Arwa

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In Daliyat on the top of Mt. Karmel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea there is a thirty year old bakery run by a twenty-two year old girl named Arwa. On a rainy morning we come in looking for cover and coffee.

Arabic coffee? With Cardamom?

Yes please.

She scoops two spoons of coffee and a pinch of cardamom into the cezve, fills it with water and sets it on the stove. Tucked away, we watch a steady flow of customers– in from the rain and out with boxes of baklava. 

Arwa arrives with the pot of coffee and two small cups. She pulls up a chair to tell her story.

I love bicycles. I have always ridden bicycles. I take my children riding in the forest. Let me show you.

She pulls out her phone and shows us pictures of children on cheap mountain bikes riding dirt roads– children covered in mud (it’s good for them!), children straddling their bikes over a ledge (when we reach the high point, we lift our arms and cry out!), children gulping 2 liter bottles of water (You must drink!), children red in the face, smiling and exhausted.

A man comes in for kanafeh, a woman for a cappuccino. Arwa comes back.

Who are these children?

They are my family. When they are riding their bikes in the woods, there is no more stress. She hunches her shoulders up to her ears and then relaxes them down with a long sigh.

She shows us chubby before and slim after pictures of her nephew. During his first rides he walked the hills, he got down on himself, he couldn’t do it. She made him get back on and pedal. She told him that he could do it. Now he rides with the group.

It wasn’t always easy. Women in town gave her dirty looks. They told her she was too old to ride a bicycle, that she needed to stop. She didn’t. She kept riding, into the woods and definitely up the hills.

More customers, more coffee, more kanafeh.

We show her pictures of riding bikes in Alaska and South Africa and her eyes get big.

I want to do that!

We pack up to leave. I promise I’ll be back in two weeks when I race through.

You have to come see me. Even if I’m not here, make them call me.

She gives me a hug and a kiss and we pedal away.

HLC day 3, 5AM

I wake up under the tree in the rain. I’m going to see Arwa.

I stuff my wet sleeping bag and bivy into my seatpack, lift my bike onto my shoulder and trudge on. Time passes. I don’t care how slow I’m going as long as I’m going. I make it to a road– some bits are rocky enough to ride, others too muddy. I’m on and off the bike, soaked through, but warm because I’m moving.

I turn onto a riverside path and bless the overgrown thorns because they cover the mud and allow me to ride.

The path lets out to a paved road. Standing in front of a parked car, a man and his daughter flag me down. They’re friends of Niv’s. They’ve brought me hot sweet mint tea. It’s perfect. The little girl giggles because I drink three glasses in a minute. Ndav tells me the climb over Karmel is rocky, not muddy– I should be able to push and ride. He sends me off with a chocolate matzah sandwich. It doesn’t feel right to say no, so I don’t. 

Minutes later, another man pulls up in a sedan. He’s a friend of Yam’s. I stop to talk. The rain comes down harder. My gps freezes. I ask to borrow his phone to call Nick. I tell him my gps is frozen, that I’ve been walking, that I want to get smaller tires for mud clearance. He tells me he’ll see me in Daliyat-al-Karmel at the bakery. I’m shaking with cold. The sedan man follows me to a gas station indicated on the route. It’s warm inside. The two Arabic attendants look at me like I’m crazy, sedan man explains the race and I unintentionally track mud across the mopped floors. I drink hot coffee and instant soup. Two other spot stalkers pop in. They’re friends of Ilan Tevet’s. Sedan man warns me that a bridge is out down the way. I nod like I understand, but I don’t. I change the batteries on the gps. It works.

I’m back out on the road and I’m warm in the core. I’m going over the mountain to Daliyat to see Nick and Arwa and then I’ll get skinnier tires and then I’ll keep going.

Back down the road I approach a river crossing. Two weeks ago Nick and I took off our shoes, hoisted our bikes on shoulders and easily walked across. The water is bigger and faster today. I begin crossing in a calmer, broader entry. My feet sink into the mud and it grips over my ankles. I step back and push onto a rockier entry where the water courses faster. I lift my bike onto my shoulder and begin a slow, little step crossing as the current juts up against my thighs. Before the far bank, the current pulls me down. At once, I let go of my bike and fall under water. Up for air, I see my bike moving down stream and away from me. My foggy brain tells me that I’m going to lose my bike, that I need to focus, that this is getting serious. Sitting in the water, backed up to the edge of the bank, I grab onto my bike. It’s all I can do to hold on, but I need to get out. I can’t back out of the current and hold onto my bike at the same time. Instead, I lay flat on my back with my whole body submerged in the water and lift my bike over my head to the far bank. It works.

