Friday, September 26 Stealth camp to Abelakia (heaven, I think)
I am sitting here some 1,000 feet above the valley floor in a hotel at least one star higher than what I deserve (or can afford). At times the wind howls past the picture windows where I can see the trees bending and shaking. At the calmer moments the blanket of trees on the hillsides across the way move in rhythm not unlike the waves of an ocean rocking back and forth in a small bay.
I feel lucky to be in the small village of Abelakia today. I woke up feeling nervous and a little unsettled. I haven’t completely nailed down why the feelings were there this morning and not last night. I might have just been too tired last night to feel anything except a yearning for a real bed and an unbroken night of sleep. I haven’t had that since Bari in Italy just before rolling my portable home onto the ferry.
Yesterday morning Antonio and I had a very pleasant and enjoyable trek into Larisa. I still don’t accent the right syllable in Larisa and Antonio is quic to correct me each time. It rained off and on during the night in our secret little campsite. Sometime right about the moment that wildlife was anticipating the dawn it sounded like hundreds of birds were flying around in the upper limbs of the trees ushering in the morning. Likely it was only a couple dozen, but the whole grove erupted in squawks, wings flapping and branches shaking.
I was reminded of northern Idaho and eastern Washington as we did our version of a two-wheeled roller coaster ride. Chug-chug-chug up a small hill, and whee-whee-whee down the other side. There were more cotton fields, corn fields and lots of pasture land for sheep. The goal was to get into Larisa before the afternoon siesta time and purchase a Greek phone number as well as a data plan. We did that. I made it in time. An hour later I was set up and should have coverage for ten days, almost enough to get me from Greece to Turkey where I’ll need to repeat all of this again.
Antonio settled into a bar in the shopping district just two blocks from the Vodafone shop waiting for me. There he discovered that the owner was also a cyclist. When I returned, Antonio, Thannos (the owner) and another couple were enjoying coffee and some clear liquid that was obviously more potent than water. Rain clouds were threatening and after catching up on some correspondence I joined them. For three hours we talked about Greece, America, Spain, mythology, popular culture, and the values that tie all of us together. Thannos’ favorite book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and in our conversations about the adventure of life he quoted from the book saying, “I want to be in the picture, not a part of the frame.” He was talking about taking the risks to engage with life rather than to sit and observe life from a distance.
The sun attempted to come out on a couple of occasions between bursts of hard rain. I could feel that Antonio and I were viewing the day with a different expectation. He was enjoying the growing number of people who were joining our table for conversation and appetizers. “This is Mediterrean life,” he sighed. I was starting to think about getting up the road and out of the city. I pushed the issue a little and Antonio was clearly going to stay put and see how things unfolded (which completely works for him as he has no agenda but to stay in a place as long as he is enjoying it and move when he isn’t. He said he planned to stay at a host’s house in New Zealand for a night and ended up staying six months. This is a lifestyle for him, at least for the moment.) I decided to take off and get clear of the city where I would have fewer distractions to formulate a plan for getting to Thessaloniki.
This may be why I am feeling a little unsettled this morning. I am nervous about getting back out there in the same way that a sixteen year old driver doesn’t want to get back on the freeway after being initiated by honking semis and near misses. I was forced to decide between taking a meandering route toward the sea with what appeared to be no towns or just very small villages. This meant another night of stealth camping which I just didn’t want to do two nights in a row. I already feel disorganized and gross. Or I could take a main artery that went directly to the sea. It all started out fine. I had a large shoulder to work with despite fairly heavy traffic. Suddenly my road merged onto a freeway and there were no other options except to find a way to turn around and head back to Larisa and plan again or keep moving forward. I chose the latter.
I was thankful again for a very broad shoulder. A few miles in a truck that looked to be some combination of police car and rescue vehicle flashed its lights and pulled up alongside me. “Problem,” the official in the passenger seat said over and over again. Problem was the only word we could agree on, but with a series of hand motions it was clear that they didn’t think I should be on the road. I tilted my head and put my hands next to ear in the universal sign that I was looking for a place to sleep. They mentioned the name of the town on the sea where I would find lodging which I knew was still about 25 kilometers out.
What I couldn’t tell was whether they were telling me to get off the road or just trying to let me know that they didn’t consider it safe. In the end, the message I got was, “You really shouldn’t be out here, but do make sure you get off in Platimora.” I felt reasonably safe where I was, even if slightly anxious, but I did wonder what they knew that I didn’t.
Just after my friendly Greek warning, I found a truck stop just as the wind had picked up tremendously and I needed to figure out my options. The rain was coming, sometimes hard and sometimes softly, depending on how much the wind whipped it up. My cell phone was down to the “low battery” warning. It was 5:00 p.m. Over the next hour both in the truck stop and on the road I changed my mind three times. It was clear that I had two options: ride on the freeway–the most direct route to a city and the certainty of lodging or negotiate my way on side roads, which because of the mountains on both sides of the freeway meant tripling or quadrupling my route and stealth camping again.
I finally put my head down and drove into the wind with my raincoat over my upper body and head and rode toward the sea with a single-minded determination. I wasn’t but five kilometers into this race against darkness when I saw a sign for Hotel Kouria that pointed to the right and declared that it was only four kilometers away. A service station was at the intersection. They confirmed that, yes, there was a hotel in the little mountain village of Abelakia, but that it was up a long series of switchbacks. The man said in broken English, but with clarity, “If me, I ride with cars. Mountain steep.”
I walked out the front door with the two clerks watching and turned right and came face to face with the “Mountain steep” that he referred to. I was thankful that I had only ridden 50 kilometers at that point and my legs were still fresh. The road took me up about a dozen switchbacks significantly steeper than the San Giovanni Rotondo finish in Italy. A ferocious wind was blowing and became both devil and angel. Because I was riding on switchbacks I alternated between headwind, crosswind and tailwind. The headwinds reminded me of the Strong Man Competitions where walking steroids pull trucks behind them. Every pedal stroke felt like I was lugging a car behind me. Then I would round the switchback and the wind would grab my butt and lift my bike just enough that the lactic acid would dissolve from my legs and give me some reprieve. For 45 minutes I inched my way up the 4 kilometer grade with a glorious sunset behind me reminding me of this picture I had been invited into. No standing on the sidelines in the frame on this day. Not allowed.
Today, I am letting the storm clouds pass. It was only 52 degrees at 9:00 this morning. There is some blue sky and more of it predicted for later in the day. But, now the wind continues to whip and storm clouds are gathering in the mountains close by. I have looked at my map and the geography and I think I know what I need to do. I can avoid the busy highway (the freeway went away a couple of kilometers ago), but it means at least two days in the mountains and as much as I love mountains my body and soul is now wanting to let the terrain work for me rather than me needing to conquer the terrain. I have a short fifteen kilometer stretch with the cars and then coastal roads that will lead me all the way to Thessaloniki.
But, I will use today to catch my breath, make a plan for coming days, and enjoy this little town that comes with a full booklet about the religious paths and trails around the city. What a treat at the top this terraced mountain. Can a person be sobered by the severity of the days and deeply grateful at the same time? If so, that’s where I am at.