The beginning of 2013. New ideas, new projects, new roads to discover.
I’ve taken some time to think about blogging, biking, photographs, the whole narrative. About what I do and why I do it. Early last year I read a post by one of my favorite artist/illustrators, Tommy Kane (who is often on his bike, looking for things to draw). When I read the post, it felt as if he had pulled words right out of my head … he said:
“Why do I keep going, you might ask? Well, the answer is simple, I just can’t stop. The truth is, when it comes to my art, I have no real goal in mind. I’m not really heading anywhere. I’m not sure what I’m trying to achieve. Maybe I’m just searching for a brick wall to run into. Once I do that, then I can take a long needed rest. … So for now I ‘m going back to what I do best, making drawings of buildings and objects for no apparent reason whatsoever.”
While I hesitate to think of myself as an artist, or even a “photographer” (in that official label-y kind of way), I know that I am compelled to create, like Mr. Kane – “for no apparent reason whatsoever”.
My family can attest to this habit that often drives them nuts; I have to make things, I have to have a camera at hand, I have to take photos, I have to write down little bits of thoughts, observations and ideas. Some of it has appeared on this blog, much has not.
Keeping a diary was something I started when I was a child, and I’ve never outgrown the habit; the format has just evolved. My great-grandmother was a diarist, my grandfather was a painter and prolific letter-writer who kept carbon copies of every page he ever mailed. I am now custodian of these things. I suspect I have inherited a genetic component.
My photos and other “bits” (including this blog) have just been added to the archives, and my now hoard includes of boxes of prints, shelves of journals, notebooks and albums, clouds and hard drives filled with digital files – evidence of an addiction to creating and recording, and a compulsion that I am sure some psychologist might have a field day analyzing.
There are likely as many reasons to start a blog as there are individuals. I think it is often a combination of exploring a topic or subject, and the urge to create something. “Putting it out there”, so to speak, may be inherent to the creative process; it is the voice of the creation.
In the beginning, I think I justified my own decision to “go-public-and-blog-about-it” with the the idea that maybe I could inspire someone to get on a bike. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to ride a bike, you will; if you don’t, you won’t. I don’t think pretty bikes, pretty pictures or just the right words will change a mindset. If you happen to be leaning over the fence of “could I/should I?”, there are many vocal and more effective advocates and cheerleaders out there who can provide advice, reviews, instruction and analysis on every aspect of cycling to help you decide. There are groups and clubs to join (real and virtual), lists to subscribe to, pledges to sign, rides and events to partake in … it’s a very bike-y world out there.
Whenever I find myself in very bike-y cities – places with lots of people on all sorts of bikes – I most admire the everyday-ness of the cyclists I see. It’s just a way (granted, sometimes a necessity, but usually a more enjoyable one) of doing something, getting someplace.
When I have watched cyclists in these places, or when my husband brings home photos of people on bikes in China, I always think: I seriously doubt this guy writes a blog about schlepping big loads of stuff on his rickety old bike, even though I find it incredibly fascinating. To these people, it’s nothing extraordinary. To these everyday cyclists, to photograph or write about it would seem as ridiculous as writing a blog about doing laundry or brushing your teeth. (Although I have no doubt someone could put an incredibly creative and artistic spin on either of these… and find a way to blog about it).
Over time, my enthusiasm to get a message across through blogging transformed into, well … whatever it is now. Kind of a jumble of photos, thoughts and personal narrative on the beauty of what I see out there; an extension of this lifelong habit (obsession?) to create and record.
Most bloggers, artists, photographers, writers, etc., want to have their work noticed. Most want to be known, at least to some degree or within some social or professional circle. They want their work to be recognized for an endless range of reasons – from being able to make a living, to personal or professional validation, to inspire change or action, or simply (and sadly) for personal notoriety and self-promotion. The irony for me is that I have always been averse to much of this. I have no agenda and recognition typically makes me uncomfortable. I don’t need validation; I could care less whether it’s good work or complete crap – I just need to do the creating, the recording.
All of this makes it pretty ridiculous for a person like me to even have a blog in the first place.
So. Maybe I have found my brick wall. I have decided that I simply want to ride my bike.
I will always take pictures, I will always be fascinated by bicycles (and cows and old barns). I will always be compelled to create “stuff”, and will continue to fill boxes and bookshelves with my cycling (and my life’s) flotsam to be entertainment for some future curious grandchild who may be induced to become the new custodian. But I don’t need to publicly blog about it or illustrate it, or to advocate, review or analyze something that is ultimately so simple and so basic – just riding a bicycle.
