The Space Between Us

Markus Stitz is an Edinburgh-based filmmaker, photographer, writer and founder of Bikepacking Scotland. While used to going solo on his cycling adventures, Markus values the community around backpacking greatly and in his latest film explores the difference between social and physical distance…

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Sitting in the shelter of Cadderlie, temporarily hidden away from the midges and the pouring rain, I feel relieved. While a solid stream of water runs down from the roof in front of the window, I am comfortable on the couch, reading the (at times entertaining) comments in the bothy book, while cutting my flatbreads and the cheese. As the rain gets heavier, I quickly poke my head outside the bothy to check if all bags on my bike are closed properly. Thankfully they are. I return to my couch and continue lunch.

 

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Minutes after the rain stops. It’s time to move on. My original plan was to be here on the evening before, but sometimes the best-laid plans don’t work out. I started my trip in the morning in Connel. With clear blue skies in the morning, I decided to make a detour to Lismore first, arriving just ten minutes before the ferry left from Oban to the small island. The two times I had been here were too short or too wet to really appreciate it, and this time the conditions looked perfect. I wasn’t disappointed. With a population of 170 people, Lismore feels cosy. Packed into the ten miles, on which it stretches from north to south, are two castle ruins, beautiful lochs and much green space. From each little hill, the views towards the coast are magnificent, and a lovely cafe with refreshments invites to linger for much longer than planned.

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From Lismore I continued to the Pierhouse Hotel in Port Appin, and even though I wasn’t really hungry, I couldn’t resist a stop for a coffee and some snacks. I had eaten here the night before, invited by Gordon, who had taken over the hotel a few months ago, and the seafood was simply delicious. From Port Appin I followed the Caledonia Way north to Ballachulish, and then ‘raced’ across the busy A82 to scrape into the Kingshouse Hotel for dinner, just before 9pm. By the time I finally made it to the northern head of Loch Etive it was dark. Even though the midges were ferocious, a night in my tent, with no phone reception and other people in sight, seemed like a good enough prospect to stop.

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It feels fresh outside. For a short moment, I have forgotten about the midges. The clouds move quickly above me, and within a few minutes I can spot a small spot of blue sky. The weather is much more Scottish than the day before, with frequent rain showers but some sunshine in between. The conditions make for beautiful rainbows and dramatic photos.

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Fast forward a few months, Scotland during lockdown. I look through the video footage from that trip back in June 2019. Between the trip and the here and now lies one of my biggest adventures since I returned from my round the world trip in 2016. The mountains of the Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan provided not only the background for an amazing experience, they also encouraged me to work on a new film, ‘No Stone Unturned’, my first documentary since ‘Wild About Argyll’. Back from racing in Morocco, I have just planned new routes in Argyll and I am eager to return there, to get out into the Scottish mountains as the days get longer and snow and rain give way to fresh green and hope.

 

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But that hope is crushed while the country is being put into lockdown. The spectacular views from the tent are replaced with an outlook over Edinburgh’s New Town. The sunsets are still spectacular, but I miss being in those vast spaces that provide much-needed solitude from time to time. For the first weeks, I hardly leave the house. While I am still allowed to cycle, the bike is the closest ‘thing’ I connect with freedom. And that freedom has been taken, at least for the foreseeable future. While I understand the reasons and accept the measures, I am still constantly reminded of my upbringing in East Germany. For the first time since 1989, I am told what to do. I feel watched, I feel stuck. The noise of the coronavirus coverage on the radio blends into the monotonous sound of stacking dishes on top of each other. Certainty is replaced with the unknown. Making decisions proves almost impossible as the world during a pandemic moves with breathtaking speed.

After a Zoom call, I switch to YouTube and watch a video with an ape staring out of water for ten minutes. It calms me down. I get my phone out and look at the footage from last June. I have half-heartedly started to work on a new film, but abandoned the project for a few times. While I still look at the ape, I start to think about what social distancing really means. I download the song and go to bed.

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The first waves of the lockdown shock are replaced with the willingness to adapt. On my around the world, no day was the same, and uncertainty was part of the attraction of taking a year off to explore new cultures and most importantly, myself. For a year I paused, resisted the noise. I was also exposed to grief for the first time in my life, when three months into the trip I unexpectedly lost my dad to an accident. There were moments of crisis on adventures I went on. ‘Fix your own problems’ (thanks to Jenny Tough for that mantra) and ‘never scratch at night’ have become the pillars of my efforts of exploration. I still remember few of the good, but most of the challenging days. Challenging days have turned into remarkable memories.

I get my tripod out and film the here and now; staring out of the window, the beautiful sunsets. While doing the dishes I record the noise from the radio and sit down with a glass of wine to gather my thoughts about social distancing and solo adventures. While doing all of this, the Aphex Twin song from a few days before still calms me down, and so I decide to use it as a soundtrack for a new film.

Slowly but surely all pieces come together. ‘Distance’ develops over the coming weeks. It helps me to make sense of the here and now. I use the memories of great solo adventures in the Scottish outdoors to provide me with hope and inspiration. Working on a new film helps me create a distance in my head from the onslaught of news coverage. And while a film can’t replace the power of exploring those mountains and lochs of Argyll, it can at least provide hope and inspiration for the days to come – hopefully in not too distant times.

Markus Stitz
Markus Stitz is an Edinburgh-based filmmaker, photographer and writer. He runs Bikepacking Scotland and Dirt Dash events and has developed a number of long-distance bikepacking routes, like the Wild About Argyll Trail.

All photos ©Markus Stitz.

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