The Last Granola Bar

Ron Karpinski  ©1996


It began as a leisure three day outing in the fall of 1988.  Four of us decided to ride our bicycles around Lake Constance, camping along the way.  Saddle bags held tents, sleeping bags, and extra clothing.  Granola bars would fill the gaps between meals.

The route began at Constance, Germany, and crossed a narrow outlet at the southern end of the lake before passing into Switzerland.  It then ran south along the western shoreline, cut across a small corner of Austria, and dropped back into Germany.  At Meersburg, a ferry would transport us across the lake back to the starting point.

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My friends, Bob and Andrea, had two tents, a small old one and a brand new, larger model.  Neither Scott nor I owned a tent.  To save money, we borrowed the old one.

Here is a bit of wisdom that came from that:  Never borrow a friend's "spare" tent.  There is a good reason why he or she bought a new tent in the first place.  Save yourself a lot of trouble and buy your own tent, one with a good seal against the elements.

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Friday started out nicely.  The sun beat down and brought out a good sweat.  Spirits were high, and we made a game of squirting one another with plastic water bottles.

At the base of a long steep hill, a natural spring offered a short respite from the heat.  I poured a handful of ice-cold water over my head.  It ran down my neck and soaked my shirt.  A sudden spasm ran down my spine.  Brrrr!

Starting up the hill, we quickly ran out of gears –- and gas -– as the sharp grade turned brutal.  Rocking forward in the saddle, I tried to grunt out a rhythm, to squeeze more turns out of the crank.  Scott made it to the top on sheer leg strength; but, at one point or other, the rest of us had to dismount and push our bikes.

One by one, we reached the crest and pulled off onto a small cutout in the road.  At first, we stood at the edge of the cliff, gasping for breath, wiping away the sweat, drawing long swigs from water bottles.  Then, the view came into focus.

High atop the summit, one could see all the way across the huge lake and back into Germany on the opposite shore.  For twenty minutes, we lingered, pointing out landmarks, and taking photos.  Pulses returned to normal, and the sweat dried.

At last, we agreed to move on.  As steep as the climb had been, an equally treacherous drop awaited on the down side.  It seemed prudent to leave a safe gap between bikes, as each rider pulled back onto the road and pointed his front wheel downhill.

Momentum took over from there.  Bob soon disappeared around a bend in the road ahead.  I squeezed my brake levers, trying to slow the rate of descent.  Still, the wind whistled past my ears.  Trees, rocks, and signs all merged into one long blur.

Focusing on a single point in the road twenty yards ahead, I tried to put all else out of my mind.  Tears streaked down my cheeks.  All my strength went into keeping the bike balanced, keeping it under control and aimed down the middle of the lane.

In a matter of minutes, our near free-fall gave back six kilometers of high ground.  Once again in the flat lands, the lake shimmered off to the left; to the right, farm fields stood bare after the harvest.

At dusk, we crossed into Austria and checked into a small campground.  Drained from a long hot day, the lush green grass at our feet looked inviting; but we dare not lie down in it.  Once flat on our backs, there would be no getting back up.

Instead, we set up camp, pitched the tents, unpacked our saddle bags.  A one mark token bought five minutes of hot water in the shower room.  We crawled into bed.

Overnight, the weather changed.  In the predawn, I awoke to a light patter of rain against the tight nylon tent.  The air had taken on a chill edge.

We stayed in our tents a long time, peeking out at the weather, hoping the rain would stop; but it didn't.  Bolting free, I ran forty yards to the snack bar and a warm dry table.  Between sips of rich, hot coffee, I watched to see if the rain had let up; it hadn't.

There are two times on a camping trip when rain can ruin your day.  The first is when you erect your tent, and the second is when you take it down.  During the short time it takes to fold or unfold a tent, you are at the mercy of the gods.

By eight thirty, we couldn't wait any longer and broke camp. Tearing down the tents, all our gear got soaked.  We packed it on the bikes –- wet -– and pedaled on our way.

As the day wore on, the clouds showed no signs of relief.  Soaked to the bone, we slogged on, snacking on granola bars for quick energy in the damp biting cold.

It still rained lightly, when we arrived at the Iriswiese Campground near Kressborn, Germany.  Andrea signed us in at the front office and paid the man a small fee.  He showed us a vacant grassy lot next to a large hedge where we could set up camp.

Bob and Andrea quickly put up their roomy waterproof tent and huddled inside, warming themselves over a large butane lantern.  We could hear them laughing.

Scott and I were not laughing.  The borrowed tent leaked like a sieve.  Water seeped through the floor; and wind whipped under the side flaps, sending a fine mist in through the mosquito mesh.

Because the weather had been warm and dry at the outset, we brought only floor mats and thin blankets for sleeping.  Surprised by the cold and rain, Scott and I lay shivering.

We looked at each other with the same idea.  "Hey, Bob," we yelled, "let's get the heck out of here!"

There had been a sign along the roadside, not far back, marking the way to a nearby inn.  Leaving the tents to the rain, we mounted our bikes and rode off in search of it.

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The four of us wandered in the front door, dripping wet and splattered with mud.  We tiptoed across the hardwood floor to a booth in the corner.  Not yet six in the evening, the place stood nearly empty.

It is common practice in such an establishment to peel off the outer layers of one's clothing and hang them on a nearby wall heater to dry; and that is what we did.  With four coats and sweaters piled upon it, the radiator no longer resembled a radiator.

