Over the Alps

This page contains some notes first scratched out on the blog I maintained during the walk. Then there are some more detailed discussions of some of the lessons I learned while walking this section.

Some quick notes

Here are some notes I wrote originally on the blog and have copied and expanded somewhat. They have to do until I get more ambitious and write a more detailed log of this part of the walk.

A note from before the walk

On July 3 before we walk the 27 kilometers between Mellatz and Oberstaufen. It is a beautiful walk along mostly country paths. North and east of Lindenberg we have many panoramic vistas back toward Ki▀legg and forward toward the mountains. The view would be better if it was a bit less hazy. We manage to avoid busy roads all the way. And from the top of the hill above Oberstaufen, we have a spectacular view of the town and the Hochgrat and the other mountains we walked two weeks ago.

The only unpleasant part of the day is the half-hour-long riverside walk accompanied by an all-out attack on our legs by an army of persistent flies and bugs. I will hardly sleep tonight from the itch of their bites. Otherwise, the day is warm but not hot and small clouds cover the sun now and then to give us a bit more shade than the ample trees provide.

We have now walked all the pieces between here in Ki▀legg and Oberstdorf, 106 kilometers, and are ready to begin the walk over the Alps at the end of the month. It will be a job to hold down our enthusiasm to begin before then.

Notes of 7 August from Zams, Austria

We have finished the fifth day. We walked to Madau in the rain most of the way though we had a bit of dry walking with heavy clouds. At Madau we decided it was best to backtrack a few kilometers and go by bus to Zams. Rain triggered the decision but reality set in when we realized that neither of us had it in ourselves to walk down 5900 feet (1800 meters) without resting somewhere in the middle and there was no place to do that in the middle of rain. Some things are best not done. So tomorrow we continue our walk from here. We're feeling really great and ready to walk.

Notes of 18 August from Bolzano, Italy

All is well. We are not finding internet access on the top of these mountains... Zams, a pizzeria somewhere for a few minutes, and now here in Bolzano. But then we haven't been looking too hard either. It seems more important to walk than to communicate at this time.

We are on our 16th day and it is sunny for only the third time in those 16 days. It has been a long walk with a lot of rain and some snow. With just over 180 km under our belts since Oberstdorf, we are well on our way to Rome. There have been moments of great beauty (the Pitztal, the Timmelstal, Timmelsjochl, the valley and mountains from St. Leonard) and moments of sheer terror (for me)(walking over the 9500-foot (2900-meter) Pitztaler Jöchl in deep blowing snow on a narrow mountain path).

Notes of 25 August from Levico Terme, Italy

We are in the evening of a rest day on a lake about 5 days north of Verona. Much more sun now that we are a bit away from the high mountains. We have walked up and down a lot in the last three weeks. We began the fourth week yesterday.

In all of those days we have walked up and down so much. Some days more than 3300 feet (1000 meters) up and others more than 3300 feet down. And there have been a couple that seemed to have as much as that both up and down. With that kind of climbing and going down, one does not make a lot of kilometers in a day. It is also quite tiring. E5 was made for walkers who want to walk like that. And we like it. But after 23 days we are feeling more like making some more kilometers forward and are little interested in going up 1000 feet (300 meters) any more just to go through another forest and come down 1000 feet on the other side. So the day before yesterday we decided to go to the river valleys and walk more on the level.

That decided, we walked 3300 feet (1000 meters) down a beautiful river valley from Palai die Ferdina to Pergine Valsogana and took a bus a few kilometers to Levico Terme to rest a bit. Along the way down the narrow valley we passed through a huge strawberry farm with all the plants in hydroponic boxes setting on tables in tents. They were too convenient to our hands as we passed. We must have eaten two quarts (two liters) each as we walked the half mile through the farm. Yum.

Tomorrow we leave for the main river valley between Trento and Verona and will walk the path along the Adage River to Verona, a much flatter walk. Maybe we'll get bored but I think not.

Notes after returning to Kisslegg

September 3 we arrived in Fidenza, just a month after leaving Oberstdorf. We were tired and ready to stop but we were also excited to have reached our goal for this sector of our walk to Rome.

After the last posting, we walked over a low pass from Levico Terme and down a valley into the Adige River Valley, a wide flat valley between high mountains on both sides. I pulled a tendon in my arch on the way into the valley. It was the Universe telling me not to get so impatient. I really wanted to get on with it all the previous few days, to move more quickly to our destination. Now I had to walk a lot slower for the rest of the days. It was a good lesson well taken.

