I was talking to my mom about a story I was writing awhile back, about a little bicycling adventure in Germany about 37 years ago, and she chuckled a bit, and then started to tell me a story that had happened 26 years before that.
And it made me smile.
You know how you talk to your parents and forget that they were young, once, too? That’s how it was with mom in this conversation. As she told the story, the mom I was seeing in front of me transformed into a much younger woman, full of youth, life, laughter, and stories.
She talked of adventures that I’d never heard, but then she got to telling the story of the trip over the Susten Pass.
On a bike.
And I saw the time machine show up, with the door wide open, beckoning us inside.
We stepped in and I started to listen to a fun story that I’d heard before, but the more I listened the more I realized I’d not only heard the story before, but there was a connection to that story I was writing. We’ll get to that one in Part 2. But for now, I leaned forward and listened, and I recorded it. And then realized she’d written it down years ago. She sent me a copy – we found some pictures, and I’ve done a little bit of editing below, but the story’s hers, so sit back, and imagine hearing the story below in mom’s German accent about the trip she, her brother Walter, and his friend Wolfgang took, from Germany, to Switzerland, and back.
That said, here’s mom:
“While Walter was still in Seminary in Frankfurt, he, Wolfgang and I had planned to tour Switzerland by bicycle during their summer vacation. In those years the roads were not nearly as crowded with cars as is now the case.
It was beautiful!
I had traveled to Switzerland by bus, by car and by train but I never enjoyed the scenery more than when I toured it on a bicycle. Instead of driving past mountains in minutes, it might take a whole day of riding to finally get close to the mountains we were able to admire for so long. We had plenty of time to let the beauty really sink in.
That year, Walter had a summer job in Winterthur (Switzerland) with a surveyor. His friend Wolfgang and I traveled through the Black Forest to the Swiss border and further inland to meet and team up with him for our tour. The nights we spent in youth hostels which were all over the country.
Near Steffisburg we stopped and asked a farmer if we could pitch our tents on his property. Herr Wittwer (the farmer) agreed, but then took a look south toward the Niesen, the nearest mountain, and shook his head.
“I better get some straw down for you in the barn. See those dark clouds pushing through between the mountains? That’s a nasty thunder storm and it will be here in a few hours. That way, no matter what the weather does, at least you’ll have a roof over your heads and stay dry.”
I gladly accepted his offer but Walter and Wolfgang pitched their tent outside. I took my sleeping bag into the barn, bolted the big barn door shut and nestled down in the big pile of straw. I was less afraid of the mice in the barn than the lightning and thunder outside and a soaking wet sleeping bag. You see, our camping equipment in those days was very primitive. Our tent did not have a floor. So while the tent might have protected us from water coming from above, there was nothing to keep water from seeping in under the edges.
And, just like Herr Wittwer had said, the storm didn’t wait long to reach us. As it got closer, not only was the thunder much louder but the echoes bouncing back from the nearby mountains were like a continuous amplified drumroll.
I was so tired from the many hours of pedaling the bike in the hilly country I fell asleep in spite of the noise. In my dreams I wondered why the whole barn was being torn down and why human voices were mingled in between the booms of the thunder, and why did I keep hearing my name in between all of this?
During the eerie stillness of a moment between thunder claps the human voices finally reached my consciousness and I recognized my brother’s voice: “Irmgard, open the door, please open the door.” The rain was coming down in torrents and Walter and Wolfgang had soon seen the wisdom in my decision about sleeping in the barn. There was plenty of straw on the barn floor for all three of us and like contented cows Walter and Wolfgang bedded down on the dry straw for a much needed night’s sleep.
THE TRIP OVER SUSTEN PASS.
The next morning, Walter and Wolfgang had to wring out their tent and clothes from the storm. Not only was our camping gear primitive but our bikes were at the beginning of multiple-gear-development. Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes each had three gears. That was the most that was available at the time and really, who would want or need more than three gears anyhow? Right?
I would soon see the benefit of those three gears, as my bike had only one.
Walter’s and Wolfgang’s bikes also had special (caliper) brakes, the ones which grab the sides of the rims of both wheels.
Mine did not.
My bike had a different system. Under the handle bar on the right side was another, thinner bar reaching to the center of the handlebars. There it was connected to a bar going straight down to the rubber front tire. There was a u-shaped metal frame attached (about 1 x 1 1/2″) and a hard rubber pad was slipped into that frame. By pulling the brake handle up, the rubber pad was pushed down against the tire, which slowed down the bike somewhat. The other braking possibility was the coaster brake in the hub of the back wheel. By pushing the pedals backwards, the back wheel would apply the brake.
This system was sufficient for normal country.
But his was not normal country.
This was Switzerland.
Our rather ambitious plan for that one day was to get over the Susten Pass.
We had to get an early start so we would get as many kilometers behind us during the coolness of the day, and to do that, had to leave before the tent and everything could dry. At the base of the mountains we made relatively good progress, but when the road started climbing, things changed. Often Walter and Wolfgang could have gone a while longer with their extra gears, but no matter how hard I tried to pedal, my bike came almost to a standstill when the incline got too steep.
So we had to walk.
Hour after hour we followed the serpentines up and up. Looking over the edge we saw the road wind up like a snake in tight curves.
After seven hours of walking, pushing our bicycles step by tired step, we finally saw the sign:
“Susten Pass 2224 meter”.
