Thursday, December 3, 2009

for the lawyers

All materials presented on this blog are the sole property of Gavin Wells. Copywrite Gavin Wells 2009

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I'm Coming Home!

Route: Alexander Platz to Bed on Farina’s Kitchen Floor.

Distance: About 5 beers and 1 km

Last night while sleeping, my mind stayed active. I was dreaming of all I’d been through in the past five weeks to lead me here to Berlin, the city where Grandpa spent almost a year after the war. Finally, this morning after waking up on Farina’s kitchen floor not feeling refreshed, it occurred to me that I had come full circle. It was here where Grandpa wrote the bulk of his letters home to grandma Vernice. He was thinking of her hoping to get home and start a future. I was thinking of her hoping to get home to be there at the end.
Strange universal chance had provided me with a friend who happened to live exactly where I needed to be, at the exact time I needed to be here. Farina’s apartment was at the center of Belin around 4 blocks from the train station. It’s is close to everything that I need in order to get ready to head home. At the moment where I lost grandpas trail in the forests of West Germany, something cleared a path to this great city, and the end of my story.
Sitting in a beirgarten, adjacent to a graffiti covered wall against which my trusty boxed up Long Haul Trucker rested, I watched the endless parade of hip young people moving past on foot, on bikes, on buses and streetcars. They all seem so effortless, and purposefully on their movements, as if they are all sure of where they are going and where they have been. They don’t seem to notice that they move through a city that, with one or two notable exceptions, was a wasteland after World War Two. Wasted living, wasted dead, wasted buildings and the crashed dreams of a demented madman.
The Berlin that grandpa came to in the summer of 1945, just after the end of hostilities, was this void into which would be pumped the life blood of two aspiring empires over the next 45 years. It’s plain to see, cycling through this morning to find a bike shop, that the city was completely and systematically destroyed. In a place with over 1500 years of human history, I have seen only a few buildings older than about 60 years. Certainly not more than I can count on both hands. Everything else in the center of the city is new. Everything.
Can you imagine New York City simply wiped away by fire and replaced with an unfortunate combination of western Modernism and eastern Soviet Bloc housing projects? Grandpa was here during those pivitol few moments when the war against the Nazi’s came to an end, and the one against Communism began. He would have seen the barbed wire being put up to mark the boundaries that would later be rendered in the concrete and machine gun towers of the Berlin Wall.
Back during April and May of 1945, when the Ruhr Pocket was split in two by the 7th Armored Division, the remainder of German Army in the west surrendered. They came in droves. The 7th Armored alone captured over 113,000 prisoners. While there were definitely holdouts who fought on for months, effectively the war was over by late April of 1945. VE day, the official end of hostilities was May 8th 1945.
The 48th, after being a spearhead unit during this final offensive of the war, was ordered to attack north and secure the area around the city of Hamburg, and it’s port on the Baltic Sea. At the same time the Soviet Army was racing west and was given about to sack Berlin.
When I say “Sack” I mean in the medeivel sense of the term. By agreement of the Allies earlier that year at Yalta, the American and British advance was to stop approximately 40 miles West of Berlin, while the Russians where to be given the city as a sort of prize of war in retribution for the horrible and protracted acts of brutality the Nazi’s had committed on the USSR.
Accordingly, as soon as they were able, the Soviet army moved into the city and fought a bitter and bloody battle put up by the last defenders, some of which were well trained and equipped SS troops who knew what the Russians would do to their homes and families. Once the inevitable victory had been won, The Soviets laid waste to the city. Massive and indiscriminate bombing, burning, mass rape and murder of German women, pillaging of cultural and monetary treasures, and untold millions of individual acts of violence were done over a two week period starting in late April and lasting until VE Day on May 8, 1945. This left a city already destroyed by allied bombing into a moonscape of smoldering death and violence.
As the war ended, grandpa was transferred from the 48 Armored Infantry to the 41rst Armored Infantry Regiment of 2nd Armored Division as a platoon leader. He went from Badow near the Baltic, straight down to Berlin and was charged with occupation of the city during the period directly following it’s fall under the Soviets usually referred to optimistically as when “order” was re-established. The transition from combat commander to occupation duty must have been tough because it closely mirrored the transition from unchecked violence to civilization that all of Germany was going through.
He mentions in his letters that it is hard to leave behind all of the friends, and the people he had come to know during his months in combat. By this time he was a twice- decorated officer holding the battlefield rank of 1rst Lt. He would later be promoted again and eventually return home holding the rank of Captain. I wonder at his thoughts as he left behind the family of his unit, all of whom he wouldn’t see again, and drove slowly into this destroyed and still burning city. How far from home did he feel at this moment? How would he deal with the fact that it would be a year until he finally saw home again?
This was the real end of the war in Europe. The Russians held a line with the Allies to the west of Berlin that, in time and with a few minor adjustments, would become the border of West and East Germany. West Germany grew to become a great nation with the help of the Allies and the support of the Marshal Plan. East Germany twisted in the breeze and became a political pawn of the USSR during the cold war, which some people say started as soon as the guns fell silent on the Western Front.
I’m writing this in the center of the old East Berlin. It’s right around the 20th Anniversery of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place on October 1rst, 1989. 44 years after grandpa came to the conquered Nazi capital, those wartime decisions which became physical and cultural boundaries were finally rescinded. Germany was one nation again, and a people could finally shed the spectre of the war.
All throughout this trip, as I passed battlefields both ancient and modern, I’m reminded that bad events in time are always related and always lead to other bad events; wars always lead to other wars. I’m reminded of something Neik said; that everything, every event and every person in the world, is connected like a huge circle of humanity. I wonder now if the same idea could be applied in reverse. Can good events on a mass scale lead to other good events?
Certainly, on this trip, I’ve been universally rewarded at most points by random acts of kindness and the essential good in humanity. This is not to say that there haven’t been challenges. I simply mean that whenever I travel like this, and let go of some of my need to always feel as if I’m in control of the situation, I always find that the world has a way of providing what is needed.
Grandpa certainly would have felt that he was swept up in larger events. He couldn’t wait to get home and his letters are numerous and filled with expressions of love and loneliness for home, for his wife, and for his future. He can’t wait to have kids, mentioning in one letter the name of my dad, John, as being reserved for his oldest son.
Grandpa finally came home in 1946 to Grandma, had six children, and became a successful lawyer in Seattle. Although he never talked about he war, and to my knowledge never met any of the friends he had made in the 7th Armored again, I am able through his letters to get a sense of the man he was. He passed suddenly in 1962 of a heart attack.
In a sense, I too am swept away in larger events by grandma’s passing. Because of this, the real end of my story has me sitting here in Berlin after a great journey, waiting to return home to my family, to grandpa’s family, just as he did 65 years ago. Everything is connected.

The Battle of Berlin

Route: Arrendorf to Finnentrop by bike. Finnentrop to Berlin by train via Dortmund, Essen, Hannover.

Distance: about 560 km.

