At the end of November 1974, a friend from Paris called and told me that Lotte Eisner was seriously ill and would probably die. I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death.

I took a jacket, a compass, and a duffel bag with the necessities. My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them. I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot. Besides, I wanted to be alone with myself. What I wrote along the way was not intended for readers. Now, four years later, upon looking at the little notebook once again, I have been strangely touched, and the desire to show this text to others unknown to me outweighs the dread, the timidity to open the door so wide for unfamiliar eyes. Only a few private remarks have been omitted.

W. H . / DELFT, HOLLAND, 24 May 1978

Monday 2 December

Bösingen—Seedorf—Sulgen—Schramberg— Hohenschramberg—Gedächtnishaus—Hornberg—Gutach.

In Schramberg, things seemed to be still in order: fried goose at the tavern, card players playing skat. One of them would get up when he lost, pacing back and forth among the tables with extreme agitation. A climb up to the fortress instead of down, then along the chain of hills to the Lauterbach Valley. Black Forest farms come into view without warning, and a completely different dialect, also without warning. I’ve probably made several wrong decisions in a row concerning my route and, in hindsight, this has led me to the right course. What’s really bad is that after acknowledging a wrong decision, I don’t have the nerve to turn back, since I’d rather correct myself with another wrong decision. But I’m following a direct imaginary line, anyway, which is, however, not always possible, and so the detours are not very great . . . The forest opened into an elevated valley, then past the last farmhouse it climbed steeply through wet snow to the Gedächtnishaus, reaching the road again beyond the height. An elderly woman gathering wood, plump and impoverished, tells me about her children one by one, when they were born, when they died. When she becomes aware that I want to go on, she talks three times as fast, shortening destinies, skipping the deaths of three children although adding them later on, unwilling to let even one fate slip away—and this in a dialect that makes it hard for me to follow what she is saying. After the demise of an entire generation of offspring, she would speak no more about herself except to say that she gathers wood, every day; I should have stayed longer.

Limping down, I overtook a limping man. The road down to Hornberg is steep and I’m sensitive about my knee and Achilles tendon. The tendon is swollen near the top of my heel and feels as if it’s crammed into a case. In the darkness I shook the door of a lighted stable, two aged women were milking cows, also there are two girls, five and ten years old. The older girl was quite upset at first because she was sure, as was later revealed, that I was a robber. But soon she grew trustful, and made me tell her about the jungle, about snakes and elephants. She would probe me with trick questions, to see whether or not I was telling the truth. The kitchen is shabby, the conditions depressing, but without much thought the two women have given me a cor- ner to spend the night. One of them wondered what had become of TV-Freddy, who used to sing so beautifully, and whose guitar was his only friend. A little jet-black cat is here, with a tiny white spot on the tip of her tail, and she’s trying to catch the flies on the walls. The older girl is learning quantitative maths. I hand her my knife for the night, just in case I turn out to be a robber after all.

Through the Prech Valley, steep climb, hardly any cars, the sky glooms through veils of fog, dampness hovers in the air. Higher and higher up. Brown bracken sticks to the ground, bent down. Lofty woodland and deep, vaporous valleys. The clouds and the fog, they snub you. Water from the melting snow trickles everywhere as up on the summit I walk among the clouds, stones dripping all around. The eye is inevitably drawn to empty forms, to boxes, refuse. My feet keep going. Elzach, telephone call; shall I turn back?

First I ate a roll by a fountain and reflected on whether I had to return. A woman and girl were observing me from behind a curtain and used a parakeet cage for additional cover. I stared back so unabashed that they fled. I won’t turn back, I’m going on. Biederbachtal, a pretty little river valley sloping slightly skyward, meadows, willow stumps, beautiful Black Forest homes; above Oberprechtal there’s a beautiful, functioning mill with a water-wheel, just like in the first-grade reader.

A ladies’ bicycle, nearly brand new, was thrown into a brook; it occupied my thoughts for quite some time. A crime? The scene of a fight? Something provincial-sultry-dramatic has taken place here, I suspect. A bench painted red is half-covered with water. A cat has jumped up on the lantern above the front door of a house and doesn’t dare move any further, feeling that she is too high above the ground. She gently sways with the lantern in the wind. The recent storm, so the newspaper says, had hurricane winds of up to one hundred miles per hour in the Swabian Alb and peak gusts exceeding eighty miles per hour on the Feldberg. Now it’s much milder, veiled by clouds, like late autumn, wet, dripping water everywhere, drooping clouds, sticky grass. I saw pigs beneath some apple trees, no grass there any more, just a swamp, and the gigantic mother sows very carefully lifted one foot from the sloshy morass, then set it very softly back again and sank on their bellies as before. I quench my thirst by drinking from rivulets that flow across the meadows. Left turn in Biederbach, therefore westward; later somehow over the mountains. 1:30 p.m.

When I ask for directions a man, a jolly farmer, tells me to come along with him on his tractor, as he’s heading up that way for a while. I continue climbing in the misty woods all the way up to the Huehnersedel summit. One should be able to have a good view from there, yet there’s nothing more than a theatrical towering of clouds. Descending through the lonely forest, toppled fir trees all across my path, their limbs dripping wet. At the border of the clouds below, suddenly open fields, a valley; the hills become flatter and flatter, and I can see that I’ve basically made my way through the Black Forest. Melancholy clouds from the west, yet I’m invaded by a delicious feeling, except for my mouth, which is once more caked by thirst. Dusky desolation in the forest solitude, deathly still, only the wind is stirring. Below toward the west, the sky is an orangey-yellowish hue, glooming as it would before a hailstorm, while further up it is foggy-grey and black. Suddenly a huge red quarry: from above I can see a crater, at the very bottom an excavator in the red water, rusting, useless. Beside it is a rusting truck.

No one, not a soul, intimidating stillness. Uncannily, though, in the midst of all this, a fire is blazing, lit, in fact, with petrol. It’s flickering, a ghostly fire, wind. On the orange-colored plain below I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. A train races through the land and penetrates the mountain range. Its wheels are glowing. One car erupts in flames. The train stops, men try to extinguish it, but the car can no longer be extinguished. They decide to move on, to hasten, to race. The train moves, it moves into fathomless space, unwavering. In the pitch-blackness of the universe the wheels are glowing, the lone car is glowing. Unimaginable stellar catastrophes take place, entire worlds collapse into a single point. Light can no longer escape, even the profoundest blackness would seem like light and the silence would seem like thunder. The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void. Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into Un-stars. Utter blissfulness is spreading, and out of utter blissfulness now springs the Absurdity. This is the situation. A dense cloud of flies and a plague of horseflies swirl around my head, so I’m forced to flail about with my arms, yet they pursue me bloodthirstily nevertheless. How can I go shopping? They’ll throw me out of the supermarket, along with the insect plague swarming around my head.

Excerpted from Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris, 23 November-14 December 1974. Translated by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg. Originally published in German under the title Vom Gehem in Eis in 1978 by Carl Hanser Verlag. Copyright Carl Hanser Verlag 1978. English translation copyright Tanam Press 1980. Of Walking in Ice is published in the US by the University of Minnesota Press at $19.95 and in the UK by Vintage Classics at £7.99.