I don’t stop to think.

I cross the highway to begin a steep push up Karmel. Water rushes down the rocks like a vertical stream bed. I hike and push fast and bless the climb because it warms me up. Halfway up, the grade lessens and I’m back on the bike, riding over rock to the top. It’s muddy, but passable. I wind around the mountain and make it to pavement. A little descent through town brings me to the bakery where Arwa stands in the doorway. She’s not surprised to see me.

 

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take no prisoners

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Biria Forest, 6AM

I wake up in the daylight in a rumpled plastic bag in the dirt. I pedaled a gap last night. A real pirate takes no prisoners.

I pack my bags, drink my juice and get back on the bike. I climb steep hills through the forest to single-track, up a clearing and down the pavement to Jish. The town is still asleep, but the bakery is open. I buy a stack of Druze flatbread, labane and zata with sesame seeds. 

The track takes me by a salon and the dump and back to the forest. I stop to eat a can of sardines and mop up the chili oil with bread.

I’m onto a section of the Israel National Trail. Orange, white and blue blazes sign me over loose rocks and between branches. I ride when I can and hike to the pavement and familiar domed ruins. We camped here two weeks ago in a rainstorm. It’s overcast and cool.  I keep to the pavement to finish the climb. It’s a workout: heart rate up, legs burning and lots of standing. I like this.

Back on dirt I wind around Mount Meron, breezing past hikers. A man yells after me asking if I need help. I reach another highpoint in the clouds and start descending back to the Galilee– slow down chunky rock roads, fast on pavement through two communities and bumpy on cow tracks.

I cross over the highway and edge down a steep drainage. I grip the brakes for stability like an old man with a walker. A steep hike up a grassy hill and a smooth dirt descent lead me to the dreaded Gospel Trail. The trail consistently traverses swamp and thorn. It feels like penance. I wouldn’t recommend it.

But there’s Nick! He’s whooping and hollering with his arms in the air. He shouts: You’re crazy. You made it to the top of Meron nine hours faster than anybody last year.

And I’m whooping and hollering and grinning. And I don’t care that we’re on the Gospel Trail. I’m crushing the little wadis.

We hit the gas station. I order chicken schnitzel and omelet sandwiches to go. Nick rides with me to Golani Junction. A couple of kids on electric bikes pace us uphill past an Arab village. We push through thorns where we got lost in the dark on our last time through. My brain starts getting really goofy, so I eat another sandwich.

Nick splits. He might meet in Jerusalem. The forecast calls for definite rain in the dark. I’m aiming to make it as far as I can before that happens.

I ride hours of flowy single-track to the bike shop at Alon HaGalil. The shop is closed. A dad and two sons are camped under the covering.

Are you the American girl?

Yeah.

Someone is looking for you.

I go looking for water.

An older man finds me. He’s excited and shakes my hand. 

What you’re doing is amazing. My wife has a hot shower waiting for you. He holds out a couple of candy bars.

I’m sorry, I can’t take them. It’s against the rules.

He’s confounded. 

But I brought you fish and crackers.

I smile and thank him and he understands.

His name is Israel.

I fill up my water bottle and push into the night.

It starts sprinkling and turns into real rain, but it’s not cold. I keep pedaling along, but slower and slower and then I’m not.

Mud. 

I push my bike a few steps and stop to grab handfuls of mud off of my front tire. After ten slow minutes, I lift my bike by the chainstays and rest my saddle on my shoulder and trudge forward. It’s slow, but moving keeps me warm.

Two hours pass. It’s dark. I’m tired. It’s raining. I’m not going to make it to the next gas station soon. I think about leaving my bike on the route and hiking to a community to find cover to sleep. Then I see a tree with dense boughs, but it’s on a steep hillside. I push under it, lay my bike at my feet, pull the emergency bivy over my head and I’m out. I wake up somersaulted against my bike. I push my feet into my frame to straighten out and fall back asleep. 

