The Autobahn. Two words bringing to mind images of Teutonic driving pleasure. Unbridled speed on tarmac of the highest quality among a population of drivers of the highest ability. It is the dream of every motoring enthusiast in the world to stretch the legs of a fine, German car on the wide, smooth lanes. It is the gold standard of motorways. The Alpha and Omega.
It is also home to der Stau.
Was ist der Stau? Soon enough, my friend. This time around, I’m just going to tell the story that goes with the pictures in order. We’ll be there in a minute, but let’s just say, it’s always a waiting game.
The drama of Day 6 behind us, Day 7 began with us oversleeping, missing breakfast, and having to walk up the street to grab some fresh pastries and coffee at the local coffee shop. A Mercedes SLS AMG drove right past us, shaking the lace curtains hanging in everyone’s windows, and was ’round the corner before I could get my phone out to snap a picture. (Seems like we see one of those each trip. Always impressive.)
The Dacia Duster was a bit easier to catch, however.
GOOD NEWS! I spotted another Dacia Sandero, too! Also good news, we FINALLY found an open ATM and now had hard currency in our pockets!
Being a Mitsubishi man, I was always keeping an eye out for the diamonds. Could see myself driving a Colt if I could get one in the States.
As we hit the road, I had V quick snap a picture of the Gen II Pajero we caught in traffic. Thought it might be an Evolution model, but it wasn’t. (We did pass a Pajero Evolution on our way to Stonehenge back on Day 2, but didn’t have the camera ready in time for that one, either!)
It was a cool, rainy morning and traffic was moving along at a reasonably quick pace on the A2. We were making good time and enjoying the kind of weather we can only dream about back home in Phoenix. V announced she needed a pee break, I could certainly do with a Redbull (withdrawal symptoms, mostly), so we stepped off at the next services.
A FAIR OFFER.
€0,70 to use the toilet. Now, I know many of you are rolling your eyes right about now, but you really shouldn’t. It was 70 cents to use the bathroom at what was basically a highway truck stop – the ONLY truck stop for miles in either direction. Unlike the American Interstate system, which has exits every couple of miles with food, fuel, and shopping, the Autobahn is meant for covering long distances efficiently – not skipping a couple traffic lights at the next intersection.
So, truck stop. Toilet. €0,70 to get through the turnstile. WORTH IT. Nearly cleaner than my own bathroom at home. Certainly just-checked-into-a-nice-hotel-room clean. And when you go back through the turnstile to leave, you get a coupon for a free cup of coffee at a nicer machine in the lobby (or €0,50 toward your next purchase). Oh yeah, and if the automated, robotic arm coming out and cleaning the entire toilet as part of the flushing process, wasn’t worth 20 cents to have a pee, the guy in a uniform standing outside who regularly stepped in to pick up trash and inspect the place certainly was.
A fair offer indeed. Still not convinced? Check out their website.
ENTER DER STAU
Surprisingly pleasant pee break complete, ice cold, full-strength Redbull in-hand, we rolled out of the services. And found ourselves face-to-face with gridlock. Surely it wouldn’t last long. I coerced the dowdy TDI into the outer lane, then into the middle lane. We had encountered a Stau.
Der Stau is congestion. If you ever listen to streaming radio stations out of Germany, you’ll notice two things – first, they do the news every hour on the hour; and second, if you listen during rush hour, you will hear Stau said over and over again. And, with perhaps half the number of exits as an American highway, you don’t want to get caught in one. There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide.
Gearhead Tourism Verstoppend Tour Guide Time. 80% of the cars you can see in the picture above are station wagons. I never can remember the story behind the Mitsubishi Carisma, but that’s 20% of the cars you can see above! Haha. I’ll just caption the next few shots. It’s a good thing we’d just stopped for a pee and drinks, because we would not move more than a quarter mile (total) for TWO HOURS.
I’ll say it again. TWO HOURS. This was twice as long as that one night in Los Angeles, made more painful in that we were sitting on the Autobahn.
