“Today me will live in the moment unless it’s unpleasant in which case me will eat a cookie” – Mr C Monster
One eye opens to the fingers of light finding their way around the edges of the curtain. The faint aroma of sweaty socks from the bedroom floor was only masked by the chemical aroma of cheap carpet cleaner with a hint of staleness and damp. I think about opening the other eye but fail miserably, my eye closing and just at that point of drifting off again, voices in the corridor full of heart and good cheer.
Images on the inside of my eyelids, hundreds of miles of roadworks, diversions and a mountain pass closed due to snow. Off the bike, shivering, heated jacket on, warm again. 30mph for miles, weaving over tar snakes and ruts, speed cameras. Grinding out the miles across Northern Austria…even though I’d never planned to be there. Heading for the Brenner Pass, 30 miles queues before the border with the pace at just below 1st gear needing immense efforts in keeping the bike upright. 20 miles out, still crawling through the roadworks, no way of filtering even if it was legal. Time moving on, still 4 hours to ride and I should have been checking in by now. Sore backside, aching legs, tired brain. All stop. 8 miles of stop start to get to the Brenner Pass and the border and toll booths. Traffic still backed up, must be an accident. An hour later we arrive at the toll booths – there must be about 50 of them but only a handful are open. The tailback is explained and I burst into a mix of expletives and laughter in my helmet. In to Italy, game on. Engine roars, I roar, traffic disappears behind me within a few miles and I’m making solid progress with the ETA on the satnav finally ticking down rather than up.
I yawn, both eyes open now, crow’s-feet getting deeper as they squint in a vain attempt to shield from the glare of the sun which was targeting me with laser like precision. The blankets were heavy and pressing against my chest and arms, pinning me down with the weight seemingly increasing every second. A few kicks and my left foot was free from the prison, my toes wiggling in the cool air. Eyes close again…just for a moment I promise myself.
Mountains ahead of me now – the Northern dolomite range towering thousands of metres above me, obscured at their peaks with low cloud and a slight drizzle. I feel like I am riding on the Northern edge of Mordor. Road opens up and its super twisty. The crimson glare of the polished 911 makes a useful target. Flowing now, side to side, the bike caressing each bend, keeping vision as far as possible, carrying corner speed, riding like a demon. Every bend brings me another 100 feet closer to the porker before I eventually had to tap the brakes to match his speed as I caught him up on a sharp right hander. The road is still super twisty with bends every quarter of a mile. Watching, watching, watching for the gaps in the treeline to show me the long view of the road ahead. Finally get a good view albeit for a split second, drop a gear, shoulder check and out with the throttle gently pulled. Shift my weight slightly, push on the bars and overtake as we go round the left hander. He looks over to me as I go past him at the apex. Tuck back in, straight into a right hander, brake down, gear down, float round and then nail it. Rear mirrors empty. Grin.
Made up for all those roadworks in a brief 30 seconds. I begin the descent into Northern Italy. What a descent, corner after corner at dusk. Body screaming with aches and pains but my mind razor sharp, my eyes focussed on the curves like a last chance gigolo at 2am with 10 pints of courage. Dropping into Pocol, the locals are out – can hear the 4 strokes before I even see them. They are flying up the twisty ascent from the town to the lower mountains. I pull to the right to let them past and they go screaming through at full tilt – impressive and some real bottle in the dark on those roads. ‘Amor Fati’. I’m 4 miles from the hotel. No risks now for me, steady lines, steady speed.
Staring at the ceiling and everything aches. Left arm out now, fumbling on the bedside table for my phone. The assorted contents of my pockets, so casually placed on the table the night before hit the carpet with a dull thud. Coins, keys, batteries in free fall before falling silent on a carpet woven in about 1950.
My arrival at the hotel the previous night had been less than smooth. Through the darkness and up some very hairy ascents to eventually find the hotel. Exhausted, the receptionist greeted me and I had to explain to her that I had been charged twice for my stay. Well, I say receptionist but she was actually the cleaner, cook and lord knows what else. No English and my Italian vocabulary is about as extensive as much of my European language. Since it is mainly based on odd words I have picked up from black and white World War 2 films, I have to be careful not to ask people to put their hands up or tell them that for them the war is over.
