Refresh and Reflect
On the pike we carry heads of those we cross. A deep gash cut ruby red turns black with fresh blood; the eyes once full of life become empty and distant, looking upon the fields to unknowable horizons. They roll back and the croaking starts. You start to shake for life, but it’s already gone with that final choke in blood. You watch a young man die and look around to keep from throwing up. From an opioid haze a few mental blocks from a padded room you remember what it’s like to go to war. In the Jaques Woods I walked through someone else’s nightmare: perfectly spaced pines overlooking fields of grazing fire dotted with persistent fox holes. The winter struck early and fierce in the Ardennes, 1944. American and German soldiers, fleeced and furred, billowed vapor in a stand-off like two locomotives pushing continuously in opposite directions. Dead bodies stacked rigor mortis and frozen provided cover for future barrages. Rattling machine gun fire and the high pitch scream of artillery and mortars arrived in scores from both sides with little notice for exact grid location. Certainly no one wanted to be there.
Our itinerary for the day capped a series of World War Two historical sites and battlefields - Jaques Woods, Easy Company Memorial, the Peace Forest, Bastogne - with a refreshing and reflective blonde beer at a tavern just outside the Achouffe Brewery. As mentioned above, we started in the Jacques Woods: a place most familiar to me from Band of Brothers. Overlaying the television scenes from the Battle of the Bulge on the surrounding landscape proved difficult. The undulating green fields, tilled soil, and pine forests sectioned by ancient stone walls seemed impervious to that kind of brutality. The stone wall and occasional country estate likely witnessed the event and can corroborate the television series. All that remains are those stories and the resilient structures still standing. The forest grew and the needles fell, keeping down the undergrowth and, along with erosion, graded the battlefield clean of its pugnacious past. We walked through rows of trees, alone and in complete silence. From a foxhole, looking upon the the green, clearcut fields just beyond the pine forest, my eyes glazed, and my skin bumped like a goose.
We walked down the street to the Easy Company, 101st Airborne Memorial. The polished granite faces lined in granite bricks stood lonely at the intersection of a bike path and a road. One of those timeless country homes across the street was scarred in places, covered with plaster and yellow paint against stone walls half repaired with cinder blocks - likely in a time where funds were short. “The Eagle will always scream for our fallen brothers,” read the memorial above the names of Easy Company soldiers lost during the Battle of the Bulge. After seeing it there’s not much that can be said - a recurring theme for the day. Once again, I looked to the distance along the road bisecting a rolling plain and tried to imagine what those soldiers experienced.
Just east of the Easy Company Memorial, a gravel road devolved into a grassy path and opened to a large circular clearing called The Peace Forest. Within the boundary, trees dressed right in formation: each tree represented a life lost in the Ardennes during WWII. On the periphery, patches of smaller trees represented more recent conflicts. One I found particularly moving was a a section dedicated and planted for the dead children of the Newtown School Shooting. Because it was so recent there were still names written on paper within plastic sheet protectors tied to the trees. Something about seeing a tree growing for a lost life - one lost in my memory - really struck a chord. Those trees were young. Signs surrounded the wood along a path. Each sign had a special tree growing alongside; together they stood for particular towns devastated by the Second World War. They told the forgotten stories of those towns and the trees pay tribute to those places. Each tree had significance to the place the sign described (similar to a State tree). Moving towards the center of the circle I saw each column headed by a post designating a particular military unit. We walked with no intention around the interior. I started to take pictures of the units and the trees behind them. As we approached the 101st Airborne Division I walked between the columns and saw names at the base of each tree: McKeen, Dennis; Martin, James; Gdowski, F. The short headstones beneath each tree clove the ground above roots carrying life past death. The place was empty for us and hauntingly quiet. We left wondering why there weren’t more people.
We zoomed down the country roads until a tiny woodcut of a gnome pointed us right: a road lined with green pastures and plowed fields. The Wallonian countryside and structures made you feel very much in France: stone country homes and barns nestled on plots of rolling, verdant land; tractors turned the spring soil; farmers walked the fields and spread seeds. In the distance, hills rose above valleys in afternoon haze. Pine forests dominated, but patches of oaks, beeches, and maples burst pollen, highlighting their presence. We pulled into the town of Achouffe and parked the car behind the tavern serving the namesake beer. Brasserie d’ Achouffe has become world famous primarily because of the cute gnomes on the bottles. I will say, their flagship blonde beer is fantastic in the bottle. Hazy blonde with a thick foamy head, the nose robustly blends the banana and clove character of the yeast with the citrus tanginess of the hops. The flavor, equally fortified, begins with a creamy mouthfeel and spiciness. Orange peel and white wine notes characterize the dryness. In the background, hints of sourdough bread mingle with the Belgian yeast esters. The finish is balanced with lingering dryness and clove.
Walking along the road past two ponds, swans bathed in the water and sun-dried on the cut grass. We crossed a bridge covered by drooping branches. Trout swam below in the reservoir contained by the rocks of the bridge and an old hotel before us. Behind the hotel foliage thickened, and a sign summarized various hiking options. We opted for a short climb atop a knoll overlooking the creek and the valley. The sputtering of running water over smooth stones drowned the competing sound. I briefly felt solitude. We decided to return to the tavern for a beer and continue on our way.