Feeling down? Got your heart broken? Lost a job or need time to self-reflect and find your bearings again? Then I’ve got the solution for you:
A long bike ride.
And as annoying as I can be about pushing that in anyone and everyone’s face, at least I am consistent about this being my favorite solution for myself, too.
I really wasn’t doing well after Melinda died. Still am not, though it’s been improving a bit. Her death was just so sudden. And what shook me just as much was that in spite of her skill, her prep, the fact that she never undertook her adventures without training or gathering information on the topic, the trail, the climb…
She died on a solo tour.
She was damn good at what she did, and yet –
I slowly took on the shape of my couch trying to accept and process what had happened. Her death seemed very, very pointless – and life without her suddenly did, too. What was the point in preparing for big challenges, big adventures, when they might just be the last one you go on, regardless of how well you prepare?
There wasn’t much to learn from her fall either, I felt. You can be as prepared as you want, and a rock may still break off in the worst of bad moments.
But I also knew that she would have made fun of my moping eventually. “Get off the couch, and get outside! You could be training!”
So here I am.
Listening to the podcasts she loved and brought into my life, cycling to the place she’d been working towards living in since I met her.
I know she never would have wanted to live differently than she did. Even if you had told her how her story would end, I firmly believe she would have laughed and said: “So be it.” If you’d seen her eyes shine when she spoke of climbing and the mountains, you would have understood, too.
I get her, too. I haven’t felt more at peace with myself than since I began these adventure shenanigans.
This is who we are, and what we need to shine as bright as we do.
It makes us happy.
Great Bad Ideas just do.
The start of my trip is relatively chaos-free. I mean, I do forget my helmet. And I nearly miss the train out of the city. And my bike’s stand has broken clean off, with the screw still stuck inside the frame.
But other than all of THAT it was a perfect start!
“Annie, you have got to take a real break these days. Sleep lots, eat lots, make compromises about your holidays with Denis.” I huff, on the phone with my mom. They’d called to check up on my plans for the week. After Berchtesgaden, I’m off to Salzburg. Also by bike because for some reason, my entire family has set their sights on that place this week. “That is absolutely not what I want and need right now,” I reply. “It would do you good though. Anyway, we’ll see you in Salzburg on Wednesday.”
I have to admit, she’s not completely wrong. I’m not in the best of spirits as I slowly make my way south. It’s been a while since a big bike tour, and the emotional exhaustion of the last two weeks had left me feeling not just slow, but vulnerable. A little scared even. I knew I was doing this to remind myself of – something – but wasn’t really sure what that something might have been.
By the time I’ve made it to Wittenberg, I’ve remembered. The colors of the sky, of the flowers are so much more vivid when I’m out here. I can’t help but grin. I can’t help but feel alive, and happy out here. I do love a good solo tour.
“You from further away?” A man approaches me in Witternberg, as I’m trying to figure out how to squish my bike, a statue of Martin Luther and myself onto a selfie. “Yeah, Berlin!” The man’s eyes widen. He’s small, dressed in a red shirt, and wearing silver-rimmed glasses. He smiles at me, and takes a step closer.
“That’s super far away! Especially for a girl out on her own!”
I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that the “girl” wasn’t meant in a condescending way. He is after all the first person who doesn’t ask me whether I have a boyfriend/brother/dad with me for protection. Instead he asks if I also do these tours with my girlfriends from time to time, which is a nice change of pace in conversation. But when he asks me for a coffee, I decline. “I’d actually like to be alone right now,” I reply sweetly. “Ah, a true lone wolf,” he laughs. He wishes me well as I head off again.
I’ve got 150KM left to go on today’s schedule. Not a problem, right? It’s 1PM and I’ve got time. I’m even considering cycling through the night. (#CYM or something like that, right @maexchen_24 ? 😉 )
But instead I find myself pressed up against the closed storefront of an oven shop a few hours later.
Lightning flashes across the sky.
This kind of downpour… I’m not prepared for.
I am drenched to the bone.
The problem with having no bike stand is that now I need to find a tree to lean it against. Only then can I open up the bag filled with my trusty rain gear. Of course the moment I need a good tree, they all seem to have grown legs and walked off to Isengard.
But even once I find a suitable tree I still can’t open up my bag without the rain pouring in. My down jacket is already dripping by the time I’ve scrounged together and put on my rain pants and poncho.
It’s also gotten dark, the grey sky flashing as lightning streaks across it.
My favorite adventure conditions. How thoughtful of them to show up.
