“Let’s just hope they don’t find any of this,” I said. Sheena nodded, nervously wringing her hands. A rower sliced through the dark water of the canal, barely taking notice of us inspecting our work. Scraps of chicken wire and wood littered the ground around the van.
Belgium—flat, muddy, cold, and windy—is a Petri dish of hardened souls from which a smorgasbord of culinary delicacies were spawned, among them the world’s finest chocolate and beer. Since the ninth century, Trappist monasteries have been brewing beer as a way to support their abbeys. The monastic order fell apart during the French Revolution, and today only seven monasteries survive in Benelux; six in Belgium, and one in the Netherlands. My goal upon arriving in Belgium was to visit them all, but most importantly to get my hands on the uncontested holy grail of beer from Abbaye Saint Sixtus in the tiny village of Westvleteren.
Westvleteren 12 has long been considered the best beer in the world, but it isn’t distributed outside of the region, and its sale is tightly restricted to a few dozen cases per week. In order to get it, one has to make a reservation a week in advance, and then pick it up in person from the monks somewhere out in the windy cattle pastures of western Belgium.
After mapping out the Trappist abbeys, we finalized the route of our Belgian tour.
By the hundredth time I dialed the number my fingers acted without instruction, tapping out the ten digit number on the keypad. I squatted on my heels in the center of the tourist information office in Rochefort, Belgium, and had been doing so since the phone line had opened. After thirty minutes the old woman behind the counter whose phone I was using shook her head and muttered in French “That’s enough,” but like a socially retarded individual I acknowledged her and continued dialing. A good thing, because five minutes later someone picked up on the other end of the line.
“Hello, this is Saint Sixtus. Can you be here next Monday at 2:30?”
“Oh god, I almost hung up! Yes, I’ll be there.”
“What is your license plate number?”
“It’s AHK 2531.”
“Okay, I will see you on Monday.” Click.
I let out a restrained whoop and gave the finger pistols to the old lady behind the counter and then walked outside into the cool, overcast Belgian morning, flaunting my social retardation in its most unbridled form.
We should have been ecstatic to be in Belgium, but now that we had arrived it was bittersweet. Three years earlier when we scratched out our rough plan for worldly discovery, it looked something like this:
- Leave home
- Go to Machu Picchu
- Catch fish
- Drink beer in Belgium
This was a big one, but it was also the last thing on the list. In a little more than a week we were to load Nacho onto the fifth and final ship of the journey in Antwerp, whereupon he would brave the high seas one last time en route to North America. After having put down tracks in 30 countries throughout five continents over the course of two and a half years, this was it.
On the first day of our Trappist tour I bought a special Orval beer goblet. Later on we set up camp in the mosquito-infested woods, I walked into a stinging nettle, and then Sheena broke my special Orval beer goblet by carelessly knocking it into the sink with her elbow.
“Damn you, woman!” I said. “You just broke my special beer goblet!” On her face, a frozen look of terror, all clenched teeth and raised eyebrows.
Our long path to this point had taken numerous twists and turns, but there was one point in particular where we were really tested. Many will recall the tale in which Nacho climbed through the remote Colombian mountains more than two years ago, when our transmission gave up the ghost and purged its life blood all over the road. After throwing my body in front of a passing truck a couple of hours later, we found ourselves being towed to the decrepit lair of the evil Mechanic of Susacón. There, Nacho was touched inappropriately, and then under cover of darkness a farmer helped me to steal Nacho away to the safety of his farm, where we would remain stranded for nearly two months.
Over those two months we would get to know the little old lady who navigated the trail each day behind the farm near the rock that had been painted for the Battle of Boyacá, the pig farmer who lived up the hill, the boy who filled our pitcher each morning with fresh milk straight from the cow’s udder, and the coca farmer who stopped to say hello each time he passed Sheena in his truck during her morning runs above Chicamocha canyon. But above all we got to know Hernando and Cos, the lovely couple who ran the farm where we stayed, and whose kindness made it very hard to leave Colombia, even when we were mechanically able.
It was to our great surprise and delight, then, that we received a message from Cos while we were in Rochefort stating that Hernando would be in Köln, Germany, in just a few days to visit his daughter. We updated our GPS, adding a lightning bolt trip to Germany after our stop at Westvleteren.
