Monday, December 24, 2007

Thursday, 30 August: Two Years in Deutschland

Upon passing a landmark date like we did today, I naturally become quite sentimental and reflective about our time in Deutschland. We have come a long ways since our first tentative days, when we barely had the courage to venture out of our hotel room, let alone speak to anyone in German. The time has sped by amazingly fast and it is hard to believe that in another few short months we will be heading home to Michigan. I can only vow once again to take advantage of every moment that is left to us, which means that my writing will probably suffer. Then again, you only live once. The writing will just have to wait.

Friday, 24 August: Dinner with the Dörrs

The Dörrs had us over for another lovely meal this evening. This time I bought a bouquet of flowers at the florist in Schwaben Galerie, where I had a very positive experience with the nice young saleswoman (a far cry from the snooty lady here in Botnang). We went over around 7:00 and ended up staying until after 11. We had a similar meal to last time – Hochzeitsuppe, two kinds of roast pork, spätzle, salad, and kartoffelsalat. Once again Herr Dörr did most of the talking – and once again he did a lot of reminiscing about World War II. I only wish I could understand more of what he said. I was exhausted and could barely keep my eyes open by the end of it. I think John fared a little better because he is more accustomed to listening to men with Schwäbisch accents.

Tuesday, 21 August: A Summer Dinner in the Schlossgarten...NOT!

We were supposed to enjoy a lovely summer evening at the Schlossgarten Biergarten in downtown Stuttgart for our monthly IWC dinner, but the weather was decidedly uncooperative. We’ve only really had about two weeks of summer this year – and that was back in June. It was pouring rain when I arrived at the Biergarten and our small group of die-hard members was clustered at a table under an umbrella downing beers and pretzels. They told me to hurry up and order a beer because the restaurant was already shutting up for the night due to the poor weather. We waited for some stragglers to arrive and then made our way over to the Königstraße to find a place to eat inside. We settled on The Block House, since we all thought steaks and baked potatoes would hit the spot on this wet, blustery day. We ended up having a great time, as usual – the IWC never lets a little rain ruin its parade!

Sunday, 19 August: Disaster Strikes for Gronholm!

We didn’t have far to go this morning since we had tickets for bleacher seats to watch the Circus Maximus spectator stage, taking place literally steps from the hotel. We checked out after breakfast but left our car in the hotel lot, then went in search of our seats. Two sets of bleachers had been set up along the route and we had been randomly assigned seats in the bleachers near the finish line of the course. We arrived early and were disappointed to discover that we had a pretty lousy view – basically just a long sweeping turn with very little likelihood of any major action – and we’d have to dodge the heads of everyone seated around us. Plus there was no sign of the promised giant video screen, which would have allowed us to see the action on the rest of the course. We decided to walk around for a bit and see if we could find any standing room with a better view, but the best spots were already staked out. On our way back to our seats we spoke to a course worker and asked about the whereabouts of the video screens; he said he didn’t know what had happened but there weren’t any screens anywhere. Frustrated, we returned to our bleacher seats and decided to grin and bear it.

It was rather fun to see the rally cars in a more traditional race setting. The cars went out on the course in staggered groups of four and they lapped the course three times. Of course we only saw them for about three seconds with each pass. We got some nice shots and video, but after watching a few of the N-Class Evos and Subarus go by, we decided to leave early and try to make it to the very last stage of the rally, Moselwein, set in the vineyards in a steeply sloped valley on the north side of the river. (Unfortunately we missed the Dhrontal stage, perhaps the most spectacular setting of the whole rally, because we had opted to see the spectator stage.)

Photos from Circus Maximus:

We parked along the street in a beautiful brand-new residential development and made the long trek up the hill into the vineyards. We found a nice spot amongst the vines on the outside edge of a left-hand turn; the cars would be coming straight at us from a long downhill, then turn sharply to the left and head down what turned out to be a steep concrete drainage ditch. John took up a position higher up between the vine rows for a good video angle; I was standing a few feet up from the rock wall lining the road until a guy saw me there and graciously gestured for me to come down and join the line along the wall. I responded in German but quickly discovered that he was one of a group of Frenchmen – all rooting for Sebastien Loeb, naturally. After a while I said something to him in French and he did a double-take, asking me if I spoke French. I explained that I had studied French in school but was now living in Germany, so my French was suffering (this said in rather faltering French, slipping into German at the end). I daresay he was surprised to find an American girl out watching a rally in the German countryside who could speak (OK, “speak” might be a bit strong) not one but two foreign languages.