Keeping a blog has been a wonderful exercise; I have learned much and I have grown. But it has also taught me that the narrative I am compelled to keep can be archived in a less public space. It is enough for me to write privately on paper, to stash the results in journals and albums on the bookshelf, and I think it may ultimately be more liberating, more honest, more creative.
I now understand the things that will always be a part of me – and those I can let go of. This is the beginning of a new chapter for me – as just a cyclist, a person with a camera and a notebook, and not as a blogger. I’m retiring. I’ll leave the site up … until I don’t. For my friends who still want to see bike-y and other pictures, I intend to continue with my Flickr stream and you are welcome to come and look; it’s a convenient repository and organizational tool (and remains a compulsion).
To my friends and family who have read and looked at these posts over the years … thank you all for all of the kindness you have so generously shown to me. Thank you for seeing things in my pictures that I had never noticed. Thank you for understanding my words even when I didn’t always know what I was trying to say.
Thank you for riding along.
We’ve been flirting with rain. The wintertime landscape is clouds and pale light, the grey skeletons of trees, the dull gold of winter fields. Today the temperatures dropped, and it finally feels a little bit like winter.
It must be the light on days like these, but I love riding home in the late afternoon in the fading grey-ness. It is windless and silent. And I feel like I have fallen into some vintage photo, the colors are so subdued – grey, buff, steel blue and hints of ivory and amber. Almost monochrome. (With the exception of my very red, red bicycle, of course.)
My “good” cameras have been left at home on these rain-risk days … for now, just some of the iPhone snaps.
Hard to believe it is December. Even harder to believe when the temperatures are in the 70’s (F).
Christmas decorations are on mailboxes, trees and houses as we pass by … in shorts and short sleeves.
The Sandhill Cranes have started to arrive on their annual migration. Many of them won’t even continue on to places further south; huge numbers are now wintering here at our nearby Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.
It all feels strange. But I will enjoy the warm days on my bike, and on my back porch. Snow and cold feel like some kind of fantasy.
The leaves hang on, their color in the late afternoon light is magnificent. Days remain fairly warm, and it feels as if there is no sign of winter.
We’ve spent some days camping, biking, and hiking close to home … enjoying the autumnn-ness before it all falls to the ground and the season of holiday frenzy begins. My boys – except for one spending a semester in Scotland – are all due home within the day. My kitchen is scented with apples, cranberries, cinnamon, and pumpkin. I am excited for the long weekend of catching up, and conversations around the dinner table … and hopefully few bike rides.
Everyone has been there at some point in life. You’re dealt a bad hand – a very bad hand. Maybe you lose everything you own in a natural disaster. Maybe it’s a personal loss, a health crisis, a job loss or financial catastrophe. A death. Or some unfathomable combination of the above – but always something unexpected and completely un-welcomed. We’ve pretty much all been there, and I think we can all relate to the sense of despair and even the darkness it brings.
I say this in the same breath in which I give thanks that my own life, at the moment anyway, is safe and secure and at peace. Where all is well. Where I am healthy, well-loved, and surrounded by those I love in the same circumstances – and completely conscious of how truly fortunate I am.
I made the decision to opt out of deploying with Red Cross for the disaster relief efforts in the wake of Sandy. Personal schedule commitments made it impossible for me, but I have been glad to support several friends who are out there working hard to help. I can’t do much, but sometimes a brief conversation by text or email provides a much-needed release from the stress in the field, and I am glad to listen and offer up some encouragement – maybe even a dumb joke.
Within days of my decision, I learned of a disaster that had struck a little closer to home – one that involves a beloved relative, aging and the cruel agonizing illness of a partner, and accompanied by its own form of hopelessness and breaking points reached. I am not yet sure how, or if, I will be able to help. What I have to offer may not provide the relief that is ultimately needed.
Somehow, what always circles back into my mind as I think of all of my friends and family in circumstances where life feels impossible is this: I want to take you for a ride on a bicycle. It may be ridiculous I know. But when dispair and frustration envelop you, when you become trapped in the tunnel-vision of despondency and desparation … I want to get you out of scenes of devastation and hospital rooms, away from beds and doctors and ruin, and I want to take you out in wide-open space with blue sky and clouds above.
I want you to feel the rest of the world and all of the beauty it still holds. I want you to see that it is possible to move forward – even if it is only to the top of the hill – and to experience the effortless sensation of flying down the other side. I want you to feel your breath and your heart still at work, and understand how miraculous it really is. And even if it is only a brief intermission from the bad drama that will still be played out, maybe it will be just enough time to sort some things out, to unravel the tangle of knots that bind you – and to see that there is a way out of even the darkest tunnels.