Camped once again in the frozen drip of the Western German forests, I awoke to the chime of a text message on my phone. I knew she was gone.
When the light finally broke through the mist, I shuddered awake to my last day on the bike. Going through the usual routine of trying in vain to dry my damp clothes under the blower in the bathroom I realized that I was dog tired. Tired of living on the ground in a foreign country, tired of sharing dirty campsite bathrooms with weird middle aged people, tired of getting lost in cities with road nets resembling spaghetti, and tired of following grandpa’s path when it was obviously leading back home.
Rousting out, I slowly packed up the bike for the last time. The rear wheel was shot, it’s bearings loose and its rim bent hopelessly out of round. I threw away a lot of the useless junk I’d managed to acquire on my journey from Normandy; tourist maps, sales slips, plastic bags and silverware. Even with the bad rear wheel, I noticed that the bike was much lighter for the first time in ages as I pedaled down the steep hill leading down into Attendorn.
After aimlessly riding around the small town seeking a train station with a person in it who may be able to explain the intricate German rail system, I elected to bike to Finnentrop, the town I had been through twice the day before and the local rail hub. Besides, it would be a great little spin through the forest past a majestic castle in the trees and through a little valley covered with ponds and rivers; a fitting final trek through the past before rejoining the 21rst century.
When I got to the river under the castle, I had a strange feeling that I was leaving home for the last time. My thoughts turned to Grandma as I rolled a fast downhill and pondered what would happen if I hit a transition from pavement to gravel at 45 kph. Nothing did. I wondered if she was with me.
I continued slowly through the woods, savoring these last moments of freedom in the wilderness. Once I arrived in Finnentrop, I knew that my path would be dictated by train schedules, money, and civilization. The 15 kilometers of dirt, rock and paved trail passed all too quickly underneath my tires and I soon found myself boarding a train to Hagen.
Once you figure it out, the German rail system is truly a marvel. Beyond the usual items of praise like trains running exactly on time, and stations generally being clean and safe, I was blown away by the special cycle car! It’s a whole car on the train with the usual passenger seats removed and fitted out with wheel cages for stowing your bike safely and easily. Small folding jump seats line the opposite side of the car for those riders, like me, who don’t want to leave their bikes and sit with the civilians.
In any case, once your bike is secure, you are free to go anywhere on the train you want. More importantly, you can get anywhere you want in Germany with a bike and a train ticket. I had just boarded in a true backwater the likes of which would not have seen regular rail service in America since the McKinley Administration, and I was headed for Berlin. Imagine trying to New York with a bike from Montana.
The landscape flashed by the window. Soon the forest was replaced with grassy hills, then by cement smoke stacks and graffiti covered walls. It was time to change trains in Hagen. I wrestled the bike down the stairs, through the little corridor, and back up to the platform on track 6.
Once aboard my first transfer, a much bigger and nicer train than the little red regional I just debarked, I stood along with my bike and saw the urban decay of the Ruhr Industrial area replaced by grassy hills once again. Rolling plains soon replaced the hills with little farms settled on them like tiny blankets on an ocean of green grass. All too soon however the smokestacks of Hannover replaced the farms of the Central German Plain, and it was time to change trains once again.
The final train to Berlin had a much bigger and more spacious bicycle car complete with a row of larger folding seats where I could lay back and watch the pictures flash by the window frame. Hannover receded into memory as the flat plains became the dominant terrain feature, only broken here and there by stands of young cedar forest. In the distance, in almost every direction, were tall pole-mounted windmill generators lazily spinning in the breeze like patches of metallic dandelions.
Minus the windmills, all of this would have looked familiar to Grandpa as he speed northeast in his jeep from town to town, city to city, and finally in leaps covering distances of hundreds of miles in a day. After the splitting of the last German resistance in the west with the collapse of the Ruhr Pocket in April 1945, the 7th Armored took in over 113,000 prisoners of war. In a lot of cases, the Germans raced west to get away from the advancing Soviet army, so they could surrender to us. They knew as American POW’s they would be treated fed, housed, processed and treated according to the Geneva Conventions.
As Grandpa continued north toward the Baltic Sea coast near Hamburg, the war for us became a race toward the Soviets. We were trying to get to the sea before them, and secure as much of Western Germany as possible before the end of hostilities. One of the notable missions run during this period was a dash of over 40 miles into German territory made by the 87th Cavalry Recon Squadron, another unit in the 7th Armored. This was the fastest way to contact the Soviets, the thus keep them on the east bank of the Elbe.
Finally, in early May 1945, the main body of the 7th Armored contacted the bulk of the Soviet army northeast of Hamburg. Grandpa spent VE day in Badow, a little town in that area just about 30 miles from the coast. In his letters, he writes that “the Russians seem a gay, childish bunch”, but that they “must also be ferocious fighters” to have “whipped” the Germans like they did. He doesn’t write about any impending sense of confrontation with them, everyone was simply happy that the war was over.
As I stood watching the scenery, a plump German man in a suit came into the car and said hello. I said hi back and we stood awkwardly in silence for a while as we contemplated how to bridge the language barrier. In very broken German I asked him where he was from. In just as broken English, he said “The most beautiful City in Germany! And, the oldest!” He pointed ahead indicating the next stop on a sign over the door which read something like Hoogeburg.
“All of this was British”, he told me in a booming voice while sweeping his arms about him in an arc around the train car. I looked confused. “In the war.” He said by way of explanation. He must have assumed that it was the only reason why an American would be on this train to Berlin.
“Of course,” he smiled, “I wasn’t there.” Just then, the brakes hit and the train came to a squealing stop. He said goodbye, and squeezed through the door ending the odd encounter. He was right of course because the whole section north of Dusseldorf was occupied by the British after the war, but it was the troops of the 7th Armored that had spearheaded the advance and taken it from the Germans. It was paid for with American blood.
Coming into Berlin, the trees were again replaced by pole-mounted lights; the flat countryside by flat rectangular buildings. The Teutonic computer voice rendered in female came over the intercom announcing stations in German and broken English. “Berlin Spandau.”, “Berlin HBF”. It was time to get off. Wrenching the bike from it’s home in the cycle car, I lowered in onto the platform and was soon standing in a dazzling contemporary train station four levels above the street. I was surrounded by grey concrete with polished metal hardware, and a huge metal-framed glass enclosure covering the entire four levels. It began far below me on the cobblestone street and extended in a gigantic arch over the mega-station. It was like standing in a 21rst century cathedral.
Having no idea where to go, and surrounded by rushing people for the first time since leaving New York, I stood dumbfounded by civilization. Mom was calling me about flight details to Seattle and my contact lenses were glazed over and sticky from 12 hours of struggle to get here. I suddenly felt guilty for not biking here and I wanted to take it all back. All the kilometers, all the hours, and all of the days, all of the way, back to the beginning in Cherbourg where I started out with wide dreams and a living Grandmother. But I couldn’t. It was done. I was in Berlin.

