“…all we ever wanted, was just to come in from the cold…” Joni Mitchell
It’s raining from the moment we wake in Pill, at the Klausen Gasthaus, a charming little place offered us by the tourist information office in Schwaz after we came down out of the Tuxor Alps for some time to reconnect with the outside world via internet, enjoy actual towels, and explore some of the culture and history of Tirol. Today we’re going up again, this time in a hard driving rain. There’s a bus that will save us the initial elevation gain and, as it turns out, provide insights into the cultural and geographical history of the region.
The bus drops us at “Eng Alm”, a high Alpine grazing area for cows that’s uniquely populated with Maple trees planted centuries ago and preserved in their young and vulnerable years because of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). The guide, who has basically given us a personal tour in English, since his public presentation is German, confirms with us that we won’t be on the bus at 3:15 when it comes back to take people home.
“No” we say, as the rain falls harder still, “We’re going up to the Lamsenjoch Hutte and spending the night there.” He smiles, wishes us good travels, and hops back in the bus, which drives away as we put on our ponchos and prepare for our trek. It won’t be long, as treks have gone so far, but it will be steep, and wet.
We start out, walking through the Alm, amidst the cows, but quickly head upwards on a narrow rocky path that follows a rushing stream down out of the high country. We’ll gain about 800 feet in a short, wet time, as we make our way up the trail which eventually becomes a road. Heartened by the milk collection truck that makes its way down this road from above us, we suspect that there might, indeed, be a farm that sells milk and cheese just up the way a bit. It will be a good place, at the least, to stop and dry out.
It’s unassuming from the outside, but this little farm, on this very wet day, offers two things that cold, wet bodies crave: hospitality and warm shelter. We shed our rain ponchos outside, and enter an utterly different world, a world where everyone’s warm, and dry, and content. There’s a fire in the corner and we settle in by it and watch as families, farmers, and hikers enter—all finding more than just relief from the storm, but fellowship in that very relief, along with warm food and drink.
Meanwhile the world grows darker outside, and wetter, if that’s possible. We know we can’t stay in the warmth of this hut forever, know that there’s still 600 feet or so to ascend, and 2 or 3 miles to walk. So, after warm soup and a very local cheese platter, sourced by the cows just outside the door, we prepare to re-enter the storm. I foolishly elect to forego my second layer because it had gotten so wet on this first leg of our journey that it seemed worthless. The “poncho plan” had worked so far, and was still working for Donna, but somehow today would prove to be a poncho disaster for me.
We set out well enough, but the rain was relentless, with every step of ascent, colder. Donna, my wife, was in fine form, enjoying the scenery and impervious to the weather, true to her outdoor recreation major and training in college; totally in her element. I, on the other hand, was a music major. The layer next to my body was soaking wet, and I sought to stay the chill by simply pressing on—faster would mean warmer, right? In spite of my best efforts, no. The chill continued to strengthen its grip, weakening me. The ridge, however, was in sight, and I knew that the hut wasn’t more than 20 minutes beyond it.
When I stepped over the ridge a biting wind hit me like a cold shower. Of course, I should have stopped and added layers and in my normal world of hiking would have. But this is “poncho world” and that means accessing anything is a major chore. Stop. Remove poncho, being careful to preserve the inside from moisture. Remove pack. Open pack. Access extra layer(s), add to body, now further chilled from not moving. Close pack. Reattach pack. Reattach poncho carefully so that moisture stays on the outside. Move again. “Easier” I said to myself, “to just move faster” and so I did—upping my pace as much as possible, both to create heat and begin my recovery. I’m shivering as I ascend the last bit, the welcoming flags of the hut flapping in the biting wind.
Again, as happened earlier in the day, the word shelter takes on new and profound meaning, because this is a moment of coming in from the cold and finding a lodging in a giant co-ed dorm where we’re stacked next to each other like matchsticks. Still, shelter never in my life felt so good. After settling in, replacing wet clothes with dry ones, and resting a bit, I join the crowd in the restaurant and watch through the window as the daisies dance in the wind and rain pelts the glass. Shelter—what a great word. What a great gift.
Joni Mitchell wrote a favorite song of mine entitled, “Come in from the cold” whereby she muses that our deepest longings in life are for shelter. Physically? Yes, that’s a starting point not to be taken for granted these days, when insane evil drives multitudes to flee for the mountaintops, ultimately needing rescue from the options of starvation or slaughter. Refugees, exiles, and the realities of human trafficking are ever present reminders of that basic, literal shelter.
But shelter means o so much more than a warm bed or a little hot soup while the rain pours down outside. It means that behind that bed and soup there’s a person who gives a damn about seeing to it that you aren’t left outside, left to suffer, or be hungry, or be cold, or in be alone. “I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me” is what comes to mind.
Mary provided shelter for the vulnerable savior, and sought to do so to the very end. Jesus, the one who had no place to lay his head, provided shelter for the wanderers of the world—the lost, vulnerable, the outsiders counted as worthless by the establishment. He embodied, and still embodies, hospitality. He makes space and shelter in this cold dark world when nobody else is willing. I wonder what this means:
regarding my response to the suffering happening in refugee camps, regarding the problems of homelessness and human trafficking that plague our nation,
regarding the simple command to, by our very lives, be the presence of Christ and serve those on the outside, inviting them to ‘come in from the cold’ even if they never share my beliefs.
These huts, these warm fires and hospitality, have become a picture, night after night, of what it means to be welcoming. But when you’re cold and WET, they provide more than just sentimental good feelings. They provide salvation. In a world filled with cold, wet, hungry outsiders, I’ll be pondering the implications of this single experience for miles to come.