Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mad Cow Disease

Last Friday while on an R&R day at Munich working the Ciao! integration intitiative, a few members of our team decided to take advantage of a beautiful Bavarian day and see the countryside.

This was a bit pre-planned by design. We had built an extra day into the trip for touristy things as usual trips involve 18 hour work days. In talking through our plans, Laura, Michelle and I discussed re-visiting Neuchwanstein- a magical castle nestled among the Alps and used by Walt Disney as a model for his Cinderella fairy tale. Agreeing on this as our destination of choice, I brought up that in February, another co-worker and I had discovered a hidden rock gully that led to an overlook where one can take stunning pictures. Laura and Michelle were both game, so I threw a rope and harness in my bag to prep for steeper sections of the gully.

Friday arrived, and we were off to the castle. Michelle had rented a car for the three of us, so we were able to drive to Schweingau (the closest town to Neuchwanstein) in no time. After a quick tour through the castle, Michelle decided that she wasn't interested in going on the climb to what we had affectionately called "the Grassy Knoll"- a nub of meadow clinging to a steep and exposed 400 foot section of cliff immediately adjacent the front of the castle. This is where Jon and I had climbed in February, and our goal was to make this same section.

Setting off from the car, Laura and I followed a cross-country ski path that in the summer doubles as a walking path. Meandering through meadow after meadow, we warmed our faces on a sun gently peeking through clouds and listened to cow bells clattering away in the distance. Wooden turnstyles, designed to keep cows from in their designated fields remind us of Old Country living while a casually strung, low intensity electric cloth tape keeps us firmly planted in the 21st century. Finally, we found the trail- much different in winter when no undergrowth exists. In summer, a spree of waist deep brambles, raspberry bushes and nettles intermixed with mountain flowers constantly pull on our legs.

It took about an hour for Laura and I to scramble, climb, and shimmy our way up to the Grassy Knoll. Along the way, we found no fewer than four areas involving vertical rock that were made more complicated by wet mud and slick moss. The gully that Jon and I had some difficulty with was actually protected now by a fixed line someone had placed- my guess being a local who knew of the hard-to-find route and wanted to set a fast path for himself to the Grassy Knoll. It was good fortune for us in that it quickened our journey and allowed fast entry/egress through one of the tougher sections of the route. Emerging through the trees, a beautiful setting was made even more picturesque by dramatic clouds, sun rays streaming to the ground in pools of electric green, and an ethereal Alps mountain backdrop.

After twenty minutes, the distant clouds heavy with rain made me decide to look up. Uh oh.. The storm clouds were brewing- and had slipped in quietly behind us as they drifted in from the opposite direction of where we were staring off toward Neuchwanstein. "Hey Laura we need to GO...NOW. We're going to get really, really wet."


"Well, as long as we can make it down through the last vertical pitch before it starts raining, we'll be ok."

As usual, the downhike proved much quicker than the way up. But still not without the regular pull of brambles and sting of nettles digging into skin. These sucked, too. These are the plants that have the super-fine needles that you can't see sting like crazy when you accidentally have one run up against your skin. Even as I write this- three days, an ocean and continent away, I'm still digging those little punks out of my skin.

We used the ropes to rappel or hand-over-hand down through vertical sections, slip-sliding on the mud and skittering down to the last pitch. From there, we still could see through trees and across the valley laced with red-roofed farmer cottages, white washed churches and neatly manicured farmland. One more pitch to go and we would have descended back down into the valley itself and away from the technical pitches. Almost there. As I prepared our rope for the last rappel, Laura stated flatly and with zero amusement:

"It's raining."

And rain it did. Within seconds, it was like someone had dumped a giant bucket upside down. The skies opened. Looking across the valley you could see rain falling heavily, illuminated by a far-off sun contrasting with an incredibly dark sky. Great. Within minutes we were both drenched and the last pitch became an incredible pain in the ass. Everything was wet- much to our chagrin, but I'm sure thrilling to the local peeper frogs that littered the ground and hid among the nettles that continued to scratch us everywhere. Finally, we made it down, quickly jammed our gear into packs and headed down to the pasture.

As the rain started to abate, I looked at my sweat, dirt and water covered watch, noting aloud that we were ~1 1/2 hours behind. Michelle would be back at the car waiting. The last thing I wanted was for her to call out Hofbrauhaus Moutain Rescue, so when we reached what I thought was a good shortcut down an old jeep trail, I suggested we take it and Laura quickly agreed.