For my friends, for my dearest M … I would take you for a ride if I possibly could. Life is still beautiful. Please believe.
Cool, crisp weather and turning leaves are the only performance enhancing substances I need …
Leaves turn and the weather churns up the East Coast. I ride and wait. I’m unsure at this time whether or not I will deploy if called up by the Red Cross. The Client Casework function typically hits the ground later on, after the Disaster Assessment and Mass Care teams – and at this point, the coming month, timing could be tough for me. So for now it is a game of wait and see.
And so I ride … while I can. Fingers crossed.
As reluctant as I am to use the adjective crazy, it is the one that immediately comes to mind when I think of our arrival in Venice. The crazy boat traffic in the Grand Canal – the gondolas, the motoscafi, the vaporetti and traghetti. The crush of crazy tourists in the Sestiere di San Marco and lining the Ponte di Rialto. The completely crazy notion of building an entire city upon soft, marshy islands in the first place – its foundation consisting of tens of thousands of long wooden poles driven deep into the mud, topped with slabs of water-impervious marble … materials that had to be hauled in from crazy distances, far, far away, centuries ago. The crazy labyrinth of canals and calli, the countless bridges, the water entrances into nearly every building…
And the crazy, crazy, exquisite beauty of it all.
When we first arrived and stepped out of our motoscafi onto the damp stairs of the water entrance into our hotel, I wasn’t really sure if I could love La Serenessima … a name she was given long ago, the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Upon introduction, she seemed anything but serene. Far too many tourists, too many pushcarts of made-in-China Venetian masks, glass trinkets, tee shirts and souvenirs. The obscenely over-priced designer district – a parade of Versace to Valentino. And even the excess of clichés everywhere I turned – from the singing gondolieri, to the striped mooring posts along every canal, to the crumbling decay of layers of plaster upon brick.
I own a book with some of Canaletto’s magnificent works, and this just looked too much like I had stepped into one of his paintings – and (except for the tourist trappings) so largely unchanged from what he captured in the 1700’s to be believable. It felt more like an artfully crafted movie set than reality.
But then you wander out, away – well away from the crowds and noise and gondolieri. You discover that maps are useless in this place. You find yourself in an empty calle, light filtering down against honey-colored walls. You hear what sounds like an opera singer in the midst of a lesson – a soprano’s scales – from a shuttered window just overhead.
You are finally alone. Away from the tourists, you can breath again – and you begin to see and hear her.
A couple passes by in quiet conversation. Children with books walk home from school. The inflection in their voices, their words, are their own form of music. The most beautiful language… la bella lingua. It truly is.
You get lost crossing small bridges, tiny canals, and puzzle through small crooked calli – some of these small corridors are barely a shoulder’s-width across. Pieces of laundry hang to dry, like a dare, above the green water of a narrow canal.
You stop in the small empty shop of a book binder, eyes drawn to the exquisite hand-bound leather books and journals that line the wooden shelves. And you enjoy an unexpected and smiling conversation with the proprietor – part English, part Italian, heavy with gesture – about books, dip pens and fine Fabriano paper. And also about Elvis… when he learns you are from Tennessee.
As the sun gently comes to rest against the horizon and the tourists of the day make their exit, you feel the serene more than the crazy. You stop at a sidewalk cafe for a glass of wine and listen to the music of a string quartet playing off to the side. You understand Vivaldi’s muse, and imagine his genius being brought to life by the young girls of the Ospedale della Pietà.
Goden-pink light fills the water-edge of the sky and illuminates the domes of distant cathedrals and their halos of clouds. Slender, violet-black crescents – the silhouettes of gondolas now empty of passengers – gently rock against their moorings. It is Monet’s Venise, le Grand Canal before your eyes.
The moon rises and the trattorias glow with candles, wine bottles, and the fragrance of delicious food. Someone laughs and lifts a golden Colombina mask to their eyes. And in this strange, beautiful city, within in the maze of canals and calli, you instantly imagine all of the old stories of intrigues and assignations, of lovers and disguises. La Maschera. It is romantic beyond measure.
Like so many before you, and countless numbers yet to come, you have been seduced by La Serenissima. She has cast her spell – and you know you will never, ever, forget her.
I didn’t want to leave Slovenia, but there were other roads to explore and things to see. And upon leaving Slovenia, we had the opportunity to do something I may never do again – we rode through three countries on the same day. Granted, very small portions of each, but still… It felt pretty novel.
