“I want to be away from the tourists,” said I, the tourist.
“I want to be away from the students,” said I, the student.
And that is how I ended up in Werfen, Austria.
I was on Fall Break, and I was – by choice – traveling alone; I was determined to revive in myself the sense of honeymoon-like fascination with the world that I felt when I arrived in Europe for the first time just weeks earlier. I had read online that this town was beautifully quaint. That was enough to send my mind running and my bags packing. My train ride into the town was thus filled with naive plans and exaggerated hopes for ‘authenticity’; I would perhaps join the local fishermen in the river, dine alongside the neighbors, bask in the untouched nature.
My expectations for the perfect adventure were at their height as I stepped off the train and looked around. To my right was a river. To my left, a dense, uninviting forest. There was no one at the train station. There was no sign, no map. I followed the gravel road leading from the station, only to find an empty one-lane motorway.
What is this place? I thought to myself, my heart beginning to thump.
In an attempt to keep my cool, I decided that I would just make it to my hotel and save the explorations for later. Based on what I had screenshotted from Google Maps, it seemed a short distance away. It would be a quick ride, and I could spare the few extra euros from my travel budget.
But it did not occur to me earlier that in the countryside, taxis could not be hailed with the wave of a hand; the idea of public transport, too, was apparently rather alien to the area. This $20.00 hotel that my bargain-hunter-self so proudly found, was actually over a mile away from the station. And on top of a mountain. In the middle of nowhere, my cell phone was absolutely useless. There I stood there in my beanie, suitcase at hand, reluctant to face my reality. There was nothing else for me to do – I had to walk.
I began the hike. It wasn’t a hill; it was, with full certainty, a mountain. For some reason, my calculated plans for adventure forgot to include the weight of my bags, which seemed to be increasing by the minute. The incline was sharp enough to deter me from setting them down, in case they might abandon me to gravity and roll back down to where I started. A car or two passed by, engines whining with the effort – but no one thought to offer me a lift. Did they think it was by choice that I was making this Everest-esque trek? My hands were getting chapped, my legs weaker. The winding nature of the road was rather deceptive; every time the damned road made another marked turn, I told my protesting extremities that it would be the last – only to find yet another stretch of mountain to conquer.
By the time I reached my destination, I was panting and sweating abnormally given the brisk autumn temperatures. The lump in my throat had come to stay. I walked up a set of worn wooden steps and headed into the hotel, only to find a complete absence of a check in desk. As I tiptoed around what was perhaps intended to be the lobby, a short man in a sweater vest appeared from a narrow door frame. Without a word, he handed me an aged metal key that reminded me of a skeleton’s finger, and pointed to a door. I entered without a word, eager to put an end to my time spent in vertical position, and – I’ll admit it – to have a good cry.
My room, at last. Amid frustrated tears, I opened the window. Before me was the Hohenwerfen Castle. She sat comfortably upon her respective mountain, radiating a sense of undeniable confidence, ownership, and victory – as if mocking my pitiful journey. And as the Alps joined in and enclosed me in a circle of Motherly comfort – or was it jest? – I realized that as much as I try, I cannot be anything but small.
I wrapped myself in the itchy duvet, and inched out onto the small balcony. Curling up on the plastic lawn chair, I took a deep breath. For the first time in months I didn’t smell anything but air. I peaked out towards the Earth below me, at the plots of land divvied up so cleanly, so easily, as if by no other criterion than their respective shades of green, interrupted with one swift brush stroke of the bluest water I have ever seen. As a nighttime curtain descended upon the town, hundreds of stars giggled above the murky shadows of mountaintops.
“It’s a really good place to have a really bad day,” I said out loud to no one in particular, as I sipped on yesterday’s plastic water bottle, succumbing to my infinitesimal presence in the world.
And in fact, I was speaking out loud to no one at all. It became rather clear that I was the only one who would stay at a $20.00 hotel, on a mountain, in a deserted Austrian town. The next morning, I bolted without giving a goodbye. Back down the mile-long mountain I ran, running not only because of the steep incline, but also because I wanted to get the hell out of there. I’m still not sure whether or not I paid.
- Mornings in Werfen, Austria: Ashley Jankowski