I've been travelling through Germany for three weeks. I was on the highest mountain (Zugspitze), at the kitschiest castle (Neuschwanstein), at the greenest lake (Königssee) and on a wonderful film night (Dresden). Now I will go home to the Ruhr Area. End of the road trip. A thought as annoying as headache after an ill-considered night of wine, cheap wine. Then I think, From the Alps to the sea, doesn't that sound much more tempting? And I haven't been in the north yet! It’s not that I am looking for justifications to get to the sea quickly. I'm just looking for justifications to get to the sea quickly. I hear rumors on the media that the Pope is dancing polkas on crowded beaches and that everything is fully booked because all Germans have to go on vacation in their own country this year.
I search online anyway and within five minutes I find an affordable apartment on Rügen, a beautiful island off the coast of Northern Germany in the Baltic Sea. I throw my gear into the car. “Rügen instead of Ruhr”! Isn’t that the newest ad slogan we now see on every other advertisement that tries to convince us that in the age of Corona, “Lizard Springs instead of Los Angeles” is now the place to be? Forget it. It won’t. Not even after a bottle of Ripple.
I thunder down the highway, heading north. As I cross over the bridge and enter the island of Rügen, I begin to sing loudly and moving to the beat of "Perfect Wave," a sea-related song by the German group, Juli. Then I feel as old as a rock for a moment, as I remember that the song was popular in 2004 and yet it seems as if it were just yesterday. No matter. I'm at the sea now! Just because.
"Is that the Sellin Pier in Rügen!?" asks my dad, as I send him an email with a selfie from the beach that evening. The caption says: “If you see this, you have a crazy daughter.” He thinks I am just getting home. Instead, I am eating a huge waffle with chocolate ice cream as the waves splash against the shore, smelling of salt and fish. Life is too damn short to say "if" and "could" all the time. And my fabulous job, working as a digital nomad, allows me to work from almost anywhere most of the year. And I can just to rumble up to the sea on a whim if I feel like it.
I dig my toes into the sand. The beach chairs are well placed to keep the minimum distance apart, but they are only sparsely occupied. In general, the tourist crowds are limited in size and I have not yet seen the Pope dancing. Strange. I look at the water, at the horizon line, where heaven and earth touch. A freighter pushes itself into the picture. From this distance it looks like a moving Lego brick. Its outline blurs into the blue evening light. I look down at the sand and see seashells. The sight of seashells will probably awaken the inner truffle pig in me in seventy years. My plan now is to relax, except I realize I no idea what this mysterious word "relax" really means. So now I'm on my way enthusiastically collecting seashells and stones. It now seems as if no time has passed since Juli sang their hit song 300 years ago. By the way, no one under thirty says, “hit song”. Something is wrong with me.
The special thing about Rügen is that there are not only beaches, but also white chalk cliffs. A bit like Normandy. The white cliffs of Rügen are in a National Park on the island, called Jasmund National Park. On this tour, I have been to the Berchtesgaden National Park and the Saxon Switzerland National Park. This is the third German National Park I see on my road trip. Before my trip, I didn't even know that Germany had National Parks! I only knew the Grand Canyon in the USA. I find it a bit funny that in order to appreciate the beauty of my own country, the zombie apocalypse in the form of a virus has to break out. At least the beauty of some places. Not the one of Lizard Springs, dear PR hucksters. Incidentally, I am a PR huckster myself, so I am allowed to say that.
I leave early to avoid as many people as possible. There are two ways to get to the cliffs from the parking lot in Hagen, the small city at the bottom of the park. You can either take the shuttle bus for people with sore feet, or you can walk through an ultra-beautiful ancient forest. I shoulder my tripod, backpack and two fat lenses and stagger forth into the forest. Sore feet? I may be old, but not that old. On my way through the magical forest, I walk beside tree trunks that rise into the sky like Greek columns. A great spotted woodpecker shoots across the road in front of me. I see a mole! Well, he lies still on his back and doesn’t say much anymore, but since I've never seen a mole before, I'm still excited. Dead or alive.
