Further Down the Road

April 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Since getting back to the States at the end of last summer, a lot has happened. A LOT. Most notably, and relevant to the Biking Borders project…

1. I gave a talk at Carleton in January about my trip, along with my Mullin Prize co-winner, Hunter Knight. I have a DVD of the event and hope to post the talk on this blog soon.

2. I completed two senior integrative exercises in one term. My history comps was a 35 page paper titled “One Border, Two Walls: Conflict and Conceptualization Along the German-German Border, 1945-1972.” The paper explores conflict and perception of the border in Berlin and on the inner-German border, arguing that German division was made clear by developments in rural Germany long before the Berlin Wall was built. My comps project for CAMS can be found online. This project examines the genre of Rephotography as it relates to theory and New Media, using the Iron Curtain as my subject. The website includes a theoretical essay, numerous rephotographs made over the summer, and a Google Earth tour.

3. I have the opportunity to join Professor John Schott and the Carleton CAMS seminar in Berlin this week to help them implement a Rephotography project I helped design that is based on my comps, as well as extend my own work in the genre. The trip will include a bike ride along part of the Berlin Wall, which will definitely qualify as a border bike ride. You can follow the action at historyvision.net, as well as the good old Biking Borders twitter feed.

Needless to say, the German-German border, the Iron Curtain, and borders in general are obviously an ongoing obsession that has consumed much of my academic life and captured my sense of adventure. I hope to keep biking (or maybe walking!) and photographing borders for a long time to come.

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Make-Believe: Notes on the Berlin S-Bahn

July 19, 2010 1 comment

The Berlin S-Bahn shrieks and howls when it whips around curves and brakes before a station. Many passengers covered their ears, deafened by the shrill voices of the wheels on metal tracks. But I didn’t want to miss a single note. I had wandered into Nordbahnhof, a former border station, barricaded and heavily guarded during Berlin’s division. There was a fascinating display inside that explained how the Berlin Wall extended below the earth’s surface, cutting off S-Bahn lines-potential escape routes-that ran from East to West. I read about the “ghost stations” of Potsdammer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, which West Berliners could pass through, but not get off. Trains would slow just enough to make out blurry faces of the GDR police guarding the platform before the train would whisk passengers back into the darkness.

Excited by these descriptions, I immediately boarded the S1 to Potsdammer Platz. I wanted to relive this strange experience, or at least pretend to. So I sat on the train, surrounded by ordinary passengers who cringed at the noise of the brakes, talked, and laughed. But I was in a completely different world, imagining the silence that must have gripped passengers on this eerie passage 20 years ago, and debating with myself whether or not to get off at Potsdammer Platz, or ride the whole way under East Berlin, trapped underground. My heart beat faster as the train slowed at the station and I imagined the people waiting to board were guards with guns and grim expressions. The train howled as if to exorcise the ghosts of its past and the doors flew open with a blast of cool air when it finally stopped. As people poured on and off the train, I suddenly stood up and got off, breaking the spell.

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Perspective

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Mahring to Eslarn
17.7.10

A thunderstorm pounded outside, rain lashing at my window. Groggily, I rolled out of bed to shut the window and listened to the tempest. I pictured myself trying to bike through the storm, getting blown over by the wind and soaked with cold water. I eventually fell asleep for another few hours, fearing that I would be unable to continue right away in the morning. When I woke, the storm had stopped, but ominous clouds still hung in the west, and occasional rumbles of thunder gave me pause as I packed. I decided to leave anyway and try to outrun the storm on my south-easterly route. Greta, the cook, insisted on waking Tereza at eight so she could see me off, and the bed-headed, kindhearted woman hugged me and wished me well. I went down the stairs, looked back to wave, and left the house.

It was a misty, cool morning and steam rose from the wet forest, dissipated through a few weak rays of sunshine. I was riding on a gravely path that took me right next to the border and I kept the Czech Republic on my left, and the sun on my handlebars for several miles. The terrain was hilly, but not impossibly so and I found a rhythm of up and down until I arrived in Eslarn in the early afternoon.

