If there’s such a thing as a German version of Robert De Niro it’s Eberhard with his constant wince, his diamond studded earring and pony tail coming undone, the wraparound sunglasses, the AC/DC ringtone. The wince could be from too many years of cigarette smoke in the eyes or the knowledge of an ex-cop that something’s always going wrong somewhere, that most people are idiots, that rules are necessary but after a while ridiculous, that something’s always about to break and even if you fix it, it’s just going to break again.
I watch him from the back seat on the autobahn shaking his head at the other drivers’ bad choices, his tired disgust. But when we pull off the motorway for the Montafon exit, the Austrian Alps, he does a hard rock head nod and announces, ‘Hide your women, the Man’s back in the valley.’
We have a warm beer out of the back of the car later and sit on a bench outside the farmhouse watching the swallows; Eberhard ashes in a bottle cap.
He takes a call from his son in Sweden, who’s had a heart attack recently, and I ask if his son is asking him for help and he says yes, but indirectly.
We talk about Eberhard’s friend Paul who suicided himself he says, and Paul is the reason Eberhard started coming here in the 90s; we’re going to meet Eberhard’s ex-girlfriend Regina, their friends Willi and Elsbeth, and when we do, I’m surprised they’re all in their mid-70s: on the climb up Willi shows me the tread on his boots is worn through and jokes in German, he’s on his last pair.
Mom said last time she did this hike there were people handing out Schnapps on the trail which I didn’t understand and sounded too good to be true, and on the second day we learn it’s a major Catholic holiday, something called Mariä Himmelfahrt, the Assumption of Mary, her ascension to heaven. The store in town has a hand-written sign saying they’ll be closed on Saturday so we load up on bottled water, dried sausages, Moorish beer and Austrian wine, some mustard you can only get here called Senf that comes in tubes like toothpaste, more gray than yellow.
Eberhard says we’ll be out for about four hours on the hike and my mom and Lily can do a shorter hike on their own, kill time at the restaurant by the gondola, then meet us at an Alpine hut around 2:30.
And sure enough, after a couple hours climbing we come upon a group of guys in red Gore-Tex suits working a table that’s got Landjäger sausages, rolls, and a variety of bottles displayed with an old tin can for donations.
They’re the mountain rescue, with matching branded jackets that say BERGRETTUNG, and this is an annual fundraising event: they haul propane tanks up the mountain with a tin kettle and a torch to make some drink that’s got black tea and rum in it, and they keep the knock-down tables wrapped in plastic and stowed under rocks the rest of the year, the rum in a large plastic container that looks like it’s meant for petrol.
But the drink triggers my gag reflex and I hope it will improve as it cools down but it doesn’t, and I pour some into Eberhard’s cup and he looks at me in disbelief (What, you don’t like it?), and I go off by myself to watch the fog curl and thicken over the distant peaks, and pour the rest in the ground when he’s not looking.
It’s funny, the mountain rescue guys getting everyone drunk like this at high altitude, in the morning, with the fog so thick and a storm blowing in, the narrow trails and a messy fall on either side of the ridge, you’d think the rescue people are complicating things for themselves, sitting around drinking Fantas while all the climbers go back for seconds, thirds — but on we go, and we pass an old guy in a Tyrolean hat with a tuba on his back who was at a nearby peak playing the morning sermon in the fog, a minister with a hardbound bible in his rucksack, all the guys bearded, suspenders and rock-hard guts, thick calves.
Eberhard lets me lead for a while but the mist in the fog turns from an occasional rain to an obvious one, and we throw down our packs to get out the rain gear: we’re all in ponchos with pointy heads that make us look like druids or witches, and as we carry on I start to get concerned for the first time, not knowing exactly where we’re going, no map, no watch, the others in their mid-70s and Eberhard 61, an avid smoker — and just as the wind gets going and the rain turns noticeably harder and cold, two guys appear in red suits in the saddle freezing their asses off, trying to act like they’re not really cold and one of them doing a better job of it than the other, his teeth chattering — they’re by a small bench with a wooden platter that has room for about a dozen Schnapps glasses and a money collection box, and so we stop and so does the rain, and for the first time I get a full-on view of the distant Alpine peaks, jagged like teeth on a saw blade, the jaws of some prehistoric shark, remnants of the last glaciers, but my camera’s buried deep inside my pack and I can’t find my hands to get it out.
Eberhard peels off his poncho to get out his money and starts humming a tune known only to himself, and we all salute one another, the mountain rescue guys asking where I’m from and remarking I’m the person who’s come the farthest, and down we go again into the fog and out the valley to meet my mom and Lily at the Alpine hut, Alpe Nova, about two hours late.
From the Alpine hut it’s a 45 minute walk out but with the rain coming on again the mountain rescue guys offer us a ride in the bed of the tractor with the cases of beer and wine and we climb in feeling like cattle, the empties rattling as the engine starts — Eberhard says I have to chug the Glüwein because they need the mugs back — and I stand at the prow looking at the back of the John Deere tractor cabin, bright yellow stickers with figures depicting unsafe things to do and this would be it, riding in the back with a large red X through our chests down the twisty turns, cow bells clanking in the fog like wind chimes, the inside of a clock — we stop for some other hikers who aren’t wearing rain gear and one is cradling a small dog to her chest — and they drop us at the chair lift and we continue down the valley further, just me and Lily huddled in the lift under my poncho, and it goes quiet and Lily asks can she tell me a secret, and I listen and we tell each other I love you, and isn’t this great?
You can see the farmhouses dotting the valley and make out our car now as we get closer to the bottom, and the same tractor that dropped us at the lift is pulling into a parking lot by a large tent, and the music starts trickling upwards, that traditional Bavarian beer hall music — and though we’re all wet and cold and just want a hot shower and a change of clothes, Eberhard ushers us inside, grabs a table and says, Sit! — and pretty soon the heat from everyone is warming us up and we’re thinking about what we want from the menu.
It’s the same guys from the mountain rescue working the tent, and the rain is coming on so hard it’s making the insides of the ceiling bulge under the weight of it, so they climb up on the tables and poke it with the back of a rake to coax the water off the sides — and all of us get collectable Schnapps glasses for handing in our punch card that proves we completed the Gebirgswanderung — Lily pours a Fanta into her Schnapps glass, throws it back and drops her head on the table…and I ask her please, don’t do that again — and Eberhard drives her and my mom back to the farmhouse because the cigarette smoke is getting thicker and they’re starting to climb up on the tables, clapping and whistling — and Eberhard is on the stage now for some reason, he’s won a trophy — and the others are using their trophies to drink out of, they’re passing them around — and Eberhard points out the one waiter is actually the town mayor and he’s doing shots with the people he’s serving, so is the girl in a Bavarian costume with her boobs hanging out, and she’s getting sloppy with her change purse, and there’s no cutlery for the sausage you just eat it with your hands and dab it in the mustard and wipe yourself off.
And back at the house we have a warm beer again and I try to learn more about Paul, who brought all these people together in the 90s and led guided tours in the mountains — someone I will never know, but I thank for leading me here, too.
On our last day we stop on the way out at the Catholic church and Eberhard says I should snap some pictures, and I follow him out the backdoor to a gravel cemetery and he shows me Paul, his picture in the ground with the rocks, who looks like he could be Hemingway with his thick white beard and strong, dark eyes, a hearty smile angling upwards. Eberhard kisses his hand, touches the grave stone and says goodbye until next time, Paul. He was trying to explain to me how the rocks came together in a certain way millions of years ago, but it was too hard to say it in English.