My plan had been to cycle through the night. No sleep. That’s why I was so overindulgent with breaks all day – I thought I had time.
But in these conditions? Heck, I don’t even feel like setting my tent here.
„Um… so maybe my current Great Bad Idea is just a BAD idea… can someone in Leipzig perhaps help me?!” I text the @routesettingsymposium team’s group chat. I had met the members of this absolutely lovely team just a few weeks before at the orga meeting. And a few of them, I knew, lived in Leipzig.
It takes one of them, Inga (@freibeuter_illustration only five minutes to respond.
“Sure, come round!”
I slip out of the rain into the warm glow of her apartment an hour later. There’s a mattress on the floor of her little kid’s playroom, a blanket, pillow and towel waiting for me.
“I don’t want to say I was gunning for being rescued out of this adventure,” I tell her.
I shovel down noodles left over from her family’s dinner. “But I am honestly quite happy to be here.” She grins. “We were on vacation ourselves, and cut the trip short because of the poor weather. And I just happened to look at my phone in the right moment to see your message.”
Great Bad Ideas may not always work out the way you want to.
But that’s the joy of it.
It doesn’t stop raining all day.
As I ride south from Leipzig, I eye what must normally be a mid-sized stream warily. The brown water looks bloated, it’s current so swift that ducks trying to stay in the same spot to feed are churning their little feet like steamboats on the Mississippi River.
These conditions are awful even for a bikepacking trip. I’m really glad I’m not swimpacking.
“Ay, it’s all uphill from here on, too!” Werner, a fellow bikepacker tells me with poorly hidden glee. He’s just made it out of the hills and valleys of the Vogtland. “And damned glad to be out of it.” – “Where are you headed?” I ask as I prepare coffee for the both of us. “Leipzig, Berlin, Rostock and then back down over the west. I’m stopping by all of my old company’s headquarters to regale them with bikepacking tales and collect donations for the people affected by the flood of the Ahre.”
Though I try not to leave my saddle, my progress is slow. I snail myself into the depths of the Vogtland, changing my goal with every passing hour. “Ebendorf by Bayreuth.” An hour later: “…maybe Schwarzbach.”
By the time the sun sets I’m a swearing sweaty mess aiming for Plauen. „What the HECK, who ever came up with this frigging DUMB idea?!” I have to admit though: in spite of the fact that my nerves are frayed, my muscles aching as I push my bike up a steep mountain road in the dark as rain seeps into the side of my poncho, I have to grin.
This is what I’m here for.
As @querfeldberg would say: “Es bockt!” (Best literal translation: It goats. 😆 Best possible translation: This makes you want … stuff. More. Motivation. It’s a tough sentiment to translate.)
Another hour later, I’m preparing my trusty red lentil soup under the shelter of a bus station in the middle of nowhere when headlights flare up – pointing right at me.
A car stops next to me, its window rolled down.
“Geezus, the weather is absolutely terrible!” Trung pulls his hoodie down as he comes towards me out of the darkness of the unlit parking lot for a big hug. “You think so? The rain has actually died down by now,” I say with a grin. He shudders in response.
Trung (@asiabox_) was one of my most regular climbing partners – back when climbing was still firmly at the front and center of my life. I haven’t seen enough of this man since he moved to Dresden two years ago. I’ve also seen less of climbing walls in the past two years. (Coincidence? I think not!)
And when he saw my videos looking like I’d just been dunked in a pool, he asked if I’d like some company (and a dry car to sleep in). An offer I gratefully accept.
As I prepare dinner (red lentil soup deluxe, with salt, lemon and slices of *real* capsicum and tomatoes!) we chat about how life’s been going.
I think the conversation can be summarised like this: Life is a collection of chapters, and opening a new one can be as overwhelming as closing an old one.
“Something weird is happening to me. I’ve been getting pretty damn scared on this trip. I don’t know why. It’s new,” I want to confess, but bite my lips. “The country roads at night in the rain are just…” I can’t shake the thought of Melinda. It feels like she’s here, reminding me of all the things I can’t plan for. The things that have no contingency plans.
“Is that why your progress is slow?”
“Nah. Mostly it’s the late starts. It makes me realise why I could power through so many more KM in Scandinavia. I was super dependent on the never-ending daylight, cycling till 1 or 2AM. I can’t do that now.”
Trung nods, and hugs me once more before we go sleep on the mattress in the back of his car. It’s what I’ve always appreciated about him – in climbing, and life. He’s a thoughtful and self-reflected person, able to hold your thoughts without judgment, offering quiet, kind encouragement instead. It’s the kind of support that works wonders on me.
