Archive for June, 2010

How to surf – NOT!

June 28, 2010

Following my sometimes painful introduction to life back in the States, things settled down to a daily drudge.  I was out across an arterial highway (US101) so I had to ride the school bus to school.  There was many reasons why this was considered to be the ultimate in agony for a high school junior.  The primary question always being ‘why don’t you have a car’?  My standard answer, which was considered akin to “the check’s in the mail” was ‘my car is still on it’s way from Germany’.  Hoots of derision usually followed this pronouncement.

November morphed into December, dragged onward into January, February, and March and finally, after several centuries, crawled into April.  April in California signals a real change from dirty brown grass, thunderstorms that don’t pass out much rain and winds whipping the fog up from the bay.  Rain falls, but at a softer, more soaking, rate.  Flowers, grass, and leaves begin to absorb it and turn green.

Girls start planning their spring wardrobes, with bright colors, lighter materials, and other eye-catching items.  Guys begin dividing into three groups:  1) The car guys; 2) the health nuts; and, 3) the surfers.  There is a fourth group consisting of both girls and guys that simply continue onwards with their lives.

I couldn’t join the first group – no car.  The second group was appealing to me, but they spent a lot of time working up to grueling marathons by running down to San Francisco and back in a morning wearing nothing but a really thin pair of running shorts, a running jumper with the number of calories per second they were burning pinned to the back, and running shoes that cost more than my car.  That only left the third group.  They seemed an interesting bunch to me, if one discounted the fact that they had their own language.  I’d give them a try.

Last year, in the Bavarian Alps, I’d tried skiing.  I was passably good at it.  I had two boards strapped to my feet, a long downhill grade, and nothing to cushion me except some pretty unforgiving snow over a very terra firma.  So, I figured, how hard can it be to stand on a one huge board, being pushed by a wave, with nice soft water as a cushion in case of the unlikely event I would fall.

I had a couple of the surfer crowd that lived nearby so I initiated contact with one of them.  His name appeared to be ‘Fuzzy’.  That was what everyone called him.  I think his actual name was Phil, but Fuzzy is what they knew him by.  Like me, he was a junior, had his own car, and had a really large surfboard done up in lime green with yellow lightning bolts down the length.

We were chatting out in front of his house one afternoon when he mentioned that his friend, Tomcat, was coming by.  He added that Tomcat had a woodie.  Now, I’m not prudish by any means, but something like that just seemed to be an overload of information.  Before I inserted my foot and chewed it off at the dotted line, Tomcat drove by in his Ford station wagon with actual wooden panels down the side and a surfboard rack on top.  Fuzzy asked me if that wasn’t the greatest woody I’d ever seen.  Um, yup; the greatest.  Actually, it was the first one I’d seen.

They were going out so Point Reyes to see how the surf looked.  Having to head back home soon, I had to decline, but asked to go another time.  They assured me I could go next time and zoomed out of sight.  Judging by the amount of blue smoke, Tomcat’s woody actually burned wood also.

Part two of my quest to be a surfer consisted of nudging a request for either a surfboard, or money to buy one towards my dad.  This was going to be very difficult as my dad was hard to get any money out of.  I was totally surprised when he mulled it over and said he’d see what he could do.  Not wanting to push my luck, I let the matter simmer right there.

He gave me the bad news the next day.  He was under the impression that a surfboard was something you slid on across incoming surf.  That actually being a ‘boogie board’, and was not very expensive.  When he pronounced an actual surfboard as being completely out of the realm of possibility I was crestfallen.  He went on to say that if I agreed to mow our lawn, trim shrubbery, wash the car, and balance the national budget, for the rest of my life he’d buy me a surfboard.  Sign right here son, in blood please.

Well, it was a thought.  Now I’d have to figure out a way to get one myself.  Back over to Fuzzy’s house I went and explained my predicament.  He had me follow him to his garage and stand under the trap door while he rummaged in the attic.  Eventually, amid grunts, groans, and an enormous bang, the nose of a surfboard emerged from the hole in the ceiling.  Fuzzy told me to catch the board and let it go.

Fortunately his brother’s plastic pool toy was where the tip of the board hit.  It bounced once and clattered to the floor.  Fuzzy admonished me to be more careful so I wouldn’t get it dingy.  It looked pretty dusty to me already so when I asked what he meant he just repeated what he’d said before, but emphasized the last part:  ‘get A dingy’.  Ah, now I understood, not “din-gey” but “ding-ie”.  I had a lot to learn.

Covered in cobwebs, Fuzzy dropped from the ceiling and explained that this was his old board and I was welcome to use it but I had to refinish it.  Currently, the finish was a cross between apple red and moldy cheese.  Large areas of the board were devoid of any finish at all, mainly the underside.  On one edge there appeared to be a small shark bite.  When asked, Fuzzy explained that he’d hit a rock.  What a relief as I figured his toes would have been very close to that particular spot.

I spent the next month working very hard at making the surfboard presentable.  This particular model was made of balsa wood.  It was very light and had a nice shape to it.  The tail fin had the tip broken off so I made a new fin in wood shop.  I had to do that surreptitiously because any project had to be approved by the shop Gestapo and mine wasn’t.  For ease of handling, I left the fin off until last.

My knuckles were wrapped with bandages, my fingers abounded with blisters, and my dad’s garage was completely taken over by my refinishing efforts.  Two sawhorses held the board while I sanded.  I was told by both Fuzzy and Tomcat that to use an electric sander was not a good idea because it took too much of a bite; hand sanding only.

