On his way out, he tossed Albert a cell phone. "Call me from the mountain if you need anything. I'll be at the barn." He slid behind the wheel of his shiny Mercedes, then turned, grinned and tipped his battered felt hunting cap to us.
We drove 10 minutes south to the village of St. Margarethen and the base of Lungau's second largest ski resort, the Katsch-berg-Aineck mountains. Along the way we passed the squat, thick-walled, heavy-roofed farmhouses typical of Lungau, as well as Schloss Moosham, one of Lungau's three medieval castles.
Erwin Resch, a former Austrian national ski champion, sold us organic chamomile lip balm at the base of Aineck, then tossed a couple of schnapps singles into our mitts. "Keep warm!" he said.
Ten minutes, two shots of schnapps and four lifts later, we arrived above the clouds at the Adler Horst (the Eagle's Nest) summit lodge. Icy peaks floated in a fog sea under an endless blue sky. Austrian folk music piped out from under the hut's eaves.
We had the mountain's 37 miles of runs to ourselves and were spent by noon. A quick warmup in the Adler Horst turned into a languid afternoon around the fire, boots off, soaking up Lungauer folklore, courtesy of the brothers Gspandl. As the winter sun dropped behind the Alps, we dragged our limp limbs out for the descent to St. Margarethen.
"I want to take you to visit someone," Albert said as we left the mountain. "He's called the Thomatalerpfarrer, the 'priest from Thomatal.' I was altar boy with him when I was a kid. He's 86 years old. He's ... well ... you'll see."
Thomatal, with its dozen or so farmhouses, was only a few minutes' drive south of St. Margarethen. We pulled up beside a two-story slate-roofed house next to the church. Albert knocked on the weathered door. I heard some shuffling, then some keys jingling, and finally the door creaked open.
First a battered leather Merlin-the-Magician hat appeared. Then a remarkably smooth face with dancing eyes, high cheekbones and a waist-length gray beard peeked out at us. He was a combination of Haight-Ashbury hippie and Indian sadhu.
There was a moment's pause, and then his face broke into an enormous grin, the door flew open and he shouted, raising his arms as if in prayer, "Viva America!"
His house has neither electricity nor, other than the wood stove in the kitchen, heating, so we went to the nearby gasthaus to share a beer with him.
Albert told me later that the Thomatalerpfarrer has always put forth his own singular interpretation of the church's message, to the dismay of Lungau's church hierarchy but to the delight of his parishioners. Late on Christmas Eve he celebrates Mass in a barn and plays Joseph in a skit reenacting the birth of Christ. On Palm Sunday he dresses like Jesus and rides a donkey to Mass.
"We adore him," Albert said as we left.
On our drive back to Mauterndorf along village streets, kids shouted greetings to us through their home-crafted masks and costumes. They tramped from house to house, reenacting the journey of the three Wise Men, to be rewarded by townsfolk with sweets and coins.
Albert and I fell into the local rhythm. We argued politics over coffee at Café Hochleitner until 10 a.m., sliding onto the new six-seat chair at Fanningberg (probably the locals' favorite hill) around 11:30 a.m. We waltzed down the smooth-as-carpet runs off each of Fanningberg's four lifts until midafternoon, rode back to the top, then kicked off our boards outside the rustic Gamsstadl hut and dropped in for a beer and a rest.
Tony Schitter, a dairy farmer who operates his high-pasture summer cabin as a skiers' refuge in winter, hammered out folk songs on his accordion, his younger brother accompanying him on guitar, and his mother and sisters stirring up miracles in the kitchen. Skiers made room for us at an already-bulging table. Pans of käsespätzle, bratwurst and sauerkraut were pushed aside to accommodate pints of beer and mugs of hot wine.
Local ski racing champs, army officers, farmers' daughters and cabinetmakers, together with a handful of Italians and Germans -- the only non-Austrians we saw during our stay -- wandered in from the slopes. Soon we were watching the locals dancing polkas on the tables. An hour later we were up and dancing with them.
When we finally scrambled back out to the hill and stepped into our skis, it was nearly midnight and socked in with a ground-hugging fog. A decision was made -- perhaps by the soldiers among us -- that the person most familiar with the mountain should lead us down to the base of Fanningberg. We would carry torches, hold the ends of one another's poles and turn where our leader turned.
Tony offered to take in his tractor those who preferred not to ski down. A few Germans accepted, visibly relieved. The rest of us lined up single file and skied two turns, and then the whole thing fell apart. It was a midnight free-for-all with torches flying. The Austrians couldn't help themselves. Each wanted to be first over the finish line.
The following week Albert and I ventured out of Lungau to explore the neighboring resorts of Turrach, Radstadt, Flachau and Schladming. We joined a horse-drawn sleigh ride to a creaky wood cabin deep in a forest behind Katschberg mountain, where accordion and zither music and a meal of roasted venison waited.
We agreed to meet with strangers (if the locals can ever be called strangers) the following evening at midnight on a full moon for a ski trek up Aineck Mountain. We crashed curling parties on frozen lakes and were cheered as heroes. We witnessed wacky skits performed by cabin-feverish village elders at annual winter festivities.
On our last evening, as we glided on cross-country skis circling frozen Preber Lake, we met Florian Frühstückl, the grand master of the ancient, yet still thriving, valley tradesmen's league. He invited us to his 200-year-old home for a feast of spit-grilled lamb, hand-picked chanterelle mushrooms and Lungauer erdlinge (potatoes).
At 2 the next morning, he and his wife sent us off with an invitation to return the following summer to celebrate his 50th birthday with a shooting party at Schatten Lake, the site of our earlier curling fest. They assured us that by then the lake would have thawed, transforming itself into a liquid jewel.
Albert and I savored our last moments in this undiscovered, authentic Austrian Shangri-La, with its huge-hearted, life-loving, accordion- and zither-playing folk who will meet you, invite you into their homes and then drink you under their tables, all in the same evening.
We did not miss the chichi resorts of Tirol or Vorarlberg. We were too busy loving Lungau.
Gisele Rainer is a lawyer who lives in San Francisco.