Turn Left at San Cassiano

Castel Roncolo.
Castel Roncolo. Photo courtesy Topcastles, Creative Commons license.

The first indication of any cultural rift in South Tyrol came when Andrea and I headed out on foot from the lovely Park Hotel Laurin in Bolzano and went north along the Talvera River to see Castel Roncolo. The 13th century castle is known for a long and convoluted history and whole rooms devoted to frescoes, called the greatest cycle of medieval frescoes still preserved.

At one point, when Google Maps showed that we were very near the place, but not quite there, the voice of Google Maps, GPS Girl, cheerily and confidently announced, “Arrived!”

We were standing on the sidewalk of a narrow and steeply sloped street with no castle in view. We were probably an interesting sight for locals, two lost tourists wondering what went wrong with our trusted navigation guide. A woman riding a bicycle came along. She wore an ankle length dress, her hair was steel grey, and her bicycle was older and single speed—no fancy gearing for her.

“Excuse me, can you tell me where is Castel Roncolo?” I pointed out the picture of the castle and its name in a guide book.

She peered at the page in the book, shook her head and gave me a puzzled look. “Oh, nien. No Roncolo. Schloss Runkelstein!” She pointed down the street to our left then made a counter clockwise motion with her right hand. “Gehe hinunter, und links, und…” She paused looking for the right word.

“So down there,” I said in English and making the same semi-circle with my hand that she had and then pointed up another street.

“Ja, ja,” she said smiling that I seemed to understand, but then her face became very grave and serious. She gesticulated sharply with an index finger. “No Roncolo! It is Schloss Runkelstein!” Not exactly angry but quite strident, she left no doubt about that other name. And she took off on her bike.

Castel Roncolo, AKA Schloss Runkelstein
Castel Roncolo, AKA Schloss Runkelstein. Photo courtesy Missusdoubleyou, Creative Commons license.
One of the many frescoes in Runkelstein castle.
One of the many frescoes in Runkelstein castle.

And it turns out that the castle was indeed Schloss Runkelstein for centuries and for those who speak Italian it became Roncolo much later. And the city of Bozen became Bolzano. The resort town St. Ulrich became Ortistei. A confusing part of the world here in the north of Italy where close to 75% of the population speaks German and every city, town and valley has two names, or sometimes three.

This is South Tyrol.

Some days later, a few miles past San Cassiano, we turned left at Capanna Alpina and headed up a mountain trail toward the Refugio Lagazuoi where we would spend the night. It was not until we were close to the top, near the mountain hut, that we could see the remnants of the Great War, the war that resulted in part of Austria—at that time Austria-Hungary—being annexed by Italy, and nearly 60 years of turmoil, that, while seemingly quiet and peaceful today, still roils in some Tyrolean hearts.

Lagazuoi hut.
Lagazuoi hut.
Austrian fortifications from WWI.
WWI munitions found on or around Mt. Lagazuoi.
WWI munitions found on or around Mt. Lagazuoi.
Trenches and Italian flag at sunset, near Mt. Lagazuoi.
Trenches and Italian flag at sunset, near Mt. Lagazuoi.

Trenches dot the hillside today, and tunnels, and balustrades all built by the Austrians to prevent the Italians from taking these mountains. Soldiers fought for years here, largely to stalemate, the Austrians trying and failing to beat back the advance of Italian troops, and Italian soldiers failing to take the defensive positions high on the mountain. The mountainsides are so steep here, the winters so harsh, that hundreds of men on both sides of the conflict were killed, not in battle but in avalanches.

Caves and tunnels, dug into the hard carbonate rock—composed of the mineral dolomite from which these mountains get their name—sheltered the Austrians and undermined Italian positions.

In our school days we learned that the Great War began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. But with a further reading of history it becomes apparent that the reasons ran much deeper and that the prospects for war were in place far earlier. One historian has even stated that by late July, 1914, the assassination of the Archduke was hardly more than a side note.

And Italy, though officially part of the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy—declared itself neutral. Prime Minister Antonio Salandro stated that the treaty was for defensive purposes and that because Austria-Hungary was the aggressor, the treaty did not stand. Historians might quibble on that point as Serbia was clearly a violent aggressor as well.

