We awaken to the faint sound of drizzle and the whipping of our rainfly in a hefty wind. Yesterday's brilliant sun and balmy weather have gone, leaving us with rain and a distinct chill in the air. Please let that wind be in our favor, I think as we begin to pack up camp, but I know full well that it isn't. It is downright cold and we shiver and hop around a bit to keep warm, but it doesn't bother me too much. After all, we've had much worse! A quick breakfast of bread, butter, jam, and honey is all we need to fuel our morning.
We wheel our bikes through the pine woods where we spent our night, and make our way onto the wet paved road. Off we go, into our second day in Macedonia! As I spin my pedals against a powerful headwind, I am unruffled, thinking not of how we are traveling half our normal speed on flat ground. Instead my mind is caught up with the adventure of being in a new place.
"How cool is this!?" I think, "We are in Macedonia!" Thusfar, I've had at least some sense of what each country had to offer. No longer. My knowlege of Eastern Europe is woefully inadequate. This whole area has been a big, blank canvas in my mind, only sparsely dotted with brief visions of kielbasa, borscht, Ukrainian Easter eggs, evil dogs, and Dracula.
With so very little to go on, I am delighted with this new part of our journey. I truly feel like we are on an adventure, pedaling into the unknown. Except we've arrived! We're here in the unknown, right now, and the blanks have been filled, my empty gray canvas of Eastern Europe is slowly finding its color.
For a few brief moments every now and again, the sun almost makes an appearance, and the dark Macedonian landscapes burst into various shades of brilliant green. Mountains in the distance look soft as if covered in moss, muted from the rain and from the many trees that carpet their slopes.
It is tranquil here, and I love it. The roads are quiet, and even on the freeway, very few cars pass compared to to what we're used to. All around us, farmers are driving their tractors through muddy, rutted dirt paths which carve through their fields. We pass row after row of grapes as we bike what signs call the "wine route." Where there isn't a vinyard, there are cabbage patches boasting several varieties of the stout vegetable. Some already-harvested fields stink quite a bit; their cabbage leaves have begun to rot.
My reverie is broken by the thought of the single thing we must to do today: find water. Each country has varied slightly in its water availability, so I'm curious how Maceconia will pan out. It isn't long before Tyler spots a gas station on a road across a farmer's field. So, we begin to push our bikes through it. Our wheels stop turning just a few feet down the path! The gap between our tire and fenders is gone, replaced entirely with thick, sticky mud.
By the time we arrive at the gas station less than 100 meters away, we can hardly move our bicycles. Tyler tries to free our wheels from the mess while I go in search of water. In Greece, we often filled up at the little area in the gas station where an air pump and a water spigot was located. This station has no such place, but there is a bathroom. So, I carry our bottles over and fill them up in the sink. When I am through, our bikes are quite a bit heavier; 9 liters of water is weighty!
After we're done with the necessities, Tyler and I head inside to see what sort of food they have for sale. We are surprised to find vast shelves which are almost entirely empty. The few items they have, oddly and sparsely stocked on the barren shelves, are mostly indecpiherable to us.
Tyler makes sure we stock up on things we can read, such as bags of pretzels and chips. I am more interested in the mystery items. I love the thrill of obscure foreign foods, cans and containers of items with labels in Macedonian, without photos, devoid of any possible clues as to their contents!
After we pay 200 MKD (a little less than $5), we load up our goodies and head out of town. On our way, we pass a woman riding her bicycle into the wind as well. She smiles and laughs, saying "Zdrah-voh!" (Hello!) as we pass. Not long after, we cruise into a tunnel, roughly blasted through the mountainside. The rugged rock exposed all around us is a welcome respite from the most recent bout of rain, which falls a little harder than its previous counterparts.
After a few more hours of windy, drizzly cycling we've completed our minimum distance for the day (50km) and we're both ready to call it a night. We stop by the side of the road, and I hold Tyler's bike while he goes to investigate possible free-camps.
He finds a spot in an open field by a railroad, so we wheel our steeds through the woods until we emerge on the other side. It is perfect. Just when it's time to set up, the rain begins once more, this time unleashing a drenching downpour, spewed out by a fast-moving front of black clouds.
Together we work to get camp made as quickly as possible, and we even get the rainfly on before the inside of the tent is too badly soaked! The tent pole doesn't even pop apart! We both remain resolutely calm. Amazing. I begin mopping our home out with a towel while Tyler goes off in search of wood to start a fire. While I put the finishing touches on our home, Tyler is crouched over his hand-made fire-pit, blowing the smoking flames to life.
He is the fire master! After a full day of rain he is still able to get a flame going with flint and steel. I admire his progress from my walkstool where I am lighting a fire of my own—our cookstove's. Tyler has requested cheesy garlic pasta again, and I am happy to fulfill his wish as long as he chops the garlic.
Something about free-camping together with a fire fulfills my soul down to its very depths. I feel a sense of accomplishment in settling into a little corner of the wilderness, able to sustain ourselves and keep ourselves warm. As now our hearty fire crackles and pops, we stare into its mesmerizing flames, feeling nourished by the experience.
Here, alone in this quiet place, I feel whole and accomplished. We've entered unknown territory, and succesfully made it our own, filling in the grey blankness of our minds with real experiences. We were challenged with rough headwinds, cold, and heavy rain, and yet none of it affected us. All that remains from the day is a feeling of peace. I think we're getting the hang of this, at last.