Closer to Home

Two of the biggest benefits of being in Germany are the Munich and Zurich airports nearby, which serve destinations on several continents without needing a layover. This has made traveling to distant lands remarkably straightforward, but I haven’t neglected the seemingly infinite number of mountains and places to explore around my doorstep. Well, not entirely neglected, anyhow.

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Spring seemed to start somewhat early this year, and by mid-April it appeared the snows had begun to melt. I was eager to set up an early hike with the expat community at my location and asked for suggestions. One idea that came up as a manageable family hike was to go see the crocuses near Oberstaufen. From pictures I thought they were the size of tulips, but despite being far, far smaller it was nice to joke with the owners of the hut we ate lunch at that all nineteen of us expats had come from places afar — France, the USA, Brazil, South Africa, China — just to see the flowers bloom. Despite thinking that I didn’t know what crocuses were until this hike, saffron is made from a species of autumn-blooming crocus.

 

A month prior, an engineer and process technician had visited to buy off new equipment, and one Saturday during their visit we ventured out to Lake Constance for a day trip. Despite the lake being less than 75 km from my apartment, my only familiarity with it thus far had been using local roads around its periphery to avoid needing to buy the Austrian vignette. We got there early enough to avoid the crowds, but as we left the roads were packed and the streets were humming with conversation, not all of it Germanic. We headed for Friedrichshafen for its Zeppelin Museum on the way back to the Allgäu, where, surprisingly, we heard much more German.

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The museum had more than just information and history on airships, and also featured a small gallery on aerodynamics and another on the evolution of power transmission. One of the super-efficient vehicles had a proximity sensor that went off every time someone leaned in for a closer look at its technology. I’m sure the security guard got sick of hearing the screeching over the course of a day!

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Friedrichshafen is one of the many port cities on the lake, and as we headed back to the parking garage one of the ferries was coming in. Despite being farther from the mountains than I would be if I were in Kempten, it wasn’t difficult to remember that we were still within spitting distance of the Alps.

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Most of my mountain exposure this past winter had been on skis, though I did participate in a company-sponsored “winter sports day” snowshoe trek in February. After a three-month hiatus, I again donned snowshoes in late April, as the spring weather that had prompted a good number of winter to summer tire changes dispersed by way of a meter-deep snowfall in the Alps less than two weeks after we saw the flower bloom. I had planned to visit the Rangischwanger Horn — the last mountain of the Hörnergruppe chain, of which the Ofterschwanger Horn is its best-known peak — but while researching the tour stumbled fortuitously across a route description of the Riedberger Horn, slightly southwest of my original goal and about 150 m higher than the Rangischwanger Horn. I wasn’t the only one with this summit in mind.

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I’m not a skier, but being on the slopes with several groups of them on a truly cloud-free day in late April made me briefly consider the sense in buying a pair. The views from this mountain were outstanding — 360° views to seemingly the entire Allgäu; despite being well below 2000 m, the Riedberger Horn has no taller immediate neighbors to block views from its summit. I gleefully shot off shot after shot for panoramas later, frustratingly learning only afterwards that focusing while taking individual shorts for a stitched photo can confuse the software if the focal length changes while adjusting focus. Nevertheless, at the time, I couldn’t be bothered. I was trying not to be blinded by the bright snow, which would then cause my eye open to the viewfinder to tear up and the sunscreen around it to burn, in turn causing more tears. At any rate, this was the closest to the Swiss Alps outside of the Swiss Alps I have ever been. From Hochvogel (left protrusion) to Ifen (right protrusion), the entire Allgäuer Alpen were fully visible.

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I left the summit as the sun’s position began to remind me it was time to head down, but even in early afternoon there were still devotees to fresh winter powder (by this time of day, more accurately winter mush) heading up for one last shot at snow-covered hikes. It was hard to believe that three weeks prior, the snow was gone and the biological cycle said “green” was to be the color of the month.

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After returning to my car, I took a short nap and headed to my next hike, an almost-flat out-and-back from Faistenoy to Einödsbach. I didn’t know it at the time, but Einödsbach is a well-known hamlet deep in the Stillachtal, offering the classic view of the Trettachspitze (known as the Matterhorn of the Allgäu) and the Mädelegabel. It was shoulder season, the hut was closed, and I headed back to the car after a productive day playing in the snow.

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There was around 18″ of snow at the start of the morning’s hike at 1447 m elevation, but even at 1100 m at Einödsbach there were still a few inches. In the valley below, sitting around 900 m, the snow was gone (again). I wondered if April snow would bring May snow, or something to that effect, and patted myself on the back for deliberately not having changed my own tires yet.

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Since arriving in the Allgäu, I had been looking for a roadside pullover where I could literally get out of the car and take pictures of the Allgäu Alps. I spent Saturday morning puttering around Kempten looking for such viewpoints and came up dry, so spent the rest of the afternoon after hiking looking again. After skiing several weeks prior, I had found a potential site, so with the clouds looking like a promising sunset I set off to find the location again. I didn’t rediscover that overlook but did find another spot instead.

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Coincidentally, a few days before a well-known Allgäu photographer had been to the same spot, though I had no idea until I looked at his image afterwards that I had driven to the identical location. Creatively I’m not sure I was happy to be knowingly taking shots from the same vantage point to those of someone else, but the convenience of this location can’t be denied. I haven’t been back there for another shoot yet; we’ll see if I can find another enclave with such expansive yet attainable views.

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I waited around for sunset but the colors never really popped, so I headed home and started stitching together the dozen or so panoramas I had taken over the course of the day. The next day was May 1, on which the various villages traditionally erect their “May trees.” I skipped the ceremony last year, as heavy rains dulled any desire to be outside, and this year the spell remained unbroken. Where the previous day saw spring-like temperatures and sunshine reminiscent of the Bahamas, the day of the ceremony brought rain and sleet and cold and a brief period of snow, none of which stopped the village of Hochgreut from coming out en masse to watch their totem go up amidst traditional music and drinks.

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After the band passed, the remarkably straight trunk, stripped of all branches and its bark, progressed through the village to its landing spot, where a tractor, not a crane as one might expect, began the process of its upward journey.

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Other villages do the entire ceremony with a crane, but in Hochgreut the trunk was stood upright incrementally. The ground-end of the trunk was placed in a hinge about three feet in the ground, and on a command from the lead carpenter a group of men pushed upward until supports could be placed under the trunk to hold the trunk’s new angle. The tractor eventually also helped pull the trunk upward, and two guy lines helped maintain the attitude with the ground. It was a remarkable process, requiring significant energy and even more significant teamwork and cooperation.

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This iteration continued for perhaps forty cycles before the trunk stood upright and a villager donned a climbing harness to climb to the top to drink a beer and remove the rigging lines. It was by this point drizzling, and in my haste to find some place to warm up I forgot to take a picture of the end result. The tree still stands, and will for several more months, until it is taken down prior to winter in preparation for the same observance next year, when, if history in fact repeats itself, it will again be cold and rainy after a spell of astonishingly good weather.

 

I seem to have pockets of time where I spend a couple months in the Allgäu before jetting off again, and indeed two weeks after watching a barren trunk be rotated ninety degrees upright I was headed again to China, this time not to Shanghai but to Hong Kong. There is a certain thrill to going to far places while it’s still possible, though the more I do it the less I’m convinced doing so will get it out of my system. Good thing my immediate surroundings are so photogenic!

Closer to Home

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