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Sandwiches

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I pop the lid on the can of green olives and drain the juice into the grass. I slice them into pizza toppings on the plastic hummus lid with a pocket knife. I score the avocado, pull the halves apart, remove the pit and scoop out the meat. I slice the purple-green tiger tomatoes, then a cucumber into spears, then a yellow onion. I open five rolls and we assemble– a thick layer of hummus on one side, avocado on the other, tomatoes, onions and olives in the middle. Nick closes them with cucumber and packs them in plastic.

I set the alarm for five and fall asleep once the jackals stop screaming.

In the morning the sandwiches are heavy in my hands. I pack four and give one to Nick. Will it be enough?

I pedal past the cows, uphill to the roundabout with the statue of the mustached Druze warrior on horseback for the start. At five to seven, Zohar calls Nick to tell us that we’re starting at the hotel instead.

And so we do.

Nick starts with us and I’m happy he’s there because I’m so excited I feel like I’m going to jump out of my seat and fly to the moon. We’re on pavement for a minute, steep climbs and descents and I’m sprinting the hills in the lead. The others pass me quickly. Nick splits off to take pictures. I follow Niv up a wrong turn. Now we’re really started.

Wind turbines cut clouds. There are no views.

We pedal past farmlands and picnic areas and abandoned bunkers disguised as ruins.

I talk a little to riders– Ophir didn’t sleep well for the last two nights, Niv traveled Alaska on a motorcycle twenty-four years ago, Ingo rode the HLC last year and likes the south the best– but mostly I crave quiet. I want to ride alone.

I pull over to eat a sandwich or pee or fill up water when I need to. Otherwise, I don’t stop.

By the afternoon, I’m past the Syrian border and overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Nick meets me there. He motions to the cafe and a stack of loaded bikes. Let’s get out of here!

Nick rides with me for an hour. We stop for sandwiches. He fills me in on the race. Niv and Omri are leading, they’re hammering. Niv looks like he’s riding a motorcycle. He descends like Mad Max. Nick found them at the cafe, wolfing down sandwiches and running out the door. Ingo and Eitam are just ahead. Klaus and Yam and a pack are stopped for snacks.

It’s four in the afternoon. I’ve ridden seventy miles of dirt and trail. I want to ride another seventy before I call it a day. I know I’ve got it in me, it just might take some time.

So I continue– past Ingo and Eitam on the Galilee Trail, past banana trees by the sea, up to the heights at Givat Yoav, past grapefruit orchards, through the Jordan River and up and down again.

I don’t see anyone until I cross the road in the dark. A man next to a car hollers after me. He knows me. Do I need food? Do I need water? I tell him I can’t accept anything. He says he knows. He rode last year and he’s back to feed everyone. He gives me a paper cup full of spaghetti. 

Ketchup?

No thanks. Can I take it to go?

Of course.

I throw the cup, noodles and fork into a plastic bag and stuff it into my framebag.

He tells me Niv and Omri pulled off at Ramot for dinner. I’m in the lead.

Do you need bread? There won’t be any food tomorrow. Where are you going tonight?

Machanayim Junction.

That’s impossible! You will never it make it there. It’ll take you at least seven hours.

I pull out my cue sheet and count out loud: thirty plus thirty plus ten or fifteen– that’s seventy kilometers. I’ll make it there.

He tells me my calculations are wrong. 

I tell him thanks for the spaghetti and I’m off.

I drop down to 650 feet below sea level and cross knee deep water twice in the dark. I pull the pasta bag out and eat it in the grass. A light shines down the dirt. It’s Niv. We ride together to the beach. Niv’s light is the size of a coca cola can. He startles four wild boars out of the brush.

We reach the Jesus church of fishes and loaves past Amnon Beach, cross the main road and turn up a steep hillside. We climb together past fields and the Monastery of the Beatitudes. It’s warm. I pull over to take a shirt off. Niv keeps on. Ahead, I see his light veer off to Almagor. I stay on the route and keep climbing. It’s 1AM– 18 hours into the race. The final 30KM to the Junction on flat farm roads is easy river-grade. I buy juice at the 24 hour shop and am in my sleeping bag at the base of Mount Meron by 3. My heart and mind are still racing, but I know I need sleep. I need to close my eyes and wake up to climb tomorrow.

