The day starts like any other; we pick the slugs off the tent, I run a brush through my pony tail. Breakfast, some stretching and some pushups; a liesurely breaking of camp.
But when we get back on the bike path, it isn’t long before we realize – it’s the first of May, which is a special day for villages all across Bavaria.
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In each tiny community they’re erecting gigantic maypoles: arrow-staight pine trees, de-barked and blonde, pre-decorated with evergreen wreaths they hope will hang symmetrically once its up, and the blue and white flag of Bavaria at the tip. All the able-bodied men are crowding around, stationed under the pole with traditional lifting technology – a series of pairs of long hook-ended poles, each supported by a double-pair of men, with a gestappo-shouting-moustache drilling the team in bursts of a couple centimeters. It seems to involve a lot of just standing there between “HEAVE!”s, and the women and strollers and disabled boys watch the whole ordeal from a safe distance. By afternoon we start seeing the finished products, anchored securely and standing tall, the pride of the parish.
Grey clouds start crowding out the sun and blue. It’s not raining yet, but you’re never quite sure when it’s going to come, or from which side. A sign for a beer garden spurs us on ahead of the threatening sky. The bar is right on the river path, outwardly welcoming, with pavilion tents and a broad green lawn filled with lots of bike parking. Identically clad cyclist club members fill the long tables, raising mugs of beer and singing drinking songs in German. I order some bratwurst, and kartoffel salad to share with Lily – creamy German style potato salad with mayonnaise – from a couple of husky German women, while Lily orders zwei bier, after confirming its Bavarian origin. Gotta sample the local products! We take a seat on the grass, like outcast hobos who don’t speak the local dialect, unable to connect. We share the salad with mediocrity while smooth-skinned Bavarian children, dressed up by their parents in immaculate clothing the kids can’t even appreciate, pick on each other in the playground. I’m drinking two beers to Lily’s one, and soon the rain starts. We move under a tree (the tent seats were suddenly all taken) and garner a bit of drunken comfort wedged between bike wheels, and dream of our perfect bicycle set-ups.
We have a few more beers under the edge of a tent because the rain has now been joined by hail, and finally we’re drunk enough to “connect” with some locals…. First, a glittery-eyed beer-bellied salt-n-pepper male-pattern-baldness guy in an 80s denim coat, happy to struggle through no common language and leer at my girlfriend; then his odd-match portly buddy joins us, he’s a full generation younger, speaks English, and seems somehow eager, greedy, behind a thick pair of glasses. The droll linguistics are quickly reduced even farther into dull translation, but at least comprehension takes a leap up. I go to the WC for a piss, and they turn on Lily. “He wants you to know he likes darts and bowling and are you married?” He even tries to say he’s Aussie too – Aus-trian, that is – how cute…. I’m back now and some old man with apparently no other friends sits down. He seems okay, at least he likes beer, but he frowns when they tell him I’m a “greenie,” and proceeds to tell me he was in the German army for ten years when he was young… but he’s still to young to have been a Nazi, isn’t he?!? Saying “Ist meine frau” (I think that means “She’s my wife”) isn’t working with the denim guy. Now he’s trying to tell Lily they both have blue eyes – what a commonality! – except Lily’s eyes are crystal blue with a creamy hazel center, not icy grey like his…. Before it gets any worse, we make a break for it during a lapse in the rain and stumble onto our rigs awkwardly, like we’re trying to escape. Which we are.
The rain comes again as we head down the muddy gravel path, and soaks us now. Ten minutes farther we stop, set up a hurried rain tarp in a tiny copse of trees, and chuck our damp sleeping bags into the tent. We manage a slight recovery before a less-than-hot campfire of haphazardly stacked, soaking wet sticks, and make some spaghetti. Now we’re not so drunk anymore, and I start to taste acrid beer in the back of my throat.
By bedtime the rain has stopped but the moisture persists. My hoodie/pillow is too damp to wear or rest my head on, and the spiders and beetles(and of course the slugs) are coalescing under the rain fly of our tent. We’re wet on top of wet and a long way from comfortable, but we’re in a haze enough to sleep and sort out the rest in the morning. A dense fog rolls in from over the ridge and coats the river valley.
But before we can actually fall asleep, the nightmare really begins…. “I don’t feel so good…” “Me either…” It hit me first, a roiling, bloated snakepit of barbed wire twisting in my stomach. I get up and crawl into the mist, dying for release. My finger in the back of my throat does the trick, and thankfully it’s too dark to see the spaghetti come back up, but the smell is enough to keep me vomiting until it’s all empty – or so I think. I lay back down next to Lily, who is trying hard not to throw up. Now my gut is frothing all around, making complaining gurgles, and I don’t even know which direction it’s going, until I feel it reach my ass with urgency.
