Week Nine - Should we start to build the arc? - Start happening too! It's time to go round and round...

“Oh Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes-Benz, My friends all drive Porsches I must make amends.” – Janis Joplin

Day Fifty-Seven – August 14th

It poured rain last night, not just raining, but pouring, loud and relentless.  I still take comfort in the warmth of the HOW and lying there listening just a foot or two from the rain drops hitting the roof, but it is starting to wear a bit thin.  It has to stop raining sometime.

We pack up and head out.  Check out is almost comical.  Last night the owner of the place, a Greek, was throwing his “once a year” party to celebrate something or another.  Before we turned in for the night the place was jammed with people huddled under big umbrellas trying to make the best of the rain.  This morning the umbrellas are all blown over, the bar looks half-submerged, used glasses and ashtrays are strewn about and in the middle of it all stands our Greek host looking a little worse for wear but smiling none the less.

“Sorry about your party,” I volunteer trying to console him.
“Sorry?  No sorry, we just try again this evening!” He says with a big smile as if he has said that every morning for the past half decade.  And to think we fell for the sorry if it is loud tonight, it is a once a year party. “Say hello to California!” he shouts, standing amongst the ruins, smoking and waving madly.  “Afganisto!” we yell back. Got to love the Greeks!

We promised the kids a night in a castle so we are heading to Hirschhorn in the Neckar Valley, a pleasant alternative to the Romantic road says Frommer’s.  We need to toss the Frommer’s Germany book. 

The drive is an all day affair.  Most of it is on the Autobahn so we make good time but the last hour or so tests the reserves as we twist and turn on small narrow lanes over mountains and through valleys.  It is beautiful but trying to drive.  

To be honest we did not thoroughly research the Schlosshotel-Hirschhorn.  The book said something about ruins and a hilltop setting and views of the valley below.  By the time we find the main drive expectations in the back seat are running way over the top and I have a growing concern that it might not be all its cracked up to be.  However, by the time we cross the main gate and head up to the entranceway all concerns fly out the window.

The place is a mid-sized, partial ruin, clinging to the top of a hill.  It looks spooky and old and is just what the doctor ordered. We check in and wander around for an hour or two climbing the watchtower (about 100 steps), hiking around the outside grounds for beautiful views of the river and valley below, searching for knights, hobbits and trolls, and relaxing on the feather beds in our room.  Everyone is happy.

Dinner here is another matter.  The service is by far the worst we have experienced to date.  It is so bad I actually pull the waiter aside and ask if we have offended him in some way.  He just shrugs and says a curt, “sorry.” Oddly, the locals are treated with the utmost respect and with the greatest of care.  We had to set our own table, wait for an hour for our food and felt compelled to leave before we finished our meals since we were clearly not welcome.  It’s a shame that the service strikes this place off the recommendation list.  Don’t go to the Schlosshotel-Hirschhorn. And stop listening to Frommer’s.

Luckily the kids never notice and enjoy themselves beyond their expectations.  Vincent The Brave got to see a real suit of armor and search down overgrown footpaths for knights and Adele The Scared got to sleep (or maybe more aptly put, lie awake for hours on end) in a real castle listening for the sounds of ghosts...  

Day Fifty-Eight – August 15th

We wake up early, probably because we miss the sound of rain on the roof, but not to worry, the open curtains reveal another rainy morning.   

When we do get the chance to stay at hotels we prove to be very good at buffet breakfasts.  They should send word ahead that the TATW people are living it up and living large so they are prepared for the onslaught.  Eggs, bacon, real black forest ham, prosciutto, sausages, yogurts, cereals, breads, rolls, muffins, fruit, honey, coffee, tea, it is endless and all of it locally produced and fresh as can be. We indulge.

As we roll ourselves out to the HOW I stop by the front desk to check out and voice our concerns about the service.  The women at the front desk, the one we thought was in charge, just shrugs and says, “sorry.”  They clearly don’t care.  It is frustrating.