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Rain in Arad

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I am standing in the bathroom at the coffee shop in Arad, looking in the mirror and crying. For all those people that have told me I couldn’t do the things that I set out to do– I can. For all those people that tell me I didn’t do the things I’ve done, that I’m lying– I’m not. For all the people that are told you’re not strong enough– you are. At least you can try. There is nothing shameful in trying. This race is not about winning. This race is about riding my heart out because I can. I wash my face in the sink. The restart of the HLC is in two hours.

Wind rushes past strip malls. Dark blue grey clouds threaten.

We meet in the center of Arad at noon. It starts raining. In Israel, rain makes impassable mud. The mud cakes onto tires. Soon, tires no longer roll. Soon, I have to carry my bike. Soon, I can hardly lift my feet and bike at the same time because they’re so heavy with mud. Forward progress is slow and exhausting.

We delay for half an hour. Niv, the strongest rider of the group, shivers with cold. Limor warns us not to cross flooding rivers.

What do we do if we encounter a flooded river? asks Ingo.

Just wait it out, replies Ilan Tevet.

I step away, into a pharmacy and out of earshot. I crossed a flooding river yesterday on my way to Daliyat al-Karmel. The current swept me off my feet and pulled my bike away. I have already voiced my concern about restarting in the rain.  

 

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Running in Egypt

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We are paralyzed at the curb wondering how to cross. We’ve stood here for five minutes watching the traffic flow. The airport is a kilometer behind, our destination 19 ahead. A biker in a hooded sweatshirt and track pants passes, merging with traffic from the right. There are no traffic lights in this city of 16 million.

Six months traveling so far and it turns out Cairo is the best. It has some grit and so many people that it can get overwhelming.

“Welcome to Egypt,” they say. Men invite us into their shop or offer assistance. 

Thank you.

We drink freshly pressed cane sugar juice and eat small liver sandwiches. I never thought I’d like liver, but if it’s only a little and it’s spiced and served with pickles it tastes nice.

We walked the ten mile stretch from the city center to the pyramids of Giza. Along the way we saw lots and lots of traffic– mostly cars and walkers and some mopeds and a few donkey carriages and a few bikes. . It’s fluid and sometimes walking upstream is the best way to get across. Everyone weaves their way through.

There’s a golf course in front of the pyramids and a bus depot across the way.

No one wears t-shirts even when it’s hot in the sun. No one wears shorts. Men and women wear robes. Many men dress western and some women do too. I turn heads in slouchy sweatpants. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me because most of the time they’re just curious.  

I put on a long sleeve shirt and a pair of shorts and go for a run. After a day in Cairo, I knew it would be a spectacle. A little boy on a dirt bike gives me a thumbs up. A teenage boy winds up and pretends to kick me like a soccer ball. A taxi driver tells me I did a very good job. A young woman hisses at me, pinching her fingers open and closed. I hear people running behind, but I don’t turn to look at them.

I love it here.

Few gates and few locks are refreshing after so much barbed wire in South Africa, but I guess you can wear shorts there.

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three months in South Africa

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Three months in South Africa are coming to an end. I have ridden big open roads through the desert. I have seen mangoes dropping from trees and the sea and red rock and blue sky and monkeys and even a giraffe. And we’ve stayed with so many people that I want to count them on my hands, to remember and honor them. I want to thank them for welcoming us into this magnificent country that breaks my heart with its kindness and generosity, with its injustice and its apathy.

There was Juliet and her family in Table View. She picked us up from the airport and made us a pasta bake. She carried a mattress and pillows into her daughters’ dollhouse in the yard so we could sleep. She told us we must start the day by dunking rusks into rooibos tea. Her family went on a three month cycling trip through Europe this past spring.

There was Johann in Prins Albert that encouraged us into the Karoo. He told us that no matter what color your skin is, we all bleed red. He’s supported the Freedom Challenge for years. This will be his year to ride.

And then Jaco pulled up in his bakkie. He said we must stay for two days so we can have a proper braii and see his orchard and clean our clothes.

There was Monsieur Joubert that quickly thawed lamb and kudu sausage and poured us cooldrink after cooldrink– first diet coke and then Tab and then coke zero.

Sydney and Gay asked us what we needed and brought us to their guesthouse and gave us a freezer pack of lamb and kudu biltong. In the morning I nursed a sick lamb with a baby bottle. They thanked us for visiting when we left.

