01 August 2009
This is a story about a girl, a boy, and a castle. Now before you go getting the idea that this is a romantic tale, let me set you straight on the matter. There is no romance in this story. There is a good deal of insanity, bravery, death, and pain involved, but no romance. The girl and the boy were sister and brother, you see, and they were touring Europe in the summer, as sometimes brothers and sisters like to do. If you haven't tried it yourself, you might think of doing so. Just pick a sibling and off you go, and I shouldn't wonder if you will find yourself having a fantastically good time.
This girl and her brother were having a fantastically good time. They had already seen a good bit of Europe by the time that this story takes place. In Venice, Italy, they had seen a great many boats and a great deal of water but not very much grass.
They had also seen the Piazza San Marco, which was over one thousand years old. The girl found that this piazza was a popular destination for both tourists and pigeons, and she wasn't sure which of the two she liked least.
In Salzburg, Austria, in the very room in which the famous composer Mozart had been born, the boy had been yelled at by a tour guide not to take pictures, although the girl had sneaked some pictures anyway.
High in the Austrian Alps near a tiny town called Obertraun, they had gone to the very top of a mountain and seen caves full of ice, and they had taken pictures with glaciers and mountain lakes and scenery almost too good to be true.
In the beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic, they had, almost unbelievably, found the first Starbucks of their journey, and so had taken great delight in the overpriced coffee while waiting for the right sunlight in which to get good pictures of the Charles Bridge.
The girl's brother was a photographer, you see, and that point is crucial to this story. If you don't understand that, you might not understand the rest of this story, and then what is the point in reading it at all? You may as well stop reading right now if you skip over the fact that the thing this girl's brother liked most in the world was to stand very still in one spot with his camera perched neatly on its tripod and take pictures of huge landscapes or famous buildings or old bridges. Sometimes he would stand in the same spot for hours on end, doing nothing but stare into that end of the camera into which it is appropriate to stare, if you aren't the subject of the picture. And while he did this, the boy's sister would sit patiently, no matter how high the sun, or how drizzly the rain, or how badly she needed to find a restroom.
Sometimes the girl would find things she wanted to photograph as well. She had a smaller camera than her brother's, with not so many buttons on it, which was fine with her. Over time she had found that she loved taking pictures of the very small things of the world, things like flowers and bees and rocks.
But on the whole, the girl didn't love photography quite as much as her brother did, and so naturally she sometimes didn't quite share the same level of eagerness to climb mountains or to locate the very highest point of every city, or to wake up before the sun.
She sometimes thought that if she didn't count the exercise she was getting out of the deal, it would all be a bit pointless. But overall, she was very content to follow her brother through rain and shine, to carry his coffee, and to hold his camera lenses, because she knew that doing these things made her brother happy.
On the particular day that this story takes place, the brother and sister had gone to a small town in Germany named Füssen. Füssen was a beautiful town that had a monastery which was nearly twelve hundred years old, lot's of curvy roads that went either up or down hills, depending upon your perspective, and parks and scenery that would make you want to stand very still on the top of a hill, close your eyes and breathe it all in.
Very near Füssen stood two castles. One of these castles was called Hohenschwangau, which was where the German royal family sometimes spent weekends.
The other castle's name was Neuschwanstein. This castle was famous for two reasons: firstly, because it had been built in the 1800's by a king who was later declared insane; and secondly, because a very long time after it had been built, it's beautiful design had inspired a man named Walt Disney to make a castle just like it in another country. The girl thought that both of these things were fascinating, especially the bit about the insane king, and so she was very happy to be visiting the castle on the day that this story takes place. She and her brother were both excited to see the unbelievable view and to take some incredible photos.
But after a very long, hot walk up a hill that never seemed to stop, both the girl and her brother were disappointed to find that the best view of the castle wasn't much of a view at all. To be sure, it was a very pretty castle, at least what could be seen of it from below on the road, but even if you strained your eyes all day, you couldn't even hope to see all of the castle, and no matter how you turned your camera, it wouldn't all fit into the frame.
The girl and her brother took a tour of the castle. They hadn't come all this way to see only one wall of the castle, after all. It was a very interesting tour. The guide spoke an enchanting mixture of German and English, and she seemed to say "ja" quite often. The girl was entranced by the sheer loveliness of each room. The girl's brother, on the other hand, learned more than he had hoped to about the German composer Richard Wagner, to whom the castle had been dedicated. Each room was painted with ethereal scenes from different Wagner operas, and the girl had trouble sorting out which paintings she liked most.
Everything was going well until the brother looked out of one of the high castle windows. They had looked out of several windows of the same sort and the view was always spectacular! The girl often thought after it was all over that if she had been the insane king, she would have chosen to build a castle in exactly the same spot, just for the view.
But from this particular window, a high mountain ridge loomed up in front of the girl and the boy. All of a sudden, the boy exclaimed, "There's somebody there!"
"Where?" the girl inquired.
"Look!" said the brother, pointing. "Do you see that person in the red shirt high up on the ridge? We have to figure out how to get up there! That's where I'll get the best shots of this place!"
He was so excited that the girl merely nodded in agreement, although the idea of trekking up an obviously dangerous ridge didn't sound so appealing to her.
Soon the two siblings exited the castle and began their search for the trail up the ridge. They climbed up a road that led to steps, and those steps led to a bridge, and that bridge crossed a deep gorge through which a small river ran, and across that gorge, the ridge rose up, claiming the sky for its own on that sunny afternoon. Just across the bridge, the road turned into a narrow bumpy path which wound it's way up the hill.
