Wednesday, 28 May 2008

I made it the the US

Anita picking me up at the airport
Life is good - I made it to the US and everything worked out as planned! The flight was a nightmare - I was sitting in the last row (very cramped!) and the flight was extremely bumpy. In the end I felt so sick that I thought I would faint going through immigration. Luckily I didn't because the immigration officer just stamped 3 months into my passport which was the worst that could possibly happen. I asked him why and he told me that people without a visa just get 3 months. I pointed out that I have a visa that was lying just in front of him. "Oh," he said, "I didn't see that." and stamped 6 months into my passport. Luckily I had paid attention...

My bike in Anita's garage
After I had passed this first obstacle I was wondering about my bags and my bicycle - and another miracle happened: Both turned up complete and undamaged! Now I just had to manouver through LAX with a huge bicycle in an even bigger cardboard box and a big bag on a cart. I had a horrible headache from the flight and my stomach was making loops all the time. I was just praying that Anita would really be there and pick me up. And: there she was with a sign in her hand saying "Christine with bicycle"! Life was good again. We parked the bike in her garage, I repackaged my stuff and took a little nap, so when Matti turned up I was a normal human being again and didn't feel like a zombie any more. (Matti aka Speedo is a German CDT hiker I had first met on the internet and later a couple of times at his home in Cologne. Anita is an old friend of Matti's and his girlfriend. Matti had just finished a section hike of the Hayduke trail when I arrived in LAX - and all this happened more or less coincidentially..)

Anita, Matti and I
We did a little bit of sightseeing and had something to eat, but I must admit that I fell into bed at 9 pm. I slept like a rock despite the fact that Anita is living next LAX airport and there were airplanes taking off and landing the whole night long. Anita dropped Matti and me off at LAX the next morning on her way to work so I had some time to look at Matti's Hayduke Trail photos. And then I was off to the next leg of my trip. I flew to Chicago to meet Raru.
Matti seeing me off at LAX
And again everything worked out: The flight was nice, my bag turned up undamaged and Raru was already there despite the fact that the flight was half an hour early. We even had time to visit his ex-wife Sisu and their baby John. (I met Raru and Sisu on the PCT in 04.)  I am in DeKalb now where Raru is living and repack all the resupply for our 2 week paddling trip. We will leave in the afternoon in his old pick-up truck with his canoe and drive up to the Boundary Waters Canoe area where we 2 rookies will start our paddling trip. I am really excited about it and do hope it works out better than my cycling trip. We will be out in the wilderness for 2 weeks now and I don't expect any WLAN there, so there won't be any postings for the next 2 weeks.

Friday, 23 May 2008


I am back from the Goldsteig - and of course, everything went quite different than I thought... The first few days I had fine weather: The trail is nice and I liked to be hiking again instead of cycling. It was great to be outdoor again. But then the weather changed dramatically: It started to rain and the temperature dropped - unfortunately exactly then when I was at the highest section of the trail. I know that this sounds like a constant weather report, but weather can make or break a trip. But to look at the positive side of it, it was a good test for my AT equipment and unfortunately some of it failed completely:

a) It is an absolutely stupid idea to go hiking in rough terrain and high winds with a poncho: I nearly tripped over my poncho several times and at the end of the day I was usually soaked. I will change to rain jacket and pants for the AT.
b) My brand new titanium SnowPeak stove developped a compatibility problem with my gas cannister for a reason completely unknown to me. Luckily it was still working somewhat, but it took my 15 minutes to bring 2 cups of water to a boil. That's ridiculous - even HEET it faster. I will change back to my hated PocketRocket, that failed in the middle of the CDT because its thread wore out... maybe I should go for an alcohol stove, but I seem to be too stupid for that, too.
c) My new WM Summerlight sleeping bag is not made for a climate like this - I was freezing my ass off every night despite using a VPL. I will take the WM Ultralight for the AT.

Wooden chapel
I also had to face another challenge: Where to recharge my new Nokia cell phone/camera/radio/mp3player? The funniest place for that was at a cemetary at the "Aussegnungshalle" - this is a hall where they show the dead in their coffins before they are buried. I must admit that I felt pretty stupid sitting in a cemetary in front of this hall having a lunch break and waiting for my Nokia to recharge. I could not believe that there were so many people looking at the dead - and my Nokia and then I had to explain my story...

And I met another interesting long distance hiker: A female social worker accompanying a "problem" girl on a 6-week hike through Germany as a measure for building her self esteem. It reminded me a lot of the drug kids that are doing trail maintenance in the US...

