We woke up at dawn on a riverside beach – right on the bike path, nobody cared – so Lily could catch a train the rest of the way into Frankfurt to be with her mom, who was stopping through on her way back to Australia. I was to find a campsite outside the city that we could stay at for more than just one night – the plan was to head off for Budapest after my birthday, a few days away.
It was nice to be up early; I pedalled liesurely toward the city. A nice German guy and his dog cycled with me for a bit and kept me on track. Nearing the airport complex – the Frankfurt airport is one of the biggest in Europe – the bike paths actually continued, with signposts even, under and around all the hectic mess of audobon on/off ramps, which is normally an impossible nightmare to bike through. Go German cycle networks!
Then up ahead I saw a pair of loaded bikes coming my way! I always stop and chat with fellow bicycle travelers, so as they got closer I pulled up to a stop. But before they reached me, the woman stopped and started yelling toward me, and, I shit you not, put her hand up in the “Hail” gesture… the same gesture that would’ve meant “Hail Hitler” a couple decades ago… and this is Germany… what is she doing?!? “German? Italian? Spanish? French? Dutch? English?” she shouted, trying to guess my nationality. “English is my first language,” was my only reply, but that was enough. “AMERican!! Helloooo!” Turns out Pam wasn’t a nazi after all; her and her husband Kieth and their little handlebar-basket-sized doggie had just flown in from nine months bike touring in India, ultra-tanned and ready for European food. We traded water and food and had a little break together. They wanted to know if there was a campground, or a bike shop, back where I had come from… “Sorry, I don’t really use such places. But why do you need a bike shop…?” Kieth said his front derailleur was acting up, but someone “with experience” had already looked at it. I offered to have a look, and he didn’t really respond, so after five minutes I just started diagnosing it for him. Right away I noticed the little thumb lever was being impeded by the extra handlebar cushion he had on there. I pointed it out and we pushed it out of the way, allowing the shifter to work normally again. He gave it a test ride, and returned grinning, telling me I should work as a bike mechanic… “Well, actually…” But I couldn’t finish my sentence, because Pam grabbed me in a big thank-you hug! No problem guys, that’s what I’m here for. Farther into the city, still following the river, I found a discarded bag of easter candy – mmm freegan milk chocolate, the perfect surprise for Lily! I also found the public library, without a map, just by asking for directions a few times. Lots of Germans speak English, and they visit the library. We’re not in West Virginia anymore.
This was my strategy for finding a campsite: sign up for free internet access at the public library, zoom in on the city with the Google satellite and look for large wooded areas, print out a map to get there, and go explore. It worked a lot better than actually exploring randomly on the ground – by mid afternoon I was stocked up on water and food, in a huge forest park outside Frankfurt, looking for a nice out-of-the way spot we could stay at for a few nights. Eventually I chose a spot behind a mess of fallen trees, back by the train tracks(Lily will love this!) where the equestrian trails were seldom used, and made an extra soft bed under the tent with fallen leaves.
Next day I left most of the gear hidden at camp and headed back into town to meet Lily and her mum, Susan. It went as well as any “meeting the parents” could go, I think…. she was great, said I had an honest face and giggled when I talked about my spice kit. She also said I could stay in her hotel room with Lily that night, since she would be taking an 11 p.m. flight. Hm… a hotel. A free hotel, but it’s still a hotel. And it’s an airport hotel, no less. Yeuch…. It was already paid for though, and Lily was all about it. She convinced me with promises of white sheets and doing laundry in the bathtub. I printed a Google map to get from camp to the hotel and told her I would probably make it.
Back at camp, I had some dinner and packed up my dirty laundry in a University Bookstore bag that I left home with – they make nice bags. I decided not to bring my bike pump, because the spring for mounting it in the frame was taped shut, just so the poor old thing would push air, and I didn’t have a nice place to carry it. “It’s only fifteen kilometers,” I told myself. WARNING! WARNING!
The first five kms went by no problem, down some foresty back roads and under a train track tunnel. But then, just about dusk, I came off a curb and felt something squishy. Yep, that’s a flat tire. I had a patch kit and some levers – they’re like an extension of the bike – but they don’t do much good without a pump. Damn! Right then I told myself, “That’s what you get you fool!” But it was still not that far to walk, even in the dark….
