We have found ourselves a home for the next two weeks. A place of our very own, with a balcony and seaside views, in the little Croatian town of Makarska. We can be there in a day, but the place isn't available until the first of April. Four days from now.
And so we bike to the beach. We stock up on four days of food. I fill the jugs strapped to my fork with thirteen liters of water and we carry another ten liters in various bags and bottles attached to our frames and racks. We pedal up a great big hill and come to the secluded spot we'd found on Google's satellite maps a few days earlier.
Our secluded spot is way, way down below.
This part is not a surprise. We know that the beach is in a steep little cove. We know that it is not easy to access, and this is why the area around it is not very developed. That is why we chose it. Wild camping in Croatia isn't exactly legal, and so we wanted to wild camp somewhere we'd be neither found nor bothered.
The surprise, then, is just how way down the beach is. And I guess just how steep the path leading to it is. And, frankly, just how not-even-a-path the path is. A pixelated photograph from space doesn't really tell you these things.
But here we are, with literally fifty pounds of water and lots more luggage and us and our bikes, and four full days to burn. Nowhere to go but down. We descend.
We slip and slide and fall and drop things and work toward the bottom about as gracefully as a landslide traipses downhill. We reach the "bottom" of this hill, about a thousand feet from the top and following no discernible trail, after nearly an hour, but it's hardly a bottom. The beach, pristine and empty, lies another hundred feet beneath us, off the edge of a sharp cliff. The water, glowing bright like a gem, is beautiful but also entirely out of reach.
This is a cliff with a slope, and nowhere does the ground really level off. After stomping and stumbling around for yet another thirty minutes, we settle on a somewhat hidden patch of grass a little ways above the cliff's edge on which to pitch our tent. We throw our bags inside and almost immediately they (and the tent containing them) begin a super-slow-motion, four-day slide down toward the sea.
So. The camping isn't great. And the beach isn't reachable without cliffdiving or rappelling. But hey, at least there's that sun and warmth the forecast promised.
Or not. Soon after setting up camp it begins raining, and it doesn't let up very much for the next four days.
And thus our fun-in-the-sun beach weekend becomes something altogether less spectacular. We spend about seventy-two hours lying down or sitting up (but almost never standing) in our stout, domed tent, damp on the outside from the rain and damp on the inside from the condensation of our breath and our sweat and also our wet clothes. Our tent smells like us and damp wool and whatever food we've been eating recently, which is, perhaps thankfully, mostly uncooked (because we don't want to go outside to cook in the rain). We do a lot of reading, which is nice, but not so much sleeping, because every time we drift off we begin to slip further downhill and wake up crumpled next to our panniers and wet shoes over at the foot end of the tent, and if not that, then we wake up from the loud, incessant pitter-patter of raindrops on the thin, taut nylon overhead.
We come to feel very thankful, not for the first time, that we are traveling with a four-person tent. If I haven't mentioned that we are traveling with a four-person tent, then I suppose that's probably worth mentioning now. Because it's fantastic.
Before leaving America, we debated and deliberated for months over what tent to bring. We already owned a really wonderful two-person tent. The same model of the tent we're currently traveling with, just smaller. It's the tent we used when we biked around Iceland, and for twenty-six straight brief and bright Icelandic nights we slept in it without much discomfort. It's seen us on plenty of other trips, too, and never failed. Good tents are expensive, and of course packing space for us is always at a premium, and it just seemed sensible to bike around the world as a group of two with a tent built for just two.
After all, before leaving America, I lived in a tiny house. I'm used to small spaces. The tiny house offered about one hundred and forty square feet of floor space, and the four-person tent we were eyeing provided more than a third of that. Fifty-seven. Sure, the house had higher ceilings, and sure, the house was small to begin with, but traveling with a tent with forty percent the footprint of my house seemed a tad excessive. We held off.
