The view from the ever-scenic Isarco River Valley from the bike path.
On the Bikes  (Italy & Austria; July & August 2014)  
Sweet Memories
Whoosh! After a month of exploring several small corners of northern Italy on our feet, 3 of the weeks being spent in the mountains, we dropped almost 3,000' on steep, narrow roads to meet the floor of the Isarco river valley on our bikes.  What a rush to rein-in our heavy steeds going 25 mph on our first  loaded cycling day in 9 months. (Love those disc brakes!) 

Usually we struggle up to a pass on Day #1 but this year our first pass would be on the 3rd day when we crested the moderate elevation Brenner Pass. There we would leave Italy in mid-July for almost 2 months, spending much of our remaining summer abroad in the Austrian Alps.

We were treated to a lovely day on our first day riding day--one of a handful of beautiful days in the summer of 2014. The dramatic descent and then peddling on a favorite bike path up the deep, narrow valley along the Isarco river under the too-warm sun triggered a flood of delightful memories. The welcome bright skies held through the next riding day, a harder route with challenging grades on which we discovered the new found power and endurance in our biking legs. We now understood that that extra power was one of a string of unfolding benefits from our recent switch to an ultra-low carb, ketogenic diet. 

Hiking on a knife-edge ridge trail at Vipiteno, IT.
It was on that 2nd riding day when I encountered an especially sweet memory trigger in Vipiteno/Sterzing,  Italy, which was the sight of the hotel where I saw my first televised mountain run.  We had entered that hotel's lobby soggy and dripping from hours in harsh weather. Once in our small, under-the-eve room, I immediately checked the TV for English news to distract us from our misery while we dealt with our wet gear and unpacked for the night. In hindsight, finding the mountain run on an Austrian station was far more timely for us than had I found an English news channel. That was back in 2009, our first year of dabbling with barefoot hiking.

With a little subsequent online searching of mountain running, I learned that the technic of forefoot striking that we were committed to mastering as bare footers or minimalist shoe hikers was also the remedy for upper leg injuries common in mountain runners. We'd given up running years ago because of injuries and had no aspirations to become runners again but I was intrigued. I couldn't resist blurting out "I'm going to be a mountain runner" given I was suddenly reading so much of the mountain running technical literature. It was a joke in that moment.

We waited and waited in Berchtesgaden, Germany for the mountains to appear - peaks we never saw on our first visit years ago.
Seeing that hotel again and remembering viewing the televised run provided a satisfying bit of closure given that we'd just participated in our first mountain run a few days earlier. I am careful to say "participated" because we only ran about 45 minutes of the 9 mile, all-uphill, course but, as planned, that was enough running to bring us in under the 2:30' cut-off. The joke had become reality and I was delighted to again see Ground Zero for our mountain running career 5 years later.

And The Not So Sweet
The first few lovely days on the bikes were but a brief reprieve from the previous 3 weeks of non-summer weather. Hiking the high trails in the Dolomites had been out this early summer because of the lingering heavy winter snowpack that was occasionally being refreshed by July storms. Via ferrata hiking trails were mostly no-goes too because if it wasn't the snow deflecting us, it was the all-day rain and frequent thunderstorms that kept us on lower routes.  

We faired no better in the Austrian and then German Alps where the still wildly unpredictable weather had the locals advising us to be cautious about venturing to the higher trails and klettersteigs (German for vie ferratas). We managed to slip in 1 via ferrata in the Dolomites and another in Germany but largely had to literally lower our sights and shorten our outings for the entire summer.

At last! Berchtesgaden's peaks revealed.
By the end of July, Bill's 8 night stay in Berchtesgaden, Germany was looking like a bust for all the hiking he had planned because of the relentless 'unsettled' weather.  Almost half way into our holiday, we reframed our journey from being 'a summer of hiking and biking in the Alps' to 'a summer in the Alps'. It was much harder to complain about 'a summer in Europe.' The next step was to remind ourselves just why it was worth it to us to be there on almost any terms. 

Indulging in the unique sporting opportunities, particularly hiking and biking with grand views, is what brings us back to the Alps each summer. But when the sporting venues are less available like they were in 2014, we are still delighted to be in Europe, particularly in the Alps.

