Creative Confluence: Trusting the Path with Tina Graf
Earlier this year, Josh Meissner and Tina Graf met up to connect offline with no concrete plan beyond riding their bikes and experiencing the stunning landscapes of Saxon Switzerland together. Find the story of their gentle bike wander and a serene set of digital photos and film scans by the pair here…
With additional photos by Tina Graf (@tina_die_graefin)
I’m pedaling out of Dresden, passing long trains of pannier-laden bike tourers on the busy cycle path along the shore of the majestic Elbe river. The way markers relieve my mind of the task of navigation. I wonder what Tina will be like. I know just a few things about her. She’s an artist from Vienna doing a residency in Dresden, just a short train ride from me in Berlin. She rides her bike to experience the world, and that’s what connected us. Other than what I know from social media and what I glimpsed the one time she video-called me from her studio, she’s a mystery to me.
Arriving at the rendezvous point a woman in green leggings and a fleece jacket waves at me from a café, and I wave back. As I get closer, I note her leather hiking boots and the self-made framebag on her gravel bike leaning against the wall. Tina rises to hug. “Thanks for making it down here,” she says, seemingly already sure we’ll have a great trip. We get talking, retracing the unlikely events that brought us together here. Coming back out after filling my water bottles inside, I find Tina’s already paid for our coffees without asking. Trust in the future seems to be her currency. Then we go.
We follow the signs upstream, our pace conversational. Our lives share some notable parallels. Asian ancestry but raised in Europe, with the fractured senses of home that comes with that. Perhaps owed to our complex backgrounds, we’re used to examining the world through multiple lenses. We’ve made life decisions that allow us to be here together on a weekday afternoon, sharing the cycle path with pensioners and other non-working folks. And engaging in that privileged freedom feels valuable and productive to us.
For all our parallels, a passing glance at us reveals obvious differences, too. My bike is a project I’ve built and rebuilt countless times, while hers is 100% stock, a readymade tool for her to discover the world. My bag setup is matching and optimized, while hers is a beautiful mosaic. Talking photography, I shoot digital on the move, while she captures moments of rest on film. Tina’s comfortable with the limitations of her analog process: “I can only take photos while stopped. The movement is up to the viewer’s imagination.”
Before we know it, we’re rolling along the promenade in the magnificent resort town of Bad Schandau. Its proud shoreside hotels have been the base for hikers looking to explore the Saxon Switzerland National Park for generations. In the supermarket, Tina grabs two pitas, a sack of mandarins, a large container of cherry tomatoes, a pack of olives, a bar of chocolate, and a smoothie—and that’s just lunch. My usual choice of hummus, hard-boiled eggs, and lettuce seems spartan in comparison. Our combined haul is way too much for our tiny bike bags to handle, but Tina doesn’t seem to mind riding with a backpack.
Just after Bad Schandau, we suddenly find ourselves on a rooty trail. Where did the waymarked path go? Deep in conversation, we must have sailed past a sign that pointed across the river—I’m not used to thinking in terms of ferries. I take a crack at riding up the footpath, but I fail halfway up and barely unclip in time. I look back to see Tina hopping off at the bottom. She walks up, grinning.
At the entry to the national park, we pull over to look at the map for the first time. There’s a promising gravel road that meanders along a tributary through the dark green areas into the Czech Republic before meeting back up with the big river at the border town of Hřensko. We can’t camp in the national park, so I figure we have about 50 kilometers to go before making it to a suitable area. It’s already late afternoon, and I have no idea whether that prospect sounds realistic or enjoyable to Tina. “How many vertical meters?” she surprises me by asking. I’m thinking in terms of distance, while she considers elevation.
Climbing up into the natural park, we find our natural paces differ, but we quickly fall into a kind of resonance. When the road gets too steep, Tina gracefully slides off her bike and walks while I wait at the top. She doesn’t seem to mind the hiking passages at all. “Sometimes I find it a bit annoying that my bike doesn’t have the right gears,” is all she says.
Rounding a bend, we come face-to-face with the first of the iconic sky-scraping sandstone columns. It’s easy to see why this area captured the imagination of the Romantic artists in the early 19th century. Some 200 years later, we’re still making art and writing about them.
We stop in the shadow of a particularly majestic formation for a trailside feast. The olives lend it a distinctly Mediterranean flair. I thought I was good at picnicking, but traveling with Tina shows me there’s still lots to learn. Tina teaches me the Austrian vernacular for this kind of event. They call it “jausnen,” which I understand to mean spirited picnicking in nature. It’s a fun word.
The sandstone spires are impressive, but the numerous clearcuts seem out of place. Why are swaths of forest being razed in a national park? As we learn, hungry bork beetles are devouring the spruces from the inside out, leaving the hillsides a sprawling arboreal graveyard. The clearcuts are a desperate measure to preserve the last green stands, like feeble firebreaks in the path of a slow-motion forest fire. Normally, the forest would have been able to repel the pest, but several years of record-breaking drought weakened the ecosystem—all-too-real effects of climate change. And the devastation doesn’t stop as we cross the German-Czech border.
