The Netherlands smiles upon me. Not once in the month of September did I plan a bike ride of more than 10 kilometers and experience rain.
Setting off from Utrecht for Zwolle, the sun deities of the nether lands once again favored my dry passage to the north. Zwolle lies approximately 90 kilometers northeast of Utrecht, in the center of a region of the Netherlands hardly known to the outside world, as well as many in the Netherlands itself.
As with most of my long-distance trips, I resolved at the beginning to follow the recreational touring routes designed to show cyclists a pleasant panorama of the Netherlands’ cow and sheep dotted countryside. After nearly two hours of meandering through farm paths, I set myself on the straight track to Zwolle, along a straight, well-signed local highway. At some point after I made this resolution, I accidentally entered the Veluwe, a massive forest preserve, halfway into which I discovered an inland sand dune populated by elderly people eating sandwiches. There I briefly rested.
I reached Zwolle, crossing the Ijssel into the province of Overijssel (an all too logical name I think), near six in the evening. As I entered through the city gates in a blaze of victory, I arrived immediately at the sad reality that I had yet to find myself a place to stay, a warm room to rest my knees already weak from riding through cow-fields on a 40 year old two speed Batavus.
The Dutch (in stark contrast to Flemish I later learned) do not do hostels well. One person even directly told me that hostels are not very Dutch thing, whatever that means. What is very Dutch, apparently, is to make arriving in a new city without a reservation a proposition doomed to failure.
I did not find a place to stay in Zwolle. Zwolle, as it turns out, is not much of city after six o’clock, when all the shops close, and everyone either drinks beer or goes to McDonalds. I did the latter.
Though I can’t say whether or not the Big Mac I bought would have tasted better with the ketchup that cost extra, I can say, that McDonald’s balances having free Wifi with making you want to leave there as fast as possible. With no prospects for a hotel under 150 dollars in Zwolle and a belly hollow and grumbling from a dry Big Mac, I opted to move on to the next town. By then, anyhow, my knees had had a chance to recover and I was feeling rather sprite, if only numb with persistent pain.
The next town on my map, Meppel, lay 23 kilometers to the north. By then it had grown dark, and as it was a pleasant night, I thought I might just bike until I found some campsite or bed and breakfast at the side of the highway. Motels, as it turns out, are not so Dutch either.
By the time I reached Meppel, I could sense that I was at a crossroads. Meppel felt like the sort of place that people talk of wanting to get out of. Moreover, my decision to divert from the signed bicycle route to ride through the town center turned out to be ill-conceived.
Leaving Meppel’s center, I lost my way in a dense suburban encampment with no inherent logic or landmarks. Round and round, I rode through the suburb with not the slightest clue of whether I had see that house or stream or car before. The feeling, I imagine, is somewhat how someone stuck in a hedge maze might feel like once the thrill and aura of adventure wear off. I just wanted to be free.
With freedom came weariness, and soon enough, midnight passed. The next town beyond Meppel of any respectable size would be Assen, almost 50 kilometers to the north. But as I rode at my slow and steady pace down a beautiful quiet farm road, I finally resolved to put down my possessions and take a brief nap.
When I awoke, however, it was not to the alarm I had set for early that morning, or the neighing of horses and the mooing of cows, but to the lights of Dutch police car.
The farm plot I had sleepily chosen to serve a few hours slumber, as it turns out, was a kind of local highway in this part of the Netherlands. Somebody, perhaps a farmer headed home from a late night at some sorry Meppel tavern, thought they had seen a strange figure at the side of the road. But rather than stop to ask me if I might like a ride somewhere down the road or fresh cheese rind, he called the police.
The Dutch police, as it turns out, were as shocked to see me napping roadside in the boonies of the Netherlands, as I was to be awoken by them. Though they instructed me that I would have to continue on my way (is there no piece of earth yet unclaimed!), they led me directly to a canal leading all the way to Assen, something I was very grateful for.
I rode along the canal for hours, watching the sun rise gradually over the flat countryside. Half asleep, I trudged on until the first few Dutch schoolkids, like early morning songbirds, joined me on the trek. By dawn, I was jostling with groups of teenagers and little old ladies in electric wheelchairs. But after the longest sunrise I had ever seen, I felt like the entire affair had been worth the stress, and trekked forth.
I arrived in Assen at rush hour and drank hot chocolate at the train station for an hour before continuing on my way to Groningen. Thirty kilometers later, I arrived in the Netherlands’ city of the north with an ache in my back and bags under my eyes, but a smile on my face and a big appetite.
Teetering side to side with the weight of my bag, I finally pushed into the old city, nearly being hit by a bus in front of the market square. The ride had lasted close to 200 kilometers. I followed red bicycle signs all the way there, and, if it hadn’t been for curiosity and spirit of recklessness, I would not have once been lost.