If a stranger on the internet invited you on a bikepacking trip – would you go? Now, what if I told you it was a bikepacking trip not just through a different country with an internet stranger, but even on a different continent? Still keen?
Well, Mark was. “Though I don’t have a bike,” he wrote to me early on. “No worries. I’ll organize you one,” I replied. “All you gotta do is show up.”
Which he did.
I’d initially met him, an airforce pilot turned medical doctor working at a hospital in Canada, online. We’d been in touch for about a month now, him occasionally calling me from strolls through the woods. Calls he’d sometimes interrupt to show me lush, green fern, trees with red bark, or rocks by the path side. Once, he turned on his camera to show my bald eagles flying past overhead.
You can guess how long it took me to want to take him along on a bikepacking trip. I think a full five minutes would already be an overstatement.
I wrap him in a big hug when I finally meet him. Of course I’m an hour late to our meeting. My phone’s data volume was used up, and I’d tried to navigate to the restaurant using nothing but a screenshot of a map, and a compass.
A compass that had never been calibrated, and had mild tendency to point north-east instead of north.
Mark doesn’t seem to mind my tardiness. “You’re here now!” His black hair is fluffy enough to make it (almost) impossible to resist the temptation to touch it. He’s got a big grin, and thoughtful eyes – which have a habit of seeming to look at something just out of your own view, keeping check on the surroundings.
Which make it all the more capturing once they come to rest on you.
“So, I have gear: a sleeping bag, mat, tarp, and all that jazz,” I tell him (thank you, @querfeldberg!!!) “Perfect.” – “But no bike. We’ll have to find a rental for you tomorrow.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Maybe I’ll buy one.” I laugh. “Sure. And take it back to Canada.”
I’m pretty sure he’s kidding –
Till the next day.
“…..You actually went out and bought a brand new bike.” My jaw drops a little. “But… you need to bring it back to Canada! I thought you were kidding!” Mark just laughs. His relaxed attitude gives me a feeling that, in true bikepacking fashion, he’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
Or burn it. All options are valid options if they can carry you across the finish line.
The sun shines bold and bright as we pack up our gear to leave. While he’s filling his backpack with gear, I strap on my red bike bags. They’re much lighter than usual. Since it’s Sunday, and all the shops are closed, I‘be been able to resist the temptation to buy ALL THE FOOD like I normally do. “We’ll find pubs and restaurants,” Mark chuckles as I try to convince him of the gravity situation. “It’ll be fine.” – “You say that now! You’ve never seen me hangry!”
We finally leave, weaving our way through parks and streets of Hamburg, picking up camping gear from @querfeldberg on the way. The tarp, quilt and air mat are enviously tiny. So tiny that we manage to successfully strap up most of the gear to Mark’s bike frame. Who needs a frame bag when you’ve got rope?
Hamburg is a terror to navigate, with its half-hundred construction sites all set on blocking our path – but we manage to leave it eventually. Time passes quickly, the light of the evening sun setting the leaves of autumn all around aglow. Every tree seems to be carrying its own golden halo.
A golden arch rising in the distance fits the picture perfectly.
“You up for a McDonald’s drive-through coffee?” Mark winks at me. We ride through to the window to get our order on our bikes. I have to laugh at the sound of chuckles coming from the couple in the car behind us.
As we drink our orders, Mark watches the sky. “There’s weather coming,” he says, pointing at a wall of clouds building up in the East. I squint up at the sky. It looks too calm to turn stormy anytime soon.
But I wouldn’t be ending this story on a weather-related cliffhanger if it didn’t. 😉
The first raindrops hit us just outside of Soltau. “Is this the storm starting already?” Mark asks as we pull up to an Italian restaurant. We’re both famished, and getting a little nervous. The storm front coming for us looks massive on the weather radar. “Let’s check inside. I’m starving,” I reply.
The weather app doesn’t have the most brilliant of news. But we have another 3hrs till the true storm hits, leaving us enough time to order pizza and spaghetti – and to chat.
I don’t know how our conversation meanders to the question, but suddenly it hovers over our table:
“Why do you write?”
No one had ever asked me so specifically before.
“Apart from the fact that I can’t help it?”
“Because people matter. The stories I live through on these adventures have proven to me again and again that people are, at their core, good and kind. And I don’t know if they themselves will read how I write about them. They might not. But others will. And maybe they’ll remember my stories when they come into situations like the ones I describe – and remember what I wrote. That people are good. That they are kind.”
“I want people to know that who they are, what they share, their quirks and jokes and stories – matter.”
I tilt my head, a little self-conscious at the small speech I just gave. Mark looks at me with a smile, and nods.
We pack up our half-eaten pizza, and cycle out into the woods. We push our bikes into the thicket, Mark joking about “the things I’ve seen when I was out flying, they’d make you believe in alien abductions in the woods” to scare me as we set up camp. We tie the tarp to a few trees to cover half our tent to keep dry from the rain and manage to fit two people comfortably into a single person tent.
As we fall asleep, I can hear the first raindrops pitter-patter on the ground, the tent, our tarp.
It’s a perfect illustration of why I write.
Because these stories, the people I meet, these moments are precious.
They deserve to be written about because they matter.
They matter to me.
No aliens come to abduct us during the night. “And the storm was also just lazy wind!” I text Denis the next morning. Since our houseboat escapades, this particular phrase has never failed to make him chuckle. I tuck away my phone, and look up to see Mark already packing up our campsite with focus and efficiency that I personally cannot evoke before my morning ritual: caffeine-induced stimulation.
“Want some coffee? It’s just coffee grains with hot water on top, but if you ignore the sandy feeling between your teeth, it’s alright!” Mark takes a sip – but must have only done so out of politeness, because he leaves it at that.
We finish off our breakfast: some leftover lunch (Turkish coleslaw) and dinner (Italian pizza) from the day before. I take most of the coleslaw, a choice I’ll be regretting in less than an hour.
No, not because of indigestion. It’s simply not ideal bikepacking fuel.
We thankfully stop in Bergen for a coffee and a cake, which I essentially… hoover up. “You… demolished that cake,” Mark laughs. “A salad instead of carbs for breakfast on a cycling day is a bad idea,” I reply, chugging down my caramel and cream-topped coffee. I had been eating packets of candy (dextrose energy) for the past hour just to control my hanger.
The day flies by too fast. As the sun sets at Ridiculously Early 4PM, we reach the outskirts of Hannover.
I’m heading back to Berlin (my boss and I forgot about a grant meeting I needed to attend, requiring me to cut my trip short). Mark heads back to Hamburg. “What are you going to do about your bike?” – “Taking it with me on the flight is another 300-400€. I’ll see what I can do,” he replies nonchalantly. One last hug – and off we go.
A day later, I get a text.
“I explained the situation, and they took the bike back at the bike shop.” I can’t believe it.
I hate to sound like a broken record: But bikepacking trips really are a different kind of magic.
You should give it a try, too!
Perhaps with a stranger you met on the internet. 😉