Our push towards the border is harder than ever now.  Luckily we have the good sense to stop by the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart.  Hailing from Malibu where the typical stop light has a Lamborghini and Ferrari on one side facing a Porsche and Prius on the other, a Mercedes doesn’t really even register as a car worthy of a second look much less a museum.  But here, in Stuttgart, the Detroit of Germany, they warrant their own house of worship.  

The roads are full of Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches driving very fast and looking like blurry streaks of pure speed and power.  You can’t describe the feeling you get when you see one.  Cars are like animals here: big, fast ones with killer instinct, displaying utter efficiency.  They almost seem insulted by lesser cars.  Its dog eat dog on the autobahn.

The Mercedes-Benz museum should not be missed if you’re in this neck of the woods.  It is designed with the same precision as their cars inviting you into a world where every detail is considered, debated, fine-tuned and perfected over time.  The company is over 120 years old and the museum curators give visitors a time line of world events that coincide with milestones in automotive history and the evolution of the Mercedes brand.  It is fascinating.  Throw in dozens of classic cars, every day cars, trucks, even campers and racecars and you have real party. Gentle cars start your engines!

The kids loved it.  Teri wants to get one when we get back home and I now dread the Porsche museum.  If the house of Mercedes can drum up such untapped desire for beauty and speed then I don’t think we can afford to go to see the Porsches.

Back in the slow lane on the Autobahn driving in the pouring rain, we leave Germany and finally enter Switzerland.  I somehow expected the skies to clear and a hallelujah chorus to start ringing in our arrival.  Instead we get hassled by the customs agent, probably due to our German license plates, US passports, whining children and five day old beards (mine of course).  In the end, they let us come in.

We bypass Zurich and head straight for Lucerne, arriving cold and wet in late afternoon traffic and pouring rain.  The campsite is jammed.  Luckily we clear the list for a site on gravel (best place to be in the rain) that appears to be part of the parking area but may not be since it has a number and others are jammed in all around us.  Teri points out that we expect more from the Swiss.

Adele and I walk to the lake and check out the skyline.  This is a great city.  It is made up of dark greens, really dark blues, and deep browns contrasted with the white of swans swimming everywhere.   I can’t wait to explore tomorrow.  For now, it is home to have pasta do the dishes and head off early to bed after a long day in the saddle.

Typical post dinner, pre-bedtime, HOW conversation:
Vince:  Wailing, semi out of control, screaming at full volume
Dad: “Vincent, keep quiet, you must keep your voice down, people are trying to sleep, please stop, we are in a parking lot!”  
This is what life has become: this is our life on holiday!

Day Fifty-Nine – August 16th

Rain.  More and more rain.  We try and motivate but it is difficult as the weather is starting to effect us all.  Everything is wet and soggy.  Our shoes are cold and damp, our clothes are cold and damp, even the How is cold and damp.  It’s the combination of the two that get you.  Cold alone we can handle and damp but warm is tolerable but here in Lucerne, with the addition of altitude, the cold and damp combine to numb the senses.

We forge on. Lucerne is incredible.  We can walk to downtown from our campsite on a tree-lined path along the lakefront passing majestic (seriously, they are majestic) old hotels and beautiful gardens.  Despite the rain the air is clear and crisp allowing you to breath deeply.  It is both refreshing and relaxing as we meander along the way.

The main center is at the head of the harbor where the river, a number of large streets, the rail and bus stations and the old town all intersect.  It is full of hustle and bustle with people, cars, boats, trains and buses all converging.  And yet, it is completely manageable, orderly and civilized.  

Our first stop is Starbucks for a $6.10 latte.  I firmly believe you can tell a lot about a place by the price of a Grande drip and my hand instinctively covers the man purse, I mean money bag, around my neck.  This is one expensive country.  I will say though that a $25 for two coffees, one muffin and a plain donut was worth the price of admission to sit in a warm dry chair.  

Determined to see the “sights” we walk around the main area in the pouring rain.  The buildings have a certain stature, with big broad shoulders and thick, block sized bodies.  The details are perfectly executed, the grounds manicured with style and care.  It all invites you in and makes you want to be a part of it.