I reverted back to the Universal language of pointing repeatedly at a piece of paper, altering the force with which I pointed at it in the hope that she would suddenly understand. She had taken a different tack to Universal Translation – saying the same thing over and over again but at different speeds. As usual in Italy, ‘alora’ is the go to word. It’s used as every other word but since it has no meaning other than being a general expression which has a billion interpretations dependent on context, we weren’t getting any farther forward. Enter stage right with a big smile – Wendy.
Wendy was a Dutch lass, about 6 feet tall, shoulder length tousled peroxide locks and beaming green eyes. As I was to find out later she was the one riding the R80 GS that was parked outside the reception. Things got even more confusing. Wendy spoke some German, used Google translate to convert Dutch into Italian. The receptionist got even more frustrated in Italian, ‘alora’ was having quite an edge to it now accompanied by eyes cast upwards in the hope of divine intervention. My contribution was to look down at my piece of paper, think about pointing at it and then deciding the better of it and smiling awkwardly at them both.
We managed to get to the point where we understood the hotel owner was coming within the hour and I should speak to him then. I spoke briefly to Wendy and we arranged to meet up later to eat. I trudged up the stairs, threw off my bike gear and pannier bags on to the floor, dumped the contents of my pockets on the side table and collapsed on to the bed. 12 hours riding. I should really shower. I should really change. I didn’t, I just threw on some jeans over the thermals and with a grimace, forced my feet back into my bike boots. I figured I would unpack my walking shoes in the morning.
Eyes roll as I stare at the fetching shade of yellow on the ceiling. Mustering all my energy, I angle my head and scan the room, panniers half emptied, bike gear in a pile by the heavy brown curtains, boots by the mock wooden panelling which uneasily blended into the brown and red wallpaper which would not have been out of place in a medieval English castle. I exhale forcefully, willing myself awake. My eyes close and I drift away again.
Wendy was from The Hague and was on a holiday on an old R80 GS. She’d ridden down over several days and had been pootling around Northern Italy for the best part of a week, even taking part in the Distinguished Gentleman’s ride in Milan I think. As she ate her minestrone soup and drank her water, I downed a red and a huge plate of pasta. I thought about having some level of decorum with my eating but after the first delicately manoeuvred mouthful that went out of the window and I went at it like a pig at a ‘tater. The hunger after a full day riding is real. Her passion for travelling on bikes was clear and I listened intently to her dreams of other trips, her home life and her work. Her sentences were punctuated by occasional laughter, mostly at her own comments and humbling self-deprecation.
She planned to ride back home soon but was worried about the weather – temperatures were falling in the Dolomites and snow was forecast. I was also a little concerned – I was out of season to be spending 2 weeks here and the rifugios had already closed on the trails I was going to hike. Still, less people which is always a plus. She was eager to talk, I continued to listen, fighting back the urge to just close my eyes and let my attempt at carbicide do its job. It’s always uplifting to meet other travellers who share the same (or at least some of the same) a world view as yourself and Wendy was no different. The need to explore, to see, to challenge yourself to various degrees. You recognise yourself in others and I’m sure it applies in reverse. I’ll talk about Fiona in a later post – another Dutch lass I met on the mountains – she was no biker but we spent an hour together at sunset talking about these things.
Maybe this is what is meant by ‘wherever I go, there I am’. I really enjoy the company of the Dutch – I’ve met many of them while travelling and it’s always a pleasure. I still have fond memories of that night where I drank with them and ending up sleeping on the floor of the bar as I had to leave at 4am for a ferry. A night of tear inducing laughter made the floor bearable. Perhaps what is most refreshing about those who travel is their genuineness – they see the world for what it is with both its shiny bits and its flaws. There always seems to be a ‘world’ view rather than conversations shackled by dogma and the bland regurgitation of someone else’s ideologies. Even worse, in some ways, was looking around the restaurant as couples sat in solemn silence, their loving gazes illuminated mainly by their ‘phones but with the assistance of an eco-friendly 30 watt sun providing just enough shadow to conceal the unwanted advances of a three course divorce.