We ended up having a pretty thrilling spot from which to observe our last stage of Rallye Deutschland. We all had a grand time watching the top WRC competitors take the screeching left-hander; I was anxiously awaiting Markus Grönholm, who has been my favorite WRC driver ever since he tried to take me out on that crazy turn in the St. Wendelerland stage last year. Grönholm and Loeb were currently first and second in the overall championship, and while the gravel-specialist Finn was not favored to win the asphalt German rally, he needed to hold onto second position to maintain his lead in the championship. So you can imagine my horror and anguish when Grönholm finally came around the turn and the crippled right rear end of his car swung into view. Half of his rear quarter-panel was ripped off, the rear bumper was gone, and his right rear wheel was hanging out at an awkward angle, completely detached from the suspension. Grönholm was obviously determined to limp to the finish line, but his hopes of winning the championship were now called into question.

The French fans cheered madly at Grönholm’s sorry plight. And what was the very next car to come into view? Loeb’s pristine cherry-red Citröen, of course. The Frenchmen went wild. My spirits slightly dampened, we watched the rest of the Super 1600 series while the French fans packed up and left. I grew bored with my position after a while so I moved around a bit, experimenting with some interesting photo angles through the vines. We stuck around until practically everyone else around us had gone…right up until the very last car, the little yellow Fiat Seicento driven by Jürgen Hohlheimer, rounded the bend at the bottom of the ditch and disappeared from view. Then we too packed up, walked down the hill to the car, and headed back to Trier.

Photos from Moselwein:

It was still early in the afternoon so we decided to check out the rally aftermath at Parc Fermé. All of the top finishers had already arrived and we spent some time checking out the cars – dents, scrapes, duct tape and all – while the Super 1600 and N-Class cars pulled in. Several of the drivers paused to check out the damage to Grönholm’s car. After watching some Evos arrive, we walked back to Trier’s main market square to have lunch outside. The rally cars were routed straight through the square so we got to see the final finishers come through while we ate. We were surrounded by rally fans and everyone cheered and waved as the cars came by. Our meal was interrupted by a sudden downpour, but fortunately we were under the cover of a large umbrella. After finishing our lunch, we headed back to the car and made the uneventful drive home to Stuttgart. It was another amazing rally experience for us and we feel exceptionally lucky to have had the opportunity to go twice. Now if only we could get to Rallye Ireland next year…

Photos from Parc Fermé:

Postcript: Only after we returned home and went online did we discover the exact nature of Grönholm’s accident. Apparently he was distracted by a cow grazing close to the road and went off. There were no videocameras or photographers on site and the only record of the crash is from Grönholm’s in-car camera. Less than three weeks later, Grönholm announced his plans to retire after the 2007 WRC season. He ended up placing second in the championship, just four points behind Loeb.

Saturday, 18 August: Giant Jumps, Twisting Turns & Rapid Repairs

We were thrilled to discover that this year’s Rallye schedule slated the first running of the Panzerplatte stage for 11 a.m. this morning, so we didn’t have to get out of bed unreasonably early. As you may recall, Panzerplatte (named after the German Panzer tanks) is run on the concrete-paved testing grounds of an old military base and is one of the most famous – and longest, at 30.5 km – stages in the WRC lineup. The stage is also home to the “Gina” jump, the best-known jump of Rallye Deutschland. Seeing the cars catch huge air here was one of the highlights of our Rallye experience last year and we wanted to try to arrive earlier this time to get an even better viewing position. Of course we slightly underestimated how long it took to drive to the stage, park in one of the huge lots near the barracks, get on a shuttle bus, and then make the long trek over the undulating fields of the military grounds to finally arrive at the gently sloping “Gina” viewing area. We were dismayed to discover that all of the best spots along the fence were already claimed, but we managed to stake out what were essentially second-row seats. We brought our camp chairs along and settled in for yet another long wait. A group of people sitting next to us had huge beach umbrellas set up to block the sun, which partially blocked our view and the view of everyone sitting behind them. As start time approached, we began to wonder if they were ever going to take the umbrellas down. It wasn’t even hot out. I finally worked up the nerve to ask them in German to put their umbrellas away, and they complied. Some of the spectators behind us gave me appreciative looks. The WRC cars didn’t catch too much air, as usual, but the Super 1600s didn’t disappoint and the Evos made some fantastic jumps. There’s nothing quite like seeing an Evo flying through the air and thinking, “That’s our car!” I don’t think anyone topped the little Renault Clios and Citröens from last year, but we saw plenty of great jumps.