I still marvel at how much more interesting mundane chores, like almost daily walks to the market, are in the European mountains than at home. The history and 'in your face' agrarian focus are part of it: hand cut pastureland occasionally flows almost to main street and there are often cows, pigs, or chickens in our neighborhood. We are always startled to see village sawmill roads that have sometimes evolved into long distance bike paths and usually employ highly labor-intensive technology that must have been obsolete in the 50’s at home.  

But at the heart of our pleasure of being in European villages is the human scale of them. These human-scale villages are scattered all over Europe, not just in the mountains, but are more frequently seen at the higher elevations.

A one-way boat tour to our trailhead for the day.
My pleasure in walking, biking, and staring out the window when in the alpine villages is reminiscent of my childhood delight when looking at a complicated miniature train layout in a hotel lobby at Christmas--it's something that can still captivate me every time, even as an adult. Like the villages we visit, those layouts drew me in: they were small enough to comprehend, they rewarded the mind with unexpected detail, and deepened my sense of earlier times.

The Potency of License Plates
The forced shift in my reference point is one of the consequences of foreign travel that I love and I never quite know when it will pack a punch. World events that are a long way away when we are on the west coast of the US aren't as remote when we are in Europe, which was underscored while indulging in my compulsion of looking at licenses plates while biking this summer.  Usually the insights from reading plates are limited to noting when we are in an area where the majority of cars are those of out-of-the-country guests vs being near destinations that primarily attract domestic travelers.

But this summer's license plate reading had more potent geopolitical overtones for me than previous years. It was the frequent sighting of the usual droves of Dutch cars and the rare Russian car that triggered a cascade of wonderings in my mind. Hours of English TV station news coverage per day were devoted to the downing of MH17 in Ukraine  and every plate on the road with "NL" in the country of origin box triggered a wave of sadness in me. 

With each spotting of a "Nether's" (as we affectionately call them) plate, I would flashback to the long procession of hearses taking bodies from the Dutch airport to their forensic labs; to the footage of the crash site frequented by journalists but off-limits to investigators for almost 2 weeks; and to the personal stories of the victims we heard over and over again. We were kept abreast of the growing rows of bouquets at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam on almost a daily basis and I wondered what vestiges of the impromptu memorial would be there when we boarded our plane for home in early September.

The sighting of rare Russian license plates was surprisingly jolting. I wondered how the car owners felt begin in Europe during the escalating violence in Ukraine. I wondered if the people in the local hospitality industry flinched as I did with their presence or if the hosts were free of that baggage. I wondered if the guests felt uncomfortably conspicuous as Russians in Europe like we have felt being Americans in Europe during controversial times.

Since we became overseas travelers in 2001, the Alps have been discovered by the Russians. For the last several years we've been apprised of the percentage of Russian ski-season guests at our tourist apartment building in the Dolomites by the housekeeper. The economic crisis that began in 2007/8 triggered a 'vacation at home' policy among the usual German and Austrian guests and the Russians have slowly filled the now-permanent void the German speakers created. 

We were informed by the Selva housekeeper that the occupancy in our building over the winter of 2013/2014 had been essentially 100% Russian for the entire season. And tellingly, Russian is the new housekeeper's first or second language (out of what must be at least 5 languages at her command.) The owner commented "I'm so lucky to have her" and shared that she had recently taken a Russian language course.

And even before the downing of MH17, the aggression in Ukraine this summer had me wondering about a license plate I didn't see in Selva, IT this year. For 4 years or so, every day that we walked by a particular large, 4 + star hotel catering to families with preschoolers, we'd see a large dark blue van with Ukrainian license plates. I never saw the owner, but had generated my own story about him/her/a couple being multi-lingual and being involved in the hotel's busy activity and outing schedule for the children. The blue van, always there and always parked in the same place, was a curious but comforting fixture for me,  just like the flower boxes and trail signs, but this year it was gone and no car was in its place.

Was it chance? Did the absence of the van represent a better job offer in a better place? Or was its absence this year because of the strife at home? The conversations with our Russian-speaking, Moldovan housekeeper and second hand reports from her tense-looking Ukrainian roommate tipped the balance towards thinking that the van's absence was a bad sign for the owners.

