MUNICH, West Germany — My son, soon to turn 40, called in late spring. "Some friends are going to help me celebrate my mid-life crisis by motorcycling through the Dolomite Alps. Like to come along and carry our baggage in the 'Cookie Wagon'?"
You bet I would. I'm 66, and don't get many invitations to such adventure.
The Over-the-Brow-of-the-Hill Gang gathered July 13 in Munich. Eight riders, all 40ish, from California, Colorado, Missouri and New York. That evening over beer and bratwurst we met Hermann Weil, owner of Motorad Reissen, and Klaus Staufer, our Austrian guide. Klaus' wife, Yvonne, would bring up the rear; I would follow her in a VW Golf.
Heading for the Country
Next morning Klaus brought 1,000-cc BMW cycles and black leather riding gear to our hotel. By 11 our caravan was headed east on the Autobahn, and by noon had turned south into the Bavarian countryside.
We were prepared for beautiful scenery, but not for the post-card perfection at every turn: crystal lakes, sequined with white sails. Steep mountain slopes, green as gardens, and as manicured. Onion-dome church spires in every village, typically Bavarian, but reminiscent of the towers of the Kremlin.
Everywhere flowers--petunias, geraniums and marigolds displayed in window boxes of two-story Alpine houses. Begonias, salvia, lilies, daisies in planters of hollow pine logs lining village streets.
We stopped to take it all in. "Why did we bother to come?" one rider quipped. "It looks just like Epcot."
"What impresses me," said another, "is no litter. Even the logs at the sawmills are stacked neatly!" Throughout our 1,500-kilometer trip over Alpine byroads we would continue to be impressed with the harmony that man and nature have managed to achieve.
In early afternoon Klaus turned onto a one-lane road and called for a break. "Going up our first pass now," he said. "Pay close attention. The road is narrow and these hills are quite steep."
"Quite steep" indeed. Grassy shoulders that sloped off at 45-degree angles, curves beyond counting, sudden vistas of the valley below that did funny things to the pit of my stomach.
We broke for lunch at a high-country restaurant, a chalet overlooking the valley miles below. Schnitzel and bratwurst, potatoes and kraut. Prosciutto ham and cheeses, with thick-crust bread. Apple strudel, followed by espresso or cappuccino.
Studying the Roads
Over lunch we discussed our ride over the well-marked, well-maintained roads and agreed that:
--On Autobahns, where there is no speed limit, it's a good idea to stay out of the fast lane.
--Any tourist can handle two-lane secondary roads, if he has no tendency to acrophobia and if he is not subject to carsickness brought on by hairpin curves that never quit.
--One-lane back roads should be avoided by all but the venturesome.
As driver of the chase car I had some special viewpoints. A VW cannot hope to keep pace with the far greater acceleration and maneuverability of a BMW motorcycle. With Yvonne's blond pigtail as my guide, and shifting like Barney Oldfield, I was lucky to arrive at rendezvous points several minutes behind the group.
The real test of our driving skills would come that afternoon. None of us knew that we would spend the night at an aerie atop Hohe Tauern National Park in the southern Austrian Tirol.
It was evening when we headed up the sinuous cobblestone pass, slick with rain. A chilling fog moved in, so dense that we lost sight of everything except the dim outline of guardrails. Imagination readily supplied the sheer drop-offs that lay beyond.
An hour and 5,000 feet later we arrived at the summit and the Edelweiss Spitze lodge. From there one has a close view of a magnificent snowcapped range that includes Gross Glockner, highest mountain in the Austrian Alps, and its glacier. But we wouldn't know that till next morning when the fog lifted, and we were able to visit the glacier.
Near the Italian border the next day we got our first glimpse of the Dolomite Alps, towering blocks of soft calcium-magnesium carbonate that time has fancifully carved into flattops, sugar loaves, fingers and spires. The Alps were formed by Africa pushing Italy north against the underbelly of Europe. They often rise from valleys not far above sea level, which explains why you can climb 8,000 feet and come out on a summit that is only 9,000 feet high.
In the next few days we would make our way over a dozen Dolomite passes not found on most road maps. Panoramas would vary, but we could count on certain scenic elements to remain constant. Near the summit, dark-green forests and Alpine meadows alive with the blooms of lupine, thistle, Queen Anne's lace and Alpenrosen. Halfway down the pass, tumbling streams of white water, ski lifts, ski slopes. Small towns in the uplands and on the valley floors, quaint and charming, but with a cosmopolitan flavor that reminds you that they play host to the elite of the skiing world.