A Very Long Day

My European Backpacking Trip ID

My (mostly) solo ten-week backpacking trip through Europe in the fall of 1973 (at age 18) was an adventure, not always happy, not always fun, but a compelling developmental journey. One memorable day began before sunrise in Trier Germany and ended finally at 4am the next morning in Brussels Belgium, with four cities and six trains in between.

I left the youth hostel where I had stayed in Trier on foot early Sunday morning and headed for the train station, my fifty pound pack on my back. I was now four weeks into my odyssey, and though a healthy youth with a dependable constitution, I was frayed at the edges. I was traveling with the clothes on my back plus two changes in my pack, and neither I nor my clothes got washed more than once a week. (Though most of the hostels I stayed at had showers, they generally did not have hot water, and I hated cold showers!) I also was feeling the dry mouth and stuffy nose of a cold coming on, and the weather had turned chilly and gray.

Being quite the geography and military history geek, I got it in my head to go to one of the places featured in my various historical war board games… maybe Waterloo or some place associated with the Battle of the Bulge. Researching my youth hostel guide (one year out of date), I found no hostel in or close to Napoleon’s final battle, but Clervaux, a fortress town on my Avalon Hill Battle of the Bulge game-board, did have one. I could stay there and maybe find a way to get to Bastogne, the focal point of that campaign.

It was as good a plan as any! I had nowhere I had to be and no one expecting me. With my rail pass I could improvise, hop on any random train and just show the plastic card with my picture to the conductor. I recalled the lyrics of the Beatles’ song “You Never Give Me Your Money”… “Oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go” as I boarded the train that would take me to Luxembourg City, where I would catch my second train up into the mountainous forests of the Ardennes to Clervaux.

As we approached our destination, the train emerged from the woods into the Luxembourg capital on the edge of a precipice, the city out the windows on one side of the train was at the level of the tracks, but out the other side it was maybe 50 to 100 feet lower. I found a market across the street from the train station and bought myself some bread and yogurt for breakfast. (I had learned not to buy the overpriced food in train stations.) I returned to the station and ate until I could board my train up into the mountains to Clervaux.

Clervaux was a beautiful little town built on and surrounded by steep hills, nestled in a small river valley, the town center dominated by and old castle and church. I found the street to the youth hostel, which wound its way up the hill. Carrying the fifty pound pack, and nursing that cold, I felt glad that my day’s travels were almost done.

But when I got to the hostel, there was a sign on the door saying it was closed for the season. It was Sunday and the whole town was pretty closed down. My throat was getting sore and I was low on water and not finding a place where I could get more. Being on a tight budget (that could afford a $2 youth hostel but not $10 to $20 hotel) I retraced my steps down the hill to the train station to catch the last train of the day back to Luxembourg City.

Back at that city’s train station, and now desperate to find my cheap lodging (and not sleep in a station as I had done once or twice previously), I found a train leaving for Namur Belgium, which according to my guide, had a hostel.

When I got to Namur it was the end of the work day and the station area was bustling with people going here and there. As in all these situations, if I was not fortunate enough to find someone who spoke English, I knew how to say “youth hostel” in French and German, but could not really understand more than the most rudimentary instructions and directions. Somehow I found out what bus I needed to board and what stop I should get off at. The bus was crowded (I could not find a seat and had to stand) and the driver was in a churlish mood, yelling at a boarding passenger at one point in a language I did not understand. I screwed up my courage and tried to tell him that I needed to get off at the stop for the youth hostel. He nodded grimly, said nothing, and drove on.

After about what seemed like an hour or more, I got off the bus at a stop that seemed like the right one, but I was certainly not sure. I wandered around the streets asking anyone who looked reasonably willing for directions. I did not understand their words, but they pointed in a direction that I would walk for a block or two, then ask for directions again.