The potency of proximity shouldn't be surprising to me, but it still is. Even though Ukraine is far from my sphere of experience, our link with the avid cyclotouring Dutch and their airport as well as being quite aware of the increasing number of Russian tourists in our Alps tromping grounds, made the unfolding story in Ukraine riveting. It was interesting to juxtapose my engagement with that crisis compared with the simultaneous ratcheting up of the equally well-covered conflict in Gaza. The war in Gaza was directly affecting many more people than the drama in Ukraine and likely had more global significance in the long run, but it was too far away with too few triggers to occupy as much of my mind on any given day compared with the events in Ukraine.

We nervously watched the rising river--our pink hotel is on the left.
Having been tourists in 3 North African countries shortly before the Arab Spring dramatically changed our experience of those uprisings and heightened our interest in the long-term journeys of those cultures. And having visited Turkey twice has made us far more interested in subsequent events there. No doubt Ukraine will be added to our list of countries that we follow more closely in the future because of having even the thinnest of emotional ties to it during the MH17 disaster that was amplified through our the link with the Dutch.

"Rain, rain, go away….."
Incredibly, the weather got worse as we sloshed our way into August. Our many hosts were quick to tell us that "There were 28 rain days in July" though we never heard the tally for August.

There was a disappointing transition from days that had terrible forecasts that didn't turn out all that bad to one with flood warnings. We'd narrowly escaped from Czech Republic into eastern Germany during the devastating central European flood of 2002 and this year when in Berchtesgaden, Germany we watched the river rise from our hotel room window. Enough circumstances were different from 12 years ago that we didn't feel the need to evacuate but we still closely monitored the river. 

A 3rd soggy cyclotourist puts his bike on a train car for the short ride through the train-only tunnel.
We frequently reminded ourselves that the summer had been disappointing but not miserable. Temperatures had been on the cool side but not cold and generally the winds were light.  We were only out in downpours on our bikes twice, with the worst one being at the end of the riding day. On that day we were close enough to town to be able to shelter for almost an hour under the eve of a closed building supply store.  It was longer than we usually sit out a storm but the lightning was right over head for too much of a half an hour.  And late one night in another town we were reminded that the consequences of the bad weather for some reached beyond flooded bike paths and sitting out thunderstorms.

Things That Go "Bump" In The Night
It wasn't thunder though thunderstorms were in the overnight forecast and it wasn't a train crash on the nearby "City Shuttle" tracks that woke me about 12:30 am, but what was it? I lay in bed wondering if I should jump up to escape impending doom or roll over and go back to sleep after hearing the loud, too-close rumble and crashing sounds downhill from us.  

It was a surprisingly calm scene at the site of the rockfall.
Bill had slept through the sounds of disaster; I waited in silence in the dark. I waited for a knock on our door from our apartment host or a 2nd, defining noise. And I waited some more.  After a lapse of perhaps 5 minutes I heard a siren in the distance. Was it summoning a volunteer fire crew or was it a coded warning to the small lakeside community--a warning that I didn't understand?

Looking out our uphill bedroom window, I could see that there was a single light on in the half dozen homes in view. Then I heard voices from the downhill side of our apartment, voices that sounded like they were coming from the balcony below us, probably from permanent residents that we hadn't met. 

Throwing on enough clothes to be decent but not sheltered from the rain, I leaned far over the railing between the boxes of red geraniums and asked in English "What's happened?" The middle-aged woman, who was already well into her cigarette, cobbled together enough English to communicate that there had been a rock fall. 

I saw several men in hiking shorts holding umbrellas milling in the street about 4 houses downhill from us on a curve. Their body affects reflected curiosity rather than an emergency, like there had been a fender bender out of sight around the corner. About a minute later a silent fire truck arrived and, with the aid of its headlights, I could barely detect evidence of debris on the wet pavement. I longed for binoculars for a sharper image of the scene and took a photo hoping zooming would reveal more detail. Clearly the only way to know if there was a threat to us was to go to the site and see for myself.