Farina and Inez

I was met by Farina at Alexanderplatz Station in Central Berlin. She walked up, hugged me as a long lost friend, and introduced me to the petite blonde standing beside her.
“This is Inez, she is my best friend from Duesberg.”
“Actually, I am hers but she isn’t mine.” Inez said with a wry grin while Farina pretended to pout.
“So, you guys are roommates I take it?” I chimed in. They both sighed and looked at each other like a middle-aged married couple.
“Yes” they toned in unison.
“We are the coolest bitches in Berlin ya?” Inez said finally.
“Ya.” Agreed Farina matter of factly.
Farina, the 22 year old event coordinator of Sleeze Magazine whom I had met while camping at Attendorn, was wearing a white t-shirt and nylons. That is to say, she was san-pants and it wasn’t that long of a t-shirt. While we walked across the square toward their apartment, I noticed that this wasn’t an unusual style among the hip and hot young women of Berlin. Farina also sported a labret piercing and a series of tattoos starting at her neck, disappearing down her back behind her shirt, and reappearing briefly on her upper arms. “That’s Farina.” Inez said to me while pointing at Farina’s backside as she bent over the sink doing dishes in their tiny post-soviet block apartment.
Sleeze Magazine appears to be a fashion rag generally extolling the virtues of topless and otherwise nearly nude women drinking cheap booze, getting massive tattoos, and generally excreting various bodily substances and fluids in and around a brown 1968 Ford Mustang parked in the woods. “It’s called Trash With Substance”, Farina said.
As we sat in the even tinier little kitchen of their punk rock flat, torn pages from Sleeze, an Ozzy Ozborn circa 1981 trading card, and acres of leopard print covering evcerything from the beds to the microwave, Inez explained Farina’s obsession with sales on vintage shoes.
“She’s always looking at ze sales on ze shoes ya?” As if to punctuate this point, Farina produced a high-lift pair of wooden clogs out of a white and black plastic bag that she had bought for 8 Euro earlier in the day. “Come here bitch and take of my shoes” Farina said to Inez while staring at her with a mock-sultry expression.
“She always makes me help her with her shoes.” Inez sighed while putting out her cigarette in the tuna can atop the tiny plastic table.
“So, that makes you the dominant one?” I snapped at Farina.
“You see what I have to live with? Quipped Inez. Also 22, she works at a local pop station in Berlin. She is an aspiring DJ, but like many people in show biz has found herself mostly doing programming. “She never does anything around here, she never cleans, she never cooks and she talks back all of the time. Fuck it.”
“Yeah, fuck it.” I laughed, wondering to myself just what kind of scene I had managed to stumble upon. It was if they were both trying so hard to be shocking. Even with all of this apparent rebellion, back talk, and fake punk-rock attitude, they both still found time to prepare me an evening meal of toast, cheese and tea. After all, I was the guest.
About the first thing the girls pointed out to me when I entered the trash-flat was that none of doors worked, or in most cases, were missing. What this meant quickly became apparent when I got up to go to the bathroom and found that the “door” consisted of a broken piece of wood with a boot-sized whole in the middle of it leaning against the wall. It seemed to have been relieved from its former duty on the hinges by violent force as significant pieces of it remained attached to the hinges on the frame.
Every door, except for the front door and the one to leading into Farina’s room, was in a similar state of rapid mis-use and tenuous balance at various points in the apartment.
“That’s just my crazy ex-boyfriend.” Farina said. “He lives here.”
“He lives here?!” I exclaimed.
“Oh wait” she thought a moment, “he lived here, no more. He’s crazy.”
“I don’t like him.” Inez announced while nodding.
“oh, ok.” I said.
“NO, he’s coming back tonight!” Farina laughed.
“Ya!” Inez chimed in like a wolf pouncing on a lamb, “he’s going to kill you tonight!” They both laughed maniacally, and starting uttering German phrases through the guffaws.
“Ya” Inez finally said, “have another beer, it makes our job easier.” They both laughed watching my expression change from sedate to curious to, likely, serious contemplation of jumping out the window.
“Yeah, well, “ I laughed nervously, “I’m a pretty big dude, so you’ll have your work cut out for ya.”
“We are joking.” Farina said very seriously as they both stopped laughing indicating that the humor was over.
“Ya, joking.” Inez followed, “I’m going to the shop, you want some gummy bears?”
“Yeah sure.” I said.
“If you kill her while I’m out, just let me back in when I buzz the door ok?” Inez announced over her shoulder as she flitted through the door. I guessed that it was normal for Germans to joke about sudden violent death. I had heard a few great one-liners earlier including a kindergarten song involving children falling from horses and being crushed under their hooves.
In any case, I decided that two little girls would have a tough time getting one up on me. I wasn’t too threatened. Well, that and I didn’t drink the tea.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Sad Note

Route: Attendorn to Schmallenberg via Lennestadt, Graftshaft, Oberkirchen, Obringhausen back to Attendorn

