There are cycling days when you really have to have a great sense of humor. This is one of those days. Kyle and I are cycling in 90 degree weather, soaked in our own sweat, plagued with biting flies and very assertive yellow bees, and climbing up a huge mountain pass that is at least 500 feet higher than our highest climb in Wales (1,500 feet). Our plan is to take the national North-South route, rated medium difficulty minus this really killer Gotthard pass that supposedly has conquered armies and holds up the clouds for Switzerland. In order to get to Italy, we have to cross The Alps. Sure, we could have followed the very flat route along the Danube River; many told us we should do so. It would have been wonderful to see the beautiful city of Passau, with its many bridges and convergence of differently-colored rivers. However, we get it into our heads after a week of following Euro Velo 6 (a route crossing Europe), that the flatness is getting a little boring and the adventure of it all a little wanting. We need to forge our own path. So here we are, huffing and puffing, sweating buckets, spitting at the bugs to make them leave, fogging up our glasses, and pedaling, one foot and then another. Up we go, thankfully shaded by forest, but on dirt and gravel roads, wondering how in the heck this route is rated intermediate. Finally, we get to the top. I feel elated – look at us, conquering the world! Then Kyle opens his mouth after checking his phone and delivers an almost unbearable blow…we followed the wrong Route 3. As in, we climbed this mountain for nothing and are now on the other side of Switzerland. To top it off, we had gotten up at 5:50 AM that morning so that we could get as far as possible before several days of forecasted rain and storms hit. Yeah, there goes that plan.
I look at a map, frantically trying to save us with a new route that does not mean going down this mountain we just climbed the very same way we came up. However, we don’t have a sim card and there is no telling the elevation of any other route than for the one we planned. Also, there really is no other more direct route, accessible by loaded touring bike, through Switzerland which just happens to be one of the most expensive countries in Europe (we paid 8 euros for coffee this morning at a bar, if that tells you anything). Yikes. So for a minute I am literally screaming at Kyle (our navigator with GPS) for not checking his phone to make sure we were on track until we are at this top of this mountain (he tells me he had had a nagging feeling since earlier this morning, a great thing to tell a hysterical woman so close to a cliff). I am practically screeching, “Look around, there isn’t even a view!” – When a big red bench catches my eye. I mean a HUGE red bench, built for Hagrid out of Harry Potter or maybe even his brother. Suddenly, it all just gets better. I mean seriously, what could be more random than this enormous red bench at the top of a mountain with no view? We laugh and laugh some more. So I get some pictures with the red bench and it is down we go. A climb that took an hour is reduced to 5 minutes.
We do find another route connecting to 3 once we are down the mountain, but it is still 10 or so miles until we are pretty much right back at the beginning of the route. We are in the mountains; there just is no other way. So at this point, my chain starts clicking – click, click, click, click. It sounds like nails on a chalkboard it is so irritating to me. Kyle tries everything; first adjusting the derailleur, then tightening all the screws, then untightening them under my direction – nothing works. Luckily, there is a bike shop just three tenths of a mile down the road. We go there and the owner is very friendly, speaking a little English. He tells me the chain is shot; it may get me through Switzerland but not much farther and the clicking is sure to continue. ARGHHH! He doesn’t charge us anything though, even giving us a 1.5 liter bottle of water to take with us.
We decide it is time for dinner, finding a water fountain in the center of a very nice public space. Kyle asks a woman nearby if it is drinkable. She says yes, that the children even bathe in it in the evening! We have been finding these kind of fountains all day, constantly running, ice cold water, an art piece in themselves. Sure enough, we see a mother feeding it to her baby and then two women just splashing it on their faces. The woman stands with us for a moment, telling us stories about the space we are in, the practice of anthroposophy and the philosophy of freedom. She is both a former student of and former teacher of the Waldorf School, a school built on the humanistic and holistic idea that the intellectual, practical and artistic development of students be integrated in ways that stretch the imagination. I ask to take her picture for our blog and she says to me, “Oh no, these moments are for the heart.” We part ways, and Kyle starts cooking dinner while I type up this story. After a while, the woman is back. She has lost her key in the garbage can next to our bench. The garbage can is locked so she is having to ask local shop owners for help. “I can see you are having one of those days, too,” she jokes, watching Kyle spill rice all over the ground. “You don’t know the half of it,” I tell her, then expanding upon our experience going up the mountain pass only to have to come right back down. A maintenance guy comes over to scout out the situation. He tries a few keys, but none work and he needs to go to his next job. He leaves, promising to return.
