There are times on this trip when I question my abilities. Am I really capable of doing this? What are we even doing here? Why am I doing this? What is the value of this? These thoughts generally make a pronounced appearance when we are somewhere that feels like the middle of nowhere.
As we lay in our tent this morning, still warm in our sleeping bag, surrounded by mountains, miles from the nearest village, rain began to spatter on our tent and I suddenly felt overwhelmed with hopelessness. The roads we'd been riding were barely passable in good weather, but in rain, I didn't see how we could continue at all. Even the push up the steep path, back up to the real "road" would be impossible.
We'd be stuck out here, at the mercy of our surroundings, for god knows how long. Though we just stocked up on food and had enough for several days, being trapped in the mountains was another story. We would sit, stuck in Romania, slowly watching our supplies dwindle down to nothing. At which point, we would waste away and die.
Tyler, with a finely-honed sensitivity to my every mood immediately said, "I feel a heaviness coming from you. What's your deal? Come on, spit it out." And I had to laugh, and thank the heavens I found such a perceptive partner, who knows when something is up with me, sometimes before I can even articulate it.
I told him about my fears, and he laughed as usual, and re-assured me as well as he could. Thankfully the scattered drops stopped, and did not create mudslides, avalanches, or other causes for distress. So we packed up camp, ate breakfast, checked email, filled our water bottles, and got ready for the big push out of the bowl we had camped in.
Yesterday's pushing and subsequent search for an elusive cave, involving every ounce of courage to climb up and down rock faces, ford swiftly-flowing streams, etc, had pretty much sapped me dry of any desire to go adventuring. It was all the adventure I could handle for the time being. I don't feel like the "type" of person who climbs mountains, who comes careening back down, poised and looking cool on their mountain bike. ("EXTREME!")
As we began the very, very steep push, I longed for a clean, quaint, orderly downtown, where I could sit outside at a restaurant and order some nice sandwich with turkey, tomato, and avocado on a crusty white loaf, with a side of sweet-potato fries, and a lemonade. Then a bookstore with deep, cozy armchairs where I could sit all day reading cookbooks and novels with smooth, colorful covers, relishing the feel of each page as I flipped them, sipping on a ridiculously overpriced hot-chocolate in some horrible-for-the-environment paper cup with a plastic sippy-lid. Oh how blissful that would be.
As we worked as a team to heave our bikes up the steep, rocky slope we wheeled down yesterday in search of a cave, I couldn't help thinking, this is a fricking ironman workout. This isn't biking, this is insane. With the two of us pushing we still could barely make it, and we had to take multiple stops to rest, holding tightly to our brakes so the bike wouldn't go toppling town the hill.
Was the cave really worth all this heaving? Was it really worth it to go the extra mile, off road, just to see a fricking cave? And why do we have all of this STUFF anyway. It would be a lot easier if we were "ultralight" cyclists. But I couldn't think of a thing I would care to part with. Up and up and up we pushed. Who needs the gym, just bike around the world, jesus. Nevertheless, it was beautiful. With so many trees, and the sun filtering through them, it reminded me of a place where elves would live. We were in Rivendell. A steep, Romanian, rutted Rivendell.
At long last we reached the top, already exhausted and having gotten nowhere. The riding day was just beginning and it felt as though we'd climbed a mountain. We reached the top and were now faced with a decision. The "road" was almost as difficult as the path had been, rocky, rutted, muddy, and basically impassable by car. Should we backtrack, out of the mountains, and to the town of Drobeta Turnu Severin, or should we continue into the mountains for the 50 more kilometers we had planned on to go visit a monestary, a 50 kilometers that now felt like 5,000 because of the terrain.
Tyler, of course, wanted to continue, but left the decision up to me. In the end, I agreed to carry on, though neither choice seemed particularly inviting at the time. After all, the "road" was crappy all the way down the mountains as well, so we might as well keep going. Besides, this was an adventure, right? I tried hard to convince myself of that fact, but all I felt was that we were being foolish, and I wouldn't mind if I didn't have another adventure again in my whole life. This isn't fun, I thought, this is stupid. I wasn't made for this. But what the hell, we might as well keep pushing.
