The Road Less Travelled
While hiking in the west of Austria, German Author and TV host Manuel Andrack discovers how engaging with nature has the power to bring us back to our senses and back to ourselves.
Author: Manuel Andrack
My pulse is racing and my heart is in my throat. I’ve got the proverbial butterflies in my stomach and a sense of euphoria coursing through my veins. Am I meeting with someone? A rendezvous with a secret lover or a blind date? In a manner of speaking, yes, because I’m going for a hike in the Bregenzerwald. I’m not only going to write about the physical experience of a walk (what I see, and the surroundings), I’m going to write about how it affects me and how I feel when walking. My emotional journey – the good and the bad. Today I have a rendezvous with nature and a rendezvous with the Vorarlberg above Dornbirn. In that sense, it actually is a blind date because I’ve never hiked in this part of Austria before. I am feeling a huge sense of anticipation, which is what it’s all about.
After taking the bus from Dornbirn up to Schwarzenberg, I set off on my journey. Well, actually I don’t just set off. I stop and stare, transfixed by the superb backdrop of mountains and a panorama fit to bring you to your knees. The overwhelmingly beautiful vista, with the rising sun breaking through the clouds and mist wreathing the mountain tops, fills me with delight. This expanse of countryside uplifts my spirits and views like these are one of the many reasons that I enjoy hiking so much.
- Andrack's photo album © Österreich Werbung
The path takes me into a patch of wood which feels like a tunnel, with the low morning sun shining brightly at its end. I make my way down the yellow hiking trail. All around me cows in the fields graze, most of them wearing bells. As they stare at me with their trusting, placid eyes it brings a smile to my lips. Cattle have this effect on me; I’ve always found something quite comical about them.
I have to make a diversion at St Ilga’s chapel, as the path is blocked for forestry work. Usually I would just plough straight on regardless, but the noise of chainsaws and creaking, cracking trees makes it clear that it is better to be safe than sorry. I feel a sudden sense of frustration to have been knocked off course. However, the frustration soon gives way to creativity. I find that improvisation is a source of pure joy, especially when things work out well; frustration can turn to excitement. And it is very exciting to veer off the “yellow” path, down a narrow plank path that I discover. It is great fun and it speaks to the child in me. I feel like I’m in a giant adventure playground. I realise that this alternative route is probably much better than the one I had originally planned, and I start to feel happy again because it seems like the gods of hiking are smiling down on me.
A short time later, as I’m walking along a relatively wide roadway, I fall into hiking pace. At the moment my emotions are running in energy-saving mode, but my hard drive is revving and the brain is starting to tick. I’m turning over ideas for new projects in my head, mulling over and (I hope) solving personal problems.
Once again I go through my plan for today’s hiking in my head. Obviously it’s going to take in several huts - Lustenau hut, Bregenz hut, Hochälple hut – a vivid picture of everything I’m going to see forms in my mind’s eye. I will be guided by the signposts. Once again my feelings intensify – I revel in the fact that I won’t need to look at my map again until the end of the route, I can rely on the markings. It makes me incredibly happy, because I can relax. I can concentrate on myself and nature.
Of course there have, in the past, been occasions when, in poor weather and on poorly marked trails, I have felt very, very isolated in the forest and in the world: lost, abandoned. The Hansel and Gretel syndrome. At times like these primeval fears surface. Did Austrian psychoanalyst Freud go hiking, I wonder?
“The feelings of happiness continue to swell, I take a deep breath and my lungs are filled with fresh air.”Manuel Andrack © Manuel Andrack
The path down to the Lustenau hut is wildly romantic. Our view of nature is shaped by images such as the paintings of the Romantic era or the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales. So as the path winds its way down through an old stand of spruce, the slightly misty atmosphere causes these images to spring to mind. The signposts also lift my mood; the suggested timings are calculated for a pleasant hike, not a forced march. Although I’m not the world’s fastest walker, I’m much quicker than the stated times. I cover the supposed one and a quarter hours to the Lustenau hut in 50 minutes, which makes me feel like a king of hiking and as if I’m eight inches taller, which is an uplifting feeling. At the Lustenau hut, landlord Peter greets me casually and extends a warm welcome, telling me I’m part of the family. He tells me I’ve made it there first. I’m on cloud nine and feel like someone who has climbed a mountain for the first time. Unfortunately I have to set off again, but not before I’ve finished my sweet, poison-green woodruff lemonade.
I pass the Bregenz hut and take the narrow paths from there, feeling utterly relaxed. The red and white striped (Austrian flag) signs glow at me from trees dotted along the edge of the path. I take a childish pleasure in touching a shiny sign on a tree. Stroking it feels like a very sensuous and sensory experience. Shortly afterwards I see a feast for the eyes and treat for the feet: steps cut into a fallen tree trunk. This is yet another part of the gigantic adventure playground that is the Vorarlberg. In the woods I become a child again, who wants to know what is around every corner and who explores the (hiking) world with a sense of wonder.
In the Bregenzerwald
- Andrack's photo album © Österreich Werbung
Another emotion surfaces on the last few kilometres of my tour – annoyance. I’m irritated by my lack of equipment. I should have put on my hiking socks for the walk and not the thin, ultra-short cotton socks that become soaked the moment I miss my footing. Oh, and speaking of missing my footing, sticks would not have been a bad idea on the way up to the Hochälple hut. I am annoyed with myself, but I have to get this out of my system which I can, and do, by hiking it off. I could have saved myself the route up to the Hochälple hut too; there was nothing to see from the top because of a bank of mist, and the hut itself was still closed. On the descent from the Hochälple I’m still feeling a bit miserable because I’ve been denied my reward of a beer. But my anticipation rises as I decide to take the fastest route back to Peter, my friend at the Lustenau hut. There I will be able to enjoy the dish of the day: beef goulash with bread dumplings.
Stopping off at a hut can trigger strong emotions, and I’m a great fan of the gastronomical delights. Feasting is followed by more nature. I stop for a few minutes on some heathland with a view of Dornbirn and the Rhine plain and take in the peace and forest noises. I listen to my innermost being. The feelings of happiness continue to swell. I take a deep breath and my lungs are filled with fresh air. It might sound obvious, but hiking has the advantage of being outdoors and that’s a place where you can never get enough fresh air.
I end my hike in Bödele and ponder my walk today and hiking in general. The feeling when standing in the mountains, above the clouds, is incomparable. It strikes me that just a short hike – today was five hours – can put you in a great mood. You don’t need to complete a marathon (hike), nor do you need to cross the Alps, to immerse yourself in sensations. My emotions on today’s hike were orchestrated by nature, and the piece was called “The sheer joy of hiking”.
Ossiacher See © Kärnten Werbung / Franz Gerdl
View of Grossglockner - the highest mountain in Austria. © Österreich Werbung / Peter Podpera
Gerlitzen © Kärnten Werbung / Franz Gerdl