Counting Our Blessings…In Many Ways

August 6, 2022

Today should really be broken down into two parts. Here’s a basic summary, followed by the details:

In the morning, we got up from lying in bed, and took a three and a half hour tour of Auschwitz.

In the afternoon, we got up from lying in the middle of the A4 freeway in Katowice, and continued on another 160 miles to visit our friends north of Wroclaw.

It was a very sobering day.

Auschwitz


Nothing really prepares you for the weight of what you see and experience at Auschwitz. This World War II prison camp is vast, and the guided tour is broken into two parts: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II/Birkenau. Our guide explained to us that Auschwitz was not just a concentration camp but it was also an extermination camp. Auschwitz was the main hub where Jews from all over Europe were collected and sent to be murdered. Birkenau is where the trains arrived, and the passengers were immediately sorted into those that could work and those that would be immediately sent to their death. The main camp was originally a Polish military base before the Germans took it over and converted it to a prison camp for the intelligentsia. Knowing that the educated and intelligent of the Polish citizens would understand quickly what was actually happening, the Germans locked them away before they could enlighten others. Then the camp became a destination for the extermination of Jews. Many who were sent here died within a few weeks of malnutrition. Some were worked hard but still lasted for two years before they withered away or were put to death.

The sheer volume of people who died at these camps is hard enough to comprehend, but standing in the same location as they died really drives it home. It’s hard not to walk through the buildings, past the firing squad wall, and through the gas chamber and past the ovens without being moved.


It’s hard to see in this photo due to the trees in the background, but this is the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free) sign over the entrance to Auschwitz. It’s actually a replica of the original sign. The original is now displayed in the Auschwitz museum. It was stolen in 2009 by a gang of Polish thieves, acting at the behest of a Swiss neo-nazi idiot (my term). They cut the original sign into three pieces in order to fit it in their vehicle. It was found two days later in northern Poland.


Entrance to Auschwitz II/Birkenau, where the trains arrived from all over Europe.


Barracks at Birkenau.


Some of the original fence and guard tower from Birkenau.


This gallows was built to hang Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, after being found guilty of war crimes. He was hanged here on April 16, 1947. I couldn’t help thinking as I stood at this spot that any leader should face these same consequences today if he blindly follows the orders of a madman and willingly causes the death of others. We need to remember what happened more than 75 years ago in order to prevent it from happening again.

We took very few photos here, both out of respect for those who died here and because photos of the place can’t begin to describe the pain and suffering that surround this place.

Near the end of our tour, our English-speaking Polish guide said something that struck me enough that I had to write it down, so I will paraphrase it here:

“Nazis came to power in 1933. They didn’t immediately start killing Jews. They didn’t immediately start invading other countries. It took time. But it was the beginning of an ideology that turned one group of people against another. We can’t stay quiet just because it is happening far away from us. We have to remember the past.”

So true.

Katowice


It began raining as we were touring Auschwitz. We left there in light rain and started towards Wroclaw, a four hour ride. About an hour into our ride and still raining, I told Diana over the intercom that I was ready for a quick break. I checked the GPS as we came into Katowice on the 86 freeway, and found that there was a McDonalds not far ahead. These always make for a good place for a coffee, etc, and there’s free wifi (which usually but not always works), so it allows us to plan our route, make campground/hotel reservations, etc.

Coming into Katowice on the 86 freeway, we entered the transition ramp to the A4. The ramp is a left-hand sweeper that descends from the northbound elevated 86 and runs under it to head west on the A4. It normally would probably be taken at about 80kph, or 50mph. However, since it was raining, I slowed a bit more, down to somewhere around 35 or 40mph. As we came into the curve, I saw the rainbow sheen of oil spread all the way across both lanes and as far ahead as I could see at about the same time that the back tire lost traction and began to slide to the right. Within a second or so, the front tire also lost traction and we were down and sliding. Fortunately — and somehow miraculously — there were no cars beside us or just ahead or behind us. Diana somehow managed to separate from the bike while I stayed with it (my foot caught under the side) and we slid for probably a hundred feet or so down the freeway.

Once we came to a stop and were able to communicate on our headsets that we were both okay, we stood up, but were quickly aware that we were standing on diesel fuel and it was slick as ice. Two men from cars behind us that managed to stop and block traffic came running to help, but ended up ice-skating towards us for the last forty feet or so. Another guy came from ahead of us. That’s when I realized that there were at least two cars ahead of where we came to a stop that had lost control and hit the guardrail before we arrived.

