Time Travelers: Back to the Present Moment
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After months of lockdowns and dreary winter days, Joshua Meissner and friends seized a perfect weather window for an overnight bikepacking escape from Berlin that turned into something much longer—or so it seemed. Find his story of learning to slow down time by tuning into the present here…
Words and photos by Joshua Meissner (@joshm.de)
We’d spent all winter scheming and talking about bikepacking trips to Spain, Italy, Albania, and beyond—the further away the better. Anything to get out of the city we’d been confined to for most of the past year. And the longer the trip, the more effectively it would cure our lockdown fever, right? So, how could a short overnighter close to home grant us the clarity we’d expect from a week-long trip and do so much to erase months of unease? Taking this question to the limit, what makes a brief moment stretch to infinity?
In mid-March we had our eyes glued to the ten-day weather forecast, hoping for a break in the interminable Berlin grey. A hint of sun and temporarily eased lockdown measures lit up our group chat over the weekend before Easter. Winter had taken its toll on us, and we longed for riding gloveless and sleeping under the stars once again. Reviving the familiar ritual, we strapped to our bikes the bags and gear that had been hibernating in our closet and settled on an approximate route for our midweek getaway. In such an unpredictable climate, we weren’t about to pass up this ephemeral opportunity.
The Havelland wetland is a classic bike touring region. Just west of Berlin, the drained inland delta is one of the most diverse ecosystems in central Europe, and its excellent network of signs and paths makes navigating the floodplains a breeze. The land is dotted with historic farming villages where hungry bikepackers can get their fill of fish sandwiches and homemade pastries. In the fall of 2020, I’d spent many lazy days making second breakfasts on the solitary benches along the shores of the waterways and photographing the cracked concrete paths that crisscross the marshy fields. In spring, I looked forward to seeing the dynamic landscape in another season and sharing the sights and sounds of this nearby oasis with friends Kyle Ponce (@kyleponce) and Lucas Winzenburg (@bunyanvelo). With the familiarity of these well-traveled tracks, longer days, and mild nights, our impromptu trip had all the makings of an invigorating bike wander to stretch the legs and finally breathe some fresh spring air.
Berlin’s sister city, Potsdam, straddles the southern bend of the Havel River, where it reverses its southward direction and turns northwest toward the towns of Brandenburg an der Havel and Rathenow before merging with the mighty Elbe River. The instructions loaded into our GPS devices were unnecessary since our plan was simple: just go with the flow. As we hit the first stretch of sunlit dirt at the Potsdam city limit, our wordless grins mirrored the excited chat messages from the evening before.
We soon picked up the trail of the established Havelradweg cycle-touring route. It wasn’t the adventurous backcountry riding we’d been daydreaming about and yet there we were, three experienced bikepackers, cruising on pavement not far from home, absolutely giddy and with no thoughts of being elsewhere. Six months of deprivation surely contributed to the pleasure we were feeling, but I also think the pandemic taught us to be more appreciative of riding with friends, no matter the place and time. Either way, the gusty headwinds did little to dampen our ecstatic spirits as we pedaled along the winding Havel River toward the city of Brandenburg.
After some time, the perfect European Union-funded cycleway gave way to cracking municipal paths with fading paint. Like many East German cities, Brandenburg struggled after the merger of the two German states, which led to the demise of local industry, institutions, and spaces that were essential to public life. Brandenburg’s concrete shell does feature a vibrant beating heart: the town’s architecture is an unusual juxtaposition of socialist ideas of modernity in the periphery and a well-preserved old town center. The core of the former trading hub is distributed over several small islands in the Havel River, and we coasted to a halt on top of one of the many bridges connecting them. Kyle scooped up his first Softeis of the season—a chocolate and vanilla swirl—as we watched other tourists promenading along the shore, all paired off in the new natural order of twos and threes.
After our smooth warm-up, we finally got the sandy forest and farmland tracks we’d been pining for. With the sun a hand-width above the horizon, we scoured the trailside for dead branches that could serve as firewood, as the ecologically sensitive wetlands we’d be camping in would permit no such gathering. We learned that 30 kilometers can be a long way when every second you’re reminded of your precious and precarious cargo. Lucas’s bike was protesting with a novel squeaking from the off-centered weight of the logs. Kyle was quiet enough and probably contemplating how a different fork geometry might offset the handling penalty from his load of branches. The kindling in my musette was jabbing into my back with every bump in the forest track, so I felt some relief when the trees thinned out and the track morphed into a paved road into Rathenow.
The wide road dominating the sparse suburb tipped us off to an unrealized future of the town. Like Brandenburg, Rathenow showed similar signs of dereliction and outright decay in its buildings. Neither enough money to keep them in shape nor enough money to tear them down. With our loaded rigs and tiny hats, we certainly stood out from the evening crowd in the supermarket parking lot as we stopped to grab food for the night, but nobody paid us much attention. We were a passing phenomenon in a town stuck in a stagnating present. I take for granted my ability to dream of being someone and somewhere else tomorrow and next year, but how much credit can I take for that? The rough characters killing time by the stream didn’t suggest that this was a place of abundant opportunities. Lucas finished his watermelon and we rolled on, leaving the last streetlamp behind us.
Gliding through the dusk, my attention found nothing to latch onto in the dark and unpopulated landscape. I naturally fixated on the hypnotic glow on the western horizon, our only point of reference. If I had held on to any mental ballast throughout the day, it was finally jettisoned into the vastness of the open sky above us. The meditative monotony cloaked any sense of distance and duration. We were spinning in place in our tiny bubble of light and the flapping of our unzipped jackets was the only sign of our progress. We simply had to trust that the world would rotate underneath us. Eventually, Lucas voiced my thought: “Is it just me, or is this sunset lasting way longer than normal?” There was no way to know.