You can see my best photos from Panzerplatte here:

We didn’t stick around to watch the historic rally cars because we knew from last year that they wouldn’t get a lot of air going over the jump. Next we decided to go off the beaten track to the Bosenberg stage. We were attracted to the description of an “S”-curve viewing area but had some trouble figuring out where to park. We finally made our way through cornfields and rolling meadows to the viewing area, which was only sparsely populated with spectators. I decided to take up a position right along the road for close-ups while John stood on higher ground for videotaping. After watching all of the WRC cars go by we decided to hike along the road a short distance and found another great viewing area where we could see the cars coming through a twisty wooded section. I wish we’d been there to see the WRC cars, as it was a fabulous location for photos and video. Most of the spectators left after the WRC cars finished, so we had plenty of room to move around for good shots of the Super 1600 and N-class cars. It was especially fun to watch the less-experienced drivers trying to maneuver through the tight uphill S-turn, narrowly missing a road sign in the process.

Here are photos from Bosenberg:

We decided to end our day at the Service Park, where you can get up close and personal with the drivers and team mechanics, who work furiously to repair the beaten and battered cars during their strictly-allotted 45-minute service period. The Rallye organizers wisely moved the location of the Service Park this year from the Bostalsee (a good 45-minute drive from Trier) to the large fairgrounds near downtown Trier. This made getting to and from the Service Park a lot easier, although parking was a bit of a pain. We had to park on the street and then walk quite a ways through a rather sketchy industrial area to get to the Service Park. En route we passed a whole line-up of Subaru WRX wanna-be rally cars. We arrived in time to see the first WRC cars arrive, and stopped to watch a couple of them getting a quick wash before entering the park grounds. We watched the Stobart Ford crew working on Latvala’s car and saw the evening press conference with Markus Grönholm, Sebastian Loeb, and Dani Sordo, the current top place-holders, from afar (I got a darn good photo of them with my zoom, considering I was several hundred yards away!).

At some point while we were standing between the Citröen and Ford tents, John and I got separated. I literally turned around and he was gone. I stuck to the fence where I had last seen him, took some photos of cars coming and going, and waited. And waited. I was the only one with a cell phone and we didn’t have any contingency plan if we got separated. I tried not to panic, except I had no way of knowing if John had noticed my absence immediately, or if he had walked halfway around the Service Park before realizing I was not at his side. The Service Park is a very big place and there were thousands of fans milling around, and it was getting dark. There was a guy with a microphone walking around doing roving interviews and I was half-tempted to go up to him and ask him to call out to my wayward husband. Some fifteen minutes later, we found each other again, about ten feet from where we had last seen each other. John claims that I am the one who suddenly disappeared.

Together again, we left the WRC area to check out the less-crowded Super 1600 tents. I daresay we recognized the Japanese crew leader at one of the Suzuki tents (the guy who came out and said, “Ten more minutes!” last year). After a lot of searching (and even asking someone for directions) we finally found the independent N-class cars tucked away in a forgotten corner. It’s always fun to see the guys working on their Evos, away from the crowds, with no barriers between you and the cars. I was also happy to finally see the tiny yellow Fiat with its frizzy-haired German owner/driver furiously working away on his pride and joy.

Here are photos from the Service Park:

It was pretty much dark by now and most of the WRC cars had left, so we made our way back to our car and drove back to the hotel. Except we hit a bit of a roadblock – literally. We knew some of the streets in downtown Trier were goint to be blocked off for tomorrow’s Circus Maximus stage – a new addition to the Rallye Deutschland schedule. Every rally features a special “spectator stage” that takes place in an arena or in town. It’s usually a very short stage and the cars run the circuit two or three times, which means the spectators get more viewing opportunities, hence the name “spectator stage.” Last year, the spectator stage was in a small village near Trier; we didn’t go because we’d heard that the viewing locations weren’t all that exciting. This year they moved the stage into the heart of Trier for the first time, and it was going to run right past the Porta Nigra and our hotel.