Germany tried to get Italy on its side, to no avail. But in a secret meeting in London, on April 26, 1915, Italy was promised a great deal of territory, including southern Austria, if it would join the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Great Britain—assuming an Allied victory. It was an offer the Italian Foreign Minister, Sidney Sonnino, did not refuse.

And so, in 1918, at the end of the war, South Tyrol became a part of Italy. During the 1920s there was intense Italianization of the area with names changed from German to Italian. For a time, under Mussolini, the German language was even outlawed.

Decades of unrest followed. Progress toward the present status of the region was slow, but in 1972 South Tyrol became a semi-autonomous area within Italy’s borders, able to make largely independent decisions, including the decision to pay only about 10% of normal taxes to Italy’s central government in Rome. Today, South Tyrol is the most prosperous region in Italy, and one of the most prosperous in all of Europe.

Still there are people, like the steel haired lady on the bicycle in Bolzano—she would say Bozen– who are unhappy.

Polling data is varied and perhaps less than trustworthy. But depending on exact locale, as many as 61% of the people of South Tyrol would favor either secession from Italy or reunification with Austria.

Eva Klotz, a political leader in Bolzano and founder of the separatist party Sud Tiroler Freiheit (South Tyrolean Freedom), states, “My dream is to reunite with Austria. I’m an Italian Citizen but don’t belong to the Italian culture.”

South Tyrol though is held up as an example of how these cultural differences can be approached. Many parents in the region do the “linguistic slalom,” sending their children to a German middle school then switching to an Italian high school. Young people seem comfortable being with friends who speak either language.

To an outsider, a casual tourist, the system seems to be working wonderfully well. But the rise of nationalism may threaten. The arguments that have been used to define nationhood are many and contradictory. George Orwell decried nationalism in his 1945 essay, “Notes on Nationalism,” yet seemed to especially regard all forms of extremism as problematic. The author, Yoram Hazony, in an essay in the Wall Street Journal, states, “National cohesion is the secret ingredient that allows free institutions to exist, the bedrock on which a functioning democracy is built.”

Despite what appears to be a clash of cultures, South Tyrol does thrive and I suspect will continue to do so.

Meadows and mountains: The Dolomites.
Meadows and mountains: The Dolomites.
Left: Hiking in the Dolomites. Right: Lake Sorapis, near Cortina, Italy.
Left: Hiking in the Dolomites. Right: Lake Sorapis, near Cortina, Italy.

After one night at the Refugio Lagazuoi (bunk beds, a rickety ladder, and a very tiny room) Andrea and I hiked down the other side of the mountain toward Cortina. When close, we caught a cab for a ride into the city. The driver spoke good English as well as German, Italian, and his own mother tongue, Ladin, an ancient language spoken by about 4% of the people in Tyrol. I tried to get a local’s take.

“I’ve heard that taxation here is fairer than in the rest of Italy. That you pay only about 10% of normal taxes to Rome.”

“We pay plenty of taxes!” Obviously, a sore subject.

“Polls say many people here would like reunification with Austria, or secession.”

“Oh, yes. Very true.”

“Still, some say that South Tyrol is doing so well, perhaps it should stay as it is. Polls seem to indicate a lot of people are happy to leave things as they are.”

“Nah. Government in Italy very bad. They might drag us down.”

That interview over, we switched to discussing cars. He was happy to talk about cars. His “cab” is a late model Mercedes. “Seems nobody here drives an old car, or a car in need of body work, or even a dirty car. Everywhere I go I see new Mercedes, BMWs, or Audis,” I told him.

“Of course,” he said. “Why would anybody drive an old car?” His tone seemed to say, Naturally. Obviously. I did wonder though, what happens to all the older cars in Tyrol? Maybe shipped off to Rome?

Despite some indications of disillusionment, the model of a semi-autonomous region within a country has garnered praise. It is held up as a possible model for the separatists in Catalonia who would favor breaking free from the rest of Spain. It has been suggested as a solution for the Basques.

Recently, the Dali Lama visited South Tyrol to meet with local officials and investigate how this model of autonomy was achieved and to carry that idea forward in Tibet—to perhaps loosen the grip of China on that conquered territory.

Meanwhile, is our taxi driver correct in fearing the possible role of a flawed Italian government in lives of those in South Tyrol? He seems to echo warnings you can also hear from Eva Klotz. Italy’s weakness could carry over into South Tyrol. “South Tyrol is not Italy,” she says.