Who else?

The Mom and Dad and daughter and son and grandmother with a French surname and sheep and cows.

And 24-year-old Vossie with 8000 lambs and a jolly smile and a George Foreman grill and a father dying of cancer. He referred us to his friend Chris in Wartrail that invited us into his guesthouse with no questions asked.

And the young dreadlocked jobless professor at the bottle shop at the border to Lesotho that spoke his hopes for the future.

Into Lesotho, Canadian-Ukrainian Ivan with his grassroots permaculture technical school and solar-powered everything. He arrived to dry dust in the ’80s and has since planted thousands of seeds in the last thirty years.

The two chiefs in Lesotho that let us camp in their yards.

The Indian couple in the shit-hole town that has seen much better days. They reheated spicy spicy curry and sugared our coffee.

And the folks with maize and cows and guns to shoot wild pigs.

Estra and Wim with their macadamia trees and picture perfect meals and koi pond.

Canadian Edie and South African Roy that met on the internet and married on a whim and have been together for the twenty years since.

The young guy in the sedan that pulled over to check on us and then brought us to his mother’s house. She stood on the dirt inside the fence eating a bowl of pap and chicken’s feet. She just smiled and laughed and laughed when she saw us.

And for Christmas– the uncle who carted us to his old village to relax with his brother’s family and then to the three surrounding bottle shops to search for the coldest beer. Everywhere we went, he told us to feel at home. Feel at home, Nico. Feel at home, Lael. Then he brought us to his home. I danced with his daughter and his great niece sat in my lap as if she were my own.

In Vaalwater, Mike and the Lehmkuhls pulled into the gas station and asked where we stayed at night. They called us to their timeshare on a game farm six kilometers away and at once told us we must stay with them in Centurion as well.

In Rooiberg, Swaney, the owner of the Koekepan, asked where we’d sleep. We asked for a patch of grass for the tent and he said he’d sort it out and then fed us a braai and gave us the keys to a fully stocked bachelor pad and came around in the morning to invite us to breakfast at the pub.

And now we’re at home with the Lehmkuhls in Centurion.

That’s an even twenty hosts and that’s just counting roofs, but they’ve shared so much more than that. They’ve shared stories of family and relationships and origins. They’ve shared ideas and criticisms and uncertainty and pride. They’ve shared who they are and how they fit into this complicated place.

After so many talks over dinner, I have a very full plate.

And I mustn’t do the dishes because a lady will come in the morning. Of the twenty families we’ve stayed with, well over half have house servants. These ladies feel like secret elves that cook and clean when no one is watching. Sometimes I’ll bump into them in the morning in the kitchen. We say hello and smile at each other.

It’s wonderful and it’s hard. At once, I feel honored and all mixed up. 

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To the Karoo!

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The winding road to Montagu passes by rock and water and long grass and birds. The town is colonial and quaint.

Our last stop before the Karoo, we stock up big. We don’t expect any services or pavement for three days. Three pounds of golden delicious apples, 2 large rounds of potbrood, a dozen school buns, a brick of mature cheddar, a brick of ladismither, an english cucumber, a pound of cherry tomatoes, a pack of viennas, coconut biscuits and eetsumore shortbreads, Kloof coffee and chicory, festive fruitcake chocolate, 4 avocados, safari peanuts and peri-peri sauce.

We’ve strapped 4 water bottles to our forks and fill them at the cafe on the way out of town. The owner Keith introduces himself as Mr. Mountain Bike. He eyes our bikes and offers to cart our gear up the pass. Nick is too proud, so I am too. He directs us to the road and promises to take his wife on an evening drive to check up on us. We thank him and head uphill.

I still have no idea what or where the Karoo is. I’ve heard from some that there’s nothing but ostrich farms and brush. Others speak of mountains, antelopes of all sizes and horn configurations, baboons, and the one time they saw a leopard. And then they say it’s hot. Everyone says it’s hot there.

Near the top of Ouberg Pass, Keith and his wife catch up with us. We talk a minute, they wish us well and we roll down as the sun sets. 

We sleep out and wake early to ride smooth wide dirt roads to jeep tracks in the Anysberg Nature Reserve. The sign at the unlocked gate welcomes cyclists and swimmers and smiley faces and indicates an office down the way. The previous days saw rain and we see nine stocky antelopes drinking from a fresh spring. They flee as we approach, but watch us from a hillside, their eighteen thick straight horns toward us. 

