By Judy Steffes Special to Published Jun 16, 2008 at 3:31 PM

GUNDELSHEIM, Germany -- I bicycled south out of Heidelberg and kept to the Neckar River. The road is fantastic, the small towns charming and much of the route reminds me of bicycling along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River near La Crosse.

The sun is fierce and after 52 miles I'm in Gundelsheim exploring a campsite. Along the river I come upon a man putting together a boat.

He's a Magilla Gorilla kinda guy, maybe in his 40s, very round face and a beard that covers his entire cheek until just below the eye. He reminds me slightly of Grizzly Adams, except without the mane of hair ... and the bear.

The man's name is Thomas, he speaks English and he's putting together his brand new inflatable raft. I catch him taking a break in the meager shade. "Just gotta take a rest for a minute," said Thomas who has been at his project for three hours.

During the break I learn that after 12 years at the Audi plant, Thomas was let go. "One man said I was going to punch him in the eye," said Thomas who seemed totally harmless but maybe a little slow.

As Thomas went on and on about his former job I started to take stock of his boating equipment; he had the high tech raft with a hard floor and paddles, a brand new five horsepower engine sitting along with a trolling motor. There were two red fuel jugs and a pair of blue as well and three cases of bottled water.

"How long has it been since they cut you loose?" I asked ... thinking his wound was fresh. 2002 it happened; Thomas just didn't seem to be able to let it go.

"What's in that bag?" I asked pointing to a larger duffle bag next to some waders and about five big bags of bird food. "That's my trousers in there," he said.

I didn't know where Thomas was going to fit, if he had all this gear in the boat. "Where's your car?" Thomas said he didn't have one. It cost him 5 Euros for a taxi ride down to the water ... and mind you, we weren't even at a boat launch just some rocky area next to the shore.

I helped Thomas use the foot pump to blow up the boat. Mostly because I couldn't stand to see him bend over anymore and air out his crack.

There was actually never much of a reprieve from Thomas' junk, since he had a rip in the crotch of his gray, USA sportswear pants as well.

We were really making good progress. Thomas kept up with the instruction manual, mostly looking for guidance from pictures, he said.

Finally, each taking a side we managed to heft the raft to the river's edge and Thomas asked for a time out. "That's the correct term, right? Time out?" he said huffing.

It was hot and Thomas was a big guy but the closer the boat got to the water the more nervous he became.

I left Thomas and his boat to try and secure a spot for the night. After an hour I returned and Thomas was just as I had left him, on a time out.

"I'm really nervous, I'm just going to wait a couple hours," he said.

I took that as my cue to leave. I think I helped Thomas more than he wanted.

Hours later and thinking about him, I wondered if he's running away and now having second thoughts. He had no means to get things back to his place in town and there was no secure area to protect his multi Euro investment.

I'll have to check on him in the morning.


Found Thomas right away in the morning. He said he "make camping" in his boat. "Too much tackle," said Thomas who obviously had little sleep. And his Honda motor didn't start. I fear it was going to be a long day for Thomas.

For me, onto an interview with the man who makes Schell chocolates and the bicycle museum in Neckarsulm. 

Judy Steffes Special to

Judy is a Milwaukee native who is ever exploring the country. Her favorite mode of travel is her 21-speed, blue Centurion bicycle, which she bought after high school. Judy has worked in the local media for the past 20 years. "I need to do something to support my biking habit."

Judy has an extensive history in radio news, having worked at WISN, WUWM, WTMJ, WKTY in La Crosse and WBKV in West Bend. A strong interest in sports also had Judy reporting for ESPN Radio covering the Packers, Buck, Brewers and Badgers. "One of my first Brewer games at County Stadium the security guy yelled as I walked into the locker room ‘LADY IN THE LOCKER ROOM.’ Now it’s so commonplace. But that story makes me sound really old."

Judy is currently working at WISN-TV in Milwaukee. She is a freelance writer and her pieces have been seen in The Small Business Times and The Business Journal. Her travel journal has appeared in Minnesota Trails Magazine, The Statesman and the West Bend Daily News, to name a few.

Aside from biking, running and being active in her community, Judy is known as someone who is "very, very thrifty." "I get candles for Christmas. My friends call them my space heaters because I normally keep the heat in my house at 40 degrees during the winter. It’s not that I can’t afford to turn up the thermostat, I just hate paying for heat."

Judy said her "conservative attitude" plays a part in her bike tours ... not needing to pay for gas and frequently spending nights camping inside churches. "First of all, it makes me feel safe since I’m traveling alone and second all you’re doing is sleeping, so why pay for that. It’s no wonder I can’t ever get someone to travel with me."

Judy grew up in Whitefish Bay and graduated from Dominican High School and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Judy is the second oldest among seven siblings and spends a lot of her time working as a "park tester" along with her eight nieces and nephews.