To get to Westvleteren we set off across Belgium to the West. Along the way we stopped in at Chimay, probably the best-known of the Trappists, and spent a day tooling around the idyllic town of Brugge, hitting a couple of small farmhouse breweries along the way. After leaving the premises of a steam brewing operation whose labels featured illustrated pigs in seductive poses, we stopped by the Dubuisson brewery in Pipiax, where Bush beer is brewed. Inside we chatted with one of the workers.
“So what brings you to Belgium?”
“Just driving around, mostly.”
“Excellent. Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“Oh! We hate George Bush around here!”
“Yeah, most people in the world do.”
“I know, but we hate him for a different reason. After he was elected he sued us for having the same name. Can you believe it? We have been around since 1769! And do you know what? With all of his high powered lawyers he beat us! We had to change the name on our labels for American distribution. It was a very expensive time.”
“That guy must be some kind of bastard, brother. Some kind of bastard.”
When Monday rolled around we awoke with a sense of haste and purpose. Well one of us did, anyway. Sheena didn’t seem to care that the day had arrived to pick up our two cases of Westvleteren 12, a.k.a. the holy grail in my beer crusade. She slouched in the passenger seat reading her coming of age princess novel while I closely followed the turn by turn instructions on our Garmin through farm pastures until we finally reached the monastery. I pulled into the driveway where there before us sat a giant stack of wooden crates full of Westy 12. Next to the crates there sat a monk in a small office, and as we drove up he checked our license plate against his paper and then instructed us to grab two crates.
“You can grab two crates,” he said.
“I love you,” I said, realizing too late that I was speaking my thoughts aloud. But there was no time to explain, we had to get to Germany.
When we first met Hernando we were at a low point. During our first week on his farm in Colombia, having just experienced a long stretch of mechanical failures, we had considered ditching the whole plan and flying home. But after weighing the options, we had reluctantly persisted, a decision that has certainly transformed our lives for the better.
Now I thought back on the trove of experiences that we’d gained since deciding not to quit. For instance, I know what it feels like to cross the Andes in the back of a rattletrap chicken truck. I know how the heat feels rising off of the Atacama desert, I can still taste the Patagonian rainbow trout cooked over a campfire, and I recall how I felt when my eyes first saw the tip of Tierra del Fuego disappearing into the icy waters of the Beagle Channel. I know the fragrant heat of the Malaysian jungle and the Muslim call to prayer, the sizzle of Thai street food and the spices stinging my lungs, the salty air rising from the sea on the Cambodian coast, filling the inside of our home, and the Tibetan Plateau stretching out before us from a Himalayan pass. The way my fingers turned yellow from turmeric while eating lamb biryani out of a crumpled Indian newspaper under the stifling Tamil Nadu sun. Turkish pine trees fanning out onto the beach and the feeling of being swallowed by a bustling north African souk. The uneasy feeling of setting off, having chosen the tougher option, from the Colombian farm as Cos and Hernando waved goodbye, turning right when we could have just as easily turned left.
Tatiana and her father met us on the sidewalk as we approached her apartment. Tatiana’s picture had hung in the room where we stayed in Cos and Hernando’s house in Bogotá, and we had thought she looked very pretty then. In real life she was even more beautiful, and her face reminded us of her mother, Cos, back home in Colombia.
“Hernando! Que tal?!”
“Todo bien. Ustedes llegaron a pesar de Nacho!” You arrived in spite of Nacho. Touché.
We opened Nacho’s door to let the two of them peer inside, Tatiana for the first time, and Hernando for old time’s sake.
“It looks just the same,” he said. “It’s like no time has passed at all. Is this Westvleteren beer? I’ve heard about this beer!” I shot an “I told you so” glance at Sheena, for she hadn’t believed me when I told her that this beer was a big deal.
