Sunset as seen from the Geisberg near Salzburg,
June 21, 2005

While I am here at the Kenyon Writers Workshop where the sun shines with abandon, I am reminded that today is the longest day, and I remember many years of celebrating the summer solstice with my brother in the Austrian Alps around Salzburg where he lives. Back then I would spend the second part of June in Munich, where my kids would go to school for a few weeks after school had wrapped up in the U.S., and invariably we would go visit my brother over the summer solstice. First by happenstance, then by design, we’d drive up into the mountains on the 21st of June, when people gather to light “Sonnwendfeuer” – bonfires on mountain peaks, or even just any spot where they are visible across a distance, to celebrate the summer solstice.

Some hardy souls actually go on a climb, carry up firewood, camp out in the rocks, and light the fires high up in the mountains. We were lazier, just drove up a mountain pass in search of an inn that was hosting a bonfire, ordered some beer and gathered around the crackling fire with all the other shadowy figures. The main thing I remember, aside from grand views like the one above, is the feeling of hot and cold, and the weight of a sleeping child on my shoulders. Once night descends, the air cools off remarkably, and at higher altitudes you better be wearing a warm sweater and a windbreaker. Standing by those fires, watching the innkeepers throw in more firewood, my back would be cold while my front, especially my face, would be dry and hot from the blaze. Eventually we’d have to get the kids to bed, so we’d drive back down the serpentine curves in the dark, which was dangerous enough for me, and I always wondered what it must be like to have climbed up all the way to a summit and sleep up there for the night. Cold, I am sure. Until the sun comes up again.