African Connection links are now in the sidebar to the right, just below the My Travel section.

Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

View from the Top

Tuesday, September 2

The ride today was short, but intense, as you might guess from the previous post describing that climb up to Grosse Scheidegg. The rest of the day was spent in making a BIG climb. Using trains. We rode up through Kleine Scheidegg and then up to Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe. After a 129 word and falling-well-short-of-capturing-the-wonder description of the day, the experience is described in 13,000 words worth of pictures.

A cogwheel train takes us up to Kleine Scheidegg where we transfer to another to carry us on an amazing ride to, and through, the Eiger, the Monch and finally the Jungfrau. After leaving Kleine Scheidegg, the train stops at the Eigergletscher (Eiger Glacier) station then enters the long tunnel, starting on the north face of the Eiger. This tunnel is almost 4.5 miles long, hewn out of the solid rock of the Swiss alps. It climbs over 3,000 feet and has grades up to 25%. Along the way, the train stops at "Viewing Stations" where you have five minutes to get out and peer through thick glass windows in the faces of the mountains. After a 52 minute journey, we arrive at the truly amazing Top of Europe.

Here is the afternoon, in pictures:

On the Ride up to Kleine Scheidegg

At the Eigergletscher Station

Viewing Station on the Eiger


Pommes Frits, cake and beer...

What a day!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Going Postal

Tuesday, September 2
Grosse Scheidegg

The mountains are still standing large as I go out and get ready for the morning ride. Bill says it is one of his favorite climbs, the ride on the Post Bus road up to Grosse Scheidegg. The hotel is already up on the slopes so it is climbing from the first push on the pedals. This information about the hotel location might just be a bit redundant in that you already know we are up in a mountain town where all buildings are either on the slopes or on the steep slopes.

The first part of the ride takes us through the outskirts of town, winding through neighborhoods of wooden houses. It is not so long when the road reaches an inn and expands into a parking lot. It is here that the Post Bus road starts. The road is intended only for the bright yellow buses of the Swiss Post and is accordingly exactly the same width as the wheel track of the buses ~ I don't know which came first. Anyway, while in theory buses are the only vehicles allowed on the road, we will encounter a few cars and trucks as there are people living and working here on the mountainside.

It seems as if the road has become steeper in proportion to the change in width. And I am feeling tired already, possibly the accumulated fatigue of the last week, as yesterday's riding, what there was of it, was not particularly taxing. Whatever, it was a very difficult climb right from the start. My first vehicle encounter was with a car going up and it was able to go by without my having to get off the bike. Not long after this, I heard the tootling of a Post bus rolling up from the road behind me. It was kind of a "Dukes of Hazard" anthem, only a little out of character here in the heights above Grindelwald. "How did they come up with THAT?," I wondered. I pulled over to let the bus go by, but looking back, I could see none. Sound travels well. So for the first time, I get back into the pedals and try get going from a dead standstill on this steep road. It is not easy. RIght about the time I get to a particularly steep section, the bus appears in my mirror so it is off the bike and wait as it goes by. I get going again, again with some difficulty, and reach a sharp and very steep switchback just as the second bus comes up; I did not know they traveled in pairs! There is a sheer rock wall on the right with about two feet of gravel between it and the road and I squeeze myself and the bike in as close as I can as the bus inches by and disappears around the curve. This time it is really hard getting back into the pedals. In fact, my right foot slips off as I try to get the crank turning and I rake the back of my calf on the chain ring - I look like I have been attacked by an angry wolverine. I am tired, tense, sweating and now bleeding. This bicycle touring is just great!

On the Way up to Grosse Scheidegg
It doesn't really get any better. At one point a really sturdy looking truck comes trundling up behind me and I pull off once again, muttering out loud my complaint regarding the upcoming attempt to once again get the bike moving. It is at times like this that I am glad there is no tape recorder on my computer :-) As the truck goes by, I am amazed at its cargo. We are sharing a road carved into a bizillion tons of stone and this guy is hauling ROCKS. Big rocks. There aren't enough scattered around on the slopes? Carrying coals to Newcastle makes more sense.

