Crete Climbs

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Ascend a small road from Paleochora into the mountainous interior, away from the sunny beach, away from the Libyan sea. At another time of the year it would be possible to traverse the Lefka Ori on mountain bike trails, but the snowy peaks that keep their name winter consistent with the white limestone of summer offer no welcome. So the 2000 meter peak beckons and weaves, hides and seeks through the cuts that the switchbacking road follows, and the mediterranean water below yields to sky or frost as the dominant backdrop.

Coy Greece, neither committaly warm nor cold, I was assured that at this time of the year there wouldn’t be crowds in the western part of the island. The truth is town after small mountain town quiet and seemingly abandoned for city blur escape. Sometimes I’ll see an older couple not far from a beaten pickup truck gathering up the olives that have fallen on the green or black netting carefully tucked under branches. They’ll slow down to a pause, unbend, and look at me into a smile and greeting, the hello of puzzled surprised welcome all bound into one expression.

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Two thirds of a day at bolder gradients, sunshine but those winds unrolling off of the crags like waves breaking around me, now clouding over, I’ve gone to them, not them to me. Haven’t seen a car in six hours, though when I descend briefly onto a plateau there’s a span of bigger road before I equalize my psyche into another climb on a one lane pass. By now patches of snow are common, dolloped, streaked, chunked. Soon they encroach on the pavement, ride through the melted patches or fishtail across in effort.

I happen on an Audi parked half on half off up ahead, headlights impassive at me, see two adults and child making snowballs marveling. I reach them, nod, shouldering into the pedals. He says something in Greek and I confess, so he switches to English and says that the pass is closed, I won’t make it. The road has the look as if it was plowed at the height of a storm maybe a week ago, I can see the scrape of the edges of the scoop on each side. “We went another kilometer and could go no further, you won’t make it.” His slicked back hair and the fact that he won’t take off his aviator sunglasses as he talks to me fixes in place that I’m going to try anyway, “okay, thanks, I’ll give it a shot.” Maybe he’s right that it was cleared to a dead end, but I’ve been climbing for so long that it’s easier to sunk cost believe that it goes all the way through.

Walk a few stretches of frosty slush, pedal again, the road narrows and the snowpack on either side grows. The days have been just warm enough so that bergs have slid and dropped, a sense that walls are in a slow motion, only the gust keeping it all together in a barely wide enough for a jeep keyhole.

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A few kilometers is right, all the Earth seems level with my chest, no shadows, so I guess that the climbing is nearly done. Curves, change of direction, now freewheeling, which it feels like I haven’t done for some time, click and tire hiss on the wet. Valley opens, accelerating.

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I shiver during the wide open descent, small rocks have fallen onto the roadway here and there, fingers sting for numb, switchback radius until I’ve pierced the floor of the snowline again. At the bottom is a village as silent as a snapshot, tenacious green grasses between shuttered concrete or stone houses. Roll through and past and start looking for camp.

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