What we didn’t realize is that they had already blocked off the streets in preparation for the stage tomorrow morning, and we found a concrete barrier barricading the main access route to our hotel. We tried to use Susie’s navigational skills to approach the hotel from other angles, but we kept ending up back in the same place. We couldn’t find any other places to park nearby and we became increasingly frustrated, since we were literally across the street from our hotel. Finally I told John to stay with the car while I ran over to the hotel to ask for help. I tried to explain to the woman at the reception desk what our problem was, but my German failed me and I had to switch to English. She pulled out a street map of Trier but it was not nearly as detailed as Susie’s map, so that wasn’t going to help us navigate the maze of streets. An older, well-dressed gentleman was standing next to the desk and the woman turned to him and asked his advice. I figured out after a few moments that he was somehow connected with the hotel.

The gentleman said he was going to his car and that he would drive me back to our car and then we could follow him to the parking lot, but I thought that sounded rather complicated since he would have to get over to where John was parked and then drive all the way back. I suggested that he come with me instead and be our navigator. He told his wife, who was also waiting in the lobby, that he would be back in a few minutes and then walked with me out to our car. We started chatting along the way (in German, of course), and I quickly learned that he was actually the owner of the hotel! I think John was rather stunned to see me show up with the hotel owner in tow. The gentleman was very nice and wanted to know all about what we were doing in Germany and how we liked living here. We talked about Mercedes and he told us that he drove an S-Class and his wife had an SL convertible. So not only was he the hotel owner, he was also quite rich. And here he was sitting in our car, amiably navigating a couple of wayward guests to the parking lot! He guided us with ease through a series of dark, narrow streets, some of which were barely wide enough for our car to pass through, and finally we ended up back at the carpark. We thanked the gentleman profusely and then went in to eat a very later dinner at the hotel restaurant. Our servers were a bit snippy with us at first because it was quite late and they had to keep the kitchen open for us, but while we were eating the hotel owner came by and gave us a little guidebook to Trier. After that the servers were much nicer.

Friday, 17 August: Let the Rallye Begin!

After partaking of the hotel’s fine breakfast buffet, we headed out to Ruwertal, the very first stage of the rally, with a start time of 10:13 a.m. We arrived with plenty of time to park in a huge grassy field and hiked about ten minutes to the first viewing area, which consisted of a short straightaway, a sharp right turn, and a lefthand hairpin. We staked out a decent position just above the hairpin, but were a bit disappointed because the best angle for photos was on the lower side of the bend, which was off-limits to spectators. (As always, I was immensely jealous of the press photographers, who get all the best shooting angles.) While we waited for the stage to start I took a hike through the woods to the next viewing area, another hairpin bend heavily shaded by trees. It was a dramatic turn but it was already pretty thickly staked out by spectators and I was worried about the low light conditions for photography, so we ended up sticking with our original position. All of the WRC cars and most of the Super 1600s made it through smoothly but some of the Evos and Subarus made some dramatic slides.

Here are photos from Ruwertal:

We grabbed some sausages and Cokes for lunch and then headed to the second running of the Schönes Moselland stage, which, as its name suggest (schön means “beautiful”), is set on a dramatic vineyard-covered hillside overlooking the town of Piesport, surrounded by an enormous horseshoe bend in the Mosel River. We arrived in time to take some shots of the postcard-perfect scenery and then made our way down the hill in search of the ideal viewing spot. We arrived between stages and managed to nudge our way up to the fence on the lower outer side of another lefthand hairpin turn. We watched the historic rally cars go by from the previous running of the stage and then waited around for over an hour and a half for our stage to start (rally fans certainly have to be patient). From here we could see the cars snaking down the next hill in the distance and we could just barely make out two white cars that had gone off the road and were now stuck amidst the vineyard rows. A crew was swarming around one of the cars but they didn’t succeed in retrieving it – I guess they are out for the duration. We think the two unfortunates were Super 1600 entries but we couldn’t tell for sure.

