It was Wednesday October 3 when I awoke in the chilly male bunkroom of the youth hostel in Chur. I was the only one still in the bunkroom, not wanting to surrender yesterday by getting up and facing today. Ensconced in my toasty sleeping bag, my consciousness was still processing the profound events of the past couple days: the tears, the fears, but mostly the joys. By the time I finally exited my cocoon to acknowledge that yes, life goes on, I was the only one left in the bunkroom.
I put on my clothes, and debated trying to wear my hiking boots again. But since I was doing so well in my heels, and there didn’t seem to be a sign of rain that might mess them up, I’d wear them again instead. For the third day in a row I decided not to take a cold shower, and used a wet slightly soapy washcloth on some key body parts instead. I entered the main room, and as I figured, my erstwhile travel partner Jack, and my more recent comrades, David, Bublil, Peter and particularly Ashild, had already departed.
I ate my stash of Granola and yogurt, the latter having stayed nicely cool in the unheated dormitory room, and pondered the state of my heart and my soul. I thought of Ashild, who with her calm and caring demeanor, her good energy, had made the effort to really connect with me. She had even asked to and written thoughtful words in my journal, like she really cared about me and wanted me to remember her. We had shared moments of real intimacy together, walking back from the tavern together two nights ago, and with her big soft warm rear end on my lap yesterday, neither of us uncomfortable touching in that way.
It struck me that the connection between us had had a spark of sexual energy to it. People talked about “sexual tension”, but there was nothing tense about it in our case. We relaxed and dropped our guard around each other. We didn’t want to possess or consume the other, just be our true selves with each other. We got metaphorically naked with each other, if not physically so. I realized that was how I wanted it to work when someday I got sexually intimate with someone. I wanted it to be both letting down your guard and taking down your pants. Not just that rush of shared lust leading to grappling bodies fucking each other before they thought better of it. And thinking about all my female peers over the years, my best relationships with them all had that spark of sexual energy, of naked intimacy to them. I was happy to just have that spark. Some of them figured I must have wanted it to be overtly sexual, and they made the signals they were open to that, and I would freak out and back off and they would be confused and even hurt. But even the ones that were not available or really interested in having a sexual relationship, still I would have that spark with them.
The hostel around me seemed transformed by my comrades absence, no longer feeling like my temporary sanctuary, just a place with a sad memory of a brief happy time that no longer was. It was the same sense of loss I had come to feel after each of the twenty some theater productions I had been involved in over the previous four years. The connections forged during each production, relationships built around a particular collaborative contribution to that undertaking, would never be quite the same after. In this case, I would most likely never see these people again. There was no savoring a moment passed. I felt compelled to leave, to move forward in search of another opportunity to encounter and connect with others, in the course of this odyssey that I must allow to run its course, exhaust its budget, before I could proudly go home, the triumphant world traveler.
I returned to the bunkroom where my red, metal-framed Kelty backpack, my one enduring comrade through all my experience to date, sat propped up at the end of my now former sleeping place. I sorted and stuffed the various components of my kit into their spaces within the sections and subdivisions of the nylon bag. My three changes of clothing, second pair of shoes stuffed with socks to save space, toiletries, first aid kit, food, metal combo knife/spoon/fork/bottle & can opener, water bottles, maps and youth hostel guide, rolled up and yet to be used tube tent, poncho, knit cap, sunglasses, journals, and other stuff. With my sleeping bag bungied to the aluminum frame below, it all added up to just over fifty pounds (about 23 kilos if I was thinking like a European). In my jeans pocket went my “petty cash” bills and coins, my small compass and my latest Swiss Army knife (having lost one already). The bulk of my money in American Express travelers checks and my crucial documents – passport, rail pass, international student ID card, driver’s license, youth hostel card, list of phone numbers and addresses – fit into the thin nylon money belt that I wore around my waist day and night, only taking it off to take the occasional (for me not for three days since I left Munich) shower.