Finally, I pronounced the board ready and began the task of spreading hot, melted, epoxy resin all over it uniformly.  It was very difficult, and on two occasions, I had to wait until it was dry and re-sand it off because it was too thick.  I slaved though the rest of May before it was done.  I had a small party consisting of Fuzzy, Tomcat, and I when I attached the fin.  The surfboard was done.

The three of us were pretty fast friend now and had taken a few trips out to see how the surf was.  On every occasion, it didn’t seem very good conditions.  Waves were listless, somewhat flat, and crossed each other regularly – a sure sign of a rip tide.  Not a good thing for surfing, or a surfer.  I watched from the shore as they tried their boards.  I saw how well they managed their boards and thought I could do at least as well.  Fuzzy promised that June was always a good month.

In the process of entering the world of surfing and surfers I acquired a huge amount of new, and incomprehensible, vocabulary.  Suffice it to say that I now got the same puzzled looks I once gave when I spoke Surfer.  I also was introduced to girl surfers.  Who knew!  I kind of hung out with one in particular who went by the name of Stringbean.  Her real name was Susan.  She was spare and tall enough to look me in the eye barefooted.

The movie “Gidget” had just come out this April and all sorts of things like beach parties, nighttime fires on the beach, and necking were foremost in my mind as the real surfing season approached.  The official start of the season was to be the first weekend after school let out.  Even non-surfers were going to be at the huge beach party planned.  I invited Susan.  Oh, by the way, my new name was simply “Newguy”.

In the meantime, while I was slaving away on my surfboard, my car arrived from Germany down at the Oakland Army dock.  Tomcat drove me down to pick it up.  Aside from a dead battery, it looked just fine to me.  I checked the level of gas in the tank because I had been told they sometimes drain the gas out.  I had barely enough to get to the gas station we’d seen outside the gate.  I fired it up with the assistance of jumper cables and back north we went.

I didn’t need a rack for the surfboard because I had a convertible.  One just stuck it in back, hooked under the front seat, and drove away.  Since it would hold two boards, Susan usually had me drive her anywhere.

The afternoon of the big party arrived and we wound our way through the hills to the shore.  One whole area had been taken up with racks big enough for ten boards each.  Two ‘weenie huts’ had been set up to dispense hot dogs and hamburgers with all the fixings.  A solemn line of porta-potties were set up for our use as the actual park rest rooms were almost a half-mile down the beach.  Jessie Owens couldn’t have made it in time.

There were several dudes out sitting on their boards waiting to see how the surf ran.  Fuzzy was one of them, but his cohort Tomcat was sitting down eating a hot dog.  Susan and I joined him.  We talked and pointed out at the ocean taking note of where the kelp beds were.  Nobody wanted to be surfing along and run afoul of a kelp bed.  Your fin would hit the stringy mass and the board would stop dead – you wouldn’t – and before you could shout ‘Cowabunga!’ you were not only walking the nose, but about two feet past it.

Despite my snazzy dress (rubber sandals, long legged swim suit (called ‘jammers’), tank top, and shades, I had never actually been in the water aboard a surfboard.  I could talk the talk, but I hadn’t as yet walked the walk (or swum the swim??).  That was going to change today for sure.

Around noon, the wave action began to pick up and more surfers joined the early crowd.  I casually walked over to the rack and hefted my board, only to drop it very close to the feet of an enormous senior who had muscles on top of all his other muscles.  “Hot dog?” no thanks, I’ve already eaten.

I eased the board out in front of me and paddled out to the group.  Nervously, I awaited my first wave.  Chatter began to wane as I felt the rise and fall of a couple of decent swells.  First one, and then many more, began paddling like crazy for the beach, preparing to stand up.  I followed slowly, but with increasing speed as I began to go downhill.  I was back to skiing!  Oh no!

I was saved this time by my board.  It overbalanced when I leaned forward, and dug the nose into the water.  I was unceremoniously dumped to the side and into the water.  I captured my board as it went past.  I had missed the wave.  I swam back to the starting point and waited some more.

My next attempt was a little better.  I managed to kneel on the board as it picked up speed.  By leaning back a little I found that I could slow it down, leaning forward made it speed up.  That was fine but now there was someone directly ahead of me.  I sure wish I knew how to turn.  I faked a good one though by grabbing the rail and lifting myself completely over on one side.  This, of course, put the board riding me which is not exactly proper.  Back to the starting point.

A large wave began forming behind me and I joined the already furiously paddling throng.  Before I really knew what had happened, I was actually standing on the board.  With arms flailing the air, and knees bent, I rushed directly at the beach which seemed very close but wasn’t.  Concentrating on my major feat of not falling down, I kept my delicate balance until the wave broke over me.  This, in my case, was called a wipeout and would probably rate a minus three from any judges there may have been.  Unfortunately, the only person who saw me was Susan.  She was rolling all over the blanket, pounding her fists into the sand and laughing loudly – even after I pulled my head out of my ass.

Where is the snow when you need it?

T.O.M.

The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (7)

June 21, 2010

It was so much nicer the next morning to wake up to the tapping on my door instead of rain tapping on the roof of my tent.  By the luck of the draw I managed to get a single room this time so I was sleepily intrigued by who might be tapping on my door at oh six hundred.  I rose, rearranged my morning woodie and opened the door a crack.

