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Monday, August 12, 2013

Getting Through San Gottardo

It hadn't been a bad day cycling from Lugano to just a few kilometers short of San Gottardo Pass; I'd had a nice 50k/hr downhill ride into the UNESCO heritage city of Bellinzona, and then my first serious climb on a bicycle, which I managed to do successfully. I'd cycled 90 kilometers, and now it was time to find a place to camp so I'd be ready for the 2000+ meter pass through the Alps the next day.
I wasn't sure I'd find a spot, as the gorge leading to the pass was crowded with a river, two highways, train tracks and farms, and there was little space for a discreet place to pitch a tent. Getting a cheap room in Airolo, the last village before the pass, was out of the question, as cheap rooms don't exist in Switzerland. But just two or three kilometers from Airolo a gravel lane led down from the road I was cycling on, and to a spot by the river, at the sheltered corner of a farm. It was nearly perfect; the grass was cut short; in front of me were the river, high aspens, and the mountains; behind me a mountain; to my right a thick copse of trees and brush; to my left more brush, but also the only imperfection, a view of a brief stretch of the four lane highway. I sat and relaxed a bit before pitching my tent, then went about the business of setting up camp. The next morning I would cycle the 2 or 3 kilometers to Airolo, have a coffee, recharge my phone (and camera) battery, then climb San Gottardo Pass.

It began raining before nightfall. My tent had been given to me by a friend in Milan; the last cheap tent I'd bought was finished after a Balkan winter. As grateful as I was for the tent, it was made for fair weather, so I had to cover it with two tarps I'd cannibalized from the two previous tents I'd had. This left the lower sides exposed, and it wasn't long before the rain started dripping in. I covered my bike with the poncho I'd started my walk with nearly two years ago but experience had taught me it was far from waterproof. But it was all I had.
Along with the rain came the sounds of thunder. This was encouraging, as I thought it probably meant just a brief period of rain until the thunderstorms passed, but the rain and thunderstorms continued into the night. It became heavier, and at one point hailstones pelted the tent. The thunder grew louder, and more frequent, and there were many close lightning strikes; there was no time at all between the flash and the booming thunder. I sat in my tent occupied with damage control, mopping up the water with a dirty t-shirt and wringing it out through the front flap. I tried to position my things where the water wasn't dripping in, or to get them in plastic bags, but there was no escaping the saturating rain. Everything got wet, including my sleeping bag. Once the heaviest lightning had passed, I fell asleep, but I woke often to grope around to check the flooding (I had given away my headlamp in Egypt, thinking I was done with camping for a while). I woke another time because of the sound of the river; it had become a raging torrent, and I was worried it might overflow it's banks.The rain continued all night long, heavy at times, light at others, but it was incessant, and while the sounds of thunder were more distant, the sound of the river became a surging din.
In the morning I ate stale bread and granola cereal and washed it down with water. I still had another liter of water, and more bread, so I decided to wait out the rain. Surely it would stop soon. But it didn't. There were finally some breaks, about two minutes long (I timed them), just long enough for me to step out and check the river but not long enough to have a smoke before the rain came down again. The river had risen considerably; two boulders I'd seen on the opposite bank were nearly submerged, and a small tree near the tent was no longer there. The river was brown now, and violent, and whole trees sped down with it's current. If it got much higher I'd have no choice but to head for Airolo. I decided I'd wait until 5pm to make that decision.
By mid-afternoon the rain stopped for thirty minutes. I was tempted to pack up and go but decided to stay put. I couldn't stay in Airolo and I didn't want to climb the pass in this weather. The rain came down again but by five o'clock it had stopped, and I was certain it was finished despite the clouds still rushing through the gorge. There is beauty even in scenarios like this; smoke seemed to be blowing through the aspens on the mountain opposite me. The river, still torrential, was lower now, as I could see the tops of the boulders on the opposite bank, and the tree I thought had been washed away reappeared, its highest branches thrashing on the surface. Then the rain came again, and I spent another night in a soaked sleeping bag, waking to mop up the water.
All this time in a dark, soggy tent was trying, and aside from the constant mopping I tried to meditate, or write in my journal (I'd protected it enough so that it was merely damp and not wet), or sleep. I was going stir crazy though in the end.
In the early morning hours the rain finally stopped for good. I stepped out to see a few stars poking through the clouds and never felt happier. I could see the little tree near the tent, now nearly free from the river's current, still leaning but upright. At first light I spread my tarps on the ground and sorted things out, wringing clothes and knocking dozens of slugs off of just about everything. I put on my wet shoes and some miraculously dry socks, packed up, and cycled into Airolo, where the early risers looked at me as though I were an alien. I paid a small fortune for coffee and a croissant but I didn't care. After charging my phone, which serves as my camera and GPS, I cycled up into San Gottardo Pass.

