It occurs to me, somewhat too late, that stepping into the cable car might have been a bad idea.
We're in the Alps, outside of the German city of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, just along the Austrian border. It's cold but snowless day in March, and my third day of leave, and so we've come down to Edelweiss, a mountain resort owned and maintained by the United States military.
I've enjoyed my stay so far, but I must admit that I'm not really inclined toward the sorts of activities which excite most tourists and vacationers. Having worked as a tour guide in my adolescence, I tend to despise the vacuousness of group tours, and being from a town dependent on summer resorters for business, I feel compelled to explore the more remote corners of any given place. I am one of those sorts for whom "the road less traveled" is not merely a choice, but a lifestyle.
So here I am, a two thousand feet up the wooded face of a mountain called the Dreitorspitze.
It started with a couple of polite questions posed to the concierge at our hotel, a bookish young American named Dierk. Dierk is former military, and married now to a German citizen. As a result, he lives in Garmisch full-time, and so he knows the area fairly well. I simply asked him where an enterprising young couple might go to escape the throngs of Americans, expressing a desire to experience the parts of Bayernische (Bavarian) culture that others might never see. Dierk, being the savvy young man that he is, pulled out a map and pointed us in the direction of a few obscure foot trails leading up out of the valley, just on the edges of town. It took some work to find them, and in the process Anne and I got into a hellacious argument, but in the end all wounded egos were soothed and we began our trek up the side of the Dreitorspitze.
The trail we've chosen today begins east of the old Olympic ski-jump, leading through the bottom of a deep gorge that looms up on either side of us as we walk. The floor of the chasm is surprisingly flat, and over the tops of the lowest mountains the early-evening sun plays across the gently-tended plots of winter wheat. Here and there, bordered in by frail looking barriers of barbed wire, unruly flocks of mud-covered sheep graze and mill about restlessly. Meanwhile, the forested canyon walls high above us throw deep shadows across the valley. At one point, I comment to my wife that the whole scene looks like a backdrop from the "Lord of the Rings" filmography.
Before long, the fields fall away behind us, and the path begins its winding, tortuous trajectory upward. Our knees and quadriceps soon rail in protest, but we continue. We soon find ourselves surrounded by dense forests of alder and birch, and as we make our way upward we stop to marvel at the nearly half-dozen mountainside settlements that dot the roads going up. I can't help but reflect how important parking brakes must be on these steep inclines.
We continue upward for at least another thousand feet. Before long, our ears begin to pop with the change in pressure, and for a brief moment it seems that the path will come to an end. The gorge that we entered through, it seems, has hooked a dramatic right somewhere, and now cuts directly across our path, terminating the trail in a thousand-foot drop onto a bed of roaring rapids and jagged granite boulders. We find ourselves perched upon a rocky outcropping over the gorge, on which sits a small cabin posted with signs in German. They advertise a cable-car that leads over the gorge, but they don't even look open. Anne and I spend a moment debating over whether we should continue, and at last we elect to peek inside and have a look.
Stepping in, it becomes clear that this building is really less of a cabin and more of an Alpine garage. The only features of the place are a ticket booth and some empty benches. A tattooed and bored-looking young German in mechanic's attire lounges in the booth, nursing a toothpick, and after a few moments stumbling through German with him over ticket prices, he steps out and leads us through a door, which turns out to be a makeshift docking bay.
I have to say, I'm less than encouraged. A thin strand of steel cable dangles from the ceiling and leads upward by at least another thousand feet. Just before us, hanging from this precarious suspension, is the cable car. It's covered in flaking red paint and showing spots of rust, and as a stiff breeze suddenly gusts down the mountain, it sways in a fashion that fills me with waves of nausea. We bid our thanks to the operator, and graciously step into the windowed gondola. The door closes with a spring-loaded groan, and after a brief pause we start our ascent in near silence. The car sways again, and I find myself bracing my feet on either side of the cabin. I feel my throat tighten a bit.
I look up, and see Anne staring at my wryly. Her eyebrow arches coyly, but not without concern. She smiles.
I purse my lips and nod. "Yeah, I'm good." The car dips a bit in the wind, and we finally get a good look at the drop as we climb. I find myself staring down at a chasm that could easily hold the Sears tower, and though my terror of heights tells me to look away, I continue to stare regardless. After a moment, I speak again. "Maybe not."
Anne's grin broadens in sympathy. "Ohhh, honey, c'mon," she says. "Where's my big strong soldier, huh? Least it's not a C-130, right?"
I nod grudgingly. "I guess."
She rewards me with another grin. "See? C'mon, how many people can say they've done this? It's gorgeous up here."
I nod in agreement. "True." She's right, it is quite pretty up here. I could be content in this place. A few minutes pass in contented silence, until another sight appears that makes my heart stutter a bit.
"I think we're gonna scrape this cliff."
On our left a sharp stone wall approaches ominously, and below us, on another outcrop, branches of virgin pine brush the bottom of the gondola.
"We are not, baby. Come on, just take deep breaths. You're doing so good, you know that?"
"I guess. At least it's not a combat landing."
Anne sighs, and smiles again at my stubbornness. She plants a kiss on her thumb, and presses it to my lips, letting it linger gently across my mouth. After a moment, she smiles and looks down at her feet, taking a moment to brush a lock of newly-auburn hair behind her ears.
"Yeah," she says. "I'm so proud of you. You're my Superman."
I can't help but smile.