About and hour and a half later, we were watching a couple big, Mercedes trucks making their way up the shoulder when something caught our eye out the left side of the car. It was the Polizei, and dude was shouting at us. Was? V rolled her window down to a rather animated chap shouting for us to let the trucks cross in front of us when traffic opened up. In English, no less, as the officer recognized us as being from England.
American big rigs – 18-wheelers – might be “King of the Road,” but don’t let that fool you into thinking our European brothers and sisters don’t have big trucks. Less than a minute after our “conversation” with der Politzist, this thing crossed our path. You can still see the police van ahead of it.
Then this thing…
Then this thing…
Finally, a fourth truck went by and we noticed the rest of the traffic was pulling away (and over toward the shoulder).
From the looks of it, a shipping container had come loose. We carefully rolled past on the shoulder.
Close up of that container drama from the passenger seat.
With the accident behind us, we finally got to make some headway on our journey. If you’ve not seen the dynamic speed limit signs on the Autobahn before, this is what they look like. Below, you can see the inner lane (which is for passing only, folks), is limited to just 120kph, or just under 75mph. Gotta keep an eye out for the “Blitzers” too. Photo radar is in effect and they WILL mail you a ticket. My friend Dan got TWO just last month!
We weren’t moving long before we needed another pee. Somewhere between Essen and Berlin, we hopped off the A2 at the next Sanifair, where we saw this epic truck. Awesome. We, too, were on a mission from god.
The sun came out, we cleared a few minor Staus as people began leaving work on a Friday evening, and found ourselves on an almost empty stretch of Autobahn with a GPS unit saying we were in the home stretch. When the speed limit dropped, so did the hammer. Distance to empty (range) displayed in the cluster dropped by over 100 miles. We were five plus hours into what was now looking like a seven hour drive.
It was short-lived, as the SatNav routed us off the Autobahn to progressively smaller roads. I had come to find driving a RHD vehicle in a LHD world was fairly easy, if not competitive advantage (when everyone crowds left to see if they can pass, they clear a line of sight up the right, for example), but on these narrow backroads, there was nothing I could do but sit behind the lorry.
Hard to make out in the picture below, but the posted limit is 100 and I was only doing 64. Too many curves to risk a pass and couldn’t chance going wide enough to see down the left. And I would just like to say, I bet that dowdy TDI would have been anything but in 4th gear through some quick twisties. Sigh.
As we charged closer and closer to our final destination, I kept seeing these rather plain apartment buildings. Blocks of flats, if you will. Having lived in Germany and been back a couple times since, this was something I wasn’t used to seeing. Where were the busy city streets, the hundred year old buildings packed tightly together with modern counterparts? This was so spartan. That’s when it hit me.
This used to be East Germany.
I lived in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. My German friends tell me it’s all moot at this point, as “We are ALL Germans,” but once you made the connection, it was incredible the way your perspective changed. There was a marked lack of castles to be seen, and the biggest structures seemed to have this generic, Soviet malaise about them. I mean, how old do you think that tree is in the next picture?
No, no, no. The one on the roof of that run down factory-looking joint.
The SatNav said we were less than an hour from ElbeTreffen, but we could see nothing ahead of us. This was opening day of the biggest Mitsubishi meet in Germany. There were more than 300 Mitsubishis in the area, but we seemed to be the only car on the road. We started getting nervous.
SatNav said we were 15 minutes away. We were surrounded by farmland. Maybe Elbe was just beyond that tree line. Okay, the next tree line. What the hell? Okay. It’s GOT to be just on the other side of THIS tree line.
We come to a stop sign where a bigger, 2-lane road crosses. There is traffic on this road. SatNav tells us we go straight ahead, on the single lane, tree-lined, this-can-only-end-in-tears tractor route. This is one of those situations where the navigation system is surely full of shit and we’re utterly doomed. I just know it.
10 minutes away. I’m freaking out, man. V tells me to calm down. Everything will be fine.
5 minutes away. THERE IS NOTHING HERE. Now V is starting to freak out. WTF?