After two or three iterations of this (and not finding my destination), I had the fortune to come to the attention of two young Dutch women driving a car who were kind enough to hail me and ask if I was looking for the youth hostel. I said yes and they offered me the back seat of their small sedan. We finally found the hostel, but consistent with my day’s karma, it was full. My two vivacious and good-looking rescuers were gracious enough to drive me back to the train station (though not gracious enough to fulfill my fantasy and offer me a place to stay for the night).

It was now evening when I boarded my next train from Namur to Liege, where another potential lodging was indicated in my guide. I got into the station after ten in the evening, and the station master gave me directions (mostly in English) on how to get to the youth hostel, which was a long walk from the station across the Meuse river to the other side of town. Dog tired with soar throat and now aching shoulders hoisting my backpack, I set off through the dark cold stone city. It must have walked at least four miles, when I came across an open tavern where I stopped and ordered “Ein grosses bier bitte”.

It was the best tasting pint my lips have ever tasted. The bitterness soothed my throat and the alcohol gave me enough of a temporary glow to press on. Unfortunately, the time spent indulging my thirst led to me arriving at the hostel just past midnight, and despite my pleadings the proprietor stuck to his guns that his establishment was closed for the night and I was once more out of luck.

Bewildered and still buzzed from the beer, I walked the five miles back through the town and over the Meuse to the train station. There was a train due in at 2am headed for Copenhagen. I had talked to other young travelers (at previous hostels where I had actually managed to secure lodging) who had used overnight trains to sleep. My train was schedule to arrive in Copenhagen Monday morning, so I boarded it with the plan to sleep in my seat.

The first stop happened to be in Brussels about 3:30 in the morning, at an open platform rather than an enclosed station. I saw a neon sign across the street that said something close to “Hotel”. Now sneezing with a runny nose, I debarked from the train, crossed the street and stumbled into the hotel and asked the night desk clerk for a room. He had one which cost me what I remember to be several hundred Belgian Francs (about maybe $15 American I recall). I was so grateful and longing to sleep in a real bed after my incredible day.

Just like no beer had ever tasted as good as the one I had sucked down a few hours earlier in Liege. No clean sheets, soft mattress and pillow had ever felt better against my beaten body. In that little room, just hours before dawn, I contemplated my existential situation.

I was an eighteen-year-old kid who had once again thrown myself in the deep end in taking this backpacking trip to Europe, and as a result of events beyond my control, had ended up doing it alone. Alone in the darkness on other occasions during the past four weeks, this adventure kept seeming more like an ordeal than a joyful journey of discovery.

But at every point when I contemplated bailing out and returning to the States, pride, resolve, something, drove me to continue until my money ran out. I had budgeted my trip to be in Europe about ten weeks and see all the “sights”, at least this side of the Iron Curtain. I was apparently developing enough tenuous self-respect that I did not want to risk losing it truncating my trip and not seeing all those sights.

I finally passed out from utter fatigue pondering where I would head off to tomorrow… towards Paris.

See my other Europe backpack trip posts, “St. Gotthard Tunnel” and “Army Brats”.

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4 replies on “A Very Long Day”

  1. Ron says:

    I wish I had been brave enough at that time of life. Even now, I never venture quite that far on my own resources.

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Ron… thanks for the comment!

    if you care to share… what time of life are you in and where is the place you do not venture that far from? And maybe, what were the experiences that were particularly developmental for you in your transition from youth to adulthood?

  3. Sarah Caine says:

    Travel is often painted as glorious and always enjoyable by those who either haven’t done it or haven’t done it on a budget. I’m finding that travel leads to learning and the adventure is worth the discomfort as long as I know I’m safe. Even Kerouac describes his journeys honestly and admits they weren’t always enjoyable, but they did always make a story. The story and experience is what I’m after, and it makes me enjoy the little things–like a good beer.

  4. Cooper Zale says:

    Sarah… I think that’s right… or else people are just not comfortable generally with the whole travel rigmarole. I still love even the logistics of traveling, even across town, particularly if I’m not in a car.

    I hope you get as much developmentally out of your travels and time in Korea as I did from my Europe trip, and thanks for posting the comment.

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