Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

May 1, 2005


For 21 Euro (about $25), the normally expensive German train system will spit out an all-day train pass for the states of Rheinland-Pfalz (which happens to be where we live) and Saarland. From 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. the next morning, any regional train is fair game. To our suprise and delight, our State includes the valleys along the Rhein and Mosel rivers to the north. To anyone familiar with their geography, this fact should scream "castles"....we threw some snacks in a backpack on the first sunny day that we had off for the weekend, and bought a ticket in hopes of seeing a few castles.
A train ride east to Kaiserslautern, and then one north to Bingen, and in 2 hours we were standing on the train with our noses making smears on the window, staring at the steep slopes of the Rhein valley, watching the German villages flash by, each with a beautiful, steepled church and a castle perched way up on the hillside. For an hour we continually moved from one side of the train to the other, trying to catch each new view and the castle that would appear. We stopped in Koblenz, as the Rhein kept flowing north, and walked to see where the Mosel flowed into the Rhein, and then caught the next train up the Mosel to Trier. A few more castles on the river, of course, and then we also caught a nap on the 2 hour trip.

In Trier we walked down to the walled city, because I wanted to show Rob the 2 huge "Doms" cathedrals, that I had seen when I visited Trier for the Christmas market back in December. The city itself was very beautiful, but except for a few restaurants, everything was closed....because of course it was Good Friday. When we walked into the cathedral, a service had just started, and we stayed to listen in hopes that we could hear the sounds of the huge organ pipes hung from the ceiling. Alas, the somber mood of the Good Friday service meant that the organ was saved for another day, but the choir started to sing, and they were totally awesome, even acapella....we stayed to listen for hours, it seemed.

On the train again, it was almost dark as we headed home, but not before 1 more castle slipped by us, with its turrets and walls outlined in spotlights.....it brought our grand total for the day up to 36 honest-to-goodness castles, perched on the steep slopes as ancient defenders against the ravaging hordes.

The next day, we didn't want to see any more castles slip by us....we wanted to climb one! We got in the car and drove south about an hour, into the rolling hills. We parked on a roadside turn-off, gathered some gear, crossed our fingers that we were in the right trail, and started hiking. About a hundred meters later, we were in France! It was drizzling, and the partially logged forest smelled dark and damp, and we felt that we were deep in the middle of a never-ending forest. But of course, this is Europe, so as we crested the top of a hill, a huge rock cliff with a castle on top loomed out of the fog. It was huge....but it was raining....we decided to keep walking and try the next one, since our hiking route for the day included 4 of them! We took a wrong turn due to trail construction and ended up at the farthest one, which we climbed and conquered, and then ate lunch on top. The skies had cleared a little, and we could see the two middle castles waiting to be explored, and due to a turn in the border, we realized that we were standing on a castle in Germany, looking at castles in France....the only thing to do was to go back to France! Climbing the castles was a feat...they were built on top of natural rock formations, lucky for those early people it made it easier to make the them tall and defendable. Our final castle for the day even had rock climbers making their way to the top the hard way, using ropes and carabiners.

One more hike past the first castle, and we were back to the car as the sun was going down. We started driving with our eye on finding a secluded, safe place to park the car and camp for the night....we had a new tent and new sleeping bags, perfect for the cooler weather, that we wanted to try out. We pulled off onto a logging road and drove up a long road to the top of a small hill that looked like no one would ever come up. We stopped and set up the tent, and looked up at the next hill as the clouds cleared yet again, and saw.....another castle! So we slept in the shadow of history as the skies opened and the rain splatted on our tent.

In the morning, we threw our soaking tent (which kept us perfectly dry) in the van and drove to the next town, in the faint hope that a bakery would be open on Easter Sunday. We found a quaint little town with a stream running down the middle of it, reminding us of Amsterdam pictures or a small piece of Venice. Rob found a pub with Hefeweissen on tap, and declared that he would have to come back here someday to enjoy one. The rain was coming down hard as we walked around the town, but we had found a lone bakery open with delicious pastries, and our raincoats were doing their best to keep us dry. At the moment when we were totally soaked and ready to leave, the church bells all started pealing to let everyone know that church would be starting...we stood and listened to them ring for 5 minutes, before we took the short drive back to our newest home, Landstuhl.

Spain (Northern)

It seemed like a bad omen when we started off the very early morning by driving in pouring rain all the way to the Frankfurt Hahn Airport. We had brought all of our rain gear, but it was packed into our luggage. Luckily, the rain stopped when we had to walk out on the tarmac to the plane (can you say low-budget?), and before 10 in the morning, we were flying along the northern coast of Spain and descending into the coastal town of Santander.