Virginia peered back at me with one eye to the narrow slit.  I whispered that we had agreed to the no hanky-panky rule, but stopped when I saw tears in her eyes.  I opened the door and let her in; taking a fast glance around the hallway to see if she had been detected.  She went and sat on my bed and grimaced.  I knew it was serious when she didn’t make some sort of ribald comment on my erection.

She told me she had woken up with a huge cramp in her calf.  According to her it pulsed with pain every time she tried to straighten her leg.  I came over, took her leg in my hands, and examined it.  She had a huge knot of muscle that tightened when I pulled the leg out towards me.  She bit her lip but still gave a small cry of pain.  I let her leg go and went to my shaving kit for some sports cream I kept there.

I told her to roll over on her stomach and bend her knee to elevate her calf.  It wasn’t until that very moment that I realized that she only had on her nightgown and nothing else.  Oops!  So much for our vow of chastity and non-panky.  I did my best to concentrate on applying the cream to her calf but my attention span there was measured in microseconds.

I used my thumbs over the tendon while holding my fingers around her ankle and working them upwards towards the bunched muscle.  I massaged as carefully as I could until slowly the knot went away.  A red place was left, but she reported that it felt much better.

She flipped over on her back, which made the hem of her nightgown ride up dangerously high and held out her arms.  I leaned down for a chaste kiss, but was pulled over into a really great smooch.  She stuck her tongue up against my lips until I opened them to admit her.  Several seconds of this brought me to a rolling boil but the fates intervened.  About the time I was ready to throw caution to the winds and jump into bed beside her, we heard a door slam and footfalls down the corridor.  I lifted my watch from the bed stand and saw that it was now oh six thirty – the time we had all agreed on to get up.  What a bummer.

I sprang back to the vertical (and, believe me, everything was vertical) and pulled her to her feet.  We held each other, kissed, and then I reluctantly opened the door a crack and reconnoitered.  The coast was clear so she pecked me on the cheek as she passed out the door.  Great!  Here I was all dressed up so to speak, and nowhere to go.  Fortunately, the shower was cold as the boiler hadn’t been fired up yet.

Breakfast was the usual Continental breakfast of various small rolls, pieces of lunchmeat, jams and jellies, and assorted sticky buns.  Coffee was plentiful and tasty, but I decided to have tea this morning just to be different.  Today was the day we would pedal all the way home.  It was a longish run but if we left early enough and didn’t dawdle too much we’d be home by late afternoon.

The one place I intended to poke around was along the Kyll River because the train tracks followed both banks.  It was possible to get some really spectacular shots of steam trains while standing on bridges over the tracks or on paths beside them.  Both of which we would be using today.

Virginia and Cleo, her roommate, showed up on time and descended on the food laden table hungrily.  For as light and somewhat thin as Virginia was, she ate food like a ranch hand.  Today was no exception: two rolls loaded down with some sort of smelly cheese and a piece of bacon, a big sticky bun slathered in butter, and two cups of coffee.  While we were eating, Cleo sidled up to me and asked if everything came out all right; meaning, of course, the kink in Virginia’s calf.  I smiled and told her everything was just fine and to mind her own business (while stuffing a half-roll into her mouth).  She smiled back at me.

With a quick check of equipment we began our final day.  The air was cool at that time of morning but promised to become hotter as the day wore on.  Sunscreen was definitely going to be used if the clouds went away.  They showed signs of fading right now so I predicted they’d be gone by noon.

Almost immediately we entered and left Herforst.  This village was also surrounded by a low Roman wall, which we pedaled along for quite some time.  Soon it gave way to field after field of various cultivated crops.  There were trucks, tractors, and horse-drawn trailers spotted all over the place.  Some were laden with bags of what appeared to be fertilizer which indicated that the fields were probably owned by some major company.  Most German farmers fertilized their fields with left over animal fluids which they kept stored in wheeled tanks called ‘honey wagons’.  It was for this reason that most Americans wouldn’t eat anything bought at a farmer’s market.  Me?  I loved fresh tomatoes and stuff like that.  A little washing and after two gulps it was gone.

Speicher was a larger town with well laid out streets and nice little squares interspersed with older buildings.  The Ratzkeller was a true work of art that begged to be explored, but we didn’t have the time.  We pressed onward towards what our topographical map showed as a series of descending switchbacks to the Kyll River.

We paused at the crest of the hill and followed our road down through four huge loops as it dropped to Philippsheim.  Past the town we could also see two climbing switchbacks which we knew we would be walking up.  Oh well.

With gay abandon (with great care, really) we swooped down the curves at a stately pace.  We wanted no repeat of the disaster we had a few days earlier.  One crashed bike and banged body was all we needed this trip.  The urge was to fly down, but the turns were very tight and had loose gravel at the sides of the paving.  A sure accident in the making.

As we entered Philippsheim we heard the musical whoot of a steam engine.  As we made our way down the last bit of hill we came out above the tracks.  I stopped and took some pictures of the short passenger train while it stopped at the station for a few moments and then made off into the distance.  A glance at our trusty map showed that we would rejoin the tracks after passing though Hüttingen an Der Kyll.

Once again we climbed out of the valley on foot, pushing our bikes.  We reached the top and paused for a drink of water and a couple of buns we’d liberated from the breakfast bar.  They were delicious.

Continuing onwards, we cruised the flats, went through Gondorf, a sleepy farming town, and through even more fields of produce.  We entered the woods on the crest of the hillside over the Kyll River valley.  Through the trees we could make out sections of river glinting under the sun.  It was a long, slow drop into Hüttingen an Der Kyll.  We paused on the south bank of the river near the railroad tracks and waited.  Within ten minutes we could hear the short honks of a diesel engine as it entered town and signaled for a stop at the station.  We had hoped for a steam train, but diesels were rapidly replacing steam engines for short milk runs.  Steam was still used to great advantage on long passenger runs though which was much more to my liking.

