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Old Memories, New Friends

Herleshausen to Buttlar 29.6.2010

Written 30.6.2010

Today’s journey started with a border crossing to Lauchroden. I stopped on the bridge, which was destroyed during the Cold War, and has been rebuilt since. Sitting on the railing, I found the right angle and produced a then/now photo, comparing the same spot in the years 1984, 2006, and 2010.

I continued on, and soon spotted Monte Kali on the horizon. The “mountain” is actually a salt-stone dump, but it’s still marked on many maps, and I cycled in its strange shadow for close to fifteen kilometers.

I arrived in Vacha, home of the Hoßfeld House, and the Unity Bridge. The Hoßfeld House lies directly on the border of Thüringia and Hessen, and it was not spared the DDR’s extreme agenda of forced division. On New Year’s Eve of 1951/1952, the door connecting the two states within the house was bricked up, and the owner was not allowed to remove the barrier for 24 years when West Germany officially recognized the East German government.

Directly adjacent to the Hoßfeld House is the Unity Bridge, which also lies on the border. This bridge was used as a fortified barrier during the Cold War. Its eloquent arches were sealed with fences, and an observation remains today on the south end. Here, I attempted to find the vantage point Brian Rose photographed in 1985. Today, a thick line of trees runs alongside the bridge, blocking the view. Here is the scene as it appears in 2010.

I made it to Geisa, an unremarkable town, aside from its proximity to Point Alpha. Here, I had a terrible time finding a room, and eventually biked 4k back to the town of Buttlar, where I had much better luck and found a lovely hotel. I happened to arrive at the same time as a guy from Texas, who I think was the first American I’d seen in at least two weeks. After dinner, I returned to the hotel to find the man eating alone at the bar, so I asked him what brought him to Germany. As it turns out, Ken had been a civil engineer at Point Alpha for several years, first in 1969-1972 and also from 1977-1980, and had returned to see the region today. He was part of the 11th Calvary that maintained watch over the Fulda Gap for the majority of the Cold War, and despite his official role as an engineer, he told me that he frequently found himself in the American watchtower, staring down the DDR watchtower not more than 500 yards away. Life on the border was never dull, he said, but the most exciting times came during escape attempts by DDR refugees. He had seen five or six successful attempts in his time, and a few that ended badly. He also observed that the Germany he had known when he served is now totally changed. The town of Rasdorf, west of Point Alpha was a backward village during the Cold War, and also suffered from its proximity to the border, even though it was on the western side. Today, it is modern and busy and Ken commented that he probably saw more cars just driving between Rasdorf and Geisa (5k) than he’d seen there during both tours.

We had a fascinating conversation for the better part of the evening, and were occasionally joined by Christian, the inn owner and bartender, who commented on continued differences between East and West Germany. He mostly complained of a sense of laziness in the former East, using my earlier experience of finding randomly closed Gasthouses as an example. Admittedly, this is something I have noticed in this region: restaurants, hotels, and other establishments with posted hours claim to be open, but no one is around, the doors are locked, and phone calls are fruitless. Highly inconvenient for a traveler, but is this really something that can be explained by the border? Christian’s thoughts also contradict those of the Lübeck landlady, who claimed to always find girls from the east to be harder working and more reliable. Either way, it would seem that there are stereotypes abound, and a sense of awareness as to whether someone is from Eastern or Western Germany. Christian and Ken were both wonderful to talk with, and seemed like all-around good guys. We parted ways in the morning, wishing each other well.

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