And then we stumbled upon a really, really good deal for that four-person tent and all bets were off. At a fifty percent discount with a groundcloth thrown in, we ordered it hastily and giddily awaited delivery. We first pitched it in Lauren's bedroom (clearly, it was too big to test out in my house) and squealed at just how damn roomy it was. We climbed inside and stretched out and looked at each other and agreed we'd made a very, very good decision.
And we haven't regretted it since. Yes, it's a bit more difficult to find a place to camp in thick bush. Of course, it's about a kilogram heavier and takes up a bit more room in the panniers. And certainly, it looks really ridiculous set up next to almost any other bike travelers' svelte, compact shelter. It is a big and rotund and bright orange. Like Cinderella's pumpkin or James's giant peach. It looks silly and is surely non-essential but leaves just oh-so-much space inside for us and our bags, plus room to play cards or make sandwiches or eat dinner or give each other some space when it's really hot or really wet or really smelly inside. It is, indeed, a place in which we spend about fifteen hours per day.
And some days, much more. Here, at the bottom of this damp, steeply sloping hill, marooned inside for four days, we are deeply grateful that we each have some elbow room and that we are not coffined in next to each other in some little two-person contraption. We are not very big people, but we enjoy our space all the same.
Finally, it is April. We pack up our wet tent and our wet clothes underneath a wet, grey sky. We don our rain layers and strap everything to our bikes. We have less food then we came in with and dump most of our remaining water onto the swampy ground. Lauren and I begin our long, grueling, very muddy return to the roadside.
When living as we do, peripatetically, we must always be very mindful of what we're wearing. When you don't have a dryer or hangers or even the benefit of an unobstructed sun to rely on, and when all of your clothing must be packed into a tightly sealed vinyl bag from which no moisture can escape for most of each day, and when you don't have very much clothing to begin with, it's pretty essential to keep things dry. That means putting on waterproofs at the start of the slightest drizzle. Removing layers when sweat starts building up inside. Zipping up overshoes when puddles start splashing up on sneakers. If these things get soaked, in cold like this, there's no telling how long they might stay that way.
So usually we're as careful as we can be. And then there are days like this, when we know there will be somewhere to dry out our things. A place. Our place. Our place for two weeks. And so it's rainy, and neither of us is really wearing what we should be wearing, and things are getting wet and our shoes are soaked and mud is getting everywhere and sweat is doing its thing and the bikes are squealing as well and we don't even bother to stop and put things right. We become singularly focused on one thing, and that thing is getting to our apartment. Nothing else matters.
Eventually we arrive. We look a mess but our kind hosts don't seem to mind. They show us through the spacious apartment, explain a few basics, and hand us the keys. Enjoy your stay, they say.
We really, really enjoy our stay.
Like in Split, we don't exactly do a lot. We do precisely the opposite of what most people do when they're on vacation. We stay at home and cook. We sleep in late. We sit on the couch and read books and lie in bed and watch movies and catch up on emails. We do some work, the general admistrative tasks of life on the road. I write for the first time since Africa. I write a lot. I do my best to capture, in a hasty, hurried fashion, the fading memories of our time in Morocco and Spain and France and Italy. I write until my phone literally breaks—it turns off right in front of me and never again turns back on—and I thus cannot write anymore. I enjoy the remaining days in Makarska disconnected from the digital world. Resting. Books on the balcony.
We walk around, a little. Makarska is a cute town and we stroll through its pleasant, seaside streets. We take a hike to a beautiful, remote beach. We visit a nearby park and spend plenty of time ogling the grand, imposing mountains that sit just behind Makarska, cutting it off from inland Croatia.
We watch sunsets on the terrace. We watch winter become spring. We watch gentle waves crawl forward in the sea. We watch elderly Croatians till their gardens after a season of frost and decay and neglect. We watch April awaken.
