I wanted to find a way to finish what I called my Trans-European Triathlon. This had begun, very spontaneously, with a bike ride from Berlin to Nordkapp. The attempt to cycle almost 3,000 km on my own as my first solo, long-distance adventure did not come without tribulations. But somehow I managed to drag myself and my bike Red up into the Arctic, where I wildcamped in lonely birch forests and on the moss of the Scandinavian tundra. I fell in love with long-distance adventures. And I swore I’d do it again.
But then Covid struck. Borders once unimaginable closed became seemingly impenetrable barriers.
So I adjusted my long-distance adventure plans and, like most people in the early stages of the pandemic, went for runs. Lots of them. I ran so much that one day, the idea to run instead of cycle across Germany no longer seemed like a bad idea, but a great one. This eventually led to my first ultramarathon: 1,000 km, self-supported and solo, from the lowest to the highest point of Germany – all in the midst of the pandemic.
This left the water leg of my Trans-European-which-kinda-got-stuck-in-Germany-because-of-Covid triathlon. I knew a desire for another expedition would accompany the end of the pandemic, so I began scheming.
I began looking into kayaks, before realising I lived on the fourth floor of a tiny apartment building. There was no way I was constructing a pulley system to slowly raise a kayak past my neighbours’ balconies every second morning. But I could go to my local lake to train until the pools opened up again.
So long distance swimming it would be!
But the reason why I chose the Elbe was a personal one.
Moving back to Germany after growing up in the US, no place felt like home – except one spot next to the river Elbe.
It doesn’t look like much. It’s a wrangled willow tree that in spite of the many, many floods this river has wrought upon the city refuses to give up on living (I definitely wouldn’t call its survival “thriving). But it was a quiet spot. Occasionally, a few animals that looked like otters or beavers came around as I sat by that river, reading letters, books, or just wondering:
“What the heck am I doing here?”
I didn’t feel like I belonged. For the longest time, I felt like I’d been ripped from the place I was supposed to be – Athens, Georgia (USA). That’s where I grew up. That’s where mom took my brother and me to the Botanical Gardens, that’s where I’d run through the woods, leaving the house in the mornings and returning drenched in sweat and covered in dirt. I understand that I see all these moments tinted in the sweet, soft golden glow of childhood memory nostalgia, and yet, I can’t shake the idea that in the woods of Georgia, I was happy.
I wasn’t happy in Magdeburg when we returned. I didn’t know who I was, who I was supposed to be, or how I was supposed to fit into this place. But I did love that river. It never judged me no matter how many teenage-hormone-fueled existential crises I took to its shores. I’ve spent hours of my life walking along the shore, seeing the water churn past, wondering where it had come from, wondering where it went. I saw the river swell in the spring, sometimes taking out much of cellars that had the audacity to exist in its close proximity, and I remember the floods so severe the schools would close so kids could help fill sacks with sand and prayers that this would keep the river at bay.
The river didn’t give a darn about any of that. Instead, she always kept her human neighbors a little on edge, be it curious, anxious, and or awed by what she would pull off next. The Elbe has a temper, and I adore her for it.
I did end up liking Magdeburg eventually. Once I found my climbing family there, made friends who didn’t care that I had Great Bad Ideas or occasionally jumped between languages, it started feeling a bit more like home.
We never know which moments end up being the ones shaping us. Perhaps I am who I am these days precisely because a few decades back, I sat sulking by a river, wondering: “What the heck am I doing here?”
I still ask myself that. A lot. It’s the question that pops up every time I leave my comfort zone.
“What the heck am I doing here?”
It’s the one question that shows me: I’m right on track.
Let’s see where it’ll take me this time. Hopefully all the way from the eastern border of Germany to Hamburg.
Read more: HERE over at Adventure Uncovered!