And then the funniest place where I slept: On an especially nasty day I was climbing the Arber (the highest mountain on the Goldsteig with some 1.500 m) and wanted to stay in a hut which I could not find in the fog. Therefore I ended up sleeping at a skilift in front of the toilets which was the most wind sheltered place around. In the morning I realised that the hut was just 100 meters away - but the fog had been too thick to see it. Unfortunately the toilets were locked, so the location was not particularly helpful in the obvious respect. 

Most frustrating experience: When I turned up at a hut shortly before sunset and being almost hypothermic I was nearly turned away because they didn't want to take credit cards - cash only! Luckily I had just enough cash left for staying overnight, but I could not buy anything to eat. These huts are more like restaurants or hotels rather than mountain huts. That night I was so cold that I took 2 hours in bed with my sleeping bag AND a warm blanket before I could stop shivering.

But all together I liked the Goldsteig: It was tougher than I had expected due to the bad weather but offered good hiking. And I must admit that I probably just underestimated it by arrogantly assumed that for an accomplished PCT and CDT thruhiker a German forest would be a piece of cake. Well, the German forest kicked my ass and humbled me a bit.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Back in Berlin

On the Goldsteig
I arrived back in Berlin in some sort of shock worried about the numbness in my hands and when that would finally get better. A visit at a orthopaedic specialist did not improve my mood: He suggested injections to reduce swelling and irritation of the Karpal tunnel and talked about surgery in case things would  not improve. I refused either and hope nature will take its course healing. I will not be cycling for about another 8 months and hopefully the problem will have resolved itself by then. I try to avoid cycling now and I am afraid to admit that I actually sort of hate the bike at the moment, but I do hope that this feeling will go away after a while, too.

After digesting my initial shock and visiting doctors I decided to go hiking again instead of cycling. I still have some time to kill before I fly to the US on May 26th and I didn't want to sit around here in Berlin doing nothing. So tomorrow I will head out and hike 10 days on the Goldsteig in Bayerischer Wald. This area is as much wilderness as we get in Germany. Lots of forest for stealth camping and even the weather forecast is ok. I have already packed all my stuff for the US, so I am ready to go when I come back from hiking. Let's see what happens this time to me...

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Eurovelo 6: Conclusion

Wulf asked me once in an email whether I still liked this trip - and that was a good question that kept me thinking for a long time. When I had started the PCT I knew after 1 week that this is what I wanted. I have been cycling for over a month now but I still don't know whether I like it or not. There have been more complications than I had expected: I have had extremely bad luck with the weather or maybe I just started too early. Bad weather can really bring you down. And it is more difficult to protect yourself against the rain while biking than while hiking.

There were more technical difficulties than I had expected, too: I had a broken spoke that had to be repaired in a bike shop, had to change the brakes, discovered that I have a shitty brake system anyway and every day there was a new unknown noise coming from my bike that scared the shit out of me. Luckily the weird noises usually went away after a while...In hindsight I must say that a lot of these problems were caused because of an inappropriate bike set up. The spokes had been set in in the wrong direction - but I only learnt that when I had the first spoke repaired. Back in Berlin I took my bike back to where I had bought it and they acknowledged their mistake. I got new spokes for free. I also had the brake system changed from V brakes to hydraulic. The bike shop should have never advised me to get V brakes in the first place - and they should also have set me up with a different handle bar. These were costly mistakes as I had to pay for the new brakes and handle bar - and suffer from Karpal tunnel syndrome that could have been avoided with a suitably sized bike.

I also worried too much about my bike getting stolen. If I wanted to do some sightseeing, I always had to find a secure spot for my bike, lock it and take the bags with me (awfully heavy and uncomfortable) or leave them and worry they could be stolen. That somebody broke the tray of my map holder in an act of pure vandalism didn't help me to have a more positive outlook.But I guess this is the psychological price you have to pay with an expensive bike.

Camping turned out to be a big problem as it is much more difficult to tuck yourself away along a road or bike path than when hiking through a forest. Take the Danube for example: Right next to the river the mountains rise high up and if there is a flat spot next to the river, it is overgrown and wet - and very visible to anyone. I ended up staying in paid accommodation much more than I had expected - and that put a big strain on my budget. I spent a lot more than I had calculated. Another big mistake has probably been to cram too much sightseeing into this tour. This was not only very expensive but also very stressful. I was constantly rushing from one place to another trying not to miss anything. I should either have taken more time or skipped sights in order to more fully enjoy the rest. 