As I swing around at the last switchback (poetic license invoked; what I was doing at this point bore no resemblance to fluidity of swinging), I can look up and see the pathway to the lookout point, complete with the white-cross-on-bright-red Swiss flag. A young lady is standing there, as straight as the flagpole, her arms outstretched and her eyes raised to the heavens, which are a a bit closer now, I might add. I think, "She must be as glad to be here as I am." Bill later points out that he has been observing her and her photographer companion for some time ~ they are on a photo shoot.

At the Top. Finally.

Looking back Down on the Climb
The first thing I tell Bill is that I do not intend to ride down that blasted hill. He agrees and we retire to the restaurant to wait for the post bus. When it arrives, I ask the driver about using the SwissPass and am informed it isn't valid for this route; the fare down for each person with bike is 27 francs, about $25. This little twist, plus the fact that I'm feeling a little better after two coffees and about an hour of rest, changes my mind about riding so we take off on the bike after all. Just below the first switchback, we encounter Bob, walking his bike up towards the summit. As we stop and chat, I see a couple riding up. They are on mountain bikes, dad pumping away as he climbs, pulling his young son in one of those drag behind, two wheeled carts. PULLING A CART!!!! Sheesh. Being truly impressed by this, I applaud as he rides by.

The ride down is actually quite pleasant although I again find it challenging to get clipped into the pedals on this steep road, albeit a challenge of a different sort. Back at the hotel we clean up, put away the bikes and prepare for the rest of the day. That story will be in the next post.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

How much of human life a good ride is lost in waiting.
With apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, September 1
Rigi to Grindelwald

Today has to be less eventful than yesterday. RIght? Actually, there were no uneventful days on the Swiss ride, but some were sure more stressful than others. Read the post about yesterday's ride, for example.

But, today (in the "we are back in August on the Swiss ride" sense) is a new day with new adventures awaiting. And wait they did. Given our perch high up on Rigi we were quite limited in our options. We could a) take the 7 a.m. train with all of the school kids down to Goldau or b) wait for the 9:30 train. Having to get up, dressed, packed and breakfasted in time to walk down to the station for a 7:00 a.m. train did not seem to be the best idea so 9:30 it was. This did provide the opportunity to ride the train UP to the last stop for a view from the top, the very thing Laurenz had brought us up here for. So, we dutifully marched down to the station around 8:30 to wait for the train. It so happens that there are web-cams on the mountain and they were sharing the views via a monitor on the platform. And the view from the top was fog. Or clouds, from the inside, if it really matters. This certainly changes things. We can ride up and put our heads in the clouds or go back to the hotel and have some more coffee. And the answer is...

Well, Laurenz was disappointed that we did not get up to the top, but what can you do about the weather?

Coming Down from Rigi
By the time we got back to Goldau, retrieved our bikes and got instructions for getting out of town it must have been around 10:30. Now for any bicycle tour, this is a really LATE start. And, true to form, Laurenz directs us out of town on a bike route that turns into a cattle path almost as soon as we leave the station area. We mountain bike down towards the highway, inappropriately outfitted for this segment of the ride with lightweight bikes sporting narrow, high pressure tires. It is not clear that we are going the right way, but Bob is confident. The same Bob who confidently sent us up the walking path towards Rickin, I might add. But, not having a better idea, we follow and eventually make it to the lakeshore town of Brunnen. From here, we follow a very nice lakeside road around through Gersau to the Vierwaldstattersee ferry dock. There is no ferry at the time, so we retire to the restaurant for coffee.

Rupert Enjoying the Wait for the Ferry
We wait about 45 minutes, during which time the rest of the riders, save Earne, arrive then motor across the lake to Oberdorf where we finally continue the ride. It has been several hours since breakfast, only about one of which has actually been spent attached to the bike.

