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Hiking till the cheese comes home

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Hiking till the cheese comes home

Once upon a time, I hiked along the Käseweg trail in Bregenzerwald. Along the way I confronted wagons filled with hay, heat, wisdom, Scottish Highland cattle, humility, friendly faces, Thomas Jefferson, brass-band musicians, a hail storm, cow dung and milk tankers.

I’m not one of those people who have always dreamed about hiking the Way of St James. In fact, I think obsessing about cumulative elevation gain is absurd. Nevertheless, there I find myself buying hiking boots, expensive socks, a stupid hat. I pack my suitcase with pleasure, however, secure in the knowledge that I don’t have to carry it.Somewhere along the way, maybe I’ll finally get around to reading “The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science: Costa & Royal Society Prize Winner.”

Day 1: Wheezing for breath I come face to face with highland cattle
One morning in July, I find myself longing for Humboldt’s cyanometer to effectively measure the actual blueness of the sky. I feel a bit like Hape Kerkeling, the German entertainer who was intent on getting to the bottom of history’s most colourful stories. While on the bus I meet a friend of mine, she’s headed to the fitness centre to do some back training. In just seven weeks she was meant to be pain free. That was one year ago. Hiking? That would be impossible for her. Aren’t I lucky I muse to myself with a measure of self irony. I’m pain free, at least for the moment that is. To get where I’m going, I have to change buses twice. The bus driver has been working since 5 am and his shift lasts 15 hours. Afterwards, he has to clean his bus, inside and out until it’s spotless.

My journey begins in Sulzberg. I received precise directions from the tourism office: a piece of paper, which embodies my offline holiday in its entirety with all systems in shut down mode. Since March, I’ve held 116 lectures. After a few metres I remove my mobile phone from my backpack, holding on a little too tightly, I take a few last photos, check my emails; actually I’d be delighted to listen to an audio book about now… This damn device! And yet the panorama couldn’t be more tacky (my instinct is to take a photo). Meanwhile, a young lady in flip-flops pushes her pram up the mountain and below me in the valley the Käse-Rebellen milk tanker is making its rounds at the farms. Otherwise, I notice that there is no one here. The air smells like hay and cow dung. Good lord, what have I have I gotten myself into?

Something white flies through the air and lands on my path: It’s a golf ball. Feeling a bit like a magpie, I take it with me as a souvenir. Maybe there’s something hidden inside, I muse to myself. Some secret treasure I’ll need along the way like the ‘snitch’ from the final Harry Potter book. Already feeling a bit sticky, I take a cat bath in the Weißach river before crossing an old covered wooden bridge. As part of my lecture circuit, I’ve visited a lot of places. But I’ve never seen such perfectly organised infrastructure as this in every single town. Riefensberg, for instance, features a grocery store, golf, tennis and volleyball courts, a nursery school, kindergarten, school, library, 60 businesses, 22 associations, a Juppenwerkstatt for traditional dresses, inns and a bank. All this for 1000 inhabitants! I note with a smile, however, that to visit the doctor they have to go to the next village, which is 500 metres uphill. Wheezing for breath I come face to face with highland cattle. They belong to Michael Dorn, who radiates just about the same level of friendliness as his animals. The family of cattle, it turns out, is eleven years old. The animals remain outdoors the whole year round and have never once been to see a veterinarian.

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It’s getting dark in the forest, which is filled with treacherous stones. I pass beneath the stony gate, and beyond the highland moor stretches out before me. In the background, I can see the high mountains of the Hochhäderich. At the mountain restaurant, I order a soup whilst at a neighbouring table I listen in as three Germans discuss the percentage of alcohol in beer. One recalls quickly drinking two bottles of beer before his mother’s funeral to calm his nerves. Graveside, he lost his balance, fell onto the coffin and broke his ankle.

