Summer, I know where you are going. I’m coming with you.
I’ve arrived a month too late. The leaves are as deep green as they get before turning other colors and dying. The raspberries are few but those little succulent shriveled fruits hiding behind the furthest leaves. The purple thistle is tall and strong, the nettles aren’t stinging, the spruce tips are sharp and hard and ready for winter. The fireweed has turned to cotton. There are reasons to love August. Blueberries populate hillsides up high and there are some plums to be found, ripe as jam. Apples are in high season, but for a fruit that keeps so well year round, it is hard to be excited about apples. If I hadn’t been born in August I’d be more in love with late June and July, and March and April, and in some places, October is a brilliant moment on the path to winter.
But I was born in August and every year I remember looking forward to my birthday with anticipation, only for it to pass as quickly as any other day. I’d look forward to Christmas and snow, and the end of the school year and the beginning of the next school year. The passage of time is accelerated by anticipation, only to realize that I’m almost 32 and I’d better slow down. And I thought I was still eight years old.
These days— these last three days since arriving in Czech— have felt like forever. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow because today is alright and tomorrow is something of the same and there is no reason to run faster than the clock. In fact, if I could slow the summer to half-time I would. When traveling without a destination, today seems as important as the next and the days last as long as they are. The pace of these last three days are as close as I’ll get to putting the summer on hold. For that, I have another solution. Seasonal migration.
I regret some of my summer in Alaska. Even though the sun is out and the days last all night, I spent the last four months inside working. I spent almost every single day working. I only went swimming once, even though Anchorage isn’t known for hot summers or swimming, it doesn’t feel quite right to call it summer without swimming. To show for my time I worked hard and made money. I respect the opportunity to do this, and I respect the freedom that comes from it, but for four months I saw the inside of one building and thought about one thing only— bikes, bikes, bikes. However, the real reason for regret is that I came out of the summer with less than I started. Lael and I arrived this spring from Baja with the story of a successful winter on the Baja Divide with hundreds of riders, with the success of her FKT ride, and with a future. I hurriedly left Anchorage a week ago, alone. By some twisted miracle, Lael has gone her own direction without me and I’ll never understand it. She’s found someone else and I now realize something very personal about the perceived passage of time. Nearly eleven years of my life— most of which we lived at a vigorous pace where every hour is saturated in new experiences– seem to have vaporized.
I’ve been at this puzzle for over a month now and finally, I’m coming out of the dark. I did the only thing I knew how to do to protect myself, I made a plan to get on my bike and ride. Leaving Anchorage was the first step. Arriving in Eastern Europe is the second step. Beyond that, I’m hoping to ride and slow the summer to wring the most out of it. And then, I’ll go south, to the Balkans and Albania, to the Middle East and Northern Africa. I’ll migrate the same way I’ve done for years, the same way I’ve ridden through the Rockies and into the Southwest and into Mexico.
This blog has been scarce since spring of 2015, after our travels in Israel. Life got increasingly busy with Lael’s racing, work, travel, and the Baja Divide. But this story will continue. In the last few years personal blogs have gone from being commonplace to rare, as micro-media like Instagram and Facebook take over. But I still like to write and I hope to enter my second decade of bicycle travel with the goal to continue sharing information and experiences, honestly and for free. I’m hoping to breath life back into this crackly AM radio station. Thanks for listening. For someone with nowhere to call home, the community of people in this place is the nearest I have to a home sometimes.
Incidentally, I started this blog the second day after leaving Annapolis, Maryland in 2011. At that time, Lael sat me down and told me that she didn’t love me anymore. I pleaded and stewed for a few days. Then, I ordered a mapset of the Great Divide Route and a book about the Arizona Trail. Less than two weeks later I was riding out of town on my 1985 Schwinn High Sierra, the beginning of a 7000 mile journey across North America and the Great Divide Route. Six years later, I’m staring at the same open road.
