September Saturday
Margaret, September 18, 2004

It was forecast to be a gorgeous day; and it was. The sky was cloudless and bright, the air the chilly crispness of autumn. It had been rare this summer to wake up and see the distinct silhouette of the Wendelstein, the nearby mountain of note. Most days, I had to wait for the morning mist to burn off. And some rainy days the mountains didn't show themselves at all. But today, as I looked out my bedroom window, south to the horizon, I marveled at the pinkish-yellow glow that drew the contour of the Wendelstein and its companions in the sky. It would be a beautiful day.

I couldn't quite rouse myself at 6:30am on a Saturday, but did manage to get out of bed by 7:00am. Having done most of my packing the evening before, the morning routine was simple and I hopped in my car to drive down to the Austrian border. A half-hour later I was in Kufstein. This town on the river Inn sits on the way from Munich to Innsbruck, right in the middle of the Alps. It's a ski resort in winter and the starting point for many an outdoor activity in summer. The road dumped me out into the center of the town and I witnessed throngs of people hustling to set up for an apparent fest. Women prepared fest tables with cheap colorful tablecloths and centerpieces. Men hauled out benches. Children decorated the streets with scattered bales of hay.

But my eyes were on the store signs. I was looking for a place that would sell me new batteries for my camera, which had decided that very morning to be done with the old ones. I spotted a Schlecker, a sort of home supply store and went in. The store was empty except for the shopkeeper whom I greeted, and I quickly found the things I needed. The shopkeeper took my old batteries for recycling and charged me for the new ones. On my way out she called, "enjoy your vacation!" I couldn't decide whether to take that as "enjoy my two-year working vacation of being in Europe" or "enjoy my one-day vacation to Kufstein and its Alps". I knew she meant something in between and took it as both.

I navigated through the windy one-way streets of Kufstein trying to find the starting point to my hike. I hit dead ends a few times, but eventually managed to find the trailhead and the parking lot across the street from it. As I gathered my things a woman magically appeared at my car door, demanding two euros for the privilege of parking. I paid her and crossed the street. I grin. It is already 9:15am - later than I had anticipated, but still early enough for a full day hike.

The hike begins just outside the northern limits of Kufstein, where the Kaiserbach (the "Emperor's Brook") flows into the Inn. I would be vaguely following the Kaiserbach the whole day, working my way up the valley Kaisertal to a mountain hut called Stripsenjoch. A coworker had recommended the route to me, and it sounded like a lovely way to spend the day.

I start up the maintained erosion-control steps with dozens of hikers around me doing likewise. In less than five minutes I come upon a cow. A cow on the steps. With her are two men, trying with all their might to prod, coerce, and push her down the steps. They aren't having much luck. She must have come from one of the mountain pastures above and I can see that she favors one of her back legs. I don't know why the cowherds decided to bring her down the hiking steps as opposed to one of the supply roads, but perhaps they thought (incorrectly) it would be quicker. They had managed to make the cow move one more step down by the time I lost sight of them as I rounded a bend above.

The steps peter out and became a wide dirt road, sloping gradually upward along the top edge of the valley. Pastures flank the path, with grass nibbled to lawnmower perfection. The rush of the Kaiserbach can be heard down the right. And steep slopes rise up on the left to reveal bared rock and clinging trees. Then there is the sound of cowbells and I come upon the Veitenhof, a farmyard-turned-guesthouse. Cows graze in the pasture below the house, and above a man in Tyrolean garb descends from the upper hill. Over his shoulder is slung what I take to be firewood, but upon closer inspection determine to be fence posts. He greets a neighbor who had just come out his back door and the two converse out of earshot.

Further along the path, through pastures, bright sunlight, and tips of mountains rising up on all sides, I come upon the Pfandlhof, another farmyard that offers eating and sleeping possibilities to passersby. More cows. And also goats. And a steep pebbled driveway that looks like it would be impassible in winter. As I leave it for further pastures, I catch up to an older man who is hiking alone. We exchange the customary greetings, and he asks my destination, addressing me as Fräulein. I tell him and he looks mildly impressed, describing to me the route I must take. He asks where I am from, comments on hiking alone, and on the weather. Soon thereafter he takes the left branch of the path, heading up to the peak of a nearby mountain, and I take the right.

