Having purchased a one-way ticket to Kenya, what to do afterward was quite open ended. Sometime during my month there it occurred to me to fly somewhere, buy a bicycle, and enjoy the rest of the summer on two wheels. Reasoning that Croatia might be a nice place to start such a journey I booked a flight, arranged to purchase a used bike from Jurica in Zagreb (whom I found on Njuskalo.hr, something akin to Craigslist), and packed my backpack for the next continent.
The plan was going remarkably well – in less than 12 hours in Croatia I’d purchased an awesome road bike for 150 USD, outfitted it for touring, and made friends at the Moj Bicikl Bike Info Center. The center is a veritable heaven in downtown Zagreb for bicyclist of all types from commuters to racers to trans-continental tourers. It provides provides information, champions for better bike legislation both locally and with the EU, organizes events, and brings together people from all walks of life on two wheels. Based on their recommendations I decided to head to the Adriatic Sea by train so my bike trek could begin on the coast. With time to spare before the train that evening I joined in their remodeling efforts to bring new life to the building that housed the organization. This entailed some painting, but mostly coffee and great conversation.
After a short night at a hostel in Rijeka it was time to ride. The Croatian coast proved to be absolutely beautiful, in many ways how I’d always imagined the shores of the Mediterranean but so much cooler in real life. It took a few iterations to get all my junk strapped adequately to Punda Milia (until then, several innocent bystanders were treated to some pretty comical crash landings), but we soon found our groove and the odometer began clicking away.
As day’s last sliver of light turned to darkness I slowly pedaled into Ogulin, worlds away from the Adriatic Sea. This first day of 115 km (72 mi) and 1,000 m (3,300 ft) climb with temperatures in the high 30’s C (90’s F) had left me completely exhausted and more discouraged than I’d like to admit. Legs mush, knees on fire, and body beat I couldn’t help but wonder if this adventure might have been my dumbest idea yet.
The extreme European summer temperatures had left many crops dry and in need of burning back down to soil. One such crop burn was rolling ahead of me with the wind rapidly blowing the flame front toward the road. With cartoon-like “race the freight train” mentality (and a clear dismissal of the 10 and 18) I peddled faster to get through in time. At full throttle I entered the dense smoke, holding my breath and crossing my fingers it wasn’t far to clear air on the other side. With little visible besides my tires and the road below, I caught sight of the bushes beside my right foot torch up in flame – the fire was jumping the road at the very instant I was pedaling past. With hot feet I rocketed into clear air and with a deep breath of fresh air realized I had the biggest smile on my face since fighting fire with the BLM nearly 10 years ago. The smell, the heat, the light, the physical exertion, the adrenaline, the pulse of being alive! Five minutes later I happened to look down at the speedometer only to realize I was so high from the experience that I’d never slowed down from the sprint. One little fire and my optimism had been restored – this adventure was by no means my dumbest idea yet – on the contrary it was going to be incredible!
The second night on the road found me back in Zagreb, enjoying new friends from the Buzz Backpacker’s Hostel and pivo through a long, beautiful summer night. We listened to live music, wandered along cobblestone streets, and shared stories of far away places. The next morning I set out under cloudy skies, headed north toward my destination but with the route to be defined as my mood, the environment, and curiosities on the map dictated.
By now roughly a week into the trip, my sense of time had all but vanished. I would wake in the mornings when my body was through sleeping and I’d feast on the delights offered by the Gasthaus kitchen. At no particular time I would load Punda Milia, cross off the preflight checklist, and begin the day’s pedaling. I’d ride through farmland and forests, along rivers and over mountain passes, under avalanche tunnels and over railroad bridges, through tiny village streets and alongside autobahns on urban bike paths. I’d stop when my stomach wished, when something caught my eye, or whenever stopping seemed like the right thing to do. I would ride in peace and quiet with nothing but the wind in my ears, and I’d ride with a soundtrack in my headphones that would reduce hours to the blink of an eye. I’d draw paper maps while staring at road signs, make arbitrary decisions based on which fork in the road felt right, and drastically alter course at the suggestion of someone who knew the area. I’d devour perogi and pizza and schnitzel like a shark, needing little excuse besides “Punda Milia’s fuel tank is running low!” I would ride late into the night when it felt good, or stop in the early afternoon if I passed a gasthaus in a town that called to me. With dinner I’d sip local beer or wine before retiring early with no obligation besides putting words down in my journal before bed, if such a thing can be called an obligation. I’d fall asleep as though I’d spent the day riding a bicycle, and the next day I would repeat. There was no pace, no urgency, no waiting or wanting. There was the beautiful present, life just was.
When traveling I always enjoy noticing those things that are nearly universal but have taken on the character of that region. Signs and vehicles top that list in my book, here are a few of my favorites:
On day 10 of my ride I crossed a border into a country that is by now beginning to feel a bit like home – the Czech Republic. Since my first visit here in 2005 I’ve only visited in the winter months, so experiencing it this time in the late summer was a dream come true. A few kilometers over the border I met up with the great Vltava River near where it starts as merely a trickle. For the next few days of the ride I would follow it downstream 250 km (160 mi) to my destination.
Timing for the ride had been perfect, 12 days after leaving the Adriatic Sea I arrived in Prague on the evening of September 4th in time for a champagne welcome from my dear friends Miloš, Jiřina, and their kids Martin, Magdalena, and Marketa. A delightful evening and morning of conversation ensued (as it always does with Miloš and Jiřina!) and the next day I picked my parents up at the airport to start the next chapter of this European adventure.