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Czech Yourself

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There was something ominous about Bratislava as I stared at it from the window of a train car. The train came to a halt, and I unlatched the large metal handle on the door of a boxcar, and pulled into the crowd of unfamiliar faces standing on the platform.
Within moments I was loose in the former communist country, rolling through faceless canyons of industrial concrete towered with the ever-present smokestack.

When I reached the city center, it was as if I’d pedaled into a scene from the film “Dr. Zhivago.” Slovakians of all makes and models blanketed the sidewalks, most dressed in large fur caps, knee boots, and long, flowing trench coats. The crowds moved in all directions, all but ignoring an icy wind that spun tiny tornadoes in the gathering spindrift.

At the head of the square, a Stalin-esque building hid behind thick iron bars, where two uniformed guards marched straight-faced beneath Slovakia’s double-crossed flags. I pulled to the curb and took it all in for a moment, then struggled with ice and traffic, until l I reached the steps of my tumble-down hostel.
There is something depressingly predictable about youth hostels. In fact, not just something, but everything. This would include the staff, who, in most cases, would make perfect “Night Of The Living Dead” extras. They always seem to greet you with an extraordinary dullness, as if they had died years ago, but had somehow neglected to inform their bodies.
Then there is the hostel itself. Usually a spectacle of failing oddities, including broken chairs, beds, tables, door handles, toilet seats, shower heads, drains and light switches. Even if it wasn’t broken, you could rest assured the item had reached the pinnacle of its effectiveness long before you arrived.
Given this, chances are fairly good that, at some point within your hostel stay, you’ll be standing somewhere within the building with a knob in your hand wondering how to shut off the shower water, or how to escape as you’re trapped behind a bathroom door.

After I got checked in, I hit the town. That’s when a disturbing fact descended on me. The single slice of knowledge I possessed regarding Slovakian culture came from Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin on the TV show “Saturday Night Live.” Thus whenever anyone around me spoke or gestured, I smirked and pushed down the solitary urge to shout out: “WE ARE TWO WILD AND CRAZY GUYS!” Had I acted on this urge, I’d certainly be writing the next journal from within the confines of a Slovakian loony bin. Short of the tight slacks and gold chains, though, the “Saturday Night Live” skit seemed fairly accurate. For, as I wandered beneath the beams of Bratislava’s high-timbered pubs, Slovakians appeared fun-loving, at ease and quick with a laugh.
After three days of exploring, I cycled out of Bratislava, giddy with the idea that I’d be cycling within the borders of three different countries in one day: Slovakia, Austria and The Czech Republic. But that giddiness all but froze when temperatures plummeted into the 20s, and a light snow had turned into a full-fledged blizzard.
By late in the afternoon, I was pushing through 4 inches of unridable slush, and pedaling ever-further out into traffic where I vied for one of two strips of car-tracks, the only rideable asphalt. After hours in this harsh condition, I felt as if I was attempting to become the first cyclist to reach the South Pole, or pedal into the deep nothingness of outerspace. With that came a profound feeling of disconnection with the world, my surroundings and, most of all, myself.
Night came quickly and the ensuing blackness re-captured my attention. Just before 10 p.m. I came around a corner and spotted four solitary spotlights burning near the base of the horizon. It was the Czech border. I fluttered up to it like a moth to light. When I approached, I only marginally caught the attention of the border officer, who sat warm and comfortably behind the glowing light of a computer screen.
I stood there peering in as if inside a fish tank. The blizzard had me glistening wet, covered in multiple layers of mud, snow and road splatter. The official turned from his computer monitor and slid open a small window. When his eyes finally adjusted, his mouth went agape. I smiled to reveal a mouth full of road grit. “Passport” he inquired solemnly. I fumbled through my bag and handed it to him.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked in broken English. “Uh … Bratislava,” I replied.
“But your passport is stamped in October from France,” he said.
“Uh … Yeah. I’m on a bicycle tour,” I said.
The border man ran his eyes once again over me disgustingly, shaking his head at the road muck. He punched some numbers into the computer, then opened the window again and asked, “But why?” It was less of a question than a statement of authority. He then handed me back my passport and indicated to move on through.

