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8 – STORM INCOMING

I nearly burst into tears when I see him strutting towards me. It’s another hiker – and I am so ridiculously lost. Last night had seen a few problems come together, that shouldn’t have piled up on each other in the first place.

1) I had an hour of sunlight left, in a forest, where very few hunting stands were to be found. It’s a national park. There’s little hunting here. It makes sense, but it wasn’t doing my camping plans any good.

2) I didn’t know my powerbank well enough yet to correctly interpret its hysterical blue blinking as “Should have fully charged me, instead of just taking me out of the box as I was!”

3) Rainclouds billowing up in the distance, racing towards me with faster speed than I was scuttling away from them. And temperatures dropping – fast.

“Put all that together, stir real good, and you got yourself a nice little mess,” I think as I stumble through the woods, completely unguided, because OF COURSE my phone died, too. My head pounds from sleep deprivation. Temperatures had dropped so far, that my summer sleeping bag had not been sufficient to keep me warm. I barely slept all night.

“****!!!!!”

I try to follow the strongest looking path, the one that’s traveled most.

I try to follow the strongest looking path, the one that’s traveled most. It’s got to lead somewhere, right? Out of these damned woods. The fog has settled nicely around whatever hill I’m walking on when I hear something – footsteps. A man struts towards me. I manage not to cry in relief.

“Lemme show ya where to go. Don’t worry, I hike these woods all the time, and I’ve had some close calls, too. Once got trapped in the fog, just like ya, and came out the wrong side of the damn mountain! Had to take a taxi back home! I carry real maps as backup since then,” he laughs, as he drops his backpack on the ground to get to the map. “I collect the hiking stamps you see,” he says, pointing at a collection of little metal badges stuck to his backpack.

Huh. I didn’t know you could trade the collected stamps for trinkets. Maybe that’s why my parents are so obsessed.

Speaking of my parents, they’d left for work early Monday morning with me. Not after mom had tried to coax the reason for this trip out of me. “So…. how’s it going with…. whoever you’re dating? What’s his name? … Her name?” I roll my eyes. Why is everyone trying to find out about my relationship status? I mean, yes, the last trip was triggered by a breakup, but a sample size of one isn’t a trend. That’s an anecdote.

Or a case study.

“The only crisis in my life is that my PhD is coming along agonizingly slow. Other than that, I’m very happy, thank you.” She’s quiet for a moment. “Just wondering.” I squeeze her hand.

“Mom, I am happy. I’ve been happier this last year than I have been for a while. I’m not running away from anything.

“I simply discovered that I love running, just running for no reason, and because I am who I am… I took that enthusiasm a bit far again.” She throws me a look. “Just that? You sure you’re not secretly wanting to work on your second book before the first one is out?”

Bolts and screws. She always knows. “Maybe that, too. Look, I just love doing this. Getting into trouble, getting out of it, writing about it.”

Speaking of getting out of trouble: back in the here and now, somewhere in the woods, the man points towards… not the way I had expected, but I’ll take it. “Just keep straight. Whatever you do, don’t leave this path. Then you’ll get to a town.” His eyes twinkle. “Good luck!”

And with that he’s off to find more stamps.

That’s when it hits me: what’s a man doing hiking for stamps at 7.30AM 5KM from the nearest town?

Eh. Who cares.

I hear of The Big One Coming. They speak of her, in cafés, on the trails, in snippets of news I hear on the radio, while hunting for food in grocery stores. “She’s gonna hit hard, especially the middle,” the woman selling meat at the butcher’s says. “I wouldn’t want to be outside when she does!” Her customer replies.

The storm Kirsten.

Because I have been taking a much needed break from checking the news, I have no idea what they’re on about. Though I have noticed the clouds billowing up around. Building up. The lashings of wind becoming less inclined to cool me, and more inclined to have branches of trees whip me across the face. Last night, while I limped towards Auleben, my right calf cramping and unwilling to support any movement faster than a hobble, I already had to brace myself against the first tendrils of storm snaking their way into the middle of Germany. But it looked like it would pass.

How wrong I was.

“There’s a storm coming,” mom’s message reads. “Avoid forests,” the news I quickly check say. “Well, damn that,” I huff.

I made such good progress yesterday, 45KM, and now, this. I remember the last storm that had hit Berlin out of nowhere, just this June. Or July? Time has no meaning during times of Covid, but forces of nature do. The following day, what had been supposed to be a fun morning run with my brother turned into something resembling more a tour of destruction. So many trees and branches had come down, even though the storm itself lasted barely an hour.

I think of the destruction of my beloved Humboldthain park as I stare at the sky, grey storm clouds billowing in, already slapping at the flowers in front of my window. I’m inside the inn I had arrived at last night. After not being able to sleep for an entire night because of the cold, I chose the easy option, a night inside again. And now, as I check my phone for weather data, also the safer option.

I ask the innkeeper whether I can stay here and sit out the storm. “Yes, of course!” She bites her lips.

“It’s a mess with the weather. They’ve been saying this storm will come all week. We’ve got four construction workers, all ready to work, but because it’s all things that need to be done outside…. we’re just housing them for free now.” She looks unhappy. “This had better be The Big One now.” Then she smiles at me. “I’d say it’s another false alarm, but I’m no prophet. Stay if you like though!”