Distance: about 65 km

Today was completely overshadowed by thoughts of grandma. I felt her presence with me, waking up, as I biked through the cold forest, and all throughout the day. Since talking with dad last night, I got the sense that things are really not good; that she will most likely be “checking out” as we like to say in our family. We don’t like to talk about death.
Since finding out that it would cost more than I can mortgage myself for at the moment to get home now, I decided to go to Schmallenberg, the scene of one of grandpa’s battles during the Ruhr Envelopment. This decision was based on the fact that my map said there was a train station there. I figured, I could ride over, see the place, and catch a train as planned to Hamburg. Once in Hamburg, I would await word from home and figure out my next move.
Well, when I got there, no station; of course. Apparently there hadn’t been a station there for some time because people acted like I was asking for fresh squeezed orange juice, an internet connection and a manicure.
Riding out of Attedorn, a blue collar town tucked between the high forested hills in this part of Germany, I found a nice little bike path following the rail line. Interchanging between pockmarked asphalt and red rocky gravel, it led through the little valley over tiny mirrored ponds and stands of young firs. Soon, the pointed spires of a castle jutted from the trees unobtrusively. It’s as if the architecture of this place blends into the forest.
I was making a run to one of the places where grandpa had fought during the last months of the war. In March 1945, the 48th had crossed the Rhine, and assisted with the breakout from the Remagen Bridgehead. As part of this action, they were called on to take numerous small but strategically important towns in this part Germany. This was all part of a larger effort to encircle the remainder of the German Army in what became called the Ruhr Pocket.
Basically, after the failed offensive during the Battle of Bulge, the remainder of the German Army gathered in the major industrial area of the Ruhr Valley. This was where most of Germany’s weaponry, fuel and general supplied were manufactured. Hitler knew that if they lost the Ruhr, the war was over, so he reinforced it with fresh divisions from Norway and Denmark, in addition to the so called Volks-Grenediers, the “peoples army”; a force mainly consisting of boys, old men and culls from the navy and Luftwaffe.
These men could, none the less, still pull a trigger, and thus were a force to be reckoned with. In every little town, every little valley or hill, the men of the 48th encountered some resistance. While it wasn’t nearly a major obstacle to overall victory, it still bled the unit. Men still got killed and wounded taking these small areas trying to build a wall of Americans around the Ruhr. It must have been extremely hard to know that the war was all but over, we would win, but you could still be killed.
As previously mentioned, to visit every specific location where Grandpa fought during this rapidly developing phase of the war would be out of the scope of this trip. Because of this I chose one particular area around Schmallenberg to represent this stage of the fighting. It was characterized my many small units like the 48th AIB driving up highways until fired on, dismounting from their vehicles and figuring out the best way to move forward.
By the time the 48th got to Schmallenberg, the Germans had been surrounded in the Ruhr. Little towns like these, when taken, would open up a road for the attack into the center of the trapped German Army. The final stage of the war was about to begin and grandpa and his men were among those leading the way.
Riding up the narrow river valley of rugged forest coated hills, I could picture the line of artillery, olive drab tanks dug in just behind the tree line, and men in steel helmets crouching in foxholes. They were just up there, at the edges of the trees above me to either side, waiting for the order the move out.
Upon reaching Schmallenburg, I realized that it wasn’t simply one town, but a series of towns centered around one area. Once, this place had been a nation of its own, a little kingdom up in the hilly forestlands of Germany. Now, it was just another little state.
Each town, Grafshaft, Oberkirchen, Schmallenburg, was a arranged in a road loop surrounded a large hill. This hill dominates the territory in the valley, and thus would have been the focus of any attack or defense. Each little town was situated around this high ground at strategic points where roads or streams intersected, sort of like towers in a medieval castle. If you captured one of these towns, the whole area defense was threatened.
One of the “minor” actions was at a town called Grafshaft, then a small hamlet still surrounded in its medieval walls, but controlling access to the road net and the hill beyond. Company C was sent attack and hold the hill while Company B was sent to attack and take Grafshaft. The Germans weren’t about to let this little key to the ring defenses go without a fight, so once pushed off the hill by Co. C, they counterattacked.
Co. C was pulled back about 1000 yards down the hill. Meanwhile, because of this, Co. B was stalled in the attack on the town. The Germans had the initiative for the moment, and were bleeding B and C companies. Grandpa, along with Co. A was ordered to move into the dense woods on the high ground the south of Grafshaft without being noticed by the Germans.
Riding up this little valley, I was breathing hard, and seeing a lot of hills. It was plain to see that any well organized defense here would have been very hard to break. This was probably why the town had been founded where it had, I thought as I passed a sign which read “Grafshaft 1072-1972”. A light rain was falling from a grey sky.
Grandpa and his men hiked on foot north along a ridge overlooking the town at night, making no sound, and probably carrying nothing but their rifles, extra ammo and grenades. A 20 minute artillery preparation fired into Grafshaft, and then they were off, running down the hill out of the trees trying to cover the 200 yards to the town before the Germans had a chance to pull their heads out.
As I rode past the stone walls, filled with building from the 17th century I thought that this must have been the center of resistance. Other houses were built to the left of highway, downhill, but they looked generally modern. Then, I noticed a peculiar custom of this part of Germany; the builder of a house carves his name and date into the main crossbeam over the front door. In the case of most, the dates on these stucco and wood frame houses are no earlier than 1700 and no later than 1830. Some of these houses where here in 1944.
It must have been something to run headlong down these grass fields toward the town below, loaded gun in hand, knowing that Germans were waiting for you; bullets whipping the ground, mortars exploding around your feet, and men getting hit and falling. How difficult it must have been for these guys to push into this type of frontal attack this late in the game, knowing that the end of the war was but months away.
Grafshaft fell to A Co. that morning. Afterwards, Co. B came through to “mop up” stragglers and snipers. Co. C took the high ground because the Germans had lost their base of supply and the stage was set for a later, and larger, attack on Schmallenburg itself. Once these towns had been taken, the way was open for the attack to continue north and west all the way to Dortmond, Dusseldorf and Essen, three large industrial centers and home to the remainder of German military resistance in the west.
Riding back to Schmallenberg via the little highway to Oberskirchen, I was winded. The entire route today had taken me up a river valley into the hills. In short coming here was a ride 40km uphill with me thinking that I would get on a train to Hamburg at the end.
The real fun began when I had trouble locating the train station in Schmallenberg. The map I had just bought a few days before said there was one here. But where? After riding around the perimeter a few times, I asked a youngish looking woman and her boyfriend who were waiting for a table at a café in this mostly tourist oriented town of grey stone houses and tall hills.
“Ya, the next station is in Neuestaadt” The guy said, “it’s about 18km back, enjoy your ride.”
An 18 km backtrack is not the best outcome in any days ride. I mean, 18km is probably 10 minutes in the car. On a bike with gear, that more like 25-30 minutes. And it was getting dark. Does that seem to be happening sooner every day?
Luckily, turning back and riding the entire route had its advantages. For one thing, I wouldn’t be getting lost. For another, it was pretty much all downhill. However, I never like to backtrack. Whenever possible, I would rather take an unknown road and risk getting lost then have to go back the way I came. Something about it always feels like I lost.
But, in this case, I really had no choice. I was between camping areas by about 45km, according to my now suspect map. This meant that if I continued east to the camping, I would just have to ride back down west the next day to get to the train station. Given this, I elected to go back. Luckily, it only took me 15 minutes of getting lost in Schmallenburg to figure out how to go back down the road I’d come in on. By this time it was gloomy, raining, and around 6 pm.
I put on some Dethklok and hauled as much as possible back down the 18km to Neustaadt. Once there, I found no train station. Asking the locals provided me with a host of different German to try and decipher. Eventually I gleaned that I had to go further back toward where I had camped the night before.
I finally found a station at Alundrumen. I walked by bike past a group of drunk teens out for a Saturday night. Sometimes I forget the day of the week here. This, of course, was very special Oktoberfest weekend for many Germans, which I think explained the plethora of drunken teens hanging out by the local train station, which was so far from open that it made riding back to Attendorn seem like a good idea.
So, backtracking all the way to the place where I had just camped became my plan. If I had only known this would happen, I would obviously not have hauled my gear which today made my rear wheel bearing howl with protest. I later found out that it had come loose about 1/8th of an inch. That’s big in bearing world!
The sun set behind a veil of low hanging clouds as I pedaled as fast as possible back to Attendorn. I knew that a massive hill climb up to the camping area awaited me at the very end of the run. It was dark, raining and cold.
After cresting the hill at the campsite with The Roots nudging me up the last 200 Meters to the camp area, I called Becky. She listened to me rant about not being able to figure out the trains and how everything is shut down because of Oktoberfest. When I was done, she suggested that if I was stuck here anyway, I may as well try to go have some fun. Maybe go to a bar or something? I was skeptical as I don’t speak a word of German, I was camped in a forest surrounded by trailer homes, and everyone seems to know everyone else here. Frankly, I was just tired and cold and I planned on getting in the tent and drifting off.
No sooner had I hung up the phone, when a girl from the camp across the way came over, cigarette in hand, and asked if she could help me set up my tent. She, and her entire family in the RV, had been watching me stand around the flattened tent on the ground talking on the phone and probably thought I was in need of help in more ways than one.
This quickly turned into a beer and full introductions with her family back at the set of RV’s parked in there space. As the night progressed, and it got very cold and windy, we sat in one of the RV’s drinking wine and talking along with her little sister and tiny poodle.
Farina was from Deusburg originally, but was currently working as an event planner in Berlin. Her sister, Mariana, was a student hoping to come to New York for a year of student exchange. Neither of the sisters was too thrilled about being stuck in an RV with their entire extended families for the weekend. It was their grandfather’s birthday and he had wanted to go camping. I sensed that they weren’t as bored as they let on, although they did gravitate toward the strange American in there midst.
While we talked about the differences between Germans and Americans in one trailer, the parent and grandparents were getting stomping drunk in the other.
“She doesn’t do this that often, so when she does, she really let’s loose.” Farina said about her mother by way of explanation.
Eventually, the conversation got to down to stereotypes.
“What do Americans think of Germans?” asked Farina’s little sister, “it seems like all they think about is Hitler, like he’s still in charge of us or something!”
I asked where she got that idea, and she said something about an encounter in Italy before Farina chimed in with, “I think Americans are stupid.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Most of them don’t know where Canada is on the map.” She dryly replied.
“Yes, that’s true a lot of Americans are dumb. It’s not necessarily their fault, but it partly is. I mean, “ I tried to explain to these middle class college girls who come from a culture of where achievement is prized above all else, “In America, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, like no one is holding an axe to your head saying you will finish school and become a doctor you know?”
They looked at me funny, and I could tell that they had absolutely no idea what an axe had to do with it.
“What I mean is”, I continued, “if you want to be dumb, and live your life that way, we say that’s ok you know?. But we also say, you’ll be dumb and treated like you are.”
It’s hard to explain away something that is plainly true. We are a nation becoming dumber. Our country really is, in some ways, filled with people who choose to be ignorant. Our educational system rewards blind obedience and strict adherence to mediocre performance. Our government is clearly interested in maintaining that status quo through the reforms of the past decade.
Once people are not taught how to think for themselves, they become easier to fit into the broad fabric of C+ performance that our country is becoming. Let’s face it, our life expectancy is declining, we are not teaching our children how to think, we are working harder and more than ever before (more hours than Japan now), and we are simply becoming more and more unhappy as people. We are clearly not the same country that came here and won this war.
Faced with all of this, I had to acknowledge that yes, there are some really dumb people in America, but there are also dumb people everywhere. In addition, there are some very smart people in America as well.
“Do you like Obama?” Farina asked.
“Yes, I really like him. I voted for him.”
“What do you think of him?”
“Well, I really wanted him to change things, like really change things. No more war on terror, nor more war on drugs, you know; Real change.”
“Why do Americans say “you know” all the time? You do say it all the time.” Mariana asked.
“ummm, I don’t know, ya know?”

