There must be a mistake. After eleven years of public schooling in North Carolina, today I discovered that I had been lied to. There aren’t seven natural wonders of the world, there are eight. Those fine educators completely neglected to mention the Austrian salt mines, that hidden gem, that breathtaking attraction nestled snug in the walls of the Austrian Alps.
It was the afternoon of my sixth day on my whirlwind tour of Europe, a 16 day trip of a lifetime that I had been dreaming about for over a year. And as the ACIS tour bus wove its way through the twisting mountain passageways and down to the heart of the salt mines, my amateur tourist weariness was instantly displaced by a surge of adrenaline, overcome by the majesty of nature. Every bend in the road revealed an amazing mountain vista, more picturesque and glorious than the previous view. Like frames taken from a slide show, the large bus windows perfectly captured each angle of the breathtaking landscape, etching the panoramic beauty into the vaults of my young, impressionable mind. As our tour guides’ peppy, British accent synchronized with the oohs and ahs of her captive, high school audience, I began to allow the reality of our life changing adventure to sink in.
For as long as there have been little villages of Austrian mountain folk dwelling on the jagged mountain terrain, there have been hordes of little, Austrian miners, laboring from dawn to dusk behind the cavern walls, extracting the salt that remains after the water from the mountain streams has been pumped out and evaporated. No longer did the fictitious responsibilities of the Seven Dwarfs seem so childish and petty; for there really are communities of hard working men, milling around under the earth’s outer, rocky crust with pick in hand, hoping to discover an abundance of one of earth’s natural elements.
We all stepped into the world of the miner as we were each garbed with an oversized, white, button-up miners’ suit. Pictures were plentiful and laughter ricocheted off the walls as we all gawked at one another wearing those ridiculously unfashionable miner outfits. Making our way down the steps to board the miner’s cart that would take us into the heart of the mines, our tour guide, a stout, middle aged man in traditional Austrian attire, gave us all a hearty welcome — in German. It was after listening to a one minute introductory spiel in a completely foreign tongue that many of us born and bred Americans began to realize that in Austria, English takes a back seat. For the first time, I began to realize the immense cultural shock that foreigners must feel when trying to survive in America while being bombarded by a bunch of native gibberish. It was quite a relief when the tour guide transitioned to the English translation, instructing us to straddle our seats and hold on to the person in front of us as the cart sped through the dimly lit corridors of the mountain cavern.
Bounding off the cart once it came to a halt, everyone in my group huddled together, eagerly anticipating the ultimate miner thrill ride, a trip down the miner slides. In groups of two or three, we scrunched together at the top of the slide, awaiting the final nudge that would send us zooming down, hoping to make it to the bottom faster than the group that was speeding down on the slide beside us. Standing up from our muddled heaps at the foot of the slides, we all crowded around the faucet and allowed fresh, mountain water, high in sodium content, to drip upon our fingertips. Putting our fingers to our lips, we allowed the richness of nature’s goodness to dissipate on our tongues. No one anticipated that a trip inside the salt mines would so completely replicate the excitement of an amusement park, but after another ride down a second slide, a relaxing boat ride through the underground mountain river, and a final journey on the cart back up the mountain and onto solid ground, everyone had a much better understanding of the daily life of a salt miner. Granted, we weren’t subjected to any strenuous work, squinting by candlelight as we chiseled the walls with ax and pick, but it was very eye opening to experience the circumstances under which such a basic commodity as salt is mined. And it’s wonderful to boast of experiencing the secrets of a natural wonder.
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