Leaving Przemek and his Pugsley in the high country, Lael and I spend a few days writing and planning. First, the next issue of Bunyan Velo is to be released in the upcoming month, and some time near a power outlet and wireless internet is in order to record some ideas that have been gestating all summer. Second, my parents and my brother will soon arrive in Ukraine, where we will meet them to make a brief cultural tour around the country. Our prime focus will be to visit the two villages where each my maternal grandparents were born nearly 95 years ago. Finally, after a few more days on the trail without us, Przemek’s yellow Pugsley makes a quick trip home to return to the mountains as a hardtail 29er, where we will rejoin him for a few days of riding. This leaves us with a week to go nowhere and anywhere. We direct ourselves with our sense for great campsites, by our internal clinometers (up, always up); we shoot for small towns and trails in Poland and Slovakia, guided by an occasional glance at Google or a public map; and we do what (cycle)tourists might have always expected of their summer vacation– we spend some time.
Without a map or trail to follow, some real (micro)adventuring is in order. The day is spent indoors writing; we mainly seek a campsite for the night, so we ride up. Past a ski lift, one of hundreds that line the local hillsides, past ripening fruit and farms, to the low ridge that composes the border between Poland and Slovakia.
Either side of this monument reads S and P, for Slovakia and Poland. We have been following similar markers since the Czech/Poland border.
This will do for a campsite. Lael prepares a fungal watercraft dubbed the ‘Yankee Doodle’ to float down the stream. This is how we spend at least some of our time.
The following evening, following thundershowers and some writing, we go searching for a campsite. We ride into some nearby forested lowlands, presented as a narrow green swathe on the map. We enter via farm roads from the pavement, without a map or guide of any kind. After a half an hour of winding routes, a small stream crossing, and a few dead-ends, we cross a small shelter perfect for a rainy night.
No Polish shelter is complete without a shot glass.
Lael was hiding something in her framebag to taste. Sweet, but herbal.
Public maps serve us well in many regions. We habitually stop to see what kind of new information we can gain. Much of this information could easily be learned from a detailed map or gps file, although the experience of piecing things together is interesting, if not always the most efficient method. I’ve long considered a GPS on board the bike, although a cumbersome interface is uninviting. And, I don’t already own an iPhone. We use Lael’s Google Nexus 7 tablet to navigate some cities, or to find camping, although it is impractically large for full time use. Solutions?
The following day leads us toward the Tatra, a succinct range of the highest peaks in the Carpathian Mountains, straddling the Slovakian/Polish border. Near or far, these mountains are stunning. The peaks are clear — we compare to the Tetons.
While looking for a market to pick up some food for dinner, we pass this red trail. The church is alive with the sounds of mass. Poland is a strongly Catholic country, and papal hiking routes in honor of John Paul II are ubiquitous in this part of the country. A public map shows that the red route connects to Zakopane, 15km away. Zakopane is a major international tourist destination, and a good place to replace our dying cookpot, we think. It will also afford closer inspection of the mountains.
Summer in Poland ends the same way as in Alaska.
We settle on this hillside facing the High Tatra for the evening. Not the flattest ground, but some of the best scenery of the trip.
This local red route, unlike some of the sections in the high country, proves to be perfectly rideable with only a few steep pitches. With my new 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf tire, climbing incredibly steep pitches has become a part-time hobby.
Over the last hill to Zakopane.
We meet hordes of tourists. Mostly, it is an innocuous crowded mountain town where local smoked cheese is sold in incredible numbers. There may be more than 100 individual vendors in town with displays such as this. Low-moisture smoked cheese makes for great bikepacking fuel, even in the heat. About 3 zloty to the dollar, so prices are quite good.
Sliwki is also in season, although most country people probably already have a glut of plums at home. Fruit trees are found everywhere in Poland.
Giant sunflowers and dill perfume Polish markets, and roadsides.
The usual collage of tourists, pamiatki, and high-end retail merge in Zakopane.
Lucky for me, Lael is cheap and settles for a 1 zloty strand of dyed wooden beads, and some colored leather laces that will eventually replace the broken laces on her shoes. Between her weathered Clark’s boots and new adornments, she has developed an eclectic mountain aesthetic. Bulging calves round out the look.
We also spent some time looking for another skirt– something a little more like this. Maybe in Ukraine.
The main function of our trip to Zakopane was to find a new cookpot, which had recently revolted by souring a meal with the taste of aluminum. Once coated with a hard anodized finish, the pot is now barely holding together. We browsed dozens of high-end hiking shops stocked with footwear and outerwear, but little camping equipment. Looking for a 1L stainless steel cookpot…
Eventually, we find what we are looking for in a large cookset at InterSport, a large European sporting goods chain. For about $40, we poach the smallest pot from a nice looking set of large, but packable kitchenware. Unsure of what to do with the remains, we leave the box and its contents outside the store. Hopefully some hungry backpacker will discover the prize.
Quickly, to meet Przemek early the next morning at a distant train station, we exit Zakopane with fresh legs and lunch in our bags. We will not have anything to do with this.
But if we have to, we will do this. Back through the countryside to rejoin Przemek.