I thanked the hostel owners for their hospitality, asked for directions out to the main highway, shouldered my heavy pack, and headed out the door and down the now familiar one-way road, where I had weathered my encounter with the police, pondered the abyss of incarceration or worse, and gotten my comrades safely home that previous night, only to say goodbye to them. A Beatles’ song, as they often did, fired up on my mind’s jukebox, from that amazing sequence of strung together songs and song fragments from their Abbey Road album. In this case the sequence of “Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End”, with bits of the evocative lyrics triggered by my situation…
Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home
Sleep pretty darling do not cry
and I will sing a lullaby
Boy, you’re going to carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time
Concluding with wisdom that haunted me…
And in the end,
the love you take,
is equal to the love you make
At least I was carrying the non-metaphorical component of that weight downhill at the moment! Maybe three miles total down and through cozy little Chur for one last time and out to the main route south. On the way I found a store and bought a pair of leather fleece lined gloves, an important logistical milestone. Hitchhiking… let’s do this!
I waited a long time by the highway outside of town on a chilly but sunny morning. I was grateful for the sun, particularly on this day that I planned to be hitchhiking and so I did not want it to rain. The traffic was light, and the cars and trucks that zipped by seemed unfazed by my protruding, thankfully gloved, thumb. I was truly on my own again, about to “hitchhike across the Alps”, as I had written in my latest postcard to my mom. Having consulted my now familiar Western Europe map, it was about ten kilometers down this highway from Chur to the south along the Rhine river and then west across the middle of Switzerland through its iconic mountains, to Geneva. There I figured I could best catch a train back to Munich to try again to hook up with Angelica and Helmet. My goal for the day was to make it roughly halfway, to Andermatt, a small town just big enough to appear on my map, about halfway between Chur and Geneva.
Since I had started hitchhiking the previous fall, the ninety miles back from college in Kalamazoo Michigan to my hometown in Ann Arbor, that day was the first time that it was a woman who finally pulled over and offered me a ride. She was dressed casually and probably in her forties. She spoke some English and after a brief quiet moment as she started down the road again she began to interrogate me with questions in a friendly sort of way. Feeling alone, though not unhappily so at the moment, I really opened up and spilled out my Europe trip story and eventually highlights of my whole life’s story. She listened attentively, nodding at all the right places while she kept her eyes on the road, and then began to respond by sharing some of her own story.
Her name was Genevieve, and she wove her narrative of being married and a mom with four kids all younger than I was. Her husband was an executive for a big European company and currently out of the country on one of his frequent long business trips. She definitely was part of that cohort of my aunt Pat’s generation, the cohort of my mentors, which included the head of my YTU theater group Robert and such key voices of my “Greek Chorus” as Paul Simon and John Lennon. They all spoke to me with what I felt was great insight and wisdom.
There is something about being alone, especially when you’re a traveler in a foreign place, and encountering someone else who is also alone, at least for your encounter. If there is a basic trust established and some indication of shared values or worldview, a fairly deep connection can be made fairly quickly. If I had been traveling with Angie or Jack, or she had been in the car with her husband or kids, neither of us might have been as forthcoming. It somehow would not have been appropriate to share so deeply with a stranger in front of one’s regular companions, like you were being unfaithful to them somehow.
It again struck me, it was that little sexual spark at play. She was married, double my age, but we could still have that little bit of spark between us. She was one of those people that enjoyed dropping her guard if the person she was with, even a stranger like me, made all the right signals that they respected who she was, would not judge or take advantage of her, and was truly interested to hear her story. As long as no one explicitly acknowledged that spark, and it was thoughtfully modulated by both of us, then we could get metaphorically naked and conversationally pleasure ourselves in front of and by means of the other. She would reveal something, I would make a knowing remark acknowledging and appreciating a bit of her metaphorical nakedness, thus a moment of shared intimacy. Then I would reveal something of myself and let her enjoy and comment, and then I would enjoy her comment but not let the feedback loop get cycling too hot. In and out we’d go. No consummation, no final “orgasm”, just stimulating “foreplay”.
