I cross the Elbe on a little wooden bridge so narrow that before I drive across I get out to take a look if the car will fit. For all it’s historical significance, here it resembles a common little creek, brown and a little swollen from all the rain.
I swear something feels different on the other side of the Elbe. Grey geese pick through the mud next to abandoned factories. Many of the houses are made from dark, horizontal wooden beams with white chinking. Roofs seem larger and droop farther towards the ground. Rather than oak and apple trees, rowans line the narrow streets, and in the dusk they look like so many red matches.
I stay overnight at the Hotel Alpský in a bare yellow room. The television is broken, perhaps for the best. I go to bed early. Cold air from the Carpathians blows in and I sleep well for the first time on the journey.
When I wake up, I notice for the first time that there’s a picture hanging over my head. At first I think it’s a scene from the American West: a well, a dusty shack, a desert with a few bare telephone poles. When I look closer, however, I realise it’s a picture of the source of the Elbe. When I look it up on a map, I discover it’s only a few kilometres away, and that there’s a road leading there directly from the Alpský which continues on to the Polish border. Perfect.
Only, ten minutes in I almost run over some Czech tourists and realise that I’m driving on a hiking trail. So I turn around and take the regular old pass to Poland and skip the source of the Elbe. Some things are better when they keep a little of their mystery about them.