ZUGSPITZE

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My fellow travelers and I stood at the banks of the Eibsee, surrounded by thick forest, far below the soaring peaks of the Wetterstein mountains in southern Germany. A few hours ago we’d been on a train traveling through rolling countryside- now, all of a sudden, we found ourselves deep in the Alps.

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We spent a long time relaxing on the shore, taking in the spectacular atmosphere of water, forest, and alpine rock faces. At some point we dove into the water and embarked on an expedition to one of the nearby islands- absolutely freezing, but worth it! During the swim, we ran a timelapse of the clouds hitting the mountain.

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High above the lake with its peak shrouded in clouds we could see the Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany. A train runs from the nearby town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen up the mountain, allowing us to venture to the summit.

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Life amongst the clouds!

The view from the top of the Zugspitze is nothing short of otherworldly. Vertical rock faces suddenly drop off to reveal an endless expanse of mountains stretching out in every direction, and the heights are such that it almost feels like you can see the curvature of the Earth between clouds. People walk around casually atop windy platforms and jagged outcroppings, behind them the most surreal background imaginable.

It’s always seemed to me that the clouds are like the surface of an ocean, and that coming up above them is like emerging from deep underwater to encounter some strange new world. It’s so bizarre and awesome to see something which is always up in the sky above your head, all of a sudden below your feet!

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Deep valleys and lush forests stretch out far below to the north, dotted with lakes and towns. To the south are the Alps, rock and snow and sky all the way to the horizon.

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THE PANORAMIC MIRROR

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Clerks at the Bureau of Exploration had long heard tales of a great wonder awaiting them across the Rocky Mountains. Travelers spoke of a vast plane which when filled with snowmelt created a horizon-spanning mirror to the sky.

Reports indicated that this mirror could only reliably be seen in the winter when snow is expected- a precarious time for travel. There were risks, yet the Bureau knew there was simply no other option: we would have to undertake a treacherous winter voyage!

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And a treacherous winter voyage it was. To reach our destination we needed to cross the mountains, and we soon found that the mountains were in the midst of blizzards.

Yet after trundling slowly through snowstorms, navigating highway closures in the hinterlands, and me getting the car stuck in the snow for several hours (note: windshield scrapers double as shovels and fir tree branches create excellent traction for wheels), we emerged from the snow at our destination: the Bonneville Salt Flats.

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Suddenly it seemed as if we were on another world.

Donning our rain boots, we waded out onto the immense surface before us.

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At one point, we split up to wander the surface on our own. Spying a mountain in the distance, I decided to walk in that direction for a long time, soon losing sight of my companions.

It felt something like walking atop an infinite plane from a mathematics class. There’s nothing for the mind to cling to other than distant mountains and their reflections, so far away they might as well be mirages. If one yells into the sky, there is no chance another human can hear it- total isolation. Distances are impossible to tell and even the passage of time is difficult to grasp.

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There were odd things on the way to the mountain: fields of bullets scattered in the mud, as well as many areas with bubbles rising out of tiny holes (a possible indication of life in even so harsh an environment?). The distance to the foot of the mountain was greater than expected- by the time I got there, dusk was well on its way and the storms had caught up with us. I followed my footsteps back to our car, feeling something like an astronaut fleeing to a spaceship to get off some distant world.

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It is a place of vast perspectives and surreal frames of reference. A strange and wondrous place to be!