It seems impossible that such a short amount of time could have such drastic and long lasting effects on our lives. And yet they do, regularly, to all of us. Everyone can point to specific moments in their life, where they could have gone one direction but chose another, and their entire life's course was altered as a result.
Of course if moments have the power to affect the course and outcome of our lives, they just as surely have the power to impact our daily lives at a smaller scale, and they do, probably every day, whether we realize it or not.
You could make the argument that our entire lives are nothing more than the sum of an almost infinite amount moments, and therefor it is inevitable that some of those moments should hold significance and be viewed as pivotal in our hindsight. But often when viewing those pivotal moments, we are aware, even at the time that that moment was different. Perhaps we were in the right place at the right time, or happened to bump into a stranger on the street and make their acquaintance, the outcome of which set us of in a new direction, whether in our day, or our life at large.
While travelling, it seems to me that these moments of significance occur with more regularity. There could be many explanations for why this might be, but the two that are most convincing to me are that often when we travel we are looking to be changed, and secondly, we are generally in a more open and vulnerable state than we are at home.
Out of all the traits that are important to possess, or strive toward while travelling, there are few that offer the rewards of being open and vulnerable. At the same time, vulnerability is almost impossibly difficult for many of us, as our society often looks down on the state of baring our emotions, scars, and souls to the world. By opening ourselves up to others, we open ourselves up for criticism and derision in the process, which forces many of us into the safer route of guarding our feelings and sheltering ourselves from the judgement of others.
One of the truly magical qualities of travelling - especially to a foreign country where you don't speak the local language - is that you are forced into a scenario where you need to open yourself up and trust in people you have just met. Whether it be asking for directions, hitching a ride somewhere, or being invited in to a home to spend the night enjoying the hospitality of a local family, you often have little choice but to trust and accept, or decline out of suspicion.
If you have the courage to trust, and to accept these invitations and opportunities, these are the moments that have the ability to change your experience of a location, your travels, and your life, forever. These moments lead to stories that you'll tell again and again to family and friends throughout the years. These moments will shape the way you view people, cultures, the world, and yourself.
I've had my share of moments such as this, but the one that I've been thinking about lately took place in the Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland) region of Germany, along the Elbe River, just north of the Czech border.
My friend Hamilton and I were in the midst of our European cycle tour. We had met up with the Elbe River just north of Dresden, Germany and had now been following the meandering river for a couple of days since. Our hosts in Dresden had gushed over the Sächsische Schweiz region, raving about the hiking, climbing, and natural beauty. They had advised us to be sure to check out the Bastei Bridge, a stone bridge dating back to the late 16th century nestled high up in the rock spires overlooking the Elbe.
When I finally laid eyes on the bridge, it appeared as something straight out of a fairytale, and my heart began a rapid, excited pounding in my chest. Taking a ferry across the river and leaving our bikes at the base, we began the hike up through the cliffs towards this logic defying medieval relic. After reaching the bridge we spent some time beneath the mid afternoon sun soaking in the beauty and serenity of our surroundings, the cliffs falling away into the Elbe on one side, and a forest punctuated by rocky spires on the other.
As the sun furthered its arc across the sky we made our way back to the bikes. We had been told about a mountain hut in the region, where for a small fee travellers and backcountry explorers could spend the night, but we still had an hours ride to get to the general vicinity of the hut, which we then had to locate precisely.
By the time we arrived in the town of Bad Schandau and picked up groceries for the next couple of days, dusk had fallen. Our directions to the hut from the town were murky at best, and we circled the streets a couple of times, trying to make sense of our location. On little more than a hunch, and with only a vague approximation of where on the map the hut might be, we picked a road out of town, and now in the dark, began our search.
We quickly left the town behind us as we
followed the winding road into the the mountains, our route hugging a gentle creek that mercifully allowed us to avoid much elevation gain for the most part. We passed by some hotels and inns on the way out of town, but were soon enough engulfed in a deep, quiet blackness of night. As we rode on, our certainty – if we had ever had any – in our directions waned. We consulted our vague map, trying to make sense of what little we could see, and resorting to attempting to match the contours of the road we were following to those which we observed on our map.
My doubt continued to grow the further down the road we went, we passed the odd house here and there, but the windows were dark, nowhere to ask for directions. After a 45 minute ride we reached a bridge which looked promising, it seemed to line up with what we expected to find based on our map. On the other side the pavement turned to gravel, and after a five minute ride up the deteriorating road we found ourselves – miraculously – standing outside of the hut we had been seeking.