Yet if friends ask where we’ve been lately, we say, “Northern Italy.” It seems like a true and simple statement.

William and Andrea Halligan, somewhere in the Dolomites.

 

Kite Surfing at Windblown Jalama Beach

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A brilliant turquoise-blue day in mid May, the wind is blowing hard out of the northwest like God’s own hair dryer. There’s no escaping the wind that’s a steady 25 knots down from Lompoc and Vandenberg Air Force Base. This is Jalama Beach and seems ideal for one thing and it’s not for taking the kids out on boogie boards. Nor surfing either and not windsurfing. The deal here is kite boarding, and even then just for the experts.

Kite surfing or Kite boarding is a rather new kid on the block having only been invented in 1986. Yet it already has its own magazine and a cadre of star celebrity athletes.

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Once a surf spot, Jalama Beach here on California’s central coast, is now primarily home to kite boarding. It’s not for the faint of heart though. In fact, most of the year beginner and intermediate kite boarders are not allowed in the water here. The beach is long, mostly deserted, beautiful and nice for bird watching, but something in the curve of the shoreline here has created a wind tunnel that creates a force that never gives up.

Read moreKite Surfing at Windblown Jalama Beach

Understated Kiwis

andrea-bridge-360After she reached the Travers River Bridge, Andrea took one horrified look up at the featureless rocky bowl that towered above–no real trail, just orange poles every few hundred yards to mark the way–and asked our Kiwi guide, Gary, “Just what are my options at this point?”

“Well, you could walk back down to the van, but it’s about five hours away, and there’s nobody there. I could give you the keys, but you’d be on your own for the best part of two days. So I think you’d better marshal on. It’s not that far to the Angelus Hut. It’s just over that ridge.” He pointed to a lip of rock that looked like it was a few thousand feet above.

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“I really was exhausted at this point. Couldn’t turn around. Couldn’t look down. Where the heck is the trail? I was afraid for my life. Now I am pleased with the accomplishment and wonder how I did it.”
~ Andrea Halligan

 

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Photo courtesy Steven Fishman.
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Photo courtesy Gary Roberts.

So, given her options she indeed marshaled on. There were a few tears, a few words you wouldn’t hear in church, but she did make it to the hut in time for dinner and we staked out a place on the thin mattresses in one of the sleeping halls.

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Angelus Hut. Photo courtesy Steven Fishman.

Like many mountain huts from the Italian Alps to here on the South Island, the Angelus is a plain and rustic hut with 14 of your new closest friends sleeping shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip in one large room. I slept better than I’d hoped.

The next day was to take us back down to Lake Rotoiti. I say “down” reservedly. Gary gathered our little Canadian and American group outside the hut in the morning and pointed up into the mist above us. “You’re heading down today, but first you’ll climb that ridge up there. Actually a couple of ridges. Oh well, maybe three or four. And there are a few little rocky bits along the way. But then mostly easy down to the lake maybe seven miles away.”

Read moreUnderstated Kiwis

And the Southern Cross

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January 2016, at a sheep station on New Zealand’s South Island.

I pitched our tent yesterday on a grassy hilltop just yards from the shoreline of Lake Pukaki; we had a marvelous view of snow covered Mt. Cook a few miles north. Rain was forecast last night, but though the cloud cover was heavy and the weather cold, there was no rain. We slept warm in the peace of our very private space.

Andrea and I, along with a New Zealand based tour group, took a drive to the base of Mt. Cook this morning and we walked to a glacier-fed lake where icebergs floated. Then a cold rain started and we put on our coats. We were out most of the day. Back at the lodge a few hours later we toured the Mt. Cook museum and warmed ourselves with flat whites in the café before heading around Pukaki to the campsite. The dirt and gravel road beside the lake was slick with mud, but when we got to our tent site we found that the rain had stopped.

We had dinner and some fine New Zealand red wine at the sheep ranch then headed up the hill. We walked through tall wet grass and went to sleep in the best accommodation for miles around, our own tent with air mattresses and warm down bags.

Sometime after midnight I awoke and went outside, barefoot and shirtless. The weather had turned mild; a gentle breeze blew off the lake and the sky was clearing. Without ambient light the sky was very dark and the stars came out. And I saw the Southern Cross for the first time.