We continue to the nature reserve office, nearly the only building we’ve seen since Montagu.  There is a new kitchen and a swimming pool made out of a water tank. It’s time for shade and a little running and lunch. We pedal through the hot afternoon on sandy rocky jeep tracks and lift our bikes over a couple of fences that lead us out of the reserve to a white house and a windmill. I spy an older woman behind a fence and call after her, raising a water bottle. She responds in Afrikaans. I try again in English. She waves her arms at the windmill. A metal pipe pumps groundwater into a large tank under the mill. We fill nine liters and roll down a smooth county road to camp.

The next morning promises to be a cooker and we’re looking forward to hiking down The Ladder to The Hell.

For now, we’re following the Freedom Trail, a 2350 km dirt route across South Africa. Most people race the Challenge in the opposite direction in June. We’ve read a couple trip reports, but it’s hard to tell what’s what when up is down. The trail promises to be full of legends and adventure.

In the morning we smell the green onions and chives of Rouxpos before we see the fields. Distant laborers raise their arms and cheer us on. Vleiland has a town hall with a library.  There is a store. We drink cold Stoney ginger beer on the stoop out front.

The dirt road leads us to a private reserve and a gate identifying a 4×4 trail called to “The Hell and Back”. Nick calls the listed number. The man allows us to pass, but warns that the landowners down below “can get angry.” We chunk our way to the ladder. The Ladder is nearly a 2000 foot drop to The Hell. The trail used to be a donkey route to deliver supplies to the Afrikaans community below. They settled in the valley in the mid 1800s and remained nearly isolated until the road was built in 1962. I gingerly lower my bike down steep loose rocks. Actually, the bike suffers minor abuse.  The trail is extremely steep and loose and rocky.

Below, we cross a stream towards a couple of estates. A lady stands in our path. I wave and she crooks her finger at me, reeling me in. From farther than conversation distance, she recites:

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Who told you that you could come down here?”

I continue towards her. She repeats:

“Who are you? And where did you come from?”

I respond: “I’m Lael and I’m from Alaska.”

Perplexed by our bikes, she softens, asking about our ride and telling us we’re lucky we didn’t encounter the Mr. McGregor up above. He never would’ve let us come down. She asks where we’ll sleep and says she has a camp up and over the hill. We must hurry as we have to make a fire to heat the bath water. She assures us we’ll encounter Donald in a beat bakkie along the road and tells us the code to the electrified gate. As we pedal past she calls that we’ve a climb that’ll break our backs ahead of us. There’s a special word for it in Afrikaans.

Up and over we cross paths with a sunburnt bobblehead in a Datsun. It’s Donald. He says we must camp at his place.

“How much?”

He mumbles something about 200 Rand and interrupts himself to say that he must ask his sister and the camp is signed. We thank him and continue.

We pass a wooden pennant marked  “camp”. We still have an hour of daylight, so we continue down the valley. Soon we see another pennant for “Donald’s house”. The valley only really becomes Alice in Wonderland when we reach the electric fence. The code we were given opens a lock box that holds a key that unlocks the gate, which gives a gentle electric buzz through the handle. Mountains tower the quiet valley. It’s floral and sandy and smells good.

After hours, a sign at the visitor center tells us to inquire at the house around back.  She asks if we’ve just ridden into the valley, and are leaving tomorrow.  There is only one rideable route into the valley, which will be our exit. We agree, so as to avoid describing the semi-confrontation with the woman at the end of the valley. The kind lady there encourages us to camp at Donald’s and offers us the electric fence code. We smile and nod and keep going the other way to find an empty group camp down the road. I jump rope to the sunset and we eat the last of our hotdogs and cookies.

We get up at first light to climb steep switchbacks before the sun bakes The Hell. It’s worth it. We’re 2000 feet up and out in the cool air before seven. The road continues for the next 40K as a series of ascending hills, up and down. The brush and the mountains are beautiful, the climbs more challenging as the sun heats up. The recent rains flow though cool streams and we stop to submerge ourselves three times. 