We take our sweet time winding our way through the narrow valley, delighting in the small pockets of green where we find them. Our progress is a bit slower than I expected. Not a big issue, but it could be after sunset by the time we find a suitable place to sleep. Again, I’m not sure where we stand. Tina puts my concerns to rest: “I wouldn’t stress about that. We have everything we need with us.”
We coast down the canyon out of the national park until the much smaller hotels of Hřensko come into view. We resupply at one of the many shops advertising cheap alcohol and cigarettes and then wave down the ferry to cross the river. Back up on the plateau on the other river bank, we finish off our lunch leftovers while admiring the sandstone formations in the distance. “These moments are why I do this,” she says, and I can only agree. “It’s been a romantic route so far. How did you make it?” she asks. I get the sense she’s probing at my thought process, not the app I used, and I realize I don’t have a simple answer.
Tina was right not to worry about our progress. Gliding through the landscape at photo-pace, we get to where we need to be nearly effortlessly. At the bivouac site I identified on the map, three hikers have a comforting fire going. I take my time joining them after rolling up, while she’s already chatting away, eager to hear about their day. After dinner, we roll out our bivy bags for sleep. Hers blaze red and waterproof for alpine emergencies, mine green and airy for stealth camping in mellow eastern Germany.
As we ride west the next morning, the sandstone spires fade from prominence. We’re rising into the Erzgebirge now, a range of blunt peaks I’d call mountains, while Tina, from her austro-alpine perspective, deems the rolling landscape a forest. The last time I came through there, I blasted through the length of the mountain range in one day. Today, together, our gentle pedaling fades into the background. Tina believes cycling shouldn’t be hard work. “I think of it like hiking,” she explains. “The right speed is when you regenerate while moving.” Her practical wisdom works for more than just cycling.
Our plan for the day is simple. Follow the ridgeline of the Erzgebirge southwest and turn north at some point to stay with her friends in the countryside. The hills are criss-crossed with gravel doubletrack, and there’s always one that takes us in the right direction. We sneak up on a black stork, the first of these elusive birds I’ve ever seen. Startled by our whirring freehubs, it flies in formation with us down the creek bed before making a break for the treeline. At the bottom, we cross the stream into someone’s backyard, which provides a splash of adventure to our day. The grumpy old man on the other side is none too happy about the intrusion, but Tina smoothes it over with a few sentences and a smile.
In another life of hers, Tina studied math, and I’m curious how that background relates to her art. “You can map out the world in some system of rational coordinates, but sometimes the truths we need exist in other dimensions. That’s where art comes in,” she explains. Her insight speaks to me. We’re nearly the same age, yet I feel like I’m in the presence of an old soul.
We cruise through sleepy Czech and German farming villages, and the main difference seems to be that the latter are obsessively tidy, while the former are more pragmatic in their maintenance. I’d see little reason to ride anything but the swoopy paved roads if it weren’t for the cars. Tina has her own thoughts on sharing beautiful roads with motor vehicles. “Sometimes I think I should travel with a roll of caution tape to have the roads to myself for an hour or two,” she says. I’d love to experience that piece of activist art.
I found Tina’s trust in my lack of a planned route refreshing. Riding with her fills me with confidence that there are other, gentler modes of navigation too. As it turns out, Tina dances between possibilities, always on the hunt for surprises. We linger at crossroads and discuss whether to take the ridgeline path or road through the valley. She’s not bound to any given route, and her sense of direction is impressive. A quick glance at my digital map is enough for her to transpose its abstract notions to the physical landscape around us. In the afternoon, we decide on a more direct approach to her friends’ place. More time for snacking, that way.
Coming over the fields, we spot a yurt at the edge of a straight-laced Saxon village. “That’s it over there,” Tina calls out. Her friends are generous with their food and drink, and we get to hear the story of their alternative way of life in such a conservative region. The day ends with us skinny-dipping in the scalding water of the wood-fired hot tub, sipping beers in the moonlight.
The next morning, we follow the way of the water for the last time along a gradual 30-kilometer descent that drops us back down to Dresden. We make our way through the tourist mob in the historic old-town as we head straight for the hipster-industrial Neustadt area, where we spend the afternoon drinking coffee and not doing much else. The satisfaction from experiencing the geographic context of the city, riding in and out and seeing the surrounding area, is plenty for us.
Somehow, the three days of gentle bikepacking with Tina filled me with energy, rather than draining me. Wandering in the world with an open mind, unscripted and unambitious, is valuable and worthwhile, but it requires trust in the process. It’s new territory to me, and it helps to have companions like Tina. Truly, bikes are a medium that make random connections like this possible. Without the bikes, it seems unlikely that us two otherwise strangers would come together. For these opportunities, I’m ever grateful.
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