Herr Claus Blum was scaring me out of my wits.
This was not his intention, of course. The dapper proprietor of my hotel in Triberg -- in the southwestern corner of Germany's Black Forest -- was really trying to be reassuring. As the steward of a local walking program that transports hikers' luggage from hotel to hotel while the travelers themselves tramp relatively unencumbered, he was seeking to convince me that I would have no problems en route.
But I was not mollified. Ensconced in a New York apartment and reading a romantic-sounding brochure about "wunderhiking ... on the trail of the cuckoo clock traders" -- allegedly "quite safe, even for a woman walking alone" -- was one thing. Being handed, on the spot, a topographical map and a paperwork route guide in German -- neither of which I could read -- was another.
Besides, I well knew that, when it came to outdoor activities, the European and American concepts of "easy" were two entirely different notions. Would walking and running on a treadmill in a Manhattan gym be sufficient preparation for 15 miles a day outdoors? Especially when an athletic cousin, 10 years my junior, had exclaimed skeptically, "Last summer, I walked for just six miles out West and was pooped. You think you can do all that?"
Now Herr Blum was smilingly telling me that no one yet had died along the way. "But of course," he was saying, as if talking about a trip to the mailbox, "you'll probably get lost a couple of times and have to walk two or three extra miles." The mere thought was killing.
And so, unlike the cowboy who never had heard a discouraging word, I set off the following morning on my five-day, 65-mile itinerary to Neueck, St. Margen, Titisee-Neustadt, Bonndorf and Friedenweiler. I would reach these towns and hamlets by hiking through aromatic pine stands, across undulating meadows, past rough-hewn farmhouses and a myriad of miniature shrines and chapels. Also during the trek, I would clamber over rocks, pad over pine needles and climb a television-tower-topped hill, lunching in wayside inns, sleeping in atmospheric hostelries and chatting with local characters.
The initial segment of my journey was challenging, as challenging as the way would ever get. Leading out of Triberg, a trail took me along the edge of Triberg Falls -- Germany's highest waterfall at 338 feet -- over the route's steepest continuous grade. (Later, I would learn that some walkers, to avoid this climb within the first minutes of their first day, began their treks in other towns.)
As I toiled past the series of dashing white falls tumbling over moss-covered rocks, I remembered the Chinese saying about the thousand-mile journey beginning with a single step. "One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other," I kept repeating to myself, barely daring to stop to appreciate one of the walk's more memorable sights.
Making it to the top of the trail without incident was a great confidence-booster. I began to feel that I just might survive after all. And, as I set off along a gentler -- and more typical -- trail, I now allowed myself to look around.
There were, to be sure, certain designated landmarks -- a tiny, rock-encircled pool described as the source of the Danube, a miniature, 700-year-old chapel. But there was also a broader scene.
Until these moments, I had been among the uninitiated. To me, "Black Forest" had conjured up little more than Black Forest ham, Black Forest cake and a dark, dense breeding ground for mystery.
But actually, I was tramping along light-dappled paths among clusters of tall, flaring pines and Christmas-tree spruces, through part of a 3,000-square-mile area that saw itself removed from the rest of Germany. In fact, with a 400-year history of Austrian domination, a resentment of the Prussian mentality and a special appreciation for a few things French, at least some in the Black Forest -- or Schwarzwald, in German -- considered theirs a land apart.
Occasionally as I walked, one of the towns would appear, folded into a valley, hard by a rushing stream, with a single road, or two at most, leading in and out. Against hillsides and fields of wildflowers, or the herringbone patterns formed by the firs, a farmhouse would arise. Distinctively Black Forest, it would be designed to shelter, during the long, harsh winters, both persons and animals under one roof -- a roof so large and sloping that it almost obscured the building. On a hilltop here and there, a lookout tower might offer a view across the Rhine to the Vosges, the Black Forest's French counterpart; unobtrusive signs announced guest houses offering rooms or meals or both.
And because it was the weekend, everybody's aunt, uncle and dog seemed out and about. Grandmothers in skirts pushed baby carriages over root-veined pathways. Lovers in short shorts walked arm-in-arm under umbrellas against the fine drizzle. Fathers in knickers with hunting rifles over their shoulders led eager sons in search of game. In addition to the expectedly robust scout-types, there were enough huffers and puffers to make a duffer like myself unself-conscious. And well-attended.