The trail left the forest quickly and traveled over a slight hill, opening up into a meadow leading directly to where we needed to go 400 meters distant. Almost there! Except.. at 200 meters, standing directly in the path and all staring right at us were 50 billion cows. These things were massive- easily three thousand pounds each. One of them, a bull, was staring us down and walking towards us.

"Holy cow"

"That's right..."

At this point it's important to note that Laura is from Wisconsin and used to travelling through, underneath, alongside, on top of, and around cows. All Things Cows. I'm originally from New York City. There are no cows in NYC other than on a dinner plate. So knowing how to act around one usually comes with a steak knife and side of mashed potatos.

"Just act like a cow. Walk slowly through them and whatever you do, don't walk directly behind one."

Act like a cow? How the hell does a cow act? "MMmmoooooo!" Laura the Cow Whisperer isn't doing me much help in figuring this out. As we draw closer, more cows come out of the forest and block our path. The bull won't take his lazer eyes off of me and starts flaring his nostrils. Then, as we passed the first of hudreds of cow patty mines set to let intruders know that they were treading on hallowed ground, we realized that we were squarely in the Danger Zone. We pass the first of them and one says to me "Moooo", which in cow speak means "Screwed, buddy."

The bull starts shaking his head and gets ready to charge. So I tell Laura "I'm going for the treeline and go that way". "Fine", she says, and keeps walking straight on to her impending death. As I dodge the bull, I realize that I haven't really done much to help myself because two smaller cows start chasing me up the hill and through the trees. Freaking chasing me! WTF, ya know? I look left and see that I'm right by their watering hole, which explains why they are hot on my trail.

Wet, muddy, sweaty and being chased, a regular dose of pine needles and ticks drop down my neck. I finally end up in a clearing, where I run straight into the largest bull on the planet. Ten thousand pounds, easy. It had 4' horns and prison tattoos on it's flank. On it's front leg it had 15 notch scars to represent each of the people it had run down through the years. Smoke came out of it's flared nostrils. Glowing red eyes immediately shot in my direction. I look down to the path, and watch Laura casually saunter on, past 3 or 4 cows that don't even pay attention.

Crap. What to do? Encircled by cows vowing my death, I took the opportunity to slip through a small opening where I could double back to finally gain the jeep path. Take that, cows! You aren't so smart after all, huh? I'll show you. I look left again- and watch Laura take a second to pat one on the head. This situation is bullsh*t. Literally.

While I'm getting attacked from all sides and barely surviving, Laura is trading stories with the cows in one giant bonding moment. I look ahead: 50 more meters before the electric tape and only 500 more Mad Cows to get by. I'm still alive, barely. One more bull stares directly at us, and stands immediately next to the trail. Ahead, lie safety and life. I see my big break.

"I told you, just act like a cow."

"I have no idea what that means."

"Just don't act like a predator. Don't look them in the eye, and don't make any fast movements."
"Thanks so much, that would have been helpful to know about ten minutes ago."

While a wet behind the ears Marine 2nd Lieutenant, I sat through a class and had an instructor explain the difference between meat eaters and leaf eaters. "Are you a meat eater, Lieutenant!?? Or are you a leaf eater?" "Errr... meat eater...?" "Damn straight you are! A leaf eater is passive! He has eyes out on the side of his head, and is slow and timid like a cow! He never makes decisions! A meat eater has his eyes face forward. He's aggressive! He's decisive! He's like a wolf, or a tiger! So if you ever feel your eyes drifting out to the side of your head and you are becoming a passive leaf eater, get them focused again! Drag them eyes back to the front! Get back to being a meat eater! You're a carnivore, Lieutenant!" Ahh, the good old days.

So. All this did me absolutely no good when actually surrounded by a sea of leaf eaters. I'm not a leaf eater, I'm a meat eater, its in my DNA. I can't play cow, no matter how hard I try. But then again, I sure did try and it clearly didn't work out for me.

Somehow, we survived. Reaching the end of the pasture, Michelle appears over a rise in the pathway. Smiling and waving, she walks straight through a dozen cows who promptly and casually move out of her way. As if she is parting the Red Sea to come save us (*me*) from cows. COWS.

Laura and Michelle didn't seem to notice how we had barely escaped with our lives. But I noticed. I know how close we came to seeing the Other Side. Somehow, we were able to convince these people haters that we weren't going to turn them into steaks, just yet.

I had lived to see another day.

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