Given our navigational track record in the daylight hours of our trip so far, Hamilton and I were nothing short of astonished that we had actually ended up at this hut, given the lack of information and lack of visibility at our disposal that night.
As we dismounted we observed a couple of headlamps making their way toward us through the dark, coming from the opposite direction to that we had just travelled. The headlamps belonged to a young couple who had been climbing in the area during the day. We mentioned that we were planning on staying in the hut tonight, and asked if that was their plan as well.
No, they replied, they had heard of a natural cave in the area that was popular among climbers for spending the night. They didn't know precisely where it was, but had a general idea and were now hoping to track it down to spend the night in. They offered to take us there if we would like to join them.
Naturally, this sounded incredible to us, how often do you get a chance to sleep in a cave? But the hut also looked enticing, and we had been told on good authority that it was well worth spending a night or two in as a base to explore the area. We thanked the climbers but decided to stick to the plan and relax in the gorgeous mountain hut for a couple of days. As the couple headed off down the road Hamilton and I walked up to the front porch and opened the door to the hut.
Immediately after opening the door I felt certain that we had made a miscalculation in our plans. Sitting around the large kitchen tables were three families, all with young children running around and making a racket. We introduced ourselves and somewhat awkwardly mentioned that we had planned to spend the night at the hut. They politely informed us that they had booked the hut that weekend and that it was generally impossible to just show up, almost always requiring a booking due to the volume of visitors. They explained that normally we would have been welcome, but with the sheer number of people in their group, there was no room left.
Deflated, we wished them a good night and headed outside. After a quick survey of our options we decided on tearing back down the road in search of the climbers, hoping we could catch them before they veered off the road and into the forest, towards the cave. If we didn't catch them we faced a tough decision on where to spend the night. The forest on either side of the road rose steeply into the mountains, offering no opportunity to set up our tents, and the closest accommodation was back on the outskirts of town from where we had just ridden.
Luckily for us, we were able to catch the couple, Frederick and Uta, just before they turned off the road and began their climb up into the forest and cliffs. We hauled the bikes a short way up the path and locked them to some trees before unloading our gear and beginning the climb up the narrow, slippery path. Frederick and Uta graciously helped us haul our bags up the trail, and after 20 minutes of sweating our way up the cliff side, we arrived at our destination.
The cave was not what I was expecting. Rather than a long, dark, cavernous room with a small opening at the front, this cave was more like a long, wide ledge with an overhanging rock roof. Not entirely dissimilar to Pacman, viewed in profile. The ledge was probably a hundred meters long, and tapered from five meters high at it's opening, to the ground over a span of ten meters. There were at least 3 or four other groups who had set up camp along the ledge, but there was enough room that each group had plenty of privacy.
We made dinner, and spent the evening chatting with our new friends, agreeing to accompany them the next day on a hike of the area, with which they were well acquainted. After saying good night, Hamilton and I sat up for a while, still marvelling at the remarkable turn our night had taken.
The following morning Frederick, Uta, Hamilton, and I set off into the forest for a spectacular hike through the vibrant red and orange fall colours. They brought their climbing gear along and got in a couple climbs while Hamilton and I hung out, chatting and taking photos.
Following the hike we returned to the cave. We spent another night (somewhat) under the stars, before packing up, bidding farewell to Frederick and Uta, and heading back down to the bikes.
Looking back it's incredible at how lucky we were to pull up to the hut at the moment we did. If we had been there a few minutes later we would have passed right by our new friends on the road without interacting with them, and would therefor never have found the cave. Who knows where we would have ended up spending the night, but I doubt any of the other possibilities could match a clifftop cave.
We never exchanged contact information, but I'll remember Frederick and Uta for a long time. A chance encounter in the dark with them lead to one of my most memorable and unique travel experiences, and for that I am beyond grateful.
It amazes me how often seemingly improbably coincidences and meetings such as this happen while travelling. The more I think about it, the more I attribute them to the fact that often while travelling we are more open to asking for help, seeking and accepting advice from strangers, and in search of novel experiences. It might be that the same chance encounters pass us by constantly in our daily lives at home, but we are too stuck in our routines to pay them notice. I've come to learn that the key is to remain flexible in your plans and expectations, and to take every chance you can to interact with the people you meet. After all, you never know what worlds they can open up to you.
What are some of the improbable experiences you've had while travelling or at home? Are there times that you look back on and marvel at the fact that the stars seem to have aligned to bring them to fruition? Let me know how you facilitate these experiences, I'd love to hear your stories!
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