The most famous chalk cliff is the Königsstuhl (King’s Chair). As such, my expectations are of huge, royal proportions. When I get there, I am a bit disappointed. The view is only moderate, and the viewing platform becomes more and more crowded as I stand there. In addition, the entrance fee was almost $11! That’s roughly 20 Marks! Omigosh. I’m really old. No one in Germany under 30 converts dollars into Deutsche Marks anymore. Luckily, I didn’t check on a calculator yesterday to pay the $150 for the gallon of ice cream that I ate on the beach. I start to enter the visitor center next to the observation deck when I see an endless queue in front of the geological exhibit. Someone in the line coughs disgustingly. And I am out of there. Traveling while Corona is one thing but getting sprayed by the plague mist up close is quite another.
Now, I'm looking for a hiking trail along the cliffs that starts in the nearby town of Sassnitz. It is so long that no normal person would try to walk it, but it costs nothing. The trail follows the top of the bluff from Sassnitz to the village of Lohme. It is one of Germany’s most beautiful coastline trails. Following the chalk cliffs for about seven miles, the views from the trail dethrone the King’s Chair from its reign of beauty. I keep moving forward. Passing the spot where Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th-century German artist, was inspired to create his beautiful, romantic painting, lost to the ravages of time, weather and a landslide. I am staring out at turquoise water, white beaches and sailing boats - briefly I feel as if am in the Caribbean.
Time and again, there is evidence of destruction where parts of the cliff had fallen as a result of erosion. Erosion, not aerosols! But you can die from either one. There are warning signs staked in the ground everywhere along the path. But how far do we really want to protect ourselves in life? And why? Is it worse to dance on chalk cliffs after you drive 2,500 miles on roads with far more deaths associated with them than from cliff landsides? I lost my fear of death a long time ago. There are so many things in life that are not achieved through money, but only because of courage, perseverance, and allowing a certain degree of risk. These are the things that bring life to life.
I sit in a circle between three tall trees and look through purple flowers at a white chalk coastline that descends into the blue-green water. I hiked five miles. Day is slowly turning into evening and I start to make my way back. My head is full of images of paradise and philosophical thoughts. That almost always happens to me on long solo trips. You are alone with yourself. There is plenty of contemplation time. It can be beautiful, and yet maddening at the same time. Fortunately, my boyfriend, who I haven’t been with for three months because of the Corona border closures, is always with me on my cell phone. I make a little video of what I see and send it to him. It feels as if he is always with me and has been there my entire trip. A solo trip, but not entirely solo.
I reach the car after my 10-mile walk. I look down and see that my 10-year shoes, my dear Converse Chucks, have finally given up the ghost. I have to laugh. Somehow it was time.
A beach basket hotel. A real beach-basket hotel! Folks, I have no idea how I got the idea, but when I googled it, I found one on Rügen. How better to spend the last night of my trip than to sleep on the beach?!?
The landlord looks at me a little nervously: "Are you sure you don't want to sleep upstairs in the hotel? Such a beach basket for sleeping is a bit special."
"Ah," I say. "I'm also a bit special. Where do I sign?"
On the sandy beach there is a small, enclosed structure containing two beach chairs, joined into a sleeping platform. This is covered by a thick mattress, a down blanket and curtains at both openings. The roof is plexiglass. For stars. No door locks, no closets, no heating. Only me and the sea. This is GREAT! There is a toilet and shower available in a small wooden building next to the reception area behind the dunes.
As evening arrives, I sit on the beach with my feet in the water and watch the sunset. Tonight, I do not have to drive home. I am already at home. The red rays of the sun fade and I talk a bit with infinity. I crawl into my beach basket, snuggle under the warm blanket, and call my boyfriend for a video talk. We chat for a while; I show him the moon and he reads a story to me. He does that every night. Until I fall asleep. And today, I also fall asleep with the sound of waves. And a stupid screeching gull.
The next morning, I see a nervous note from my father. “Was there security? Could just anyone have come in during the night?” Yes, they could. But what is life if you don’t live it?
After a month, and 2,500 miles, I come home. I traveled Germany from west to south to east to north. From the Alps to the sea. You can read about my entire adventure in my travel diary. Feel inspired and crazy - and go to the sea more often.