Soon after the choice was made, the road curved sharply upwards and I immediately regretted the decision I already loathed. The road was basically unridable, so we were forced to push. And push we did. A lot. Forever. Averaging three kilometers an hour or less, we really would be stuck in the middle of nowhere in Romania forever. The end. Goodbye Tara and Tyler. Tyler managed to keep me together by prepping me ahead of time for the steep pushes with things like, "okay we have a 200 meter climb up ahead, but then after that it all levels out". He also gently reminded me of our favorite bad-mood mantra, "you are not your thoughts." Though I appreciated his valiant efforts, I was beyond saving.
I was my thoughts, and they were all kinds of hateful thoughts. I was busily cursing these god-forsaken roads in this godforsaken place, when we saw an old woman up ahead tending her cattle. We said hello, she said hello back, and then I saw that she was knitting! I immediately took my knitting (a hat just like Tyler's, a special request from his dad) out of the handlebar bag and showed it to her. She was tickled, and though we were speaking different languages we could understand each other.
I admired her hand-knitted garments, all thick and warm, though very itchy, and she told me she was currently making a skirt.
Our conversation was put on hold for a brief second when one of her cows strayed onto the road, and she took out her switch and snapped the cow's butt, yelling at it and cackling. We resumed talking about knitting.
This whole encounter snapped me out of my funk and reminded me why it is that we go slowly, why it is that we take the rutted track through the mountains instead of sticking to pavement. Suddenly the steep pushing and the rocks and the mud were all worth it. With a sparkle in her eye, she took my smooth, dirty hand into her rough, weathered one, held it to her face, and kissed it as she wished us a good journey.
My heart was filled, overflowing with love and gratitude. All was right in the world.
Soon we reached the top of our first big climb. The road leveled out, thankfully, and we were treated to wide vistas, beautiful views, storybook cottages, and the light fragrance of a thousand apple blossoms. A young couple and their small children waved at us as we passed their home; their stately pig came trotting over to say hello as well. This is why, this is why we came here.
After several mercifully flat minutes, our road descended again. When it was time for our second big climb, the rutted, rocky path we had been following deteriorated even further. Up in the distance we could see what lay in store for us: STEEP terrain that could not be called a road or even a path. It had a landscape all it's own, complete with mountains, rivers, and lakes. I can't even describe it.
What choice did we have but to continue? As we approached the part of the "road" that looked impassable to me, an old woman tending her sheep motioned for us to take a detour over her property to the point where the road became usable again. To the tune of her sheepdog's incessant, fierce barking, we pushed, and pushed, and pushed up yet another hill.
When we were in England, we took a photo of me blithely coasting down a field of green grass. What we didn't capture, purposefuly, was the power plant just outside the shot, and the road that was only meters away.
I thought of that photo, and of where we were now. Here we were, climbing up similar hills (only steeper, bumpier, and much, much higher), and there was nothing to crop out of the scene. There was no road, much less a powerplant. There was nothing but grassy hills rising steeply before us, a small herd of sheep grazing in the distance tended by a shepherd no longer in site, and the ever-present, ever-barking dog.
When we reached the top of our climb, with my limbs burning and my lungs heaving, my mood began to deteriorate again when I saw what lay in store. There were hills and hills and hills as far as the eye could see. This, coupled with the realization that our leftovers from last night had spilled, leaking indian-spiced tomato sauce all over the pannier, pushed me over the edge.
At home, I am not a worrier. I am confident and rarely afraid. Out here, when confronted with challenges on a daily basis, I grow more concerned about our survival. And so, as we sat down for lunch, I'd had enough. We weren't prepared for this, I didn't sign up for this, I had had adventure up to my ears, and I didn't want to push any more. I wanted to sit, in the middle of nowhere, and quit.
When Tyler freaks out, it is an explosion, like a bomb going off. When I freak out, it is a slow poison that strangles and chokes, or a frightened animal that will snap out in anger at anyone who enters its territory. Tyler tried his best to ease my fears, but it was rough going.
I was still fuming when we descended the bumpy, rocky road. At the bottom, I was slightly cheered by the sight of a mama dog carrying a newborn puppy in her mouth like a chew toy. Tyler stopped to take a photo, and I held his bike.