Corinne and Laurenz on the Ferry to Oberdorf
It is a cool, gray day with drizzle off an on. We ride west, the plan being to get over to Meiringen. At one point, Bob follows me up to a bike path which soon deteriorates into a difficult riding surface. Bob suddenly turns off of the path into the deep grass of the field to our right and I follow. We plow through the field a short way before reaching the road which we follow into Waltersberg. We have separated from the rest of the group, so we stop to wait, assuming they will come up on the main road we have reached. Bob soon gets a call from the group...Chris has a problem and is looking for a chain tool. They are on the bike path near the airfield, so we head in that direction. It doesn't take long to find the riders ~ they are approaching the road on which we are riding and it is obvious that Chris has already solved his mechanical problems.

Now Which Way?
We ride on a bit, but upon considering the lateness of the hour and the relatively little progress we have made so far, we make a major change in the plan for the day. Bill and I decide to ride into the small town of Stans to get a train to Interlaken. From here, we can ride up into the mountains, something Bill has suggested from his experience is something we really want to do. We JUST MISS the train at Stans and have to spend another 45 minutes waiting. It is a long ride as we have to go to Luzern, change trains and backtrack a bit before going on through Meiringen then along the lake to Interlaken. After lunch in the square in front of the Interlaken Ost train station, we take off, now having given up on the idea of a ride to Lauterbrunnen before going up to the day's final destination of Grindelwald.

We get a bit turned around as we leave Interlaken and, at one point, stop and ask some soldiers, who seem to be guarding a speed bump, if we are on the road to Grindelwald. They reply that they do not know. "Perhaps this is how the Swiss army succeeded in invading Liechtenstein", muses Bill. We finally get everything sorted out and are on the way up. It is a marvelous ride in the late afternoon; there is little traffic as most of the tour busses are coming down, making their return trips to Interlaken, mostly loaded with tourists from Japan. I wonder who is watching the country.

Lost Near Interlaken

Approaching Grindelwald
I am blown away by Grindelwald. In the hotel room, I look out - and UP - to an amazing view of the tallest of the Swiss mountains. I call Shirley and can only say, "You just would not believe what I am looking at!" She tells me later that I said this a lot when I called, but this time, I really MEANT it!


Rugged mountains rise up almost startlingly from the high valley. You can close your eyes and still feel their massive presence. Towering, steep, right there in-your-face mountains, the sharp edges not even begun to be worn down by the winds of time. There are clouds around the peaks early on. As they clear later, one of the peaks is exposed, a glacier glowing like a golden beacon in the late afternoon sun.

OhMyGoodness! Reprise
Click on the image for an up close view of the glacier
It was an unusual day as cycle touring days go, with a lot of waiting. But as I looked out on the dark falling down upon the mountains, I think it was well worth the wait.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Hills are Alive...

Sunday, August 31
Steinegg to Rigi

*** Warning. Long Post Ahead ***

Music is part of my life. MyPod is plugged in a lot; sometimes just for background, especially doing programming at work. And sometimes so I can really listen, especially on long plane trips. But never on the bike. You really don't want anything sneaking up behind you. Yet the sound of music was a part of today's ride from Steinegg to Rigi. It was just another of the many absolutely perfect riding days that made up the two weeks of the tour that I enjoyed.

Leaving Steinegg, we climb a little as we wend our way through the farmland here in northeast Switzerland, green grass on the slopes, neat-as-a-pin farmhouses wearing window boxes overflowing with pink and white blooms. Bliss road by character if not by name.

On the Road out of Steinegg
The first leg is the gentle climb of about 450 feet to Gonten, where a white steeple with a sharply pointed black roof rises from the front corner of the church in the center of town. Sturdy buildings line the road, celebrating successful protection of their occupants during what I am sure was long winter by joining their country kin in the wearing of summer flowers.

In Gonten
Then, it's down into the town of Urnasch, only to climb again, this time about 1,000 feet, to Schonau. It's around here where we are far enough from towns and traffic that you can stop and listen. To nothing. Except the music of the cowbells. Not a tinkly clink nor a tinny clank. No, it is a combination of mellow sounds ~ clankh, clangh, clankh. No need for the iPod here. There are cows (and sheep and goats) with bells everywhere, but it just seemed so, well you know, SWISS here on this cool clear morning.

