2618 km so far.
I was dreaming about our friend James shooting a music video in the warehouse Stephen and I lived in (?!) when Stephen shook me awake. I fumbled with my earplugs so I could hear what he was saying. My heart was pounding. Someone must be out there, or he wouldn’t be waking me.
Then I heard it.
“Rowrchk.” It sounded like some robotic creature from a sic-fi B movie. Part dog bark, part distorted cat meow, part electronic owl screech.
“It’s a mountain lion,” Stephen whispered. It sounded as if it was just outside our tent. For a second I was relieved. Thank god there’s nobody out there. Then I started to wonder how dangerous a mountain lion might be.
Hoping for reassurance that all would be OK, I asked, “Are they dangerous?” In true manlike, not aware of how to reassure me that all would be ok fashion, Stephen replied, “It’s called a lion*.” But after a few more good roars, the night was silent again.
Slightly miffed at being woken and given a minor heart attack, slightly chuffed at hearing such a strange and beautiful call, I stuck my earplugs in and fell promptly back to sleep.
Raindrops On Roses
We woke up around 6:30 and the weather looked dismal, but at least it wasn’t raining. Our little meadow looked very pretty draped in mist, with dew drops dripping from every grass blade, and black butterflies flitting from flower to flower.
Our campsite was so good that we didn’t even feel the need to rush. Someone would have to climb or drive right up the muddy old track to even spot us, and the likelihood of that was low. Stephen brewed coffee (sadly spilling half of it before he even took a sip) while I tore down the camp, and we ate our regular muesli breakfast.
Then we were pushing our bikes back down the hill and out onto the road.
I actually love free camping when it works out like this – it’s just the pre-camping anxiety that we find hard. Will we find a spot before dark? Will we be spotted? Will a mountain lion eat us? That kind of thing.
I also love being on the road bright and early. It feels great to be going!
When The Beeatch Stings
After an early start, we like to look for a bakery and a cafe early too, just to get some warmth and caffeine flowing through our veins. We had plenty of towns to choose from this morning, but not a single open cafe was to be found. We saw several closed restaurants and bars, and in general, the area seemed very depressed, with lots of derelict houses and nothing open. In many towns, the streets badly need work, and even the inhabited houses are also in need of repair.
This surprised us a little, since Stephen had read that Slovakia has one of Europe’s fastest growing economies. I guess even in a small country, you still get pockets of wealth and pockets of poverty, just like we have at home.
By the fourth town, it had started to rain, and we’d given up hope of a hot drink, so we settled for going into the Coop – at least it was open for trade. The selection was a little sad, so my best attempt at getting second breakfast consisted of a box of apple juice and a bag of chips. I went to the cash register to pay, and the cashier was carrying on a conversation with her co-worker, pretty much ignoring me and the other two people in line. She barely looked up as she rang me through. I handed her a €10 note to pay for my €1.95 in groceries.
“Do you have anything smaller?” she said in Slovak. I shook my head regretfully and shrugged expressively. “No, sorry.” She scowled deeply and sighed heavily. Clearly making €8 in change was going to be a huuuuuge problem. I wondered for the 8,000th time on this trip if everybody in Europe just carries around tons of small bills and change to make up for all the shops and hotels and campgrounds who never have any change, no matter how small a bill you hand them.
It turns out it was not really hard at all for her to get her cashier buddy to change my €10. She then placed my change on the counter in front of her, almost out of my reach. “Surely she can’t mean for me to reach over there and take it,” I thought. “There must be something going on that I don’t understand.”
She muttered something in Slovak, which was clearly, “Take your damn change.”
All the while I don’t think she even realised (or cared) that I didn’t understand a word of her language.
So, I peeled off both sets of my wet gloves, reached way over, and picked up my coins from the counter. By the time I was done with that, she was already on to being rude to the next customer, no thank you, no goodbye, no indication that she’d just had an interaction with another human being.
At first I put this down to cultural differences. Then I realised that if your culture doesn’t allow for a smile or a second thought for the people you meet during the day, then your culture sucks. I also realised that we’ve had plenty of pleasant encounters with Slovaks, and this women was just one rude b—.
We have had a few encounters like this, and it really puts a damper on the day. I couldn’t help thinking that the people around here would be a lot happier if they just had a few bakeries and cafes!