Meanwhile, a stern, crotchety-looking old man came sauntering up and asked what we were taking photos of, with the same tone the Serbian police officer had had when asking the same question. Tyler showed him, feeling a little sheepish at being "caught in the act" of taking puppy photos for a second time. He smiled and hurried his wife over, who went to take the puppy so we could see it up close. It was so young that its eyes were still closed! So cute!
While Tyler was busy with the elderly couple, a woman in a cheery bright red sweater smiled and motioned to me from afar. "Come here!" she seemed to say, very warmly but also insistantly, "Come to my house! I will make you coffee!" Motioning to Tyler that I was going with the woman, I wheeled my bike over to her house and leaned it against her fence. Tyler soon joined me and we were invited to sit down in her home on two wooden benches by a table. Not really sure what was going on, we did as we were told.
The woman disappeared to the kitchen, presumably, and came back with a plate of warm, eggy, cheesy pastries. Next came hot, crusty, bread, and a plate of two cheeses she made herself, one with milk from her cow, and one with the milk from her sheep. She brought us coffee, freshly brewed, and poured us each a glass of coke.
Though she spoke Romanian and we spoke English, we were able to understand each other much of the time. She had two kids, one aged twenty, and one twenty two, and her motherly love showed as she bid us eat and eat and eat our fill.
We laughed and laughed, each of the three of us enjoying each other's company.
Valentina-Carmen, our host, seemed to run the place with the help of two older women friends. They smiled toothy smiles, the smaller woman's mouth filled with silver teeth. They were tickled to meet us, giggling a little shyly like schoolgirls encountering someone slightly famous. They then retired to the back of the house where they got busy de-feathering newly-slaughtered chickens. Before they left, one of the women tried to explain what they were going to do since we didn't quite understand. A throat slitting gesture, and a finger pointing to a dead chicken in a bucket made it all clear.
All of these women smiled broadly and laughed heartily the entire time we were with them, though they didn't seem to know what to do in front of a camera. So while they look serious, in reality they were some of the warmest, friendliest, smiliest women we've met so far.
When it was time for us to go, we said goodbye to the two older women who squeezed us in big, warm hugs, and kissed us on each cheek. Though we had just met them, it was a little hard to part ways! Our kind host and now dear friend bagged us some food to take along, and then put off her goodbyes for a little while. She walked with us down the road, eager to show us something, and have us photograph it. We didn't understand what it was she wanted us to see, but she kept pointing at my bike, as if to say, "it is green."
Finally we came to it. It was her land: a beautiful, bright green pasture with a stream running through it. She showed us her sheep, and pointed out her brown and white cow, whose milk had made the cheese she had given us to eat. She was beaming with pride, and rightfully so.
We promised to send the photos of our visit to the address she'd given us, and then we said our goodbyes. It was a little sad! She left us with hugs, kisses on each cheek, warm hand-squeezes, and the promise that if we wished, after we were done with our tour, we were always welcome in her corner of Romania.
We were so touched by this experience, and left her home feeling truly blessed, peaceful, happy, and full of love. Tyler hummed a tune, the road leveled out and became ridable again, and it looked like we would make it out of the mountains after all. You know you're in Romania when you are relieved to ride on a dirt road riddled with potholes!
Eventually it even turned to pavement—real, flat, smooth pavement. I could have kissed it. Enjoying the late afternoon light, we rode awhile, photographing birds and houses as we went until we found a nice, though not very secluded, free-camp by a river. Tyler sat me down at the picnic table (there was a picnic table!), handed me my computer, and told me he would set up everything. "Just write," he said. "Write it all down now, capture it before it all goes away."
Now we're laying in our tent, cozy, listening to the brooke babble. There are a few houses not too far away, and we aren't exactly hidden, but I'm sure we will be fine here for the night. The bikes are locked just outside our tent, and now that I'm nearly done writing, I have to leave the warm sleeping bag to go get our hats from one of the panniers. Our new friend's generous meal has long since worn off, so I'll have to grab some food while I'm out as well.
Of course we made it. We always do, and we always will. I don't know why I ever doubt it. Hills always end, rocky roads don't last forever, and there are kind souls the world over who will help a person in need. They even help people who aren't in need, but who are freaking out because they think they are.
The universe provides.