I was exhausted by the time I got a room and took a nap before exploring the town and getting a snack. It was Saturday, and everyone seemed in a good mood. A group of villagers were hard at work painting a house baby blue. I smiled and told them it looked good, with a thumbs-up. I ate dinner in the pension restaurant, where the innkeeper’s Bayern accent was so thick we could hardly communicate. I tried to strike up a conversation anyway, asking about the trophies displayed behind the bar. I was impressed to learn that they were all his, for soccer, and shooting. Then, he disappeared into the kitchen and returned a moment later with a woman. She spoke excellent english and introduced herself as Nina. We hit it off right away and spent the evening chatting over a glass of wine.

We had a lot in common and discussed travel, the USA (she spent nearly a year in Florida and Boston), plans for the future, and of course, Germany’s division. I was excited to speak with someone so close to my own age about our generation’s perception of the former border. She admitted that she didn’t know a lot about the subject, and that Germany, eastern and western, was just Germany to her. She noted that there were some economic differences and lingering stereotypes but they had no hold on her and were beyond her experience. I shared some of my findings and agreed on the challenges of understanding something before our own time, but relevant to older generations. I was really struck by her comment that the border came down “so long ago.” Perspective is everything-these twenty one years have been my whole life, but a blink of an eye in history.

It was wonderful to have such a pleasant and diverse conversation but I was forced to excuse myself around 10 in the interest of getting some sleep. We wished each other well just outside the restaurant and I jogged across the street to the pension, since it was raining again.

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I Should Have Packed My Hiking Boots?

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

As, Czech Republic to Mahring, Germany
16.7.2010


I got up early for breakfast at seven, eager to hit the road and put some distance between myself and As. The day was marvelously sunny and the morning light was enough to turn my feelings toward the city around, at least a little bit. I enjoyed a nice breakfast courtesy of the attentive innkeep, carried my bike out of a dusty basement, and was off before eight. With minimal trouble, I found the trail to Cheb-another steep, crazy gravel path that made me wish for my hiking boots. I have been very impressed with the Iron Curtain 3 guidebook, and it didn’t let me down today, as I navigated the woods with surprising ease to Liba. Here, I struggled up a 18% grade that featured, yes, stairs on the bike path. The road wound around the castle and up to a flat area with a shelter and map for travelers.

Here, I got a bit off from the directions, which I previously thought would spell certain doom on this section of the trail. However, I was still on a cycle path headed toward Cheb, and with a combination of extremely well placed maps, and my compass, I got back on the 214, a road that gave me one last blast from the Czech Republic in a spasm of casinos and bars in the middle of the forest before I passed a memorial to the victims of the Iron Curtain and crossed into Germany. A policeman smiled and waved me through the border inspection area and I would have held my arms up in triumph, except I would have fallen over. I was glad to be back in Germany.

I took a left in Hundesbach, feeling particularly fond of the big, yellow signs that point a traveler in the direction of the next villages. Before too long, I arrived in Neualbenreuth. I was tired and took a hard look at my travel plans. By today, it was clear that I was not going to make it to Aigen, or even Bayrisch Eisenstein, and instead, I needed to focus on getting to a town with a big enough railroad station where making a connection to Vienna would be relatively painless. The closest town on my route that met these requirements was Waldmünchen, about 100k to the south. Since I never know what the road is going to throw at me, I decided that it made sense to press on now.

So, I left the very attractive town of Neualbenreuth and began a hilly 11k, luckily on good roads, for the unknown village of Mahring, or beyond. I arrived relatively early, but I was completely gassed and liked the look of the town, so I made for Pension Beer, amused by the name of the place. There, the owner told me he didn’t have a room, but I followed him in his car as he drove across town to a friend’s pension that could accommodate me.

I decided to eat in the restaurant on the first floor and throughout the course of my meal, made friends with Tereza, the woman who owned the house. She made me spaghetti, I signed her guestbook, she brought me a huge helping of ice cream, for which she would not accept payment, we took each others’ pictures and exchanged email addresses, and then she let me use her computer and I was able to check my email. She spoke only German, but was patient with me and I understand most of what she said, even if I could only offer simple answers to her questions. I was really touched by her kindness and heartfelt concern, and felt completely at ease in her house. Later, I think most of the town gathered in the bar below my room, judging by the ruckus that was raised late into the night.