After extending our Croatian vacation a few more days, after letting a week or two of perfect cycling and camping weather slip right past us, we once more saddle up. We pull our clothes from the closet, take them off their hangers, pause for a moment to cherish a final moment of pulling clothes from a closet and taking them off hangers, and stuff them back into the recesses of our well-worn panniers (which, during our stay in Makarska, we washed for the very first—and long overdue—time). We empty the cupboards and pour what remains of our flour and sugar and teabags and popcorn kernels into Ziplocs. Then those, too, are squeezed into our saddlebags and food jugs.
We haul our bicycles, tubes in need of air and chains in need of lube, down the stairs and onto the street. We say farewell to our hosts, living right upstairs, wave goodbye to the neighbors, looking down from the adjacent balcony, and savor these last moments of being clean and rested and free from saddle sores and tired thighs. It won't last. We push off with a grunt and pedal south.
South, along a sunny, hilly coast. South into the balmy, salty air of an Adriatic spring. South, past the crags and into the marsh. South to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Interestingly enough, it's impossible to get from the northern end of Croatia to the southern end of Croatia without passing through a bit of Herzegovina. Something like Alaska and the contiguous United States. Certainly you could take a boat from one to the other, but crossing overland means pulling out the passport and running through a series of customs clearances. Emigration from Croatia. Immigration to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Exit Bosnia-Herzegovina. Reenter Croatia.
While Croatia enjoys hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of Adriatic coastline (and the tourism dollars that come with it), worse-off Bosnia-Herzegovina juts into the sea for just a few dozen. It's an obvious compromise of Yugoslav disintegration, of the balkanization of the Balkans. After a series of long and bloody wars, Croatia keeps most of the shore. But Bosnia gets just a little bit.
And so our time there is brief. We enter in the early afternoon and leave before evening. We stop only once, at a gas station to use the restroom and fill our water bottles. Rather than shoo a pair of facility-taxing vagrants like us away, the kind station owner comes out to greet us and hand us each a candy bar. Chocolate with some sort of banana filling. It's really gross, but the gesture is so sweet I chew it down anyway.
Back to Croatia. We rise from the marsh and tackle a long series of steep climbs and descents. We cycle warily alongside throngs of vans and sedans and tourist buses, all gunning for the walled city of Dubrovnik at Croatia's southern tip. We camp on beaches and in forests and wherever we can find a little space. We picnic and we pedal and we push south.
We meet cyclists. Ones with big bags and beefy tires, just like us. They're headed in all different directions for all different lengths of time. Making the most of spring's arival. We pass at least a few of them each day.
We pass gorgeous beaches and ritzy resorts and the walled city of Dubrovnik. We pass the border and enter Montenegro, the latest in a long series of former Yugoslav republics to break free from the grasp of Serbia. We follow the sea until the sea draws inward, and then we follow the bay. We wrap around Montenegro's mighty mountains and narrow, twisting roads. We camp for a few nights, then hop a very short ferry to the other side of the bay.
Lauren and I leave our bikes at an rented apartment in Muo, a tiny, picturesque village dolloped onto the shoreline of the breathtaking Kotor Bay. We take a cab to a rent-a-car facility outside the Tivat airport a dozen kilometers away. We open the doors of a crisp white sedan and climb inside. I'm handed keys. I twist them into the ignition and an engine roars to life. I put the car into gear and drive for the first time in almost a year.
We head north, whence we came. Back around those twisting roads, up and out of the bay, back to the sea. Back to the border. Back to Croatia. We undo days of cycling in just an hour or two, returning to Dubrovnik by a little after lunchtime. It is fast and comfortable and eerily easy.
We park the car at the airport and venture inside. The airport is quiet and cool and empty. We mill about the waiting area. We wait.
A plane lands. There's activity in the terminal. A large automatic door whooshes open, giving us a peek at what's on the other end. Guards. Security. Suitcases and duty-free bags and passengers.
The portal closes. Opens. Closes again.
The big automatic door whooshes open, and Lauren's smiling parents step out into southern Croatia.