Rhine River Walk – Dispatch 3

I’m convalescing in Schwanau, Germany, being hosted by two fabulous souls. Trail angels, they are. And they’re reminders that good people will show up to help you when you need them.

My leg is propped up on an ottoman. I stare at my problematic foot and, sulking, I unwrap a piece of caramel chocolate and let it melt in my mouth. I saw myself in the mirror again this morning. I’ve lost weight, so my indulgence in the finer products of the German chocolatier are without guilt.

Rheinfall, the largest waterfall by volume in continental Europe. At the top of the falls.

My last days of walking along the Rhine through Switzerland before crossing the border into Germany were fabulous. It wasn’t so much that the weather was nice, but it was exceptional walking because it felt like I was traveling through time.

Pleasant weather on the Rhine.

Laufenburg, such a pretty German town with its colourful homes along the river, shares the same name with the Swiss town directly across the water, a town that is just as pretty. This was a single town once, but when Napoleon redrew the boundaries in 1801, this town was split in half. Two local governments, two mayors, two nationalities. Despite sharing a language, they say ‘good morning’ differently now.

Enjoying some local cuisine – Kaesespaetzle and a pils.

In the spa resort town of Bad Saeckingen, I walked across the longest covered bridge spanning the Rhine. No vehicles allowed; only pedestrians and bicycles. The bridge is massive, with nails the size of train spikes holding beams together. Well-worn floor boards look thick enough to support the weight of the battle tanks in an armoured regiment. Intricate carvings of saints await prayers in alcoves along the bridge.

The longest covered bridge over the Rhine, at Bad Saeckingen.

The 1853 epic poem, ‘The Trumpeter of Saeckingen’, by Joseph von Scheffel, is celebrated here. It’s a poem that made Bad Saeckingen known around the world. A cat, who observes everything in the town, narrates the poem about a lowly trumpeter who falls in love with the daughter of a baron, and although she loves him too, their marriage is forbidden because of their social differences. Images of the trumpeter can be found everywhere in town, from statues to frescoes and even in the logos for local companies.

Inside the covered bridge.

Basel, Switzerland, was a major milestone on this trip, not just because it was the last city I walked through before leaving Switzerland behind, but because it’s the point at where the Rhine finally becomes navigable. Basel is Switzerland’s only port, and as I walked along the well-manicured paths along the river, I saw some of the massive cruise ships that people travel on to experience the upper Rhine. I did quite a bit of extra walking in Basel so that I could visit the main cathedral, called the Basel Muenster, built in the 11th century. It was from here that the Prince-Bishopric exerted its power over the land for centuries until the 1500s, when the power switched to the local trade guilds, who built the town hall, known in German as the ‘Rathaus’. The bishop went into exile.

Basel Muenster, from the path along the Rhine.

In Basel, I also went off trail to visit the Dreilaendereck, literally the ‘Three Country Corner’, a monument at the end of a pier pushing out into the Rhine, where the countries of Switzerland, Germany, and France meet. To walk around the monument is to step foot into three European countries in only a few seconds. Basel is called the Drei Landes Stadt, or three-country city, because it spills over the Rhine into Germany and France. As I was approaching the German border, ready to leave Switzerland for the remainder of this adventure, I saw a gas station that was open. The challenge of traveling between countries that have dissimilar currency is in trying to coordinate your timing and spending in order to have as little money as possible remaining in the currency of the country you’re leaving. At the gas station, I counted the remainder of my Swiss francs (CHF) I had 3.30 CHF, so I went inside and bought a chocolate bar for 3.00 CHF. Then I crossed into Germany, where the Euro is used.

From inside the Basel Muenster

I’ve injured myself badly enough that I’ve had to pull myself off this walk. I’ve been resting the last couple of days to assess whether I can continue. I’ve completed over 400 kilometers so far in the first nine days, but there are still about 900 kilometers to go.

The Dreilaendereck, where Switzerland, Germany, and France meet.

I’ve been noticeably limping since day three, a result of an old soccer injury that has been acerbated by long days walking across Canada, and more recently, from carrying a full pack on the Camino and Rhine walks. Near Breisgau, Germany, when I was finally enjoying a few pain-free strides along a beautiful forest path, something popped near my ankle. The pain was instant and intense.

Beautiful walking path along the Rhine.

I slept in my tent that night, and then seeing that my ankle was still the size of an orange the next morning, I walked at a snail’s pace back to Neuenburg and took the train toward Schwanau.

Considering my current state after two days rest, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to walk with a full pack and sustain a pace of 35 kms/day for the next 26 days. If I were to try it, I could cause a more serious, possibly permanent, injury. The completion of this walk simply isn’t worth it.

I cannot really articulate the depth of my disappointment. This is the second major walk I’ve had to cut short this year. Another lesson in humility.

I’m not 100 percent sure what the universe is trying to tell me, but I suspect I will have to temper my enthusiasm for some of my physically-demanding bucket-list adventures and try to find that nice balance between what I would like to do and what I’m actually capable of doing; have stretch goals without permanently hurting myself.

Sunset on the Rhine.

To leave the Rhine walk incomplete is a failure, in the sense that I failed to complete the goal. But despite the disappointment of this failure, I recognize that it’s an important learning tool for future growth. We never really know the limits of our capabilities until we fail. It’s at that point of failure that we begin to really use our creativity, either to figure out how to expand our boundaries for next time, or how to live more exciting and interesting lives within those boundaries. I know that as I continue to age, my physical boundaries will shrink. I’m not able to physically do what I did at 25 and when I turn 75, I won’t be able to physically do what I can do today. It’s a continuous game of probing and adjusting, testing and resting, successes and failures, to see what’s possible for a fulfilling life.

Crossing into Germany.

When I get over feeling sorry for myself, I’ll take a closer look at this failure. What are the lessons to be learned? What will I need to do differently? I like the idea of doing long walks, long pilgrimages, and physical adventures. I haven’t given up on them yet. Perhaps the lessons I learn from the Canada Walk and Rhine River Walk will help me figure out how I can continue to do them safely.

But for now, I will enjoy my German chocolate, I’ll rest my foot, and I’ll consider my current options while I’m still in Europe.

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