A day with an end where you recall it and it doesn’t seem as if it could have been just one. Wake in shadow of a grey chipped massif, warm enough diffuse light so that jackets are discarded over breakfast. We pack and start upwards on the trail, a bounded narrow double track, cobbled in places, crushed stone in others, an elevated platform centered on the steady grade switchbacks achieving Vršič pass. Ruska Cesta, The Russian Road, named in honor of the prisoners of war who were forced to build it to give Austria-Hungary access to the Isonzo Front. Those battles with the Italians—the Italians had thought the better of their Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary and had switched sides—took place mostly in present day Slovenia around near an emerald river, the Isonzo in Italian, the Soča in Slovenian.
Riding through a daunting history, dismount to scramble around the crumbling bunker giving a commanding view of the valley, shell pocks on the walls, steel rebar cut and sold or reused ago. Before the trip I’d not thought through how many of the Great War’s marks we would see, it all comes rushing in, Tuchman, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, Keegan’s book, the Holborn and Roberts photographic narrative Boots gave me last year. The first fighting here took place starting on 23 June 1915, one hundred years ago next week. At the top, the highest pass in Slovenia, the mountains unroll into two horizons, rejoin the asphalt road where we let go a bit to meteor down with BMW motorcycle tourists, passing little European wagons, muscular braking into turns. At one point we see parts of the old tunnel, flick on our headlamps and ride through the constricted darkness, I’m imagining the far off boom of guns and terror and why, to the river cut below.
Once in the valley, clobbering heat constantly refilling bottles and riding from shade to shade. We bend into the cranks, a lunch stop, caked salt in our jerseys and dirt sticking to our legs, Jack jumps into a river that I find too lunatic icy cold, shrug at the irony. Hours and breathing the thick air along the watercourse knowing we’ll head back up.
The road turns and rises through a grove of apricots, now we’re just slow and deliberate. Paved for an hour and then gravel again, a road so steep and straight, nothing hidden about its aspiration and maybe it’s a gauntlet or it’s an exhortation, instead I abandon the effortfulness of it and just let my legs turn. The tunnel of greenery is perceptual gradient motion around me, Jack and I separate and will see each other again a bit later. The climb has a suffocating beauty, amazing by any standards anywhere and then there will be a gravel descent that soars and sings, I realize now, some days later, that if there’s one ride to do in Slovenia, it’s this one. We top out and holler.
Towns below, the switchbacks like jagged cracks sparking up from them. First tentative to get the feel for the wander and skid through small round stone turns and shifting ruts. A few dynamic experiments in manualing over berms, unlocked forks wobbles dips, I speed up the rebound, wind whistling and sounds of a hill of bricks and marbles cascade, Jack’s fuckyeah! we’re ripping rollicking gravity trailing.
Breathless buzzing at the bottom, getting dark, we’re out of water, absolutely need to go to a village so we do. Fill up at the town spigot, 1921 scratched at the footing stone, cheery families about in the sunset smile and wave. But we have no idea what the camping options are, eyeballing the map, I force us to get on this hiking trail, narrow and there are no flat spots. Jack wears his doubt on his scowl but I’m pressing on because I have no better ideas, we ride for ticking minutes getting deeper in the woods and toward what now, but then there’s this clearing ahead with a tiny statue house. We laugh, brag that it’s just as planned, set up for the night.