Throughout the blustery night, the mother, father, and grandmother made silly appearances at the door of the RV with flasks, cigarettes and beer. I’m pretty sure it was a way of checking in on this weird guy with their daughters at first, but soon it became a little party between the trailers.
We laughed, and sang “Hey Baby” over and over again because I think it was the only song in English that Farina’s mother knew. I felt accepted for a time by good people just when I needed it. I managed to forget about the things I can’t change like where I am right now in relation to home, and how much money (that I don’t have) it would take to affect that.
Soon, the parents, being the drunkest of the bunch, needed to go to bed, and it was out with the American and in with the pass outs who owned the place. Farina and I said a quick goodbye, and I went off to my tent with the sounds of a happy family echoing through the night beyond.
Tomorrow I think I will attempt to get to Berlin for at least one night. Grandpa spent nearly a year there after the war. He describes the devastation, hunger and malice of the city at that pivotal moment in time when we stopped hugging the Soviets and started staring across the invisible barrier between east and west.
From there, I will go as planned to Hamburg and visit Badow, a little town to the northeast where Grandpa spent VE day. In his letters, he talks about how the 48th took over a landed estate complete with golf links, hunting grounds and a mansion that made his chateau on the Rhine look like a “shack”.
He also talks about how the landed gentry who owned the place were “die hard Nazis”, and they weren’t allowed back into their home by the men of the 48th, not even to collect bed sheets and clothing. When they protested that they owned the estate grandpa said, “This place is now owned by Uncle Sam.” He had to explain what that meant to them. He said he felt “very proud”.

After going to bed that night, watching the clouds roll over the deepening gloom of the tree coated hills, I couldn’t escape the irony of my situation. I was here, where he had been 65 years ago, overshadowed by thoughts of the same person. Grandma Vernice. Vernice Munsey. Vernice Wells. Vernice Brown. She was dying in Seattle. Just as he was here at the beginning of their lives together, I was here at the end of hers. Like him, I wanted nothing more than to return home and be with the family.