We cross an old wooden bridge spanning the river.  It’s very crowded since it is a covered bridge and one of the few dry places in the downpour.  I accidentally roll over an Italian women’s foot with the stroller.  Probably not the best move with Vito the boyfriend bearing the brunt of the drama.  I cannot tell if she is yelling about her foot or, heaven forbid, her shoe.  Fearing the worst I turn to the boyfriend to try and make amends.  He gives me the once over, glances at his girlfriend to see if she is looking at us, she is not, so he breaks into a quick smile, laughs, winks, points to her feet, rolls his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, and then as soon as she turns to see how he is handling me and the “situation”, he goes right back to the tough guy look, whacks his head with the palm of his hand and yells something with great passion.  I love Italians.

For two seconds I take my eyes off the money (or in this case the cost of desire) and sure enough we find ourselves in the House of Fondue.  This is a tourist Mecca in the old part of town, not really our style, but when in Lucerne…

Fondue is great fun.  If your bread falls off you have to kiss the person on your right.  The kids love it.  We dip bread, meat, chicken, potatoes (with and “e”), cauliflower, drink wine, coke lights and l’eau with gas.  Always good for a chuckle.  For an hour and a half of dry, warm family fun the tab comes in at $200.  That’s right, for a pot of cheese.  What is up with the Swiss?  Now I understand the need for all these Swiss bank accounts.  There must be endless pots of money. 

To work off the brick of cheese in our bellies we hike up out of old town and along the old fortress wall for views of the city, lake and beyond.  It must be hard to get anything done here: the temptation to stand and just stare at the beauty of it all is so strong.  It is the kind of city that you could set up a folding chair pretty much anywhere and be content to sit for days watching the world go by.

The locals reflect all of this.  They are dressed elegantly, understated yet noticeable and perfectly bundled for the weather.  From under umbrellas, behind collars and rain scarves their eyes gleam and twinkle.  They appear comfortable, content with their place in the world.  It makes you want to be Swiss when you get old.  

The final stop of the day is a doozy.  We go to a small museum, tucked away on a side street, called the Museum Sammlung Rosengart, to see a collection of Picasso’s.  Now I admit I have never really understood this fascination with Picasso, lots of naked women with parts in the wrong places as far as I can see, but this collection speaks to even the naïve and inexperienced.  The sheer number of works combined with a perfect setting on big walls with great lighting blows you away. The whole family stood in awe just shuffling around room by room.  

Then when the senses are so overwhelmed and the mind is spinning they bring you downstairs for a Paul Klee exhibit that rivals the one we saw in Paris.  Throw in a few by Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne and Chagall and you have an amazing collection that is a privilege to be able to experience.  Seriously, this place is reason enough to come to Lucerne.  

We are finding that train stations hold all kinds of treats.  This one has a great grocery store.  It seems to be the main commuting station so it makes sense that people can shop before head back home for the evening.  We stock up on supplies then wind our way back home stopping at a playground to burn off whatever energy the kids may have left.   Then it’s a quick dinner, movies on the iPads and some much needed sleep.  

All of this and the rain keeps falling…

Day Sixty – August 17th

This is a day of logistics for me and a visit to a truly incredible museum for Teri and the kids.  I need to deal with some issues back in the real world so I take advantage of the Wi-Fi access and spend a few hours on the computer.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew walk over to the Transit Museum, an indoor and outdoor experience that is hard to beat.  It is a fully interactive museum complete with real airplanes, tractors, trains, and boats, really anything that moves.  When we meet up for lunch the kids are totally excited and having an incredible time.  They got to see and Imax movie as well so their day is pretty much complete.

I on the other hand manage to scrap the side of the camper trying to park.  It is one of those moments that you replay over and over because you know that the space was too small and the HOW too big.  Parking is a nightmare in cities and other campers got through the narrow poles and parked on the other side so it was a calculated risk.  But it was a risk none the less.  At this point I am now writing off the security deposit.  It’s hard to get a break with these HOW rentals.  