Being flat, the Adige Valley is the arterial pathway for all transportation. The railroad, the autopista, a national highway, a regional highway, and a canal for electricity production far down the valley all shared the space with vineyards, farms, and the people living there. We had to find a walking path too. A fine bicycle path along the Adige gave us that way through Trento Province. But afterwards we were left with only roads for a short way until an "angel" standing by his house asked us why we were walking on the road. We said we asked ourselves the same question and came up with no answer. He said, "Go 100 meters and turn right up a path to the canal and walk there." We had walked along the canal earlier but it was now posted "no walking." The canal takes water to Bussolengo where it is converted to electricity. With this angel's message, we walked along the canal off and on for 30 kilometers. A deep path showed that many others had walked there also in spite of the signs. It was a joy being away from the cars and trucks and walking so flat.

As we walked to Bussolengo, a few kilometers from Verona, we realized that our goal was Fidenza and not Verona. We didn't need to go to the city just to go there and turn south. So from Bussolengo we headed south and west and were soon in the plains of the Po River. Now all was really flat. The vineyards soon vanished and we were in the land of grain, canals, hot sun, and hotter, foot-punishing pavement--not your typical tourist destination. Sometimes busy main roads were the only options. We couldn't even take shortcuts across fields. When we tried we ran into canals (wide, deep ditches really) in the center of the field or on the far side and had to detour long to get around them.

With no tourists, there was also a dreadful shortage of hotels and B&Bs (agriturismos). We arrived tired with burning feet in larger towns and found no place to sleep a couple evenings. But the Italians are helpful. In Goito after a long discussion with three different people as to where we might stay, one Bruno took us "2 kilometers" (really about four) threw a spider web of streets to a delightful B&B where the owner gave us a free supper before we retired.

The next night brought the same problem, no place to stay. That night the street discussion resulted in a ride back 4.5 miles (7 km)--that is almost 2 hours walking--to a town where the only hotel was closed. So we drove another four kilometers north (another hour walking backwards) to a motel. But we were not happy over going three hours backward. Not a problem, at the gas station attendant's questioning, two guys getting gas offered to drive us to Parma, even to the Via Francigena if we wanted! We couldn't accept that yet but we did accept a ride to Casalmaggiore on the Po River. Now we were 16.5 miles (27 km), more than a full day's walk, ahead of where we had ended our day's walk only an hour earlier.

While looking for a hotel (another long story to be told later), I reinjured my foot, this time substantially. I could walk but only quite slowly. We decided that it was time to use the train option. So we did just that for the last 25 miles (40 km) to Fidenza. It felt good to do so. It felt exciting sitting in a street cafe and drinking a wine celebrating 36 days of walking 380 miles (610 kilometers) across mountains and plains from Kisslegg, Germany to the Via Francigena. Tears flowed.

After a day's rest we took some trains back to Kisslegg. Twelve hours with some stops to go the same distance as those 36 days on foot.

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Fear of Heights

As we began the Germany to Fidenza section of this walk I had one major goal for the walk over the mountains, to look my fear of heights in the face and learn from it. All of my life I have feared walking or standing on the edge of high places. I could be inside any structure (even fly a plane upside down near the ground!) and have no fear. But let me stand with nothing between me and the ground but air and some distance and I quickly became locked up.

I had a very frightening experience walking between Oberstaufen and Oberstdorf some days before we began the walk over the Alps on E5. The path was supposed to be friendly. But it had terrifying sections, one a two-foot-wide path on a ridge with the world dropping away a thousand feet on both sides. Some of its climbs and descents seemed close to vertical. I felt I could not turn around and walk back on the same path because I feared the descents I would have to endure. I had to walk forwards. At times it was only my yogic concentration and sheer will power that got me through. In the end I made it and felt good about it. But I vowed then that I would never walk such a path if I knew what it was going to be.

As we prepared to walk to Italy, I had determined to a point of almost certainty that my fear was not of dieing if I fell but rather fear of getting badly injured. Everyone dies at some point, always at some seeming inopportune point. But being badly injured means you have to depend on others for your existence, something few of us want to happen.

The second day of the walk to Italy, as we walked to Kemptner Hutte, I got my baptism by fire and came through it quite well though not without a lot of concentration and emotional energy. I walked narrow paths with steep drop offs on the side and up and down steep muddy paths. And at one place we had to walk through waterfalls cascading over the path and down into and under snow packs in the river 150 feet below. I was tired at the top, but I had came through the experience well.

