Slovenia Journal Pt. 3

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Start with a visit to limestone caves, gingerly down moss slick stairs with a matchstick tangle of trees at the bottom where the river on fury days tumbled through here. The caves themselves are immense, like stalactitic airplane hangars dissolving into darkness. We walk twenty paces, let our eyes adjust, twenty paces more and so on. Sometimes they open on the other side to pooled glades, we echo our way through an hour before pedaling on.


This area sees considerable logging, we’re on roads built for that, truck wide and crowned, drizzle turns to pour, I hang back to avoid the rooster tail, soaked but it’s warm and the initial dismay discomfort reaches equilibrium soon enough. Good pace so good time toward Ljubljana. 
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Lunch stop on a bench next to another tiny house with a saint and holy image under the one tree in a wide open rollingscape. We talk about paper we’re going to write and conferences we’ll organize, unusual and pleasant to be traveling with another philosopher. Once we descend it will be straight lines on tractor tracks perpendicular and parallel to a road trafficked enough to be going somewhere. 

Reach it by late afternoon, navigating the outskirts and then into the center, stop on a bridge to hear an activist musical performance, clap along with the hippie dressed gathering. Press on, Jack’s talking about the dragons and we find them gracing the ends of a bridge. Sit at a cafe, espresso and beer, respectively, watch the dense throng in that small European summer way, sitting on the terraces along the river, street performance food stalls life sized chess next to fountains and statues on flagstone walkways or round squares. Spend the night at a tidy hostel after late walking around gelato and crowd watching.

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This southern central part of the country isn’t mountainous, but the hills come bright cymbal crashes to our tired legs again and again, ride through small developments that might count as suburbs, through ploughland. One lane roads nearer the lake, above it now and the loop we won’t pack up right away but instead with all our gear see the sights round Bled that we missed earlier until the last hour to pull everything off the rentals and bring them back. Tomorrow early car to the airport to Brussels to cross the ocean train subway walk turn down the street key stairs home.

Italy Postcard

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Last night, farmer’s field edge and woods, clouds furled and whirlpooled with the roads we’d been on, first real grey of the trip and exhale temperature drop. Pizza slices in town in the square an hour before, so there’s just pitching the tents just in time for fat thwap thit pummeling drops stinging freeze on my shoulders before I duck in. Now torrents, we’re chatting from across the ricocheting expanse between mesh screens, fall asleep for a little to wake to last light rain stop drip and fireflies eye level floating in the field so I decide that I’m in a dream.

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Today a second in Italy’s yellow argent temps, tracks through apricots or peaches, morning roadies “ciao!”, seems at every town we stop to fill up at the spigot or fountain. The first empty bottle brimming, down it right there before topping it off again. Splash face, nod to the old timers fanning themselves in the shade murmuring conversation with an open hand emphasis, arcing back toward Slovenia, tended tree rows, plastered stone fencing, tilled dirt.

We stop at a monument to the known and unknown soldiers lost here in WWI, Oslavia’s Shrine, climb stairs to reach it that Jack points out stops breath and any hint that this isn’t solemn and serious, architecturally a citadel and a church and a sepulcher, eight inch guns pointing down the valley from the anachronistic crenelated battlements, enter the hulking entryway to a hall that rings the cylinder with names and names dozens high tiling floor to ceiling, yielding a central shaft roof room with more names and stretched cross to the sky streaming into the transparent dome above. We walk, silence, we are the only ones here and the effect is of embrace of Italy’s fallen, gathered in the cool stone and the openings let burst in the countryside.

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Cross the border again, transition invisible. Now alongside a train line, we’ll follow it, low to the land, stations duplicates of each other. Soon we’ll take agribiking to an official status through a mountain bike area that links together tractor paths with cyclist silhouette markers at the intersections. We yes! our way through the trail system, an overlook onto a picturesque valley, then a descent into a small town where we sit on benches near the entrance to the church and the mildly disapproving looks of folks coming in for evening mass. I study the map for patches of forrest nearby and the options remain obscure until Jack points down a break in the trees, we follow it to a clearing with neat stacks of chopped wood on each side making a perfect enclosure.