Finally, at about 10:30, we came to a roadside stop with not only a bakery (one of the first we’ve seen in Slovakia) but an open cafe as well. People smiled at us and helped us kindly at each venue, even though they didn’t speak any English. See? My theory is obviously correct.
We’re Gonna Go Back In Time
Shortly after this minor mecca of commerce, we rolled down the hill into Podbrezová; it felt like we had rolled back in time. The marks of the Soviet era were everywhere. Suddenly, what had been a smoothly paved road gave way to torn up concrete and rough-edged sidewalks. We were soon forced onto the sidewalk by all the decades-old work trucks passing. It looked like the colour had been sapped from the world; everything was grey. Grey buildings, grey street signs, grey people, grey rain.
And then we rode up alongside a factory. But not just any factory. This was a factory on a scale that I have never seen. It went on for blocks and blocks and blocks. Just as we thought we’d reached the end, we’d see that it just continued onwards. The machinery towered over us as we rode, and the works creaked and groaned in the wind.
The factory seemed to be for recycling rusted pieces of metal, and churning out new pipes. The piles of rusted scrap metal were enormous.
As I stopped to take pictures, I suddenly felt very foreign. Like an inept spy, I fumbled with my camera, taking pictures quickly and hoping no one would notice. It was far too large to capture from this close anyway.
Then we turned the corner, road a few kilometres onward, and suddenly we were back in the modern world. Being in the mountains, this area is all about skiing. We passed countless rustic ski cabins, all empty and closed up for the season. It must be a gorgeous sight in winter, covered in snow, bustling with skiers half-drunk on fresh air and apres-ski tipples.
Climb Every Mountain
Eventually, we got to the goal of the day. Our first Slovakian mountain. We are in the Tatras, and will cross right over the range to get from here to Poland. Today’s climb was the highest single climb we’ve done yet – we gained more than 800 m over 30 km. We were geared up for a hellish day, but it really wasn’t that bad. The rain helped keep us cool, and our music helped keep us moving upwards.
I kept thinking about the Von Trapp family, crossing the nearby Alps on foot, with the threat of being caught at every turn. This kind of thinking really puts a bike ride up a big hill into perspective. Yes, it was hard, but really, there are many millions of harder things in the world.
As we got higher and higher, we noticed the temperature getting lower and lower. It had been cold at the bottom, but this was different. This was cold cold.
We were both sweating inside our rain coats, but could also feel the cold air pressing in on us. Feeling hot and cold at the same time is a weird sensation, and we weren’t sure whether to add layers or remove them.
As soon as we stopped at the summit the chill crept in. We were soaked with sweat and rain, and it must have been all of 5C. By some miracle, the restaurant at the peak was actually open. We briefly discussed finding somewhere to make peanut butter, apple, and potato chip sandwiches (yum), dismissed that thought as pure insanity, and then hurried inside.
We had the Slovakian ‘delicacy’ of fried cheese and fried potatoes for lunch. To hungry cyclists who had just climbed a mountain, it tasted great.
Follow Every Rainbow
We put on dry clothes and piled on the layers for the 30 km descent – I was wearing two shirts, two jackets, a scarf, mittens, gloves, and a hat, but it still wasn’t enough. As we blasted down the mountain, my teeth were knocking together so hard I thought I might break a few. My feet became solid clumps of numb inside my damp shoes, and my hands were just barely able to squeeze the brakes. The sun came out, but so did a nasty Arctic wind, stabbing us with extra blades of cold as we descended.
We were praying for a little uphill just so we could pedal again and restore some feeling to our extremities.
Finally, just before reaching our destination for the night, Liptovsky Mikulas, we hit a little flat stretch, and so were back at a normal temperature by the time we reached Penzion Rotunda.
For the same price as that dodgy hostel room we were offered in Banska Bystrica, we are in a ridiculous apartment with two huge rooms, a kitchen with dining table, two sofa seating areas, a TV (which we won’t use), and a private bathroom.
*We later learned, through the magic of Google, that it was actually a European wildcat, which is much smaller and more harmless-looking than a mountain lion. If I had seen this little guy outside, I might have tried to cuddle it.
Soundtrack: The Blow, Paper Television | Eve, Scorpion | Snoop Lion, Reincarnated | Various Artists, Powerhouse Gospel on Independent Labels ♥