Bernie the Road Angel - Travels With Bernie - CycleBlaze

Bernie the Road Angel

August 2013

It was 2013, and the Grampies were already styling themselves European cycling experts.  We were now into spinning in circles around Western Europe, this time starting in Amsterdam and heading out clockwise, through Copenhagen and Berlin and down to Austria and Switzerland. From there it would be on across France to the Atlantic and eventually back to Amsterdam.

Grampies were circling Western Europe, and had just nicked into Austria.
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Just north of the Alps, there is a wonderful lake, called the Bodensee. The Bodensee is bordered by three countries - Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Into the lake the Rhine River flows, fresh from its origins in the Alps, and then the Rhine flows out again, on the way to Basel, Switzerland.

The area at the south east end of the lake is like this:

Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Where the Rhine enters the lake.
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In this map, the piece of Austria bordering the lake is seen sandwiched in between Germany in the north and Switzerland  on the west. The major Austrian town is Bregenz, over on the east side of the map.

And that is about all we knew, as we came to a halt at a red light in Bregenz.  Dodie took advantage of the moment to puzzle over our map. Our general plan was to head north and west, swinging  clockwise around the lake and on to Basel, Geneva, Lyon, and south. But right now, we were looking at the map of Bregenz, about which we knew nothing.

At this point a man on a bike pulled up beside us.  Where were we going, he asked in good but Austrian accented English. We told him our vague direction and admitted that we did not quite know how to get there.

Not only could he point us in the right direction, but he said since we were going his way, he would be our guide. So, for about 10 km, we followed the mechanical engineering teacher that turned out to be Bernie, on his way home from the school. 

Travelling with Bernie beyond Bregenz
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As we pedalled,  we found that Bernie had a great familiarity with this area. That stood to reason, since he was born in Lustenau, Austria - about 7 km away. But with Bernie it was not just familiarity, it was a quiet pride, and a desire to teach.  

We stopped at one little bridge, at which he said was a monument to some who had had to leave this area. I am sorry to say that I did not then catch or perhaps remember their story. Later research showed Bernie was referring to Franz Plunder, a man from Bregenz who built a small boat there and around 1920 sailed it with some friends across the Atlantic, effectively emigrating to America.

But Bernie stopped at another bridge, one that we would not forget. This was a bridge across the Rhine, and we took a picture looking north to the Alps, where the Rhine has its source at Lake Toma, near the mythical (to us) town of Andermatt - all in Switzerland. 

The Rhine is fascinating thoughout its 1200 km length and of course its cultural and historical significance is huge.

But here we were in a  section of the Rhine about which we had little understanding. First of all, the Rhine forms the boundary between Austria and Switzerland here. But the boundary does not follow the apparent watercourse  we were crossing.  No, the water we were on was the "New Rhine", which is really just a canal. The boundary Rhine - the Old Rhine - was still some 5 km away, close to Bernie's home in the little town of Hochst.

Crossing the New Rhine and looking toward Switzerland.
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We would soon see Hochst, because  in fact Bernie led us right into his driveway.

This felt like a bit of a betrayal, since of course we were keen to circle the lake, and now really had no idea where we were. But Bernie invited us in for a cup of coffee, and luckily we had the good sense to accept.

Bernie had to been to Canada a few times, and knew our part of the country. So we had fun mentioning places we all had been. None of which cast any light on where we were now, and how to get where we were going.

But soon Dodie and Bernie put their heads together, poring over some maps, and Dodie seemed to form an idea of where to go.

Dodie and Bernie review our way forward.
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One of the celebrated advantages of travelling in a country slowly by bicycle is that it produces special chances to meet the local people. Often this happens because the cyclist gets lost, has a mechanical breakdown, or is injured. That sets up a natural filter, because the ones that come to the rescue are the kind of people who would come to the rescue. These are often the kinds of people one would like to know.

This was certainly the case with Bernie. Over six additional years we returned to see him and his family twice, we hosted them in Canada, and we arranged for our dear friends the Paxmans to visit Hochst in 2018.

This blog is a retrospective of these trips. It covers our deepening appreciation of this part of the Rhine and the Bodensee, that happened with the help of Bernie. And it covers our deepening appreciation of Bernie and his family, who were so kind to us.

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Andrea BrownWillie Weir writes that traveling by bicycle presents many opportunities for “initiating kindness”. Your chance meeting with Bernie is a perfect example of this. You all gained from this, and it would never have happened if you hadn’t needed something. What a lovely tribute to not only Bernie, but what traveling in a vulnerable mode gives to all who choose to participate in the vulnerable/kindness cycle.
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1 year ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Andrea Brown Yes, “initiating kindness” could be a sort of indirect motivation people have in going cycle touring. It's one of the benefits of travelling in a vulnerable (and slow) mode. Other benefits that come from the mode are the more obvious ones of exercise and developing endurance, and seeing/experiencing everything in detail. These have been valuable to us, but I might say that there are a handful of people like Bernie that we have met that are most precious of all.
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1 year ago
Scott AndersonSuch a lovely tribute to a dear friend. Thank you for sharing this with us.
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1 year ago
Michel FleuranceGreat writing and testimony of kindness.
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1 year ago