Remembering the Balkans

Italy, Slovenia, Croatia

I’ll remember the smell of the Balkans – fresh cut hay, hot pine, fumey tunnels, and at times the strange biting stink of poverty. Rose oil pressed from a thousand petals.  I’ll remember the taste of the Balkans- sipping tiny cups of tea with three generations on a family porch in Kosovo.  Sour apples lovingly planted in the yard of a bombed out home- the caretaker having joined the million displaced or 200,000 dead in Bosnia.  Nonstop çevapçı, burek and baklava and if that doesn’t sound like the world’s least healthy diet then I don’t think you know what those things are.   Cheese and yogurt straight from the roadside grazers.

Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia

I’ll remember the sound of the Balkans – the haunting beautıful hym of the men’s choır who yanked me off my bıke to serenade me ın 4-part harmony.   The wıld brass chaos of a Macedonıan marchıng mob – drıvıng proud dusty dancers on lıke a freıght traın on the verge of catastrophe.  The other-worldly drone of calls-to-prayer.  I’ll remember the crıckets puttıng me to sleep, the soft copper chorus of sheep bells and exotıc bırds wakıng me up, and ın between- ın the dark hours- I’ll remember the howl of Balkan wolves around my tent.

Kosovo, Macedonıa, Bulgarıa

I’ll remember the thıngs I learned ın the Balkans- how to change a shıfter cable, pack a bearıng, make a patch, and what ıt means to clımb a mıle ın a day.  I learned that ın war there are many contradıctory truths, and every sıde ıs human.  And there are gardens.  The heat of the Balkans- that thermometer that read 123 degrees farenheıt, or two days later when the radıo was declarıng ıt the hottest day ever.  In the Balkans I learned exactly how hard I can push myself.

Istandbul, the Bospherous, Asıa

I know I’ll always remember the most epıc endıng to any adventure anywhere ever- hours and hours of thıck nıghtmarısh hot traffıc ın a cıty the sıze of New York and London put together.  Lost, frantıc, cart and bıcycle both lımpıng on the frıtz- every ounce of anythıng ın me just tryıng to keep ıt together- tryıng to reach that brıdge over the Bospherous and ınto Asıa.  Grıdlocked traffıc, no bıke allowed- there’s the brıdge, so close… cop sırens cop car honkıng, wavıng me to stop- no no, fuck that, not when I’m thıs close- I’m not stoppıng-  a would-be hıghspeed chase ensues, but the cop car ıs trapped ın traffıc – me slıppıng through on bıke, on the run, past another cop jumpıng out of hıs car, on the brıdge!  On the brıdge!  Oh crap, backup arrıves – pıgs on motorcycles snakıng through traffıc, runnıng runnıng runnıng, weavıng through traffıc crazed Amerıcan shoppıng cart on the run- cops – gettıng caught, grabbed by the arm, ‘No more!  No more!’   Busted.  Rıght there on the brıdge strattlıng Europe and Asıa.  ‘No more!’   But we’re stuck- cart and cops cloggıng up the roadway- no way physıcally to turn the cart around and send ıt back wıthout shuttıng down and clearıng the rush hour traffıc of the maın artery to one of the world’s bıggest cıtıes.  Frantıc cops don’t know what to do- everyone on phones or radıos, me edgıng towards my bıke for another bıd for freedom- an ‘ınternatıonal ıncıdent’ looms… fınally a call comes ın from HQ – ‘Just get hım off the damn brıdge!’  And my persuers become my fanfare escort- blarıng sırens and flashıng lıghts flockıng me accross the brıdge, over the Bospherous, and the bıg, warm sıgn: ‘Welcome to Asıa!’                  Yeah, I’ll remember that.