We say goodbye to Lucerne, so happy we visited, vowing to return someday.  Maybe next time we will come in our summer linens and stay at one of the grand hotels on the lake and hob knob with the rich and famous.  

The rest of the day passes by on a beautiful drive to Interlaken and then on to Grindelwald.  This is the epicenter of alpine climbing and the highest point in Europe.  We are very excited.

The campsite is tucked down in a small valley sitting on the side of a roaring river in a deep green mountain pasture.  It is cold and raining and we feel very small and insignificant in our little HOW.  The mountains rise all around us in vast vertical walls of rock.  In the darkness we can see lights way up high on the mountain from climbers working towards the summit.  The warming huts glow like little lighthouses guiding those still moving through the darkness sort of like moths before a flame.  Watching the lights I wish that I am with them. Then again, it is the North face of the Eiger so it is probably best that I am sitting under the canopy outside the HOW, bundled up in my puffy coat and watching from afar.
Day Sixty-One August 18th

They call them the big three: Jungfaujoch, Eiger and Monch.  We are in a UNESCO World Heritage Area, one of only four worldwide declared to protect the natural beauty of the landscape.  It is so stunning that I simply cannot describe it.  The only way to understand it is to come here and stay for a while.

Color explodes all around you.  Mountains box you in.  Rivers are violent.  Nature is raw.  Time doesn’t matter since the process is never ending.  For you to be here means nothing to nature and everything to you.  You watch things happen knowing that you have no way to impact them whatsoever.  Nature is unbridled here.  It keeps on coming.  Best to stay out of the way and tread lightly or you may get hurt.

We wake up in the rain and walk up to town to catch the First Gondola for a day of high altitude hiking and playing.  The gondola climbs up and out of the valley over several ridges and ends up just over 10,000 feet or so.  To our surprise the Alps are not all that high, maxing out around 11.4ish, close to the top of Mammoth back home.  However, the vertical drop is probably twice ours making the peak to troth so impressive.

At the top we have lunch in one of the restaurants that serve skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer.  For those used to a cliff bar at the mid-station these places are whole other worlds.  The cooks are serious chefs whipping up high quality meals.  I have a “four napkin” burger that may be the best mountain top meal I have ever had.  Add in the incredible scenery, cows with big clanking bells, a cold mist and glaciers and you start to get the picture.  

There is a playground at the mid-station that keep the kids busy while we have coffee lounging on the deck.  Even with the rain the experience is wonderful.  So great in fact we get the wild idea to hike down to town.  Must be the mountain air. After all, down hill is easy right?

As soon as we get about a quarter of the way down, just too far to go back up, the heavens open and it starts to pour.  Excellent.  Then, just for good measure, Vince decides he is tired and wants to sit down every 25 yards of so.  Such fun.  Adele, not all that comfortable with ants these days, notices a mound of them in the forest and is convinced they are everywhere.  Oh, the joy.  

We stand in the middle of nowhere, in the pouring rain, with wet shoes on a muddy trail, and realize that we are not in Kansas anymore.  This is beyond any kind of comfort zone.  We are off the grid.  

And this is why we are here: to do these kinds of things, as a family.  To help each other walk twenty-five yards, then another, and another.  To navigate the giant anthill that lurks around each bend.  To build bonds and share experiences.  It takes a while but eventually we all make it back down the mountain so much better from the experience.

We walked around town for a while and end up in another playground until just passed 8p.  Then as the light fades we head home to our little HOW.

Day Sixty-Two – August 19th – Two months on the road!

It poured all night long.  

When I stick my head out of the HOW this morning something is different.  It is bright and warm and SUNNY!  Sort of sunny, but its enough for us! Today is our Jungfraujoch day!

We are up and at it early to take full advantage of the weather.  There is a little one-lane road that starts right next to our campsite and stops at the mail train station.  It is a beautiful walk across a FLAT valley floor and a great way to kick off our adventure.

