This isn’t a “Bucket List” trip, although we probably wouldn’t be taking it if Jeff didn’t have lung cancer. His cancer has taught us to not defer those things that are important to us. Jeff was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in September of 2013, and given a prognosis of 8-17 months. Eight months later we took a one month cycling trip in Holland. It is now 20 months post diagnosis and we have just arrived in Frankfurt, Germany with no definite plans other than a return ticket home, and chemotherapy half way through.
The bike packed up easily, which isn’t surprising. It’s always easier breaking it down than putting it together. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that it makes it home safe and sound. Travel bikes have a hard life.
After a long, but uneventful flight home, we landed in Asheville. Bob, half of our fabulous house sitting team, picked us up at the airport and drove us home for a happy and raucous reunion with all the furry creatures, followed by a lovely home cooked meal, complete with wine and cut flowers from the garden. It doesn’t get more perfect than that. How sweet it is to be home — with a kitchen, a washing machine, different clothes and our very own bed with season appropriate covers! We are so very lucky. What an incredible gift this has been. Thank you all for your support!
Ciao! … or as they say in Germany, Tschüss!
We got off to a rough start on the Ems River. Our 9-1/2 hour train ride morphed into 12 hours — in the sweltering heat, with no air conditioning. Ten hours into the ride, the train made a stop, and then just sat … for nearly an hour. There were periodic announcements, none of which we could understand. After one such announcement, people cheered, then just got up and exited the train. With the help of some passengers who spoke English, we were able to figure out that the train was cancelled and we had to quickly switch to another one — which of course, meant getting the bike and trailer up and down two sets of steps.
It was complete mayhem, with throngs of people everywhere. The Germans don’t queue up politely like the British. It was a free for all. I ran to the track, frantically trying to find the train car, struggling to get close enough to see the writing on the cars. Meanwhile, Jeff was getting the bike and trailer to the track, carrying the bike up stairs, against a sea of people going down, none of whom would budge an inch to let him by. Stressful to say the least. But we did eventually get on the right train, and make it to Emden. I had a mini-meltdown after walking into our 100 degree room with no air conditioning (and its requisite down comforter), but calmed down in the hotel’s garden restaurant over a beer and dinner.
Change is always a theme, in life, for all of us. But bike touring has a way of bringing it to the forefront of our awareness. From adversity to pleasure, and back again. Sometimes we lose it (e.g., my hot room meltdown), but mostly we learn to take it in stride. We know that whatever it is, it will change — weather, wind, surface, terrain, fatigue. It all comes and goes, quickly and over and over.
The Ems river route was a pleasure, particularly after the heat wave broke. The terrain was interesting and varied; starting at the North Sea, where it was decidedly maritime, with harbors, locks and dykes, transitioning to country lanes and forested paths. It was really quite beautiful. We were both sorry to see it end. But end it did. Thursday was our last day of cycling. We are in Münster now – a lively city, with a great feel and a lovely, shaded promenade circling the center where the city fortification used to be. Today we take the train to Mainz, and pack up the bike.
This journey feels so long. We started riding May 16th. Some of the experiences feel fresh; some of them seem so long ago, it’s hard to believe it was the same trip. The season has changed; birthday and anniversary come and gone. One thing that hasn’t changed is our wardrobe. I’m still wearing the same damn black pants and gray shirt! Bike touring is not for the fashion conscious.
I don’t have many pictures for this one. We’re so engaged that we just forget to take them.
We finished our ride on the Elbe a couple days ago. It was an interesting trip, although I must confess that by the end we both found ourselves yearning for something other than the flat, open terrain and fields of wheat, barley, corn and rape seed that we’ve been cycling through for days. We were also ready for something other than the Soviet era concrete architecture that so defines parts of the former GDR. There were some interesting towns — Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, where Martin Luther first railed against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, and a mecca of sorts for Protestants throughout the world. Then there was Riesa, the noodle capital of Germany … I kid you not. Tours of the state-of-the-art noodle factory were offered.
On Tuesday we made it to Dresden. Now, that is a city! It’s beautiful, historic, relaxed, young, lively, cultured and artistic. It boggles the mind to think that seventy years ago, 3,900 tons of explosives were dropped on the city — an act considered by many to be a war crime. The bombs and ensuing firestorm left 25,00 dead, and the city in rubble. I still can’t wrap my head around how Dresden was able to rebuild the historic section of the city from such devastation. But they did, and it is glorious!
