My first year of racing slalom, and training in Washington, DC landed me a spot on the USA “B” Team for slalom. This meant that I could go to Europe to race in some mid-level races that summer. I was 20 years old, and in college at the University of Maryland for Engineering.
The trip started off in a way that would set the tone for the entire duration. This was to be an adventure, where Kayaking was the medium. I was sitting on a plane, along with several other kayakers at BWI airport, at 7pm, ready to take off for Frankfurt, Germany when the stewardess said on the loudspeaker that they needed to get somebody else on the plane and was looking for a volunteer to get off the plane in exchange for a free ticket. I didn’t really have the $600 it cost for the ticket to begin with, so I quickly ran off the plane, all fired up for my free ticket. They closed the door and off the plane went as I talked to the gate agent about getting my $600 back and she let me know that it was only a credit towards a future flight. Then I inquired about my bags and they were still on the plane, including my boat/paddle, etc.. OK- now…. Hmmm. It was a warm June evening so I went outside and slept on the grass at the end of the runway, with nothing but the clothes on my back.
The next day I woke up in dewy grass, and was a little on the cold side. I had until 7pm to get on the next plane over, so headed to the “inner harbor” where I walked around until I met two girls that seemed interested in hanging out with me, and before I knew it we were all walking around hand in hand and having a good time. The one girl’s dad was president of a bank in town and we met him on the top floor of the biggest building in town. He gave me $200 in cash to bring his daughter back something good from Europe. I made my 7pm plane and flew to Frankfurt, got off, cleared customs and then looked around for some clue on how to get to Augsburg to the “eiscanal”. A couple of trains later and I was there in time to watch Davey Hearn do his second run in the C1 class for the Pre-worlds. I also met up with my ride, which was Dave/Maylon and got reunited with everything and everyone. We trained in Augsburg for 4 days and Dave and Maylon wanted to go see a castle. I wanted to stay and train instead. I was out on the water and didn’t plan very well as they left for the castle, not to return, but instead to head straight to Mayrhofen, Austria. I organized a ride with Bruce Lessels to get there, but didn’t remember to get my wallet, passport, clothes, etc. out of the car before they left.
I loaded my boat on the roof and myself in the backseat of Bruce’s car, which was already quite full of people and boats, and we headed into the Alps where we would cross the boarder from Germany to Austria. This is long before the “EU” and when borders were scary looking. I hadn’t really mentioned to Bruce that I didn’t have my passport until we were underway, thinking it would not be a big deal, as I could easily hide under a blanket or in the trunk for the crossing. Bruce seemed to be entertaining the idea until we got within site of the border where he announced that “no way EJ, you are just going to have to get out here.” OK, so my plan wasn’t a good one at that point. It was about 50 degrees out and foggy/raining. I had no shoes, no money, no passport, no wallet for ID, and no food. Bruce handed me an orange, and a pair of size 12 shoes (I wear size 8) and out I stepped, watching their brake lights as they stopped at the border gates and the Polizei checked their passports while a man with a machine gun watched from the side.
Wasting no time, as I was getting wet in my T-shirt and light pants, I decided that I would talk my way across the border and waltzed right in, and started talking my best german (Zero) and sign language. Before I knew it I was best buddies with the border guys and they gave me a Polizei metal badge and a patch. I asked them about 5 times if I could walk across and they kept referring to Austria something. I didn’t know what Austria had to do with it, other than I wanted to get to Austria fast. The next day was our first race in Europe at Mayrhofen, Austria. I told them that I guess I would head back the other way and find a place to stay. I was starting to get a little peeved that my communication skills weren’t good enough to talk my way in and that my situation wasn’t looking good. I walked away from the barely lit up border station in the mountain, in the rain, until it was pitch black and there was no way they could see me anymore. It was time for action. I looked over my shoulder and nobody was following me to make sure I was being good and ditched into the woods on the left side of the road. I started running in the woods, in the 100% darkness, hands outstretched to help me ward off trees as I tried to make my way back to the border but out of site of the guards. I ran until I hit a river and then took a right and followed it towards what I figured was Austria. My mind imagined all kinds of things, starting with German Shepherds that I just remembered being at the gates. Surely the dogs would smell or hear me. I tried to be quite but was actually quite happy to see a spot of light through the trees from the Border crossing that meant I was getting to where I was trying to go. I slammed into a fence that ran right into the river that signified the border. At this point my heart was racing and I was at the moment of truth. I was about to go for it and I would have a hard time talking my way out of this one if I crossed this line.