It wasn't necessary, of course, for this man who called me Fräulein to describe my route. The Austrian Mountain Club (Österreichischer Alpenverein), like its German counterpart, does a tremendous job of marking all the trails through the Alps. Hiking trails are indicated with red circles, technical climbing ones with black ones. Approximate hiking times are listed on signs at every intersection. I learn from these signs, in fact, that I am hiking along route 801 and will follow it all the way to Stripsenjoch.

The path soon leads me into some woods and I welcome the shade as refuge from the blinding sunshine of the pastures. The path meanders down, crossing streams at wood-planked bridges. For the first time I am actually alone on my hike, no chattering of other hikers behind me, nor the click-click-click of trekking poles ahead. The woods are full of color and shape. I stop to admire the bluebell flowers that are only found at higher altitudes. The texture of a tall rotted tree stump covered in moss and shelf mushrooms catches my attention. I hear rustlings in the brush, small animals foraging. The air smells like damp earth.

Too soon the path has descended onto the bank of the Kaiserbach. There, families picnic and couple stroll, having arrived by a path along the brook itself. The brook is wide here, washing over smooth pebbles and wider rocks. Kids jump from rock to rock, crossing the stream and coming back. The water itself is flowing quickly, with the swirling milky look of glacial water. I stop to dangle my fingertips in it and find that it is indeed ice cold.

The hiking is easy for a while, flat along the brook's bank. And then the path heads back into the woods and up. Soon I arrive at the Hans-Berger Haus, situated with a view overlooking the valley. The front porch is busy with hikers enjoying their lunches amongst flowers draping the railings all around. I ask if I can use the bathroom and the young woman there answers in perfect English, "of course." I wonder what has given me away: the backpack? The plastic water bottles? The lack of trekking poles?

From there it's nothing but up. The signposts indicate that it's another hour to Stripsenjoch, but it takes me less time. The path here is a series of rocks with flat tops, positioned like stairs. It switches back and forth, climbing to the ridge, gaining elevation every bit of the way. I stop on a couple of these turns to take in the view behind me. Soon I hear voices, indistinct, drifting down from above and I reach my destination: a mountain hut like the last, with a full contingent of diners on the deck, enjoying the views and the Kaiserschmarrn.

Stripsenjoch Haus is accessible in several ways, one of which is the four-hour route I took along the Kaisertal. Another, shorter way is a one-hour hike up the other side and as I looked over the ridge I could see the parking lot from which most of the Stripsenjoch visitors originated. I make my way past groups of older hikers and groups of younger ones with ropes tied to their packs. They will be doing one of the many rock-climbing routes in the area. I buy and eat my lunch quickly, all too ready to remove myself from the crowd.

When I am done, I climb up a little further to take in the full panorama. To the west extends the valley from which I came, framed at the horizon by mountains on the other side of the Inn. To the east, the view is similar. A valley drops down and leads away from the ridge to a patchwork of light green pastures and dark green woods, dotted here and there by the glint of a farmhouse or mountain hut. To the north is the peak of the Stripsenkopf, flanked on either side by the starker mountains of the Zahmer Kaiser range. Many of the hikers who took the short way up to Stripsenjoch will continue up to its top. The southern view is the most imposing, though, with the harsh bare stone of the Wilder Kaisers rising almost vertically up to impressive heights above. The climbers will be heading in that direction.

I glance at the obligatory panorama guide that names all of the peaks that can be seen from the ridge, and am delighted to discover that to the northwest, just peeking out around the side of the last of the Zahmer Kaisers is a mountain I recognize. I turn and look. It isn't quite the same shape as from the other side, but nevertheless I behold my familiar Wendelstein. And then I realize that it must be the white peaks of the Kaisers that I can see from home on very clear days when the humidity is gone from the air.

I admire the view a bit longer and then begin to head back, down the ridge to the valley floor, back up through the woods to the pastureland, and then, joining up with the crowds again, down again into Kufstein. I get back in my car and drive home without incident, even though the center of Kufstein is closed for the fest. Back in my apartment I gaze out the window at the Wendelstein and the Kaisers further off in the distance, their silhouettes now dark in the fading light of dusk.