bill later said “He must have done that a million times” because he was flawless. We’d seen that assist given by parents to children; by male partners to their female companions; and between pro cyclists. But it was unimaginable to me how he could get close enough to make it work without us both crashing given my bulging panniers. When he finally took off, I could see that his height and long arms had made it possible.

In Lech, we had the rare treat of toilet paper supplied with our apartment. There is usually a firm line: apartment dwellers provide their own TP whereas all other guests have it provided.

TP of course is a small issue and expense but no one wants to end up on a weekend store closure without it. And since we are on bikes, we rarely haul more than a single roll with us. We are always given a starter roll and then dutifully buy the typical minimum purchase of TEN rolls. We leave behind most of the package only to buy another 10-roll pack for the next apartment. Our feel-good in Lech of having TP provided went way beyond the actual savings in money.

When we arrived in Hofen, Austria our elderly hostess oozing with warmth and charm spontaneously offered in German to do our laundry—for free. We’d only ever had 1 such offer before and were delighted. We didn’t know if it was just the clothes we were wearing or not, but gave her our cold weather layers we’d recently worn as well. What a wonderful treat to have machine-washed clothes after 3 weeks on the bikes!

Near where we spotted the French guide in flips on a steep, loose-surfaced slope.
Toe Talk
#1: I’ve given up correcting critics who identify my favorite hiking sandals as flip-flops. I’ve decided “flip-flops it is" if that is what they choose to call them; it hardly matters. But finally, near a saddle on a treacherous scree slope in Austria, it was my turn to point and laugh. 

The French guide bringing up the rear with the most terrified in a group of 15 descending hikers was actually wearing flip flops. I saluted him with my minimalist sandal-clad foot held high in the air. He wasn’t as amused as I was with our shared experience (young bucks don’t seem to enjoy being caught doing what old ladies are doing) but he commented in English with his clearly canned reply “My feet are always dry.”

Even for me, hiking on steep slopes in flips seemed daunting, and I again pondered the issues and sensations while we hiked over the saddle and down the equally steep opposing face. I decided that though he might shod himself in something more enveloping when hiking alone or with his peers, that the greater challenges of wearing flips were likely a welcome source of entertainment and distraction when accompanying substantially less-skilled hikers moving at a snail’s pace. 

#2 A few days later on another narrow, steep Austrian trail we were descending when a 40-something year old couple and a graying beagle were approaching. The dog headed towards the inside of the trail so I inched out to the edge and stopped to let them pass. The woman looked at my thin, minimalist sandals that were about at her eye level, let out a huge though friendly laugh, and gave me a big bear hug. Too fun! I’ve never been hugged by a stranger on a trail before and loved it.

Travel etches big and small memories into our brains and these momentary ‘firsts’ from our summer in the Alps are likely to be long lasting memories.