Degree of risk is also interesting to see in travellers. There’s no right or wrong, everyone has a different set of life circumstances. For me, I wanted to ride some of the more, how shall we say, challenging passes. Wendy left the following day having booked the bike freight train from Innsbruck back to Germany as the weather forecast was for snow and heavy rain, cutting her trip short but I don’t think she was comfortable in inclement weather. A week later and I would be in torrential rain, crossing flooded streams.
Footsteps outside the door now, something being dragged, a click and then the deafening roar of the vacuum. Head under the lead weight of the duvet, trying to mute the noise and telling myself don’t fear the sweeper. Clunk, clunk, clunk. The cleaner certainly making sure that every bit of dirt was being removed from the skirting board outside my room. Head is booming and then my mouth wakes up. My tongue lashes my teeth and dislodges a memory of last night’s food. Cheese, yup, a hint of pasta and herbs and the slightly off-putting taste of old red wine. I breathe deeply, exhale with a wobble of my cheeks and roll on to my side, both legs now sticking out of the side of the narrow single bed, cool air. Eyes cracked open again and now looking directly at a strategically placed full length mirror on the wall. I looked exhausted. I was exhausted. I also realised that at some point I had to get out of this bed and no matter what strategic positioning I adopted, that mirror would reflect back at me and wouldn’t be telling me I was the fairest of them all.
I rolled on to my back, kicked the duvet and blankets off the end of the bed and in one slightly less than fluid, slightly less than elegant movement I staggered wearily to my feet. As is obligatory, a quick scratch of chest hair while yawning and then I catch my open mouthed visage in the mirror. It’s true, when you gaze into the abyss, it does gaze back at you.
The shower cubicle had been designed in 1846. One of those where you have to get in, contort your limbs so that you can spin on the spot to move one arm just enough to pull the door closed. The dribble of water meant this was going to be a long process. What is it about soap in those little plastic wrappers you get at hotels? I stood then in this strait jacket of a cubicle, a dribble of water meaning I had to force myself up against the wall while I peeled back the plastic of the soap. Of course, it then defied the laws of physics, creates energy from nothing, flies out of the wrapper and ricochets all off the cubicle doors before landing at my feet. I try to crouch, willing my arm lower to pick it up – so tantalisingly close but still a million miles away. Out of the shower I get, pick up the soap before repeating the entire process again to get back in. Then the soap slips out of my hands. I mouth some words, might have been about someone crying, might have ended in sake, maybe it was both.
I stood bolt upright, the dribble of water now red hot and of course it’s now running down my back and into my nether regions but with nowhere to move, I have to contend with ‘ooh’ and ‘aagh’. Out of the shower again. Get the temperature right which consisted of randomly turning the dial back and forth and waiting 30 seconds for the plumbing to catch up. I waited for it to stabilise at a setting on a knife edge between polar cap and lava eruption. Then I stood outside the cubicle, lathered myself up before getting back in to wash the soap off.
Thermals back on; open the curtains to the nuclear glow of the sun. I hadn’t seen any of this having arrived after dark but mountains stretched all around me. I picked up the receipts that had been casually discarded on the floor and pursed my lips, remembering the aggravation when I had arrived the previous night.
Breakfast had finished but the remnants were still being cleared away. I wandered casually outside with a feast of 4 eggs, 2 slices of cake, the burnt bits from the bottom of the bacon container and a cup of 4 hour old coffee and, for reasons that the Universe has yet to explain to me, three knives. I sat in the plastic garden chair, looked up at the mountains and slurped on my sludge. A bite of cake, quickly followed by spitting out the cake. I have no idea what flavour it was. Mouthwash flavour. Disgusting. My face contorting with my mouth alternately opening and closing as my tongue pushed out the flavour. Look, let’s be honest, I’m not going to judge you for having cake for breakfast, fair play. However, if you’re going to do it then chocolate is good, fruit is good. Not mouthwash flavour. I licked my finger, chasing bacon bits round the plate and then as I casually brushed the crumbs from my legs, I realised I hadn’t put any jeans on and has been wandering around in just skin tight thermals and a pair of bike boots. Still, I reasoned, a treat for the ladies. Or the men, let’s be balanced here.
