Twenty. That’s how old I was in the winter of 1994 when I returned to Europe on my very first international mileage reward trip.
While I was smart enough to figure out how to wrangle an award ticket across the Atlantic as a university student in 1994, I hadn’t exactly honed my life skills in common sense. The good thing about life, however, is that it will teach you lessons along the road. This is the story of what I learned by accident in what I like to call “Alpine Driving School.”
It was a cold and snowy January morning when my friend Lisa and I arrived by overnight train into the mountain town of Innsbruck, Austria. We had no plan, just backpacks and winter clothes more suitable for Alabama then the Alps. We ignored the information desks and hostel helpers in the train station, took our our Let’s Go, and sleepily stumbled out into the snowy day.
(Let me digress to say that in 1994, Let’s Go was the guide book that everyone backpacking Europe had stashed in their gear. Lonely Planet wasn’t much on the scene, and since there was no tripadvisor, hostels.com, or googlemaps yet, a traveler had only this typically incorrect and outdated information and their intuition to figure out where the hell they were and which direction they should turn outside the train station door to navigate to the center of town and away from the ghetto.)
We were following the directions to find our warm hostel, but something went wrong. It wasn’t there.
The only thing worse than wandering around lost in the snow is wandering around lost in the snow for a really long time while carrying a giant backpack. (I travel much lighter now) Misdirections had us going in circles and my toes had gone numb in our quest.
At some point in our wandering we passed a rental car shop and began dreaming of exploring Austria with warm toes in the luxury of a heated automobile.
Now, two problems with being 20 years old in the USA are that you are too young to drink and too young to rent a car. (Thankfully this story has nothing to do with mixing the two) We stood outside in the cold entertaining the thought and decided to go inside. If we were legal to drink in Europe, maybe we could rent a car too.
We were in luck. The only small problem was that the only car available was a standard shift. We looked at each other and said “We’ll take it”. As the man filled out our papers we looked at one another. “Can you drive stick?”, “No.” “Me either.” But we were cold and had no common sense so we walked out of the door with the keys.
In high school I drove my friend Nikki’s standard shift red car around a super market parking lot a few times without crashing. Apparently that was enough qualification to make me the designated driver for this adventure. One other factor we neglected to consider was that we both hailed from Florida and in our four years of cumulative experience behind the wheel neither of us had every encountered mountains or snow.
I stalled our white Renault Clio (which we promptly named Snowflake) at least a dozen times before we got out of the rental car parking space. The next two days were not pretty and in a few cases we were lucky we lived to tell the story.
In my self-taught Alpine Driving School I learned that you have to downshift to go up a mountain. (It took a few stall outs on actual mountains to figure this out). I learned that you need to warm up a car in the winter to get it started and defrosted. I learned that if you don’t know how to drive on a mountain, you shouldn’t stop half way up so you can take pictures because you might almost roll off a cliff trying to get going again. And, I also learned that once you get it into gear on the autobahn you can drive pretty fast.
Apart from the near disaster of it all, it was warm and amazing. We found our way out of Innsbruck into Kitzbuhl and through the corner of Germany. We saw Oberamagauu and I visited Neuschwanstein castle for the very first time. I’ll never forget the view of the open road with deep white snow glimmering in the sun on both sides and the Alps ahead.
I’ve gotten back to this region a few times since, and each time this memory makes me smile and laugh a little at myself. And it makes me glad to know that somewhere in the past 15 years I discovered a little more common sense.
And apart from acquiring the skill of driving a stick shift, the most important lesson I learned is this: What doesn’t kill you makes you smarter.
PS. If you’re American and you can’t drive stick, a bonus lesson for you: It’s called a standard shift because it is standard in the rest of the world. If you ever want to drive outside of the 50 states, you should add it to your life skills. Travel cred to those of you who can.
PSS: This picture isn’t from the Alps, it’s from Pucon,Chile. One of the other trips I nearly died in a car in the snow.