Though the climb was a struggle-- it took me 2 1/2 hours to ride or walk Knulp up the steep cobbled road to the top-- I was absolutely elated. These are the moments I love being on the road. The view was tremendous, and I was moving again after being stuck in my leaky tent. I had told myself earlier that I would cycle all the way up, even if it meant stopping every two hundred meters for a break, but once I'd dropped down to the lowest gear and found myself pedalling as hard as I could to do 6 1/2 kilometers per hour, I did some walking. In all I probably walked my bike about half the distance up into the pass. The cobbled road made it that much more difficult to cycle up, and I took some comfort that the only cyclists who passed me going up were on bikes without any luggage. In the meantime, a dozen trekking cyclists passed me going the other way down the cobbled serpentine path. They cycled very slowly because of the steepness of the road and its hairpin curves, but also I suspect to keep from breaking the spokes on their heavy bicycles. I decided that once over the pass I would take the small highway down so that I could enjoy a nice long 50k/hr descent. I would learn later that this decision was a big mistake.
The top of the pass was socked in with fog, and dozens of tourists who had arrived by car were eating in a restaurant. A man was selling bratwurst for 5.50 Swiss Francs each, but despite the high price I was hungry so I bought one and wolfed it down. It was cold so I pulled out the only winter clothing I had left after so much time in Egypt and Italy, a sweatshirt with a hood. I found my highway and I was soon speeding down through the fog. From that point on, for the rest of the day I was braking and keeping my speed down to 20k/hr, first because of the fog, then the wind and cold, then, once again, the rain.
The biggest threat came once I'd broken through the fog. I released the brakes and sped along at 40k/hr before realizing I was shivering so badly I could barely control my bike. I managed to stop at a pullover and I nearly laughed at how badly I was shaking. I tried to roll a cigarette but after two attempts gave it up. After trying to warm up I continued down the highway at half the speed, but I was still shivering. To make matters worse, when I'd come around a curve the wind would hit full force, and that along with my loss of muscle control, speeding cars, and the absence of a guardrail had me wavering on the point of doom once or twice. I stopped more often and for longer periods to warm up, watching with envy as road cyclists flew down the mountain with their expensive, high tech foul weather gear. As I got lower it got a little warmer and the rain came down again. I donned my new rain poncho and mosied down the mountain,, no longer elated to be on the road.

By day's end the rain had diminished as I'd gotten farther from the pass, and I was resigned to finding another wilderness camping spot as my next host wasn't until Basel. This wouldn't have been a problem if I hadn't been so wet, but as it turned out I couldn't find anyplace discreet to camp, and I saw a campsite by the lake that Lucerne is situated on. Though it was 20 Swiss Francs for a place to put my little waterlogged tent, I could also get a hot shower, so I took it. I had my shower, dried out a bit, and enjoyed the scenery and absence of rain.
The campsite had several trekking cyclists in it, and having seen my 'Cycling to Syria' T-Shirts hanging out to dry, they were all very interested in my journey and incredulous that I was making it with such equipment. One of them, a Dutchman named Caspar, invited me for a drink. We had a good talk about bikes and routes and philosophy, and the next morning he treated me to breakfast and helped me out with a donation. When I hit the road again that morning, I felt rested and happy to have gained another friend. I was once again ready to roll.
For photos have a look at my Facebook page under 'Kenneth Lawrence Schroeder.'

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