For me, there’s a certain romance to walking. When I was a kid, it was one of the few things I could do that was unpolluted by school or parents or even friends. No achievements, no comparisons, no grades. Just put one foot in front of the other. Anyone can do it.
I once walked the length of Broadway just for the sake of the distance. It took about four hours— five if you count delays for egg creams and finding public toilets. There was a walk one night when my car broke down on a highway in the Finger Lakes after a date, six midnight miles from the dorm. Amazing what you see in the shadows as you slowly sober up on a long walk home.
As I grew older, I came to like the pace, the peculiar visual you have when you walk through a world that you might otherwise traverse by car or cab or bus. There’s the curious ground-level point of view and the strictly human pace. Things don’t rush at you, they unfold.
Now, if you pay serious attention to stuff like that, you pretty quickly end up looking for great places to walk: the Adirondacks, the Appian Way, sand dunes along Lake Ontario, the river drives along the Schuylkill and one-and-a-half-lane roads in Dominica. In fact, any vacation or any business trip becomes an occasion for a good walk.
A romp through the Alps
So when the opportunity to hike in the Alps came along, I was excited. The Alps I knew were the mountains you see from the airplane window when you’re about to land in Italy. Like some of the beauties I lusted after in college, they were magnificent, remote and unattainable. Edelweiss and Emmenthaler. Yum. Of course I’d want to walk there. Who wouldn’t?
Where were we going? Hmmmm. The tour started off in Trentino in northern Italy. Then we went on to Bavaria. Let’s see: lakes, a wildlife preserve for golden eagles, a 1,200-foot ascent and lots of wonderfully silly Bavarian folk dancing mit schnapps. Sounds great. Oh, and then we end up at a place called Berchtesgaden.
Wait— isn’t that where Hitler had his summer white house? Kehlstein? Up on the top? The infamous Eagle’s Nest?
Why wasn’t it leveled?
I decided to go, but along with my sunscreen I packed a qualm. What the hell would I do when I got to the fuhrer’s place? Why does it even still exist? Wouldn’t decent people have leveled it? Or salted the earth? I had the idea that the Germans, more than anyone else perhaps, had learned the lesson of their own perfidity. How do you dare make Hitler into a tourist attraction? Should I just excuse myself on that day and stay in some bierstube drinking weizenbier? Should I go up to Adolf-land and pee on the front step?
It took me a while to figure that maybe I should just go and see what my feelings were: no prejudgments, just go for a walk and see where I ended up.
The next few days are beautiful. There are restaurants in Trentino that are pledged to maintain local, fresh ingredients and there are gorgeous lakes and vineyards heavy with grapes just dying to become wine. Almost before I know it, we are on the bus from the town of Berchtesgaden going up to the Eagle’s Nest. No one has suggested that the “eagle” really was a shit-hawk. And our American tour guide seems to have a bit of a crush on the former landlord.
Tunnels and bunkers
We rush past the “documentation center” at the bottom of the hill where they show the pictures of the German citizens who were murdered by their own government. We marvel at the tunnels and bunkers and the clever engineering of the shelters built inside the mountain. We rush to Hitler’s very own elevator and go to the top and see the “Eva Braun Tearoom.” No one giggles at the ridiculousness of it. We are ushered past the restaurant that’s been made of the former Nazi meeting room and out to the deck.
Somehow, I couldn’t quite get my indignation together. I remembered that Hitler was pretty well received in some of my other favorite places— Rome and Vienna, for instance. And it wasn’t too long ago that I walked past the Morzinplatz, site of SS headquarters in Vienna, eating an ice cream cone.
From the deck you can see the tacky little snack bar. You can also see the mountains and the mist and the trees and the valleys. As we walk back down, there are tiny flowers and more butterflies and the smell of woods. On a footpath in a forest on the side of a mountain, it’s hard to feel anything except forest and mountains. It seemed to me that this mountain just shook the Nazis off like a drop of sweat and went back to its own beautiful business. For all the harm they did to Germany and the world, they really couldn’t ruin the mountain.
I went up there ready to be indignant, angry, even vengeful. I came down cleansed of all that. It wasn’t such a bad day if you have the right perspective. Where did the right perspective come from? Maybe it was the mountains, maybe it was the cows. Or maybe it’s just a matter of taking a walk.