She dropped her guard, disrobed her psyche a bit, and said she missed her husband when he was away so much. I nodded and thought for a moment, properly acknowledging and respecting her revelation. Only then I would respond, letting down my own guard, getting a bit metaphorically naked, saying that I missed my travel partner Angie. She would sigh, then a bit boldly inquire if Angie had been my girlfriend. I would sigh and reveal, say well, not really, just a friend, but I had hoped that maybe something would come of our travels together. She would make a sad face and nod. It was all verbal and nonverbal cues, it respected boundaries, but it was intimate and had that delicious little spark dancing between us. Then one of us would break the spell before it got too strong by commenting on say something we saw out the window. In and out.
Genevieve said she lived close by, and as the hour was now close to Noon, she asked if I would like to join her and her kids for lunch at her house. I was so touched by her offer, her sharing of her life, her house and her table with a traveler, and though it might limit my ability to get across the mountains that day, I felt compelled to accept. She drove me to her beautiful house in the little village of Reichenau, up on a hill overlooking the coming together of two headwaters of the Rhine river, after which it continues north, spreading into the Bodensee then west forming the border between Switzerland, Germany and France.
While she worked on getting food ready in the kitchen, I sat at their dining room table with her four kids, a teenage daughter and her three younger brothers. The daughter and her oldest brother engaged me in conversation, curious like their mom about what brought me to travel through Europe and what it was like where I lived in the States. Her younger brothers listened and did their best to cobble together a question or two in my language as well, like how heavy my backpack was. I tried to answer all their questions enthusiastically with simple words that they might understand. The lasagna she served was delicious, and I ate it feeling like an honorary if temporary member of the family.
After eating and continued conversation, she offered and took me farther down the road west to the nearby town of Llanz, where she felt I would have better luck catching a ride west across the mountains. In just a short span of several hours I had bonded with her and her kids so much that I was already feeling that sense of loss again. But I was beginning to feel a certain level of growing confidence that the universe would somehow provide for me. I just needed to put out my thumb and be patient.
It was a long wait until a young Swiss guy pulled over and offered me a ride a few more kilometers up the road to the next little town. Not much of a lift, and possibly problematic if I got stuck somewhere when it got dark without accessible inexpensive lodging. But the hitchhiker’s etiquette is not to refuse a ride, any ride, so I accepted with as much gratefulness as I could muster. After he dropped me off, another long wait there, and I was beginning to worry about losing my light before getting somewhere I could find a place to stay. But I was finally picked up by a middle-aged American woman and her young adult daughter driving to Andermatt, about 60 kilometers down the road. I did not have a watch, but given that it was late afternoon, and the sun went down earlier behind the mountains, I quickly decided and announced to them that that was my destination for the day as well. They shared with me that the daughter had been living in Berlin and her mom had flown over from Seattle to join her and now travel around.
As we approached Andermatt from the east, the two-lane highway became a series of switchbacks winding up into a high mountain pass with the little town in the valley on the other side. It was a ski resort town with a population of maybe 1500 but also 1000 beds for guests in little hotels, zimmers and pensions, with this being the off season. I noted it actually had a train station, and since my rail pass was good starting the next morning, I figured I might not need to spend another day hitchhiking.
The three of us easily found a reasonably priced “zimmer”, a German word for room or chamber and generally a private house with bedrooms to rent for the night, the two of them in one and I in my own. We decided to share an impromptu dinner together with the cold meat they were carrying plus a loaf of bread I bought at a small bakery in town. We sat in our host’s main room, talking about our lives and our travels late into the evening, again the universe providing me with an opportunity for conversation and camaraderie which I seized for all it was worth. It was after midnight before we said goodnight and retired to our rooms.
Mine was a cozy little bedroom with a view of the mountains between the adjacent buildings. The bed had what looked like a huge floppy feather pillow that covered the whole bed, and was in fact a thick comforter used to cover you and keep you warm. It was a cold night and I was happy to snuggle myself under it, and rather than being consumed by loneliness, I felt instead the bounty of the universe that I had sensed earlier.
