Biking the Slow Hills Of Rural Austria

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WE didn't understand a great deal of the burly gentleman's rolling German speech. But we finally caught the heart of his question: ``Why are you biking? Cyclists are so slow. Get on a train, rent a car, and you can see much more of our country.'' After having biked through the hillsides between Grossklein and Stainz, Austria, my husband and I paused to sip lemonade with Herr Heinrich, who had called to us from his yard. It was during our chat - complete with enthusiastic gesturing to make up for our lack of language proficiency - that he raised his question.

Why, when we could visit so many more places so much more comfortably by car or train, were we ambling along on our pedal-powered vehicles, loaded down in back with tent, sleeping bags and pads, a change of clothes, and biking tools?

True, in our 10-day exploration of southeastern Austria we had covered a mere sliver of all there was to see in this country. But we had gradually come to the conclusion that our bicycles were far more of a blessing than a hindrance. As we slowly traveled the remote roads that wove through the back ways of Austria, we became part of the life of village and countryside instead of remaining mere observers, detached as if watching a quaint scene on a movie screen.

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To us, it seemed much easier from the seat of a cycle to admire the bright bonnet of a woman digging in her garden, to be waved at, or to stop and talk with the local folk than if we were zipping along the rails or speedways. If we hadn't been moseying through the outskirts of Graz, for example, we never would have run into Esther. She was an ardent biker herself who insisted that we follow her home for tea, freshly picked peppers, and goat cheese.

Nor would we have met Gertrude and her son, Helmut, who chuckled at our question when we stopped, exhausted, beside their Gasthaus in Stainz. There was only one dinner on the menu and we asked how large a slab of pork and scoop of fritters we would be served. (Our limited German and constant hunger prompted us to sacrifice verbal etiquette for simple directness.) After a hearty meal with the family, we were treated to hot showers, long conversation over coffee and pastries, and a backyard in which to pitch our tent.

It was also incredibly invigorating to know that we had our roof and bed on our bike racks and that we had to earn our rest by pedaling, often relying on the generosity of the people we encountered to find a place to camp.

Early evening was our favorite time to bike. The pre-dusk light cradled farmhouse, curving pavement, and field in an orange glow. We pushed up the long, bending hills, sweating until our shirts clung wet to our backs, and then let loose at the top and coasted down into some new farm-specked valley. Sometimes we saw children chugging home in tractors with their fathers, or women in faded skirts and scarves forking hay onto long wagons.

Of course biking and camping in the countryside wasn't always pleasant and uncomplicated. While the open air generously lavished us with cool breezes, the fragrance of flower and rain, the sounds of friendly shouts and rushing rivers, it also left us vulnerable to soaking downpours, lightning, dust, and occasional car exhaust. In addition, we often wondered when we would next find an open bank, market, or cafe as we ran short of cash and food.

More than once, after discovering that not all cultures define business hours and days the same way we do, we found ourselves racing along the road to beat closing time. These moments reminded us that biking, like other alternatives to the fast-paced technological norm of Western society, is usually not as effortless and romantic as we make it in our imaginations.

Helene, too, must have known this just as she knew that living off the land without modern farm conveniences has its own complications and uncertainties. We met her in a lush valley fringed with forest outside of Kleinstubing where she, her mother, and young son raised a few goats, pigs, and chickens on a hectare of land behind the house.

After leading us to a grassy patch for our tent, she waved her hand to decline payment. As the light was fading, she brought us a plate of home-baked cookies and apple slices and told us to feel free to wash up inside. So unassuming, gracious, and trustful she was with strangers who had just wandered in from another country!

We had biked an extra half day's worth of kilometers off of our planned route in order to visit a nearby museum only to find that it would be closed the following day. But Frau Selyak, Helene's mother, who was a gardener at the museum, announced that she was adopting us as her long-lost American niece and nephew and that we were therefore eligible for free tickets to the museum if we would stay over a day. The next morning we emerged from our tent to find Frau Selyak dumping manure from a wheelbarrow, her white scruffy hair blowing in the breeze. She then settled down to pick and sort yellow blossoms that would later make chamomile tea.

As I watched how Helene and Frau Selyak contentedly focused on keeping order in their tiny pocket of the world with a shrewd toughness and a gentle sense of humor, I thought again of Herr Heinrich's question about why we chose to move so slowly across his land. It was hard for me to imagine doing anything more satisfying during our trip than getting to know a handful of the people who lived in this land and witnessing their open-hearted hospitality and genuine interest in outsiders.

I also thought of how, at many junctures in our lives, we face that old question of quantity versus quality. Why is it versus? Can't we have both? Not very often, I think. In our hurry to get someplace, we can lose sight of a deeper purpose for our journey. The rush to cover miles often squeezes out opportunities to ponder and relish where we've been and where we are.

I don't believe it's always wrong to choose quantity or to pick up the pace. But I think that sometimes we need to remind ourselves that there is a choice and then to become aware of what we are sacrificing when we elect the faster mode. Now if only I could translate my answer into German so that Herr Heinrich could understand.

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