I’m glad I accepted his offer to meet up.
Not because of the car.
Because I’ve missed him.
I don’t mind night owls per se. The issue of the combo of night owls and myself is that we usually end up with massive amounts of sleep deprivation.
“You can’t seriously want to get up now,” Trung looks at me, bleary-eyed, still curled up in his sleeping bag in the back of the car. “Too late, I’ve been exposed to sunlight. I can’t go back to sleep now.” He throws himself facedown into his pillow. I think I hear the sound of muffled screaming.
It’s 6:44AM, and we’d chatted well into the early morning hours till 2AM. As we sip our coffee, looking out into the fog and drizzle coming down, I’m doing the math in my head. I’m at 300KM of a 770KM trip. “Weren’t you planning to arrive in Berchtesgaden tonight?” Trung asks. “Please. Don’t remind me,” I grimace.
Today’s the Day Of Vert. Yesterday was a joke in comparison.
“Do you train for these trips, ever, before you head out on them?” He looks at me with a wry smile. “Um… I commute through the city?” He laughs. “So you just bang out the KMs without training. Might be something you could change in the future.” He winks at me.
“Please take me to Bayreuth,” I suddenly say. “You sure?” Trung raises an eyebrow.
It’s not what I had planned, no. My ego is kicking and screaming at the thought of yet another DNF (“did not finish”, must be the motto of my 2021). But scoring some sort of athletic goal was not the reason I left Berlin for Berchtesgaden. And that reason is so much more important than my ego.
“I need to get to that mountain. I don’t have time, and I am NOT going to miss out on giving that chunk of rock a good kick.”
“Alright. Let’s get you there.”
“Sounds like one of your usual adventures to me: you rode off head over heels, and nothing went according to plan. Typical.” My brother laughs, pleased at the accuracy of his assessment.
I had kept on cycling from where Trung had dropped me off in Bayreuth. The scenery is stunning – and soon I’m beginning to recognise parts of it. I’m in Franken, (one of) the climbing Mecca’s of Germany. I remember waiting at the train station in Pegnitz for a train to take me home, or a bus to take me to the rock. Good memories.
Pegnitz is also where my brother calls me for an intervention.
The thing is: The reason I have a hard deadline is, besides my chaotic planning skills, my family. The trip to Berchtesgaden had been disastrously spontaneous – but their planning to have all of us meet up in Salzburg on the 24th of August wasn’t. “We really want to see you. But if you keep cycling, you’ll be missing out on family vacation.”
I sigh in exasperation. “How do we always manage to plan family events right around my bike trips so often? Just once I’d like to cycle off just as I please, no clock ticking in the back of my mind.”
My brother chuckles. “Sorry, kiddo. But I want to see you, so get your bruised butt over here.”
A man I’d been chatting to before my brother called me comes walking towards me. He gently puts two pieces of cake on on my bike bag. “Have a safe trip,” he whispers, not wanting to interrupt my conversation. He throws me a grin and a thumbs-up as he walks back to the cafe we met in.
“What was that?” Maxi asks. “A mountaineer I’d been chatting with. He goes on big mountain tours in China and just gave me some cake.”
“That’s nice. Anyways. Are you coming to Salzburg or not?” – “I’m not skipping Berchtesgaden.”
“Well then, it’s time to skip ahead with a heavy dose of Supplement T(rain).”
And as I wait on the train station platform in Pegnitz, hearing strike-related cancellations and delay announcements rain down, I think:
At least I’m not the only one where things don’t go according to plan. Isn’t that right, db? 😉
“How did you and Melinda meet?” I ask Selma in the warm, orange light of her kitchen lamp. We’re sitting in her apartment in Munich. There’s a hat with the Pacific Crest Trail logo hanging from a hook in the hallway, and pictures of mountains and forests dot the kitchen.
“We actually met online! I was renting out a room, and she was interested. We FaceTimed – and clicked.” Selma smiles. “You know those people you meet and feel so comfortable with that it’s been as if you knew them for years? It was like that with Melinda.”
Selma was Melinda’s former flatmate in Munich, and had been sweet enough to offer me a place to stay. I hadn’t expected to ever see this place – Melinda had moved permanently to Berchtesgaden some months prior – but it made me happy to recognise parts of her Munich home from pictures and FaceTime calls when she’d lived here.
Being here makes me feel a little closer to her – if that makes any sense.
