|Alps on the left and Alps on the right and nothing but road up ahead.|
|The Austrian alps and the A12/E45|
So many things in life are ruined by advertising's highlight reel. Think of the last comedy you saw – one you bothered to see in the theater. How many good laughs were left out of the trailer? That same idea follows to other parts of life, and it's why I was less than bonkers to drive from our former home in Munich to the Alps, then spend a couple of days bombing around in the mountains. I figured, hey, I've already seen the Rockies, the Bighorns, the Blue Ridge, (and on and on)... what's to see? Nothing but variations on a theme. Plus I'd already seen the highlights every time I passed a box of Swiss Miss or bought a gallon of milk. If you've ever seen a postcard with a young lady dressed like Heidi or The Sound of Music, you might think the same thing – Nice view! (And not just on account of the associated ladies), but, Why in God's name would I need to go half way around the world? I've been force fed images for years. What more could I possibly get?
This time, a lot. Because for once the advertised product far exceeds the snippet. Alpine peaks are so dramatic that they stick to your retinas to days, and the towns are so quaint you'll want to buy a felt jacket, herd of cows, and give up whatever life you have. And then there's the roads. They've got curves tighter than an Olympic sprinter's ass – and just as capable of making your blood pump.
|More from the top|
It's like this: when I was a just thigh-high little man in elementary school, I loved gluing. (Non sequitur? Hold on.) I would hold a bottle of Elmer's three feet above a piece of green construction paper and let a long, white strand needle down. Invariably – no matter how steady my hands – the glue would sway and dance to form ribbon curls while I, as creator, would burble motor noises. In-tense. The point? Any of those young Steffl creations could have been a map, or blueprint, of Alpine driving.
|I lied, not all the houses are white but this is the level of variation|
that you get.
We rolled south, out of the fatherland and entered on the A12/E45 – which is a real-deal highway that moves between Germany and Austria. That's about the time I warmed to this unplanned cruise. This kind of A-Road experience usually translates into distilled dull in the US, (at least for us Midwestern folk), but the this particular strip of highway not only took us from country to country, it split chains of mountains on either side, playing the role of referee at a cage fight – as if it were just there to keep peaks apart. The views captivated – sprawling swaths of country club green at the foot of bone-sided mountains dusted in white. We had to get onto B-roads.
Smaller roads – as in many mountain regions – often don't go anywhere in particular. These wander, they vagabond through villages with white stucco faces and rusty clay roofs. Places quainter than the syrupiest Hallmark postcard, beautiful and very European.
In a way, each of those quaint villages is akin to a US planned community... you know, where the height of your mailbox is a big thing. Those places where you could never build a Frank Lloyd Wright clone or dare to use purple paint. These are places where homogeneity reigns supreme. Strange? Sure, by our standards. But that kind of smooth uniformity is what really seals the deal. These communities have the charm and elegance that US planned communities search for, but never find. Part of it is a complete absence of vinyl siding - but really, it's not in anything so 'skin deep.' It's something found in the people, too, and found in their culture. These are places where tiny cars fill the roads and average people bicycle to and from the grocery store, complete with baskets of produce.
But, as quaint as they are, as 'upstanding' and... formulaic as these places might seem, there's one more piece to know. They love the motorcycle.
This part of the world in love with motorräder, which (like so many things, again by our standards) are regulated and deregulated in an odd mix. The houses may look as if they reproduce asexually, limiting variation, but remember that in Austria where prostitution is legal. It seems an anathema to their whole system, but it works. In a different vein, riders take gear and licensing very seriously, but the biggest rule for riders on the road is If you can do it, you can do it.
|Up top, you can still get fine dining with one hell of a view.|
That rule might not jive entirely with the law, but often enough – particularly with motorcycles – that's the way it goes. Quite often as we wheeled toward the tiny burg of Pill, clusters of 2 or three bikes came from behind, and sometimes with as little as a two-second gap, they shot ahead like diving falcons. Our trip, however, was built for gawking and overcoming a Midwestern fear of heights, so we let this happen without any fuss, muss, or rev of exasperation.
|Bodensee, the Alps|
The quaint grew as we climbed, became exaggerated – (if it wasn't already) flourishes occurred. Stove-length wood was stacked in perfect rows next to houses. Wildflowers graced the hills with yellow and purple, a treat, I suppose, for the cattle -- which was surreal in its own right. On the hills, cows grazed, and clanked with (I'm not even lying) bells.
Then, the curves tightened so that mirrors became necessary across from the apexes of most corners - where we held our breaths at every one (Midwesterners, remember) while the natives passed us, fearlessly, flogging their four cylinders from their seats or saddles for all they were worth. We, on the other hand, were only able to pass trunk-thighed bicyclists, if only just barely.
We climbed and gawked. We drank in the road, and wondered what life would be like in the Alps in winter. What it would be like to wake to a view of highway in the valley - the A12/E45 - and see people packed in cars headed to their lives (or what they called life) far from where they lived. We climbed until we felt overwhelmed... by the roads, and country, and scenery of unspeakable beauty – and then, eventually, unfortunately, we met the end of that particular road, but not disappointed by what we found. A kind of top-of-the-world B&B with the world's best (there are a lot of "world's best," I think) view. Amazing. And the people? Just as amazing. So, yeah. Maybe I wasn't bonkers to get on the road, but Austrian Alps changed my mind, they made it into my book, or onto the ever-expanding 'short list,' because as we sat at that little B&B at the top of the world, I realized that this was just just one of many curving ribbons cut into the countryside, and that put me in my place.