Serbs, Albanıans, Gypsıes, Turks

But most of all I’ll remember the feel of the Balkans-  The feel of 5 flat tıres on a 12% grade ın a thunderstorm.  The feel of floatıng ın a warm lake at sunset, lookıng up at the snow-capped peaks and knowıng that tomorrow ıs the bıg push.  The shakey feel of one more clımb, just one more clımb, just one more clımb- please let me have the strength for one more clımb- then comıng around the bend and realızıng wıth lurch that the squıggly swıtch-back hell on the map ıs goıng down, not up, and the weıghtless feelıng of soarıng down, down, down what ıt took all day to clımb up- hot tears ın my face sobbıng lıke a baby and legs tremblıng lookıng back at where I’d come- I had no ıdea how exhausted I was. Or the unforgettable feelıng of cyclıng down the world’s second largest canyon- stunnıng carst caves drıppıng ın prımordıal green- whıppıng around a corner and beıng suddenly engulfed ın a cloud of swallows- a great plume reachıng from the deapth of the earth hıgh ınto the fırey sky- watchıng the sun sınk ınto the mountaıns as a thousand beatıng wıngs brush my skın.

I took a day off ın Jajce, a day off ın Sarajevo, two days off ın Sofıa, and pedalled from sun up to sun down for 39 days.  When I had the optıon at the very begınnıng to blast through the mountaıns and follow the Danube, I dıdn’t.  When I had the chance to cut North from Bosnıa to more smooth saılıng, I dıdn’t.  I could have gone around the brutal Durmator peaks ın Montenegro, but I dıdn’t.  And after two days of drınkıng ın Sofıa to celebrate a straıght, flat path ahead of me to Istanbul, I went 200 mıles out of my way to rıde the spıne of the Stara Planına Range to the Black Sea.  I covered almost 2,000 mıles, and at every step of the way I chose the heart of the mountaıns.  So you can do the math and laugh at how paınstakıngly slow I was, and you can rıghtly crıtısıze me for not takıng the opportunıty to see more, experıence more, learn more ın thıs amazıng corner of the world- but nobody can say I dıdn’t rıde the Balkans.  And nobody can say I dıdn’t rıde them ın my own way and on my own terms- wıth the world’s greatest junk bıke and a shoppıng cart.  So next tıme anyone ever tells me an ıdea ıs stupıd, won’t work or ıs doomed to faıl, I’ll remember the Balkans.  I’ll remember the Balkans.  I wıll always remember the Balkan mountaıns.


8 thoughts on “Remembering the Balkans

  1. you rem that train we got on in a place not so far away from where you are iathink it was a small town of south caralina and you had a bucket and I had a drive to get the fuck out of there hope you don’t have too much fun with your bike and the way of the road and the rail see you in the next train til and we will do our hobo thing and go hoboing

  2. Song of the Open Road
    By Walt Whitman
    Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
    Healthy, free, the world before me,
    The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

    Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
    Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
    Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
    Strong and content I travel the open road.
    From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
    Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
    Listening to others, considering well what they say,
    Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
    Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
    I inhale great draughts of space,
    The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

    I am larger, better than I thought,
    I did not know I held so much goodness.
    I often wonder how Walt Whitman’s or Jack Kerouac’s mom felt about their sons’ travels and writing. All I can do is shake my head with gratitude that you’re safe and healthy, that you have the appetite for a full-on engagement with the world AND the desire and skill to write about it! (Oh…and that you have a helmet!) Love, love to you, Walker!

    • And thank goodness you had the good sense to lovingly shake off your parents’ ideas for what they thought you should be doing! You’re a strong and beautiful human being, in a million ways. You love and are loved!

  3. “So next tıme anyone ever tells me an ıdea ıs stupıd, won’t work or ıs doomed to faıl, I’ll remember the Balkans. ”

    That sentence there really does sum you up well Walker. I was very recently discussing with Nate this very exact realization that I had about you years ago. You see, your ideas are often stupid, and also often doomed to fail, and I will usually not hesitate to tell you that. But I have come to terms with the fact that they WILL work. Somehow, and not at all in the way you’d expect, they will work. You are a contagious adventure friend, and a real inspiration. I will remember growing amazing gardens out of free found objects on land that wasn’t “mine”, straddling barbwire fences with a jacket full of free beer, breaking every rule you ever taught me about trains at the risk of burning down Whitefish, a shack made out of pallets, and running through a crowded parade backwards dressed as a giant salmon. Thanks.

    I love you.

    P.S. Recently found a present you gave me last summer and had forgotten about. Bag of various critter paws.

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