We’d finally made it, the three of us were hot and thirsty, and Walter’s cold, wet tent was slowly drying.
We took a short but well deserved break at the top and strengthened ourselves with “Landjäger“, bread, some good Swiss chocolate and water. And we even allowed ourselves a few minutes to lean back and appreciate, admire and enjoy God’s handiwork in that beautiful setting. But since the ascent had taken so much longer than anticipated, we couldn’t allow ourselves too much time to enjoy the scenery at the top, so after a few minutes of cooling off to the point of being a little chilled, we saddled our bikes and looked forward to a fast, fun run down the switchbacks to the lowlands again.
But the other side of the pass was in full sunshine, and the further down we got, the warmer it got, so we let the bikes fly down the mountain road and loved the feeling of the wind in our faces, cooling us off after the long climb up the other side.
A long-held sigh of relief escaped from each one of us.
Going down should be a breeze, right? We couldn’t help but wonder how much shorter the down-hill time would be. We’d make up all the time we lost, it would be great. Walter rode in front, Wolfgang in the back, with me in between, and even though it was easy (and fun) to let the bicycles go fast and hang on, it wasn’t safe to go too fast or we’d lose control on the many hairpin turns. It was good that Walter and Wolfgang had those new brakes, because it was all downhill, and we had to brake constantly so we wouldn’t overshoot the hairpin curves.
But remember, I didn’t have those brakes.
I had two other brakes.
I had that pad of rubber that was pushed down on the front tire by a lever I squeezed with my right hand, and I had the coaster brake for the back wheel that worked when I pedaled backwards far enough to make it work.
And remember, while this system was sufficient for normal country. also remember that this was NOT normal country.
This was Switzerland.
And we went down the mountain.
And we went fast.
Our leg muscles, finally rested a bit from the 7 hours of walking and pushing our bicycles up the one side of the pass, welcomed this change of pace on the other side very much, and for a few moments, the scenery enveloped us at a level you just could not get in a car or a bus. It was exhilarating.
I’d just gotten to feeling comfortable on the bicycle, riding fast enough to be fun, but braking enough to be safe. I think it was maybe 5 kilometers, when I heard Wolfgang behind me yell “I am smelling burned rubber’. We all stopped at the first spot we could get off the road to check for the cause of that smell. Sure enough, With all my braking, that rubber pad that was my front brake had gotten so hot from the friction that it started smoking, wore out and disappeared, never to be seen again. After we stopped and inspected it, we decided that it was safe to go on, but slower, and more carefully, because since there was no bicycle repair place at that elevation, we had absolutely no choice to slow me down but to use the other brake in the hub of the rear wheel.
I tried my best not to use it excessively and just let it roll on the straight stretches but pushed the backpedal-brake system to it’s limit to make it safely around the first hairpin curve and the second, and the third and so on.
We may have gotten about 10 (don’t know how many of course) kilometers behind us , when I heard Wolfgang’s voice again loud and clear: “Your hub is smoking”.
He was such a nice friend and biking buddy but I sure didn’t want to hear his voice again, especially not with more bad news about my bicycle.
And even more especially, about smoke.
But, what choice did I, did we all have?
We all stopped.
The brake was so hot that it didn’t work very well anymore, and that wasn’t safe.
So we had to walk.
What choice did we really have?
And we walked, and walked, down the other side of Susten Pass, holding our loaded bicycles back, and we let it cool down.
It gave us more time to enjoy the Alps that so many people want to see.
How can you get tired of so much beauty?
We weren’t tired of the beauty, but we were getting tired of walking. We checked the brake on my bicycle, and it had finally cooled off, so we started to coast downhill again.
We’d spread out a little bit by then, and the breeze cooled me off, and I realized that the brake, not being used right then, could cool off too the next time it got hot. So that gave me an idea, and I let the bicycle go down the hill as fast as it would go… The wind was rushing in my ears, and I could barely hear Walter yelling at me that I’d get myself killed if I rode that fast. I braked hard at the next curve, heating up the brake until I could feel it weaken, leaned deep into the turn, made it around, and let the bicycle fly again. The brake cooled off while my brother’s frustrated shouts faded behind me.
But remember, this was Switzerland.
And soon the brake overheated again, so we had to alternate walking and riding for the rest of the afternoon until we finally made it down into the lowlands at dusk, where we found a place to stay for the night.
Over the next few days we got out of the Alps and stopped near the town where Walter had worked, and I wanted to write a postcard to our mom so that she would know we were okay. After all, it had been many days since we’d been home. Walter said we’d get home before the post card did, so I didn’t get one.
We kept heading north on flatter ground, eventually making it to Germany, and much later, finally made it to our hometown, where things looked like – well, home. Wolfgang headed back to Frankfurt, and we made our way home, walking our bicycles into the driveway beside the house. Our mom heard us go by through the kitchen window, and on hearing us, came out onto the veranda to make sure we were okay. Once that was established, the first thing she said to us as my brother and I climbed up the back steps was, “You’re back! What were you thinking? We were worried you’d fallen down a mountain, What kept you from even sending a postcard?”
We stepped out of the time machine, mom and I, and laughed at some of the adventures she’d had, and then I told her a similar story, also of a brother and sister, coming back from a bicycle trip, climbing up those same steps, and explaining to the same mom (her mom, my Oma) why we were late.
But that’s for part 2, coming in a few months.
Take care out there, folks.