I had assured everyone the night before that I would be fine, so I had to be fine.
“You’re afraid on our roof sometimes, Dan,” Lea scolded me. “Don’t you know that hiking in the mountains is even worse than that?”
I knew that, yeah, but I figured I’d be okay because the trail guide we were using was written for parents of five- and six-year-olds and includes sentences like: “This rock might be a little big for Junior’s small legs; we recommend that Papa goes up first and helps Mama hoist the little one up,” and “Good job, tike, you can talk about your heroic deeds at Kindergarten tomorrow!”
But, at the same time, the trail we were hiking, Wilde Hölle, means wild hell. So, there’s that.
The first half went great. I got winded early, but pumped some ambiguous asthma medication into my lungs and began to enjoy the fresh, chilly air. I walked alone in front, the two moms a bit behind me, and the three kids, casting Harry Potter spells with fallen-twig wands, always out of sight, but not so far that I couldn’t hear them yelling.
“Avada Kedavra! You’re dead. Lea, you’re dead. You’re dead!”
“I know I’m dead, Leonard, but we have to keep hiking you idiot!”
I ate a bunch of grapes and threw them stem just off the trail, and I imagined my father telling me, age seven, that we can come back in a few years and find a grape tree there. “Really?” I’d ask. “Really,” he’d say. And who would’ve known, grapes don’t even grow on trees.
We ate our lunch at Carolafels, a large rock plateau and the highest point of our journey. I even had to do a small bit of rock climbing to get up there, risking my life on small metal foot- and handholds. And I wasn’t nervous. My hands didn’t sweat, my legs didn’t shake. I can talk about my heroic deeds at Kindergarten tomorrow, I thought.
Stuffed with sandwiches, apples, and gummy bears, warmed by peppermint tea and the beautiful view, we began our descent. We arrived at a big intersection and our guidebook was a little ambiguous about which fork we ought to take.
“Are you guys looking for the yellow route?”
“It’s this one back here. An exciting little path.”
They headed the way we had come from; we headed the way they had come from. The sign read: Heilige Stiege. I knew that heilige meant ‘holy’, so I took it that this part of the trail was a hard-earned, God-given blessing for those who had bravely conquered the wild hell. Of course, I didn’t know then that Stiege meant ‘narrow staircase’.
And so after a few minutes, I found this:
That’s the beginning of the holy narrow staircase, built in 1698 and composed of 903 steps that descend 623 feet. This first section is the most tame, because each step is just a few feet above the ground. Around the corner, the steps curve around the edge of the cliff, 500 feet off the ground.
So, I went backwards.
Not back where we had come from – we had been hiking for five hours and it was already starting to get darker, there was no way I could go back – rather, I walked down slowly by putting each foot behind me while gripping both my hands on the rails. As soon as we got around the corner, that is, as soon as we got to the most awful part, we realized that a large group was coming up the stairs, and I had to push myself up against the rail and wait a few minutes for everyone to pass.
Waiting like that was awful.
I yelled songs in my head. I drummed on the handrail. I awkwardly nodded at every single person who passed me coming up the stairs. And then I kept walking. Backwards. Reaching clumsily for the next handrail when we got to the end of a section and the stairs doubled back. Repeatedly asking Julie if we were close, knowing that she was lying in the most encouraging way when she said, “Yeah, closer.”
And then we were on the ground. And there was sand everywhere. In the middle of the forest, at the bottom of the holy narrow staircase that leads to the wild hell, we were on the beach. And the kids built castles and we cut up some apples and we joked about building a little store there, selling shaved ice. And I can’t believe I made it down.