A Thin Place Nestled in the Mountains

A shrieking alarm violently ripped through the still air, immediately followed by a heavy *THUMP* and a plethora of cusses that would require the pouring of holy water to cleanse my ears. The alarm continued for another four or five rings before someone finally turned it off.

Still lying in my bed, I asked, “You alright?”

“Hit my head on the fucking ceiling. Fuck bunk beds, man,” replied Michael.

Opaque darkness blanketed the room. I put my bare feet down on the cold hardwood floor and blindly felt my way across the room to the lightswitch. The three of us groggily threw on some clothes, brushed, and made our way into the city streets. As we walked underneath the blue hour, shops began turning on their lights and bakeries started releasing the sweetest of aromas, which paired perfectly with the crisp October air.

By the time we got breakfast, the overcast skies had been set on fire by the first rays of light. I quickly swung my backpack off my shoulders and grabbed my camera from it. To me, at the time, seeing this magnificent scene was what all that traveling was about! Waking up early to capture scenes as beautiful as they come in all their natural beauty. The towering mountains, surrounding Innsbruck, were glowing red hot at their peaks. Hues of red and magenta had been painted across the beautiful Baroque and Gothic architecture of the city. Up above, the silhouettes of flocks of birds danced across the sky. All the while, the heavy huffs and puffs of delivery trucks echoed down the alleyways and the hum of street traffic steadily grew more apparent.

We eventually made our way to the bus stop, from which we would go out of town and into the foothills of the Tyrolean Alps. The night prior, we had mapped out an eight mile hike, with roughly 2,000 feet in elevation gain. Nothing crazy. I had seen pictures of a lake at the top of the mountain, from which the reflection of the peaks could be seen. Even the sloppy phone pictures I saw online were mesmerizing and I desperately wanted to see if I could capture the scene even better.

We arrived. The bus raced off, kicking up a cloud of dust and spewing out a cloud of aromatic, black exhaust. By the time the dust settled, the only thing ahead of us was a gravel road, wide enough for two lanes of traffic. With no other direction to go, we began our ascent. Rather confused, we saw nothing except this gravel road in the alpine forest for a little over four miles. On the final turn of this road, a most grand scene emerged. Prominent, snow-dusted peaks loomed over a quaint wooden inn. Upon the arrival at the gasthaus, we grabbed a few Austrian beers and asked the owner where the trail was. Turns out, the trail technically began at the inn and we had already hiked enough to mark the turning point of our initial eight mile hike!

Well, we certainly didn’t come all this way just to see some gravel. With a final swig of our beers, we embarked on our quest to the peak. Naturally, we went in the direction most directly towards the peaks behind the gasthaus. The next four miles were filled with quiet admiration, sprinkles of laughter, and vistas, whose grandeur compared to the likes of those in some epic movie or wildlife documentary. Finally reaching the mountain ridge, the entire earth emerged in view. Never had I stood so high, looking upon what felt like the entire world! At almost 8,000 feet elevation, no vegetation obstructed our views. The Alps continued to the horizon and in between were snaking rivers, lush forests, and pockets of civilization.

We stood on the ridgeline for some time, each person silently taking in the beauty of it all. “You’re not going to take out your camera?” Liam asked. I looked around our surroundings some more and told him that the lighting conditions weren’t all that splendid. The sun was still high in the sky, casting harsh light straight down on the landscape. He then asked me why I bothered carrying up all that gear if I wasn’t planning on using it. “Well, it’s in case I happen upon a great photo opportunity,” I explained.

I took out my phone and began snapping pictures, more so to serve my memory going forward. I had been increasingly astonished by how far mobile phone photography had come. The tiny cameras and sensors were producing images of remarkably good quality and the sheer convenience of having it in my pocket was hard to beat. However, it couldn’t even begin to compare to my actual camera when it came to producing images of website and print quality. After taking a bunch of group selfies, we started eyeing the path back down.

As we began our descent, I couldn’t help but feel a little dismayed that we somehow missed the lake, which we initially planned on seeing. We saw no trailhead for it and had no reception to view a map. As we walked past the gasthaus once more, I noticed a trailhead labeled: “SALFEINERSEE.” Evidently, we had been in such a rush to go see the peak that we blew right past this sign. We saw a house a little ways down the path to the lake and decided to ask for directions. The locals advised us not to continue as the hike would take two hours roundtrip and the sun was dipping fast. Rationally, the decision to go back to town made the most sense. Not only would it be dangerous to hike on the rough terrain with only the flashlights on our phones, but at 9:00 p.m. the bus back to Innsbruck would make its last run. If any of us rolled an ankle or got lost on the way down, it would be a disaster in a place with no cellular reception.

Slightly disappointed, I followed my friends back down the gravel road from which we had hiked up earlier. Truth be told, I was a little tired. We had already hiked 12 miles and still had four more to go until we reached the bus station. Based on what the locals had told us, I calculated the lake would add on another four miles to the trip as well as bring our total elevation ascended up to 6,600 or so feet. Despite understanding the risks and hearing my legs complaining, I was filled with longing. When will I be back here to chase after that image seared into my mind? Or better yet, would I ever come back here? A slight sigh escaped through my lips as I continued to walk.

As if the universe were sending us a signal, a second trailhead for the lake emerged further down the gravel road.

“It is getting pretty close to nightfall..” I began.

I locked eyes with Michael. Then I looked into Liam’s. No further words were exchanged. With a twinkle in their eyes and the emergence of a smirk on their faces, they began running full speed up the switchback trail. I chased after them, eventually leading the pack, fueled with a hunger for what awaited us along with the pressure of the increasingly golden sky. Frequent stops plagued us near the end, often leaving us with our hands on our knees as we gasped for what little of the thin mountain air we could get. Wind blows hardest at the top.

We arrived at the lake on top of the mountain. We ran around it until facing the same mountain ridge we stood upon earlier that day. I dropped my 20 pound camera bag onto the ground and hastily began setting up. The wind was howling and cutting across my cheeks. My sweat-soaked clothes were quickly becoming an ice pack.

Suddenly, as if the wind gods had to catch a breath, the air became suspended in time and space.

*click*

At long last, there it was. That thin place between heaven and earth. A place that of which I never knew existed. Pastel colors gently lit the articulate features of the mountainside. Like a little straw hat, the beginnings of what seemed like a lenticular cloud, glowing with magenta hues, were forming above the tallest peak. The snowmelt runoffs from the summer months had left smooth impressions that, like silken drapes, gently caressed the slopes below the peaks. All of which was perfectly reflected across the glassy water, almost as if I were staring into a parallel universe. The distinction between the surreal and reality became blurred.

The visual scenery, alone, could have floored me. But it was also the still of the silence. A silence that whisks you into another world, one in which you wonder how it is that such a surreal place could possibly exist on this earth and how that, you, a small-town person from halfway across the world, could be seeing this! Humbled by such an immense gift, one can only long to share it with someone. Although thankful to have two fellow companions with me, I couldn’t help but long that my close friends from home could be there with me too.

I suppose that’s why I take pictures. To tell people: Look! Look at what this earth holds.

Look at this place which we call home.

Salfeinssee, Grinzens, Austria

Salfeinersee. October 2018.

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