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  • Writer's pictureDamian Robb

Stray Thoughts 10 | Solo Traveller




 

The rain was mocking me. My pockets bulged with pastries and chocolate, a self-appointed comfort to counter the rain’s nastiness. The rain didn’t care. It continued to fall and would until it chased me right out of town. I thought I could wait it out. It knew better.


Record scratch. Let’s back up to where we left off last time. Blue skies. Sun. A park in Innsbruck, Austria. A traveller, solo for the first time since leaving home.


Okay, here we go.


The night Jonathan returned to Vienna was a bittersweet one. It was nice to take a breather after a big couple of days and just chill and watch sitcoms with some takeaway in my hotel room, but I was also aware the whole time of just how alone I was.


I am not someone who’s usually afraid of being alone. I enjoy my own company just fine. Need it sometimes even, and if Holly’s busy and I have no commitments I thoroughly relish what I like to call a Damian Day, which is pretty much me doing all the things I usually do but in my pyjamas and with no concern about anyone’s desires but my own. But this was different. I was overseas. A solo traveller. The better part of a country away from my closest familiar person. That was new. Not unpleasant, not by a long way, but new, and it took a while for me to become comfortable with it. In fact, I would say I didn’t gain that comfort that whole first night, or even the next morning. It wouldn’t become comfortable until over a day later when, ironically, I found myself far more isolated and alone.


But first, that inbetween day. A writing day. Having already explored a good bit of Innsbruck and with my first full day to myself, I decided I better get some writing done. I had more than enough to be working on. A middle grade graphic novel outline that needed revisions. A silly and horrific story for an upcoming anthology novel. And writing up the previous Stray Thoughts. I decided I would wander around Innsbruck and do a bit of all of these as I went. I packed my backpack and headed out the door, ready to be as writery a writer on a European writing retreat as I could be.


I went to Starbucks.


I didn’t mean to exactly. I was planning to go to a cute and comfortable looking cafe that I had searched out on google maps but when I got there found that they were closed. No problem, I looked up another one, only to arrive and see that it was really more of a restaurant than a cafe and not really the vibe I was going for. Getting a bit frustrated now, I decided to ditch the maps and just walk until I found something appropriate. As you can guess, I found Starbucks. It was in one of the main streets of the old town. A cobbled road with antique looking hanging signs outside the tall and colourful, many windowed buildings, with seating and umbrellas set up out front. A mountain, of course, was present somewhere in the background. It was a good view and I knew from previous experience that the Starbucks was likely to have a range of seating on its second floor overlooking that view, almost purpose made for writing. I gave in, went in, ordered an overly sugary coffee and found a seat. Starbucks isn’t really a thing in Melbourne, where I live. We are so saturated with gorgeous cafes serving quality coffee that the corporation has never managed to get a foothold there. It’s only when I’m in a larger city in Europe that I walk through their doors and help myself to their wifi. It is, admittedly, an easy stop for a solo traveller.


I got some good work done on the graphic novel outline, and feeling full of caffeine, milk, and sugar, decided to keep moving. The day was somewhere between blue and grey. The previous day had been stunning. Surprisingly vibrant, a contrast to my discomfort at being alone, and, it should be noted after the misty mountains Jonathan and I had traversed in the previous cloudy days, likely the perfect day to go up a mountain. This day was somewhere in between and so still not wanting to waste it, I thought I would do just that. Keep the writing going from somewhere high above me.


When I had arrived at my new accommodation they had given me a tourist card that gave me access to free public transport and a number of the nearby funiculars. I was pretty sure I had read that this included the one in the centre of town that Jono and I had gone up a few days previously, and since free is free and I love a mountain, I thought I would go back up the first of its cable cars to the small town we had barely stopped on the earlier journey and find somewhere to write. But free was not free, it turned out, just ten percent off, and since I am presently very low in the finance department, I decided to opt for something more in my price bracket. I went back up the escalators from the funicular's entry point and saw across the road from me a large beautiful park. That would do just fine. There I found a bench overlooking a lake with a view of the mountain I had just decided not to go up, ate the lunch I had packed that morning, and got some words down for the anthology story.


With one more project to tinker away at, I decided I needed to hunt down one more writing location, and, since it was now stretching into the afternoon, decided on a pub. I wandered back the way I had come until a sign advertising beer led me down an alleyway to an almost hidden beer garden. It was in a beautiful stone courtyard just off the main drag, surrounded by buildings, their walls covered in spring greenery. The sun was now becoming hot and so I took a seat in the shade, near the few other patrons present. The waiter came over, handed me a menu, I flicked to the drinks section where I quickly perused their four types of larger, chose the cheapest, and ordered it when he returned. I opened my laptop and started writing about holidays, homes, and the last few days spent with my brother, once more reminding myself that I was now travelling solo. The afternoon stretched further as I wrote, my beer glass slowly emptying as the beer garden filled out with people. With a belly full of beer and a good day's work behind me, I returned to my hotel and re-lived a night very similar to the one I had before. Takeaway, sitcoms, and an awareness of being alone.



