Determined to get an earlier start yesterday than the day before, we got out of the cabin we shared with the mouse by 8:30 and hit the road. We once again had the good directions of the Harland family, though no map and no clear idea of how far away Eisfeld was. Which was an advantage, in retrospect, because if we’d known we probably wouldn’t have had the gumption to go through with it.
The morning was rather dreary again with lots of rain and almost as frequent changes of clothing and rain gear as the day before. Things finally changed for the better when we found a little ski refuge and ate lunch there (also finally managing to say our morning prayers). We met some kindly German ladies out for a hike all bundled up—this is really the most un-Augusty August any of us can remember—and told them about our pilgrimage. Then we plunged on through the Thuringian forest into growing sunshine, still pretty chilly from the wind, but absolutely beautiful. The several days of rain washed all the dust and grit from the skies, so the whole landscape had that sparkling clearness and sharpness that makes you realize the last few days everything has somehow been blurry and in grainy old-movie color; it almost hurts your eyes to take in the color and line. We passed by one pine forest so thick and dark it reminded us of Mirkwood in “The Hobbit”—you almost couldn’t squeeze your way into it at all. We marched on with renewed energy, and having discovered that nothing makes the miles pass faster than good conversation, we had lots of those—among the more memorable were Hans telling us about the reformer Jakob Propst and Anne-Sylvie describing the vocational discernment that comes with doing the Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.
All was well, in fact, until we came to the town of Masserberg, which we had (foolishly) thought to be rather close to Eisfeld. As we came into the center we saw a road sign: Eisfeld 17 km. It was already a little after 5 p.m. We decided we’d better stop for dinner since there was no other town of any size between there and Eisfeld, so we found a little café that served the absolute worst pizza straight out of a box at an outrageous price. I also had the pleasure of “hitting the wall”—suddenly getting overwhelmingly feverish, nauseous, and depressed. Almost certainly it was the 17 km sign (though the foul pizza probably did nothing to help). I’ve discovered on long distance hikes before that my appetite—which normally needs to be reined in, not coddled along—completely vanishes, and it did there again. I forced a few pretzels down for the rest of the evening but that was it. Somehow in these physical feats it’s far more psychological than physical; I was (and we all were) way beyond tired, but I was too tired even too hurt, and I couldn’t even feel my backpack anymore, and after all there was no rest and refuge until we got to our destination, so no incentive to giving up sooner. I think at some point I stopped walking but my hiking poles started walking themselves and used me to prop them up rather than vice versa.
Luckily the next stage after Masserberg was through an even deeper forest section that was really beautiful. We followed along the Werra River starting at its source, now adorned with a lion’s head gushing out fresh water for weary travellers, and were able to walk along soft (if squishy) moss through the trees and down past a pond. That lightened the load a bit. But the last 6 km or so were on roads through and between towns, and the sunlight finally disappeared completely in the west. I have never been so grateful for a full moon in my life! The verses of Psalm 121 kept coming to me: The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night… The Lord God of Israel who keeps watch over you shall neither slumber nor sleep. The final walk along the highway was sheerly by the grace of God and the light of the moon, and except for one time when Andrew misstepped into the ridiculously deep ditch and got a nasty bruise on his shin, we made it to our pension all in one piece. The wondrous sleep of the past two nights was nothing on last night’s sleep.
Now it’s 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning and we are mustering up the courage to plunge on to Coburg.