I’m only one day out from my walk from Koblenz to Rudesheim along the Rhine River in Germany, and already the pain and exhaustion of the hike is fading into the past. What was it Richard said about his trek across the Maylay Peninsula? “Indeed, as the days pass now and the sharp memory of the…terrors becomes blunted, I am beginning to think it a very splendid expedition”. In today’s speech we refer to that as “second fun”, as in it wasn’t fun the first time around, but the retelling is great.
Oh, but I’m giving you the wrong impression. The Rheinsteig trail was far from a terrible experience. It was beautiful, it was peaceful, and it was a lovely change from the preceding weeks of city life. It’s just that I maybe possibly bit off just a tiny bit more than I could chew.
At least that’s what my feet will tell you.
Anyways, back to the beginning. Why was I even out there pulling such long days of hiking? Well, of course, because Richard did it. Richard Halliburton was in this area in 1921, on the heels of WWI, when the area was a hodge-podge of broken bits of Germany controlled by various other countries: British rule over here, American rule over there, and French rule that ways a bit. He made his way along the Rhine River from Cologne to the Swiss border by train, ferry and foot. It was the “foot” bit that intrigued me.
According to his letters home he walked the 40 miles along the river from Koblenz to Bingen in a single day. Given his inhuman energy level, I can actually believe that, though I’m no longer sure I do. At any rate, I wasn’t going to do 40 miles in a day. For one, I don’t walk that fast. For another, walking along the river didn’t sound nice. It would be nice if the river were wild and free flowing, but the Rhine is like a woman who has been shoved into a corset for centuries—narrow, restricted, no room to breathe. Walking along the Rhine is more akin to following a giant canal than a river.
So, I looked inland and was delighted to find the Rheinsteig, a network of trails connecting all the towns on the right bank of the Rhine. The 70-mile section from Koblenz to Bingen, happily, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thank you Richard for your impeccable taste in beautiful places.
After a rushed bit of preparation, I started Day 1 with lofty goals—21 miles to Osterspai! Yeah! I was pleasantly surprised to find myself hiking in forest the entire day. And not just any forest—dense, green, dripping, chirping forest full of castles. So, naturally, I thought of Game of Thrones most of the day.
I also mused about what the landscape looked like a thousand years ago. I imagine it was nearly razed so the castles would be defensible and because the villagers needed firewood. And what about just 100 years ago when Richard was here? Also razed, but as a result of WWI. And now here I was, walking through a happy little German jungle. Remarkable.
Anyways, I limped into Osterspai late that evening, rustled myself up a place to stay, and spent the evening with my feet up, drinking brim-full glasses of Reisling while staring out over the Rhine as it chugged steadily past hillslopes of vineyards dotted with—you guessed it—castles.
I started Day 2 a little less enthused about my goal. It was a pretty ordinary day–more forest, more castles, more repetitive ups-and-downs on the trail. I was under the [very mistaken] impression that there was no wildlife in those hills, but during one of my improvised short cuts I came across about twenty deer and they bolted away like I was a demonic wildcat sent to kill them all.
The day ended with even less style than the last one—hotel, pizza, bed, the end.
Oh, Day 3, it’s amazing that I made it through you! Fortunately I was prepared with moleskin and bandaids, but at that point my feet were just too far gone. They were just so sensitive. I only had one little blister, not a big deal, but my pinky toenails felt like they were being ripped off, and the heel and ball of my right foot felt like they had open wounds on them despite the skin not being broken.
But I went ahead and hiked anyways, because on Day 3 I would get to ascend Lorelei (Loreley) rock, the famous chunk of the gorge that forces the already narrow Rhine to swiftly flow around a bend, creating a treacherous section for shipping. When Richard visited in 1921 he spent three hours on top of Lorelei Rock watching the ships below. I did not. Not only was the view limited by pesky railings, but the rock was swarming with busloads of noisy German retirees. I couldn’t hear myself think, let alone get all zen about the Lorelei. So on I went, rather dismayed, until I came to this amazing rock outcrop with a stunning view of the rock and the river below it. Best of all–not another soul there with me.
I spent the next hour (sorry, Richard, I had places to be) unable to tear my eyes away from the gorge below me. Trains raced by, motorcycles roared around corners, and an endless parade of barges and ferries negotiated the bend. Those going downstream made it through the entire bend in under a minute while those struggling upstream took five minutes or more.
But I had to continue, and within a few minutes I was miserable again. I kept staring at the map wondering how I could complete another 20-mile day with feet that sore. Well, the world answered that problem for me. Around mile 13, when I had just about given up hope, I came across a cute little cabinet with the words “Open Sesame” on it. Naturally I opened that sesame right up and was elated to find wine inside. It was stocked with little 0.25-liter bottles of Riesling from the vineyard I was currently walking though.
I placed the asked-for €2.50 in the tin, cracked the seal on my little bottle, and immediately the heavens opened up and it positively began to bucket down rain.
Yes, seriously. Now, the miraculous thing here is that within thirty seconds of the storm beginning I happened across the only bit of shelter within at least a 2 km radius. The nook in the vineyard terrace wall smelled a little, shall we say, sheepy?
But it was watertight with three walls and a roof—I couldn’t be happier. You can see in this little video that I was all settled in:
Now, looking at that video, I can say with the wisdom of hindsight, “Oh, what a cute little rainstorm that was, so mild and gentle.” Because about five minutes later the storm became downright apocalyptic. At one point the rain came in sideways from the opposite direction and wetted the entire back wall of my shelter. It was unreal.
And I was having a blast. It wasn’t just the wine, but the break in the monotony of walking through endless forest—it refreshed me. Or maybe that was just the icy rain.
About an hour later the storm let up. I fetched myself one more little bottle of wine, winced my way down to the banks of the Rhine, and walked the final few miles with my headphones in singing along with The Little Willies at the top of my lungs. My feet didn’t even hurt anymore.
At one point the sidewalk had a little set of steps that brought me to the water’s edge. “Well,” I thought, “I can’t spend four days following the Rhine and not touch it—that would be sacrilege.” So I moseyed down the steps, reached down to touch the water, and had half a second to think, “Oh shi-“ before a wave from the wake of a ferry smacked into the steps and drenched me from head to toe in Rhine water.
I couldn’t stop laughing. The whole thing was just absurd. I laughed so hard I had to sit down, and then I laughed some more.
That night I found a hotel in Lorch run by a lovely woman who actually spoke English. She had fake teeth and walls hung with the skins and heads of an alarming variety of African animals, courtesy of her husband. It was the perfect ending to a ridiculous and, well, different day on the Rheinsteig.
Only had 12 miles to go! My feet were in worse shape than ever. The first five minutes after a break were excruciating, but while I was walking the pain dulled into the background, so I just didn’t take breaks. I walked slowly, picked lots of blackberries, had conversations with the local population of Kestrels (which, for the record, have no trace of an accent), and eventually made it to Rudesheim, my final destination, and just across the river from Richard’s terminus at Bingen.
Wine + bed + internet = happy finisher of the Upper Middle Rhine portion of the Rheinsteig. Now shall I go tackle the Vosges? Perhaps I’d better save my energy for the Matterhorn next week instead! Stay tuned for that story!