Arriving in Prague three days ago, I built my bike outside of the airport in barely 30 minutes. I loaded local maps on Gaia and set off into the rain for the city center and the main train station. I wrung out my socks before entering the terminal. Inside, I purchased a ticket to Cheb and waited for the platform to be listed next to my train. Several other cyclists were on board and we all shared a seating cabin near the bikes. One was riding a carbon XC mountain bike, clearly leaving the city for a weekend race. Two riders were on road bikes. Later, while I was asleep, a young woman boarded the train and all of the other riders had departed. I learned that she was looking forward to two weeks in the mountains to teach Czech language classes to Germans students. There, she would enjoy some cycling in her free time. Upon learning of my plans— great thanks to her excellent English— she remarked that two of her friends had completed the 1000 Miles Adventure route a few years ago. The bicycle car on a Czech train is a great welcome to the country.
From Alaska to California to Stockholm to Prague, I’ve since transported myself to the far western edge of the Czech Republic, at the border of Germany, where I begin following a digital line on my GPS. The 1000 Miles Adventure is an annual bikepacking race which travels from the German border, across Czech and Slovakia, to the Ukrainian border. I’m not certain I will follow the entire route, as there are some outstanding hiking trails in southern Poland as well. In either case, I have an approximate roadmap for the coming months. My only real goal is to eventually spend some time in Ukraine before turning south for the season. Ukraine, like August, is my place.
I love Eastern Europe. It is exciting and real. This time of year the countryside is dripping with ripe plums, blueberries are found on the mountaintop polonina, apples and pears are on the way, mushrooms are hiding in the forest, and food is being stored in pantries and root cellars in every home. The mountains are big and inviting, more like the old rounded mountains of the east coast where I grew up. Old roads and trails line the ridges, along former boundaries now forgotten by the open borders of the European Union. In Poland, the PKKT national hiking club maintains a system of huts atop the larger mountains which serve hot food, fermented dairy, and cold beer. Anything east of Germany is exciting to me, but crossing east of Poland and east of Slovakia into Ukraine is another layer. Ukraine is decrepit, but lively, and stands one step closer to the Russian sphere of influence and one step further from the German. There is sadness there, but once you enter into a home and the curtains are drawn and the table fills with food from edge to edge, smiling faces come out of hiding. Food, after religion and family, is the most important thing to Ukrainians.
The roads have been failing in Ukraine for 25 years, jobs and factories are since gone and the economy is weak while Russia continues to pound down doors in this part of the world. Yet some of the new generation of Ukrainians are willing to risk being hopeful. The old generation doesn’t really know what to do in these post-Soviet times, except to keep living. That’s mostly what they did before the Soviet Union collapsed anyway. I don’t know if I would care much about Ukraine, or for Ukraine, if this wasn’t also my home. But it is, and even though I wasn’t born here much of my childhood was spent learning about the country the way that my grandparents remembered it before the war. My grandmother, a recent widow, emigrated from Ukraine in 1941 with an 18 month old daughter. My grandfather wound his way through Europe as a soldier and somehow connected Italy and the United States. Nobody really wants to remember these things.
I’d like to revisit the Balkans. Albania in particular stands out in my memory, but I know that going new places is also worth it, always. However, revisiting Ukraine and Albania will be like turning the page to the second chapter of a novel I picked up a while back. I know the characters, I know the setting, I know the pace and the language, but I still don’t know where the story is going. Come winter, I’m hoping to migrate further towards the equator. North Africa and the Middle East come to mind. It has been my dream for the last 9 years to travel by bike. That is still true.
Revisit my resource of European Bikepacking Routes, which I hope to update with new information this season. For further reading, check out my article from Bicycle Times Issue #30, titled “Bikepacking Europe: North Sea to the Black Sea”.
Bunyan Velo, Issue #4 also features two outstanding stories from Eastern Europe: Lael (page 72) writes a lovely piece about our time in Czech Republic called “Červenec in Czech”, and Przemek (page 148) writes “I’m Happy and I’m Riding and a 1,2,3, 4…” about our shared time in Ukraine. Bunyan Velo, Issue #3 also features my story “Chasing Red and White” about the newfound possibilities of bikepacking in Europe.
More from the 1000 Miles Adventure coming soon!