Andrea was asleep in the tent and I considered waking her, but decided to let her go on sleeping.

The Southern Cross is not a large or even particularly bright constellation. Mark Twain when first seeing it was clearly not impressed. And yet standing in the tall grass on that little hilltop in the perfect quiet beneath the Southern Cross, I was touched as if there were some magic there in four stars describing a lopsided cross pointing the way to the South Pole.

Read moreAnd the Southern Cross

Life and Teaching: Searching for the Mystic in the High Sierras

Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.
Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.

I pulled our dirty gray Subaru into the Mosquito Flat parking lot at about 3:00 in the afternoon. We’d driven up from San Diego, and the plan was a quick backpack trip of just three or four days. Our packs were stashed in the back of the Subaru; mine held the tent and rain-fly, down quilt, Thermarest sleeping pad, stove, fuel, and a bear canister jammed tight with enough food for both of us for a few days.

There was also the book. Many people of my generation had read it years ago as it was part of the new age-y compendium back then. It snuggled cozily on 1960s and ’70s bookshelves alongside Thus Spake Zarathustra, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. Somehow I’d missed it, but I owned the boxed collection of all five volumes and they had been gathering dust untouched for some time. For this trip I brought the first two volumes along: Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. The thin paperbacks tucked neatly into a side pouch of my pack.

Read moreLife and Teaching: Searching for the Mystic in the High Sierras

Money, Gold and Promises

Burro race, Rhyolite, Nevada, July 4, 1908. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.
Burro race, Rhyolite, Nevada, July 4, 1908. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.

Hyperbole: Extravagant exaggeration; language that describes something as better (or worse) than it actually is. (Merriam Webster)

In August, 1904, two men were crouched on the desert ground in semi-darkness before dawn. They held their hands over a small campfire to warm themselves. The morning breeze smelled of the heat that would come later, when the sun was up, but it had been close to freezing overnight and wasn’t much warmer now. They were prospectors and they were camped just over the hills from Death Valley.

They were about to make an historic gold strike. Some even say that their find saved the state of Nevada. You wouldn’t guess any of that if you looked around the town that sprang up as a result of their bonanza. It lies in ruins now, a bit over a hundred miles north of Las Vegas. Perhaps some of you have been there, but not many know its story. The town was called Rhyolite.

An old legend says that while one of the men, Ed Cross, was frying bacon and heating baked beans over the fire, one of their mules ran off; Ed’s partner, Shorty Harris, scrambled up into the hills above their camp to catch it. When he’d nearly caught up with the mule, the story goes, Shorty tripped over a rock and sprawled out face down in sand that was speckled with gold. History books claim that he shouted then, “Forget breakfast, Ed. This is it! The find of the century!”

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Lines written a few miles above Walter’s Wiggles

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Zion Canyon. The West Rim is on the right; Angel’s Landing is lower right.

There’s no accounting for the passage of time. Clocks and calendars while seeming to measure the flow of moments or years or lifetimes, aren’t really up to the task. How can 600 pages torn from faded calendars explain why some fifty year-old memories seem as fresh to me as last week’s? How can a canyon take 250 million years to form? How can re-visiting a favorite old backcountry climb here in Utah cause such a burst of emotion, though it’s been many years since I’ve been here? The very passage of time seems less than real.

I’m on a hike with my wife, Andrea, to the west rim of Zion Canyon and while here, I seem to step into Wordsworth’s famous poem about his walking tour above Tintern Abbey. Even though he wrote of a time and place 216 years in the past and thousands of miles from here, the lines of the poem ring true for me.

The hills above the Abbey held special meaning for Wordsworth, but he had not climbed in that country for five years. He wrote that the place had not been unseen in all that time however; often when the crush of the city strife became too much for him, he would revisit these vistas in his mind and find that it calmed him.

He remembered that when five years younger he could bound over the mountainsides like a deer—not quite the case when he sat writing the most

Read moreLines written a few miles above Walter’s Wiggles

The Pacific Crest Trail in a Dry Year

Stellar's Jay in Idyllwild.
Stellar’s Jay in Idyllwild, California. Photo courtesy SD Dirk under a Creative Commons license.

A boy of about twenty, with a substantial pack and good hiking boots, long pants and dusty T-shirt stood at the Cienega Junction on the PCT. He was studying a small map with far too few details; his face looked drawn and was as gray and dusty as his clothes.