Rumors were that the owners might be forced to abandon the property.
The front door of our dark house was ajar, suggesting the owner was already on the scene. Even as I approached the fire truck, there were still no hurried sounds of a crisis. There hadn't been any screams or instructions shouted out--the only real noises had been the initial rock fall, then the far away siren, and now the fire truck's generator that was powering a pair of flood lights.

Arriving early, before the 2nd, wider cordon lines were strung, I could see that it likely had been a very close call for 1 or more people in the large, now harshly illuminated, house. The largest boulder had crashed through the roof into living space and landed on the front porch a bit forward of the entry point. 

Walking away from the scene and behind the fire truck I saw 2 ambulances. One was dark, the other had a single professional focused on a 30-ish woman sitting upright with her large dog. On the verge of tears, presumably from her near-death experience, she looked physically unharmed. A bit later both she and her dog were standing in the drizzle outside the ambulance and the woman was being stroked by friends or sisters. The next day I learned that she was 1 of 8 people who had been in the house at the time and she was the only one who sustained any injury.

For such a sudden, dramatic event, there was never much commotion in the aftermath. A dozen or so onlookers like me stared and chatted and a similar number of emergency staff milled about and that was it. I assumed that there wasn't any concern about a gas line explosion or fire and limited concern about a more extensive rock fall. Firemen eventually escorted a family of 3 out of the adjacent house and they looked like they had packed to spend the rest of the night elsewhere.

Our host later said the boulder was estimated to weigh 20 tons.
Our 3-storied house was still dark when I returned and the  front door was locked, which reassured me that the host also thought it was time to go back to bed. Too alert to sleep, I watched the scene from our balcony for another 10 minutes. During that time, the attention of the crews shifted from the people to clearing the pavement rubble so the 3 operable cars could be driven away. The 4th car that sat in the spot light, weighted down by rocks and splintered wood, clearly wouldn't be driving off the scene.

Back in bed, wondering how long it would take me to reconnect with the Sandman, I heard a backing-up beep that was likely the fire truck exiting the scene. That beeping registered in me as another "All Clear" signal, another sign that it was time to rest. Come morning we'd get a better look at the rock and survey the hillside adjacent to our house for baseless reassurance that we'd be safe for the rest of our stay even though heavy rains continued to be in the forecast.  

Part of what drove me to the scene was to assess if we needed to evacuate and part of it was to anchor a near-simultaneous visual image with the perplexing wave of sounds that woke me. We'd heard and seen falling rock when on hikes but had never witnessed such big rocks coming down so near. And this was the first time I'd heard boulders crushing through timbers and onto metal. I wanted to immediately recognize the combination of sounds if I ever heard them again--I wanted to immediately know what was happening whether indoors or out. 

I eventually rolled into the sleeping position I had been in when I heard the rumble and crash of the boulders falling and instantly had an auditory flashback of them. Clearly the unfamiliar but distinctive sound pattern was now etched in my being and I was pleased that I'd taken the time to promptly link a visual image with it. That process of pairing an image with the sound gave me closure to the episode and the new information seemed ready to quietly reside in my archives for future use in assessing danger, especially when abroad.

At least we'd gotten in a via ferrata on a rare good day in Germany.
Endless Bad Weather
We were elated one Friday morning: the long range forecast was for 2 days of rain and then sunny days followed for our last week in Europe. But like so many times before, the cheery, full-sun icons on the online forecast all changed to those of rain the next day. We had so hoped to have 1 good week before we flew home but it was not to be. 

By then, the end of August, our B&B and pension hosts were whining as well.  After the initial checking-in formalities, all were quick to complain about what a miserable summer it had been.  Bill had planned a via ferrata from Cortina but a few days earlier it had snowed in Cortina and where we were staying as well. "Too much ice on the route; too dangerous" was the proclamation about his chosen route from Cortina at the peak of high season.  

We couldn't help but notice as the weeks turned into months of rainy days in the Alps that the 'joy level' was at an all time low for us. The lack of sunshine, the frequent rain, and the dashed expectations were the major contributors to our subdued feelings but it was also the lack of other people's 'up energy' that brought us down.