But what was true on Sunday was not necessarily so on Monday, when the woods emptied of recreational walkers. Herr Blum had introduced me to temporary hiking companions on the first day, but by nightfall they had taken their leave. Thus, on my second day, before the sun had burned away the smell of dew, I set about finding my way from Neueck to St. Margen completely on my own.
Initially, I double-checked the route directions with a knowledgeable hotel employee. A few steps along, I reconfirmed -- smiles and gestures taking the place of language -- with a farmer collecting milk cans in the back of his station wagon. Then, reassured at last, I trotted off into the woods toward my first goal -- a carving of Christ's head so imbedded in a beech tree that the trunk had grown up around it.
Going solo -- at three miles an hour or less -- proved eerie but exhilarating. Everything seemed magnified, with villages looking like metropolises and little landmarks appearing as major monuments. The solitude also allowed awareness and appreciation of the minute -- the racket raised by the insect orchestra; the oozing of a fat brown slug across the path; the progress of a snail that just might end up in the soup that night.
Also, I listened for the sound of the cuckoo.
Back in Triberg, I'd been told that I would be walking "in the steps of the cuckoo clock traders." This part of the Black Forest, according to Werner Oppelt of the Black Forest Museum, had become home to the clock because, around 1730, a local farmer named Anton Ketterer had begun carving them. Since the cuckoo bird's two-note call was easily duplicated with pipes, other farmers, to pass the winter and augment their incomes, also made them.
Then, Herr Oppelt continued, they began peddling them as far away as Spain and Russia and often left the area on foot via byways similar to today's walking routes. While, according to Oppelt, cuckoos still lived in the vicinity, they wouldn't be found at the higher elevations I'd be traversing. Nonetheless, I hoped to see a stray. But all I heard overhead was the occasional screech of a high-performance military jet.
Another woodland fantasy (cum fear) was fulfilled, however, when I came upon a latter-day "wood nymph." Suddenly, from behind a pile of logs, off the trail, at a turning in a darker part of the forest, out popped a little man. He had round, rheumy eyes and a runny nose, and wore a workman's blue coverall. He approached the trail and blocked it, cutting me off. When I stopped, he took my wrist, squinted at my watch, and drifted back into the woods. And that was that. Nevertheless, I scurried along the path until it opened onto the valley in which I planned to lunch.
The inn I found there, the Zum Lowen, next to a frothing stream, was typical of the rest stops en route. Profusions of flowers decorated its exterior; wood paneling and rose-maling-type designs adorned its insides. No one spoke English, but everyone was pleasant. Having learned that the German for trout was forelle, I found out here why it was such a highly touted local specialty.
I had three more miles to go before I reached my destination that day. That they were all uphill was a minor matter, since the grade was fairly gradual and the way was punctuated with benches -- and a rustic water fountain carved from a log. That there were no direction indicators was more troublesome. Later, I would learn that at least 40 signposts had been erected along the Neueck/St. Margen stretch alone. But here, as elsewhere, trophy hunters had apparently been at work. When, at the top of the trail, I glanced left and spotted the peach-colored, onion-shaped spires of St. Margen rising over the Brigadoon-like village, it seemed miraculous.
During dinner that night, the proprietor of my hotel introduced me to Gerd and Heidi, an easygoing Austrian couple who had taken the trip before. They agreed to let me tag along and served not only as navigators, but also as tour guides -- since they could read the German direction book -- and naturalists, pointing out the various types of wild mushrooms and ferns, as well as the difficult-to-spot signs of the lethal pollution affecting this area.
Now that I was relieved of route responsibilities, the ensuing days blurred. Deep green gorges, shopkeepers in dirndls, picnics in the woods with castle ruins for perches -- such sights and attendant sensations rushed together into the triumph of having made it to each evening. Especially since the evenings were so enjoyable -- prime examples of that virtually untranslatable German word, gemutlich, which suggests congeniality.
The meals were generally intriguing, flavored as many were with the nearby French influence. Dishes ranged from simple schmalz (lard spread), served in place of butter, to trout dumplings, game in fresh chanterelle sauce, and honeyed apple flambe. Among the favorite beverages hereabouts were the champagne-like sekt; apfelsaftschorle (a sort of apple juice spritzer, an excellent en route thirst-quencher); and kirschwasser, or cherry brandy.
Such drinks, as well as other local specialties, were purveyed with flair at spots like the working farm-museum of one Lukas Duffner, on the walking route not far from Triberg.