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The Other Side

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Hof, Germany to As, Czech Republic
Written 15.7.10

I didn’t sleep well in Hof, wakened in the middle of the night by a truly inspiring thunderstorm. The morning was dull and grey, and my first task before I left town was to find a bank that could change a few euro to Czech Koruna because I was, at long last, a mere 13k from the border and the end of the German-German trail. After some investigation, I found a bank on Schillerstraße that could perform the transaction. I’d been asking around for the last day or so, and was surprised by the absence of places to change currencies so close to the border, perhaps because of the small size of the towns I’d been asking in, or maybe because of the lack of demand for the service.

With a few thousand crowns in my money belt, I accomplished an impressive navigational feat by leaving Hof on the correct cycle path, bound for the border. It rained the whole way, but I made good time to Oberzech and from there, downhill to a grove of trees on a slick, narrow road. I pushed my bike over a grassy field, crossed a stream, and reverently approached the tri-state border. It was a small clearing scattered with border signs for Bayern, Thuringia, and the Czech Republic. I walked around for a while, getting my feet soaked in intermittent puddles before I took a deep breath and crossed another stream to the Czech Republic.

All the road signs were in Czech. A teen-aged girl stared at me suspiciously from a bus stop as I emerged from the woods. It continued to drizzle. As I cycled on a gravely road toward As, I repeatedly encountered groups of four kids, unaccompanied, also on bikes. The old patrol road was rough and absurdly steep in many places. I did a lot of pushing and scrambling, my feet searching for a stable foothold as my bike threatened to slide down on the loose rock. I met another lonely traveler whose eyes didn’t quite meet mine as he spoke in a language completely unintelligible to my ears. I was on the other side and it was exciting.

I arrived in As around 2 and debated whether to stay put for the night or continue to Cheb. Walking through town and considering my options, I realized I’d forgotten how different the Czech Republic is. In As, the casinos and bars easily outnumber any other shops on a given street. I spotted a scantily clad woman get in a car near a park. There were at least 5 “Asia Markets” in a square kilometer. Czechs have a fascination with things that are open 24 hours a day, but they are called “nonstop” in just one of many bizarre borrowings from the english language. Aside from this, I was lucky to find somebody who spoke a little German at the Goethe Hotel, which I decided was the most reputable-looking place to overnight, and as it started to rain again, and the road ahead was largely unknown, I was more than happy to settle down, despite my uncomfortable surroundings. In my room, I was intrigued by a price list in English and German for rooms, dated from 2002. Then, a single room would have cost me 103 Euro, but I had only paid 500 crowns, about 20 Euro. This might have been a very different place, just eight years ago.

I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, where I accidentally ordered a small chicken to go with my sauerkraut and dumplings. I know exactly five words in Czech: good day, please, yes, and beer, so I knew I was taking a chance when I ordered 150g of something from the menu! My plug adapter unfortunately did not work in my hotel room (I figured the building was too old). So, with a laptop battery that was fading fast, I had a relatively boring evening and vaguely watched coverage of the Tour de France before soaking my legs in cold water for a few minutes and getting to sleep.

I was amazed by how different As was from any part of Germany I’d been to. I was barely 5k from the German border, but it might as well be 500k. For all the lasting differences between east and west, Germany was still Germany. My gradual approach to the Czech border did nothing to prepare me for the world on the other side and I was surprised to find myself feeling so out of place and awkward.

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The Other Wall

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Blankenstein to Hof
Written 14.7.10

I got an early start this morning, taking care to warm up properly before I started the first few climbs. The next two hours saw me stumble up to Hirschberg with a combination of riding and pushing. Here, I took on a 20% grade, advertised as the steepest section of the tour. Maybe it was because I was expecting it, but I didn’t think it was quite as difficult as some other sections I’d faced. I stopped for a snack and rest in the shade at the top, then continued to Juchhoh and Modlareuth, the famous divided village.