The final 2 km (of 16) downhill to Hittisau are difficult. At the swimming pool below, the kids are playing in the water. I march through town to the Krone hotel, where I’m greeted with a smile. The substantial number of books on the shelves in the hotel library is simply astounding. My suitcase is already in my room I’m told. Following it upstairs, I enter a room with a faint smell of lemon in the air. I shower before making myself comfortable in bed. Instinctively, I search for the remote control. There is no TV and that’s just how it is. Instead I reach for my book and begin to read. Nothing distracts me as I become engrossed in Humboldt’s world. Alexander von Humbolt recognised nature for what it is, a single living organism in which everything depends on everything else. He was the first person to recognise that the earth’s climate was being influenced by human beings. That was already in the year 1800 as Humboldt witnessed the destruction of the rainforest and its consequences on the quality of soil, water levels and the climate. One of his friends was Thomas Jefferson, which is a reminder that there were once American presidents who were smart, visionary and worth respecting. At the restaurant, I engage in a stimulating conversation with Dietmar Nußbaumer, the owner. On staff he has an in-house philosopher, a man with disability, an Iraqi, a Syrian, and a waitress who has worked here for more than 25 years.At the Hotel Krone one meets Nobel prize winners, chief editors and locals, who come after church to enjoy a morning pint. Back in my room, I hibernate like a bear.

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Day 2: Raining cats and dogs
The following morning I hike around the Hittisberg and I think about my relationship with media: Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia – stale, superficial, unsatisfying. So I resolve to investigate topics more closely in the future. The rumors are true about the ash trees, a sac fungus from East Asia is ravaging them.

At the lowest point of the valley, I spot the opal-coloured Subersach reservoir. Every metre I’ve descended, I now have to ascend once more. Along the way, I pass by a swampy lake in the forest and mountain huts. I arrive in Schetteregg far early than I expected. Perhaps I should have take a longer break after all. At the Schetteregger Hof Inn, my suitcase is waiting for me once more so I make myself comfortable in the shade of a sun umbrella. Across from me at the neighbouring table, two men engage in verbal combat: “What, you’re leaving already?” – “I’ve got a family waiting for me at home.” – “Are you going to the opening performance tomorrow?” – “My God, your food sure does look good” – “We did all the work!” – “You’re eating the mushrooms we didn’t find along the way.”

Anita Albrecht, the young innkeeper, runs around laughing and is friendly to everyone she meets. Her husband works in the kitchen and they have four little ones, which is no surprise because the hotel is a paradise for kids. Sometimes there are even international guests: Chinese tourists with 16 kids arrive spontaneously and pack out their rice cooker and prepare Asian food fresh on the balcony. Not to mention the Arabic women who breast-feed their children in their pyjamas but wear long black robes the moment they leave their hotel room. They’ve seen it all.

After a midday nap, I am finally feeling relaxed. For more than 18 hours, the hotel chef has been slow-roasting pork and outside my window the local marching band strikes up a tune. Ominously, however, black clouds have begun to form around the Winterstaude mountain and after a few songs from the band the storm breaks and it begins to pour. A strong wind blows the sun umbrellas over and it begins to rain like cats and dogs as glass falls from the table and explodes dramatically into pieces.There is meat on the grill to tend to, someone grabs a salad bowl, and trumpets and trombones are gathered up and brought inside: Everyone grabs what they can and runs. Safely in my room, I listen to the sounds of hail rapping against the window pane. The floor is wet from the open window and I pause to dry it with towels from the bathroom. When I’m finished, I return downstairs to find that the food and the concert have resumed in the parlour as if nothing had happened.

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Day 3: A tractor gets stuck in the moor
The sunrise is indescribable and the trail to Schönenbach is a highlight. I’m tired, it’s over 30 C and for a moment I’m tempted to take the bus home. But with perseverance I ascend every single metre of elevation. Near the Ostergunten Alpine pasture a tractor is stuck in the moor and a second tractor attempts to free it. I watch as fathers and sons grapple with tractor in wet mud.I meet the Metzler family along the way and purchase some mountain cheese. I even carry it all the way to the Stogger Sattel ridge.

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The hike to Au is pretty tame. The sun is intense and small blisters have begun to form on the soles of my feet. In spite of wearing sunscreen, I feel as if I have sunstroke so I take refuge in a chapel, the “Black Madonna,” in the middle of the forest. Inside it is cool. Later, I finally arrive in the town of Au and I climb into the bus with tired legs. The kids in the bus ask me if I’ll write another story. They have an idea about a farm and a secret tunnel, about a full moon and chest of gold. I carry these ideas home with me and I notice how my fantasy has already taken flight. My mobile phone is still buried beneath a mound of cheese at the bottom of by backpack, and I have no desire to unearth it.

Author: Irmgard Kramer