Cows on a Swiss Hilltop
But soon it is time to go. A really nice descent awaits as we have about 8 miles to go to reach Watwil, some 2,000 feet down from the high point. Hemberg is about halfway and it is here we stop for a navigation check, finding an inn with hiking boots on the sills serving as window boxes. After determining the proper route, we drop into a heavily wooded section of road, dark and cool, very nearly a tunnel. Down we go until we sweep into Watwil and stop to check maps and GPS's at the fairly busy road that is the combination of highways 8 and 16. I look at the map briefly, but Bill and Bob are pushing buttons and comparing views on their screens so I soon take on the role of spectator and part-time referee. It is finally decided that we will go left onto the highway, then bear right as we leave town on our way to Rickin and beyond. Seems easy enough so we ride out.

It is not long at all before Bob, who is just a short way behind us, calls out, "Here. Turn right, here." It doesn't seem like we have gone far enough, but he has turned off so we turn around and follow him. We are now climbing in fairly serious terms. Still in town, we go up and up, past houses and finally, at the edge of town, a school. Up and up we climb, Bill forging ahead, Bob falling behind, I hold on to the middle position. Coming around one curve, I can look down on Watwil. I mean DOWN.

Looking Back Down to Watwil
Head down, I pedal on. Then, I hear it. Singing. A female voice, obviously raised in song, although I cannot make out the words. An angel, perhaps? Have I passed on from the exertion? No, everything still hurts. Sirens? Not near enough the Rhine, I think. Then, I look up and see a rope strung across the road. Curiouser and curiouser.

As I approach the mini-blockade, I began to make sense of what is happening. There is a young lady standing by an open gate, calling out in her sing-song way to a herd of cows up in the barnyard. She is trying to entice them down and across the road to a pasture on the other side. I get to where she is before the cows do and she holds up the rope, strung there to keep the cows from heading up the road, so I can ride under it. Then she goes back to her singing and the cows slowly drift across to the other side where the grass is actually greener. The hills are alive...

I get up the road a ways and stop to look back on the scene. I can just barely see the cows still going across the road. There is no sign of Bob and I assume he has had to wait for the bovine parade to pass before he can follow me up. After a brief respite, I get back to working my way up the hill. Along this stretch, I come to a farm that offers accommodation to city folk wanting to get a taste of the rural life. "Sleep in the Hay," offers a sign at the entrance to the barnyard. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me, but I pass and pedal on.

The road has been narrowing on the way up, but now it gets serious. The paved roadway gives way to two roughly paved strips separated by a grass strip. And it gets really steep. Steeper, I am sure, than anything I've tried to ride up in my brief cycling career. It really does not seem right, yet the only choice is up or turn around. Up it is. I struggle climbing on the narrow paved lane on the right, looking up and watching the top of the hill not getting any closer. As I am SERIOUSLY considering getting off the bike, I notice the sound of bells coming from the top of the hill. A few of the brown and white cows that populate the country are moving slowly through the field, their bells softly clankh, clangh-ing. I decide I'll keep my head down and just ride to the sound of the bells. No looking up to see how far, just climb until I reach the bells. It works! I struggle every foot of the way, but make it to the top. The lane flattens a bit and I see I am approaching a farmhouse. As I get closer, it appears as if the path leads right to the front door! And it very nearly does. As I get to the farm, I find myself in the drive between the house and barn. And it looks as if this is the end of the road. I cannot believe this and am already mentally trying to gear up to turn around and try to find where I went wrong. Getting off the bike, I walk it across the rough gravel and realize that the path does continue on. I just couldn't see it because it dropped off the edge of the barnyard on the other side. It was steeper going down this side than it was coming up. I get on the seat, clip in with my left foot and look down and think about how I am going to ride down on the narrow paved strip then stop at the gate part way down. Wisely, it turns out, I think my way out of riding down. It was all I could do to walk down without falling. I had to stay in the grass to get footholds and soon my arms ached at the effort of holding the bike back from its plan to go hurtling to the bottom without me.