“Can we offer you anything?” I ask the woman, “Water?” I gesture towards our things indicating that we will share whatever we have with her. “Oh no,” she says, “But what can I offer you?” We tell her no, no, that we don’t need anything; but she leaves for a moment and returns armed with delicious raspberry and apricot sorbet from a place she had gone to earlier. What a wonderful gift on a hot day! She shares with us some more stories, about the weddings that occur at the building in the square, about a nice lake with a cave in it where the legendary Odilia, blind at birth and discarded by her father hid as he went hunting for her. Her father was hit in the head by a rock during the hunt whereupon he received a vision and a change of heart, later helping her to finance her own hospital and covenant. Story after story she weaves, making Switzerland come to life as well as some of the history of the world and its eternal truths. The maintenance guy comes back, successfully helping the woman into the trash can, helping her to rummage around for her key, which was indeed amongst the rubbish. He greets us with the small bit of English he knows with the woman helping to translate. He asks us where we are from and where we are going. When he hears Slovenia, he tells us he has just been there and that it is a place that still functions like 70 years ago Switzerland. Half of the country is a little more developed, the part that used to be part of Hungary. The other half is purposely left undeveloped by its people, some of the friendliest he’s met. He says his goodbyes and we are left with Olga, our new friend who is still weaving us her tapestry of Switzerland. After a few more stories, we part ways and Kyle and I are off looking for a campsite in a very developed and protected part of the country with only an hour to spare. We stop to rinse a few things in another fountain and are approached by a group of people excited to hear about our trip. They are even more excited to help us find a nice place to camp, but are doubtful of the possibilities. Finally, a man in the group suggests we bike to the next town. Past the town is forest and then a field with a stable. “The people are nice there,” he says, “I bet if you asked them they’d let you camp in their field.
With this tip, Kyle and I are off, biking to this town and then to the field, which is right next to the highway leading to the City of Basel (right where we started from this morning). We are a little unsure about asking them outright, but what else were we going to do at this point? Kyle waves at a woman talking on her cellphone in the yard and over comes Andrea, asking us if we want to buy anything from her little stand out front. We tell her we have a problem; that we got lost, climbed a mountain on the other side of Switzerland than we needed to be in. Now it is close to dusk and we have no place to camp. Would she be kind enough to let us camp in the field? Andrea is more than happy to, just has to check with her husband, also a very nice man. They let us in and before long we are tucked away in a nice big bed, showered and relaxed from a long day. We are taking their fifteen year old’s room for the night, who is currently rehearsing for the youth circus. Her son just recently couch-surfed with his girlfriend to Turkey earlier this year. She also has two other children, all older but the oldest is 25. Andrea and her husband open their home to us. When I thank her profusely, Andrea responds, “Well you’d do the same wouldn’t you?” Indeed, we would.
So here we are at the end of the day; we are back where we started but somehow not. We climbed our tallest mountain, we made several new friends, we learned about the place were in, and experienced another round of amazing kindness. If there is one thing I’ve learned on this bike tour, it is that on your most challenging days, when you think all is lost, if you simply let go, laugh, and go with it, you find that life generally leads you to exactly where you need to be. It may not be where you thought you’d go, it may even be right back where you physically started, but it isn’t about a starting or finishing line, it is about a journey. It is about who you become, who you are, who you will be. Where you are just becomes somewhat irrelevant.