There were no big mistakes by the WRC cars at our turn, although Petter Solberg deposited some large chunks of rubber on the road as his already-damaged Subaru came screaming around the bend. A guy ran out and snatched up a hunk of the rubber – to take home as a souvenir?!? There were a lot of naughty spectators here who kept trying to sneak up the road between the vineyard rows, and I could swear that I saw several of them trying to touch the cars as they went by. (This is no laughing matter – one of the motivating factors for the establishment of controlled spectator zones in the last decade was that several fans lost fingers while trying to touch the cars, and more than one spectator has been run over.) The course marshals do their best to look for wayward fans and keep them behind the fences. One of the marshals was wearing a floppy straw hat and everyone jeered at him when his hat blew off and he had to walk out onto the course to retrieve it. We didn’t stick around to watch all of the independent-class cars because we wanted to get back to Trier to watch the WRC cars arrive at Parc Fermé.

Here are photos from Schönes Moselland:

We drove back to Trier, parked at the hotel, and made our way through the center of town to the Parc Fermé (closed park) at the Viehmarktplatz, where all of the rally cars have to spend the night. The cars arrived by a different route from last year and we got to watch them driving through the streets of Trier. This is always a fun thing to see, especially when you get a great shot of folks sitting at an outdoor café just a few feet away from a passing WRC car. We arrived at Parc Fermé just in time to see Grönholm drive in and greet the throngs of fans. We also watched Kopecky, Latvala, Stohl, Atkinson, and several of the other WRC cars arrive, then went back out to the street to watch some more cars coming through. We ended up eating a late dinner at the hotel, which was excellent.

Here are photos from Parc Fermé:

Thursday, 16 August: Return to Rallye Deutschland

We have been looking forward to our second trip to Rallye Deutschland for some time now. I won’t bother with the long drawn-out description and analysis that I wrote last year, particularly since I am writing this four months after the fact (whoops, didn’t mean to let that slip), so I’ll simply provide brief highlights here.

We made the drive up to Trier in the E-Class this evening. We got off to a late start – after 6 pm – and I was driving because John had already had a long day at work. I was making good time on the empty Autobahn as we approached the Mosel Valley, maintaining speeds of 180-200 kph. As I came around a long, sweeping bend in the fast lane, passing a BMW wagon that was going a tick slower than me, John suddenly shouted, "Watch out." My gaze jumped ahead to the right side of the road just beyond the bend, where we could see that a couple of semis were parked on the shoulder. I immediately let off the gas, and the BMW next to me simultaneously began to slow down. Only after several seconds (and several hundred yards) had passed did my eyes return to my lane, at which point I registered the fact that a police car was ahead of me with its flashers on (but not its police lights). It took another split second (and a few more yards) for me to realize that the police car was at a DEAD STOP. In the fast lane. On an unlimited stretch of Autobahn. With no flares, emergency triangles, or anything else to give drivers like me any advance warning. The BMW was still next to me in the right lane, so I had nowhere to go. I hit the brakes, hard, but not hard enough to set off the ABS. After a second, I realized that we were still approaching the police car at an alarmingly fast rate. I had never slammed on the brakes before at 180 kph, but this was the big moment to find out what the E-Class could do. I gripped the steering wheel and slammed my foot on the brake. The ABS went wild, the tires squealed threateningly, and it seemed to take an interminably long time for the car to come to a screeching but controlled stop, about 30 feet from the police car. It gave me quite an adrenaline rush. The only time I've ever had a scare like that was when I almost ran over a howler monkey that tried to cross the road in front of me in Costa Rica. This time the stakes were a tad higher than just a flattened monkey.

Meanwhile the BMW continued merrily on its way in the right lane. I slowly moved over, passed the police car, and proceeded down the road. I was so shaken up that I didn't think to look as we passed the trucks on the shoulder. John said it looked like they were clearing up and accident, but that didn't explain why the police car was parked in the middle of the Autobahn. He said the two Polizei officers gave us a funny look, as if they were thinking that perhaps they should move their car.

We made it the rest of the way to Trier without incident, and navigated ourselves smoothly to our hotel, the Römischer Kaiser, where we stayed last year. This time we knew the drill, so we pulled up on the sidewalk, checked in, brought our suitcases inside, and then John took the car down the street to the hotel's gated carpark. Our room was not quite as spacious and bright as our corner room last year and we had a tiny dormer window overlooking the rooftops instead of a nice street view, but it suited our needs since we didn't intend to spend a whole lot of time there. We quickly settled our things and then headed out into a light drizzle to find a good spot to observe the Rallye Start.