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Italy Postcard

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We’ve shrugged off making stoves and searching for alcohol, content in our cold meals—cheese, olives, apples, flat bread, tomatoes and avocados, peanut butter on crackers, local honey and divine cherries, Jack sometimes gnaws on a salumi—and some days stopping in towns for something prepared. It works splendidly, and we don’t miss the cooking. Here at the Italian border in a tiny hilltop town we’re sitting in the shade, sipping juice and eating crepes, mystified at the two French sisters running the cafe. Jack sips an espresso, I contemplate the advisability of drinking a beer before 10. Long tables under flowered trestles and the sleeping cat and the guy in knee high mud boots explaining that he has to move the pigs into the barn where the sheep are, and the sheep into the pasture, we see him doing it with the glint eyed help of a collie.


The border itself is a shuttered control post, stenciled with inscrutable marks of the divisions of country that once were, we pedal through, picturing the uniformed Carabinieri that once stood here. A gravel descent that we take, it’ll drop to the river in a snaking shaking grinning pitch, walnut sized stones and water bars, tight switchbacks, picking up speed and craved for breeze, all of which which we’ll rue in an hour when we’re climbing back up it because we’ve made a wrong turn, realized as I say, “wait, how can Slovenia be on our right?” The glare glints through our sweat, shimmery heat and still of the trees that even in their height can’t stop a midday bolt during the silent retrace.

Route fixed, gassed from the ascent to a set of rollers, drop down again this time the wide open plains. Unmistakably Italy, the hilltops in every distance with a villa, spruce lined approaches, groves. The cars seem a little fancier, a more prosperous grocery store. We pass going in the other direction a determined cheerful peloton of women and men with a remarkable span of ages, some teenagers, plenty of riders in with white hair, everything in between. Smile at the open joy of their bike riding, even as I shudder at the local sartorial abomination of riding with sleeveless jerseys.

Slovenia Journal Pt. 2

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Slovenia Journal Pt. 1

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In the parking lot, prise open overstuffed duffels that we hefted through airports and on taxis, finally adjusting velcro and fastex buckle straps to the frame saddle bar bags. Bikes from a stock that looks to be new for this season, so they’re shiny, somewhat sheepishly untested appearing, Žiga at the local outdoor adventure shop cut us a 20% off deal owing to the length of our rental. Aluminum Scotts, Deore derailleurs, Suntour forks, better than junk but worse than good—solid enough for our ambitions—650b wheels. Grocery stop gets distributed into the empty spaces and then coasting down the hill to round Lake Bled with its impossibly quaint island and sentinel castle, pedaling into unexpected heat and hills that ripple outward from the Alp peaks in the near distance as if the forested foothills were liquid and roiled as the stone was plunked down.

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West north, first through a corner of Triglav National Park, then just the rural countryside, necks craning to catch the drying hay and sometimes breaks to investigate the local techniques for beekeeping, about which Jack has a considerable interest. Tiny gravel roads, sometimes one paved lane, single track double track, paths through crushed riverside rock. The plan is a nine day circuit round this half of the country, toes across the Austrian border and then later a thirty hours in Italy before crossing over again. Haze dust Tyrol architecture houses but more modest, sky clean bright, its blue a third color to the saturated green and wheat turned dirt brown golds.

Always the flinty points through the glimpses, we roll into an enormous meadow after lunch, pollen mid afternoon still so that our shirts are soaked three quarters up every ascent. A long roll on a loved bike path for a dozen kilometers, fitness cyclists, commuters, mountain bikers using it as an connector between home and trail, by its end map’s curves suggest that we have a committing upward section next and away from villages, so our breathing and the sound of knobby tread on sticky asphalt until that gives way to gravel, steady eight sometimes ten percent with no point trying not to overheat, upwards rasping dry mouth grips slick sometimes standing with a pause before dropping weight and persistence to the advance.

