Margaret, January 31, 2004

It was the most gorgeous day of the new year. And somehow, fortunately, it fell on a weekend. After weeks of gray, of rain and sleet, and the past few days of snow, more snow, and snow on top of that, the weather was clear. A vaguely familiar bright orb shone in the deep blue sky, so bright I had to squint out the window. Definitely today. We’re going skiing.

Ben and I had rented skis for the weekend and were waiting to see which was the better day to drive south into the mountains. As we left the apartment, skis in hand, we passed a neighbor. “Skiing?” she asked rhetorically. “I heard on the radio that there’s a lot of traffic on the highways.” (This, of course, was all in German.) We thanked her, and made our way to the car. Of course there was a lot of traffic; who wouldn’t want to go skiing on a day like this? But still, the mountains were so close. And the sky was so blue. And we had skis.

“Back roads?” Ben asked, pulling out the maps. Yep. As we crossed over the autobahn on our back road route, we saw what our neighbor had warned us of – gridlock traffic on the route from Munich south to Austria. We happened to live near where the autobahn split – half going to Salzburg, half going to Innsbruck. And it was always at this split that the traffic started to back up. So we continued on along our side road, easily at first, but then we hit traffic on the side roads – the traffic of people who knew how to bail off the highway and snake their way through the little villages near the Germany-Austria border. Adding to the slowness of the traffic was the wind, which blew across the farmers’ fields, skimming the top layer off snow off the fields and layering it across the road. While the roads were, for the most part, clear, well plowed, and dried by the day’s sun, the roads that led across the fields were covered by an ever-replenishing sheet of snow. We drove.

Eventually we crossed the “border” into Austria. With the arrival of the European Union came the departure of the border stations. The roads that used to become backed up with cars passing through customs and immigration had only empty government-style shells of buildings to mark where the former crossing had been. There were plants in the windows of these buildings, turned brown and dead from lack of water, as if the day the crossing was opened, the guards had simply left, locked the door and called it quits.

The traffic was better in Austria, and we soon arrived at Skiwelt – “Ski world”. This ski area consists of almost a dozen mountains, and as advertised, over 250 kilometers of ski slope. We thought maybe it could keep us occupied for a while. We found our destination, a little village called Söll, which was right next to Hopfgarten, where we had watched the cows come down from the mountains for winter. And soon we were on Söll’s gondola, riding up to connect with another gondola – this one a massive fifty-person thing with people and their skis crammed in like sardines. But the ride was smooth, and soon we found ourselves at the top of our first run, a blue, easy run to start. And so we took to the trail and skied down the gentle slope, the stunning view of snow-covered alpine mountains stretching out before us, and the perfect, groomed snow beneath our skis. It was like no other skiing experience I’ve had. The snow was powder, not a patch of ice in sight. The trails were uncrowded. There were no lines for the gondolas. And the wonderful sun burned off the usual mist to provide almost endless visibility.

We then decided to move on to the red, medium, slopes, and took a series of lifts up to a new mountain, the Zinsberg, at 1674 meters. At the top, I stopped for a moment. I realized that I could see the Alps not just in front of me, but also to the left, the right, and behind. At the top of this mountain, I could turn a full circle and have amazing views any direction I faced. We also had the luxury of being able to ski down in any direction from this point. Awesome. The slopes themselves were steep, wide, and so smooth that I finally began to understand how some of my coworkers became ski-freaks during their tours in Germany.

For lunch, we popped into a ski hut, bought food and drink, cafeteria-style, and headed back outside to sit with the masses at fest tables, enjoying the view. You can’t get this experience in the United States. Not quite. We enjoyed our beers, our soups (hearty Goulash for me, bean for Ben), bread, and apple strudel. Listened to the thump, thump, of the ski hut music – a mixture of German fest music, rock classics, and modern Euro-techno. Smiled big grins. And hopped back on the slope for more skiing.

The end of the skiing day didn’t end quite as we had planned. We had to make our way back to our original mountain, and the lifts closed at 4:30. Due to some miscalculation on my part (“we have time for just one more run!”) and some miscommunication, we missed the last lift to our mountain by mere minutes. And, since we couldn’t go up, we had to content ourselves with down – following the other late skiers and snowboarders down a steep, rutted, off-piste course. Jumping streams and crossing roads, we made our way down bit by bit, Ben wanting to kill me, as the slope was really too hard for him, especially since he was tired. We eventually hit bottom, to find ourselves in the village of Brixen im Thale, halfway around the mountain from Söll. The ski busses that had seemed like a convenient mode of transport had stopped running shortly after the lifts closed, and so we were forced to figure out another way back to our car. I ended up calling a transportation company, the number for which I got from a friendly co-skier who was also waiting to be picked up. And soon we were on our way home, wallet a little lighter, but no less happy for the extraordinary day that lay behind us.