How I Almost Went to Oktoberfest...but didn´t

Route: Bonn to Hartegasse via Cologne
Distance: about 100 km

Well, wow. Today was a mindblower! Waking up in my plush hotel room in Bonn. I showered for the first time (it’s a real luxury when your camping) and headed down for my included breakfast. Thank God the German don’t mess around with the kind of make your own Bisquick waffle “continental breakfast” that you get in the states. In a huge buffet was served, among other things, a huge pot full of scrambled and eggs along with pretty much any possible meat product that you could desire.
I know I’ve made this point many times, but food is fuel on a bike trip, so I helped myself. I also brought my backpack down with me to see if I couldn’t take a few pastry- like things with me. I managed two full plates of breakfast, and several sweet roles. This is amazingly good because the roles will last, and I don’t have to stop and pay for more for a few days. I ignored the stares of the perfectionist staff and the business people getting ready for their morning meetings. Are any of them going to get on a bike loaded with 60 pounds and ride 100 km up and down hills all day?
I left armed with a street map of Bonn given to me by the incredibly helpful dude at the front desk. He was really fishing for a tip! Anyway, I ended up finding Ippendof no problem. It makes sense that every place where grandpa fought is basically at the top of a hill. This suburb of Bonn is no exception. I went from river level up to about 250 meters in 2 km. Riding up and up into a section of hill overlooking, and thus commanding, the city. Here, the Germans put up a fight in a vane effort to hold the city west of the Rhine.
Today, it looks just like an urban neighborhood. Bonn is a large city, some 3 million people, so anywhere this close to the center is basically just another city pocket. An old church, and two old looking wood and stucco buildings are all that remain of the old town center. Perhaps grandpa walked past these very buildings. Everything else is new, not just since the war, but new since I would say the 1990’s.
From this now nondescript location, it was on to Kessinich, another suburb of Bonn. Here Grandpa had what he called in his letters “a chateau on the Rhine”, now it’s what looks like a former well to do place filled with older somewhat rundown houses. Also, the former West German government buildings seem to have been placed pretty much right in the middle of the neighborhood.
While waiting for a train to pass, along with 10 or so other people on cycles in the rain, we were all treated to a half musical, half drunk speak soliloquy given by a very intoxicated gentlemen astride a Pugeot ten speed complete with front string basket. He went on and on while those around me looked away in discust. I couldn’t help laughing quietly to myself as he tried to talk to the unfortunate truck driver next to him. I didn’t have to speak German to understand his main points.
“Allas Kaput, allas shizza!” he toned on and on standing in the rain at the train crossing at 9 in the morning on a Thursday. I thought to myself, I know man, I know. There really is nothing I like better than a good “yeller” as I call them.
Rolling across the Rhine was the start of my real km today. After I got across the third great water barrier on this trip, I realized that I had no idea where I was going on the other side. Originally, I had thought that I would role south back down to Remagen, only on the east bank, but once there, I was only going to turn right around and head back north to Cologne. So, I decided, given the time I have left, to simply head upriver to that great ancient city Koln, and go east to Schmallenburg from there. In that sense, today was another day where I had a lot of road to burn.
Riding up the river, I found the usual perfectly paved bike path running down stream and flirting with the vestigial stands of oak forest on the banks. Really, the entire length of the river from Bonn to Cologne is one large suburb. What I mean is that, in stark contrast to the forests and mountains of the past two weeks, today was primarily an urban ride. I had to dust off the riding in city skills which definitely become a little rusty, especially as the Germans seem to hate it as much as us Americans when you get on their highways with a bike.
As I approached Cologne, the first thing I could see, towering above the city, was the great Cathedral. I had hoped that this famous building would not appear small or in some other way be a let down. It did not disappoint at all. As someone who has practiced architecture for 10 years, I truly am boggled by how they built something so tall out of stone without any steel reinforcement. The towers of the cathedral have to be easily over 300 feet tall. Maybe more like 350 or 400. That is a roughly equivalent to a 25 story building! To say that this great edifice dominates the skyline of this ancient, and yet very modern city, is an understatement.
Cologne is perhaps the oldest continuously occupied city in Western Europe. It began under the reign of Octavian Ceasar as the major shipping and commercial center on the Rhine. The great cathedral, having been composed of several buildings built on top of one another, was founded at the end of the Roman Empire during the era when Christianity became the official state religion. During late antiquity and the early middle ages the city served as one of the great centers of western thought at a time when the light of civilization was dimmed in Europe.
All of this history was nearly destroyed during the battle for Cologne during World War Two. The Nazis had made a practice of blowing up all church towers in every city as they retreated because they made perfect observation posts.
Rolling on the cobblestone rail switchyard on the East bank of the river, the city lazily sliding by on left side, it occurred to me that I had no idea how to get out east to where I planned on camping that night near Lindlar. It is a big city, and it seemed that I had spend the better part of the day getting to it, getting lost in it, and trying to find my way out.
Soon my journey upriver came to the point where I had to turn east. The usual bike signage was nowhere to be seen, and the rail yards I had been riding up the east bank were ending. I had to do something, so I picked a street and turned east on it. In a matter of minutes I was lost in a maze of urban decay, graffiti and broken glass. It can’t be that bad, I thought to myself, there are still cyclists on the road, windows in the buildings, and people walking on the streets. Then it got bad, real bad.
Certainly when living in New York, you sometimes find yourself in these types of neighborhoods. The ones where all the windows are gone from the buildings, long ago replaced boards or simply never replaced. You can always tell a really bad neighborhood because no one is walking around, and generally the only people you see are hanging out in windows, or in doorways staring at you.
In situations like these, I often find that discretion is the better part of valor, by which I mean, I put my head down and get through it as fast as possible. This is no problem when your on a bike, you just keep going. Don’t stop for signs or lights, just keep up a steady pace that doesn’t betray any fear, but yet gets you out of the bad part fast.
Well, in doing this in Cologne, I ended up in a not so terrible suburb which was anybodies guess on the map because it didn’t appear. I knew kind of where I was supposed to be, and kind of where I was. As I sat studying my map over and over again trying to will street names to appear that simply weren’t there, a smiling very German looking dude rolled up on a touring bike. It was as if he appeared from a crack in the universe just when I needed a guide.
Christian had long silver hair, a full white beard, and large smiling countenance set behind plastic prescription sports goggles. He asked, in extremely accented English where I was going. After a long, and somewhat difficult conversation I gathered that Christian rode his bike everyday to work in Cologne, that rode over 1000 km per year on holiday alone, and he thought I was nuts for trying to camp where I had planned. Later events surprisingly proved him correct, but we’ll get there.
Soon we were pedaling through the forest, in the middle of the city, on a “short cut” he knew. Granted, I had just met the guy, so I at first used the pretext that I was carrying a lot of weight to keep him in front of me. Of course, he actually was a lot faster than me, and I ended up having to really pull on those pedals to keep him in site on muddy curvy trail.
We soon popped out into another suburb which looked exactly like one I was lost in, and my fears of being mugged by some gang of Christians buddies in the trees proved ridiculously wrong headed. He turned out to be just another in a long line of very well meaning people on bikes who’ve helped me along the way when I needed it.
At a roundabout, he stopped and directed me the rest of the way out of the city via a series of hand signals and landmark phrases like “big hill” and “shopping place” as indicators of where I was turn either left or right. There are so many damn little roads here. To be honest, I’m really starting to question whether I know what left and right mean any longer. With a wave and “good luck” shouted back over his left shoulder, Christian the Bike Viking disappeared around a corner and back in whatever dimension he is from.
I actually managed to follow his directions, and ended up out of town and headed on the right road. Truly a case of symbiotic minds working together, because anyone will tell you that back at home I have trouble remembering where I put my shoes, phone and wallet, let alone some geometrically complicated set of directions in a foreign country.
Once I made it out of Cologne, finally, it was getting dark and I had at least 30 km to go to what my map indicated was a set of two camp areas near the town of Lindlar. I can smoke 30k if I need to in an hour. This is no problem, if I knew which way to go. I figured, I have about an hour and a half till dark, I’ll just hammer down, follow the signs and get there.
Follow the signs.
Well, the signs seemed to lead me in circles for 30 minutes or so. I seriously went over the same river 4 times, up and down what looked like different places on the same hill, and through around 45 identical looking little towns before I found the signs for Lindlar. It was darker and starting to rain.
The signs directed me onto highways filled with rush hour traffic from Cologne just now getting out to the country. When Germans get out of the city on the roads after work, its game day; I mean, there is no speed limit, and everyone drives a BMW or a Mercedes. In short, I had my life flash before my eyes more times getting to Lindlar then I’ve ever had riding to work in Manhattan. These guys haul ass, and they don’t care that you’re on the road.
Finally arriving at the vaunted metropolis of Lindlar, I stocked up on dinner foods per normal, grabbed some cash for the campsite, and headed out of town in the dusky rain. 15 minutes later when my third attempt to find the right road to the campsite failed, I asked a very nice woman who spoke a little English. What followed were another set of arcane directions involving taking three lefts and two rights, then your first exit from the first roundabout, the third from the second one, and riding up a huge hill. Of course, by the time I actually found the hill, it was fully dark and freezing cold.
If course when I actually got to the town where the camping was supposed to be, it wasn’t. So, I did what anyone in my situation would do. I purchased half a chicken from the lone street vendor figuring that I’d at least have something warm to eat whenever I got to wherever I was going. She explained, through her large drunk friend who supposedly spoke English that the camping was actually in the next town, which just happened to be down the other side of the hill I’d just spent 15 minutes climbing up.
When I descended the hill into the spooky darkness of the German forest below, the wind froze my hands and face. I needed to find a place to get warm. Finding no camping in the next town, I knocked on a door and was greeted by a well meaning housewife who indicated that the camping was in the next town. I felt like Cortez on his quest for Eldorado talking to the Indians. “Oh you mean THAT golden city. Yeah, that’s in the next town man, just keep walking that way. Thanks for the horses and smallpox!”
Finally, it was really and truly night. I was in a town that looked just like every other town I’d seen before, and figured I’d at least go get warm and grab a beer or something. Maybe someone at the bar would know a place to camp.
Walking in, I was greeted by a middle aged guy who looked like he knew how to drink beer, a charming older bar maid in glasses, and a blonde girl about my age who spoke perfect English. Thank God! She, I think, was looking for an excuse to get away from Johny von Grabby hands at the bar, and offered right away to drive me around looking for camping at all the surrounding towns.
Stefi was a graphic designer in Cologne who literally jumped up and down with excitement when she heard I was from New York. In our brief acquaintance, she drove me all over the area and translated for me in three separate bars. No luck. Finally, she talked to the owner of a local hotel about a block from the bar where we met, and I ended up with a great room, with private bathroom, for 30 Euro! Breakfast included! That is hands down the best deal I’ve yet found. Those little hotels man!
Of course, just like ordering drinks at a club, it helps when you show up with a very attractive blonde girl. As we returned to the bar where we met, I offered to buy her a few beers for helping me. I ended up discovering that the local brew was very good, and only .90 cents a glass. This coupled with the warm cozy bar and the German conversation made for a very good ending to what could have been a very crappy night of poaching a camping spot somewhere in the forest.
She came with me back to the hotel when I got tired to make sure that I got breakfast included with my room. On the way over, she talked about how she was going to New York for Revit training soon. I mentioned that I’d be happy to show her and her friend around the city. Then, she mentioned that she and that same friend were going to Oktoberfest in Munich the next day, and that she could arrange for me to come with.
I feel the need to paraphrase Ghostbusters here again; when the blond girl asks you to go to Oktoberfest in Munich with her and her girlfriend “you say YES!” Of course, it didn’t work out with the friend. Stefi texted me later that night with “bad news”, there was no room at the place they were staying. I’m sure the conversation with her friend actually went something like this: “You want to bring a smelly homeless biker that you just met at a bar with us to Munich for 4 days? ahhhhh..and I can’t believe I have to say this to you…no.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Heimbach to Altenahr

Route: Heimbach to Altenahr via Mechernich, Euskirchen and Bad Munstereifel
Distance: about 70 km