Danube wood carving
I must admit that this trip has not been the most successful introduction into long distance cycling: I have overspent my budget, had a lot of bike repairs and had to bail out early because of a bike related health issue that will accompany me for quite a while from now on. But still: I definitely do not regret this trip. You will only find out about the weak spots in your bike and set up if you test it on a trip. I cannot see how I could have found out about these things other than the hard way. And I have definitely seen some fantastic places and learnt a lot. This trip has been a crash course in European history and architecture. So would I recommend the Eurovelo 6 to a friend?: Yes, definitely! Try to avoid my mistakes and you will have a great trip. Even I would do it again - wiser next time.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Eurovelo 6: Krems to Slovak border

From Krems to Vienna it was only a short trip and I enjoyed visiting the museums again. I have been in Vienna various times before but it is always nice to come back. I stayed in an ETAP hotel that I had used a lot of times before on business trips. But now I was here with bike instead of a rental car. It felt kind of weird to smuggle the bike up into my room because I felt that it would not be safe in the underground parking lot. Cycling out of Vienna the next day brought me to that futuristic bike path leading up to a bridge - a lot of effort and money has been spent to make life easier for cyclists.

My last campsite on the Danube
As I had mentioned in earlier posts I had been suffering from numb fingers for quite a while. The problem didn't get better, so I decided to see a doctor in Hainburg (just before the Slovak border - my last chance to talk to a doctor in my own language!) The doctor diagnosed Karpal tunnel syndrom: The nerve for the three middle fingers leads through a small tunnel in the hand (the so called Karpal tunnel). A lot of pressure from cycling can lead to a swelling in this tunnel which will irritate the nerve and causes numb and/or tickling fingers. The doctor advised to stop cycling immediately in order to avoid a permanent damage of the nerve - if it is not too late already. I didn't really want to stop cycling, but I didn't want to risk any permanent damage either, so I took the next train back to Berlin - 10 days earlier than planned. It has not been an easy decision, but I didn't want to risk the rest of my trip because of a health problem.

Eurovelo 6: Krems

Sabine and I testing my timer
Krems was about the nicest stop on my whole trip and this is due to Sabine. I had not met Sabine before - who had just got to know each other from an outdoor internet forum discussing various trips and ultralight gear. She is living in Krems and when I realised that Krems is at the Danube we agreed that I should visit her. I ended up staying 2 nights and having so much fun! Sabine is a survival expert - so when we decided to barbecue some Brats for dinner, we made a campfire in her garden NOT using a lighter, but flint stone and a knife only. It took a while, but it worked. I learnt something for life.

Stone Age hut
Next day we visited a stone age village where experimental archaelogists try out stone age technology for making coal and melting iron. Very interesting. We learnt that the equivalent of a Porsche in stone age is a iron axe! I will never be able to look innocently at an axe again and I realised that outdoor people can in fact learn a lot from stone age men. When I took leave from Sabine the next day I knew I would come back sooner or later.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Eurovelo 6: Passau to Krems

In Austria the Danube bike trail gets really popular and crowded. I was seeing loads of fellow cyclists every day. The sign posts on the bike trail resembled highway signs. There were even outlets of visitor information centres right on the bike path in tents trying to find accommodation for all those masses of cyclists. And this was only early May - I started wondering how the bike path would look like in the main holiday season in July and August. But there was a lot to see indeed and there was highlight after highlight.

Lentos Art Museum
My first stop was in Linz were I stayed at the local youth hostel that even offered a bike shed for cyclists. Unfortunately I found out that the cycling community does not really compare to the hiking community when it comes to helping each other: I met 2 experienced older British cyclists in the hostel and asked them for help with changing my brake blocks. And they refused because they did not want to take any responsibility in case something goes wrong with my brakes. They would rather let me screw up the repair by doing it myself than helping me. Their only advice was to go to a bike shop... Unbelievable! But other than that Linz proved to be an interesting town with a fascinating future museum called Ars Electronica and a very modern Modern Art Museum.

Next stop was Mauthausen, location of the infamous concentration camp. This place is really getting to you and afterwards even I was not able to do any other sightseeing. The place was full of school classes who were visiting as part of their history classes and I found it shocking how untouched these kids seemed to be by all those atrocities that had happened there. There was constant giggling and bubble gum bursting which drove me crazy in this sinister environment.

Venus of Willendorf
The monastery of Melk was so crowded that the tour around the famous library was not much fun. Masses of people everywhere and I was just happy to get away. An interesting surprise along the bike path was a statue of the Venus of Willendorf a bit further on, a stone age fertility statue that I would see a couple of days later in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. This is a replica statue only - the real figure is tiny. And then I was headed into Krems where I was going to meet Sabine a fellow UL hiker whom I knew through a German outdoor forum - but have never seen before. So I was quite curious how this visit would turn out.