The next day dawned cloudy. I had been ready for this. The previous night, in amongst the sitcoms and takeaway, I had made a plan. My morning would be spent working, finishing off the updated outline for the graphic novel, and then I would go up yet another mountain with the hope that doing so slightly later in the day would give the sun some time to burn away the clouds.


The plan started well. I got the work done I wanted to, send it off to my collaborators, found the bus stop that would take me out of town and to the base of the mountains, was able to ride it for free thanks to my tourist card, and in just under half an hour was exiting alone on to the side of the road. I looked up at the huge metal infrastructure that made up the chairlift and its adjacent terminal. It was designed for hundreds of people to pass through at a given time. An endless and constantly rotating set of floating carriages were waiting to gorge themselves on travellers, slide up the side of the mountain on thick corded metal wires, then expel those same travellers, before returning back to the bottom to do it all over again. Except there weren't hundreds of travellers. There was just me. This wasn’t the height of summer, or the snow season, this was a shoulder season, the end of spring, and, as I had found out the night before when making my plan, this chairlift had only reopened one week earlier.


I climbed up the wide metal stairs and went to the ticket booth where a smiley woman seemed pleased to see me. I bought a ticket from her, gratefully received a map, and headed for the carriages, all starving and empty of people. I chose one, waited as its movement slowed enough for me to step in and sat as the doors closed behind me. Then, I was rising.


As is likely becoming apparent, and will continue to do so, I went up a lot of chairlifts on this trip, eight in total I believe, and that initial rise, that lifting away from the ground, always sent a little shiver through me. Part fear and part thrill as the ground fell away from me. It should also be noted that a standard chairlift is about as extreme of a carnival ride as this Scaredy Boy can handle.


This is also when my plan started to come undone. The chairlift took maybe twenty five minutes to get to the top. Within the first five, I was already in the clouds. My theory that if I waited later in the day the clouds might disperse was presently proving untrue, but I still had plenty of day left, and so that fire of hope continued to burn inside me. In the meantime, me and my carriage were immediately lost in white. The cable that carried us, ran for perhaps a metre or two behind us before it too was enveloped, making it look like we were hanging from nothing at all. And so up I went, solo, further into the clouds.


At the top, I stepped out into a dense and creamy white. I consulted my map, which unfortunately didn’t have a cloud filled version, but instead showed the terrain in easy-to-see clarity, then looked around for a signpost, finally found it through the fog, and started walking. I could describe here the eerie nature of this walk. The stumbling through an occasionally snowladed track as around me the terrain constantly appeared and disappeared into a physical fugue. But I want you to experience this for yourself as much as possible. So here are a number of photos and a video I took to try and capture the experience:




Not only was the cloud cover ever present, dulling the sound around me, it was also isolating. And yet, it was here, alone and cold, lost in the clouds on top of a mountain that I foolishly had told no one I would be climbing, that I found a comfort in travelling solo. I couldn’t keep the smile from my face. There was a ridiculousness to the whole situation that made it more endearing and amusing than anything else. And, it was just plain extraordinary. Yes, I was walking through a horror movie setting, but the cold was bracing and clean, the scenery quiet and beautiful, and the track, hell, the whole mountain for all I knew, was mine, and mine alone. And, I had done it. I knew there was an alternate version of me who didn’t climb the mountain. Who was sitting in his hotel room, still watching sitcoms, using the clouds as an excuse to avoid the challenges of travelling solo.


But I wasn’t him. I was on the mountain.


I wandered around that mountain for the better part of four hours and at no point did it ever look like the clouds were going to disperse. If anything, they just seemed to grow steadier and sturdier in my time up there. That was okay. While there was still a slight frustration to knowing epic views were sitting just behind their dense white forms, I couldn’t fault my strange and unique experience, because it was joyous, and silly, and mine.


I went back down the mountain the same way I had gotten up there, still barely seeing another soul beyond the few people working.


That night, I made another plan for another mountain. The next day was a travel day. I was leaving Austria and heading into northern Italy, to a city called Bolzano. Travel days can be weirdly tiring and usually I’m happy to get to the new accommodation, settle in, explore the neighbourhood a little bit, and save the bigger touristy stuff for the next day. But looking at the weather in Bolzano during my time there, I quickly realised that wasn’t possible. Not if I wanted some more mountain action, and as a self declared mountain pervert, I definitely did. This was because while my arrival day was clear and sunny, the following day would be non-stop rain.