We managed to get the bike up and off to the inside of the left freeway lane. I did a quick damage assessment, and was surprised to find only some scrapes and a bit of damage to the left pannier. We remounted, and slowly dog-paddled our way across the freeway to the exit ramp that was about 200 yards ahead, almost crashing a second time at about three miles per hour on the extremely slick road. We slid into a gas station and took some time to make sure that the bike, our gear, and our bodies were okay. It turned out that the McDonalds was right next door, so we headed there to rest and calm the nerves. As we walked inside, we could hear a steady stream of sirens heading towards the freeway interchange. We obviously weren’t the last to be surprised by the hazard there.

Diana’s left hand was swelling. She apparently had hit it hard on the pavement on the way down. My left hip was bruised and sore, but overall we were extremely lucky. Had there been cars or trucks around us when we fell, the outcome could have been much different. Had we slid towards the guardrail instead of straight down the freeway, the outcome could have been much different. It was about as benign of a crash as you could have at 40 mph on a freeway. The diesel fuel, while causing an icy-slick surface that caused us to crash, also made the surface so slick that neither the bike nor our riding gear suffered much damage. In fact, aside from the diesel stains on our gear, there isn’t a thread out of place.


Diana’s hand swelled up quickly, but she said it never really hurt and she had full range. Nothing broken, thankfully. Even her glove suffered no damage.


The lower box where I keep some tools is damaged, and the front edge of the pannier is scraped. This is the heaviest of the damage the bike suffered, and very little else.


You can see the diesel fuel on the edge of the tread still in this photo, before I wiped it down with a rag.

I wiped the tires with a dry rag, getting as much of the diesel fuel as I could off of them. It was still raining after a half hour or so, and although we still felt a bit apprehensive about the rain and the tires, we decided to slowly start heading west again. The rain finally stopped about an hour later, and we gained some confidence in the tires again.

We arrived at Michal’s house in Jary around 7pm, and joined the party that they had arranged to welcome us.


The guys invited a number of their friends over to welcome us to Poland. We even had a doctor (okay, one medical doctor along with a number of other PhD types — these guys have some well-educated friends) that examined Diana’s hand, offered his advice, then got back to the drinking at hand.


Diana and Lukasz got us started with some special Pigwa (a liqueur made from Quince fruit) that contained Irish Whiskey.


Michal and Marcin.


Soon everyone was doing shots. We gave up and went to bed about 1am. Apparently that’s when things just started. It wound down about 4am.

As I said it was a very sobering day, but it definitely didn’t end with us sober. I don’t drink much, but tonight was a well-earned exception.

End note



These photos were taken several days later, after our gear had dried out. You can still see (and smell) the diesel fuel.

I’ve been riding continuously for the past fifty years, and on the street for the past forty seven. It’s been around forty years since I’ve fallen on a public road, and I’ll be happy if it’s another forty until it happens again. That’s not to say I haven’t crashed before: I spent a lot of years racing both on pavement and offroad, which also helped prepare us for this crash. We wear the protective gear, including boots, pants, jacket, gloves and helmet because you never know when something like this can happen, and if we hadn’t been wearing all of it, our trip probably would have been over in the few seconds it took to slide to a stop. The common term these days is “All The Gear All of The Time, or ATGATT, but I’ve always lived it simply as “Dress for the crash, not for the ride”. Regardless of how skilled you think you are, there will always be that idiot in the car that didn’t see you and pulled out, or fifty gallons of diesel fuel spread across a highway in the rain as the great equalizer. Plan accordingly.

6 thoughts on “Counting Our Blessings…In Many Ways

  1. So glad y’all are ok and continuing such a wonderful journey. God bless and safe travels!

  2. Sure glad to hear you are ok. That was close! Great reports of your travels. Be careful. Thanks!!!

  3. Your brother told me about this before I read about it–thank goodness. Glad you are both OK as I worry like an old lady about things like this! Love reading your posts and the pictures…and love you two so be careful!

    • I guess if you put a million or so miles on a motorcycle it’s more a matter of when, not if. But we were very lucky and hopefully we got that out of our system for another million miles or so!

    • I’m not a superstitious person, nor a particularly religious one, but is it it a coincidence that I lost the St Christopher medal I’ve been carrying on my keychain for the past seven years just a week or so before this?
      Just saying…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*
*
Website

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.