When this card reached me in spring 2015 I replied something along the lines of: 1.) nothing concrete, everything possible, 2.) I’m free end-July till early October, 3.) no clue till you try me, 4.) tell me, fucking finally tell me what your idea is!
Nelson’s reply took a long time cause it should have arrived precisely during the Great German Mail Strike. Eventually it did come through, and told me how he had that opportunity of moving to Kraków for an EVS. I remembered how back in Madrid we competed to get a grasp of “W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie”, while I told him like I told anybody at the time how much I’d like to forsake airplanes and do a bike trip instead. Now what had made him jump out of bed at 3 in the morning was a sudden urge to look up the distance from Borghorst to Kraków. “1000 kilometres, could be done by bike, what do you think?” —— to which I ran to the letterbox, sending an immediate YESOFCOURSE to Madrid. Then I sat there for a while, stared into thin air and thought to myself what stupid shit I had got myself into now.
In the end, it took us 3300 kilometres. Neither of us has a thing for straight lines.
Weeks went by worrying about everything small and big. Route (sketched out in rough terms for the German half of the trip and almost entirely open to more improvisation beyond the border). Risks (to quote from Nelson’s next letter: “Rain, haven’t thought about that, good point!”). Equipment: Jesus, he didn’t have a bloody bike to begin with, and I had no clue of how to pick one!
And yet one bright Sunday morning we casually rode down the road to Emsdetten that I’ve taken a hundred times before. The great shock of now-it-starts never took hold. To each of the many people who claimed they could never do such a trip we would reply it didn’t feel like one most of the time. Every day we’d just do our small distance for that day, the unusual thing was just how the next day and the day after that and so on we’d continue to do the same. But you don’t feel the sum of it all, except in these few exhilarating moments that then really hit you. Like: “What the fuck, why are we in XYZ, how the fuck did we arrive here, did we really cycle 1000km straight?” But in the next moment it’d be over, and business as usual resumes.
The daily adventures on the other hand felt massive at the time and not just in memory. We’ve had it all. Rains, torrents, deluges. Accidents and fucking mountains. Incredible generosity and hosts from hell. Heartfelt concord followed by mutual murder attempts. Oats with water for breakfast and lunch in a place like this:
There was some zigzagging. Nelson: “I want to go to Berlin and Warsaw and I also need to meet Julia in Poznań”. I: “Never been to Saxony, I want to go to Leipzig and Dresden”. Former mathematicians, we both agreed on Göttingen. Most of the time it was Nelson pushing the limits. Maybe I should just have let him have his swim in some river or pond when the trip was still young – I let him wait though and so during the really hot days he became convinced we should jump into the Baltic. No way!, said I, one look onto the map should be enough to tell you we couldn’t possible go to Gdańsk! It’s at least two weeks from here if we go fairly fast! Of course it’s too far for us.
Yeah, stupid younger me. Took me way too long to figure out that’s his favourite motivation. Maybe we would have missed the coast if only I had told him how quick and pointlessly easy it is to get there.
Shoudl have figured that out by the time we hovered around the Brocken, really. The (kinda simplified, it turned out in practice) rough overview I gave Nelson beforehand about the terrain we’d cover went like this: Nothing but plains in North Germany, nothing but plains in Poland, maybe some hills in Saxony. We’d cross the Porta Westfalica, the river gorge that marked the border of mine own turf …
… and after which there would really just be one mountain left, the Brocken and its surrounding range, the Harz. Nelson, would you like to go around to the North or to the South of it?
He did not like either option.
For two weeks he had complained about the pain and lagged far behind and all in all I wasn’t sure we’d ever make it to Kraków. All while he talked nonstop of wanting to climb over a fucking 1000 metres to see the Brocken’s summit, where the witches are dancing. We did manage to get to the top (lots of sweat and cursing involved), and in the night, the foxes told him the secrets of how to ride a bike. Ever since he’s been racing far ahead of me. Even when for once my tyres didn’t explode every other day.
Cycling makes you discover the places in between. We didn’t usually have highways built where there was nothing but sand or forest yesterday – rather more than occasionally, though, part of our route would originally have been the work of some Friedrich or August or Władysław. Not just kings would line up along our way, certain other characters followed our every step, too. On this side of the Odra there doesn’t seem to be a single village undisturbed by Goethe, on the other we’ve been spied constantly by this Freddie Mercury impersonator:Don’t get the impression, though, that all that interested us was ancient history.
In spite of what you might think now, there are many humbling experiences on such a trip. If over time this becomes accepted as a canonic law, please, I’d really like to have it named after me:
There’s always someone doing a bigger trip.
Meeting other cyclists they would inevitably go to Gibraltar. Or China or whatnot. I’m certain that if we were to cycle to the moon, halfway we’d meet someone on their way back from Mars.
We approached Wawel precisely nine weeks after leaving Borghorst. This here is the most compressed short version of it all – in all those years since I still haven’t yet figured out how especially the last few days before Kraków could possibly be described in a way doing justice to the actual madness we’ve lived through there. Well, I guess I should perhaps start figuring out how to paint it then!