Leaving Slovenia we crossed first into Italy. With the current open border policy within EU (Schengen Agreement), moving from one country into its neighbor is not unlike moving from state to state within the US. Old border stations are vacant, and on some of the small roads and bikeways we travelled on, it was only when you saw signage in a different language that you knew you had crossed into new land.
From the Italian border town of Tarvisio – once an important village along the ancient trade routes across the Alps to Venice – we returned to Austria.
We would spend the next several days cycling in the Austrian state of Carinthia, and the beautiful valley of the River Drau, before heading to Lake Wörthersee. The cycling was easy and quite enjoyable, with expansive views of the valley and the river. Our daily routes included both paved and gravel roads, along with large stretches of the R1 – the Drau Cycleway – an easy 366km bike route that passes through the numerous towns and villages, and is very popular among both day and multi-day cycling enthusiasts.
From the city of Villach and the Drau River valley, we cycled along the Drava River and on to Lake Wörthersee and the resort town of Velden. While it was nice to be pampered at the Schloss Velden (a Condé Nast “Hot Hotel” and spa), I found the cycling here to be rather anti-climactic, especially after our days in the Alps of Slovenia and the mountain-flanked valleys outside of Spittal en der Drau and Villach.
My favorite sight on this leg of our trip was the village and church of Maria Wörth (dating back to 875AD), situated on its own peninsula on the southern shore of Lake Wörthersee.
Our cycling sadly came to an end in Velden, but we would still have one final adventure – albeit not on our bikes. From Austria, we would end our adventure in La Serenissima, the incredible city of Venice, a city that made her mark on me. And this will be the last story, coming very soon…
Cycling along the shores of Lake Bled, especially on a day when low clouds tease the mountain tops and mist drifts through the spruce forests, you can easily become convinced you have ridden into the pages of a fairytale. Out of the corner of you eye, veiled in eddies of mist, small white petals of woodland flowers – like tiny wings – tremble as a drop of water falls from a spruce tip. Something stirs the forest floor. A medieval castle, impossibly built high on a rocky cliff, rises above the steeple and stairs of an ancient church that sits, isolated, on its own small island.
You suddenly believe in fairies, dwarves, legends, and kings.
This is where our cycling adventure began, and where I first began to fall in love with the country of Slovenia. It was impossible not to.
Just to give some clarification and perspective on the cycling, we once again used trip planning services of VBT (Vermont Bicycling Tours) as we had such a wonderful experience previously on our trip through Tuscany. They supplied us with our bikes, arranged our lodging, moved our off-bike bags, and provided us with two of the most wonderful Slovenian guides – Damjan and Matej.
Each day, our two guides would provide maps and suggestions of things to see, places to stop, additional cycling routes and loops – and translation help when we needed it. On several days, they would appear en route, bringing us wonderful picnic lunches.
As lifelong residents raised and educated in Slovenia, Damjan and Matej had extensive cultural, geographical, political and historical insight – information that they shared openly with us, providing context to the often-dramatic changes the country has endured. On bikes, they let us customize our own trip to our own desires, and at our preferred pace – yet were always there to help when we needed it. Even though we were part of a larger group of 19 cyclists, we were free to ride on our own (as Mark and I did), choose our own route options, and make our own adventures. On several evenings, a number of us gathered to enjoy a beer and some engaging conversation and stories from the day – it was open, genuine, fascinating and enjoyable, and the friendships we made were one of the trip’s greatest gifts for me.
Upon leaving Lake Bled, we headed to the area around Kranjska Gora and Podkoren, and the stunning mountains in the region of Triglav National Park. The mountains here are breathtaking, with profiles and colors different than any other mountains I have seen – from Alaska to the Rockies. They are stunningly vertical and dramatic, their luminous granite peaks rising out of deep blue-green forests. Icy mountain streams, with beds of white stones, are pristine and crystal clear – and it is claimed they are safe to drink from (altho we did not – but I did stop and wade in).
In the village of Mojstrana, Mark and I made a side visit to the Slovenian Alpine Museum. Here we learned about the area’s mountaineering history, along with hiking, trekking and climbing opportunities within the region, and the network of mountain huts that are available to the public. They also cited the fact that over 75% of the Slovenian population are members of the Alpine Association of Slovenia – a testament to how beloved and culturally significant the mountains are to Slovenian people.
While our cycling was mostly along the valley, we did cycle up to site of the World Cup ski jumping area and did a brief stint on the Vrsic Pass – a popular and challenging cycling route, climbing nearly 1200 meters over 11 km, with 24 switchbacks up to the summit. We arrived rather late in the day, and I am not ashamed to confess that my legs fell off well before the summit. But it’s a ride I have added to my bucket list, and I definitely plan to return.