In the morning I said goodbye to mom and daughter, wished them well on their journeys, and very theatrically hoisted my heavy backpack on my back, again playing the self-sufficient and unflappable world traveler, for their consumption at least. If I could not yet truly be that person I wanted to be, at least I could pretend for others who I left behind and would have no further opportunity to divine the real truth. One final too casual wave of the hand and I set off for the train station just across town. I was eager actually, to try out my rail pass, which I had only realized last night went into effect today, and find my way back to Munich to hopefully now hook up with Angelica and Helmet. Having learned by now not to buy the pricey food in train stations, I bought my new favorite breakfast of yogurt and granola in a little grocery store and ate it in the cute little pocket station waiting for the train.
I quickly learned how totally cool my rail pass was. I did not have to wait in any ticket lines or get a ticket at all, but could simply board any train, and show my pass to the conductor when he came by asking for tickets. As long as I wasn’t sitting in a first class compartment I was good to go. For the next two months all the trains of Western Europe would be at my unlimited disposal. It felt like I had suddenly had this great power bestowed on me to go anywhere I wanted, except home of course. Between hitching and the pass, I figured I could get just about anywhere at no additional cost, ever concerned as I was about my budget!
Based on the schedule board at the Andermatt station, the next train due in that morning was headed north to Zurich. From there I figured I would find a train to Munich. Like most of the train rides I took throughout Switzerland it was a picturesque ramble around and occasionally through mountains, across deep gorge spanning bridges, and through high alpine or lower elevation river valleys. Three hours later I stepped off the train in the much bigger Zurich station.
Liberated from the ticket lines by my pass, I had also liberated myself from encountering the occasional helpful ticket agent who perhaps spoke enough English to help me navigate the extensive and complicated European rail network. So instead of waiting in often long lines to maybe get (though possibly not) an agent that spoke some English, I did my best to read the train “Abfahrt” (departure) board and consult the rail network map I had brought with me along with such rail network map I found posted on the station walls. I loved the way the electro-mechanical board would reset itself every couple minutes, all the character positions in each row spinning and clicking through all the possible numbers and letters like slot machines and finally constructing character by character a new destination, departure or arrival time. Based on the various information displays I consulted, it looked like there was a train leaving shortly headed east to Innsbruck Austria and from their change to Munich. Lacking any additional consultation with perhaps a helpful human, I jauntily found and boarded my train.
What I was yet to learn about European trains was the fact that in many of the larger long-haul trains certain cars in the train, most Europeans that spoke Enlish called them “coaches”, went to a particular city but others did not. In major stations, coaches would at times be detached from train A and attached to train B to get to destination C. You might be on a train going to Innsbruck, but the coach you were on was going to a different destination. An on the ball conductor would make the effort of notifying riders, based on their destination, what coaches they should be on. But me with my rail pass, rather than a ticket with an explicit destination, sometimes the conductors would not ask my destination or I would forget to share it with them. I learned this the hard way some six hours after departing Zurich when the coach I was on did not pull out of a station stop with the rest of the train to Innsbruck. Ironically I was back in Chur where I had been two days before.
Now into the evening, I found a train leaving in an hour or so north to Lindau just over the border of Germany. From their it looked like there was a direct train to Munich. I exited the station make my grocery run. It felt strange to be briefly back in Chur where I had just made such memories of connecting with fellow travelers and navigating my traumatic encounter with the local police. But soon I was on my train again, headed north along the Rhine river valley back towards Germany.
