Breaking camp was a slow affair this morning, debating about what to put where and slowly deciding on our breakfast fare. Knowing we had a short day ahead of us (and a big climb) wasn’t very motivating and the morning was nice and cool, leading us to forget about our usual reasons for hitting the road so early.
Only a few miles from camp, the hills were all but empty as we crossed our first low pass of the day. Forest and vinyard checkered the landscape, the road peppered with friendly farmers and waving drivers. We moved along at a good clip and I sent Ben a bit ahead so I could climb at my own pace without worrying about being fast enough. He generally pulls over and waits from time to time so that we stay within view of each other.
Within a little more than an hour, we’d descended into a small town on the other side of the mountain and were at the base of our big climb. I stopped to take a picture of the antiqued road sign directing our way, and as we were standing on the side of the road, a couple of guys in a really shiny car pulled up. They checked out our rolling parade, today sporting mismatched bags, and wanted to know where we were going. “Strumica” we answered. The driver’s eyes got really big and he pointed his finger up, noting, “steep!” We nodded with unfortunate agreement before he drove off and we began our ascent.
The climb switchbacked up and over a tall pass, our first big climb of our trip. I was worried about how I would hold up healthwise, but in all, the day was the stuff of cycle touring nirvana. I settled into my teeny tiniest ring and spun my legs like egg beaters round and round and round, intermittently switching to a slow grind as the terrain got steeper. The sun played cat and mouse with the clouds, the sun occasionally coming out to wrap us with a heavy quilt of sweat as we toiled upward. We got glimpses of the valley as it tumbled below us. It was slow going, but today, I was mentally ready for a big climb and so we simply showed up and got it done.
We cruised over the top of the pass and whipped down the other side, smiling all the way. On the way down, we traced through a tiny village where old women wore old dresses and head scarfs. Big trucks on the highway waited to pass horse drawn wagons on the streets. Families gathered in their fields with vintage hoes and shovels, working their plots with nothing but human power. Only two days ride from modern Thessaloniki, and we’d been transported back in time.
Shortly after the town, we encountered two German cycle tourists going the other direction. They pulled over and we all caused a traffic impedement while we swapped tips from our respective directions and heard about one another’s journeys. It is always so nice to be in good company!
As we rolled downhill through hills and trees, the lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” ran through my head.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the praries and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
call to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
With a successful climb completed and Macedonian scenery lining our way, I was feeling grateful and terribly lucky for this journey. I felt thankful for health that allowed me to pedal my tank of a bicycle, grateful for the chance to be outside, to move across the landscapes with the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain. I felt glad for the praries and deep trees that give me space for my despair and my joy and to simply be what I am and love what I love. I felt thankful for the parade of friendly, honking, waving drivers that passed us all day, to the people who have offered us help and kindness in every town and city, as well as for our incredible support crew at home. I’ve felt an overwhelming sense of community from places I’ve only passed through, a net that keeps us safe from harm. These things, these people, these experiences help me find my place in the family of things.
Back on the road, we were now in search of a lake we’d seen on the map. We were hopeful that we might camp near it (real moutain camping!), but a bit of off-roading led us to an unattractive reservoir that had steep mountain walls for banks and nowhere at all for a tent. We had to cross a small stream to get there, and again on the way back. Ben came through with confidence, but I ended up with one very wet foot! Returning to the main road, we stopped along the highway for a couple of other camping possibilities, but nothing turned up as anything better than just “ok.”
We rolled into the town of Strumica just as the afternoon thunder got underway, still in search of a place to spend the night. The first hotel we tried was apparently closed. The second, looked to be way too fancy for our tastes, but as it turned out, not completely unreasonably priced. Realizing we were sitting in front of one of the only hotels in town and unwilling to spend a large block of the day cycing onward, we checked in and headed up to a poshly decorated room where we spent a solid half hour laughing at the absurd decadence and feeling terribly out of place. The shower has nine heads! We are much better suited as campers at the interesting prison-like camp we’d just come from than to this overdone stuffy hotel, but none the less I am glad to be safe and sound, tucked into this little mountainy corner of Macedonia.