We tried waiting for another ten minutes, but felt the press of time and moved onwards.  A very long uphill grade was taken in low gear as we climbed back out of the valley temporarily.  We would re-enter it again just past the headlands before us.  Across the valley was the road we had ascended on our outward-bound trip days ago.  We would join with it at the town of Albach and make our way home from there using the same road we left from.

Soon the air was split by another flight of jets, also F-100’s, as they took off from the base.  They weren’t overhead this time but they were still impressive.  We slowed our pace until we were barely moving.  Taking a little-used side road through the fields we weren’t bothered by traffic and remained in a bunch swapping talk, laughs, and plans for another trip.  This time, we vowed, we would just take the train.

Slightly earlier than our forecast time of arrival, we pulled into the school parking lot.  Our faithful chaperones met us there, passed out our dried tents and cold drinks.  Both were welcome.  I rode next to Virginia to her house and then peeled off towards mine.  Luckily, our bike storage was down in the basement because I was so tired I couldn’t have carried my bike up a flight of stairs.

All in all it was a great trip.  There is nothing better than the satisfaction of doing something like this with friends you really like and feel comfortable with.  There was some good-natured bantering but no harsh words were ever spoken; at least to each other, but the weather was something yet again.

NOTES:  As I go over the route we took in Google Earth, I am saddened to note that most of the rail lines we crossed or paralleled are now gone.  Ripped up in the name of progress I guess.  Major rail lines still exist in Germany, and huge amounts of passengers and goods are transported, but steam is a thing of the past.  I am sorry to see it go.

As far as Bitburg Air Base goes, the runway still exists, but there appears to be a dirt bike track near the end of runway 06, and part of the apron where jets warmed up has been converted to a go-cart track.  The taxiway that ran to the “hot standby” area from the 24 end where jets fully laden with weapons to fight the Soviet menace waited on alert has been closed.  It appears that many of the original buildings on the base are in the process of being torn down for some project or another.  The housing area still exists, but only with about half the buildings present.  My old living quarters are still visible, but Virginia’s has gone.

In many ways I really grew up on that base.  I changed from a little kid to a young man while I lived there, fell in love, made love, and had love depart from there.  I think it would sadden me greatly to go back for a visit now.

T.O.M.

The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (6)

June 17, 2010

I woke to soggy footfalls outside my tent.  When they stopped, Virginia asked me if I had any dry covers as her tent had let water in and gotten her backpack completely wet.  I glanced at my watch – oh four hundred; four in the morning – and freed one arm to search among my bag.  I found a flannel sheet that appeared dry so I unzipped the tent fly and passed it out to her.

Her hair was stringy in the reflected light from her flashlight, which she considerately pointed away from the tent.  She added that she was really cold, and threw in a chatter or two of teeth at the end.  She looked really bedraggled and I felt really sorry that I couldn’t just have her slide into the tent with me.  I’m sure my tentmate, Barry, would have said something about that though.  Maybe not, though.  He was currently between girlfriends.  But, no way would I share.

I told her that if it was any consolation, I was pretty cold myself and the rain wasn’t helping.  Making a decision, I told her to wait a moment and that I’d come out maybe we could find a dry spot and warm up.  She flicked the light off and sloshed away.  I tried my very best to get partially dressed without waking or rolling over Barry.  As I left the tent, he cracked an eye and mumbled ‘Glück’ (Roughly: good luck).  I am sure he meant finding a dry spot.

I didn’t bother to put on boots so by the time we got to the cooking area my feet were thoroughly wet and cold.  She was sitting on the cook bench with my sheet thrown over her Indian style when I came up.  She lifted one side of it and I sat down and pulled it over my shoulders.  She snuggled closer to me and put an arm around me tightly.

She wondered aloud if the rain will ever end.  I replied that according to my nose it should right around sunup; which wasn’t for another hour yet.  All she said was ‘oh, rats’.  I had to agree.

We whispered in low tones with large pauses between sentences.  Slowly, her shivers subsided and she lowered her head to my shoulder and dozed.  I leaned back against the tent pole and nodded off myself for a little bit.  I was the first to hear the door on the Volkswagen van slide open.  One of the chaperones stepped out and landed directly in a huge puddle of water.  There was a moment of very un-chaperone-like language – especially for a lady – and then a dash for the tree line.  Virginia giggled and said that she must really have to go.

It was light enough now to asses the campsite.  Wet and sagging little tents dotted the grass amid puddles of water.  Some tents were now showing signs of their occupants stirring.  Since Virginia and I were almost dressed we started up the stove and put on a big kettle of water for coffee and tea.  Our big two-burner gas stove was working out well.

As we waited for the water to boil, the chaperone came back into camp and headed for the kitchen.  She approached and slid under the canopy with a sigh.  All she said was that she hoped the water was hot enough for coffee.  It was, so she ladled a heft amount of powder into a mug and poured in water.  In three gulps it was gone.  That seemed to make her feel better.  After fixing a refill, she slogged over to her camper bus and dove inside; slamming the door.  Virginia and I looked at each other and, at the same time, said ‘what a grump’.