If I stay, I lose up to 50KM today. That’s another rest day lost already, flying out the window.

Only 5 left after that. My buffer is melting away.

“On the one hand, there’s a voice in my head saying to stop being such a pansy. And that I just want an excuse for another rest day. But the other side of me in genuinely concerned. Storm warnings don’t normally come out of nowhere,” I text Felix, a friend I’d met at The Bear Storytelling a year ago. “You’ve already had some pretty good learnings on this trip,” he replies. Trust your gut feeling… huh.

The innkeeper knocks at the door of my room. “I couldn’t not make you breakfast, please, have some food, it’s on me.” She smiles, handing me a plate of bread.

Well, if I am sitting out the storm… might as well get comfortable.

I love running. I really do. I don’t know why.

Not only because it gets easier – though it does that, too. My shoulders have adjusted, adapted to, and finally accepted the 8kg weight they have to carry. My left shoulder carries more than the right. Years of standing slightly tilted, with a minor, but definite preference of my left leg as the root to the ground, has left its mark. It doesn’t matter really. My left shoulder is strong enough to carry the little extra. The skin just chafes a bit more than on the right.

The loneliness that I must admit I felt in the first week, the tiredness, the misery that goes with bleeding blisters and missing one’s friends, has also shifted: from crushing, to bearable, to only a quiet ringing in the back of my head. I’m beginning to enjoy my own company again. I don’t have to drown out the silence anymore with music, or podcasts. I still enjoy doing so, but it’s not a necessity anymore.

It’s true. Endurance really is a thing that grows quickly. I noticed on the bike trip. I notice it here again. One would think that humans were born exactly for this. Born to adapt, born to endure – if we must. No wonder we’re still around.

But of course, one thing hasn’t changed yet – I’m still weird.

“Come on, come on, come on… one of you has got to be growing onions…” I whisper to the plants as I quickly move along the rows of fields. I’ve already got myself a stash of potatoes – harvesting technique as taught by Roy. “No lentils tonight, HA!” But a little bit of flavor would be nice. That’s when I spot a tomato on a vine. It’s in a garden – but the garden has no fence, and the tomato plant is right on the edge. “Just one tomato…? Won’t hurt.”

It’s so delicious. The ones in the store just don’t taste like the homegrown ones.

I saunter on. The day had been passed by collecting miles, rather ruthlessly so. The weather turned though, at around 3PM, and what had been nice to run in before, turned into a blazing desert heat. I sprawl beneath a shrub, and sleep in its shade for twenty minutes. I wake up from the nap dazed and confused. It takes me a moment to remember what I’m doing here.

The day had been both boring and eventful. It started with having to work my way through fallen trees and branches, finding a children’s amusement park (including emus!) atop a deserted hill, visiting graveyards for water (and marveling at some of the succulents on the gravestones that were growing bigger and better than the ones I have at home), seeing flocks of wild peahen, nearly having a heart attack as those wild peahen suddenly all flew out of a bush at once when I passed, and…

Well. Tomato theft.

I don’t finish the 60KM I’d been aiming for in the end. It was worth a try, but it’s easier to push hard when there’s an inn waiting at the end of the day. This way, I found a nice spot next to a little stream next to ducks, swans and geese.

I like being close to birds.

Birds always know where it’s safe.

And so I fall asleep to the sound of the gurgling stream – and some animal rummaging through the apple trees above me.

I hope it won’t drop them on my face in the night.

Well, at least now I know the difference between “water-repellent” and “waterproof”. Not that this little nugget of knowledge is doing me any good, as I lie semi-awake, shivering inside my wet sleeping bag, while the rainwater slowly seeps through my water-repellent bivy sack. It’s 4.30AM. I had once more failed to find a hunting stand. Not that this should have surprised me. I’m very close to human settlements, and I don’t know about you – but I wouldn’t want anyone hunting around fields just 200m away from the nearest road or house.

My head hurts. To generate at least a little heat, I tuck my entire body, including my head, deep into the bag. That doesn’t leave much opportunities for breathing though. The headache must either be from sleep deprivation… or oxygen deprivation. “I’d still rather have a headache than freeze.”

I should’ve taken the hunting stand I saw two kilometers back. But I’d gone on, thinking I would crack the 60KM mark – till I realized that would be next to a gas station in the middle of Erfurt, and came to an abrupt halt at the stream – not at the hunting stand.

You’re always smarter after the mistake, no?

Another mistake I’ve made: I’ve been playing it fast and loose with the water. Where I used to make sure I had at least a 2l backup, I am now content with 1l. I hadn’t even bothered to refill before dinner this time. So I didn’t toss the water I used to boil the potatoes from the field in.

I recycled it, making my oatmeal in the starchy potato water.

Quick word of advice if you love your tastebuds:

Don’t.

“Gross,” I wince, but shovel the food inside me regardless. The water is empty. My gas is empty, too, but thankfully, I have another one my parents had brought me last weekend.

Ah, another day, another collection of chaos and entropy to deal with.

It’s such a simple way to live.