Come Mudwalk with Me

WE WERE SCARCELY a dozen strides into Holland’s Sea of Mud when the gumbo seized our guide and wouldn’t let her go. One minute Winnie was right behind me, rhapsodizing about the peace only mudwalking can bring, and the next she was floundering hip-deep in the channel of pewter-colored gunk I had just wallowed through with a sewer bureaucrat from The Hague named Rolf.

“Must be a suck hole,” Rolf said in his seamless schoolroom English. He offered me some drop, a licorice the Dutch covet, as we watched Winnie struggle to get free.

Shijt!” she said pleasantly. The more she squirmed the deeper she sank.

Rolf examined the chilled sky and chewed. The sky was the same color as the slop at our feet, which was the same color as the tidal flats stretching to the isle of Ameland, a sullen hump five miles away that was the object of today’s trek. With her jade eyes, her official red and yellow windbreaker and her confusion of butter-hued hair, our guide was the only thing in sight that wasn’t gray. If she went under I’d miss her contribution to my field of vision, if nothing else. Meanwhile, the other wadlopers, the mudwalkers—five guides and a hundred civilians—were leaving us behind.

So what was the protocol here? Should I help? Or because she was my leader and I was her follower, plus the only foreigner on this messy trip, would that cause her to lose face, to descend in the wadlopen pecking order?

But I had a more vexing concern.
They promised if I hiked at low tide across the bed of the Waddenzee—the shallows between the mainland and the Frisian Islands on Holland’s north coast—I’d be safe and sound as long as I showed up in decent shape and stayed with the group. The wad is just a nature walk, they said, a stroll in the park. Oh, there might be waist-deep pools here and there—remnants of the ten feet of brine that washes in from the North Sea at high tide—but they weren’t like, you know, the ocean. Because I was raised in a landlocked place where I had developed vigorous phobias about the sea and the hungry things that live in it, I needed reassurance. In fact, the only bodies of water I feel at ease with are the ones in toilets. But already we’ve got suck holes here. What else were they concealing? Did those slime fields out there harbor sand worms the size of Al Gore? Or worse, unannounced surges of foaming water that would force me to paddle like a crazed beagle?

Before you go to Holland there are two ways to train for wadlopen. One, drive out the beach or the lake and march around in the shoals to condition your mud legs. I went to a marsh behind our house that offered some very nice sludge. But after a minute of sloshing around I decided to opt instead for method number two: Do nothing.

My Martinair flight from Seattle landed at Schiphol on a perfect June morning. Like many things in the Netherlands, the airport was built on the bed of a former body of water. The Dutch used to spend most of their time building dikes around bodies of water, then draining them with windmills to make new land called polder. But now they figure they’ve got enough of this manufactured real estate, a decision I don’t understand for two reasons. First, Holland has grown to 16 million very busy beavers jam-packed onto a soggy plain the size of San Bernadino County, making it one of the most densely populated nations in the world. Second, I believe that people who’ve been honing their land-making skills for a millennium owe it to their gift, not to mention their hydrophobic guests, to keep at it till the only water around is no deeper than a hot tub.

I boarded a train inside the terminal and jumped off a few minutes later at Leiden, the gorgeous, ancient university town south of Amsterdam, to pick up my rent car. Dazed by jetlag and a hangover from overdosing on tranquilizers, I was carbo-loading at a street cafe on fries with mayonnaise, a Dutch staple, when I happened to eavesdrop on a pair of coeds at the next table.

“Mijn broeder, de kolossaal idioot, windsurfde in de storm!” a blonde girl said.

I guessed she was describing her brother’s obsession with windsurfing, but Dutch is a blend of English and German spoken in a sing-song with a lot of throat-clearing noises that can cause hallucinogenic confusion if you listen to it long enough, especially when you’re tired.

A girl in a John Deere cap noticed me spying and turned to her companion. “Good God,” I was certain she said. “That American has a huge rectum!”

But to my measureless embarrassment, I wasn’t a topic of this conversation at all. They were comparing notes about a gale that had blown in from the ocean the day before and thundered 80 miles an hour across the Netherlands, killing four. They translated the front page of De Telegraaf I was carrying around, which featured a photo of a capsized sailboat on a lake called the Fleussen in the northern province of Friesland. Two guys awash in the choppy water were fighting for their lives.

Great. Killer winds in Friesland, the exact place I was headed. I asked if they’d ever done any wadloping.

They stared at me. “Aren’t you going to check out Amsterdam?” the John Deere girl said. “Everyone checks out Amsterdam.”