The camp was coming alive now as more people were emerging from their wet tents.  Vast stretches, deep groans, and back creaks were heard as they tried to remove kinks from their spines.  I felt a lot better myself since I’d spent the last hour cuddled up to something warm.  I was still a little stiff and sore from our foolish slide down the grassy slope, but now that the gloom was being replaced by some light things didn’t appear as bad as before.

One by one the others drifted into the kitchen area and filled up on hot stimulants.  We were allowed one small half-shot of Schnapps each in our coffee to help ward off the cold.  It certainly helped me anyway.

Four of us started fixing breakfast:  rolls with butter and jam, cold cereal with milk, and a huge pan of scrambled eggs.  Nobody felt like taking the time to fix anything other than scrambled eggs so that’s what we got.  Bacon was cooked in another pan and, once it had drained, added to everyone’s plate.

Once we all had eaten, things looked a little better.  I predicted, after looking up at the cloud movement that the rain would quit in about an hour.  It was down to an intermittent drizzle even now so I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right.  The chaperones were huddled in the car having a powwow of their own.

They emerged and came over to the kitchen.  They asked us if we wanted to just go on home now instead of finishing the trip.  We thought about it for a moment and then told them we’d like to finish.  We had no more camping to do and the inn at Binsfeld was a good one with a nice restaurant close by for a good meal.  Some discussion followed, with a strong plea for us to change our minds, but we held fast.  None of the chaperones were willing to ride with us though.  In fact, they told us, as soon as we packed up and started out they were going to go to Binsfeld and check into the inn.  This was fine with us.

We washed all our dishes, packed them into the camper, and rolled our wet tents up.  These were put into the trunk of the car.  We could dry them out later today in the back of the inn.  We gathered our gear, put the panniers on the bikes and cleaned up the campground.  One never left a campground without cleaning it up.  It was an unwritten rule in Europe that you always cleaned up after yourself.  Campers here in the US could use that ethic themselves for the most part.

I was just a short push uphill through dripping trees on both side of the road until we reached the plateau on top.  Just as we emerged from the woods, the sun finally made it’s appearance.  Off to our left was the town of Dodenberg.  We discussed taking a brief detour into town.  The guys were for pushing on, but the girls claimed they wanted public restrooms.  They won; and we cycled into town.

It wasn’t much of a town, just a crossroads in fact, but it did have a huge barn where several people were working.  We approached and asked if the girls could use the facilities.  We were given permission by the farm owner himself.  While we were taking turns washing up, we chatted with him.  He was a florid guy, fairly tall, with huge hands.  While we talked, he pitched hay into a large bin from a trailer packed with it.  In order to repay him, several of us grabbed forks and helped.  Bet you thought I was going to say ‘pitched in’.

Refreshed and rejuvenated (and drained of early morning coffee), we left the group in the barn.  We left Dodenberg, swept across a small hill and descended into a valley to the town of Gladbach.  The town itself was interesting because it still had bits and pieces of Roman architecture within a partial Roman wall.  When we emerged on the other side, we all groaned at the sight of our ride ahead.  It steeply ascended the far side of the valley through a forest of trees.

I consulted the topographical map and said that there was a small trail that led directly to the top and shortened the trip to Niersbach, but was soundly booed by everyone.  They’d had enough of shortcuts to Hell.

In the full sunlight we trudged up the hill.  We had to walk single-file because of the narrowness of the road.  Every time a bus or truck went by, we’d get a blast of diesel smoke.  Maybe it was my imagination, but it sure seemed that trucks liked to shift gears when they were right next to us.

We attained the top, blew past the turn off to Greverath, and continued on the ridgeline towards Niersbach.  Once we got there, we stopped for a leisurely lunch in a very nice outdoor restaurant.  Cold cuts never tasted like this in camp that’s for sure.  Big slices of spicy salami, broad chinks of yellow and orange cheeses, plus gobs of very hot German mustard from Düsseldorf made perfect sandwiches.  I ate two of them.  We realized there were no chaperones so we allowed ourselves one beer.  To help wash down the sandwiches, of course.

We waited almost an hour before starting our again as we still had one smallish hill to climb.  It was somewhat gentle, led us past a huge gravel pit and tilled fields.  When we reached Arenrath in the early afternoon, we knew we were close to our goal.  We unconsciously worked a little harder and rode faster.

As we made a sweep to the west, we could look across the wide valley and see the road we had taken out of Binsfeld several days ago.  We would eventually join up again with it and enter Binsfeld.  By three-thirty we were pulling to halt at the inn; tired and thirsty.  Water never tasted so good as it did right then.

Two of the chaperones had decided to leave and go back home today.  That left us with only one of them; luckily, the one with the Volkswagen camper.  She had taken on all the repair items the other car had had so if we had a breakdown we stood a good chance of fixing it right away.  The departed chaperones had taken our wet gear and would air it out for us on the grass  at the center of the housing area.  We thought that was a really decent thing for them to do.

We registered, received our room assignments (under the gimlet eye of the remaining chaperone) and went across and down the road a bit to the restaurant.  There were no other travelers in town tonight so we had the place practically to ourselves.  We sat, four to a table, in the main dining room, and had a great dinner.  The servers remembered us and took very good care of us.  I like to think that they really wanted to, but it probably had to do with the fact that Americans tipped rather well.

Not a lot of people know that in Germany (as well as most of Europe) a tip is already added into the bill before being presented.  Since a lot of Americans can’t speak the language anyway, they hardly ever check the bill out and see the added tip.  They just look at it, mentally calculate a tip, and add it into the payment.  Thus, they get double their tip.  My dad was completely at ease paying his bill and walking out.  My mom always went back and added some money.  It was a game they played.

