family history

The Austria trip — Part VI: Alpine leisure

27 JUNE 2018 — Across the valley, in the town of Meiters, was an alpine slide. We tried to reach it the day before from the backside of the mountain, but GPS led us to a dead-end. Katherine and I later spotted its steep, serpentine path during our hike and were eager to get up close. The day was breezy and partly cloudy. An enclosed gondola lifted us to the top of the mountain for a gorgeous ridge-line view of the valley—Telfes below and Innsbruck in the distance. The slide wasn’t running yet—it was weather-dependent, although there was no sign of rain. Thankfully the park had plenty to offer.

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A restaurant attracted the hiking crowd, who enjoyed steins of beer at eleven in the morning. Cow pies dotted the ground and a trail led us down to an artificial lake and a playground packed with school kids. A raft could be pulled across the pond using a rope. A group of school boys attempted to cross, only to topple into the shallow water halfway across. Some fell gleefully, others in tears.

I was determined to go down the alpine slide; my wife even more so. We lingered by the entrance, studying the operators. The sun was shining but dark clouds brewed in the eastern sky. Two crewmen went down to test the track. After thirty minutes of waiting, we got the green light. Katherine fearlessly claimed the first sled. It was like a modified go-cart, with skateboard wheels clinging to a single track that was elevated about a foot off the ground. In place of a steering wheel was a throttle. Pull forward to speed up, pull back to brake. With barely a minute to settle into our carts, Katherine zipped ahead, followed by me and Lee. My mom decided to play it safe and take the gondola down—and she had good reason. Instantly, the mountain dropped off and we plunged downward, cutting through the trees, accelerating with the G-forces of a mini roller coaster, as fast as forty-two kilometers an hour. With no one ahead, Katherine had the rail to herself, free to go as fast or slow as she pleased (she went fast). I tried to keep up, but some sharp turns warned me to be smarter with the brakes. A few exhilarating minutes passed (time got lost in the adrenaline rush) before the land leveled off and we made our final approach to the gondola station. Even as I decelerated, the end of the line came racing fast. And then it was done, a thrill from start to finish. Lee trailed behind, exercising caution but still keeping up speed. Other carts stacked up behind her. My sister and her family stayed atop the mountain, their window for the slide closing as rain clouds blew closer.

Without them, we set off on a scenic backroad towards Innsbruck to complete the rest of my mother’s visit. We found the apartment building where her family’s Austrian friends resided and hosted them once for Saint Nicholas Day (including a visit from the menacing Krampus). Heavy rain fell as we parked briefly outside, then continued on to the major destination (Rum) as oldies played on the stereo. The military base where my grandfather was stationed, as well as the children’s school, was a short drive east of Innsbruck. We followed the main streets they would’ve driven, awakening my mom’s memories of bus rides to and from, as well as the neighborhoods where certain classmates lived. 

In 1945, as Allied forces ultimately reclaimed the Austrian territory annexed by the Germans, the nation was quartered amongst the victors. The USSR claimed the eastern side, while the USA, UK and France split the western (Vienna was an equally divided city like Berlin). In 1952, the French left North Tyrol to the Americans, which included a storage depot and military base. My grandfather was fortunate not to be sent overseas during the war, but finally got to see the world in relative peacetime. He was assigned Provost Marshal of Camp Rum, essentially a chief of police in the occupied state. While the camp had a general purpose as resources came in through Italy and Austria worked to regain its independence, it was also a strategic front, an escape route should the Soviets in the east turn hostile. The presence of the soldiers’ wives and children were part of the ruse—a tight knit community who would evacuate together if necessary. Although, my grandmother famously said she would rather face the Russian Army than share a car with the mother she was assigned to and her unruly boys.

Camp Rum, 1954. Photo by a “spy” who turned out to be the provost marshal’s wife (also my grandmother).

Camp Rum, 1954. Photo by a “spy” who turned out to be the provost marshal’s wife (also my grandmother).

The town of Rum was a few kilometers east of Innsbruck, a suburban tendril of the sprawling city, small and unassuming. A supermarket sat on the edge of the fields where the military base once stood. After Austria regained its independence in 1955, the Americans packed up and went home; my grandfather found a new Stateside post but the fate of Camp Rum was unknown. Remnants had since disappeared. Of the few photos I could find from the 1950s, there were few clues of what the camp looked like—just a cluster of small buildings and warehouses, intentionally inconspicuous. The sky cleared in time for us to walk around briefly, despite there being little to see.

I watched my mom as she tried to piece it together in her mind. Yes, this was the place, but unlike her former homes in Innsbruck, it was difficult to remember where exactly everything was.

We could’ve lingered longer if not for the need to get back to Telfes. Dinner plans awaited us for our final night together as a group of eight. We changed quickly, then hopped on the little red tram that ran hourly into the city. It was nice to take in the scenery without adhering to GPS and the confusion of unfamiliar roads. The alpine environment changed steadily into urban density. It was pouring rain when we got off in downtown Innsbruck. We shopped for gifts and souvenirs (and more importantly, umbrellas), then settled at an outdoor cafe beneath the Goldenes Dachl. Unseen TVs played the World Cup as locals cheered Germany’s loss to South Korea. Rain pelted the ground and scattered the tourists, but eventually the sky cleared and rebalanced the people-to-water ratio.

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A short walk away was Die Wilderin, a modern farm-to-table restaurant tucked inside a little arcade. It had the lively comfort of a modern French bistro, dark wood and white walls, creamy in the soft light, with an upper level artfully encircling the main floor. We settled upstairs at a long table, entertained by a friendly host. First cocktails, then an amazing meal. As with any great dining experience, it is always over too soon, deliberating satisfaction with one’s chosen entrées or wishing to have tried another. 

A taxi brought us back to Telfes at twilight, and we spent the evening relaxing with dessert and wine. From the balcony, we watched the full moon rise from behind the mountain ridge, listening to the serenity of the valley, the gentle roar of alpine air, reluctant to leave this beautiful pocket of the world. It was agreed, of all the places we had collectively visited, this was one highly worthy of a return visit.

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[More photos can be seen on my Flickr site.]