Over the next day and night we caught up with Hernando and got to know Tatiana. He told us that the same young couple still works on the farm, milking the cow each morning at 6:30. The only difference now is that there aren’t any stranded gringos waiting bleary-eyed with their pitcher in hand for their morning milk. Our quaint little cabin still stands in the grassy meadow, at the base of the hill where the trail climbs past the rock that was painted for the Battle of Boyacá. And Cos still zips around the village and occasionally back to Bogotá in the same car that Hernando and I used to steal Nacho away from the molesting hands of the deranged Mechanic of Susacón.
In a whirl we were back on the road, driving toward the Dutch border. While our next stop was the Trappist monastery at Achel, where I would be sure to buy a special Achel beer goblet, the real destination was the town of Eindhoven, where there awaited another blast from the past.
We first met Jan on a freezing cold day near the base of Mount Fitzroy in southern Argentina. He and his riding partner Kevin had recognized Nacho from the internets, and stopped by later to introduce themselves. We were just about to ship Nacho to Malaysia, and on a whim they decided to share the shipping container with us and come along.
We shared an apartment with Jan for a week in Buenos Aires, and then met up a month later in Kuala Lumpur when our container arrived. We separated then, but over the next couple of months we coincidentally ran into each other at a private beach barbecue near Terengganu, at a roadside Indian restaurant in the Malaysian highlands, and again at a night market in Krabi, Thailand. He had ridden his motorcycle throughout southeast Asia for another six months before a string of mechanical issues signaled the natural end to his trip, and he flew home to resume his life as a tax lawyer.
Now, a full year after our last encounter in Thailand, we brought Nacho to a stop in front of Jan’s home in the Netherlands.
“Is that Westvleteren beer?,” Jan asked, peering into Nacho. “That beer is very good, you know. We can drink some tonight, along with the rest of the beer that I want you to try.”
That evening we proceeded to be driven into the ground by our Dutch friend. By the end of the first or second beer Sheena and I were three sheets to the wind. By the fifth or sixth we were swimming in a pool of jell-o with magical narwhals and mermaids, all wookie-eyed like the villagers on Colombia’s Wookie-Eye Road. We each finished off the evening with a Westvleteren 12, but I won’t pretend that I was in a state of mind to provide a quality review. What I do recall is that my feet looked like dueling submarines, Sheena reminded me of a cartoon, and my head felt very heavy.
The last time we ran into Jan was in Krabi. On that day we had watched a Thai beauty pageant entirely composed of cross dressers, and then sat with Jan at a nighttime open-air market and ate Thai street food. The following day we had caught a boat into the Andaman Sea, where we spent the afternoon diving into crystal clear water around coral beds before having a barbecue on an island beach. We had ended the night swimming with phosphorescent plankton in the pitch black sea. Now, in the Netherlands with Jan, we discussed how one can go back to a normal life after so much time having these experiences stacked one atop the another. Is it possible to go home, unpack, and eat a sandwich?
The ordinariness of American life does seem appealing at times, and perhaps there is a point in every open-ended adventure at which the desire for the ordinary begins to overpower the desire to keep going, and maybe that’s the turning point where you know it’s time to go home. Since leaving Asia the stimulation of the road had slowly been declining, but perhaps it was because we were slowly and unwittingly returning to a sense of ordinariness by virtue of rejoining the “Western World.” Jan had adapted very well to his new life at home, and I think that’s because he reached the tipping point on his trip, and he acted upon it. What was unclear to us was whether we had hit the tipping point, or if the real solution would be to turn around and go back into the unknown. It was too late to change our minds now, though. Our ship was waiting in the port.
On the final night at our canal-side campground, just over the Dutch border in Belgium, we finished our packing for Nacho’s final trip across the Atlantic. We were allowed to pack up to two bottles of alcohol, and this was going to be a problem, seeing as how we had just taken ownership of 48 bottles of Westvleteren, not to mention Sheena’s wine collection that she’d accumulated while traversing Europe. We lined the mattress with bottles and Sheena placed the rest under the couch and I secured it with screws. Since we were shipping Roll-On-Roll-Off for the first time, a process in which someone else would drive Nacho onto the ship without us being present, I created a wood and chicken wire barricade to separate the cab from the living quarters. It was something of a hail mary.
Once everything was secure we fired up the engine and pointed toward the port at Antwerp.
The 7 Trappist beers in their “special beer goblets” – Victory is mine! (click image to enlarge)