A great view from a challenging trail on a stunning day in Austria.
We had arrived in Obertraun, AT near Hallstatt on one of a handful of sunny days and the small community was buzzing with delight. Children were shouting on the playground area, families were active on the lakeside beach scene, and others were out on the water in swan peddle boats and canoes. The next 2 days were too cool for water fun and then it rained for the next week. We missed the liveliness of other people when we were out--it felt like we were in the depths of low season at Obertraun instead of in the middle of high season. And numerous times I paused to remind myself that it was indeed summer because it wasn't obvious.

Mid-July until the end of August is high season in the Alps--lodging prices more than double and virtually every place is fully booked. But that wasn't the case this year. Our hosts and hostesses lamented that their usual Italian guests that typically stay for weeks at a time had decided to stay in the city or only come to the mountains for a few days. And unlike in the States, European lodging owners inexplicably  don't usually drop their prices to entice guests when times are tough.  

With every conversation with a host, we knew that what we experienced as a lack of  joy meant shortages in their bank accounts. Our 11 unit apartment building in Selva, our base, was only fully occupied for 2 weeks of the entire summer season. A ski season cook who works "at the sea" during the longer summer season stopped by Selva and reported to our hostess (his winter boss) that the seaside hotels a bit north of Rome closed for the season 2-3 weeks early. He was out of a job because the groups of German tourists that typically keep things humming at the sea in September stayed at home. It had been wet there and now it was cold too. And, unlike the mountain resort areas, the seaside tourist industry only has 1 season--summer. Our pain with the weather was shared by ten's of thousands of people or more in a variety of ways.

In Obertraun, Austria (near Hallstatt) our attention drifted from the disappointment of the low-season quiet in the middle of high season to "all those pairs of young Asians". Obertraun seemed to have been picked by someone for a several night's stay by a lot of Asians. My brain that is always searching to make sense of the unexpected left me wondering if the women we were seeing were part of a tourism training program: they were all about the same age (early 20's); they always traveled in pairs; they were very, very savvy travelers;  and they were very at ease. We spoke with 3 pairs and learned that 1 pair was from China.

The young Asian women weren't on this hike that began at the lake.
They all had print-outs for their day's excursion and they all knew just what to do. They had their lodging receipt in hand when boarding the local bus and when buying their lift tickets which entitled them (and us) to a 10% discount. And they were quicker than us in darting off the bus to be the first in line to buy a lift ticket--a trick we considered ourselves as having mastered. They presented themselves confidently and weren't shy about asking us for clarification in well-spoken English.

These young Asian women and the few male/female couples we saw were all looking rather than doing: they rode to the top of the Obertraun cable car ($40/person RT) to look at the view rather than to hike. They were doing the sights in causal city clothes and doing them very efficiently. Interestingly, earlier in the summer I'd heard a news story about the shift by the Chinese away from group tours to independent, more adventurous travel and perhaps it was there before our very eyes. Obertraun was the only place we saw these young Asian pairs in numbers and there must have been 50 or more that overlapped with our stay there.

And All the Others
We think of the Dolomites as the gem of the Alps but the  Austrian towns of Obertraun and Hallstatt clearly got the top votes from the international set. I was stunned at the diversity of license plates that we saw there, a mix that wasn't present in the Dolomites.

I added many countries to my mental list of nationalities that we saw in 2014 while we were around Obertraun. Some plates were 'firsts' in the region, like Estonia and Serbia, and others were 'rare', like Russia, Spain, Sweden, France, Hungary, Finland, Romania, and Great Britain. In contrast when in the Dolomites, there were few cars from countries farther flung than the usual mix of Germans, Austrians, and Dutch. 

When back in the Dolomites for our last week in Europe, there were clearly more travelers in rented cars than in prior years. They almost all had Italian plates but they distinguished themselves by their vastly more hesitant driving styles than the other drivers. I kept wondering why some Italian cars were virtually creeping on the mountain pass straight-aways and then it dawned on me: the drivers surely must have been from out of the area. Slowing is the option of last resort for Italian drivers and there were a lot of slow, prudent drivers with Italian plates that made cycling much less stressful for us.

Yikes! Threading the needle between two pinnacles.
The Heli Tour Happened!
The peaks were neatly tucked into the heavy blanket of clouds but it was a delight to see from above all of the trails we'd walked on, the passes we'd biked over, and the many villages we'd visited over the years. We saw a pair of climbers that had just summited a peak; groups of climbers scaling shear faces; and 20 meter thick permafrost adjacent to a tiny, high-elevation lake while we flew between the pinnacles.