This plan, I’m happy to report, went off without a hitch. I left my hotel early, my shoulders growing ever more comfortable under the weight of my big backpack, and walked to the train. Soon, I was speeding across the countryside, at some point crossing the imaginary border between Austria and Italy. I arrived in Bolzano into sun and an orange glow. That is the colour of the city in my mind. A warm orange. I quickly navigated my way down its crowded but well treed streets, away from the heart and out towards one of its limbs that would be my home for the next few nights. My accommodation host had messaged me a few days prior with some instructions, which included to check in at a woman’s clothing store. Strange, but I did, greeting the woman behind the counter with my big bag on my back as I said, ‘I was told to come here to pick up a key for my accommodation?’


The accommodation turned out to be behind the store, a well furnished and incredibly comfortable little unit that was more than enough space for one man and his bag. The woman and her husband owned both the shop and the unit. Neither spoke much english, and my italian is non-existent, and so the husband mimed me through the accommodations amenities while I gave exaggerated reactions to show I understood. He handed over the key, gave me a smile, and left me to it.


I dropped my bag and got to work. It was already getting closer to midday and if I wanted to climb another mountain, I had a few things I needed to do first. I quickly put my phone on charge, packed a smaller backpack, grabbed some complimentary pastries my hosts had provided, and was soon heading out again to walk back the way I had come. It was a four kilometre walk to the next chairlift, mostly done along a blue-green river. This chairlift was the opposite to the one from the day before. Small and with just a single carriage. First though, I had to figure out how to get on it.


The signage to the chairlift was sparse and when I finally found a small square building with sliding doors, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. Nevertheless, I went in. I walked from one end of it to the other in a few short paces until I got to another sliding door that didn’t slide. Through it, I thought I could see the cable for the chairlift, but couldn’t see any carriages and so couldn’t tell if it was moving. I left the building, walked around, found nothing that would help me solve this puzzle, and went back in. I returned to the unsliding sliding door, and this time saw through it, stuck to the outside wall, a small printed A4 sign that read “Door will open automatically. Ticket booth is at the other end” below which was a list of times. So, I waited. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes, the door finally slid open. I went through, still alone, and saw the single carriage waiting for me. I got on and almost immediately it started moving. The whole experience felt somewhat surreal, made more so when at the top, a man with a beard and hair combo I can only describe as unique, was waiting behind some glass for me to buy a ticket. I did so, then exited out to some truly stunning scenery.


Almost immediately, I was spellbound. This mountain was different to the ones I had visited across Austria. Smaller, grassier, lush, and populated. Below me stretched the valley I had come from, depicted in blues and greens and that warm orange. I took a bunch of photos and started walking. There was no defined route but a website I had looked up suggested one by combining a number of tracks. I walked fast then slow, pausing at numerous spots to take more photos and truly drink it all down.


I sent Holly one of those photos and she sent me one back from her location. While I was feeling the same rush I had the day before, I also had a tinge of bittersweet awareness that the experience would be just that little bit better if I had someone to share it with. Solo travelling definitely has its perks and challenges and rewards, but in those moments when you experience something that is arguably the reason for travelling, I think it’s better to have company.


Saying all that, it didn’t stop me from giddily anticipating each rise in the track, each vista that would be revealed when the trees parted, or from enjoying the warm ache in my legs from having walked so much. I was drunk on it all, and so what better way to finish it all off than with a literal drink. Near the end of the route my website had recommended was a small chalet. I sat, satisfied and tired, and ordered a large larger from a friendly middle aged man with a belly and a moustache, then sat in the sun, and read a while.



The next day it rained. Rain rained. Torrential consistent rain that made it clear that if you had plans, you better cancel them. Luckily for me, this was expected, and so my plan was for another writing day. There was another mountain in Bolzano I hoped to hop up, but that could wait until the following day when the rain had cleared.


Except it didn’t clear, and the following day it fell even harder.


I looked out my window hoping for a break in the heavy clouds and saw none. I checked my weather app, and a few other websites besides, hoping for someone to tell me there was even just the slimmest chase I could slip out in the afternoon and get another mountain fix. All in vain.


Fine, I decided, I couldn’t go up a mountain, but that wouldn’t stop me from venturing out. So, raincoat on, I headed outside, aiming for the old town. I strolled its wet streets, passing between shops and cafes, but felt a bit too uncomfortable and impatient to enter any of them. Inevitably, I admitted defeat. The rain had won. I gave in and resigned myself to a rest day. And so, I stopped by a supermarket to buy some pastries and chocolate to console myself with. With these treats crammed into my coat pockets, I started back to my accommodation. I was soon running. The rain, likely sensing my vulnerability, kicked things up to the next level. It gushed down around me, heavy and deafening, as it did its best to soak me through.


And that was how my solo travelling came to an end. The next day saw me reuniting with Holly and Jono and Alex and Rupert. But I’ll tell you about that next time.

 

Thank you so much for reading these Stray Thoughts and until next time, if you happen to see the rain, give it a big fuck you from me.


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