Bloodshot eyes, constant twinges in my back and a general set of aches saw me head back to the sanctuary of the room and sleep until mid-afternoon.
Waking up was even harder the second time round. Wandering downstairs, downing a decent coffee and a glass of water and I figured I should at least do something constructive. The nearest mountain pass was just 10 miles away. Gear on, bike checked over and off I headed. I’d end up riding this road many times over the coming days. About 10 miles straight through woodland and then an ascent to 2000 metres around a dozen hairpins. Sublime due in the main part to the visibility all the way up the ascent meaning perfect lines and that soul inspiring floating feeling of the bike. A short trip but I knew I was coming back another day and so it was more of a scouting mission to find good positions for photos. Pasta again for dinner, beer this time and an early night, pulling those heavy blankets back over me and struggling to get comfortable because of their weight.
The next morning saw me refreshed. Up early for breakfast, deftly avoiding the cake. Loading up on the pancetta and eggs. A carefully constructed sandwich was the fruits of my efforts as I carefully placed the pancetta as a layer, then the scrambled egg and then another layer of pancetta before crowning it into the ultimate breakfast sandwich. I looked up, admiring my creation like any artist would before catching the aghast glare of the couple on the opposite table who looked as though they had watched Victor Frankenstein at work. I nodded, eyes were downturned. I consoled myself by taking a huge bite and washed it down with the apple juice concentrate which I had naively assumed was diluted. An interesting few moments as my mouth tried to make sense of it all.
With this trip, I had planned for the first time to structure it so that some days were ‘proper’ hiking (rather than my usual efforts of hiking a trail such as Priests leap in Norway in bike gear) while others were for photography and others were purely for riding. This meant a level of military precision in packing gear and getting changed at the trail and using the panniers as storage. I was sceptical but on the whole it worked well throughout the trip apart from having to get changed at Tre Cime in sub-zero temperatures but more on that in a later post. My goal for the day was the ‘easy’ (yup, ‘easy’, you know what’s coming. Like every pub in Ireland is just ’10 minute walk’) hike to Croda da Lago, a reasonably sized and picturesque lake at the top of one of the smaller mountains. Only a 10 minute ride to the trailhead, parked up the bike, got changed into my hiking gear, slung my photo pack on and off I went. The trail starts on the flat before heading through dense forest, the slope ever increasing. At the half way point, the trail is marked only by the occasional piece of paint on rocks and the odd sign. After this point, the trail changes to scree and the slope gets increasingly steep to the point where you are taking regular breaks after short sections to regain breath. By the time I was 2/3 of the way up, I had stripped down to a single layer having started with three and was drenched in sweat, my lungs fighting for air constantly. ‘Easy’
I’d collapsed on the side of the trail, lungs fighting for oxygen, hamstrings pulsing, and sweat running down my spine making me shiver uncontrollably. The rock made for a welcome yet ultimately uncomfortable perch as its hardened edges dug into my middle age bottom padding. It’s an hour they said, easy they said. Raising my head to look through the tree canopy, my eyes half closed in a vain attempt to keep out sunlight that had already travelled half a billion miles and penetrated the tree canopy. Sweat pooled on my forehead and with far too casual an effort, I managed to wipe it directly into my eye. It was at that moment I had an epiphany, one of those moments in time when you gain deep insight about who you are, why you are who you are. Almost a religious experience. I leant forward, my head in my hands, the rock digging in my buttocks, my feet slipping on the shale clad slope, half way up a mountain and almost above the tree line. It was at that moment dear reader that I realised that for all my mental gymnastics in blaming the locals for their poor advice of ‘easy’, ‘one hour’ that I couldn’t escape the fact that I was unfit. Footsteps on the trail from below and there appeared a mountain of a man. Over 6 feet tall, muscles rippling, full beard, well used hiking gear with poles (isn’t that cheating?), calf muscles like a mountain goat. I mentally sighed, imagining how this middle aged mess (for the avoidance of doubt dear reader, that’s me) on the trail must look to these seasoned hiker types. My eyes turned to the tree canopy again, I thought about getting to my feet but a mix of age, lung capacity, groaning hamstrings and reality put paid to that. I nodded as he approached, no reaction but he headed straight for me, getting off the 30 degree shale slope, throwing his poles on to the ground and swinging his pack from his shoulder.