Okay, did they know anyone who had ever gone wadloping?

“Well,” the blonde allowed. “My brother said he did.”

The next day I drove vaguely north, stopping to do tourist things. All the locals I talked with gushed “Ah, yes, Wadlopen!” But none admitted actually doing it. So when I awoke the day of my big date with the Waddenzee I was certain I was about to be the latest patsy in a national practical joke featuring hapless foreigners overcome by quicksand as bumpkins in wooden shoes point and shriek like howler monkeys.

At dawn I drove ten miles north from the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden to the village of Holwerd, then past sheep grazing the banks of a dike and out into the wad on a mile-long jetty. At land’s end was the Zeezicht Restaurant, an alleged wadlopen rendezvous. Pushing through the doors, I was vastly relieved: The joint was jumping. Like me, everyone was dressed in shorts, sneakers and sweaters. Unlike me, the men had bulging calf muscles, and so did the women. They could have passed as a gang of cyclists or rock climbers in the States except for the blue cloud from all the cigarettes they were smoking.

They all went outside to stand around a bearded guy with an enormous backpack stuffed with ropes, first-aid, a two-way radio, waterproof maps and a compass in case of fog. All I understood of his marching orders was something about our return from Ameland by boat in the afternoon. Later, I would regret forgetting to ask for an explanation about the boat.
And then it began. The moment my foot touched the mud and sank into it an inch with a deeply satisfying squish I was transported to the Missouri River sandbars where I had eagerly squandered my feral childhood covered with muck. As the others stepped in, a smile of recognition lit up their faces as well, and everyone started chattering like blackbirds in a cherry tree.

Finally, Rolf called out to another guide. After much huffing and puffing on either end of the six-foot orange staff the man wielded, Winnie stood before us dripping like a swamp thing.
“Watch that first step,” she said. Her English, I would discover, was as good as Rolf’s, although she buffed hers every night studying All My Children and As The World Turns, while he preferred L.A. Heat and MTV.

It is a treat to beat your feet on the Waddenzee mud, but the novelty evaporated as soon as we left the fields of clinging organic goo along the jetty and began slogging across packed sand under six inches of water. Herded by the guides at a pace that seemed a tad brisk for a nature walk, we passed by a sprawl of wooden corrals stretching a mile back to shore. Fish farming, I guessed, but Winnie said they were reisdams, holding tanks invented by the Germans that capture mud from the tides to buttress the dike. Around the Waddenzee you just can’t avoid this ceaseless war. Take, for example, the medieval church three miles away in Ternaard, whose spire dominates the horizon. Like many of these one-horse towns, Ternaard was built on a huge man-made mound of clay and tidal rubbish called a terpen. Before the dikes were constructed, the pagan Frisians devised the terpen as a way to keep dry when the floods swept in.

Although mudwalking is a marginal sport in a country nuts about ice skating and tennis and soccer, for the Dutch it’s a symbolic nose-thumbing akin to stomping around in an old adversary’s rumpus room while he’s off at work. So much of their history has been caused by the ocean. Although Holland’s fleet made it the world’s richest nation in the 1600s—an era of global empire and vibrant culture epitomized by Rembrandt—only recently have the Dutch felt safe from the North Sea. The most recent catastrophe was a freak tide that rolled across the southwest in 1953, killing 1800 people. Pech, some said—bad luck. But the engineers went on a thirty-year spree building new dikes, massive tidal barriers with steel gates the size of King Kong and a whole province called Flevoland made from polder. If all these efforts to bully nature were erased, at least half the country would be under water.

Midway to Ameland I stopped thinking. The scrubbed air had warmed and I was consumed by the effort it took to pull one sneaker from the mud and put it back down. Around me, all talk had ceased. Besides the rude sucking noises our feet made the only sounds came from the sea birds that filled the sky. Winnie said our pace was calculated to get us to Ameland with time to spare before the tide returned, even allowing for mishaps. Since she seemed to be an expert on mishaps I didn’t doubt her. Although my legs were beginning to fatigue, a pleasant stupor had taken hold of my brain. I imagined a trance like this could be therapeutic if you lived in the Randstad (literally “big village”), the 50-mile crescent of megalopolis stretching from Haarlem and Amsterdam to Rotterdam and Dordrecht down south. You can actually feel the earth in this anthill throb with new construction, which is fueled by very low interest rates.

