Shoulder seasons always feel like a pause to me. The time between one season’s activities and the next, when sometimes the answer to “what should we do this weekend” is “it’s just not quite right out there for anything.” Too warm for one activity but too cold for another. Not enough remaining snow, and too much snow at the same time. Sometimes the best answer is to stay home and organize the gear closet.
COVID-19 is dialing up the volume on that pause to eleven. It’s a deafening silence, and if you’re like me and you are used to filling uncomfortable silences with stories from recent adventures and plans for upcoming ones and you’re being forced to just wait, it kind of sucks. We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know when it will feel right to make plans again. We don’t know when we will get to make new stories.
With that in mind, I revisit a bicycle tour I took with my sister a few years ago, which is an even more poignant memory now.
It was the afternoon of the third day of our bike trip through northern Germany when I made the mistake of trying to explain to my sister how much fun I was having on a trip I had originally scoffed at the idea of.
My sister Gus and I grew up on a farm in central Vermont, but when I went to a liberal arts college in northern New England and served as an officer in the outdoors club for three years, she opted for college in New York City, and our paths have continued to diverge since. I moved west after college and found a career and community organized around big wild landscapes where a person can easily walk for a week without seeing another human. My sister moved to Istanbul and then Berlin, and she is rarely out of sight or earshot of other people.
Despite our divergence, we have remained close, and once a year or so we meet for weekends that we dub “city mouse, country mouse” weekends where we eat and explore and catch up on life. It was on one of those weekends that we first talked about doing a bike trip in Europe together with my husband Jamie and her husband Dorian. We chose biking precisely because it wasn’t a thing any of us had much experience with so none of us would be any further out of our comfort zone than the others.
Europe has a comprehensive network of sixteen interconnected bike routes, called EuroVelo, that crisscross the continent and connect almost all of the major cities. To simplify logistics, I narrowed my focus to the two routes that go through Berlin. One goes east-west and one goes north-south. We could ride east into Poland, west towards the Netherlands, north towards Denmark, or south towards Prague. Can we just take a minute to acknowledge how exciting those options sound? When you live in the western U.S. where it can take more than a day of driving to get to another state, having multiple countries that speak different languages and have different food and culture within a half days drive? That’s pretty cool.
Our plan became to pick a direction, bike along the route for as many days as our schedule allowed, and then take a train back to Berlin. Yet another thing that makes Europe awesome, convenient public transportation!
As I researched routes, I started thinking about another key difference between my sister and me. I’m a sucker for type-two fun. I feel most proud of myself when I make it through a day that pushes me past what I thought I was capable of. My sister? She’s not so interested in being uncomfortable. She likes type-one fun.
My ego didn’t like the idea of going all the way to Europe to do a tour that wasn’t going to leave me feeling like I had accomplished something big. But this trip was a rare opportunity to spend multiple days in a row with my sister away from the stress and distractions of our lives. If we were going to have fun, I was going to have to let go of my ego-fueled vision of a grand suffer-fest.
In the end, we decided to bike from Berlin to Rostock, which is about 240 kilometers north on the north coast of Germany. We would stay in hostels or pensions along the way and eat in towns along the route. The route is part of EuroVelo 7, or the Sun Route, which continues all the way north through Denmark and Sweden to the north coast of Norway and all the way south through the Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy to Malta. It’s also part of a German route called D-11 that traverses Germany from north to south. It’s a paved bike-only road for most of the way, with a few gravel sections here and there to keep things interesting. It occasionally parallels a highway but often finds its own way through gently rolling forests and farmland and around small lakes. There are small villages every ten to fifteen kilometers and at least one bigger town every day. If that sounds idyllic and easy, that’s because it is.
We left Berlin in the afternoon. Jamie and I were still jet-lagged from our red-eye the day before but the weather was perfect, and packing gear onto our borrowed bikes had gone smoothly. The first part of the route cut through a thick forest. It was flat and shady and that bubbly, beginning-of-a-trip energy lasted all afternoon. A few hours later, we found ourselves eating pizza at a waterfront restaurant in a quaint lakeside village before crawling into bed in a guest apartment above someone’s garage a few blocks away.
On most extended trips there is an emotional timeline that goes something like this:
I fully expected a lull to arrive at some point on our second day. We woke up in clean beds, showered and made coffee in our room, and then biked a few miles to the next town where we drank more coffee and ate a hearty breakfast. Then we biked for a few more hours to the next town where we drank some more coffee and ate cake from a bakery and bought a quart of fresh strawberries from a streetside stand. A few hours later we stopped by the shore of a lake to share some french fries and beers. Conversation flowed easily and we laughed often. The lull never came. Everyone was happy, the scenery was gorgeous, and the riding was easy but not boring.
The third day was more of the same, which is how I found myself, riding along a sun-dappled path around our third lake of the day, trying to explain to my sister that I felt like I had somehow hacked the extended trip experience because I wasn’t miserable.
Her response was acrid, “I get it! This trip is so easy for you. Why don’t you rub it in some more?” Which is of course not what I meant. I meant that I was surprised at how fun and satisfying the trip was turning out to be, even though we hadn’t ridden long enough for a single body part to get numb or any of my muscles to feel quivery and spent. Sharing a beer in the park in our last town of the day still gave me that bone-deep feeling of accomplishment, even though I didn’t have salt lines bleeding through every piece of clothing I was wearing.
About a year after our bike trip my sister called to tell me she and Dorian were expecting their first kid. As I write this, their daughter is four months old, and they’ve been cooped up in their apartment in Berlin under strict shelter-in-place orders for weeks. The memory of our laid back bike meander through northern Germany is even sweeter viewed through a lens of new parenthood and global pandemics.
As I scrolled through pictures from the trip, looking for a good one to text to my sister as a midday pandemic-pick-me-up, I felt another wave of gratitude to my past self for not trying to force that Germany trip to be something it wasn’t. Because it turns out that quality time and conversation are what I’m missing way more than the ego boost of accomplishing something hard.
I’m not sure when travel will feel safe again or when something like a bike trip won’t feel like a dangerous indulgence. And with a new baby in the mix, I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to have a multi-day conversation with my sister again. So for now, I’m savoring the memory of that idyllic trip, and maybe organizing my gear closet.