Today’s Miles: 19.3
Total Miles: 3,308.8
Near Bözen, Switzerland – December 16, 2016
I glimpse the Rhein slipping behind a hill in the distance. It’s a big river, slow and wide, glassy, moving without haste. It’s not the giant it will be, the one that has collected it’s tributaries draining off the Alps and carved the wide valley south of Frankfurt. I never saw the river there as I walked the ridges, but I saw the smoke stacks of industry and the lights of cities built along its banks.
Cars with Swiss license plates fill the grocery store parking lot. Inside, people push carts piled high with bottles and food. Each basket quietly testifies to the the Rhein’s place as a border between nations, between tax systems and trade, between one rule of law and the next to create those strange wrinkles in economies that send Swiss cars to German grocery stores.
I cross on a small bridge in Laufenburg. It’s quiet. It seems nothing more than an old road left to foot traffic after cars moved on to a new highway bridge. There are no guards, no walls, just shop keepers setting up their stalls for the winter market. Only a metal gate, nothing more than a steel bar painted red and white, marks the border.
It has been left upright and open, almost forgotten, and I wonder how long it’s been since the gate was lowered and if the hinges aren’t tight with rust. I check my map again to make sure this is the border, that I didn’t imagine it.
I cross under the gate and stand for a moment to snap a picture. I glance at the faces of the people nearby, feeling a bit out of place, a bit lost,half expecting someone to come and ask me if I have a passport. It feels a bit like that first day in Germany, in early October, near Flensburg, before I figured out the white Xs to follow, the way trails felt, what stores to go to, how to find bakeries, and which chocolates tasted best. I think of how odd those first days in Germany felt, before I knew grocery stores closed on Sundays and how to return plastic bottles in the recycling machines, before I knew Moin Moin and how pretzels in Swabia always have a cut in them, before the new became familiar.
I climb up the small castle overlooking the Rhein and stare back one last time at Germany. I remember someone telling me that it would be hard for me in Germany, that I might think of shaving my beard, of not camping, of heading east or west to avoid most of it. Go to Poland. Go to the Netherlands. There are too many rules, they said. Too much difficulty.
Instead I went straight down, from Flensburg to the southern border at the Rhein, following my X’s, eating chocolate and stopping in far more bakeries than is fair. Strangers invited me into their houses and left me with their keys. We cooked meals together and drank glühwein at the winter market. I met a mayor who gave me wine and a thru-hiker from the CDT. I saw old friends from three thousand miles ago and found new ones in houses, vans, and grocery store aisles. I froze, I thawed, and I walked through it all.
Now I am sad to say goodbye.
I find the trail out of Laufenburg and disappear into the low hills. The temperature drops and ice clings to the trees. I watch my breath cloud as I stare up at the barren, frozen branches. I think of the Alps ahead, rising somewhere in that grey sky.
Welcome to Switzerland.