Slower: Looking Closer to Home
Originally published in the fifth issue of The Bikepacking Journal, Slower is a pertinent piece about taking the time to appreciate your own backyard, no matter where that may be. Read Joshua Meissner’s story of tuning in to the often overlooked wonders of rural Eastern Germany here…
Day breaks gradually, announcing its arrival with a strip of light on the horizon. Though I want more sleep, my consciousness is already expanding in tandem with the growing buzz of activity along the waterway. I sit up in my sleeping bag, facing the shoreline. The beaver going for a casual morning swim seems to have the right idea. It’s oblivious to my groggy presence, the kindest compliment. I strip down for a quick dip and the damp autumn chill hits me. I dive into the river before my mind can mount a meaningful resistance. It’s late September and the water feels more comfortable than the frigid air. I hover for a while, taking in the mist as it catches the first rays of morning light.
Back on land and warming up with a cup of coffee, I feel I’m part of the waking of the world, which in its gentle patience stands in contrast to our fast modern lives. The night’s rest was broken up by periods of semi-lucid stargazing, yet somehow I feel far more refreshed than my time asleep would normally afford. The rising sun clears my remaining mental fog and lifts the wet blanket enveloping the landscape as I pedal off into the chilly morning for another day of meandering along the Havel River.
When it comes to travel destinations, there’s a natural tendency to disregard local trips in favor of far-flung places. With long-distance leisure travel off the table in 2020, I found myself pedaling tighter orbits around my home base in Berlin. And far from becoming bored by repeat visits to nearby places, a shift in perspective kept my mind and body fully occupied with new and rewarding challenges. In my limited experience, finding satisfaction in familiar places is intertwined with a counterintuitive approach that can be summed up in two words: go slower.
Admittedly, it was probably the iconic imagery of cyclists riding their fully loaded rigs across Baja California or up the dirt roads of the Andes that initially drew my attention to bikepacking. Epic tales of adventure in foreign places naturally capture the imagination. The emotional impact of these thrilling reports is so tangible that it can cast a shadow over anything short of the exotic. Speaking for myself, the noisy churn of social media is especially complicit in suggesting that only the most grandiose experiences have value. And despite my convictions on the issues and consequences of privileged travels in distant places, I’d most certainly have a hard time turning down such a proposition.
Especially now, with travel restrictions and lockdown measures tethering many of us close to home—at a time when we could all use a good mindless vacation—dreams of the future play an important role in preserving hope. At the same time, it would be an unthinkable disservice to the countless sacrifices made in the face of this crisis if we simply went back to our old ways without using this global timeout to examine the cost of our obsessions with the novel, the instant, and the obvious.
A non-bike-related hint from a new friend planted the idea for this trip. Just 80 kilometers northwest of Berlin, a combination of atmospheric conditions and low population density make for some of the lowest levels of light pollution in all of Germany, resulting in the area’s official designation as an International Dark Sky Reserve. The fortuitous recommendation coincided perfectly with my growing desire to ride in all parts of my home state. With cloudless nights on the horizon, I seized the opportunity, and a few days later, I’m on the road in hopes of seeing some shooting stars. Other than this vague destination, I’ve got nothing but time. I’m confident the course of the trip will find a way of revealing itself.
Whenever an obvious course of action presents itself, I find it helpful to consider the inverse. That reframing often sheds light on an equally valid perspective that I may not have otherwise entertained. Sure, the flat land and excellent infrastructure of Northern Germany lend themselves to going ever farther and faster. And I find pure happiness in the heightened focus and healthy sense of personal achievement associated with athletic pursuits. But if that’s the only option I ever see, what does that say about me and the society I live in? We’d do well to explore whether there is hidden value in less ambitious movement. Maybe we’re missing some things along the way.
If planning is an effort to restrict an adventure to expected outcomes, I think there’s a case to be made for sometimes loosening up a bit and sensitizing ourselves to subtle external forces in the environment. If the intent is to appreciate the character of a place, we should also respect its recommendations, or at least update our plan with new information, gleaned as we ride. Although it’s no replacement for appropriate preparation, making room for a dash of serendipity is a guaranteed recipe for memorable travel experiences.
Physical signs provide a refreshing alternative to the rigid cues of a pre-planned GPS track. Previously, I’d occasionally cast them a quick glance to check my location. Now, they have my full attention. I scan these troves of information for clues to guide my journey—which road to take, tidbits of local trivia to explore next. Historical chronologies point me toward houses inhabited by influential artists, significant political and cultural leaders from the past, and other names I imagine I might have heard in school growing up. Whoever put up the sign knows more about their area than I do, so I might as well put my trust in them. Past lives and their signs, infrastructure and architecture, even the land itself are all collaborating with me in the creation of a unique travel story. The minimal footprint of travel on two wheels, flexible and self-reliant by nature, is a remarkably well-suited platform for tapping into this latent richness.
A scale model of a glider at the roadside catches the attention of my inner eight year old. It’s perhaps not a sign in the traditional sense, but I nonetheless find myself pedaling up the hill where pioneer of flight, Otto Lilienthal, undertook the first successful human gliding attempts. Even the children here, flying their kites, have intuitively identified this as a place of aviation. Coasting back down the grassy slope, I imagine I’m on the flight path of the first human glider. I feel like a kid—no trail, no rules, no worries.
