Scenic Diversion

The life, and presumed death, of a good idea.

| January 27, 2006

I first rolled into the hostel in Salzburg a few days ago, just as they were finishing The Sound of Music, and now that I'm back I've got a beer, my journal, and a schnitzel on the way. Some Aussies are getting drunk at the other table. I'm even sitting in the same chair, right across from where she was sitting.

Last time I sat here, I had just ridden all day through the mountains on a train. It was like a fantasy ride, all the quaint villages and snow-capped peaks glistening in the sun. Rolling meadows, shimmering lakes, and crystal-clear sky.

I headed straight for the infamous Salzburg Hostel, "The Place That Never Quits," run and dominated by lunatic Australians. I was on top of the backpacking world, fresh in from that wonderful train ride with a great place to stay and a party just cranking up in the bar, when I sat down for the soothing ritual of catching up in my journal.

There was an American girl, a blonde, sitting across from me, writing postcards. We exchanged hellos, and I sat down to write. Then I thought, Gosh, that was a nice smile. I tossed out a line or two of small talk, she picked up on it, and pretty soon neither of us was writing a word.

She was coming from Germany, heading for Switzerland. I had just been in Interlaken, at another famous hostel called Balmer's, a must-stop on the backpacking/EuroParty circuit. Fueled by beer and charmed by my audience, I spun yarns of sledding trips, community dinners, crazy people, and amazing scenery. Made me start to miss the place. And her smile was intoxicating.

A few beers, a schnitzel, and a couple hours later, it came time for her to leave, and she looked me right in the eye, smiled, and said, "Why don't you come with me? The train's in an hour."

My pack was still packed. Had a Eurail Pass in it. She was cute. Said after Interlaken she was headed for the French Riviera. I mean ... sure!

Noon the next day, we were checked into Balmer's, wondering how to spend the afternoon in Interlaken.

We got goulash at a place where I had eaten two days before. We started getting sleepy that afternoon, so we got some chocolate and picked a bench by the river for a little picnic. But it was a cold, gray day, and we retreated to a museum.

That night at Balmer's, I looked for her after the nightly movie, but I didn't see her. I fell into conversation with some other folks, and by the time I bumped into her again, we were both tired.

The next day was crappy and cold -- February in the Alps. We went to a little ski town, but we didn't have the money to ski. Wasn't much else to do, so we just kind of walked around, saying things like, "I bet it's pretty here in the summer." She tried to catch a snowflake on her tongue, and we both chuckled.

We were running out of things to talk about. We had talked about where we had been, where we wanted to go, why we were on the trip, what we planned on doing back in the States, how we wanted our lives to turn out.

Somehow, when it all started in Salzburg, I thought something else was going to happen. There was magic and excitement that night, an implied "and" that followed "Go with me to Interlaken." "Go with me and ..." what? Fall in love? Sleep together? Keep having the same great time? Or just ... hang out? Walk around? What?

It kept slowing down and slowing down. By the time we got to Lugano, we weren't talking at all anymore. I was too young and scared to ask about it, too shy to make a pass, just wise enough to realize that moment had passed anyway. I felt like something else should be happening; I just didn't know what. I had chased a pretty smile, and now I couldn't even see it.

We took a train to the top of a mountain outside Lugano and walked to a viewing platform. We could see mountains to the horizon, a lake spread out below us, the town clinging to the edge at our feet. I said, "That's a great view," and she said, "Yeah."

Now I'm back in Salzburg. It took me a day to make the break. She'd smile, and I'd doubt. Then I'd talk to other people and have fun, and I'd want to run off with them. Our last day together was a sunny Sunday in Lucerne, with everyone dressed up and the mountains immaculate.

I told her at the train station, something about "heading back east," and she looked at me blankly and said, "Your decision." Then she smiled and said, "Don't you want to see the Riviera?"

That was two days ago, and now I'm back at the hostel in Salzburg. They're starting up The Sound of Music again, and the Aussies are getting cranked. And sitting here with my beer, and a schnitzel on the way, I'm still not entirely sure why I'm here, instead of chasing that pretty smile.

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