A few days later we walked 1,600 feet (500 meters) up a narrow mountain path to over 9,500 feet in fresh snow. Everything I knew about snow was not the way it was. I climbed step by step up so slowly. I concentrated so intensely so that I would not slip off the path and fall far down the mountain. But the snow was not slippery. It held me without crumbling away. In the end it was easier to walk on than it would have been walking on the rocks. And coming down the other side in a snowfield, I could almost run. I didn't slip in the steep descent. It was actually a little fun at the end.

In the next several days, I seldom found such unfriendly paths but I continually learned about mud, clay, dirt, leaves, pebbles, sand, rocks, and several other kinds of surfaces. I learned how to walk on them all. I learned I could walk on them without my shoes slipping. I learned that even flimsy looking paths held up as I walked on them. I learned to balance myself and my backpack on all these surfaces as I climbed, as I descended, as I walked strait on.

In fact, I learned to walk all over again because none of these things were working the way a lifetime of experience told me they should work. And as I learned, the "fear" receded into the background. I retained a healthy fear that told me not to do something stupid. But I was no longer frozen to the spot when I found myself on the side of a mountain with little between me and the bottom far below. And the proof came when we arrived at a shortcut to Gasthof Hochfirst below Timmelsjoch just inside Italy. The path got narrower and narrower. It became a mountain goat path. The hill dropped more and more steeply. I was not happy to be there but with concentration and only a little apprehension, I negotiated a long narrow path that wound around the mountain. At times it was less that 8 inches (20 cm) wide. It was like walking on the white line on the side of the road--but without the pavement or edge next to it. The mountain went up on the right and down on the left at 60 and 70 degrees. And at one point a buttressed narrow log was the only path at an 80-degree cliff.

That path, the worst (from a narrowness standpoint) path of the month's walking, proved to be my test. I had passed it well. Other narrow paths came and went and I still learned more new surfaces. But from then on I only respected the heights. I no longer feared them. It became clear that this fear of heights was not really of heights themselves, but fear of my abilities, fear of the unknown surfaces, fear that the paths would give way, fear that I could not make the right movements to get me safely on my way. I learned I could. I learned I no longer needed to fear I was going to injure myself. I had not addressed my not wanting to be injured, but I had removed my fear of heights. I leave fear of being seriously injured for another day.

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Be patient

As we walked south of Bolzano, I became more and more impatient with the short distances we could walk each day because we walked up and down so many mountains. The days were dragging out. I perceived we were getting behind our original schedule though we were never more than one day behind. And we both were simply tired of walking up one mountain to walk down the other side. We longed for flatter walking (where, by the way, we could walk faster).

So after a day's rest in Levico Terme, we climbed a valley south of Trento and walked down into the valley of the Adige River, a beautiful valley with high mountains on both sides. But for us, it was flat. We could walk more quickly, we could arrive more quickly in Verona.

But sometimes the Universe has a lesson or two to teach. And so it was this time. As I walked down steep trails out of the mountains, I got a little too anxious to get to the Adige Valley. I pushed hard and pulled a tendon in my arch. I didn't notice it so much at first. But the next day as I got up and started to move I found I could not move so quickly. It hurt too much.

And it continued to hurt for the next week until we got to Fidenza. I walked slowly as Petra walked far ahead and then waited for me to catch up. The walk to the valley to speed up was for naught. I could not walk faster and in fact I walked considerably slower.

The lesson: be patient. Take things as they come. When you try to push too hard, the Universe will intervene and slow you anyway. Everything happens in it's time, not yours. You can manage it a bit, but when you get pushy, you are asking for more than you think you are asking for.

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The Universe will provide

As a side impetus to come out of the mountains and speed up the walk, the hotels and B&Bs and meals were becoming more and more expensive with each passing day. I felt our pockets emptying much more quickly than I had expected. This escalation, in conjunction with short distances we were walking, fed my impatience. How would we maintain our coffers when we spent it so quickly?

There was no practical, physical prodding from the Universe that helped me with this. But as we discussed it, I realized once again that this is another form of fear of the unknown. I also realized that the Universe has always provided in the past and there is no reason to think that it will be any different in the future. Another lesson in living in the NOW. Our task in life is to live and enjoy what we are doing now. When we do that well, all will be provided. A lesson I have learned before but had to relearn in the middle of this walk.

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