We chose a position along the straightaway, within sight of the Porta Nigra and one of the big video screens so we could see the drivers giving their interviews under the Red Bull arch. A group of Czech fans came by, dressed head-to-toe in Czech flags and shaggy red-and-yellow wigs and blasting toy trumpets. Unfortunately I was surrounded by people who kept sticking their cameras out in front of me (dangling neck straps and all), plus it was overcast (and still trying to rain), so my photos didn't turn out great, but it was fun to watch the cars rumbling past. John got us some french fries (slathered with mayonnaise and ketchup, of course) and a Coke to tide us over until we could have a late dinner. We watched all of the WRC cars go by and some of the Super-1600 class and then walked down the street towards the huge fortress-like cathedral to see the Evos and Subarus up close and personal. Just like last year, there were no crowd barriers here so the fans could get as close as they wanted, sometimes lying down in front of the cars to take pictures and rushing up to shake the drivers’ hands. After the action came to a close, we wandered back towards the hotel and stopped for a late dinner at a bistro-style place just around the corner from our hotel.

You can see pictures from the Rallye Start here on my Flickr site:

Monday, 13 August: It's Official - We're Staying!

It seems crazy, I know, but we had to wait until today - just two weeks before the end of August - to receive the official word from Chrysler that the new guys at Cerberus have approved John’s job extension until December. We were living under a dark cloud of anxiety for the past few weeks, afraid that we might still be ordered to return to Michigan at the end of this month – or as soon as humanly possible, since we had stubbornly avoided taking any steps to help organize our move. Suffice it to say that I was positively thrilled by the news. Four more months, including another autumn in Stuttgart – my favorite season of the year!

Wednesday, 8 August: The Long Road Home

The final day of our Alpine journey dawned cloudy and rainy, but we decided to continue with our original plan to traverse the final two passes on our itinerary – the 2,224-meter Sustenpass and the 1,948-meter Klausenpass – on our way back to Bregenz. The former was identified as Car Magazine’s favorite of all the great mountain passes of the Alps, so we had to give it a try. Unfortunately the weather did not improve and our seven-hour drive through the mountains was completely socked in. We can only imagine the magnificent vistas of snow-capped peaks and verdant valleys that were hidden from view today! John had a heck of a time just staying on the road and I had to satisfy my photographic cravings by taking pointless pictures out the window of a bottomless white abyss. It was a long day of driving through endless clouds, but we made it safely home to Stuttgart in good time.

What a magnificent journey…we are already fantasizing about running an auto touring operation in the Alps. We would provide the cars (we’ve decided Mini Coopers would be just about perfect), mechanical support, guides, driving routes, and hotel reservations, and our clients would get to explore the best scenic roads of the Alps! John’s colleague Gert has already volunteered to be one of our guides. Now if only we had about a million dollars in start-up funds…

A few more photos from our drive home can be seen here:

Tuesday, 7 August: Real Cow Bells & a Slight Lapse in Judgment

The Swiss weather forecasters were, sadly, all too accurate: it started raining overnight and it was drizzling when we got up this morning. The mountains were invisible and it looked like our plans to hike to the Früdenhütte were literally being washed away. As you may recall from our visit to the Berner Oberland last fall with my parents, the Früdenhütte is a traditional Swiss hiker’s hut perched on a ridge about 1000 feet above the shores of Oeschinensee, the gorgeous glacial lake nestled in a cupped valley high above Kandersteg. We were sorely disappointed, since we had added a day to this leg of our trip for the express purpose of attempting the hike to the Früdenhütte. We decided to look around Kandersteg in the morning and hope that the weather might clear up a bit. We stopped in at the cheese shop a block from our hotel, where they have a gigantic cow bell hanging in the window, and I decided to inquire about where I might find my very own authentic Swiss cow bell. I was tired of the silly tourist-variety bells with their faux-leather straps and cheap rainbow fringe; I wanted a real honest-to-goodness bell that was made to be worn by a real cow. Three people were working in the shop at the time (all of whom spoke some English, fortunately), and they gave me three different (and rather emphatic, might I add) opinions on where I could find myself a cow bell. The first suggestion was a shop in Reichenbach, a little ways down the valley, where they made bells; the second was an antique store near Frütingen, another town just down the road; and the third was a retired farmer in Kandersteg who happened to have a barn full of cow bells that he probably wasn’t using anymore. The directions for the latter were a bit vague and one look at John’s face told me that wandering down a country road into some old barn was not the sort of wild goose chase he was willing to go on this morning – authentic cow bell or not – so we opted to try the first two options.