Since tomorrow was going to be a long pull home, we decided to limit our evening to around twenty-two hundred.  Amazingly, we actually drifted out of the inn’s lounge at about that time and headed for our rooms.  Being good little boys and girls there was no fraternization – darn it.

T.O.M.

The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (5)

June 10, 2010

Another cloudy day greeted us as we rose for breakfast at the inn in Maring.  Since I was the closest thing to a weather forecaster in our group (by default as my dad was the CO of the base Weather Detachment) I predicted that we might have some small showers during the day, but should clear up by evening.  We packed and walked our bikes up the hill from Maring to the sister-town of Maring-Noviand.

It was a tough climb since the cobblestones were wet with the rain that had fallen during the night.  Our shoes kept slipping so we had to keep a grip on the brakes to keep us from falling when we slid.  With a large effort, we all made it to the top and rested for ten minutes.

When we reached the east edge of town we almost missed a turn and went up the wrong valley.  If it wasn’t for our sharp eyed map reader we would have ended up miles from where we wanted to be.  As it was, we had to backtrack about a half mile to take the right road.

We were now on a big sweeping loop through bean, corn, and beet fields again.  The ‘honey wagons’ (you don’t really want to know what they are) were out in force and the smell was horrible.  We went through yet another split town, Monzel and Osann-Monzel.  Some time later, when I asked down at my office about the split towns I was told that most of them were once separate towns, but merged their city governments and became hyphenated.  Made sense to me.

We rested beside a small stream and ate our lunch.  Clouds began building up again and, with the threat of rain, we decided to pick up the pace to our camp area.  A gentle slope up, through a narrow valley, with vineyards on the north side and a nice lake opposite was a much more pleasant climb than hiking over wet cobblestones any time.

Along the way, we passed a winery but both chaperones said we couldn’t stop for a tour.  What a drag, man.  It would have been nice to have a taste of their wine because it was a brand that most of us recognized.  Wines in Germany tended to be distributed in a smaller area than those in the States.  A thriving, local, winery built it’s reputation on the good will (and good taste) of the citizens in the immediate area.  Most Gasthaus’s, Inns and hotels utilized the local wineries and breweries almost exclusively.

We started up another slight incline and began diving into a deeply wooded area.  The trees hung over the road and put us into an even darker shadow than just the clouds alone.  A slight foggy drizzle began making us miserable.  It wasn’t enough to stop and put on rain gear, but it was enough to make us wet.  The rain gear would have kept us drier, but since it was plastic we would have steamed ourselves into dehydration rapidly.

Once through the woods, we began to cross a very wide valley which contained several small villages.  One of then, named Neuminheim, apparently existed only as a sign and nothing more.  As one of our resident wags put it “should have been painted on both side of the sign”.  Klausen, Pohlbach, and Esche were mere one-road towns with maybe two or three cross roads.  Clearly they were farming towns as we met a great many trucks laden with produce going to them and coming back empty to the fields again.

Finally, we reached Sehlem.  Our group descended on one of the local markets and loaded up on fruits and vegetables for our meal tonight.  We were also allowed one beer apiece so we made the best of it by choosing a nice, dark, ale brewed just down the road.  There was a small park in the middle of town where we filled our water bottles and rested for a bit.

Prodded again by spitting rain showers, we mounted up for our climb through the wooded hills to our camp spot which was located about halfway up the hill.  This time, the entire hillside was covered with old-growth timber and darkened our way yet again.

The first bit wasn’t too bad and provided a little levity into a dreary day.  A sign pointed up a narrow valley to the town of Heckenmünster.  We all started to laugh at an incorrect translation of “Heck Monster”.  The rain was beginning to warp our brains.

About halfway up the next slope, we were met by our caravan of vans and cars at the junction of our road and a dirt track.  The turnoff was gravel so it wasn’t muddy, but it was wet and slippery.  One of us slid sideways and almost crashed into a tree so we decided that care was dictated here and walked the rest of the way to camp.

Our logistics crew had picked a very nice spot for us to camp, right on the edge of a sea of grass which led downwards to a small stream which crashed its way noisily downhill over a series of waterfalls and boulder strewn stretches.  At our camp we could hear it, but down in the background so it wasn’t intrusive.  Unpacking and setting up our tents occupied us for a while and preparing for dinner was underway soon.  A couple of us, including myself, were drafted into slicing and dicing vegetables for the stew pot while two of the girls cut strips of beef began dropping them into the pot also.  Apples were cored, pears sliced, and fresh strawberries would be our desert.

Dinner was superb tonight and, as we were cleaning up, the skies opened and torrents of rain fell on us.  The cook area tent fly wasn’t up to the task of keeping the rain off and collapsed right into the middle of the camp table.  Things got a little soggy, but the plates had to be washed anyway and this turned out to be the fasted way to get the job done.

Once washed, with no hope of drying them, we drifted off to do some exploring.  Sharon, Paul, Virginia and I went to the top of the grassy slope to see what we could see.  In the process of leaning over a large log, Paul slipped and fell across it.  When he landed on his stomach, face downhill, he didn’t stop.  With increasing speed, he slid like a toboggan down the grass and fetched up on a muddy bank of the stream.