Herr Duffner looked the peasant-farmer part -- ruddy-faced and big-bellied, in olive corduroy knickers and straw hat. He quickly pointed out that his weathered, wooden farmhouse, with its little square windows hung with handmade lace curtains, hailed from 1690 -- "older than the U.S.A.," he commented. And he led me to a wall that had a convoluted, cat's-cradle-like carving in it. Taking my hands, he touched them to his forehead. Then, grasping my right forefinger, he directed it along the lines of the sign. "This is a pagan symbol," he explained, "and if you believe, you will have sons."
Ultimately, he ordered me a platter of his homemade sausage and ham, explaining that Black Forest ham is special because of the way it is salted and smoked, as well as the diet fed the pigs. "Don't mention cholesterol," he exclaimed. "Americans don't get older than we. Maybe the secret is that our cider cuts the fat."
Another nourishing -- or, rather, fattening -- stop was the pastorally located Hotel Ebi in Friedenweiler. An overnight on longer itineraries, the hotel also served coffee on its terrace, accompanied by homemade cakes -- including, on the right day, the genuine Black Forest item.
This is where I alighted when, amazed at the speed with which the time had gone, I ended my excursion. As I awaited transportation back to Triberg, I indulged in the local goodies and exulted and marveled over my little adventure.
After all, I'd accomplished what I'd set out to do. I'd walked every step -- and some extra -- of my designated route. I was still alive -- and, though weary and hobbled by badly blistered feet, I felt leaner and healthier than I had in ages.
True, I hadn't come across a single cuckoo. But in a few miles, I'd found a universe. I'd acquired, firsthand, a minutely detailed look at one tiny section of a large region -- one that was, indeed, gemutlich. Phyllis Ellen Funke is a writer living in New York. WAYS & MEANS
"Wunderhikes" of varying lengths can be arranged with Black Forest hoteliers. Prices start at about $260 for four nights, $400 for six nights and $510 for eight nights (all double occupancy), with extra nights costing about $65 each. Single supplements are about $6 a night.
Accommodations vary, with certain hostelries maintaining membership in the prestigious Relais & Chateaux and Romantik Hotel chains. The price includes buffet breakfast and a three-course, fixed-menu dinner (though more flexible arrangements often can be made), map and instructions, transfer of luggage and walk-completion certificates.
For hikes not completed at their starting point, return transportation can be arranged for a fee.
Luggage tags bearing the names of all hotels en route are supplied; before departure each morning, walkers merely circle their next destination. Their bags will be there when they arrive.
Weary walkers may take days off en route by riding with their luggage to the next destination. On some, but not all, days, there also are spots from which public transportation can be found to complete the journey.
Walkers provide their own lightweight backpacks. These are used for carrying personal items, water bottles and snacks, rain gear and the like.
Despite the relative gentleness of most trails, proper hiking boots are a must.
Theoretically, trails are marked not only with the program's distinctive little "clock" signs but also with the signs of longer, more general routings. These tend to disappear, however, so get precise details whenever possible.
Although the route is basically safe, there are often long stretches of deserted trail with no means of communication. GETTING THERE: For those traveling by public transportation, it's best to fly to Frankfurt. Lufthansa, United and Pan Am offer regular transatlantic flights from Washington; Lufthansa currently is quoting a round-trip, advance-purchase fare of $698, with restrictions.
In Frankfurt, trains run regularly from the airport to the main train station. From there, trains make the trip to Triberg, without changes, in about three hours. WHERE TO STAY: One of the program's chief delights are the accommodations. Places such as the venerable Parkhotel Wehrle in Triberg and the Hotel Adler Post in Titisee-Neustadt were Old World charm galleries, often furnished with family heirlooms and antiques from periods ranging from Louis XVI to Biedermeier.
The Hohenhotel Neueck was a study in Spartanism -- a roadhouse, really, for local beer drinkers -- but with surprising little touches of individuality, such as pink-and-white checked rather than white linens, with bed pillows pinched into bow shapes. In between was the Hotel Hirschen in St. Margen, cozy and congenial. INFORMATION: Further information may be obtained from the Romantik Hotel Parkhotel Wehrle, Gartenstrasse 24, D-7740 Triberg, Federal Republic of Germany; or from the German National Tourist Office, 747 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 308-3300. -- Phyllis Ellen Funke