When I finally debarked from my train in Lindau, a quick look at the “Abfahrt” board told me it was now 8pm and the next train to Munich was not until 9am the next morning! There was no youth hostel in town and I was tired from my long day of riding the rails and the thought of spending the night in the train station did not appeal to me in the least. But what I did notice was there was still the counterpart train coming from Munich to Bern stopping here in Lindau shortly. With my pass, thus ticket costs not a factor, I could ride that train to Bern, and then back through Lindau in the morning and on to Munich. Better to overnight on a moving train than in a dreary train station! I would later learn from some of my fellow travelers with rail passes, that this was a standard trick when all else failed. Using long back and forth train rides as an impromptu overnight lodging of sorts. With luck, finding any empty bench in a compartment was a place to stretch out and sleep if you were lucky enough to find one, or at worst a single seat to close your eyes and maybe semi-sleep sitting up. So after crossing Switzerland’s mountains, through mountain tunnels, across gorge spanning bridges and through its valleys all day, I was going to do it again, twice even, until I would pass back through Lindau tomorrow morning around 9am on my way finally to Munich.
Before my train to Bern departed, I called Angelica and Helmet’s number, and was so gratified to hear Angelica’s voice answer on the other end. Her English was somewhat limited and it was a confused conversation. I managed to explain to her my situation and that I should be on the train from Bern tomorrow getting into Munich after lunch. She managed to convey that she and Helmet would pick me up at the train station when I got in before my phone ran out of money and cut me off.
Now dog tired and thoroughly frazzled, I boarded the first leg of my overnight train odyssey/lodging. Unfortunately for my plan, the train was fairly crowded, It had originated in Munich and had accumulated a lot of passengers by the time it got to Lindau. So as I walked the narrow hallway along the second class compartments looking for one with untaken seats to maybe sleep in, I found none. In the process I did encounter some other American guys my age, also with their backpacks, also headed for Bern. I joined them in their compartment, the four of them and I and all our big frame packs, our long hair, and our instant comradery as fellow “freak flag” travelers.
As our train snaked its way through the now dark mountainous country outside the train window, we talked for an hour or two, talking “shop” mostly, about all the aspects of backpacker travel through these realms. Hitchhiking, riding trains, hostels, cheap food and activities, and so on. I learned from them that there were big boats you could ride up and down the Rhine and Moselle rivers between Mainz, Coblenz and Trier, for not much money. Finally, the rush of adrenaline from sharing with members of my cohort having subsided, I mostly dozed off until we got to Bern.
When we got off in Bern we had several hours to kill before our respective departing trains, including mine back the way we came and on to Munich. We decided to go down into the lower level of the big Bern station and look for a place to rest for the interval, and found an obvious area in the corner where others were doing the same. It was a mix of young backpackers like us, some middle aged European men, and a few older men, who for lack of a shave, looked like they might be homeless.
We got to know one of the homeless guys, Karl, who had pursued us at first asking if we needed help finding a place to sleep or something to eat. We shared with him our situation and some of the remnants of food we had in our various packs, as we sat on the rubber mat floor and joked about our “accommodations”. He asked us If we wanted beer, and we all acknowledged that that would be wonderful, but of course figured it was impossible at two in the morning. Karl said he would get us some and he took off and said he would return soon. We looked at each other and laughed at the thought that this “bum” was going to find and be able to purchase beer in the middle of the night and then share it with us!
But a half hour later we all went crazy when he reappeared carrying a bag full of six or seven bottles of beer. I noted to myself at least that it was sad that it took all that to get us to really be friendly with him, all of us kind of shining him on because we judged him to be homeless. Sharing the beers got us going and the conversation with Karl and us backpacker types ranged on all subjects for the next couple hours.
First it was music, a topic on which everyone had a lot to say, but no consensus was found. He shared with us the American singers he liked: Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, some women singers we had never heard of, and which he was shocked we hadn’t. We shared with him the iconic musicians from our own generation’s musical pantheon, including The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, etc. He kind of grudgingly acknowledged our preferences, as if he thought we were slaves to the current fashion, rather rather than real music lovers.
Then we talked politics. Looking at all our white WASPy faces perhaps, he shared with us that a big problem with the world, still today, was the Jews. He thought that Hitler had been the only leader bold enough to have the real answer. We were shocked and stunned into silence, casting furtive looks at each other as if to say, “Oh my god this guy is a Nazi!”