He stood, arms waving, and laughing like a hyena, said that he was fine.  It was the best ride he’d had in a long time.  I figured that I couldn’t get any wetter and leapt down the hill feet first on my butt.  Virginia and Sharon were right behind me shrieking with joy at the ride.  I slipped sideways and made one complete loop only to land back on my bottom for the rest of the ride.  When I hit the mud feet first, I showered it all over Paul who was not wise enough to have moved away from the muddy spot.

Virginia crashed into me, tumbled right over my shoulders, and planted herself on her back in the middle of a muddy puddle, gasping for breath.  Sharon, trying to slow herself, twisted enough to come into the puddle at an angle and stop dead when she hit it.  This was accomplished by shooting a huge bow wave of muddy water over all of us.

We were laughing so hard we could hardly stand.  I don’t know who really started it, only that I remember being slapped in the back with a huge mudball by someone (I suspected Virginia, but she only looked at me wide-eyed with innocence).  The fight was on.  By the time several others from camp had joined us we all looked like chocolate soldiers.

Dave had the idea first of simply splashing into the creek to wash off – and did so.  If this was a cartoon, he would have levitated up until he was tiptoeing across the surface while voicing claims that the water was COLD.  This particular stream had, as it’s source, a very deep spring about halfway up the mountain.  It never had the benefits of the sun warming it because it was way too swift.  By the time it got to where we were, it was still very cold.

We stripped off as much clothing as we dared and dunked them in the water to clean them off.  This was not a co-ed bath however.  The girls had found a large bunch of bushes to go behind and used them as a shield while they cleaned off.  Yeah, we peeked.

Finding a path leading back up to the camp was difficult as the grass was much taller down here on the bottom of the hill but we managed it.  We arrived, huffing and puffing, back in camp to the stern eyes of the chaperones who asked us just what the heel we’d been up to.  We couldn’t lie so we told them that an avalanche had swept us up and buried us.  We were all okay though and no broken bones.  They just rolled their eyes.

The rain continued most of the night.  Lightning flashed and thunder rolled across the valley.  We were beginning to wonder if the Heck Monster actually was stomping around the hills at night.  This led to a chain of ghost stories as we lay in our tents facing each other in a circle.  One of us would start it off and reach a climax only to pass it to the next person who added their own embellishments.  By the time it got back to the original storyteller the entire plot had changed.  This is a great way to pass the time.

One by one we dropped off to sleep as best as we could in our soggy tents.  It was not a fun time.

T.O.M.

The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (4)

June 3, 2010

The next morning dawned later than normal.  Overnight, clouds had moved in and a chill had settled on the campsite.  I noticed it around four in the morning and simply piled on another blanket.  Several others did the same.  Hot coffee was the order of the day when breakfasts were being built.

One by one our tour members struggled out of their warm bags and into the chill air.  Up on top of the mountain on either side it wouldn’t be so bad, but down here in the river valley it was cold.  We sat on logs around a larger than normal fire and poured hot drinks down our throats.  Once warmed, the rest of breakfast didn’t seem so grim.

I felt refreshed after several smallish butter rolls and a large Danish.  The sugar wound its way through my system and got me up and moving.  My tent mate and I tore down our tent, folded it, and lashed it to my pannier.  He took the poles and stakes in his.  Others did pretty much the same but nobody moved very fast.

Today we were to travel down the north side of the river, curve around a huge bend, and cross using a ferry system.  Originally, we were to spend the night in an inn at the center of Mühlheim, but there had been a mix up in reservations and ours didn’t exist.  We were now booked into a tiny little Gasthaus in Maring; just across the river.

With stiff limbs and our breath condensing in front of us we puffed off like a whole brace of steam engines.  Slowly we warmed up as we pedaled along the trail on the river bank.  Talk was desultory and carried on in subdued tones.

We passed the little Bierstube the four of us had visited the previous evening and waved to the owner and his wife as they swept the porch and steps of the building.  They paused to watch us stream by.  Just minutes later, the first touch of sun reached the valley floor and put animation into our attitudes.

Conversations began to pick up a little more volume, and people would speed up or slow down to join with friends instead of poking along with their eyes straight ahead.  A wonderful thing, the sun.  It warmed one not only physically, but emotionally.

Off to our left were vast vineyards staggering their way up the slope.  Numerous threads of dirt roads connected them with switchbacks appearing everywhere.  Even this early, trucks were laboring up the slope with workers who kept the vines in top shape.  Directly ahead we could see a fairly large valley leading off to the north.  When we reached it, in the middle of the small village across the river from Bernkastel-Kues, a sign told us the road lead up to Monzelfeld.  A quick look at our topographical map and we could see that this town was almost three hundred and ten meters higher than us (1016 feet).  Nobody even mentioned wanting to take a side trip.

The road up the canyon divided the village and swept over the river to the larger town of Bernkastel-Kues.  Small homes dotted the hillside in between plots of pine trees all the way to the crest of the hill.  When we stopped to take some pictures, Virginia came over to me, put her arm around my waist, and leaned close.  She said it was a beautiful place and we’d have to drive over here some day and go church hunting.  She was quite a lover of churches – all types and denominations.  I agreed that the trip would be nice indeed.  With time for no more than a peck on the cheek, we mounted up and went on down the street.

Once past the town, our road plunged into a deep green tunnel of mixed trees.  Some pine, but primarily larch and maple dominated overhead.  Traffic had picked up somewhat.  Huge, stinky, diesel busses blatted past us on their way to town filled with morning commuters.  We pulled into the trees and rested until most of them had passed us for the day.  It was hard to take a breath when the air was filled with fumes.

