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Pedaling the Iron Curtain

The former border zone is now a wildlife preserve with quirky museums and monuments.

When the wall fell in 1989, people — above all West Germans — just began showing up, out of sheer curiosity. Herrlich and her husband started renting rooms in their farmhouse; by the late 1990s they were serving country-style meals typical of the Rhon region, which basically means a lot of succulent meat dishes. Today the Horse Trough — considerably more charming than its name implies — has 20 rooms and caters above all to hikers and bicyclists.

North of the Horse Trough lies my goal for the day, the Point Alpha Memorial, the site of the U.S. Army observation post that was responsible for surveying East German and Soviet troop movements at one of the Cold War’s hottest flashpoints. Nuclear-equipped Warsaw Pact and NATO divisions stared one another down over this protruding bit of the German-German border. Although it never came to military blows at the mouth of the legendary Fulda Gap — the western-most position of the East bloc’s forces — it was here, across these lush valley floors and rolling farmland that NATO’s chiefs expected the Soviet land invasion of Western Europe to come. And they were ready for it.

As it turns out, the memorial is a mile up a sheer incline that I vastly underestimate, causing me to shed two sweaters before giving up and walking the bike. Atop the windswept bluff, a little museum — with several dozen elementary school-age kids respectfully milling about — recounts the frontier zone’s development, from the casually marked boundaries of the postwar occupation zones to a complex, intimidating fortification composed of steel mesh and high concrete walls. The East German authorities turned the border into a mine-laced “death strip,” complete with attack dogs, trip-wire spring guns, anti-vehicle trenches and more than 400 armed guard towers.

Most of the families I met picnicking near Point Alpha on a glorious spring day were there as much for the stunning landscape as the history, but the history was important, too. Barbara Paul from nearby Bad Soden wanted her three kids to be able to grasp what Germany’s Cold War division meant for her family, which had fled from the East. Her 9-year-old boy affirmed that he thought he understood better now. “It’s cool here,” he says, ripping into a salami sandwich, “and beautiful.”

Andreas and Annette Kunz, a 40-something couple from Darmstadt, say that like many young West Germans at the time, they never thought Germany would be reunited — nor did they particularly want it to be. “I simply didn’t have much contact with the border or people from the East,” says Mr. Kunz, a salesman. “Honestly I didn’t think about it all that much.”

So this year, rather than vacation in Scandinavia, the Kunzes set off with car and backpacks to the Rhon, just an hour and a half from home. “We wanted to engage with the German-German history on a personal level, since we never really had,” says Ms. Kunz, a secretary, who watched the tumbling of the communist regime on television. “I thought for sure there’d be bloodshed. I still can’t believe there wasn’t. It was wonderful.”

As for my foray into the German soul, I was impressed by the trail users’ need to remember — or perhaps, not to forget — what Europe’s division had meant. They were eager to incorporate this historical imperative into a holiday that enabled them to both enjoy and remember at the same time.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Germany:

Eastern German problems play out on the pitch

Take my car, please

Hamburg wobbles, does not fall (yet)

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