I was thinking about this while I was scaling the fence out into the river and trying to keep from swimming in the water as I got around it. I ran along the river- the entire time imagining that I was being chased and the sub-machine guns would start blazing in my direction trying to gun down this American terrorist. 5 Minutes later there were still no guns and no signs of being chased. I managed to find my way back to the road and started flopping/running down the road in my big shoes and trying to get warm. I came around a corner only to find another set of lights in the road…. “Oh My God!” The Austrian border!! Shoot, I forgot about that, two border stations, two sets of guards, two countries. I didn’t make friends with these guys yet. They may be trigger happy or on the lookout. Maybe the Germans radioed to them telling them they suspect somebody is trying to break through… hmm… now I am not so sure I chose wisely. Well, I wasn’t going to cross the German border again just to get to the wrong side, I have to go for it. I ditched back into the woods looking for the river and followed it again, this time being slow and quiet, instead of running. I expected, and found the fence in less than 10 minutes and scaled around it and didn’t worry about getting wet at this point as I had no dry spots left on me. I crawled along next to the river where the light from the guard house was visible in case there were spotters, or dogs. Again, nothing but darkness and wet pine needles and lots of trees and a bubbling creek/river. After about 30 minutes of this the weight of the world lifted once I decided that I was not going to be running from a machine gun or dogs. It was an immediate, “Hell Yea!!” feeling. I just pulled it off.
I started running down the road in the dark, no cars coming or going and I kept going until Dawn. I mixed up running and walking after about 20 or 30 miles and every minute I imagined a car that would come back for me from the paddling group, but it never came. By mid-morning I was off the mountain and on the same road, with no signs to tell me I was heading to Mayrhofen. I just trusted that once I got picked up by a car, they could tell me if I was going the right way, and hopefully get me there. The cars started coming, one by one, going the way I was going. I stuck my thumb out like a good hitchhiker does and smiled at each car going by, stopping my running to not look so sweaty and tired, hoping to look more attractive to a would be ride. After about 20 cars and 2 hours went by and no rides I was getting desperate. Today was a race in Mayrhofen and I was in the right country, but it was 9am and still no signs that I would make it on time. I remembered my Polizei badge and patch and got them out of my pocket. Now, standing in my soaked white T-shirt and thin grey pants, and big shoes, I attempted to stop cars by standing in the middle of the road holding out my badge yelling “HALT!”. The drivers and passengers had a terrified look on their faces and swerved around me each time, as if I was a highway killer and they had one change to avoid certain death, and that was to maneuver around me without crashing. One car stared me down and ran right at me and I had to jump out of the way. OK, so that was not productive. I gave up on that technique as I was now running through a small village and could ask people out in the yard, gardening, etc. where Mayrhofen was. They pointed the way I was going and so I kept on going. I started running again, but my legs were tired and my feet hurt. That is when the tour bus passed me . As it was passing I quickly threw up my thumb and they passed and stopped about 1/10 of a mile up the road. I ran like crazy to the door and the driver seemed unsure about opening it. He was clearly getting instructions from the passengers to pick me up. He opened the door and spoke English to me… sweet! The entire bus was filled with 70+ year old British ladies on some kind of tour. I sat down next to one with an empty seat next to her and they all wanted to hear my story. Once I got to the part where I didn’t have my wallet, they started passing me money. 1,000 here, 500 there…. Whoa, I said, that is enough! They kept pretending to shake my hand but were passing me money, as if the others didn’t know they were doing that. Then when I told them I hadn’t eaten dinner, or breakfast, other than that orange the night before, I was passed a big roll of cookies. I devoured them in about 2 minutes, as I had the attention of everyone on the bus and told the rest of my story of the night before. I was so impressed with the flavor of the cookies that I wanted to remember the kind and read the lable…. Laxitive cookies! Shit, shit shit, you are kidding me?! I couldn’t bring myself to confront the lady that gave me them and say, ‘what the hell?”, as I am sure she was just not thinking or too old or something to realize what she had given me. I felt way better with a full belly and at that moment didn’t think another thing of it. I told the bus driver that I was trying to get to Mayrhofen and he said he would drop me off where I could get a train there. We were riding along on the side of a mountain on a highway when we passed Innsbruck. The bus stopped on the highway and left me off.
The bus pulled away and I was sad to see it go, as I was warm, dry, and comfortable and had been making my way to my destination in style. Now, looking down the mountain at the city below, where the center looked to be a couple of miles away or so, I walked across the highway and looked for a way off the raised highway, to the hill below. Hmm… left or right as far as I could see the highway was raised up and it was about 20 feet to the rocky hill below. “Shoot, I can’t jump off of this thing” was my first thought until I ran for about 10 minutes in one direction and it only got worse. “OK, I have to jump” was my thought as I stretched out my ankles and hamstrings and then hung over the edge trying to lower the total drop. I looked down, but couldn’t let go. I climbed back up and stretched some more and repeated this exercise about three times. Finally, reaching another moment of truth… I started beating my chest like a gorilla and gave out a battle cry and hung and dropped without hesitation, frustrated with my situation and more so with my lack of commitment on each try. I dropped and rolled down the hill not hitting any rocks and stopping myself with no injury, but now I was soaked and super dirty.