The girl and her brother had just begun their walk down this path when the girl spotted a very tiny something on the edge of the trail. This very tiny something may or may not be called a trail itself, for it led directly up the incline. It was littered with slippery tree roots upon which to hold, precariously balanced rocks upon which to step, and very small bits of loose rock that looked like it might make the going very bad. A wooden sign posted on a tree at the bottom of the trail read "Danger! Do not leave marked path!"
And so of course, as fate would have it, the boy decided that this path, though clearly not the marked path mentioned on the sign, would be the one to take them and their cameras up to the very tip top of the ridge. He took off at a steady clip and the girl thoughtfully stared after him for a moment before setting off herself.
They climbed on for awhile in silence. It was hard to climb straight upwards, stepping onto shaky rocks and grabbing muddy roots, all the while trying to stay upright and safe. The view down wasn't helpful either, as it made the girl feel very anxious for her safety.
The girl began to imagine what it would be like to fall over the edge of the cliff. She wondered if she would land on rocks or if she would crash against a tree. She imagined her brother running for help. She finally made up her mind that if she fell over the edge, she would prefer death to the humiliation of being air lifted out of the trees while hundreds of spectators gaped from the castle walls.
It wasn't too long, or too far up the hill either, for that matter, before the girl tripped on a particularly slippery stone and began to fall. With a hard crack, her knee struck the very rock upon which she had just tripped, and she gasped as the pain shot both ways, up and down, her leg. Grabbing onto the closest tree root, the girl held on for dear life.
The pain was so distracting that she didn't even notice how her chin crashed into a tree root, and it wasn't until later that she realized she had acquired a good layer of dirt on her cheek. In fact, it wasn't until after she'd had a chance to wash off the dirt that she found a nice-sized gash just on the bottom of her chin, and even later in the evening before she discovered a lovely tennis-ball-shaped bruise darkening over an equally tennis-ball-shaped lump on her leg. More than a month later, this lump was still causing her problems, but for now we'll stick to the story.
"I wonder," thought the girl, "if anyone has died while climbing this ridge. I wonder if anyone has ever just...lost their footing and slipped right over the edge." She was thinking these things over as she climbed shakily and painfully upwards, and she soon found the answer to her question, for she came abruptly to the top of the incline. There in front of her the path made a sharp turn to the right, and straight ahead the hill dropped off a steep cliff. On the very edge of the cliff was planted a small metal cross with a name and date clearly engraved on a plaque, which was fixed to the center of the cross.
"Gudrun Böse, 27.8.1966," the girl read silently. She looked to where her brother was moving away up the path. "Look," she called, "someone died here. Maybe this path isn't safe."
The boy turned around and ambled back down the path to where the girl stood looking at the cross. He gazed at the cross for a moment himself.
"No, of course this path is safe," he said at last. "That person probably wasn't being careful. Just don't be stupid and you'll be fine."
After pausing momentarily to consider Gudrun's feelings over having his death labeled as "stupid," the girl turned to continue the climb, all the while praying the top of the ridge was near.
At this point what a poetic end it would make to this story if the girl lost her footing, just as apparently Gudrun Böse had forty-three years earlier, and as she fell she managed to catch hold of poor Gudrun's cross and pull herself back up, thereby both living and turning Gudrun's death into something a little more worthwhile than it had been. But that isn't how this story ends. In fact, it has such a non-eventful ending that maybe you will just want to stop reading here. The truth is that, despite the girl's fears, both girl and boy successfully made it to the top of the ridge. They were careful not to trip over the many tree roots which created small obstacles in their pathway. They were equally careful not to step where the mud was too slick or the rocks too shaky.
In time, the boy called over his shoulder, "I think we're close to the top!"
And it was true! Just as the girl, with her leg throbbing, had just about had enough, the steep climb ended. The small upwards trail joined with the larger path which all the time had been winding up the hill in a safer route, and the ground leveled out to an only-slightly inclined, easier walk. Now that she didn't need to use her hands for climbing, the girl stopped to take a few pictures and have a drink of water.
Very soon, the brother and sister arrived at a beautiful little clearing on the very edge of the ridge. They were high enough to see countless kilometers of landscape. The could see two lakes and both castles, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, not to mention a blue sky with puffy white clouds that the girl felt sure God designed just to take her breath away.
The boy immediately unpacked him photography equipment and began doing what he loved most.
The girl sat down to catch her breath, pulled down her ponytail and shook her hair out to blow in the wind.
Presently, she picked up her own camera and began taking pictures too, of very small things as usual, although she eventually asked her brother to take some pictures of her and the castle for which they had climbed all the way up the ridge.
The siblings took quite a few pictures before they made their way back down the mountain. On the decent, they took the longer, winding path, and the limping girl felt much safer for it.
The boy and the girl went on to have many other adventures on their European summer vacation, and the girl was very glad to get on with it now that she felt the scariest part of her summer was over.
They biked the lovely Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland.
They paid a visit to the highest train station in Europe and saw an incredible amount of ice and snow.
And they both eventually returned to America where they had a happy reunion with their family and friends. After some time, the girl wrote a blog post about the journey that she and her brother had taken. It was fun to look at the pictures and imagine she was in all of those places again, but it made her happy to know that she was finished with the muddy, ridge-climbing day and all of the injuries that had come with it. And she was very glad that she hadn't died in Germany.
That girl in Switzerland