We took a day off the bike in Dresden, and spent it kicking around the city … just being. No museums, or attractions; just walking around, enjoying the energy and flavor of the city. We also took the time to figure out what next. We had about a week to work with before heading back to Mainz to pack up the bike. Dresden provided a perfect opportunity for planning. They have a great store called Globe Trotter. I can only describe it as an REI on steroids. Four floors of gear, gear, and more gear. There’s even a pool where prospective buyers can try out their kayaks before buying. Needless to say, they have maps of all the German bike routes. We settled in with cappuccinos and a pile of books, and got ‘er done! A half dozen rivers were on the table … the Wesar, the Neckar, the Lower Rhine, the Isar, the Danube and the Ems. We finally settled on the Ems River, in the far Northwest, by the Dutch border and the North Sea.
Our last day on the Elbe was spent cycling to Bad Schandau, the gateway to the Saxony Switzerland National Park, about 20 km from the Czech border. The river runs through a gorge, with amazing sandstone rock formations. On the top of a mountain plateau is a facility that housed WWII prisoners of war, and later was an East German re-education camp for those who strayed from the party line. Today it is a museum. We planned on doing some hiking in the national park, but it was just too hot. In less than two weeks, we’ve gone from cold, blustery, overcast days to a heat wave. Give me the cold weather any time!
From Bad Schandau, we will take a nine and a half hour train ride to Emden for the final leg of this journey. This has been a long trip. In the beginning, I rarely thought about home. Now I think about it often. I think we’ll both be ready to board that plane on July 13th.
For the last six days we have been cycling through the former East Germany, and will stay in the East for the remainder of our time on the Elbe Radweg. It’s been interesting. Twenty five years post reunification, the differences are easy to spot … and as non German speaking tourists, we’re only catching the most obvious of them. The East is noticeably less affluent, particularly in rural areas. Dilapidated and abandoned buildings are a common sight. Most of the post-war architecture is plain and utilitarian, often cement block.
And then there are the bike route surfaces. When you’re on a bike, things like grade and road surface become very important. In fact, those are our two most important route planning criteria. We like ‘em smooth and flat. For complicated reasons that I won’t bore you with, our tires are narrower than they should be for this type of touring, making for dicey cycling on uneven, bumpy or loose surfaces … which we found plenty of on this route. It’s okay; it’s all part of the experience, but has caused us to reconsider continuing on the Elbe to Prague. From what we hear, some of the surfaces are in very rough shape over the Czech border. Cycling has its strengths and limitations.
Most people we run into do not speak any English. Prior to 1990, East Germans were taught Russian in school. Surprisingly, many of the young people don’t seem to have learned much English either. We have not heard any native English speakers for at least 5 days. I’m sure that will change as we get closer to Dresden.
Since 1990, Germany has had a dedicated reunification tax that has channeled billions of dollars into East Germany to upgrade the infrastructure. From what I have heard, the allocation has favored large cities. It would appear that it will take longer to truly reunify Germany than the forty five years it was actually divided.
The riding itself has been lovely. We’ve been mostly in rural or agricultural areas, with little or no traffic. The terrain is flat, open and expansive. The towns are further apart than has been the case for much of this trip … and strangely devoid of people. Sometimes we’ll ride through a small town, and not see a soul; it’s surreal. We are both feeling very peaceful and relaxed. The weather has been kind to us, despite some threatening skies, and discouraging forecasts. For a few days, we rode with grey skies and rain all around us, yet never got nailed. We were amazed. We gave in to our fears and took a rain day earlier in the week … only to have it not rain! I know there’s a lesson in there.
We celebrated our 31st anniversary in Tangermünde, a beautiful, well preserved little town with three pairs of nesting storks! Very cool. They have enormous nests, perched on the top of tall, old, historic buildings. We somehow wound up staying in a medieval themed hotel and eating in a similarly themed restaurant. The hotel had a toilet that was supposed to look like a throne, but was actually more reminiscent of an outhouse. And the restaurant gave us daggers to cut our veggies with!
After Jeff’s chemo, our plan was to take a train to Hamburg, and ride along the Elbe River to Dresden, or possibly Prague. A dicey weather forecast and a more careful study of the cycling maps gave us pause. Below Hamburg, the bike path goes through a large area known as the Elbe Biosphere. It’s a protected nature preserve, with limited amenities. Rain and no shelter can get ugly quickly. We started second guessing ourselves, spending hours exploring alternative options, checking train schedules, route descriptions and hotel availability, only to settle on our original plan. Better to be guided by curiosity than fear.