Randstaders either flee this bedlam for vacations in the Mediterranean, or they head north. Besides the obvious city mouse-country mouse contrast, the region is different than the Randstad in other ways as well. It has its own language, Frisian. And besides mudwalking, it has its own weird sports. Foremost is the Elfstedentocht, or eleven-city race, a 125-mile ice skating competition carried out from town to town when the canals freeze over once or twice a decade. Then there’s kaatsen, a sort of handball the English call fives, and a silly pastime involving pole vaulting over canals in the summer. The region even has its own horse, the Frisian, a black-coated worker with a long mane and a skirt of hair around its hooves. You see them stretched out at dinnertime in the pastures, tiny goats asleep on their backs.

And the north still has the village life that’s at the heart of who the Dutch imagine they are. Some of these hamlets are Catholic, some Protestant, some legally protected from change, and some are “red villages.” One of these socialist bergs is Pieterburen, whose three streets are lined with comfortable old brick cottages. The day after my slog to Ameland I met an American expatriate named Mark Lester out rollerblading. He moved to Pieterburen with his Dutch wife and their commune from Amsterdam in the early 70s, when young people were turning from city life all over the West. Although he makes his living building jewel-like Irish harps he said the village once thrived by putting up fake lighthouses, then looting the ships that went aground. Now it exists because of the successful farms surrounding it and the vacation trade that keeps the cafes hopping.

It’s also wadlopen central, where bookings are arranged. Dijkstra, named after its founder, and the most prominent of these tour operators, warns visitors of the consequences of challenging the Waddenzee without a guide. In 1995, for example, the bodies of ten foolhardy souls washed up on a beach. Otherwise, the rules are simple: no dogs or kids under twelve. When Hijlke Dijkstra led his first tour in 1963 he attracted 100 followers. This year at least 35,000 will cross the wad. Although Dijkstra’s guides are volunteers, their organization charges a tariff. In the case of Ameland, it’s thirty-five guilders per person, about $30. Dijkstra suggests that you might want to warm up for the big trips to Ameland and its neighbor islands with a zwerflocht, or ramble, a mud lite that takes you out into the Waddenzee a ways, then right back.

Like all hayseeds, northerners have an attitude, in part because Randstaders think they’re hayseeds.

“Did they want to see your cow?” Rolf asked.

“What cow?” I was trying to catch my breath.

“The Frisians won’t let you in unless you bring a cow.”

After wading through a stretch of water up to my chest we had stopped on an islet in the Pinkewad, or “Little Finger Mud” (God may number every grain of sand, but the Dutch give them names). Here was a row of dead young trees driven into the sand to mark the depth at high tide for pilots. And nearby was a confluence of tidal creeks, imperious ducks riding the flow. I scanned the horizon for a glimpse of the seals that forage in the Waddenzee. Winnie, who was rinsing off in one of these streams, suddenly fell to her knees with a yelp. The current had undercut the sand at her feet and pulled her down. Some guys went over and hauled her out.

I got tired enough on the final leg that raising my head became a bother. But at the sound of a collective gasp I looked up to discover that the afternoon sun had seared through the haze and made radiant an enormous thicket of wild white roses climbing to Ameland’s 70-foot plateau. The fragrance of a million blossoms hit me at the same instant. The effect was like Dorothy’s relief when Oz appeared across that sea of poppies. I clamored from the mud and collapsed on solid ground with a whine.

But it wasn’t over. We were led a mile across the island through a beautiful sanctuary of sand dunes and scrub to the North Sea, where we splashed off the gunk that had splattered us from head to toe. I sat in the water soaking my feet, wondering where the boat was, when everyone began walking again. I followed, of course. Ten minutes later Winnie and some others riding in a tram pulled by a tractor passed us at high speed and out of sight down one of the widest beaches I’ve ever seen. Winnie waved. Rolf had disappeared, so I asked a young couple where the boat was. Their answer staggered me.

Eight miles later, up the beach and back across the island, I commanded my cramped legs to board the ferry at the village of Nes, and limped to a booth in steerage, too weak to climb the stairs with the others. All at once the place was swarming with schoolkids on a day trip, bellowing at the top of their lungs. A knot of them wearing tee shirts illustrated with marijuana plants began singing over and over a perversion of the Barney song. “I hate you, you hate me, we’re a fucked up fam-i-lee!”

Just as I was about to scream Winnie appeared. “Why aren’t you upstairs?” she shouted.
“Can’t walk,” I shouted back.

She left, but soon returned. From her day bag she withdrew a bottle of a vodka made in Luxembourg called Black Death, and a pair of shot glasses decorated with little skulls in black tophats.

And then I was saved.

Copyright 2006 © by Bill Vaughn


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