I threw my bike down and plunked down in the dirt in a huff, chin resting on my knees with my arms wrapped around my legs.
“I’m sick of pushing my bike!” I declared to the frogs and fish and birds. “I didn’t go on cycle tour to push my bike up a fucking goat path and I won’t do it anymore!”
My partner Dave and I had spent two hours dragging our fully-loaded touring bikes up a rocky and muddy goat path in the Bulgarian mountains. Since we ride with our 18 kg dog, Sora we don’t exactly travel light. Dave tows Sora in a Burley trailer and I carry the bulk of our camping gear, food, our clothes, and the camp kitchen.
In those two hours, we traveled two kilometers. Two kilometers. A turtle can crawl faster than that. And we still had two more to go to the mountain hut labeled on our map. We had no idea whether or not it even existed, but pressed forward willing the lodge to be there when we arrived.
Before departing towards the hills, we spent a few days off in Kromidovo, a small village in the Struma Valley, where several wineries were within walking distance from our accommodation. When we arrived, the water was shut off throughout the village, the only place to find water was at the town hot spring, which featured a tub in which to wash clothes and a shower spewing delightfully hot mineral water from a single pipe.
After several days of sunshine, the rains began to fall on the day of our departure. As summer turned to fall, the gray skies brought a damp chill to the air, as we bundled in our rain gear and gloves for the first time in months following a European heat wave.
Following the EuroVelo 13 cycle route, the day’s path took us through the fog and into the Rhodope Mountains, where, much to our Australian Shepherd’s delight, local shepherds emerged from the shadows with their flocks of sheep and goats, the bells around their necks jingling like Santa’s reindeer.
By the afternoon, we knew the rains were coming and we had just hit the goat path – a rocky path littered with large rocks and mud that suctions the soles of your shoes with each step. If it’s not mud, then there’s sand, which requires us to pull our bikes through using all our might. Though the mountain hut was just six kilometers away, we knew we wouldn’t make it that evening. Local farmers wouldn’t allow us to camp on any piece of their enormous property. The poor excuse was that our dogs, who would never meet, would fight. Almost on cue, thick and heavy raindrops began to spill from the sky.
In a hurry, we trudged along, pulling our bikes through the deep, sticky sand that grabbed at our wheels and went in search of a suitable place to pitch our tent. The only parcel of flat land lay near a small stream. By the time we found a spot, it was pouring and the daylight had long faded away.
While Dave tried to remember how to erect the tent with the rainfly first so as to avoid flooding our home, I attempted to make pasta under the cover of a tree that dripped so much rain I had to relight my stove four times.
Not certain the pasta had cooked thoroughly, yet sick of relighting the stove and hunkering to stay warm, I discarded the water and topped it with ajvar, a typical Bulgarian sauce made from roasted red peppers, and rang the dinner bell.
We ate dinner in the humidity of our tent, protected from the outdoor elements, Sora snuggled in between us, with a pile of soggy clothes in our vestibule.
All night long, I awoke to rain pelting our tent, harder than the time before I had opened my eyes, wondering how could it possibly rain with even more force? I feared the stream next to us would flood and sweep us away. I lay awake wide-eyed listening for the sound of rushing water, ready to leap at a moment’s notice.
When morning came, the skies had calmed and birds chirped all around. So much rain had fallen that one side of our tent looked as though it had just completed a cyclocross event. Many of the contents inside our bike panniers, with their three layers of waterproof protection, were damp.
With no idea what lay ahead, only that we had four kilometers to go before arriving at the mountain hut we so badly hoped was where our map indicated, we packed our bags and began to push.
We clipped Sora’s leash around our waist and take turns pushing our bikes jointly. Me steering in the front, with Dave pushing in the back. Every 100 meters, we’d stop, overcome with exhaustion from heaving the bikes up and over rocks and through ditches, all uphill. A soft rain came and went, the type my father calls “dummy soaker.” It falls gently, yet only a dummy would believe he could stand out indefinitely and not become soaked.
For four hours, we advanced up the hill in this manner. Pushing, stopping, retreating, pushing, stopping, retreating. Once we reached the top, the celebration was short-lived, for the path turned to large rocks, and although the hill pointed down, the trek was no easier.
Walking a heavy bike downhill in rocky terrain requires constant pressure on the brakes. I shook my aching wrists every 25 meters.
By the time we reached the sign pointing to our mountain hut, my hands were trembling from being in the same position for a half hour.
With trepidation, we turned our bikes onto their sides and scrambled down the 200 meter path leading to the mountain lodge. The woods parted to reveal a large building perched among a swath of green trees, overlooking Greece, whose border fell just a few kilometers beyond. A friendly pup greeted us and alerted the caretaker of our arrival.
An older man slowly opened the door and we communicated our desire to stay the night. The man led us to our room and allowed us to bring our dripping bikes inside, leaving behind a tire streak as we walked down the hallway. We removed everything from our panniers and hung it to dry on any place we could fashion a hook.
Not knowing we’d happen upon a goat path that would slow our pace to a crawl of one kilometer per hour, we had little food on hand and there was nothing nearby. Starving, I asked if the man could cook for us. He smiled and gestured for us to take a seat in the dining room, where shortly after he appeared with a plate of food that we devoured.
With a full belly, we returned to our rooms, exhausted. I wrapped myself in a thick comforter and splat face down into the bed, with Sora curled up at my side. For me napping is a rare occurrence, but I fell into a deep slumber, feeling grateful for this mountain hut in the woods with no one around, knowing that our ascent up the Bulgarian goat path would one day serve as a great adventure story to tell.