Saturday, April 28, 2007

19 Walking again

Bospad near Nunspeet
other photos:
April 3-7: Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11: Buren-Ochten
April 11-15: Ochten-Wyler
April 15-18: Beek, Apeldoorn, Amsterdam
April 20-21: Leidsenveen, Amsterdam, Hardewijk
April 23-25: Apeldoorn
April 26-27: Zuider Zeepad

Apeldoorn, April 28--

It can't be more than twenty kilometers to Nunspeet, as the crow flies -- a dozen miles or so -- but ground transportation has yet to reach the efficiency of the common crow. The bus goes once an hour, and even then you have to change in Elspeet. We missed the bus yesterday, through our own fault, so I decided to ask the girl at the train counter what might be our best alternative.

Of course the train people don't have information, or even opinions, about the buses -- one of the flaws of the ground transportation system. So she simply looked up the route on her computer: train to Deventer, change to train to Zwolle, change to train to Nunspeet, one hour.

Sounds good, I said; it'll be an hour before the next bus even leaves from here. So she sold us the tickets. Our train was scheduled to leave in two minutes, so we rushed to the platform. But, alas -- and heelas, the "h" sounded, is an increasingly common word in Dutch -- our train was seven minutes late. This caused us to miss the next train, for the entire rail system in The Netherlands is scheduled on the assumption that trains will always be on time.

That was a good system in the old days, but late trains are increasingly common, helaas; The Netherlands could use a bit of a Mussolini. I asked a conductor on the Deventer train platform about this, having plenty of time for idle conversation. Why are late trains increasingly common? This is a small country, he said, and there are too many trains. And then they get old, and things break down. And the system is increasingly complex, and that gives opportunity for increasingly common breakdowns and failures.

His English was very good, and he spoke with that measured, logical, patient manner I associate with a certain Dutch temperament: practical, resigned, correct but aware of imperfections.

I left him in his conversation with two other railroad officials and walked down the platform. A nice-looking young man approached me to practice his English: You were on the train from Apeldoorn, isn't it? Are you going to Zwolle as well?

He turned out to be from Kabul. I'm going to Zwolle to take a toost, a test I mean, he explained, and now we will be late, but fortunately I put in half an hour extra in the event.

His test was in Dutch, a language he finds difficult. In Afghanistan my English was good, he said in good English, but now I am losing it, and I can not speak Dutch well, and I need it if I am to get status. (Residence status, he meant.) English is easy, its grammar is like Farsi, we use the same times and numbers (tenses and genders, I think he meant); but Dutch is different, they leave out words that are needed, and put in others that don't mean anything, and you never really know what the time is.

I apologized for what our country had done to his. He looked grave. It is not your country, he said, it is very complex, first the Russians, then the Taliban who are Pakistani, our neighbors do not want our country to be successful. It is very complex.

I got the feeling that if it were left to young men like him these very complex situations could be resolved -- or at lest the beginning of a resolution could be achieved. But he was not persuaded. Politics are very complex, he said, and politicians are impatient and stubborn. He himself was studying medicine, but just as I was about to ask what branch, and why, and why and how he had chosen to come to The Netherlands, our train appeared -- meticulously on time -- and we lost sight of one another.

At Zwolle we had two minutes to change trains -- our train was waiting patiently on its platform -- and we rode past twenty kilometers or so of firing range on the Oldebroekse Heath to Nunspeet, arriving at noon.

We were here to resume our walk. We came to this country at the beginning of April determined to resume our Dutch walks, and as you've seen the first two weeks were successful in that respect, covering a good piece of central Netherlands. But there is one long-distance walking-path I'm determined to complete, the Zuider Zeepath, and I'd hoped to get in a few stages of it while we're here.

These walking paths are designed and maintained by an association that also publishes detailed guidebooks, with topographic maps, descriptions of the routes, photographs, and historical notes. The paths themselves are indicated by white-and-red strips, pasted to lampposts or gates, or painted on trees or occasionally on buildings. By and large you can depend on these, in our experience, but I had trouble these last couple of days, partly because the guidebook I'm using is an old edition, partly because it's hot and I grow impatient or careless, but partly also because on these stages of the ZZpad the white-and-red strips are few and far between, the descriptions now and then a little careless (a couple of times actually stating "right" when "left" is clearly meant), or because the route has been changed.

The stages are each usually about five kilometers long, and try to begin and end at or near a bus or train station. But here again we were in trouble, as this part of the Veluwe -- the region of The Netherlands we're pretty well centered in -- is very sparsely settled. Much of the terrain is in forest or heath. There are plenty of roads, some of them hundreds of years old: but they're mostly unpaved and closed to traffic. The walking is beautiful and comfortable, but amenities are few and far between.