We headed down to Reichenbach first and drove up and down the main street a couple of times; the only shop we found that looked like it might sell cow bells was a hardware store, but they were closed for their autumn holiday. A few bells were hanging on a rack in front of the door, cruelly taunting me. The antique store was relatively easy to find, but it too was closed. I walked up to the window and pressed my face to the glass: lo and behold, there was a beautiful antique cow bell just sitting there on the floor, a few feet inside the door! At that very moment a car pulled into the driveway. An older woman stuck her head out the window and called out that the shop was closed. Yes, I thought, I can see that. I asked if she spoke English; she said no. I asked her when the shop would be open. She didn't answer specifically but asked if I was looking for something in particular and I told her yes – Kuhglocken! She nodded and indicated that she could open up the shop. She parked her car, unlocked the door, then disappeared behind a curtain leading into a back room. A few seconds later a 5-month-old Berner puppy (whose name sounded an awful lot like “Barney”) came bounding through the doorway. In his excitement he piddled on the floor right in front of me, narrowly missing my shoe.

The shop was amazing – a cavernous space crammed with gorgeous wooden furniture, farm implements, and the usual knicknacks. Of course I was oblivious to everything except for the two long beams spanning the room that were lined with – glory hallelujah! – dozens of beautiful cow bells in every size imaginable, hanging from sturdy leather collars and fastened with heavy buckles. I was in cow bell heaven. The lovely bell I had spotted in the window was apparently a rare French model from Chamonix that cost a whopping 400 Swiss Francs, but I was hopeful that some of the others would be more affordable. After much looking and discussion we picked out three bells. The lady had to call the shop owner for the prices. She told us the big one was 180 Swiss Francs and the two small ones were 80 each, but she immediately came down to 50 on the newest of the three. The total thus came to 310 ChF and of course they didn’t take credit cards, or even EC cards. I had only withdrawn 200 ChF from the ATM in Kandersteg and so had a grand total of 274 ChF plus change in my wallet. I showed the lady my empty wallet and offered her an additional 10 Euro to help make up the difference, but she didn’t want it. She mentioned something about a bank down the road, but we made it clear that we had no intention of coming back. She finally accepted the Francs, muttering, “Es ist mein Kopf!” (It’s my head!) if her boss got mad at her. We completed the transaction with the lady placing our three cow bells into plastic bags (she didn’t give us a receipt of any sort). As we were leaving John said, “Jetz brauchen wir 3 Kühe.” (Now we need three cows.)

Very satisfied with our cow bell venture, we headed back up the valley to Kandersteg. It was about 1 pm now and still drizzling, but we decided to give the hike a shot anyway – what did we have to lose, other than getting a little wet? We stopped at the hotel to pile on what would have to pass for rain gear and walked up the road to the Sesselbahn (chairlift). We bought two round-trip tickets and were grateful for the thick wool blanket the attendant laid across our laps as we headed up into the clouds. From the top of the lift it was a 20-minute walk to the shores of Oeschinensee, which was now nearly invisible in the low-hanging fog. We snacked on organic cheeseburgers and Cokes at the lakeshore restaurant and then set off on the trail to the Früdenhütte at precisely 2:15 pm. The sign at the trailhead said it would take 2-½ hours to reach the hut. That would leave us only an hour and fifteen minutes to get back down to the chairlift, which closes at 6:00, but we decided to give it our best effort.

We headed up the narrow, rocky trail in a steady drizzle, crossing a number of dry streambeds and traversing a stunted conifer forest. The trail skirted the edge of the lake for a while, then began climbing steadily upwards. We scrambled over slippery rocks and roots, past blooming mounds of wild azaleas, then emerged into a barren rocky landscape peppered with clumps of straggly grasses. We crossed three wooden footbridges (see photo, right) over rushing streams that came cascading from hidden cliffs high above our heads and tumbled downwards to the lake, now far below us. We continued up, up, up an endless series of switchbacks. The vegetation all but disappeared and the landscape transitioned to rain-streaked shards of black shale. At one point the clouds thinned enough that we could see a huge cliff face looming above us, and we knew that somehow the trail would take us up there. We couldn’t see much in any direction and we lost all sense of scale or height. We could no longer see the ultramarine blue of the lake through the fog, and the hut perched on its rocky ridge was still hidden somewhere in the clouds far above. Several sections of the trail took us up nearly sheer cliff faces, with stone steps gouged into the rock and metal cables to guide our way (see photo, right). By this point we were quite wet, but the heavy exercise kept us warm.