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Late enough for camp, arrive in a clearing high up woods, hunter’s cabin, carved banisters and nailed awnings, stream fed pipe spills into a mossy trough. It’s padlocked but we sit at the picnic table out front and lay out dinner. From here we can see down the valley that we made it most but not all of the way up. Tents on a flat terrace nearby, sleep.

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On the second day we complete the uphill to the ridge, emerging into a sward with marmot holes and the gps shows a different kind of mark a few hundred meters away, the border that traces the high point. Sometimes we’re riding sometimes we’re pushing on narrow choppy single track, there’s a longer section off the bikes and then we’re looking down over the brilliant valley, there’s Austria, a big town with the glintty shimmer of life and movement that can’t be made out in its details. We find a border marker and ritually step over and back a few times, then eat pears and apples and press onward is downward as the bikes pick up carving through the berms speed. We ride in remote woods for hours, and then an asphalt highway with campers and motorcycles snaps us back into humanity. A village with darkened ski hotels, a square with a bakery, and off onto a gravel path to lead us to the end of the day paved climb up Vršič Pass.

The cobbled switchbacks, we metronome up again, up, a tunnel of trees. We’re passed by a few roadies testing themselves on this col, they nod approvingly wincingly at our camping gear. By twilight we turn onto an alternate, a woman tidying up around her lodge says it’s the more beautiful way up, the Russian Road, an old World War I road, so we take it until a spot to camp in the lee of granite and mist sunset.

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Return to Slovenia

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Heaping gear in a livingroom pile before it’s arrayed geometric and photogenic. Visited Slovenia a couple of years ago, fairytale mountain and castle peaks, the green of the near summer Alps. I rode for a couple of days then, enough to be persuaded of a return trip. Duffle stuffed full, Jack and I will rent bikes, secure the bags and head out into the gravel doubletrack, mountain paths, small roads, meet up with Marko for part of the circuit. A map, a plan, the basic kit, a beautiful place.

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Kane Creek/Pritchett Canyon Overnight

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Usual great breakfast at Moab’s Eclecticafé—well it’s Joel’s second breakfast—we’re sunburnt murmuring the contentedness of the last three and a quarter days gallop, squinting at Jeep traffic and people and ceramic wear clatter around us. J and I only have a couple left before we leave, so I’ve proposed something dead easy, maybe relaxing, a little scenic: we’ll resupply, pedal out to Kane Creek Canyon, spend the night, then curl around Behind the Rocks to return to town via Pritchett Canyon. The boys gamely agree. We buy one night’s dinner and have the space luxury to load up beyond the bare necessities. I put a ten pack of flour tortillas in my shopping basket and Joel asks whether we should plan to split that. “Um, no.” Logan and Skyler use some of their frame pack volume for campfire beer. Fill up water at GearHeads, head out. P1170994

A rolling road ride then onto a sandy track, fat tires make comfy work of it. Hot, dry, clear skies. We linger for lunch in a wash, relaxed and open with one another, kind company, guys I’d ride anywhere with and those aren’t that easy to find. P1180029 P1180047 P1180038Somehow I’d thought that the canyon on the Monday after Easter wouldn’t be that crowded, but some of the Jeep Week folks have stayed an extra day. The noise, exhaust, and tread tracks maybe get in the way of perfect solitude, but, after all, Moab has reinvented itself just this way from a tumbleweed mining town past to somewhere everyone goes. I wrestle my thoughts into a kind of equipollence, they’re trail users, too, they’re friendly and supportive.  Glad when the canyon goes quiet at evening, but there’s no good in swishing bile around in my mouth. We reach a group bunched up and set to cross the creek, take another break and let them disappear ahead. Almost at the top of the canyon, we relax next to a fire tall telling myths about future rides.