Within minutes, we had the keys to a small 5 speed Peugeot, and me installed as the only driver (yahoooo!). In an hour we were already craning our necks to see the tops of the mountains out of a narrow slot canyon that somehow had a road installed into it, and by noon we were starting a hike up into the hills. The trail started at a tiny parking lot, and only the small size of our car let us fit into the leftover space. We walked for a couple minutes next to a large stream, with the whitest, clearest water that we had ever seen, rinsed clear by the limestone mountains. We followed the trail as it got higher, inched by some friendly mountain goats, and earned our lunch by sweating our way up rocky scree slopes that the mountain goats probably loved. The weather was perfectly sunny, about 75 degrees, and we shed our jackets and fleece shirts and enjoyed the warmest weather that we have felt all year! And at the top, the view was of deep canyons and steep cliffs on one side of our rocky perch, and snowy huge mountains on the other side.

On the road again at 3, we spent the rest of the afternoon zooming through deep mountain roads that were almost deserted. The summer crowds hadn’t arrived yet, and the weather was unseasonable warm, and we had the place to ourselves. After leaving (our home) in Germany where we couldn’t read any of the signs or speak the language, this place (not our home) felt immediately comfortable, much more relaxed and laid back. And of course we could read all the road signs and chit-chat with the locals.

We found a place to camp for the night at a campground with a river right next to it and mountains behind us. After making one last short drive up an impossible steep narrow road to a great view of a monolith, we returned and fell asleep to the sound of the river and the bells worn by the mountain goats.

The next morning, after the fog burned off, it was another sunny day. We made a long drive into the heart of the mountains, to find a river gorge hike that seemed like it would be breathtaking. The guidebook that we brought along said something about the road being rickety for the last 10 kilometers or so, but as we ventured onto the road, we realized that they should have said “A one lane cart path with sharp turns, steep drops, and 20% grades.” The car handled everything beautifully, until we got to the last couple kilometers, and then we got a little nervous….the one lane path was now a steeply dropping road with a sheer cliff on one side, and a 100 foot drop to the river on the other, absolutely no room to pass another car, which luckily there were none. We got stage fright for a second, realized that we couldn’t turn around even if we wanted to, and kept going. A bit down the path, the canyon widened out and we got to the town we wanted to park in to start the hike. The town seemed so isolated that we couldn’t believe they could get their milk before it soured, but the locals convinced us that even a garbage truck drove down the same path that we had used.

We started the gorge hike at midday, perfect for the sun to reach into the depths and shine on the water. Part of the way was a series of passages carved into the rock, because there was no way to make a trail. And running alongside of us was a canal of water, with signs (in Spanish, of course) that said, “Danger, Fast moving canal water!” We used it to dip our hands into and cool off. It was another beautiful sunny day. As we hiked along, the river kept getting farther beneath us, and the mountains kept getting higher. At one point, the gorge was so narrow that we couldn’t (or wouldn’t) lean over the edge of the trail far enough to see the water hundreds of feel straight below. The whole scene was too cool for words. We took lots of pictures, but even they couldn’t capture the entire scene. Part Yosemite, CA, part Zion, Utah, we both agreed that it was awesome, and we had never seen anything like it.

We turned around before the shadows could fall too far, and I loved the walk back and seeing everything from a different angle, but I didn’t forget that I had to make the steep climb out of there in my 5 speed transmission on the road that wasn’t much wider than our hiking trail. But the drive out went ok, no cars met us on the scary section, and the rest of the day’s trip was another lush, green slot canyon drive where I got to push my fun little car through the corners and make Rob hang onto his seatbelt for dear life.

As the sun was going down, we arrived back on the northern side of the park, and made a short drive up to some beautiful mountain lakes, surrounded by very rocky hills and green mountain grass, the kind that make me want to get out of the car and run around. We had planned on camping up here and hiking the next morning, but the campsite wasn’t open yet, so we changed plans and drove back down the mountain, all the way to the ocean, and set up camp at 10 p.m., just as the sun was setting.

In the morning, we toured a natural cave in the same town, where paintings dating back 14,000 years, of horses and other animals, had been discovered in the 1960’s. Way cool….we couldn’t take any pictures, obviously.

For our last day, we drove up the coast back towards Santander. We found a cliff walk, and toured a Medieval town with a museum of torture devices used in the Middle Ages, and ate Seafood Paella for supper in a small fishing town. We didn’t know what it was, but it turned out to be a stew made with rice and all different kinds of fish and seafood. Suprisingly good, after we dug in with our hands and peeled the shells off of the shrimp and mussels and tiny lobsters. No oysters, lucky for me!

We worked off the stew with a sunset walk on the beach, and set up our tent on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The surf lulled us to sleep.