04-May-2013 -- Looking back, I sometimes question my own sanity. It was my very first day in Belgium and my very first time in the country. Here I was on a 40.3 mile (64.8 km) bicycle ride to a field, immediately after flying all night long from the USA to Belgium and a train to Bruges. But, because I was in Belgium for two events that focused on the use of geotechnologies and geography, namely, a course on Geographic Information Systems for educators, and the European Association of Geographers' annual conference, a confluence visit seemed like the perfect way to begin.
To make matters more interesting, I had an electrical outlet under my seat on the airplane, which meant that I got lots of work done on the computer on the flight, but no sleep. After flying to Brussels and taking two trains to reach Bruges, and then walking to my hotel, I found that my hotel room was not yet ready. I then walked across the beautiful town of Bruges to rent a bicycle and begin my attempt on 51 north 3 east. There the adventure began.
I rented from Eric Popelier, a fine establishment that I had read about in Rick Steves travel books. On the bicycle, I carefully threaded my way through the pedestrians and wonderful narrow cobblestoned lanes in Bruges, and through the beautiful gate on the southwest side of the city. It was wonderful. However, once on the wider streets, I got turned around a few times before I even left the city of Bruges. This trek was already taking longer than expected and I was very thankful to be navigating with my smartphone. However, as I had been using it on the train, the phone was low on charge. Would it last my entire journey? I then found the N32 highway and the bicycle path along it. This was fine but the skies darkened and the wind picked up. Yes, I realize this part of West Flanders was fairly flat but I can vouch for the fact that it was all gradually uphill to just about one kilometer from the confluence. And the wind was blowing against me. I rode through the town of Zuidweg, and then to Torhout, getting off course several times in the process. I was getting so tired that at this last town I considered turning around. Still, I pressed on.
At the town of Kortemark I got off course again and wasted more time getting back on course. The gray skies prohibited me from seeing which way north was, to boot. I wound up on the south side of town on a bridge that passed over the bicycle path I should have been on. Why did I keep getting off course? Then I realized the answer: My route on my phone was for walking, not bicycling or driving. I finished descending the bridge and then took a series of narrow but beautiful lanes to the west and south. The sky conditions stabilized. Just when I thought I would encounter no further unexpected adventure, the lane I was on turned into a very bumpy edge of field track of dirt, not even a proper walking path. Again, no doubt because my route "thought" I was on foot. But I was so close that I continued on the bicycle as best I could, and a few hundred meters later, it turned into a paved lane once again. But on the map on the smartphone, this path was listed as a paved lane the whole way. Be critical of the data! Even digital maps contain error and inconsistency. Suddenly, after all of this, I almost could not believe that straight ahead of me was a scene I recognized in Street View, that of the confluence lanes and the confluence point only a few minutes ahead. I reached it around 2:00pm local time, about 2 hours and 30 minutes after I began.
I found the sign on the side of the building marking the confluence. This sign was one of the few I have ever seen; the other was a wooden sign in Germany. I knocked; nobody was home, but out of respect for the homeowners and recalling that the street view pictures of the house are blurred out, I refrained from photographing the house too much. I concentrated on the roads and fields. Just before I left I did dash to the backyard for a quick photograph of the GPS centered on zero-zero, which was easy to obtain. Cows were grazing in the field to the west, and the weather had improved a bit. It was still breezy but about 55 F (13 C). The best view from the confluence is to the east. This was my first confluence in Belgium and my first in continental Europe since my trek to a point in Germany nearly 5 years before. I had been to 51 North before, on a boat with my colleague Gordon Spence in the English Channel, but this was my first time to stand on 3 East.
I spent about 30 minutes on site. Then, I bicycled out of the area, first filming a movie whilst riding by the confluence point, which can be seen here. I then for variety took a slightly different route back, heading first to the southeast and then east. Once I turned northeast, the cycling became much more enjoyable: I was now on the cycle path that had been eluding me, and going with the wind, made much better progress. At the town of Kortemark, I considered getting on the train and taking it back to Bruges, but then was not sure I could take my bicycle on it. Also I was not certain how often the trains ran on a Saturday. And finally, I also thought it would be a sort of "cop out" to return via train, so, after stopping for some water at a lovely shop near the station, I continued cycling, on streets now and reaching Torhout about 20 minutes later. At this point my thighs were burning and I had to ride for the next 30 minutes in a standing position. I was in poor condition when I reached Zuidweg but just had to press on. I reached Bruges with a slightly improved condition and this time did not become lost. I enjoyed Bruges' lanes once again and had no trouble finding the bicycle rental facility. I told the proprietor of my adventures. The total time came in at 4 hours and 30 minutes. On wobbly legs, I walked to the Markt and to my hotel. Despite the length of travel, this turned out to be a fantastic way to see the countryside, and I was very glad I decided to do it. Get out into the field!