Noting our body language and non-verbalized recoil, he tried his best to recover by lauding Americans as some sort of saviors of the world. He noted with irony that we won World War II only to lose the post-war world by not having Patton invade Eastern Europe before the Russians did so. He loved Patton and was pleased when I said my dad served in his army during the last year of the war. He also said categorically that he felt there was no hope for the world, no hope for “good people”, putting himself and us in that category.
Too chicken given the circumstances, and given the basic protocol of not offending one’s “host” (who provided the free beer), I did scramble up the courage to say emphatically that I did feel there was hope for the world, that our generation was profoundly different than our parents and we had a vision to change things once we were in power. He smiled and said that I was saying that only because I was still young. The discussion went back and forth for more than an hour, with my comrades finally joining in to try to help me defend this idealistic position as best we could. Even though I figured we were not going to change his rooted mind, I wanted him to at least know there were some people out there who had not given up and were fighting for hope and change and a better world. People who were not secretly on Hitler’s side. Then finally the announcement on the public address that the train to Munich was boarding.
Now wielding my laminated plastic card that told any conductor in Western Europe that I could ride their train for no additional charge, I was quickly learning the axioms of “rail travel 101”. One was of course, don’t buy food in train stations or on the train, it could cost at least twice as much as buying it at a store outside the station. This of course took some planning ahead, but hey, that’s what you do to stick to the six dollar a day budget. Another, on display here in Bern, was that if you boarded a train at its start point, particularly if there wasn’t a crush of passengers, you could have your pick of seats. In this case I could lay claim to an entire bench seat for sleeping, at least until newly boarding passengers came into my compartment and cajoled or shamed me into surrendering two of the three seats I was “bogarting”, to use the dope smoking lingo, which many of us hippiesque backpacker types used. Yet another was to tell the conductor what your destination was, so he could assist you with not ending up on a train car that would be switched onto another train and not end up at that destination.
Following that last axiom paid off in this case. When the conductor came by asking for tickets and I showed him my rail pass, I told him I was riding the train through to Munich. Good thing, because after that encounter, a big noisy family had decided to share my compartment and I had moved to another coach where I found a compartment in another train car with a free bench seat so I could continue to sleep horizontally, rather than struggle to sleep vertically, which had been the whole point of taking this long back and forth overnight journey in the first place.
I was way past tired now, but our disturbing conversation with Karl the recalcitrant Nazi had my mind percolating. I pondered war and peace and the world situation going forward, particularly the brewing troubles in the Middle East, and whether I and my generational comrades could really make any difference. Were my own radical ideas simply the naive posturing of some sort of dilettante overgrown kid? Was there really hope for the world? I decided I was going to keep behaving as if the latter were the case!
In a light sleep when the train finally got into Lindau the conductor was on the ball enough, as well as nice enough, to wake me and give me a heads up I was in a coach that would not be going on to Munich. I thanked him profusely, shouldered my pack and staggered sleepily forward to a train car that was headed to my destination, though not finding a compartment empty enough where I could stretch out. Sitting in an upright position sharing that side of the compartment with someone else, I managed to go back into a half sleep until finally the light of the new day illuminated the coach and the picturesque Bavarian countryside we were traversing and beckoned my mind to open still tired eyes and peer out.
Though technically awake, eyes open and looking out at the weekday world going by, it was still a jolt into full consciousness when the conductor rattled open the compartment door to announce “Munchen!” When I finally staggered off the train, I had spent most of the last thirty hours crisscrossing Switzerland by rail. On the platform, I noticed a short perky woman smiling and waving at me next to a taller and more reserved, but also smiling man. Their faces clicked with my memory of three years ago, it was Angelica and Helmet. I gave them a sort of subdued wave back and walked towards them and did my best to smile, in my current trance state certainly happy to not be on my own for at least the next few days.