Our original turnaround time of 4:00 came and went. We knew we must be getting close, and this time even John really wanted to get to the top. Finally we passed a large plastic water tank labeled Früdenhütte and we knew we must be close…very close. The trail wound up and around one last rocky outcropping and suddenly the squat stone face of the hut with its cheerful red-and-white striped shutters appeared out of the gloom (see photo, below). We turned around and glimpsed a brief vision of blue-green waters through the swirling mist far below (see photo, below). Directly across from us we could make out the vague forms of the high peaks on the other side of the lake. One can only imagine how magnificent the view must be on a clear day. All around the hut, rock-strewn slopes swept upwards into jagged peaks crowned with ice sheets. It was 4:30 and we had made the 1000-foot climb in exactly two hours and fifteen minutes – beating the trail sign estimate by fifteen minutes. A light glowed dimly through the hut’s lace curtains but there was no other sign of life as we walked slowly around the building. There wasn’t even an overhang where we could sit and rest for a few minutes. We had paused momentarily to look at the inscription over the threshold when the upper half of the split-door opened and a young man peered out. I said, “Hello there!” and he said hello back, giving us an odd look. I’m sure he was wondering what sort of crazy people had decided to make the hike up to the hut in this weather (we hadn’t encountered another soul on the trail). He had a dog with him – a scrawny, wary-eyed shepherd – but apparently he was the only person staying at the hut at the moment. We asked him to take our picture and he kindly obliged. We would have liked to linger and chat, but we had a timetable to keep. We said goodbye and turned back down the trail, leaving the boy to stare rather quizzically after us.

By this point we were soaked through and the drizzle had turned to a steady rain. We couldn’t see a thing below us, which was perhaps fortunate, since I imagine the view is rather virtiginous when the weather is clear. We kept up a hard pace on the way down, but the going was very difficult – cold, wet, slippery, and tough on the knees. I stopped to snap a few pictures (using our small camera because I didn’t want to risk water-logging the SLR, which I was nevertheless lugging around in my backpack) but John, ever safety-conscious, kept urging me on because he was worried about the streams. Once again we found ourselves on a steep mountain trail, late in the day in bad weather, with no emergency supplies, and no one knew where we were. About a thousand small streams had appeared since we had made our way up the mountain, and water was now cascading from cliffs where there had been none before. As we approached each of the three major stream crossings, we wondered if the footbridges would be underwater. Fortunately none of them was, but the water was much higher than it had been on the way up, boiling violently through the narrow channels only a few inches under our feet. We were fairly relieved when we crossed the third bridge, but we still had a ways to go. The once-dry streambeds near the end of the trail had turned into raging torrents, and by the time we arrived back at the shore of Oeschinensee, my boots had turned into sodden sponges. It was 5:45 and we knew we had virtually no chance of making it to the chairlift before 6:00, since the walk to the lake had taken us twenty minutes – downhill and before we were exhausted from a long hike.

Fate thus deemed it necessary for us to walk all the way back to Kandersteg – a descent of another 1000 feet – in the rain. I had made this trek once before, fifteen years ago, and I knew it was going to be hell on my knees. We passed a small herd of rain-bedraggled cows on the way down, their bells (which, I noted with immense satisfaction, looked just like the ones we had purchased this morning) clanging mournfully in the mist. It took us another hour to reach the valley floor, by which point my knees had turned to jelly and I could barely walk in a straight line. The route wasn’t well-marked and we ended up hiking cross-country down a ski slope part of the way. Finally we reached the raging river and followed it back into town.

By the time we stumbled through the welcoming door of the Hotel Adler it was 7:15. A hot shower never felt so good! We rewarded ourselves with a huge pot of fondue and a bottle of German Riesling in the Adler’s dining room. We even ordered extra bread, and wiped the pot clean. I can’t remember fondue ever tasting so good.

More photos of the day's hike can be seen here: