My mantra of east, east, east got lost on the road. I pointed my bike north on a whim and decided I’d keep pedaling as long as I liked what I saw. My wheels spun all the way to the Czech Republic and now, more than ever, I wish I had more time just to bike in beautiful, pointless circles.
My path would have been straight as an arrow were it not for Slovenia. For no particular reason it’s a place I had always wanted to visit, and its green hills and quiet winding roads were even more wonderful than the ones I’d drawn in my mind.
So I meandered, crunching gravel on country lanes, waving to kids in tiny villages and bumping along the streets of Ljubljana, a city not much bigger than Regina and one that brought about an unexpected pang for home.
The feeling didn’t stay, and sadly, neither could I. One of Slovenia’s charms is its modest size, and it meant that I reached the Austrian border far sooner than I would have liked.
Don’t ask me why, but whenever I enter a new country, I always expect that things will somehow be magically different the moment I cross the border, that the imaginary line separates purple trees from green, that something will change.
Something did. The sky opened and, from my first moment in Austria to the last, it poured rain in torrents I haven’t seen in months.
Looking back now, I dare say the only warm thing about my visit was the welcome I received from folks along the way.
I will never forget Ollesdorf, where I pulled in one night, soggy, black-eyed and limping from an ugly crash earlier in the day. After a short game of charades I was able to ask a soccer stadium manager if I could sleep under the bleacher awning. A roof is a roof and in the rain I take what I can get.
He happily agreed and I was nearly asleep when a voice peaked through the darkness with a very tentative “Hello?” It was one of the players who had been practicing on the field, and he wanted to know if I’d like to join the team in the clubhouse for a beer.
I followed him, wiping the night from my eyes, and when he opened the clubhouse door I was greeted by a chorus of cheers and well wishes. My day had been miserable, all wet socks and embedded rocks – to walk into this was like a dream.
I stood gaping in the doorway for a moment before my host squeezed me into the middle of the throng, plopped a liter of beer in front of me and helped translate a hundred and one questions about my trip. And on this night I had plenty of questions of my own. We talked into the quiet hours about our families, homes, decisions, and how difficult it can be to make them.
When the time came to walk back to my sleeping bag, the last of my lingering friends put his arm around me and insisted that I move my gear inside. That way, he said, I could have a warm, dry sleep and have a shower in the morning.
That kindness may sound like a small thing, and it might have been to my hosts. But to me it meant the world. Comforts are few on the road, so to share a night of good spirits and to be able to leave clean and rested the next morning was a luxury I can’t begin to explain.
My midnight fun was sorely needed because life on the bike didn’t get any easier thereafter. The rains abated enough to give way to howling headwinds that kept me in my tent for days. Riding to Vienna was brutal grunt work and I lost count of the number of times I was blown clear off the road.
I arrived in the capital completely gassed, but luckily the city’s attractions were mostly confined to the downtown area and it didn’t take much energy to visit them. The parks and architecture were stunning, particularly the National Library and Austrian Parliament.
But I can only stare at buildings for so long. As evening crept across the sky I left the city and decided I was so close to the Czech Republic that I couldn’t justify not going.
Crossing the border was comforting, not only because the weather finally changed for the better, but also because the first thing I saw when I walked into the currency exchange office was a clerk completely engrossed in the Czech/Finland hockey game. It was a little bit of home in the oddest of places.
It didn’t take long to cycle to Brno, where I was greeted by hungry eyes and hordes of street “merchants” shoving everything from sad roses to boxes of condoms in my direction.
It was all a bit much – I didn’t feel safe with my gear – so I found a hostel and locked everything up tightly before taking to the streets by foot.
So far it’s been worth it. I took in a downtown beer festival, and on Friday I stumbled into a signless jazz club where I sat until 3 o’clock in the morning, sipping Scotch and watching Natalie Cole videos with Frank, the enormous and wonderfully generous owner.
These past weeks have been an adventure without a doubt.
Now it’s off to Slovakia. I don’t know what to expect, which is exactly why I want to go.