I gathered my shoes that came off and started running towards town. I got into the city and was asking anyone I could to point to the “bahnhof” and just kept walking through the tight city streets. A 30 something lady was up in a window and I yelled up “bahnhof” and she pulled up her blouse and waved me to come upstairs… Hmm.. Uh… “bahnhof?” After walking around the streets for 30 minutes or so, I found train tracks. I got to the train tracks which must have been a full 4 or 5 sets wide but no “bahnhof’ in site. A freight train was coming up the tracks really slowly while I was walking up the tracks towards what looked like the bigger part of the city. On the caboose there stood a guy and I yelled, “Bahnhof?” and he pointed in the direction I was walking. He signaled to jump on so I ran to the stairs and jumped on the back with him. We were going slow but picking up some speed. I was fired up to be riding and thought, “this is cool!” riding on the back of a train with some dude that doesn’t look like an employee of the railroad either. Suddenly he yelled, “bahnhof” and pointed as we were shooting past a train station. We were cruising now, no more slow rolling, and already getting quite far past the train station. I got to the bottom of the stairs to jump but felt that there was no way I could do this without messing myself up! “Damn, damn, damn”, I kept saying until I thought about the fact that I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe if the race was in the afternoon, I could still make it! How could I be all of the way here in Europe and be missing my first race ever? I jumped straight off the side of the train trying to reach the bottom of the stony hill and landed feet first but went right over into side flip and then a slide on my right leg. Ouch… I sat still for a moment and let the pain rise to a peak and then start to fade… “am I ok?” I got up and my right leg was in a lot of pain and my pants were torn, but nothing was broken and no major cuts, just abrasions on my leg and hands. I looked up and the guy on the caboose gave me the thumbs up as if, “nice move there buddy, great show”.
It took me 5 minutes to get back to the train station where there were a few people hanging out, and tons of signs showing different towns listed but I couldn’t figure anything out at first. Then I asked somebody who spoke English and they showed me where Mayrhofen was listed and I finally figured out that there was a train that was headed that way that should arrive in an hour. OK, a train to where I wanted to go. I had money, too! Somebody told me that it was a national holiday and that everything was closed. OK, I’ll wait for the train and pay there. An hour went by as I watched the cars, trucks, and busses zooming along on the highway on the mountainside where I got dropped off by the Bus. A little narrow gauge tourist train pulled up to the station and my information guy told me that was the train for Mayrhofen… OK then. I went up to the nice guy collecting tickets and told him I wanted to ride and he asked for mine. I didn’t have one, but I was rich with cash… Austrian Schillings. I showed him 1,000 Schillings and he looked at me like I was crazy. I got out a 500 and told him this was the smallest bill I had. It occurred to me at that moment that I was rich! “Wholly crap”, I thought, those old ladies were loaded and hooked me up big time. Then the guy asked me for all of the money I had. I busted out about 3,500 and he took it all and said, “get on”. I was sure he was taking me for a ride, but, I wanted to get to the race, way worse then wanting to be rich. I was also starting to get the idea that a schilling is not a dollar.
There I sat, now late afternoon and losing all hope of racing that day. I sat on the world’s slowest train and watched as cars zipped by running parallel to the train tracks, on the same road I was riding on the bus. I fell asleep and woke when the train stopped in Mayrhofen. I got off and was so hungry, but luckily the laxative cookies didn’t have anything in the system to work on. It was about 6pm at this point and I started walking around town looking for cars with slalom boats on them. I walked about a mile towards town and hit the jackpot at the top of a big hill. I went inside and it was a bar loaded with slalom racers and they all saw me at the same time and yelled, “EJ!!”. The awards were just finishing up from the race that day. There was no long a question about whether I could paddle on the course and race anymore. I sat down at a table with some of the USA guys. I asked Bruce where David and Maylon were at, so I could get hooked up with my passport and money, and clothes, they said, “Italy”. Uh Oh… here we go again, was my thought. The guys and gals at the bar were overly amused at the situation after I told them the story. I scammed some of their leftover food from their plates as they drank beer and the song by Genesis came on from the DJ, “It’s no fun being an illegal alien.” Everyone started dancing to it on the stage, and for the next 4 hours, that is the only song they played. We thought about how to get to Italy without a passport and plotted it out. It was all a joke to the others, of course, but I was really thinking about how to do it.
The pass was much higher and there was snow on the ground there, etc. etc. The night ended and I was just happy to have people to hang out with. I made my way to the campground where some of the USA team was camping. I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was my car!!!! Nobody was there and I couldn’t find Maylon or David’s tent, so I slept there by the car. The next morning, Maylon and David showed up. They decided to spend the night there in case I showed up. Whew… OK, money, passport… keep it close. That was the first time I had to cross a boarder with no passport….. The second time, well that was years later… my next story will be from this trip, two weeks later…