So, breaking spokes is just a normal part of life now. I woke up to a cloud covered morning sky next to my little meandering river. The clouds had held in the heat of the day, and I overslept comfy and warm in the sleeping bag for a change. Getting up, I just didn’t want to leave, but I knew I had to. A rest is fine, three days in one place isn’t a rest, its lack of motivation.
Somberly putting my gear into the bags, and checking over the bike I noticed that another spoke had gone sometime during my wandering around Heimbach and associated trails. That was two new spokes that I needed to replace. I was going to have to find a bike shop, and this meant going to a city. Also, while shaking out the tent, one of the main poles snapped. Duct tape to the rescue again, I hope. Once the pole breaks, it’s kind of hard to set up the tent!
I’m know that grandpa wanted to come home the entire war, based on his letters, but his prose definitely became more terse and to the point after the Battle of the Bulge. He is no longer full of boyish sayings like “in the last fracas the old boy got the silver star”. I’ll find some better quotes, but he is very tired of being in the war at this point. I think all the men were to some extent.
I am tired of being on the road and that is certain. Tomorrow marks my one month anniversary since leaving New York. That’s four long weeks away from Becky and home, three on the bike, and I’ve got two more ahead of me. She joked about me coming home early and Lord knows I would love to. I can’t help but feel, however, that if I did that, the story would only ¾ done, and I will have missed the end. So, just as the war wasn’t over in March 1945, I’m not done here and I will see it through.
Even though it was apparent that Germany was going to loose after the Bulge, they didn’t give up, and the war dragged on for three more months. They fought a defensive holding action all the way back to the Rhine River, and grandpas unit, after resting and training new replacements, went into the attack south of Bonn centered around a town called Ippendorf.
The Germans were trying desperately to maintain a bridgehead on the west side of the Rhine as an escape route for troops left behind after the Bulge, and as a jumping off point for another offensive that Hitler was planning. Contrary to popular belief, a large German army remained in the Ruhr Pocket, and they were a force to be reckoned with.
Meanwhile, the Allies were trying staging troops and equipment for an assault across the Rhine to the north of the Ruhr. This was to be the final offensive of the war. If they could get across the river, only the smaller Elbe River stood between them and Berlin. The end was in sight, but it wasn’t done yet.
While grandpa was busy fighting to take Ippendorf and close the German salient west of the river, a sudden breakthrough came to the south. Elements of the 3rd Armored Division, under standing orders to take any intact bridge they could across the river, found one by shear luck at Remagen. The now famous Luddendorf Railway Bridge was taken intact by a platoon of Armored Infantry on the run. During the assault, the frantic Germans blew explosives which had been mounted to the bridge in an attempt to destroy it, and as many Americans with it as they could.
As soon as the Americans had crossed the bridge however, teams of combat engineers had gone to work disarming the explosives to the effect that, when they were detonated, they failed to fully destroy the bridge. While the engineers started to reinforce the damaged bridge, under a hail of machine gun, mortar, artillery, and last ditch Luftwaffe air raids, the 3rd Armored moved all of their heavy armor across as fast as possible, and a small, but defensible bridgehead on the east of Rhine had been established.
Upon hearing this news, the US 1rst Army starting putting as many units as they could across the damaged bridge while engineers built pontoon bridges to the north and south of the Luddendorf. All of this was done under heavy enemy fire, and some artillery units from the 7th armored were called into action defending the airspace around the bridge. Finally, the bridge collapsed, taking a lot of American lives with it. By then, however, the damage was done, and we were firmly across the Rhine.
Grandpas unit was called south to cross during the mad rush to get a bridgehead established, and breakout of the geographic confines around the east bank at Remagen. The 48th crossed the Rhine on March 24, 1945. I’m not as yet sure exactly how, but most likely on a Baily pontoon bridge. They then attacked east through the bridgehead, and spearheaded the allied advance into the heart of Germany.
My route will actually be the reverse due to the fact there are no bridges left at Remagen. I’ll go to Remagen, and work my way north up to Bonn, cross there and come back down south to visit some of the towns that the 48th took on their advance. I may let myself have the luxury of a hotel room in Bonn, we’ll see! Internet, showers, and clean clothes. Hmm.
And now for something completely different: I was sitting in my tent last night, contentedly feeding my nerdery by designing the perfect touring bike on some graph paper I had acquired at the market, when my reverie was disturbed by a very loud helicopter flying over. Being an aviation enthusiast to the most embarrassing degree, I find it impossible to not look up at the sky whenever some form of flying machine is present. It’s a conditioned response.
So, I stuck my head out of the tent, and saw a red and yellow painted Bell of some type I didn’t recognize flying directly over the field I was camped at. The site, I should mention, was completely surrounded by forested hills. He was flying over, and getting lower by the minute. Interesting, I thought, as I continued to watch from the apparent safety of my tent.
Suddenly, the whirlybird swung a hard left, and came around on a tight 180 directly over my tent. The pilot popped the door open, and looked down at me. I looked up at him. The whine of the engines, and the downwash from the rotor made me instinctively jump up out of the tent and stare up at this object as it continued to descend rapidly.
It took a while for it to occur to me that I was probably watching an emergency landing in progress. As the helicopter got down to treetop level, it swung out over the little stream in front of my site. With the pilot looking down from the open door like one does when backing up into a tight parking spot, he quickly brought the helicopter down gain to land perfectly in a soccer field filled with children directly across the stream.
I saw a mob of them run screaming from the chopper as the pilot powered down the aircraft. The engine exhaust finally subsided enough for me to hear the sirens of the approaching emergency vehicles. That was some damn good flying!
An ambulance came, along with some other vehicles. I couldn’t quite see because the helicopter was blocked from my view by some trees where it had come down. After about 20 minutes, the ambulance drove away, and the chopper powered up and took off, flying along over the hills as if nothing had happened.
After last night’s excitement, the route today, like the weather, was kind of a let down. I thought it was going to rain pretty much all day, I could see the low hanging grey clouds coming from the north. It never did, but as soon as I climbed out of the valley around Heimbach, bidding the amazing castle and little town goodbye on my way, the air turned damp and cold. October is almost here, and the weather is definably changing. The leaves are starting to be blown off the trees, and the farmers of all burning the fields, getting ready for winter.
The increasingly pained sounds coming from the back wheel, along with a noticeable shutter on the rotation told me that I had to get the wheel fixed, and fast, or I would be buying another one. I looked at the map and figured that a town the size of Mechernich should have a bike shop.
Passing from the tall hills covered with trees into the rolling farm land east of the Ruhr, I saw more cows than cyclists and, sure enough, when I arrived in the dumpy looking, graffiti coated town of my hopes, I was told that the only bike shop was in Euskirchen, some 15 km to the north.
I was again not sure if the wheel could make it that far. Well, that and it was 15 km out of the way to the north. That would mean a 30km detour in the middle of the day. Damn. Looking at the wheel, and weighing my options, I could see that going to Euskirchen was my only option.
Grandpa must have suffered from equipment failure all the time. An armored unit was always working its gear to the breaking point. The maintenance crews attacked to each armored division worked around the clock, under combat conditions, to make sure that they tanks and halftracks moved when they were supposed to. Theirs was truly a thankless job, toiling away in a muddy field in the middle of winter to change an engine in a tank. That was real work, but it had to be done. It was just as important as firing a rifle.
Euskirchen, I had been warned by the cute waitress from the café two days ago, was not a place I should go. I think she said, “It is bad there, don’t go.” Now, I live in New York City. I am used to some questionable neighborhoods, but the last thing I want to do is get stuck for a night in some messed up German ghetto.
True to her word, on arrival into this thriving metropolis filled with angry looking men in their 40’s staring at the streets from windows, and graffiti encrusted everything, I felt a little unwelcome in this stronghold. Taking a wrong turn on the bike path, and ending up in a not so great looking patch of woods from which I had to extricate myself by cutting a trail to the nearby highway, I came across a concrete overpass with a swastika spray painted on it.
This symbol, as with all other sayings, songs, related artwork, etc., is forbidden in Germany today. I’ve seen that emblem of hate painted on a thousand walls and in a thousand stalls all over the US, but there is something more palpable and potent about seeing it splattered roughly on a concrete wall under the highway here in the country of its misuse. It is as if the reason for the symbol lays dormant under this veneer of civilization. I turned away from it, and went the other way.
Finding a bike shop, in a crappy part of town, I met Jurgen, a friendly bike guy about my age. He took one look at my wheel, and quickly got to work replacing all my spokes. While he was in the shop, people kept coming into the shop and asking me for help. I felt like I was back at work in New York, and the only reason why I didn’t help out was the language barrier.
I get the sense that the stereotype of all German school kids learning English is really only true in the richer cities. Here in this working class, mostly Turkish, city the kids that came in did not speak a word of English, and to compound this, their parents spoke only Turkish.
Jurgen was running back and forth trying to explain to this one kid over and over again why a used bike was priced the way it was. When the kid bought the bike, and instantly brought it back to complain about the brake lines getting caught on the front reflector, I felt like I was in some German alternate bike universe with Jurgen playing my role. I’m not sure about all of what he said, but their conversation ended with Jurgen pointing to the reflector and saying “Shiza” repeatedly.
After a while, a friend of the shop came in and we chatted for a bit. Then I told them I was from New York, and worked in a shop there. Both of them looked at me funny and asked, “New York and you’re here? Why?” I explained the project and the book.
“Let me show you my bike!” Jurgen’s friend interrupted me. “It’s from New York too! You see?” He pulled out a German made dual suspension mountain bike roughly equivalent to a Specialized Epic.
“Yeah, nice wheels man!” I exclaimed, while Jurgen slowly tightened the new spokes. I was happy to get the service, but I also wanted to get back on the road.
After a few minutes of broken English discussion about Jurgen’s and his buddy’s bikes, the buddy pedaled out of the shop, and Jurgen presented me with a newly spoked rear wheel. I checked the bearings, and had him reset them. I think with all the commotion he just forgot to do it.
With more customers coming in, I told him to go ahead and try to sell some stuff while I set the brakes, and generally checked over the work. I noticed that he tightened the cassette down way too much, and I wanted to see what else he did. I mean, he was a really nice guy, but some mechanics just feel the need to tighten everything down like it had to hold back the vacuum of space.
Back on the road and running as fast as I could, I followed the signs for Bad Munsterereifel, a town surrounding a castle, still surrounded by its ancient walls. Germany has a great bike trail system. It’s not as extensive as The Netherlands, but you can still generally count on bike paths and trails to every major destination. Usually, the main highways ill also have corresponding paved bike paths running alongside them.
They are surprisingly not well marked, however, and more than once I had to double back or run around a little village asking for directions. I do feel now that I’m starting to get the logic behind these little medieval towns. There is, or was once, always a castle or church smack in the center. If the original town wall still exists, there is usually a park around these with a road built into it. If the walls are gone, they are the road. Either way, there is a serpentine road which runs around the center of town. If you get lost, just find the main orbiting road. Pretty easy.
Off of this road, there are several branches which lead in all directions. They are usually marked with the names of the large cities that they run towards. Sometimes, the streets are actually named for the cities that they lead to. In this case, it’s just a matter of riding the orbital road enough times to get used to the signs, and then pick the one with the name that most closely approximates your destination. So far this method has served me pretty well. That and a compass.
Pulling out of Bad Munstereifel, while feeling a pang of guilt for not stopping to check out the intact medieval castle and town, I soon found myself in the longest uphill I’ve yet had. 4 km straight up and gaining probably close to 300 meters. I glanced at my contourless map and surmised that I would be going over a pass at around 540 meters. That’s over 1500 feet up a rock pathway through the woods at the end of the day.
It took all the strength I could muster not to simply pull off to the side and camp in the trees. Back home, that just camping, but here you would get a sizable ticket. The Germans love their forests, and they love them untouched, which is great, but it also means that you end up camping in trailer parks with crappy bathrooms in less than desirable parts of whatever town you’re staying in. Currently, I’m adjacent to a heavily used railroad track and there is a bum rustling in the bushes behind my tent. Charming.
All of my effort was rewarded when I crossed out of the woods, and back onto the open road. Soon a long series of downhill switchbacks opened up before me, and I felt like James Bond swooshing down the narrow windy roads of Europe to the canyon below. My Surly with the bum rear wheel is a far cry from an Austin Martin, but what the hell.
At the bottom, I heard the sweet sound of yet another spoke breaking. Yes! Luckily, before I left Jurgen’s shop, I had him cut 10 extras for me!