The “cog rail way”, a fancy name they give the train so you feel justified when they  charge you $354 for two adults (kids are free) to ride up to the top.  Technically, the cost is only half that but that’s for a one-way ticket. They actually sell one-way tickets in case you feel up for a hike down.  When you stand at the station looking a zillion feet up at a windblown, jagged peak you realize just how ridiculous that is.  No wonder the Swiss are all loaded, $354 for the train…

I cannot do the train ride justice.  It is too much of everything.  Even the photos fail to capture the beauty.  We sit in silence (most of us, Vince is still talking a mile a minute) and surrender to the splendor!  We pass glaciers, mountains, valleys, stone houses, huts with slate roofs, insanely narrow trails, ski lifts to nowhere, climbers, hikers, small towns down valley, it is one of the most memorable rides of the trip.  

When we finally arrive at the top, the entrance is via a tunnel carved into the mountain.  We get out in a long tunnel deep underground and need to walk a bit to resurface.  When we do it is at the plateau for our first look outside.  The snow, sun and sky are blinding.  Everything is white.  

We stand on the deck dreaming about summiting and looking for a climber rumored to be dangling from a rope somewhere on the North face of Eiger.  Adele swears she’s found him.  After lunch we head to the other section of the station via the ice caves and go up to the very top of the Sphinx Observation deck for another perfect view of the alps.

When you are standing outside in the blinding sunlight and a biting cold wind you realize just how hard true mountaineering really is. From here you can see crevasses and ice caves cut deep across the glaciers.  The snowfields toward the summits are so vast that climbers look like mere specks.  The expanse of space is just so immense you feel lost.  Finding and holding a route must be near impossible.

By the time we are ready to descend we are all tired and feeling overwhelmed by the experience.  It is a quiet ride back down as our thoughts try and filter through what is all around us.  

As we retrace our steps back home we play the rhyming song game to keep everyone motivated and moving: much fun in alpine meadows.  After dinner we Skype back home, take showers, deal with some logistics and call it a wonderful day.

Day Sixty-Three – August 20th

This day starts as off as the others until we take the cable car up Pfingstegg and discover a luge track.  How crazy is this.  They have a luge track spilling over the side of the mountain that runs down far enough to make you think twice before take off.   At the top sits an old lady selling tickets.  She just smiles, takes your Swiss Francs and wishes you luck in German.  There are no helmets, no instructions or rules, no safety bars or side rails, just a metal track, sleds and speed.  

Adele can go solo since she is eight.  This is a great thing in her mind and sets off near panic in ours.  It’s like the scene in Nemo when the dad turtle lets his kid go outside of the EAC.  Radical dude.   

Vincent rides with me.  He describes the ride as, “super, doper, ally, ooper, all four of them at once!” and follows that with, “again, again, again, again!”  It does not get any better.

Until we break for lunch and end up at a table hanging on to a wooden deck perched out over the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley below.  And the sun comes out! 

Phew!  Since we have peaked it is time to leave.  

Our next objective is Gruyere to see how they make cheese.  It looks like a short hop over the hill on the map.  The GPS thinks otherwise.  I should have known better when the road goes from narrow to nearly impassable on a 10% grade.  The HOW has trouble holding gears and we are forced to crawl along in second praying we don’t start to slip backwards.  

At 3km in we entertain turning around.  The issue is that the road is so narrow and the hairpins so steep we can’t.  At 5k we have a sliver of space and try a three (OK, maybe seven) point turn.  When it is done and we start rolling back down my legs are shaking.  Then we meet the car.  Does uphill or downhill have the right of way?  I pull rank with the seven-meter HOW and correctly assume downhill.  Here on the hillside size does matter. And with that in mind we roll on looking for trucks around every turn.

The town of Gruyere is a walled city and castle sitting on top of a hill surrounded by farmland filled with cows.  These are big cows with loud bells and plenty of milk.  It has a pretty main square with restaurants and shops all selling fondue in some form or another.  We cannot resist.  

After dinner we settle into a game of bad mitten at our campsite in town and go to sleep with a gently warm breeze for the first time in ages.  

Until it starts raining again…

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