Modlareuth was called “Little Berlin” by American troops stationed there because it was the only other German city split by the border. Despite its tiny population (58 today), an extensive “anti-fascist protection barrier” was installed here. The wall was built in stages, beginning as a wooden fence in 1952, then barbed wire and additional fortifications were added until a fully fledged concrete wall was erected in 1966, just five years after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Since the wall was flattened in 1990, a very good borderland museum has served to educate visitors on the history of the village.

Despite reunification, the village still serves as a bizarre, tangible example of the ongoing differences between eastern and western Germany. The town has two mayors, two postal and telephone codes, and two different car registrations. And according to a pamphlet from the museum, “you can tell which side of the stream people come from by the way they great you: “Gruß Gott” on one side and “Guten Tag” on the other.

I spoke to a women who worked at the museum and lived in the western part of Modlareuth during the division. I asked her why the GDR built a wall comparable to the one in Berlin for only 58 people. She explained that it could be explained by the ancient border between Bavaria and Thuringia that ran through the town. I wasn’t quite satisfied by this answer, or completely sure that she understood my question, but it was getting late and long distances ahead demanded that I press on.

I left the village in the direction of Münchenreuth, up a pretty good hill. At the top, the road gave way to gravel and dirt but I remained undaunted; the road was perfect for a mountain bike adventure. However, after a few hundred meters, it became apparent that I was accidentally in the middle of a construction site where steamrollers, bulldozers, and forklifts busily moved dirt around. I could see the village I was headed toward, and determined to avoid a long detour, so I decided to keep going, pushing my bike on the side of the sandbox, trying to look unassuming and confused. One by one, I passed pieces of heavy machinery and burly construction workers who scrutinized me, but didn’t yell or say the word “verboten,” which I took as approval to continue. I made it to Münchenreuth, proud of my shortcut, and continued to Feilitzsch and Trogen, where I struck out 5 times looking for a place to spend the night. I only found worn down buildings and people who told me “nicht übernactung” when I arrived at the addresses for gasthouses. Annoyed, I had no choice but to head for Hof, a town of about 50,000 where I figured it would be easy to find a hotel. After an hour, I settled on a place by the railroad station.

Hof was a little out of my way, but the good thing about bigger towns is that finding spaghetti is 10 times more likely. I found a nice Italian restaurant and quickly made friends with the owner when we discovered our mutual passion for biking, and I showed him my funny tan spots on my hands from my bike gloves. He then insisted on bringing me free orange juice and cooked me a delicious dinner. We discussed cycling in the area until I could no longer stifle my yawns and returned to my hotel.

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Lost and Found

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Lauenstein to Blankenstein
Written 13.7.10

I spent most of the day lost and an unfortunate amount of time on foot, pushing my bike. It took me two hours to make it 14k to Lehesten, contending with grades of 16% and steep hills unmarked by my map. This, combined with terrible road conditions made riding difficult. Last night’s rain had indeed cooled the land and water dripped from the trees and ran off my helmet while my feet were soaked by puddles and mud while I scrambled up the first set of hills. Later, I found myself on a particularly bad section of the Kolonnenweg, pacing a flat area by a shelter hut, checking my compass, completely confused. I was afraid of making an irreversible downhill mistake, but I eventually took the steep road anyway. I seriously doubted my ability to make it back up this section of the Kolonnenweg, at least without a rope, and entered a shady valley with trepidation. Before too long, though, I found a signpost to Brennersgrün, where I got back on track, and later, caught up with the Rennsteig, with a few tips from a biker going my way. My afternoon kick was surprisingly strong and I rolled into Blankenstein tired, but in good time, and stayed the night at a Bett und Bike Pension.

I spoke to my dad on the phone later that night, telling him about the incredible grade along the Kolonnenweg and he commented, “well I guess they put the fence wherever they wanted.” This was a clear summary of many of my experiences biking directly on the border. The Kolonnenweg stops for nothing. It is usually here that I find the most extreme grades and most difficult riding conditions. Yet another testament to the determination of the GDR to secure their border, but also a comment on the border’s geographical placement. It makes sense that people are divided by wild, hilly terrain (this is also the ancient border between Thuringria and Bayren) simply because it is difficult to cross but easy to fortify…

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