written Friday 25 June 2004
|The Circle Unbroken|
This is my last weekend in the Netherlands. But the Friday looked too perfect, so I skip work and head to Naarden-Bussum station where I haul the bike up and in the train, to complete, absolutely complete my circumnavigation of the Netherlands.
I decide: this is the day. Let's do it.
I head out of Weert and under the train tunnel, and southwest to the Belgian border. It is trying to rain, but the sky looks flat and has blue patches showing, which usually means it won't deteriorate. I'm looking for a bridge over the canal, one that is clearly marked on the map, but it just doesn't exist. I end up riding upwind well into Belgium. I will have to backtrack. A terrible start.
Everything looks just a little different when you've crossed into Belgium. By the shapes of traffic signs alone I can tell when I've crossed over. These little differences are so invisible at first, but with more familiarity they start speaking to you.
The maps show all the smaller roads back into the Netherlands to be blocked by a canal--no bridges. But as I ride through remote Neerkriel (Belgium), a sign clearly points, "Stamproy", which lies a few hundred meters inside the Netherlands. I go, and a bridge does cross. Great--I've found two map mistakes in the first hour of riding. Very poor form, ANWB.
I wind my way along highways, then sail at high speed down some long slopes--entering the Maas valley, which the border and I will more or less follow all the way to Maastricht, today's destination.
And soon enough, there it is: the Maas. This is looking south, and in a few km the border with Belgium will follow the Maas' old channel.
I try to follow the Maas and the border as closely as I can. Across the locks that begin the long channel to Maastricht, there sits a nice vesting, Stevensweert--an old bricked fortress town of the kind that oddly make some of the nicest beer-drinking and appelgebak-munching spaces in the nation. Then, a few minutes on south, and I burst out laughing...
For some reason "Ohe en Laak" strikes me as one of the most ridiculous and delightful town names I've encountered. I know just enough Dutch to appreciate its weirdness, but not enough to know exactly why I think it's weird.
I continue south, following the base of a very high ridge of earth. After a few minutes I can't stand it--I stop the bike next to a park bench and climb the steep, grassy wall...
The canal's water is startlingly higher than where I had just been riding along (at left), blissfully ignorant of the gigantic amount of water over me.
I start back down to my bicycle. A gaggle of cycling Smurfs (I mean of course Belgians) approach on the path. The first looks up to me atop the enormous dijk...
...then a few more. They gather, they chatter, they can't resist it.
A towering Dijk of Babel: "Kijk, mooi, he?" "Ooooh, comme c'est beau."
And then southwards along the Maas, which is only a pale imitation of its mightiness downstream, by Rotterdam for example. I assume that here the main volumes of water are preserved for the canal. (Picture is between towns of Meers and Elsloo).
And some other town names along this stretch amuse me as well: Roosteren, Vissersweert (one of the tiniest towns imaginable), Illikhoven, Nattenhoven, Catsop, and the baffling Geulle aan de Maas. Or maybe I'm just getting tired.
South of Geulle aan de Maas, the Juliana kanaal hides behind the line of trees, and I get to sail past kilometer upon kilometer of flower and wheat fields.
I stop, and I just look across it all, and the words come out loud, I love this place. I didn't mean to say that. But it's all right, it's true. I do love this place.
I look down, just where I'm standing and gape. I take this picture. These flowers will fade in just a few days, and the farmer will cut the wheat, and it will be gone, and when it comes back I won't be here. For a moment I'm weak and I fear for how terribly, and how soon, I will miss this place.
And soon the signs announce Maastricht. With a little energy left and a desire to put off the end of my Dutch cycling if only for a moment, I make a tour of the west side. I spy another Dutch border marker, this one right in the middle of a road. I push my bike up a steep road so narrow that thorns catch the back of both hands, then I sail down the other side, into a valley lit yellow by the late sun behind me. The road signs start to point to "Centrum," and I reluctantly follow them. And then...there it is.
Maastricht in the middle of its Friday-afternoon rush hour. Not as the Romans saw it, but still all that history and all the people who crossed the mighty river almost palpable in the breezes.
And then it was time. I stand and look behind, where I had just ridden. I stood in front of the station, exactly where I had stood on starting my first Limburg ride, weeks ago. The circle around the Netherlands is complete.
I shouldn't sigh. Today turned out to be a good ride. I did what I set out to do--today, and over the past few months. Indeed, my ridiculous dream of circling the Netherlands has come true. A bus could hit me right now and no one could take that away. I've ridden this marvelous machine 4000 km--much farther than I've driven my car. Well done, good and faithful servant.
It's time. The GPS beeps twice and blinks off. I roll the bike into the dark hall inside and buy a ticket home. The bike clicks as I roll it next to a bench by the train track, it stands, and I sit. My eyes close and I slump a bit onto the bike's cross bar, my arm around it.
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