Andrea and I had been over much of this country in two days, from the town of Idyllwild up the Devil’s Slide trail and PCT past Wellman’s Divide to Round Valley where we had to melt snow for cooking and drinking because the spring-fed spigot in camp was dry. And there was very little snow left for melting. We’d been to the top of San Jacinto Peak and now we were headed back to town. The boy was standing in the middle of the trail.

“Where are you going?”

“North,” the boy said.

I understood. That’s the answer they all give when they’re attempting the whole of the PCT, from the Mexican border close to Lake Morena all the way to Canada some 2700 miles. North.

He held his map high in front of his face in the afternoon sun. “Is this where I turn?”

“Yes.”

Read moreThe Pacific Crest Trail in a Dry Year

Sherpa Stew and Yak Butter Apple Pie

Horse with the setting sun in Kyanjin Village, Nepal.
Horse with the setting sun in Kyanjin Village, Nepal.

The mountain came into view at dawn, a beautiful alpenglow pink against a still dark but clearing sky. Lang Tang, 23,711 feet tall, is not even in the top ten of Himalayan peaks, but its magnificent shape captured me. We were at the first of several tea houses on our way up the Lang Tang Valley to Kyanjin—and all the way the mountain would tower above us.

I suppose I knew what to expect—you can Google anything these days. Our first tea house, the glass windows of the dining room a collage of stickers advertising everything from helicopter service “anywhere in Nepal, including Everest Base Camp,” to various trekking and climbing guides, was about a day’s walk below the small village of Lang Tang and the Lang Tang Monastery. The stickers on the window were in a world of languages from English, German, and French to Japanese.

This first lodging place had its own mini hydro-electric generator and there was power to charge cameras and iPads, but only for a few hours each evening. The toilet facility was an outhouse a dozen yards down a small slope. When you flushed, by pouring water from a big blue plastic bucket, the effluence was carried by a pipe straight into the Lang Tang River. The river runs so clear and clean-looking, a seemingly pristine Himalayan stream. But you don’t want to drink from it.

Read moreSherpa Stew and Yak Butter Apple Pie

Chop Wood, Carry Water…and answer your cell phone

Old meets new in the Middle Himalayas

Mt. Everest with its familiar plume of blowing snow.
Mt. Everest with its familiar plume of blowing snow.

I’m in the back seat of the bus from Kathmandu to Pharping, literally the end of the road. It’s a jouncing and twisting hour-long ride and although I never suffer from car-sickness I’m fighting nausea with every turn on this mountain road; at Pharping I’m happy to make my way to the front of the bus so I can get off. But when I do, the heavy choking smell of wood smoke nearly overwhelms me. This is certainly no better. I fear I may be suffering the fate of almost every traveler who comes to Nepal–an Asian version of Montezuma’s revenge. I think about the chicken curry lunch I had the previous day at an historic stupa in Kathmandu. As it turns out, it’s going to be more than a few hours before my stomach is back to even semi-normal. There will be some very un-pretty scenes along the trail to Kafleni.

I’m traveling with a small group from REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) and from Pharping we’ll hike several miles and climb two or three thousand feet into the middle Himalayas and camp for a few days and nights with the snowcapped mountains I’ve read about and dreamed of crowning the horizon to the north and west. From my campsite, and then from the hills above it, I can see Langtang, Manasulu and, in the distance, Annapurna.

I came to Nepal to do some trekking in the higher Himalayas, but the trip will take us first to these lower elevations in the middle Himalayas and also to Chitwan National Park. I’m sure that one reason for the sojourn in this lower range is to showcase some of the work done by the charitable foundation, Nepal SEEDS. And it turns out, that work is worth seeing.

Hari Pudasaini in the Himalayas.
Hari Pudasaini in the Himalayas.

Our camp is set up just above the village of Kafleni, one of several small villages that dot the dramatic hillsides here. With us are K.P. Kafle, a renowned Himalayan guide, Hari Pudasiani, a tall and sturdy looking man and also a well-known mountain guide and Jorlal Thing. Jorlal was born in the high Himalayas and is disarmingly quick with a smile or a charming joke. But after a short time with him, you know he’s a good man to have with you on a tough climb.

Read moreChop Wood, Carry Water…and answer your cell phone