3 MINUTES AWAY. WE ARE THE ONLY CAR IN AN ENDLESS SEA OF GREEN FIELDS SOMEWHERE IN GERMANY. I finally crack. I don’t care if we’re still hours away. I want to see whatever it is at this address. If I have to drive two hours back to civilization to find wifi so I can email Ingmar or Ralph for help, I don’t care. THIS IS RIDICULOUS.
Suddenly. A village. Still no cars. We are so screwed.
V tells me to stop, back up the empty, silent road, and take a picture. I’ll want it later. She’s right.
Okay. Bypass doom. Faith in GPS restored. Two more turns until…
We pull up to the gate and a tall, slim, Mitsubishi brother approaches the window and asks if he can help us. (After all, British Volkswagen, Mitsubishi meet, could you really blame him?) I am too excited to try German (es ist noch schrecklich sowieso) and simply exclaim, “The Americans are here.”
In hindsight, I wish I would have said something else, but at the time, I thought it would make things easier. “These are not the droids I was looking for. Move along.” Fortunately, dude spoke English and got us settled. He asked for my number or my name, and said he needed 15 Euro entry fee. I handed him a 20 as my heart continued beating practically out of my chest.
Dude returns with a form on a clipboard and change. He hands me a goodie bag (kinda like they do at MOD here in the States) and waves to the guys in the Colt behind us to wait a minute as I fill in the form. Screen name on the forum, REAL name, club affiliation, year, make, model, distance travelled to ElbeTreffen.
I enter “7,000km (Phoenix > London > ET)” and hand it back over. As he double checks to make sure I’ve not missed anything, he mutters “Siebentausend?” (“Seven-thousand?”) then kind of half groans, half laughs because it’s clear who’s going to win the “Longest Distance Traveled to ElbeTreffen” award this year.
We’re officially checked-in and directed through the gate and to the right. Good thing I spotted the BaWü club tent from the street as we pulled up. Otherwise, no idea where I was going. I ease the dowdy VeeDub around the corner and take a deep breath.
We’re immediately getting the look. This is a huge Mitsubishi meet and we’re rolling through in a Volkswagen. I hope we find our friends before…
I had the window down and this was not HEY like “HEY BUDDY!” This was HEY as in “HEY WHAT THE F*CK ARE THESE GUYS DOING HERE IN A VOLKSWAGEN. As I turn to face what I suspect would very well be the German equivalent to Vince from the original Fast and the Furious telling me what everyone thinks of the tuna, I see the source. Just as he recognizes me.
It’s Tschippi. And Ingmar. And Ralph. And Conny. And just about the entire BaWü eating dinner and grilling on the patio. Suddenly, a whole gang of people are rushing to the car. Tschippi practically dives through the window to give me a hug that would make my mother proud. He’s no sooner out of the way before hands crowd into my face in need of shaking.
Never felt so important in all my life. Two years prior, we became friends. Now, we were all family.
Ingmar, Ralph, and Tschippi have us follow them in the car to a parking space they’ve had reserved all day in their area. We step out of the car. More hugs. There’s Ingmar’s Lancer, freshly wrapped in bright green vinyl. His wife Sabrina’s Seat Ibiza FR wrapped up and parked right next to it. Ralph’s Space Gear (affectionately called the “Bang Bus”) is parked at the end of the row.
We walk back over to the barbeque area (they are very careful not to contaminate the ground water supply), enjoy a simple meal of freshly grilled pork products, potato salad, and beer, then step into the main tent for the official start of ElbeTreffen.
Wenke gave us all a warm welcome, related the rules, reminded us of the full schedule of events taking place over the weekend, and cracked a few jokes.
We would spend the evening catching up, getting settled in our hotel (Ingmar had already made the reservations and picked up the room key for us), and having a few drinks.
As the adrenaline rush finally wore off, the hours spent behind the wheel, the months spent planning, all caught up with me, and Ingmar dropped me back off at the hotel. He’d be back to pick us up in the morning after breakfast.
Day 8 was going to be epic.