It was Steeper than it Looks Here!
The path widened at the bottom and soon turned into a real roadway again. This would have been more encouraging had I had the slightest idea as to where I was. I knew I was heading west and that was good. And there was no way I was going back the way I came. So it wasn't really much of a problem to decide to ride on. I eventually come to the first intersection since we turned up out of Watwil. There are signposts here pointing west towards Walde, the road also being bike route 4, and south towards Rickin. Now I had a problem. Laurenz had talked about following bike route 4 all the way to Rapperswill, yet we had also talked about going via Rickin. Which way had Bill gone from here? I called his cell phone, but got the "This is not a working number" message. I finally decided to ride into Rickin where I did, in fact, find Bill. He asked me if I had seen Bob and I told him he had to be a long way behind me. Bill said no, that he was sure he had seen Bob and Rupert ride through an intersection just down from where we were and wondered how it was that I did not see him. We quickly came to the realization, later verified by Bob, that we made a wrong turn at Watwil and that Bob, at about the time he got to the singing cowgirl, realized this and turned around and got back on the more direct (and considerably flatter) route. Sheesh*.

Well, it has been quite a day. But it is not even lunchtime! So, dear reader, you might want to take a break, get some coffee and relax a bit before continuing on with this day's journey. There is MUCH more to tell.

OK, are we ready? Good! Let's go... We ride a busy road on in to Rapperswill where we have a few navigational challenges that are eventually sorted out. We find an open store and get provisions for lunch which we eat in a park near the bridge we need to take to cross the lake to Pfaeffikon. After we cross over, we see Laurenz with the car in a parking lot just across from the bridge. He is having a serious conversation with Corinne. We are soon to learn that as she was driving up, the trailer (with ALL of our luggage) separated from the car, unbeknownst to her for quite some time. I could write about this some more, but when Bill made a comment at dinner a few nights later regarding the losing trailers, he was told by Corinne that "that's not a funny story." No more about trailers it is.

Laurenz suggests we forego the very steep ride up to Einsiedeln and just take the train. We decide to take his advice and so spend some time waiting at the station. Time well spent, though, as it provided a chance to procure and consume some ice cream. As we ride up the hill in the cogwheel train, I'm thinking this was a good decision. Einsiedeln is a bustling place and there are numerous roads leading away from the station. While Bill tries to coax directions from his GPS, I go talk to a bus driver who explains how it is we should get out of town and on our way. He then asks where our final destination is and I tell him we are riding down to Schwyz then on to Goldau. He looks at me and says, "Dass ist eine lange Strecke!" Meaning, "That's a LONG way!" I am not making this up!

We have planned our way around to the lake and have decided to not cross the bridge, but ride on the western shore over to Unteriberg. It takes some doing to get out of town as there is a fair of some sort in progress, but we do make it and are soon making good time. I stopped to shed a layer of clothing and Bill got far enough ahead to get out of sight. Just after I got up to speed again, I had two close encounters with vehicles and decided I would cross over onto the path next to the road. In many places, there is a cobblestone strip marking the boundary of the road and sidewalk / bike path. I looked down and saw the white line on the strip of small, square stones and moved over. There was only one problem: It wasn't a divider between road and sidewalk I was seeing. It was about a four inch high curb. My front wheel hit the edge and I was down on the walkway in a heartbeat, crashing onto my right hip and elbow. My glasses went flying as I slid to a stop. A quick assessment told me I was OK and I only needed to re-insert my lenses into the frames and loosen and re-tighten my front wheel to get going again. I quickly caught up with Bill who had stopped, wondering what to do ~ he thought I had forgotten the plan and had gone ahead and crossed the bridge. He was a bit angry, but turned quickly when I told him of the spill. All of the parts were still working so we took off, maintaining an even quicker pace as we realized that it was getting late (we had no idea just how late it was ~ read on) and that it was a "long way" to our destination. We rode through Unteriberg (Lower Iberg) and on to Oberiberg (Upper Iberg), a climb of about 700 feet. A check of the map reveled that Ibergeregg Pass was the next milestone and it was almost 900 feet up from where we were. I was now concerned. What time would it get dark? But there being no other choice, it was on to the pass. And it was not such a bad climb. Once over the top, it was a long, steep descent to Schwyz.