Next morning leisurely rollout, temps already gathering around us. By the time HWY 191 and the HOLE N” THE ROCK [sic] lunch, we’re confident in the timing. Skyler redirects us toward sand dunes off the road, it’s a painful slog into fierce wind to get there. Once we arrive the playfulness has been sapped out of us, but S grabs one of the Borealises and gives it a gamely go. P1180175 The roll to Pritchett is through classic Utah landscapes, red dust the way Mars was pictured in 50’s scifi, Joel blows through a turn and heads off into the distance, we three just sit and chat and stretch out laying on the rock for the 40 amusing minutes it takes him to realize we’re not with him and to backtrack. Mid afternoon rhythm, empty jeep track, buttes, swirling serenity and this place rises above the fact of the people and the overlove of the backcountry and just is itself, is its own austere desert stasis. I realize we’ve been by ourselves for three or four hours and my body is just like the grains of sand tailing off of the ridges. Pritchett itself is sublime, sloping shadows encroaching walls. Impossible angles and the bulbous rock formations, I quip to Logan that this is “…some wondrous Call of Cthulhu shit,” and he laughs and gravity and our own effort fly us back to town. P1180191 P1180200 P1180216

This is an easy overnight bikepack to do from Moab. GPX file here and more trail details at Pedaling Nowhere.

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Photo by Joel Caldwell

Kokopelli Trail, Pt. 3

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Wake warming to the half sun lifting above the ridge. Legs don’t feel too bad, J and S are already gathering cooking tools for coffee. The flat valley is even more striking than sleep’s memory allowed, can intuit that we all want to linger here but instead make a committed effort to pedal into the day. We’d run into some cyclists on the route last evening who indicated that they had a support vehicle meeting them in the campgrounds a few miles beyond our camp, and that they had plenty of water to save us the trouble of treating the streams we’d soon enough see. After an hour we reach the trucks coming up the track toward us, chat with the drivers, play with the dogs, gratefully refill our water packs.

The near term agenda is an all-morning dirt climb followed by a ripping descent into Castle Valley. Then we’ll climb back up to elevation on pavement before reaching the top of Porcupine Rim. A steady day, one where we’ll spread out from each other to ride in thoughts or absence, regroup at lunch and snacks, Logan’s hilarious jokes, Skyler’s deadpan, Joel’s immutable grin.

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Up top, we’re wobble stand exhausted from the climb. S put his headphones on but ran out of battery, L and I had traded singing song lyrics to our favorite black metal songs, J shaking his head in mystification. The official Kokopelli route here descends the road to the Slickrock trail, passing the seemingly always full camping areas. It parallels the Porcupine Rim Trail, a classic Moab route, deserving its preeminent status. We dig in our packs for whatever is left, a little glassy, murmurs of burritos and beers in town. A little speech about how easy it would be for us to say that we’re done, we’ve done the route, just coast into town. But how much better to finish in the bucking blaze of some concentration riding, we crunch onto the single track, castles below.

With at least twice yearly visits to Moab for a decade starting in the late 80’s, can’t say how many times I’ve ridden this trail. But never in this light, the breathless excitement of fatigue and the end of our food, never with the whole desert rock sand cliff dusk warping wrapping around us like a well told fairytale. The horizon pools impossibly blazing watercolor canary yellow and purple, bikes rumbling skipping on the distinctive perpendicular orange fins. We’re burning with reentry enthusiasm, leaping heavy bikes, surfing our whoops.

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By the time we get to the wash, it’s dark. Avoid putting on my headlamp to the very last moment, gingerly touch our way along the ledgy parts where I know there’s a highway and river below. The final down climb across the small cliff with the bikes on our shoulders, roll to the bottom, under the highway and there are festive strung lights at the first campsite. The gang there tell us they’ve been watching our lamps, that we came from where?, and here are some snacks and brews. We laugh with their kindness, remount and time trial to Moab, arrive center town at 9:47, Joel sweet talks the maître-d’ into sneaking us under the last call for food, don’t even wash our faces before we’re digging into our dinner.

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Epilogue

Here’s the thing. The Kokopelli trail has been ridden and raced for so long, it has turned into a shrugging cliché for bikepackers these days. That was my fool’s attitude. It’s a tremendous ride, though. Whether you’re jaded experienced or planning your first multi-overnight, do this trip. Find all the logistical details on Logan’s Pedaling Nowhere Kokopelli Route writeup.