Then, the rain began to fall; a nice, even, steady shower. Wonderful. I walked. I came to a village – “Strange, this isn’t on my map…” – and I thought I might be able to borrow someone’s pump (Germans are a cyclist bunch in general) but there was no one on the streets, and when I approached one house to knock on the door, they closed their shutters on me. So I walked, along the audobon toward the airport. The frontage road sidetracked and I took a nice straight forest trail that seemed to correspond to my map…. but somewhere deep in that forest, after about an hour of walking in the darkness and rain, I came to a signpost. I read it by the light of my Beamer headlight, and my heart sank…. Suddenly not so confident I had taken the right route, I finally checked my compass… and realized I was heading NorthEast, not NorthWest.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” My anguished cry echoed through the deserted forest night. What a fiasco! I was already later than I said I would be, already soaked through, including my “waterproof” Dutch army boots, and now I didn’t really even know where I was on my map. But there was no way I was going back, so I continued onward, pretty much just navigating by compass and exploring in the dark rain. And on the ground, walking, exploration is time consuming. Every wrong turn takes half an hour to recognize as a wrong turn, directions are skewed, and fatigue starts to take its toll.
I had a lot of time to think, and to rage against my pitiful situation…. Anger changed to shame which changed to pure helplessness, then to bitter entitlement and blaming Lily for everything, to hating hotels, to swearing to always have a pump on me, then to “it’s adventurous without a pump”, and back again…. I finally settled on a zen philosophy of “everything happens for a reason” and “enjoy the unexpected detour”, mostly just because it took SO LONG to progress anywhere walking that it just wore out all the other less-than-honorable mindsets. It was my own fault, and what was I gonna do? Even my tears would just wash away.
I knew I was near the airport, because the planes were flying low over me for landings. It was surreal, each one lighting up the darkness of the forest, illuminating everything and reflecting weirdly, their wind pushing the canopy each time and shaking a fresh deluge of rain from the trees onto my head. Then suddenly back to the darkness.
Eventually I sort of triangulated my position on the moist Google map, but the network of audobons and cloverleafs was insane – and where were those signposted bike paths I used before?!? I followed various service roads and forest tracks parallel to the motorways, but where the traffic zoomed effortlessly under an overpass, my routes all curved to follow the perpendiculars, never crossing them. After several tedious backtracks of several kilometers each, I was annoyed enough to cut the fence and walk on the audobon. Before it actually came to that, though, I found a dilapidated section of fence, so I didn’t need to cut it. I hefted my rig(laden with the laundry bag) over it, through some brambles and across the high-speed on/off ramp, and found myself in one of those weird nowhere spots of barren gravel and grass between the crisscrossing cloverleafs and confusing additional side routes and access roads. All no speed limit German audobons, no pedestrians allowed. Thankfully it was dark, and no one saw me kneeling to consult my map, protecting it from the rain with my body. I hefted my bike over some more guardrails, dashed across a couple more freeways, scaled a super steep hill and hustled across an overpass bridge, and then I was only halfway through the worst of it. I suddenly had extra sympathy for hitchhikers – isn’t this just the type of place they need to be to catch a ride? How do they do it?
I got a thorn inside my wet boot somehow, and then, right in the middle of all that mad mess of highway, just trying to get North of it all and reach the east-west audobon on my map, I realized my compass was gone! I must’ve dropped it while running across one of those on/off ramps! Oh, damn… could this get any worse?!? Well I had recently consulted it so many times that I still had a vague idea which direction to go, so on I trudged, through the soaking wet grass and over the guardrails some more, now relying on intuition and luck more than anything.
Finally, finally, after about three squishy hours of walking, I climbed a highway bridge and saw in the distance the neon hotel sign, STEIGENBERGER AIRPORT HOTEL, like a bright red church-steeple cross, beckoning compassionately to the lost sheep. It was still not easy to reach, of course, for once I crossed the bridge, I lost sight of the sign again. Eventually though, I came out from a garbage-strewn ditch along a motorway onto an actual sidewalk! Hooray!! After passing a bus station I knew I was close; and what do I see zooming by, but a fully decked-out commuter cyclist, who surely had an emergency tire pump on him…. Bah, it’s a little late now! I watched him with exhausted bitterness as his hard tires carried him and his little blinky rear light out of sight. Bastard.
The hotel was around the corner. Bedraggled and spent, I locked my bike up outside and stumbled in through the lobby, tracking puddles of water. Tired as I was, I was still peripherally amazed that they didn’t stop my dirty homeless ass from entering. Maybe they didn’t notice me – I know I sure wasn’t looking at the reception desk.
I took the shiny, immaculate elevator with mirrors everywhere, up to room 252, where Lily, beautiful, blessed Lily, answered the door in her underwear, saying “I knew if you were still on your way that something must’ve happened…” I was never so happy to arrive somewhere, hotel room or not.
And I will never, ever, EVER go ANYWHERE on a bicycle, ever again, without a freakin’ pump!!!
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