Connecting one town to the next, I’m tracing the natural flow of people along the paths they’ve established over centuries. I’m getting an inkling of the interconnectedness of people, their communities, and the environment. One by one, the local elements are coming together to paint a broader picture of an area shaped by the transmission of goods, culture, and information along the waterway.
You’d be excused for saying the landscapes and rural towns of East Germany all look the same. The visual archetypes encountered here are indeed repetitive. But speeding by is not truly seeing, here or elsewhere. The apparent uniformity of an area is directly proportional to our speed—the faster we go, the more everything blurs together. To cultivate an appreciation of a place, we must first slow down and tune in. Only then are the unique characteristics and details that make every place extraordinary and worthwhile revealed. In this context, expecting novelty and excitement without putting in the work first seems a bit presumptuous.
The rural architecture impresses with its pragmatic dereliction, eminently functional without any unnecessary maintenance. Traces of the socialist German Democratic Republic are still everywhere. Rusting metal signage referencing defunct nationalized enterprises. Abandoned shop fronts that have long since been displaced by chain supermarkets. The diverse textures in the facades mirror the character of the people I encounter, weathered by the course of history—perhaps gruff, but not cold. Sitting in a town square, I can’t help but eavesdrop on conversations. The topics and language are completely familiar, yet their perspectives make me feel like an alien. It’s a pinprick to the distortion of the big city bubble I call home. I’m reminded that people and ideas living in cities don’t accurately represent the entire country. It’s good to hear another side of the story of our shared existence.
Cruising into the autumn sunset, I notice the air here has a richer, denser quality. I’m not just feeling the lingering humidity of the wetlands, though. This air is abundant with life. My sunglasses, usually tucked away unused in my helmet, shield my eyes from stray dragonflies as thick clouds of flies collide with my exposed arms and legs. In a way, even the fauna is pushing back—a gentle signal for me to slow down and cherish what is likely one of the last warm evenings of the year.
Thousands of swallows swooping in to feed on this evening bonanza provide a rolling escort while flocks of geese returning from their dinner pass overhead in majestic V-shaped formations. The nutrient-rich wetlands of the Havelland represent a key stopover for migratory waterfowl on their long journeys in autumn and spring. By my estimation, the colonies camped out in the shallow water must number in the tens of thousands. Sadly, an older bird watcher informs me of their persistent decline and changing migratory patterns in the decades he’s been observing this ecosystem. It’s hard to grasp, looking at a momentary snapshot, but the trend is undeniable when tracked by such dedicated people year over year. But I learn that there is hope, too, with projects underway to restore parts of the inland delta, reclaiming crucial habitats.
By the time I identify a suitable sleeping spot along the shore, the moon is already rising over the treetops. Rolling out my pad under the flood of my headlamp, it occurs to me that I’m the only light source around in this otherwise uniquely dark place. Although photons are fleeting, I’ve destroyed a tiny part in time and space of what makes this place special—not just for others, but also for myself. I can’t undo the damage, but I can switch off my lamp. Granted, unpacking with only the natural glow of the moon and stars isn’t the most convenient. Then again, neither is self-supported bikepacking when I could take a car and sleep in a building with running water and electricity. This is not a race, so why deny myself this rare sensory challenge? I fumble for a minute. Touch and hearing rise to the occasion while the eyes adjust. The fidelity of the combined picture from all senses contributing equally is reassuring. And the reward of a cozy sleeping bag at the end feels that much greater.
It’s a testament to our condition of chronic oversaturation that even brief darkness can be uncomfortable. So, why not consider another inversion and give ourselves a breather to reset from the overload of daily life? Are these unplanned opportunities to get in touch with and grow beyond ourselves not a big part of the magic in minimalist travel? Unrushed, there is space to ponder which other innately rewarding experiences are being robbed from us by our lifestyles of modern convenience. And given time, we might return to the central question of how to tread more lightly on our planet.
Lying underneath the night sky devoid of luminous haze, it’s possible to discern different kinds of celestial objects. As usual, the objects of human origin are moving the fastest, appearing out of nowhere and then fading out of sight against the vast backdrop of the cosmos. After a brief absence earlier in the year, the airliners are back, strobe lights blinking as they streak through the stratosphere. Satellites follow a predictable arc, first illuminated by the sun beyond the horizon and then dropping out of sight into Earth’s shadow. The stars and planets remain steadfast. I’m at my destination, but the true reward has been the ongoing learning to appreciate all the places in between.
So what, if anything, has a summer of lazily roaming around my home state impressed on me? In passing through these places closer to home, I’ve affirmed my belief that bikepacking is an ideal mode for experiencing the world at my own pace. And I’ve found that slowing down provides the necessary space to cultivate a unique appreciation of my immediate surroundings and all their details, however mundane. Trusting in this intentional deceleration offers the reward of enduring satisfaction, no matter which road I might find myself traveling down in life.
To be sure, those thrilling reports of faraway expeditions continue to ring in my mind. But in leaning into these local places, I’m discovering that their quieter stories can be just as captivating. When it comes to making meaningful experiences, a closed mind is more limiting than any travel restriction. Whatever the future may bring, I’ll keep returning to the universe of wonders right here in my backyard.