Then we trooped off to the rest rooms and washed away the grime.  Feeling presentable at last, we settled in our seats and ordered dinner.

To start things off, I had Maultaschen soup.  That's a local dish, ground meat covered in pasta, floating in a heavy broth.  A small green salad followed that.

For the main course, I opted for a large pan fried veal schnitzel and a side of Spätzle.  Spätzle is another local dish, noodles with baked cheese on top.  To wash it down, Bob treated the table to a bottle of local red wine.

As the evening progressed, the food and wine took their effect, and the group grew warm and chatty.  Other customers drifted in, and the room became boisterous.  A man played an accordion, and some people sang.  We forgot our troubles for the moment and ordered more drinks now and then to keep the waiter happy.

Between bottles of wine, we told stories and made our share of noise.  Andrea and I ordered Apfelstrudel for dessert.  That's a piece of apple pie with ice cream or vanilla sauce on top.  Later, when that wore off, we munched on bread and cheese.

Staring into my glass, I recalled a newspaper article espousing the effects of wine on heart disease.  Studies had shown that alcohol, mainly in red wine, helped achieve thinner blood, cleaner arteries, and lower cholesterol levels.  When asked, most doctors said that a glass or two of red wine per day could improve health.

Living in Baden Württemberg, a famous wine growing region, gave us a distinct edge, we reasoned.  Clinking glasses, all at our table swore to fight heart disease to the end.

We also swore that if we missed our quota during the week, we would catch up on the weekend.  This was a weekend.  No one in our group would ever have a heart attack.

Full of wine and out of money, we left the inn.  Stepping through the double wooden doors into a stone courtyard, the cool crisp air hit me in the face.  My legs wobbled.

By then, the rain had stopped, the skies had cleared, and stars twinkled high above.  A full moon peeked from behind a single dark cloud floating across the heavens.  We mounted our bikes and rolled off into the night, guessing at the route back to camp.

*          *          *          *          *

The tents stood right where we had left them.  The new one looked taut and dry while the old one sagged from its own weight, sopping wet.  Feeling pity, or perhaps a bit of guilt, Bob asked if we wanted to come over to their place for a nightcap.

Bob produced a bottle of red wine and four paper cups.  We all fell silent, sipping wine and warming our hands over the glowing lantern.  Andrea's stomach growled first.

At twenty-eight, Andrea looked like a tomboy, with short dark hair and deep-set brown eyes.  Tall and lanky, she got hungry every two hours.

She fell into the habit of carrying a sandwich in her pocket wherever she went.  When that first hunger pang hit, she had ten minutes to find food or all systems shut down.

Andrea and I had both eaten a lot at the inn that evening, but a couple of hours had passed since then.  My stomach growled too.

Both of us searched for something to snack on.  Back packs came up empty.  Then I saw it, a lone granola bar laying in a fold of the ground cloth, next to the lantern.

I glanced at the others to see if any of them had noticed it, too.  Andrea glared back.  She seemed to sense that I knew something she didn't.

Had it been real or just an illusion?  Locked in a deadly staring duel with Andrea, I dare not look down or she would see it, too.  Still, I had to confirm what I had seen.

My eyes darted to the tent floor.  Andrea's eyes, glued to mine, flashed there, too.  She saw it!  Tense seconds passed, as if in slow motion, each of us weighing our chances of reaching the granola bar first.  Then, we both lunged for it.

A fierce struggle broke out, and the granola bar changed hands several times.  Neither of us gave an inch, pulling, grunting, and twisting with all our strength.  As we grappled, the bar turned to mushy pulp.

Sealed in an airtight wrapper, it remained quite good enough to eat, though.  Killer instinct kicked into high gear, as Andrea and I each tried to wrest the bar from the other.  Bob and Scott, fearful of flying elbows, curled up in neutral corners.

Two minutes of savage combat followed, before Andrea and I reached a sort of panting truce.  Each of us held onto the mangled granola bar with one hand while catching our breath, eyes still locked.

After a second or two, a foul stench hit my nose.  What was that awful smell?  At first, I thought the tent might have caught fire; but then I saw the look on Andrea's face.

She was staring down at my arm.  Slowly, keeping a firm grip on the granola bar, I looked down, too.  My right elbow rested atop the red-hot lantern.

It took a second or two for the image to sink in.  Then nerves made contact with the brain, and a searing pain shot through my arm.

I lifted my arm off the lantern, and a small piece of burning flesh fell away.  Smoke poured out.  The sight and smell startled me, and I lost my focus on the granola bar.

In that brief flick of an eyelash, as I assessed my wound, Andrea struck with catlike quickness.  She snapped the bar from my hand and sprang back against the tent wall.

"Hey, wait!" I cried.  "Time out!  That wasn't fair."

Andrea just laughed.  "All is fair in love and war, my sweet," she purred, ". . . and when it comes to food."

When I suggested that we share the bar and let bygones be bygones, her eyes narrowed into cold hard slits.  Crouching with her prize, she wolfed it down in two swift bites.  A few loose crumbs clung to her chin . . . just below that insidious grin.

*          *          *          *          *

Later, lying cold and hungry in my own tent, I had plenty of time to reflect on the past hour.  No doubt about it, I had met my match.  That girl taught me a move or two.


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