In time, the low hum of smooth pavement gave way to the rhythmic vibration of concrete slabs that made up the elevated roads through the flood plains. We took a couple of perpendicular turns through the network until we homed in on the single light in the distance, which I knew to be our stop for the night. We circled through the tiny village twice before finding the tucked-away path that led down to the water. Lit by the blinding full moon, we celebrated the luxurious infrastructure of our glampsite, consisting of a double set of picnic benches, an outhouse, a small fire ring, and lots of flat grass to stretch out on. Transitioning to the sit-down dinner part of the evening, we balanced our food debts and credits from lunch time in an eclectic circular economy.
Generally, hissing sounds are not what you want to hear while bikepacking. In our case it wasn’t a deflating tire or a leaky air mattress—we’d accidentally built our fire in a puddle of water, and it was dousing any promising embers. But we hadn’t carried all our precious fuel for 30 kilometers just to ditch it. Determined to make it work, our creatively stacked branches resembled a high-stakes game of Jenga but did little to prolong the inevitable. All the while, the hissing was deafening. A few resuscitation attempts later, we called it an early night. Still weak from our winter stasis, we were more than happy to crawl into our down cocoons beside the lake and dream of the pedaling machines we’d hopefully become by July.
In the morning, we watched the sun dry out our drenched quilts while sipping mugs of coffee. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling with Kyle and Lucas, it’s perfecting the art of riding without much concern for speed or distance. That’s not to say slow. Just unhurried and always looking to make the trip more memorable. As someone who started in road cycling, it’s a whole new outlook on touring. At times, our little group pedaled in comfortable silence under the luminous blue skies as we drifted through barren fields on the cusp of exploding back into life of all shapes and sizes. Then we’d come back together, joking and conversing about bikes and life. Our unambitious pace was further checked by regular opportunities to gawk at big curiosities in the small towns we rolled through. Like negative space in a photograph, I feel that bike trips are immensely improved by time off the bike. Stopping to look around staves off the blur that comes from rushing through a place. If you’re not racing, what excuse do you have to not stop at a bench with a view?
Up ahead, all I saw of Kyle was his yellow helmet bobbing up and down as he powered through the sand pits out of the saddle. Lucas was behind me, having a tougher time on his slick tires. After a short incline, I rolled up on Kyle who was looking back with one foot down. “Hey, should we take five here?” he asked. Apparently, the initiated don’t even need a bench as a cue. I blinked at him and looked around. A pine forest in the middle of nowhere, hardly notable. Lucas rolled up and simply said, “Yeah. It’s nice here.” In one smooth motion, he dismounted and joined Kyle, who was already sitting in the grass. It seemed they had picked up on something that eluded me. I plonked down with them.
How might we perceive five minutes if, just for a moment, we forgot our modern concept of time? Language and abstract ideas shape my experience in and of this world. Hours, minutes, and seconds divide my existence into neat blocks. In the city, I have little choice but to live and feel according to this mechanical rhythm. The critique of this imposed schedule goes back at least to the invention of the clocks that enforce it. Invariably, we race to fill up our futures, and find pain and regret deep in the past. Day to day, my consciousness is shattered across this temporal range. Even on bike trips, the regimenting nature of itineraries and electronic devices plots anticipated “progress” against expectations from the past. It’s a sticky norm that spells tragedy for our awareness of the present.
Sitting in the grass, I’m finally not being pulled apart. I’m not straining to remember when I last appreciated the magnificence of a pine forest swaying in unison. Each deep breath retrieves a small piece of my scattered self back from the future and past, steadily making me whole. My awareness of the present moment is the only thing that truly exists. Under the tree cover, we are invisible to the specter of imposed time and its ignorance of personal experience. Here, among the pine trees, duration is meaningless. Together and whole, we bathe in the life-affirming beauty of the infinite present.
Our original plan had us crossing the Havel River and riding back along the opposite shore, returning all the way to Potsdam before the day’s end, but it was clear that wasn’t happening. That idea didn’t take into account the natural pace of this landscape. Concerted human effort in past centuries transformed the marshy landscape from impassable to arable, but it won’t ever be a terrain for going fast. Throughout the day, frequent submerged sections of track reminded us that we’re visitors here—out of our element. We split our last cup of coffee three ways in the shade of a willow tree and watched sticks float down the Havel River. We made little distance and lived a hell of a lot.
By sunset, we’d looped back to Rathenow, where we boarded a train home. A little sunburnt and dehydrated, we sat in contented silence, watching the fast-forwarded reel outside the window. Too soon, we got to the part where the illuminated billboards and multistory buildings of Berlin reappear. Orienting ourselves in Berlin Central Station, the pervasive hustle couldn’t have felt more alien. We drifted in dazed bemusement toward the exit, comfortably out of sync with the beat of this great steel-and-glass clockwork. My memory of leaving here was just a day old, and yet it felt implanted from another person; yesterday is not me. Somewhere along the Havel, we reunited our split selves—we no longer look to the past to feel complete. We pushed open the hard glass doors into the concrete expanse where the hidden forces lurked, ready to pull us apart once again. Together and whole in the present, we shrugged them off easily. For now, anyway.
About Joshua Meissner
Joshua Meissner is a young human living in Berlin, Germany. Sleeping outside helps him reflect and slow down, sentiments he hopes to transmit in his writing. When not bikepacking through Germany, you might find him wandering through Berlin with a camera in hand. He prefers to keep it simple with a photoblog at JoshuaMeissner.de and plain email. He shares street photography and porridge breakfasts on his Instagram @joshm.de.
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