There was an awkward moment of silence as he fought for breath amid taking large glugs from his water bottle. Probably about 30 years old, certainly far younger than me but strangely comforting that he was as exhausted as I was. He looked over to me – ‘hard work this part’ he said. Now I’m not proud of having done this and the words escaped me before I could engage my brain. I slowly took a sip of water looking back down the steep trail, turned back to him and said ‘not as bad as I thought it would be’. I sipped again slowly from my bottle, my brain trying to process what I had just said, my hamstrings popping, trying to control my breathing and putting to one side the cold sweat running down my sides like the touch of a frozen lover. I stood up, bid him good luck, set off at a heroic pace to prove my point and after rounding the next corner, stopped, clutched my hamstrings and bent double. He passed me about 10 minutes later, I waved, he smiled and we all moved on despite the lingering odour of my earlier mistruth. Well, I say we moved on. He moved on. I stood a while admiring the view down to the valley floor about 1500m below. My admiration ended, purely coincidentally of course, when my lungs recovered and my hamstrings no longer caused my thighs to wobble uncontrollably. After every trip, I make a commitment to getting fitter so that I can make this easier. But the sirens song of cakes and pizza lead me to the depths of a carbohydrate doom and the cycle repeats in perpetuity.
Almost at the summit, one section needed me to scramble on all fours where a section of the mountain had slipped. I reached the ledge and viewing point, gasping for air, covered in sweat with hands on hips and head thrown back, basking in the warmth of the sun. The view was stunning and after a few moments, I spoke to the couple who were taking shots with an assorted range of high end camera gear. They were from Romania, lived in Ireland and both were chefs in restaurants in Kerry. We walked together for a little while. Well, I walked with her while he ran ahead, taking photos of everything with his phone and the two large cameras strung around his neck. Both of them were seriously overweight and as we walked along, both were constantly smoking, the Marlboro haze dancing in the streams of sunlight. However, they were both hike fit – they walked a lot together and it showed as I had to put a lot more effort in to keep up than they seemed to be doing.
She (I forget their names) talked about Ireland and her plans for the future. I talked about Romania a little which surprised them both but the conversation soon turned back to her hopes and dreams. I sensed that her hopes for the future mainly revolved around the smoking gazelle in front of us who now appeared to be taking a photo of grass. I walked along with her, he ran from left to right, alternating between ‘phone and long lens before sprinting ahead again. This went on for 20 minutes or so before I eventually asked him what he was photographing. With delight, he whipped open his Instagram feed and showed me all the photos he had been posting that day. ‘Do you have Instagram’ he asked. I shook my head slowly.’ Oh you must get it; it’s the best way to get your work seen!’ I paused, looked around and mentally discarded my initial thoughts on how to respond. I smiled, commented on one of his photos of a flower which drew a broad grin and said ‘maybe one day’.
5 minutes later we approached the lake, the trail evened out and all of a sudden there was an excited shriek from him. As we approached, he was tearing at his backpack, pulling out his tripod in a frenzied state. I looked over to the lake, very picturesque but I couldn’t see the need for urgency. He was saying something to his partner; she rolled her eyes and walked forwards. I walked forwards too scanning to see what this cosmic event, this single moment in time that needed to be captured might be. I couldn’t see anything. She saw my quizzical look as he hurriedly mounted a long lens on to the camera and she rolled her eyes again, looked behind her and plonked herself down a rock while simultaneously drawing a pack of cigarettes from her pocket. I whispered to her ‘what is it?’
She lit her cigarette, inhaled deeply and looked up at me. ‘Fish’ she said, shook her head slowly, rocked backwards and then said ‘I think it best you go now, he will be here a while, enjoy your holiday!’
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. I wonder at times if I speak Venetian but am in orbit around Pluto
Stay safe all until next time.