We also rode up to Lake Jasna – where a bronze statue of an Ibex stands over the stunningly clear turquoise lake, surrounded by mountains peaks. It made me think of a story Matej shared with us, the Trenta folktale of one of the most well-known and symbolic figures of the region – the legend of Zlatorog, the golden-horned chamoix. Rich in detail, filled with old taboos and enduring truths, is basically goes something like this…
Zlatorog is the name for a majestic white chamoix with golden horns. He roamed the mountains with the White Fairies, helping humans who ventured into the mountains, guarding the treasures hidden deep within the mountains, and keeping the valleys green and beautiful. In a valley village below, an innkeeper’s daughter was being courted by a local hunter, who professed his love and brought her flowers from the mountain meadows.
One day, a Venetian merchant arrived in the village and tried to win the heart of the young woman with gifts of gold. The hunter, in his jealousy, decided the only way to win back his love would be to kill Zlatorog and take the gold that was hidden beneath the mountains – treasure that was dutifully guarded by the golden-horned chamoix.
The young hunter left on his mission, managed to track down Zlatorog and took aim at him, killing him. Drops of blood fell from Zlatorog, and magically turned in to beautiful blooms – the Triglav roses – that still flourish to this day. Zlatorog nibbled at a few of the flower petals and miraculously came back to life – only to take his revenge on the hunter, steering him into a deep abyss and to his death.
After this, Zlatorog – in his fury – used his horns to gore through the mountainside, carving deep channels and tearing up the beautiful green hillside, leaving the steep dramatic rocky landscape and deep mountain lakes that exist today . Zlatorog left the valley with the White Fairies and has never returned…
On the edge of Lake Jasna, looking up at Mt. Triglav, and in love with this beautiful, friendly and magical country, I can’t help believe it is all true.
I am not an exceptional cyclist. Yet somehow, I have managed to have extraordinary and exceptional journeys. Slowly. Purposefully. Sometimes accidentally. On two wheels.
For me it is the love of slow travel. It is not about pushing through to a destination, or about arriving. Rather, it is a conscious savoring of each meter, each mile along the way – under my own power, and to the beat of my own heart. It is about letting the day unwind before me as it will. It is about the diversions and accidental discoveries. It is about seeing the beauty through all of the senses – through touch, sight, sound, smell and taste.
We – my beloved and I – spent mid- through late September traveling and cycling through three magnificent countries – Austria, Slovenia and Italy. We began in Salzburg and finished in Venice. And in between, we fell in love with the mountains, the people, and the villages of Slovenia. We were in the land of the Julian Alps, a region whose heritage is rich in music, folklore, and mountaineering. It often looked and felt like something taken out of a fairy tale … and in a way, I suppose it was.
It is difficult for me to write, at least publicly and impartially, about this adventure. There is so much that goes beyond even the best words and photos. But for the benefit of our boys (who are spread far and wide right now), our families, a few close friends – and anyone else who may be interested in a glimpse of this region as seen from the saddle of a bicycle – I will share briefly and as well as a I can. I will spare you all a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account, and instead provide a few posts and a few photo galleries about each of the regions. Just to give you a taste. Just to (hopefully) inspire you to visit this region a create your own journey…
We arrived in Salzburg several days before we were to begin cycling. Salzburg is a picturesque city, surrounded my mountains and watched over by the old fortress – the Festung Hohensalzburg, or the “High Salzburg Fortress”.
At the heart of Old Salzburg are magnificent baroque churches and architecture, the meticulously manicured Mirabell Gardens, and the gentle blue-green ribbon of the Salzach River.
The city is rich in its musical heritage, with Mozart being the biggest draw for me. It is the birthplace and childhood home of Mozart – and the resting place for his wife and father. It is home to the renown Salzburg music festival and the Mozarteum University. And more recently, it was the home of conductor Herbert von Karajan – as well as being the setting (and home of Maria von Trapp ) from The Sound of Music, which was filmed in and around the city and continues to be a major tourist draw.
Like many other old European cities, Salzburg is wonderfully bicycle-centric. In the heart of the city, bicycles are the rule, rather than the exception. The streets are mostly void of vehicular traffic, with the exception of a few delivery trucks and a network of electric buses. People walk or bike, or use some combination of the two – coupled with public transportation when needed. It is a beautiful thing to see.
After three days of walking and seeing Salzburg on foot, we were ready to get on our bicycles … but that will have to wait for another day, another post.
To be continued …