German Beer Is Stronger than American Beer.

Route: To the bathroom 47 times last night
Distance: About 100 m each way

You know when 30 beers are just not enough? Also, don’t you hate having to keep getting up and opening another normal sized can of beer every two seconds?
Well, the Germans, with typical efficiency, have solved this problem by making small kegs available for sale at practically every store, gas station, and vending machine that you see. While I definitely was tempted to go the “large” on beer with dinner last night, I knew that purchasing said keg was a commitment that this author was just not willing to make. Well, that and I couldn’t fit it into my backpack.
While speaking English with a wonderfully charming woman I met at the gas station named Mirium, I was running around the inside of the shop grabbing what few items one could term as food. This state of affairs for the evening meal came about because Germany, like France, closes down on Sundays as well. This was the only store in town that was open, and more importantly, took visa.
Mirium could sense that I wasn’t from Germany, and began our conversation by asking what I was doing in town, and if I had a place to stay. She quickly followed this up by saying that she had a husband and three boys, and I was welcome to sleep in the garage. Her husband is a cyclist from Wales, and they offer the garage to other cyclists who come through town.
I was, however, camped in the nicest spot I’ve had yet. It’s in an open grass field surrounded by steep forested hills, and right next to a fresh sounding river. I really wanted to stay where I was, plus I had already paid, so I regretfully turned down her generous offer knowing that I would probably get a lot of stories out of it.
Instead what I did was buy some cheese, salami and beer for dinner. I chose the smaller cousin of the pony keg, which I will term a goat keg. It was a large black can of beer, big enough to keep me happy, but small enough not to affect my performance the next day. This is, of course, before I got half way through it and realized that it was 10%, and by then the damage was already done.
Needless to say, this morning I awoke to the sunlight streaming through the tent, a headache the likes of which I haven’t had since college, and knew that I wasn’t going anywhere today. It was hard even pedaling down the hill to the only open café in town on Monday morning, where I wolfed a breakfast of coffee, various bread product, and cheese. I guess you can’t get omelets in Germany?
Oh well, I needed a rest, and now I’ve got one in the most beautiful little town I’ve yet found. After eating, I walked up to the castle, and climbed the great round watchtower to the top to get the view. The three gorges that this castle commands come together at the point of rock upon which it is perched. From the top of the tower, the little houses, streets and open spaces of the town below clung below the castle like barnacles on a rock at sea. The whole town is organic.
The other great thing about this part of Germany is that it was left pretty much intact by the war. By the time the Allies got this far, the Germans had pretty much all retreated back to the Rhine, which is around 40 km to the east of here. Thank God at least some of these towns and their history were preserved because it is amazingly gorgeous.
As I descended the tower, and rode back through the meandering cobble stones to the camp ground, bleary eyed locals were starting to stir and move about. Yesterday was Sunday, and the town had been filled with motorcyclists and tourists buzzing around, drinking beer, and hanging out at the outdoor cafes. This morning I felt like I was the only one left at the party.
I returned the café where I’d eaten because the locals all seem friendly, and they have power. For the price of a cup of coffee, I get to sit, relax and write to my hearts content. Not bad! Tonight, I will sleep soundly next to the river, the sound of the water running into my dreams, and tomorrow I will make the Rhine.