I'd given the helicopter tour I'd won at the mid-July Dolomiti mountain run about a 30% chance of happening because of the persistent bad weather, language barriers, and the 'put it together at the last minute' strategy that the helicopter company used. But Marco the owner pulled it off and filled the craft by giving us a 30 minute tour instead of the 15 minutes allowed by my gift certificate. "It's OK" was his response when I gently reminded him that we were only prepared to pay the 105E ($137) for a 15 minuter for Bill and I had a gift certificate for the ride.

It wasn't a good sky day by usual Dolomite standards where the locals take pride in having 300 days of sun a year. But for this "non-summer", dodging that day's rain during our flight was a triumph. And the bird's eye view of the area we love so much was a grand way to end our summer in Europe.

Going Home Worries
Though there was a low probability of Ebola being an issue for us during our summer abroad, we decided to carefully follow the outbreak for the duration of our stay. We wondered how quickly the virus might spread among international travelers if it escaped from Africa. And we also worried about being detained if we happened to catch an ordinary virus that raised our temperatures around the time that we boarded our international flight home. So much could change in 3 months.

In June and July we watched in horror with the rest of the world while the tragic Ebola epidemic unfolded and fretted about the implications for us but by August, when the outbreak was really raging in west Africa, it was clear that no one would be screening passengers departing Europe any time soon. And we cheered the airlines that opted to cancel some of their flights in and out of the highly affected regions. That controversial decision was a hardship for people and businesses in the region but it would keep the aircraft clean and their crews free of the very scary virus.  

Bill keeping relaxed before the journey home.
We flew home September 8 feeling that our vigilance had been over done as expected but, ironically, it was only about 2 weeks later that the fiasco in Dallas with Thomas Duncan exploded after he carried the silent ebola virus from Liberia to the US by air. Suddenly our concern didn't look so far fetched.

Ever since the economic losses and hardships wracked by the Icelandic volcanic eruption in 2010, we've kept that hazard in mind when transiting in and out of Europe.  While I listened to the horror stories of individuals in the news 4 years ago--like the air travelers diverted to Russia that were literally held captive in their hotel rooms because they lacked visas--I crafted a short list of  items to add to our carry-on "just in case" supplies. Flight disruptions are always a possibility but the ash in the air from that eruption triggered flight cancelations for about a week, with many passengers being stranded for the duration in airports.

We now always fly internationally with the most critical items for an unplanned, extended layover, in our carry-on. The short list includes necessities like prescription meds for a week and ALL of our electronic accessories, including plug adapters for the US, Britain, and Europe.  When there is no Orange or Red Alert for Iceland's volcanos, we skip the 'nice to do' extras like a change of underwear,  a fresh T-shirt, and hygiene items items for sponge-baths in a public restroom.

Come departure day, we were relieved: the worries about Ebola for European air travelers fizzled over the course of the summer as did our concerns about Bardarbunga's most recent eruptions. Luckily for us, the Icelandic volcano's fluctuating activity only affected Iceland's airspace at that time. But we only ditched last of our 'just in case' food shortly before boarding our final flight home. 

The Usual Inconveniences
Our 3 day transit by bus, train, and 2 flights from Selva di Val Gardena, IT to Portland was only disturbed by less catastrophic annoyances than the big ones we'd monitored.  Our mini-dramas included  a brief strike by Munich transit workers; time consuming failures in Delta's online check-in system over 2 days; and 2 screaming babies on our 10 hour flight. Bill's trip planning strategy of staying in hotels close to the airports and leaving plenty of time at each stage of travel kept the stress level down even though the transit days were longer than expected.

Returning Home
The next challenge would be  compressing our time at home from our usual 5-6 weeks to less than 3 weeks before shoving off in our camper for the SW. We'd be greeted by 2 weeks of Portland's unseasonably sizzling hot and dry weather after our summer abroad of mostly damp, cool days. And we'd have our sights set on visiting Yellowstone National Park in early October after being shut-out by blizzards in mid-October in 2013.