From our interpretation of the train schedule, there was a direct train from Essen to Hamburg that could accommodate bikes. Great. We had taken a number of trains, and were beginning to feel more confident with the process. So, we packed up, and headed back to the train station. Our timing was tight, and there was a 25 person queue at the ticket office. We decided to divide and conquer: Jeff somehow managed to get the bike and trailer on the platform — up two flights of steps by himself — while I waited in line to buy tickets. I finally made it to the counter five minutes before the train was scheduled to depart, only to get the dreaded “That’s not possible” response from the agent. Not possible? Turns out that the IC trains require a reservation for a bike, which must be made at least a day in advance; no exceptions. Our alternative was a regional train, 3 changes and a departure on a distant track. Ugh. So, down one flight of steps, and up two with the beast and bags, one day post chemo. Jeff’s the man; that’s all I can say.
We were both totally unprepared for the teeming mass of humanity at the Hamburg train station. It was truly something to behold. Hamburg is undoubtedly a wonderful city. Everyone says so. But it’s not for us; not now. You can’t do everything, and our thing now is cycling. Hamburg, and most other large cities will have to wait for another time. On to the Elbe Biosphere!
It took a surprisingly short time for things to quiet down after leaving Hamburg. Before we knew it, we were cycling through beautiful terrain, with marsh lands and wide expansive views. Not surprisingly it was rife with birds. Really quite wonderful. In this region, the Elbe River was the dividing line between the former East and West Germany. We were on the east side, where you can still see the old guard towers along the river, a stark reminder of the cold war days. How could we have considered skipping this area?
60K of cycling brought us to Lauenburg. We’re in a maritime climate now; very different. It’s cold and blustery. People are wearing coats and the heat was on when we woke up. It was also raining pretty steadily, causing us to question the wisdom of the non-refundable reservation we had made for a hotel 60 km down the road. We waited it out, and lo and behold, the sun popped out.
It’s hard to describe the simple pleasure of cycling through the Biosphere. The birds continue to amaze us. Swallows repeatedly played with us, flying alongside the bike, then peeling off, over and over. Then they started crisscrossing us, a few feet in front of the bike. Again and again. It couldn’t have been a coincidence. It was nothing short of magical. The cuckoos have also reappeared. I must buy a cuckoo clock … as a constant reminder of this trip.
I am writing now from Gartow, a tiny town on the west side of the river. It has a hotel, two restaurants and a beautiful lake. Works for us!
After an easy train ride, and a short, but harrowing ride through Essen, we arrived at our out-of-the-way hotel. It was located in a fairly upscale residential community, an easy 10 minute walk to the University Clinic; not a happening spot, but perfect for our needs. Essen is not a tourist destination. It’s a city of half a million, but most Americans will never have heard of it.
On a lark we had a “Dinner in the Dark” the night we arrived. I had heard of the concept, but this was our first time experiencing it. We ate dinner completely in the dark, served by a blind waiter, who only knew a few words of English. And dark is really dark; totally black. We couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. We followed the waiter, my hands on his shoulders, Jeff’s on mine, to our table, where we had to feel around for our chairs, the table, the place setting. We could hear the other diners, all German. A set meal was served to us. Vegetarian; no other information. The soup was a breeze; we could both easily navigate a spoon and bowl. Water on one side, wine on the other. So far, so good. Salad, with a round of goat cheese on top, was more challenging. We started using our fingers for exploration. By the time the main course came, our fingers were our primary utensil. Forks would, more often than not, come up empty. At one point, I mentioned to Jeff that I was really hot, and felt like taking off my shirt. He reminded me that here I could. I swear, I didn’t!
The next morning we headed off to the Essen University Cancer Center, or Tumorzentrum. Apparently they don’t get many American patients; we were the first for the woman who checked us in. Dr. Wilfried Eberhardt, a colleague of our oncologist at Wake Forest, had arranged everything for us, which was an enormous relief. He spent a lot of time with us, talked about options should Jeff’s cancer progress (which it generally does … we just prefer “if” to “when”), and personally ushered us through the entire process. In fact, he put Jeff’s IV line in, which was an absolute first for me. I have never seen anyone other than a nurse perform that kind of task. And he was good at it! No pain, no bruising. All in all, it was a wonderful experience. We felt pampered and cared for. Everyone was kind and helpful. We give our special thanks to both Dr. Eberhardt and our oncologist, Dr. Petty, for coordinating this.
I’d like to take a moment to talk about the care that Jeff has received. A terminal cancer diagnosis is tough stuff. We hear and read about people who have had terrible experiences, both with their doctors and their treatment. This has not been the case for us. We feel supported, respected and cared for by the team of doctors and nurses supporting Jeff … from the oncology center at Wake Forest, to the holistic and alternative practitioners that Jeff uses to augment his traditional treatment. We don’t know what component, or combination of components has allowed him to thrive this long, but we are filled with gratitude to everyone who has helped us along this path. Thank you.