Return to the Sea

Ron Karpinski  1997


Born on the beach, my soul longs for the sea; but I am trapped in a land of mountains and trees.  If only my toes could sink in the soft warm sand of a surging tide and my lungs could once again breathe fresh salt air blown in from the brine.

In late May, our group of eight left Cologne, Germany, on a bike tour down the Rhine River.  Follow the Rhine to the end, and it will lead you to the North Sea.  Surely the place will have a sandy shore, like those of my long lost youth.

Touring by bike is not such a hard ordeal.  The leader, the one with the map, rides up front, and the others drop behind in single-file.  All fall into a single cadence and pedal in silence, wheels inches apart.  Thoughts drift with the passing scenery.

At the end of the first day, we stopped at a small campground and pitched tents in an open field.  A herd of cows grazed on one side and a drove of sheep on the other.  Warm showers cost one deutschmark.  Spartan bathrooms had no toilet paper.

The sun broke out at six the next morning, much too early for my blood.  Heat beat against the walls of the small pup tent, and it grew stuffy inside.  An annoying yellow glow filtered in through the thin nylon.

Outside, barges chugged past on the river two or three minutes apart, diesel engines straining against the current.  In the field next door, a couple of cows mooed, ready to unload their milk.  Off in the distance, a lone rooster crowed.

Unable to sleep any longer, I crawled out of the sack and made my way over to a small butane stove where a pot of water had come to a slow boil.  Soon, my hands cradled a warm cup of coffee.  Ah, the plasma of life!  Breakfast included buttered bread, cheese, and fruit.  We broke camp at nine and hit the road by ten.

Lunch came by the side of the trail.  An empty bench provided a spot to sit and wolf down a few granola bars, followed by a gulp or two from our water bottles.  A quick trip to the rest room, and it was time to pedal off again.

At five in the afternoon, with sixty kilometers behind us, a new campground loomed ahead.  Quickly, up went the tents, then off to the washroom to clean up, and, finally, to a nearby restaurant for dinner.  By eight-thirty, few could keep their eyes open any longer. A long day in the saddle, the food, the beer, it all took a toll.  Gladly did I crawl atop leaky air mattress and fall blissfully asleep.

On the fourth day, the path led across a narrow bridge over a stream and into Holland.  Ahead, a huge wind mill came into view.  Long wooden vanes, covered in white cloth, spun briskly in the stiff breeze.  High inside the tower, spindles rattled in their braces while ancient wooden gears creaked under the heavy load.

A long shaft ran from the tower down to the base of the mill where two stone wheels ground raw wheat into meal.  The rich aroma of freshly baked bread wafted from a brick oven in the corner.  It did not take much convincing to stay for lunch.

Sunday morning arrived, and most in the group turned back.  Those who had to work on Monday caught a train home.  Three intrepid men stayed the course.

Crossing the Nijmegen Bridge, the landscape changed at once.  On the far side of the river, the road ran atop an earthen dike, forty-feet wide by twenty-feet high.  Below, villages lay in relative calm, protected by a large grid of dikes.

Up on the dike, strong gusts of wind blew man and bike three feet to the left.  Arms tucked in, hunched over the handlebars, each rider leaned hard and braced against the gale.  Progress slowed to a mere crawl.

Flat farm fields and fruit orchards lay in shallow basins on both sides of the road.  Pheasants landed and wandered through the tinder dry grass.  Their reddish-brown feathers shimmered from a distance, a spot of bright green marking the neck.

In one small town after another, stork nests of twig and straw sat atop peaked roofs.  Homes had sturdy walls of brick and red tile roofs.  Often, the roads were red brick, as well.  Houses sported fresh coats of green paint on the woodwork.

Water lay at every turn in the road, in the form of canals, drainage ditches, and small ponds.  Some homes sat on tiny islands, with bridges connecting them to the main dike.  Much of the route ran beneath tall leafy trees lining both sides of the narrow roadway, with clearly marked lanes.  Often, the road and the bike path were one and the same with passing cars giving a wide birth.

Local folk passed by on crude black one-speed bicycles, pedaling in wooden shoes and leaning far back on their seats.  They looked odd; but, perhaps, so did we, on our twenty-one speed touring bikes with saddle bags front and rear.

On Tuesday, after covering a modest 425 kilometers in seven days, we arrived at Hoek van Holland on the coast.  Just where the Rhine River ended, however, was not so clear; it split into five shipping channels before emptying into the North Sea.

A narrow spit of land ran the length of the eastern most channel.  Where land ended, a long jetty led to an old light house.  Beyond the light house, a pile of huge concrete blocks marked the end of the Rhine on the left.  From the right, the angry North Sea pounded the barrier with a relentless onslaught of crashing breakers.

Farther east, a wide strand of beach stretched for miles.  Strolling in the hard wet mud at low tide, a harsh wind pelted us with sand and salt spray.  Foamy brown waves roiled in from the sea, as we shivered in ice-cold water up to our knees.

Nowhere on this earth is there a more frigid and inhospitable stretch of barren coastline.  The beach of my dreams will have to wait.  We turned and headed home.


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