Looking Down from Near Ibergeregg to Schwyz
I must have had a pretty good ride down as I very nearly caught up with Bill at the bottom, even though he had climbed over the pass well ahead of me. We navigated the complicated route through Schwyz in good shape and were making good time on the road to Goldau. Just as we passed the Goldau sign, my phone rang. It was Laurenz, wanting to know where we were. I said we thought we had just come into Goldau and should be at the train station shortly. As we rode on, we realized we were out in the country so we turned back and rode to the Goldau sign. It was NOT the city limit sign, but rather the sign at the edge of the town of Steinen, informing us that Goldau was the NEXT town. Turning around again, we headed towards Goldau, having to climb a bit along the way. My phone rang again and I stopped and told Laurenz about what had happened. He said to keep riding and to look for him at the train station as soon as we got into town.

We were to spend the night on Rigi, at a hotel that we could (realistically) only reach by train, so Laurenz would wait at the station, show us where we would keep the bikes and then ride up with us. We rode on and soon came into Goldau, a big enough place to make it difficult to figure out where the train station was. Bill pointed down a main road and we headed off. I wasn't so sure so I stopped and asked a young man at a bus stop who said we needed to turn around, go back to the intersection we had come from then turn right to find the station. At said intersection, my phone rang again. "Where are you now?" asked Laurenz. When I told him, he said "OK, but you need to hurry. The last train to Rigi leaves at 6:00 p.m." It was 5:50. LAST TRAIN! We had not heard anything, until this very moment, about a deadline for arriving in Goldau. We sped down the road and soon had the station in sight. It was a real struggle, however, figuring out how to actually get into it. KInd of like one of those dreams where you want to run but can only creep along. We rode under it once then came back, this time finding a ramp. I got to the main platform but did not see Laurenz, so I called. He said there was ANOTHER station! But not to worry, it was connected to the end of the one we were in so we only had to negotiate a 100 meters. We did and finally found Laurenz. Bikes were stashed in a warehouse and we actually had to wait a few minutes for the train.

What a day. LAST TRAIN!?!? We would have been sleeping on the benches had we been 10 minutes later. But all's well that ends well. It was a spectacular ride up the steep slope to the hotel where Bruno, the hotel Saint Bernard, and the rest of the tour riders were awaiting us. DEADLINE?!?!

* OK, here's the rest of the story on our being mislead by Bob. We should have ridden on in Watwil just a short distance farther where we would have found the split in highways 8 and 16. Here, we would have followed 8, a red road (main trunk route) on the map, to RIckin, a mere 3 miles from and 500 feet higher than Watwil. But Bob, seeing a sign (it was a hiking route sign) pointing towards Rickin, led us onto not a "white road" (a secondary road) but a "gray road", denoting a road, track or footpath. This road went to a high point almost 2,200 feet above Watwil and we rode every foot of it. Bob had in fact, stopped for the cow crossing and used his waiting time to look more closely at his map and GPS. He figured it out and went back down to the originally planned route. We did not get the easier ride of the "correct" route, but we sure got a better story.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Out of Africa

It has been almost two weeks since I returned from Uganda. It was a great trip in many respects. It was a hard trip in almost every respect. The satisfaction of progress, expectations of more challenges in the future, the fun of crossing the equator. These lightened the load. A load that built up during the week, coming from long hours of travel, totally different daily routines, the stress of all of the interactions, concern for those same future expectations that helped make the trip satisfying. Add to all of this the fact that I lost my journal. One I started for the 2006 trip. One that I had written almost 50 pages in this trip. Lists, sketches, reflections, memories. Gone, so it seems. A painful loss*.

It is a long way to Africa. And a long way back. Except you never really get back; back to where you started. That's one reason for the long delay in my return to the Swiss ride posts. I've had a lot to do, including trying to catch up on sleep. And so much more to think about. But, not to worry. I'll be back with a post for the ride from Steinegg to Rigi within the next few days (it is already a work in progress).

* And let's not be too concerned about the journal. I cannot look back on the week in Africa and get too seriously upset about losing a book, no matter what the book. Much more important things populate the future and there will be plenty to write about. So let's ride on!