Arriving at the Czech border town of Český Tĕšín, Abe and I cross the river to Poland. A series of produce stalls are selling bulk potatoes along the road parallel the river, massive dried sunflowers and dill stalks accompany the display. We climb a wet cobblestone street into the old city in search of cover. We spent our last Czech koruna at the Billa supermarket across the border. Now, we seek a Polish ATM to withdraw zloty for the next week. We’ve seen the forecast, and it calls for some days of rain. In the past week these forecasts have become increasingly grim, with two days of rain growing to a full week of rain. Going through the motions, we withdraw cash, eat pastries and kefir under cover of a bus stop and pedal to the start of the Main Beskid Trail in Ustron, about 20 km away. En route, we both realize that the GPX tracks we have loaded are incomplete. The files we loaded contain nearly 13,000 points and our Garmin eTrex devices will only display tracks with up to 10,000 points, so only 200 miles of the route are shown. At the top of the mountain we pass a turn which would connect us to the Beskid Trail but we decide to descend into town to modify the GPX track and reload it to our Garmin units.
In Ustron, we stop into a local bike shop where Abe borrows a wrench to tension his leather B-17 saddle. He asks how many spare sets of brake pads I am carrying, expecting me to reply “None”, along with some secrets of lightweight travel.
“Four. Four pairs.”
Abe is impressed.
I contest, they are small and I don’t think it will be easy to find pads for my SRAM Guide brakes. He agrees.
Abe buys a pair of Shimano brake pads. The shop is a small room, clean and professional with a small inventory of bikes and some quality equipment, including Maxxis tires, disc brake pads, and carbon handlebars. A row of kids bikes are lined up out front of the shop, several models featuring a long handle with an ergonomic grip for a parent to follow behind. We ask to log into the wifi network at the shop to use an online program called GPS Visualizer which I know can modify our GPX track as needed. Instead, they suggest we use the free wifi in the city center about 300m away. We roll to the city center and link to the internet, where we discover that we must input a cell phone number to receive a login code. Neither of us has a phone. We manage to ask the woman at the tourist information office to use her mobile phone to receive the code. Once she understands our request she willingly agrees to help.
I begin work to condense our oversized GPX tracks through the GPS Visualizer program and limit them to 9999 points, enough that the entire track will load on our devices and the track resolution will be adequate. I connect my eTrex 20 and begin loading the file. I do the same with Abe’s eTrex 30, although my old USB cable ejects the drive several times before I successfully load the track. Right before we pack and roll out of town, I check the latest weather forecast. One site shows rain for every single day, for two weeks. My fingers are cold while typing next to an open window in the tourist office in Ustron at 1300ft. We plan to climb up to almost 5000ft over the next couple of days, topping out on Babia Gora along the Polish-Slovakian border. Memory serves the distinct sensation of soggy shoes, and sweaty rain jacket, and incompetent cold hands fumbling with zippers. Add to that poor visibility, wet roots, muddy trails. I inform Abe of the forecast. He doesn’t say anything, the sometimes necessary job of a first mate. But I can tell. I don’t want to be wet for two weeks either. I load the German rail site in English and run a few searches. A second Google Maps tab reminds me of the geography of Eastern Europe. Ostrava to Zagreb results in relatively few connections and a 15 hours trip with a layover in Vienna. Just something to think about. We pack our things and ride out of town to a public picnic area we passed on our way into town. I spotted a large wooden pavilion on the descent and figured we could come back for the night if needed.
Przemek arrives around 9:30PM, his young dog waking me by licking my eyeball as I sit up from my sleeping bag. Abe and I have been asleep for over two hours. Przemek and I hug awkwardly from my seated position in my sleeping bag. His first question, “Do you want some wodka?” What do you say to a towering Polish man with a Husky mutt when he asks if you want wodka in the middle of the night. “Of course.”
I hear the van door slide open across the park, and then slam closed. Przemek arrives with a bag of oranges, a pouch of rolling tobacco, and a bottle of spirits, a Lithuanian vodka called Strumbas with two raspberries sunk to the bottom. This is a perfectly acceptable evening digestif in this part of the world, although it might be short a few cloves of garlic and some pickled fish, or pork. We talk under cover of the pavilion until midnight before disbanding to sleep. It rains all night.
Przemek and I have shared trails in Poland, Ukraine, Montenegro, Albania, and Colorado. He and his partner Saška were some of the first riders on the Baja Divide this past fall. This summer they married and are expecting a baby in the next few weeks. Przemek is working in Poland while Saška is with family in Slovenia. Once he receives the call, he will make haste to meet his daughter.
Lael and I first met Przemek in Zwardon on the Poland-Slovakia border in 2013. We met at the train station and immediately began climbing out of town on a steep walking trail. Thus began my love with Polish footpaths. The next few days we followed his lead along ridgelines between the two countries. We continued riding together for the next month in Poland, in the Ukrainian Carpathians, and in Crimea. In that time, we all got food poisoning, we enjoyed late evenings with Djorka and Yulia and their friends in Strij, and we were escorted off a Ukrainian military base in Crimea. In that time, Przemek curated an alter ego as a slippery Polish man working to illegally import wodka under the guise of operating an Italian pizzeria. He was alternately Mr. Polish and Tony the Pizza Man, and you’d never know who might crawl out of his tent in the morning. If he didn’t have a university degree that allows him to commission power plants in Europe I think Przemek might have found a career recording his shtick to budget comedy LPs.
I had said that I wished it to rain all night. I said, “I hope it is pouring in the morning”. Now that a seed had been planted and we might be able to escape the rain, all I needed was the affirmation to make that decision. I didn’t need much, and it would have taken a miracle of morning sun and a perfectly clear forecast to change my mind. Instead I was hoping for a deluge of reasons to escape the impending rainy season. It rained all night.
We are going south.
Abe and I confer. I suggest we take the train to Zagreb and I think it a good idea to avoid two weeks of rain. He quietly chuckles in agreement. We have both been wet and cold before. This time, we fold our hand and find another card table. We are going to the Balkans. Summer will be ours once again.
Missing the chance to visit Ukraine leaves a little hole in my summer. It is a special place that has provided so many positive and meaningful experiences. Visiting family in two consecutive summers, and celebrating two consecutive birthdays in Ukraine is part of it. The riding in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains is also a great adventure. I’ll be back. It will be there. Had I been traveling alone I might have pressed on in the rain and bought an old farmhouse with a good roof and a fireplace in the Ukrainian mountains and disappeared forever. Good thing Abe is here.
And so, with no plan other than a good weather forecast and a taste for burek, and figs, and rakija, we are going south. Our train will arrive in Zagreb just before midnight.
Mr. Polish, aka Tony the Pizza Man, aka Przemek.