Out of the tent again – thank GAWD it’s not raining but the mist is as thick as mayonnaise – and I rush blindly in my sandals through the nettles, into the trees to pull down my shorts…. What remained of a healthy shit-log ejects in a rush of beer and diarrhea fluids; I can hear it splattering the underbrush I am squatting over. I stand up, I immediately squat back down again. I’m going through Lily’s toilet paper like mad. Finally finished for the moment, I clean up as best I can in the midnight fog of food poisoning. I lay down again and begin to shiver uncontrollably, a painful wracking fever against the cold ground – my air mattress has a leak again. By now Lily is convinced, and gets up to vomit, and a truly frightening potential settles over our pitiful situation — she’s got a headache now, and this is just the type of thing that can turn into one of her debilitating migraines, the type she has to go to the hospital for…. “Can I take care of her?” I vaguely wonder, as I’m bolting outside for another vomit and another projectile bowel vacation. Thankfully we have clean water, but it’s a chore just to fill up the drinking bottle(I’m coherent enough to realize that it would be disastrous, in more ways than one, if we spilled the water bladder inside the tent). We don’t want to, but we can’t help talking about what caused this, what DID this to us? WHY ME? It had to be that potato salad! Damnit! Boiled, peeled, or what was the travelers’ diet-motto again? Fuck! Are we in real danger? I would’ve called my mother for medical advice on my world phone, and damn the outrageous fees, but the battery was dead. We can’t get hypothermia like this, can we…?
Throughout the night we alternated between acidic vomiting and dry heaving, explosive diarrhea, and feverish shivering, in the dark fog or in the damp tent, unable to pass out, huddled together for warmth, pity, and comfort. Aren’t you supposed to be asleep to have nightmares?
After what feels like a hopeless purgatory sentence – on hell’s half – the dawn finally arrives, and the sun chases away the mist. Oh, how many nightmares has that glorious life-giver vanquished? I finally regain some hope, enough anyway to think clearly about our situation. We’re dangerously dehydrated, alone without communication, a long way from any medical facility, and on bicycles…. and Lily is taking a while to come around, unable to even leave the tent, vomiting in the vestibule and the clinging smell of bile and gerardia feces. We make the decision to move, to get somewhere, anywhere but here or that wretched beer garden. It takes us longer than ever to break camp, but after a breakfast of oranges, we finally push through the nettles again, back onto the muddy path. We’re tired and sick, we’re miserable and weak, but we continue “bike touring.”
We have to.
We pedal slowly, doggedly, and the cliffs rise up, closing in around the river. We pass a string of tourist shops selling local beer – Yeeeuch! We decide not to stop at an overpriced cafe just for juice. Then we realize that this is where the bike path ends, and our map actually goes onto a tour-boat…. Lily inquires for me at the ticket booth as to alternatives, but the only option besides the tourist ferry is to go back eight kilometers, and then climb these mountain cliffs towering above us. It doesn’t take me long to decide that my motor-vehicle boycott would be crazy – dangerous, even – to maintain right now, even if I wasn’t with someone even more sick than me, on a single-speed bike…. So I pay the thirteen euros for us and we wedge ourselves between the tourists and try to relax. The rumbling motor starts up and off we go, for a beautiful gliding tour of the ancient Danube cliffs. Soon a silky voice on the loudspeaker begins describing all the history and points of interest… in German. At least the boat only moves at bicycle-speed.
Eventually we disembark in Kelheim and struggle over the medeival cobblestones, not really able to appreciate the history, to the the tourist info office. The woman there calls ahead for us to a cheap B&B and tells them some cyclists will be coming – somewhere we can rehydrate and sleep off the poison. We pick up some recovery foods and fluids, fluids, fluids at the the grocery store, then arduously climb a big hill to the address. But no one’s answering the door – didn’t she call ahead? An old man peeks his head around the corner, then runs away into the back yard before we can say anything. Now that’s strange…. Finally, his stout Bavarian wife comes to the door, shaking in fear, wondering, “What do you want? Oh, where are your bikes?” They’re right over there, jeez! Do we really look that bad??
She turns out to be okay, except for a constant nervous laugh, but we can’t really communicate with her. We take showers, make proper hydration tonics, and briefly browse a horrible selection of TV in English, before a nice twelve hours of sleep in a warm bed. The worst was past us now. The nightmare was over, and the next day we hit the bike path again, hopefully having learned a lesson. The tour continues!