Alive and Well

November 29, 2016:

We are alive and well! We haven’t been run over by crazy Italian drivers. We haven’t been swallowed up by the recent earthquakes in central Italy. We haven’t gone native. I simply didn’t have the mental energy to write. But now that I’ve rested for a few weeks, I’m finally able to sit at a computer and compose an update.

I’m writing this from Sacramento, California, USA. Yes, we’re home.

In our last update, we were about to become pilgrims on the Via Francigena, primarily so we could stay in cheap pilgrim accommodations and not free camp with the cinghiali (aka wild boars). The Via Francigena is a pilgrim route that stretches from Canterbury, England to the Vatican in Rome, Italy, and continues on to Jerusalem. Our plan was to do a short part of the pilgrimage: Lucca to Rome.

We left Lucca on October 3, 2016. The official pilgrim route took us through some beautiful countryside to many of the most famous hill towns in Tuscany, but to be honest, I was so knackered I rarely had the energy to enjoy their old-world charms. We did eventually make it to Rome, but it was arduous riding. Hills, hills, and more hills. And not American-style hills with well-graded roads that switchback (relatively) gently up a mountainside. Nope! These were STEEP hills, at times on muddy single track. And with 100-pound bikes, it was grueling work.

Eleven days, 642 km (398 miles) and over 11,500 meters (37,730 ft.) of climbing later, we arrived at the Vatican. As proof of our insanity, we received an official “Testimonium” or certificate of pilgrimage. I’ll talk about the pilgrimage more in a future post. Let’s just say that by the time we reached Rome, I was exhausted. Physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Being in perpetual motion was taking its toll. The nomadic life is really tough. Nearly everything is in constant flux and nothing is easy. Even grocery shopping is an ordeal. Every day means finding our way through a different market. Foreign language. Unknown brands. Is that can with the photo of luscious ripe tomatoes on the label actually tomato paste, tomato sauce, pasta sauce, diced tomatoes, whole stewed tomatoes or an unknown foreign tomato concoction? While I speak Italian pretty well, Mark doesn’t. One day he came “home” with buttermilk for our morning coffee. Blech!

At the beginning of the trip, this was a fun part of the adventure. And for Mark, it continued to be. But not me. I was tired of having to work for everything, never being able to take anything for granted. Although we were seasoned cycle travelers by now, I still endured a constant, low-grade hunted feeling. Where will we sleep tonight? Tomorrow night? Is that cloud a sign of imminent rain?

We were still having amazing experiences, don’t get me wrong, but the fatigue was making me numb to them. When we cycled into Rome, I was so tired and homesick for the familiar that if I could have convinced Mark, we’d have pedaled straight to the airport and flown home. By now, I rationalized, we’d cycled more than five months and 5000 kilometers. Totally respectable. No shame at not riding all the way to southern Italy as originally planned.

But, Mark was still thoroughly enjoying himself. We’d set out to ride to Puglia, the “heel” of the boot, and he was determined to finish. He offered to go it alone and I could meet him at the train station in Bari, but that did fill me with shame. I didn’t want to be a quitter. If he could do it, so could I.

Seeing that I wasn’t going to convince Mark to fly home directly from Rome, we took a train across the Apennines to Pescara on the opposite side of the country. We spent a few days with some wonderful Warmshowers hosts there, and then began the final leg of the journey.

The riding was actually fantastic in many ways. We rode Strada Statale 16, aka the Adriatic Coast Highway. The road conditions were the best we’d seen in all of Italy, with beautiful, newly laid asphalt. Drivers were much more respectful. The route was relatively flat, and the coastline was beautiful. But I was so exhausted I could barely enjoy it. See a pattern here? I was burned out and needed a vacation from my vacation.

We made good time down the Adriatic coast, our legs and bodies strong after all the hill climbing we’d done over the previous month. But for me, the riding had become a daily grind.

Mark, though, was still having the time of his life. He wanted to keep going. He kept trying to dangle Greece in front of me, as if that were a carrot and not a stick. “Think about it…we could keep riding and winter in Greece!” he’d gleefully suggest, as if flourishing a lollipop in his hand and offering it to a kid.

Ugh! Talk about hard work! Greeks don’t even use the Latin alphabet. Out of the pan and into the fire. At the beginning of the trip, or even two or three months into it, that might have been an enticing proposition. But not now.

As we continued south, we met more wonderful people, ate more scrumptious Italian food (the food gets better the further south you go), and enjoyed gorgeous, sunny weather most of the time. It was Italy at some of its finest. So I don’t mean to make our last month sound horrible. It wasn’t. But my memories are shrouded under a veil of exhaustion and homesickness.

We finished cycling on Tuesday, October 25, 2016, 5 ½ months after we began. The last day of cycling was one of the best ever. I’m sure the fact that it was our last day on the road, and that I knew I could finally rest my tired bones and mind, improved my disposition. But beyond that, it is epically beautiful countryside. We were riding in the Itria Valley near Alberobello, one of the most iconic towns of Puglia, famous for its conical “hobbit” houses called “trulli.”

The Valle d’Itria, as it’s known in Italian, is in the interior, in southern Puglia. It is a steep climb up to the top of the “valley” from the coast, but totally worth it – even when exhausted! More a plateau of gently rolling hills than a traditional valley, the sunny Valle d’Itria is full of quiet country roads lined with the area’s ubiquitous low white limestone rock walls. Olive groves (some of them ancient) as far as the eye can see, punctuated with trulli. Gorgeous!

We were so enamored with the views that we stopped every few feet to snap photos – a habit we’d fallen out of in the last month or so. We dawdled, drinking in the final views of our epic journey. I felt like a new woman…or at least a new cycle traveler. I savored every minute of the ride. A perfect end to our tour.

At the end of our ride, my odometer read 5259 kilometers (3268 miles). That’s the equivalent of riding across America! Wow! We’d done it! We’d properly cycled in 7 countries (France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy), with forays into 2 more (Lichtenstein and Austria). We met so many wonderful people, ate so much delicious cuisine, experienced so many different European cultures, saw so many amazing sights, that despite the exhaustion at the end, we had a marvelous time.

We spent a few more weeks in Puglia, resting, visiting with old friends, resting, making return travel plans, resting, eating our fill of Puglia’s exquisite cuisine, resting, and did I mention resting?

At last, we’d found boxes for our bikes, made our travel reservations, and it was time to come home. And at about midnight on Wednesday, November 16, we collapsed into our very own and much-loved bed in Sacramento, California.

Can I just say how much I LOVE my bed??? It was a tad disorienting returning to the US after so many months abroad and on the road, but my bed, my beloved, comfortable, cozy, soft bed was like psychic medicine. I was home! Finally home! I practically giggled each time I lay down. It was a delicious feeling to slide my legs under the covers, knowing that I could stay as long as I wanted. No more feeling hunted. I would return the next night, and the night after that. I have a solid roof, four solid walls, an indoor toilet, a real bed. What riches!

Now, after taking a few weeks to get over the jet lag and to plow through six months of mail and bank statements, I might even get a chance to start sorting our 100 pages of field notes and 4000+ photos! As time permits, I intend to fill in the gaps in the blog. So stay tuned…