“It made sense for her to move to Berchtesgaden. She was spending so much time there. And the place where she lived is just stunning!” I love the way Selma ‘s eyes shine brightly when she talks of the mountains. No wonder she and Melinda instantly connected.
I’ve thought about moving to the mountains – but backed out of a PhD offer in Zurich last minute. I like to blame it on circumstances, but at the end of the day, I was turned off by the hassle of moving country yet again. I can’t deny the mountains have a pull on me – but not an unescapable one just yet.
I’m impressed by both women, who made the choice to move to the mountains, because they knew this is what they wanted in life. Regardless of the hassle that went with it.
The next morning, Selma is already gone by the time I wake up. Her new flatmate is making coffee in the kitchen, dressed in a gorgeous rose-coloured skirt. She hands me a white cup. “Have a beautiful day in Berchtesgaden,” she says with a smile.
“I think I will,” I answer.
I think I might just find what I’m looking for today.
Damn. If Vert Ain’t Real, I really ain’t fit enough.
I’d started in Munich with a lot emotions. Leaving behind the elegant, white two-story house Selma and Melinda (had) lived in, I zip through the city on Mango. I can’t help but grin – not just at the fact that it’s all downhill, but also that you can’t deny that the mountains are close by. If the cyclists in rush hour with me aren’t wearing full on outdoor gear, there are still enough hiking packs on their backs to even out the fancy cars cruising through the city.
It’s a mountain city.
And I’m only a few hours from seeing them again myself.
So many silver-haired retirees on e-bikes swish past me as I struggle through the vertical meters, oh so pleased with themselves and their stupid toys. I bet they all think they’re soooo much better than me… Or that may just be my resentment at the fact that while I’m here, pushing my bike up hills while they seem to have pressed cruise-control, barely pedalling talking.
The hills emerging from the landscape between Munich and Berchtesgaden are pretty – but even as I marvel at the wisps of fog caught on the pine tree silhouettes, I still don’t get it. It’s nice here. But not “I-need-to-leave-life-in-Berlin-(or even Munich)-behind-to-move-here”-pretty. Maybe it’s also the weather. It’s still cloudy, and if there are mountain tops any taller than the hills around? I can’t see them.
Those hills eventually turn into pretty tough obstacles themselves though.
“Couldn’t you have lived in a place with stairs? Lifts?! ELEVATORS, Melinda?!” I yell out. Maybe Melinda can hear me from wherever she’s hiding in the ether, having a good chuckle at how I’m swearing myself up a gravel road. “And you complained about my apartment on the 4th floor…,” I mumble.
I hope she heard that, too.
Finally, the last climb. I can see her house already.
I reach the top-
And then I see it.
It’s the answer to the question that brought me here.
“I get it now, Melinda,” I whisper.
This place is everything you ever wanted.
I know it was my reason for heading down to Berchtesgaden. But I didn’t actually end up kicking the Watzmann.
I walk up to Melinda’s old house with just a GPS location to guide me to where I knew a small memorial had been placed. A woman who looks like she was waiting for something is looking out at the mountain panorama as I push Mango onto the property.
“Excuse me… I’m looking for a small memorial for someone named Melinda, do you know where I can find it?” My voice quivers. I was so controlled up to now, brazenly yelling at mountains hiding behind some clouds:”YOU COWARDS SCARED TO GET KICKED, HUH?!”
None of that energy is left.
All I want to do is find my friend. And cry.
“Hey Annie,” the woman says and walks up to me. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
The woman (and her husband who joins us an hour later) had been Melinda’s landlords here. A friend of Melinda’s had told them I was coming. They give me coffee. Tell me stories of Melinda’s mountain adventures that make me giggle. Show me the view from her room.
“She loved to sit out here at this table, working on her laptop,” they tell me. I sit down where she would have sat and look out across the mountain range.
And just then, the clouds clear up.
Right behind the Grünstein, peeking out over its top, is the Watzmann.
I went to Berchtesgaden to kick the mountain that had taken my friend. But I realise now that what I actually went down there for was to see if Melinda had been happy. My wonderful friend, who’d spend hours of days and nights chatting with me about her life plans, agonising over the decisions that came with her mountain dreams –
I wanted to make sure she’d found what she’d been looking for.
And sitting next to her picture propped up against the candles, looking at the peaks of the Watzmann –
I knew she found it.
And now I know if I ever need to be close to her…
She’ll be here.
Where she was happy.
I miss you, Melinda.