It was during one of these rests that one of our group was sitting right next to his bike when the tire gave out with a bang.  He rose up about two feet from a sitting position and landed about five feet away with a very startled look on his face.  He’d had no indication of any trouble before the moment it popped.  We helped him remove the wheel, pull the tire off and patch the tube.  Fortunately, it was the front wheel and easily changed.  He, and everyone around the bike at the time, were charged with a little adrenaline.

Lunchtime came and we found a very nice picnic area just outside the town of Andel.  An enterprising vendor or two had set up their pushcarts on the grass and were minting money selling bratwurst and big, salty, pretzels with loads of hot mustard.  All thoughts of field rations left us as the smell hit us from completely across the green.  We parked our bikes and walked en-masse to the carts for our fuel.  We noticed that the chaperones were between us and the guy selling beer in the normal bottles with wire and rubber-covered ceramic snap-caps.  This was the kind that let you take a swallow or two and reseal the bottle to keep it from going flat.  American beer brewers could take a page from the Germans here.  Anyway, we didn’t, actually, weren’t allowed to approach the vendors.  I didn’t try because I still had half a bottle of wine in my pannier – so there!

On our approach to the town of Mühlheim we passed through vast fields of produce.  We identified sugar beets, lettuce, beans, and potatoes.  Most of the fields were populated with people whacking at weeds, setting up large sprinklers, or generally wandering around so we didn’t try anything.

We arrived at the ferry landing just in time to see the churning at the stern signifying its return to the other side.  A posted schedule said the next run was in an hour, but according to the board, it was supposed to arrive on this side at the current time.  Nobody appeared to be around to ask about the discrepancy so we just decided to sit and wait.  Some of us walked a little ways into town and took pictures or shopped.

Five of us managed to slip the chaperones and duck into a dark cellar bar.  Refreshed with a quick Schnapps, we went back to the landing.  Mints were passed around before we got there.

About half an hour later we heard the faint toot of the ferry’s horn and three minutes later it moved away from the dock and started back to us.  Nosing carefully upstream, the driver balanced thrust against current to put himself right at the ramp on our side.  Now we knew why the ramp was at an angle to the river.

There was room for six cars and lots of bicycles.  Three more touring groups had joined us while we were waiting.  One of them was French, but they seemed to stay away from the rest of us for some reason.  The other two were German and they moved freely amongst us and asked loads of questions about our rides.  We took a lot of pictures of each other and the riverine traffic as we slowly motored our way across the river.  At this point, it was about a half-mile wide and the current was fairly slow.

When we got to the other side, they didn’t lower the pedestrian gate until all the vehicles were off the ferry.  I guess this was a safety move so that the sudden appearance of many bicyclists wouldn’t scare the drivers; or something like that.  Anyway, once the gate was us, we trooped off and headed for a lemonade stand.

Now, for all of you who are keeping track of our little jaunt, we have just completed a twist in the river which started with us in the campground on the north side of the river.  We cruised down that bank until we were waiting for the ferry on the south side of the river to go back to the north side.  A neat trick.  It was accomplished because the river made a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn.  Also, while I am explaining that one, I might add that Google Earth now shows nothing of both ferry landings except for what appears to be a boat ramp on the south side and a gravel spot which could have held the north ferry slip.  A small boat yard appears there now.  A very nice bridge spans the river here now.

Refreshed by a tart and zesty lemonade, we mounted up and started along the road that led to Maring.  We picked up some speed once we left the river because we passed along the city sewage plant and the wind was coming off the settling tanks.  Not a very nice smell.

We went through Maring and crossed a small stream.  Our inn was immediately across the stream and looked wonderful.  After checking in and getting our room assignments, we went out and found a couple of very nice nature trails that led along the stream.  Since another of our group had given up (muscle cramps that wouldn’t go away) there were only five guys and four girls left; plus, of course, the two chaperones.  The other two chaperones were back on the base lining up our next campground supplies.

Virginia and I eluded the chaperone (more easily done now that there were only two of them) and left to wander the trails along the stream bank.  Stone and log benched were places at strategic places where one could contemplate nature, listed to bird calls, or just plain neck.  We chose the last one.

We couldn’t get too heavily involved because the ground cover was pretty sparse, but it was enough to get me fired up a little.  And that was as far as I got too because another couple walked along the path and sat at the bench about fifty feet away.  They weren’t with our group so that inhibited Virginia a little; which, of course, inhibited the hell out of me, darn it.

Daylight began fading soon and we reluctantly started back.  Dinner consisted of a very nice veal dish, with the inevitable potatoes and/or noodles.  The salad was one of the best ones I’ve ever eaten and when I asked about it, I was told that the components came from their very own garden.  I asked for, and got, a second helping.  We were also allowed one small beer (hooray!) to help wash it down.

After dinner, most of us gravitated to the large room set up with several stuffed couches and chairs arranged as conversation centers.  I sat in a chair that was big enough for two.  Virginia proved that by sliding down and lying across my lap with her feet hanging over one arm, her shoulders resting on the other, and her head on my shoulder.  It was our favorite sitting position as we could talk in low tones and nobody could hear us.

Once again the chaperones were being sharp-eyed so we kept it decent even though both of us were getting up a good head of steam.  We murmured to each other for an hour until Virginia suddenly yawned.  It was one of those yawns that no power on earth can stop.  She giggled, apologized, and then waited.  Sure enough, she’d made me start yawning.  We gave up and went our separate ways to bed.  It took me a while to get to sleep.

T.O.M.