Sometime later, I pitched my tent in the shadowy thicket of lodge-pole pines well off the roadside. Wrapped in a cocoon of nylon and down, I descended quickly into a deep sleep. But then, around midnight, I was awakened by a strange sound. It was a dog, or a pair of dogs, cackling in the near distance. I focused my hearing intently.
Even closer came an eerie succession of calls, each as though sounding off to one another or in communication, or to establish distance. The howls moved ever-closer until they surrounded the area in a circle around my tent. Then all went silent. A fear came over me that ran the core of my being, and at once inhabited every cell in my body. It was a fear that, for lack of a better word, can best be described as primal.
The next morning I emerged from my tent, and inspected the relatively small canine footsteps surrounding it, before heading off for Czech’s hilltop city of Bruno. The snow came again, only this time with a vengeance. By noon, I was once again struggling roadside, vying for road-space and pummeled by waves of car-driven slush. What was worse was the realization that I was coming down with a cold. Had that not been enough, I realized that after 6,000 miles, my gloves and shoes allowed water freely in and out. I pedaled 50 miles in this condition, until I reached the slick streets of Bruno. My hands and feet were on the verge of frostbite. Searching unsuccessfully, I wandered the outer city in search of a cheap hotel. Lost in a collection of winding side-streets, my body temperature began to fall as I came under the steely glares of the inhabitants of a Ukrainian ghetto.
I wobbled mercilessly from there, uphill to the city center. When I reached the hilltop, I was struggling to ride with traffic when my tire dropped into a snow-covered tram track that sent me air-born, head-first onto the ground in the middle of traffic. Muddy, wet and cold, I got up and tried to adjust my bent handlebars. That’s when something within me broke.
I’d had it. After 6,000 miles, seven countries and six months of continuous travel, I’d had enough. At that moment all I wanted was a return to the comfortable predictability of the 9-to-5 workplace and the soulless frustration of a heated cubicle. There was no more reason for me to see the rest of the world. I could do that seated comfortably in an easy-chair watching the Travel Channel.

After getting myself to the sidewalk, I checked myself for injuries, then checked into an over-priced hotel, where I flopped onto a bed, and immediately plunged into a deep sleep.
The next morning came with a state of despair as TV newscasts depicted snow and storm damage across Europe. I had a thousand miles still to cross. Reluctantly I hopped back on my bike and made my way out of the city.
Several hours later, on a small road that cut deep into the Czech woods, I came around a corner and witnessed something I hadn’t seen in days. It was the sun. I pulled over for a moment and witnessed a snow-covered vista of indescribable beauty. Every tree trunk and gracefully arching branch was covered in white and sparkled with clean-clear icicles. The scenery seemed to urge me to press on. And press on I did, through three days of bitter cold and steel-gray skies.
During those days I passed cautiously over ice-covered roads, through tiny hamlets, alternately ascending and descending the hills and valleys of the Central Czech Republic. On the afternoon of the third day, I rolled through outskirts then into the enchanted streets of Prague, where I took my rest, and recovered from the roads’ recent batterings.
I spent my time resting or mingling among artists, musicians and vagabonds, while making failed attempts at photographic creativity as my brain floated in my skull like a pingpong ball floats in a bucket full of snot.

I spent my last day walking lazy loops around the city until I stood at the Charles Bridge and stared reflectively into the waters of the Vltava River. In a moment of contemplation it occurred to me that If the Czech Republic hadn’t killed me, then it had definitely made me stronger.
Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic

Nov. 24 – Dec. 6, 2005
Bratislava, Breclav, Bruno, Jilahv, Prague, Decen.
Mileage log: 5,783-6,002

elevation: 200-1,500 ft.
“And the road becomes my bride,
I am stripped of all but pride,
So in her I do confide,

And she keeps me satisfied;
Rover, wanderer, nomad, vagabond,
call me what you will…”
– Metallica
“Wherever I May Roam”

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