At the top of Swartberg Pass is a descent all the way to Prince Albert, over 3000ft below. Baking hot with blazing arms from three days of sun I shoot straight down the mountain. Pink and orange and red rock tower along the sides of the steep gravel road, like the Mund’s track into Sedona. Flying down, I think about how I’d like to climb this canyon, to spend more time moving through it, to slow it down. For now, I have to get out of the sun. I’m pretty sure even my eyeballs are sunburnt.

Prince Albert is straight out of a Larry McMurtry novel. Wind whistles through flowering trees outside white-washed houses lining Main Street, except everyone drives on the wrong side of the road.   

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Good Greece

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Two weeks in Greece full of quiet and peace, so warm and calm you could soak in it.

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hello albania!

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Everywhere we go, we hear little voices and they call out hello! Sometimes we don’t see them at first and then we look, up hillsides and down valleys and sure enough, there’s a small small person or maybe two, smiling and waving.

Where are you from? How are you? What is your name?

Amerika?!

In Albania everyone wants to talk. Sometimes their English is just hello hello! Sometimes they sound nearly American. They all want to be friends.

Albania good?

Yes! Albania is beautiful!

Their faces light up. Their hearts are for Albania, their home, and they invite us in.

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Bird hands replicate the Albanian flag.

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Most kids over four feet ask to ride our bikes.

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This guy was too little to climb on the bike, so he spun the pedals with his hands instead.

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Христина

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We climb up and over a tall mountain and descend past paragliders and gypsies, blueberries and cranberries and cows— down down down, along a stream, to a little valley.

I stop at the third house I see. It’s wooden and yellow with paintings hanging on the outside walls.

Nick pulls up behind me. Looking at the house, we hear a voice behind us. I make to move on, not wanting to disturb her. Getting up from a bench in the shade, she walks over to greet us. 

Where are we from? Where are we going?

She is Христина, sounds like “Christina” starting with an H and rolling the R.

She invites us into the yard to eat mushrooms.

These mountains are full of mushrooms. We see mushrooms and mushroom hunters everyday. They bring them home and dry them and sell them by the roadsides. They offer them on every menu. They paint statues and pictures of mushrooms. In Ukrainian, mushrooms are груба  ” sounds like “riba” starting with a soft H and rolling the R. Христина calls them “gryba” with a growl.

She pulls another bench into the shade and offers Nick a seat. She motions me into the house to get the gryba.

I stoop through the entry way into the house, past steaming pots. All the floors are covered in knit rugs. I peek into the living room. Embroidery and photos and paintings adorn the walls. She’s knit and stitched everything by hand. Nick stoops in and she shows us pictures of family.

We collect bowls of stewed wild mushrooms and enameled metal mugs of beer, white bread and large soup spoons and head to the yard.

Prepared with a little salt and a little butter, the mushrooms are rich and slippery.

We talk of the Polonina we descended, about the Carpathian mountains, about the past. 

Христина was born in her parents’ house next-door in 1947. She was their only daughter. She had two sons and a daughter. During the Soviet era, she cooked for a large camp. She used to be a bartender.

Where will we sleep tonight?

Further on.

She insists we sleep there. The village has a store with everything we could need– beer, wine, bread. We must stay. She’ll cook us potatoes with salo and we can wash up in the stream.

It’s getting late, we accept and set up our tent in the yard. She brings us blankets and pillows and instructs Nick how to make the bed.

We walk to the store together. It’s in her friend’s house. Villagers sit in the garden on the front porch, drinking bottles of beer. We buy beer and a pepsi bottle half full of homemade wine and walk back to her house.

She waves us in and sits us in front of the televisor. Her favorite soap is on. She stands and explains who loves who and who’s brothers with who and who doesn’t know about it as she moves in and out of the kitchen making potatoes.

We carry everything out to the yard and picnic in the waning sun. Walking past, the post lady joins us for a mug of wine. The wine may be a few weeks old or it might just be funky– tastes like a cigar box poured out of an old boot– wood and leather and dirt.

We all laugh and drink it anyway.

It gets dark. The post lady goes home. We pack up and go to sleep in the tent in the yard.

In the morning, we drink coffee and tea and talk mostly about the same things, things worth talking about again.

Where are you going?

We’re going to Kolochava.

Where will you eat?

Kolochava.

Where will you sleep?

Further on.

And she waves us down the road.

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Pictured: her husband and son and husband.

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Pictured: Христина

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