And, to tell the truth, we're a little out of shape. You get into shape by walking every day, and you stay in shape the same way. It's a good ten days since we last put on our packs, and even though mine is no longer 11 kilograms, and Lindsey's is on the floor in our bedroom, these last two days of walking have been hard. We walked about ten miles each day, and by the end of each day we were beat.

Curiously for a walk called the Zuider Zeepad -- the "South Sea path" -- we saw the water only at the end of the second day, for LAW, the Long Distance Wandering Association, sees fit to swing away from the old Zuider Zee coast in this stretch, to give the walker an idea of the history and terrain that made that sea so important. It was central to the shipping lanes of the Hanseatic League, which was something of the World Trade Organization of its day, shipping dried and smoked fish from the cod- and herring-beds of the Atlantic to inland countries, notably Germany, in return for grains and other commodities.

The main shipping ports were of course coastal, but river traffic was as significant as saltwater shipping: relatively sleepy Dutch cities like Deventer, Zutphen, and Roermond were Hanseatic towns, just like Oslo and Hamburg and Stockholm.

And subsidiary roads sprang up overland for quick communication between nearby ports. Here in Gelderland especially, where relatively flat terrain, fortunately crisscrossed by ridges left by Ice-Age glaciers, stood between the Zuider Zeecoast ports -- Kampen, Hardwijk, Spakenburg -- and the river ports: Zwolle, Deventer, Arnhem.

It's hard to walk these roads without thinking of the foot-traffice they must have seen hundreds of years ago. And it's hard to walk through these forests, some of them still quite dense, without thinking of journeying tradesmen and soldiers. The cities and villages were the known world, to the people who lived within their walls and fences; the woods were wild and unpredictable. And until fairly recently there were wolves and, our guidebook solemnly assures us, werewolves, the wolves to keep down the deer population and to keep sheep and calves and human children in line; the werewolves to instill a fear of the unknown in the impressionable.

* * *

It's so hot this April that I keep thinking of the dreadful summer that must be waiting a few months away. I keep getting the eerie feeling that this spring must be like that of 1914, that some dreadful calamity is in the wings. We're at one end of an improbable stretch of years, from the late 1940s until now, when peace and industry, art and education, travel and understanding have pretty well triumphed in Europe. The World Wars of the 20th century never seem far away here, though, and walking these paths, with the history lessons they and our guidebook provide, bring even more distant calamities near.

Yesterday we walked from Nunspeet to Doornspjk and then, on a long graspad or grass-path atop a dike, to the "coast" -- where the coast of the Zuider Zee had been, until that entire sea was erased in the 1930s by the Afsluitdijk, which made possible the draining and "reclamation" of much of the center of this country. At the coast we came out at Oudekerk on a farmstead with perhaps three houses, one awaiting a new thatch roof; and, right at the edge of the land, the footprint of the St. Ludgeruskerk, which was built about a millennium ago, enlarged several times, but finally destroyed in the terrible storm of 1825, when the Zuider Zee erupted in a catastrophic spring-flood.

Our guidebook reproduces an engraving of the event: "St. Ludgeruskerk toneel van nood en jammer ("shown in need and sorrow") in 1825." It's a harrowing sight; and it's difficult to consider it without thinking of the consequences of global warming and a consequent rise of sea level.

I've brought this subject up from time to time in conversation here, but I must say the Dutch, at least those I meet, seem unconcerned. They've always managed, though there have been plenty of disasters, even recent ones. We'll build the dikes higher, many say. Others suggest a different response: higher dikes, when they ultimately fail, will only subject the lowlands to an even larger quantity of water. The problem isn't so much a higher sea level as an increase in runoff from the rivers: and the answer, some say, is to broaden the riverbeds, let reclaimed land revert to wetlands.

It's a complex subject, like all social engineering. Everything in this country requires a good deal of thought, even more discussion, a fair amount of time apparently spent in delays and negotiations, and then careful and well-planned action -- which ultimately, of course, provides more complexity and unexpected problems, leading to yet another cycle of thought and discussion and negotiation.

There's not much in this country that isn't made by man. Even these heaths and forests, while prepared by glacial activity eons ago, are planted, harvested, neglected, hunted, exploited over the centuries. We walk past burial mounds that date back to the Stone Age, on roads dating from medieval times, under river-bluffs whose military strategic value was known to the Roman Empire. It's all rather humbling; and ever so fascinating.

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