A storm, a lighthouse, a river: Silute to Nida, 48km

I woke at 5 am to lightning and rain, the first sign of anything but picture book sun since I got here. I lay awake too long trying to make a decision I needed to make at 9, not 5: the short direct route to the 3 pm boat across the water to the Curonian Spit was only about 18 km, but I had the option of a 30 km or so scenic wander to see a lighthouse, an ornithological station and a bakery.

I woke up to my alarm at 8, groggy, my inner state matching the grey, slight chill of outside. That moment where you realize the sun-kissed ride will end sooner than you want it to.

The weather app gave a 40% chance of more storms, but I wanted to see the birds and cakes so I ate breakfast pancakes, stole some cheese sandwiches and buckled in for the longer ride.

The first part was swift and calm, the weather overcast but not wet, and I had a tailwind. I reached the decision point super quickly, and kept going out to the end of the spit. The tailwind was working against me and I had a few drops of rain, but I wanted to savour every kilometre.

The bird station was impeccably tidy, with large nets for capturing and ringing birds everywhere. I watched a windsurfer climb into the water, as ungainly with his board until he found his breeze as I am any time I have to haul my bike with my hands. I climbed a lighthouse, and brooded at the sea, and tried to eavesdrop on a tour group, but it was in (calm, stolid) Lithuanian and then translated into (jumpy, excited) Italian. I paid my 2 euros to go into the interpretive centre, but my 2 years or so with my ex the ornithologist meant I already knew the basics (why do birds migrate? Why do we ring birds?) and I didn’t care so much about the specifics.

I ate the day’s cheese sandwiches watching the cleaner scrub out the insides of the large recycling bins. (Tidy!)

I had time to ride back to the town i’d turned at, and found the bakery (by smell!), had a coffee and a couple of biscuits. Read the instructions to get to the harbour with the ferry, which involved 5 or 6 kilometres of nemesis “gravel” roads.

Here is the thing. Note the thing. I looked at my instructions from the tour company, which said “turn off to the town after the bridge.” But the turnoff to the town was *before* the bridge, and — since I lost both my map holder and faith in the directions days ago — I took the first turn, assuming it would be shorter.

The riding was miserable, soft and churned up by tires into hard rhythmic lumps. My back wheel kept getting caught in soft dirt and I skidded here and there, grinding to a halt and almost falling over at least 6 times. Every time a car passed I had to stop, and then portage a bit until I could find a hard enough bit to get moving again on. My audiobook about being raised off the grid by a super religious family who believed the government was out to get them kept me diverted, but I did mutter “oh for fucks sake” at least five times.

I arrived at the end of the road, puzzled about where I was supposed to be, an hour away from my boat time. It was a sweet little community, many boats on little docks, none matching the name of the restaurant or boat I was supposed to find.

I came across a historical re-enactment of some kind, a man in an old-fashioned sailing outfit, raptly watched by a gaggle of German tourists. I showed my paper to a guy who looked mildly helpful and he said “oh, that is over there” — pointed to the opposite side of the river. “You need to go back to the main road and then come down the other side of the river.”

That would be 12 km on that terrible road. That was not going to happen. I did not have time, for one thing, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of it.

Armandu, my helper guy, was helpful. I mimed “that road is so hard on a bike!” He quickly understood my dilemma, phoned a guy on the other side of the river, positioned me to be picked up, joked about the weight of my bike. A man silently drew up a little boat and ferried me and my ridiculous load to the other side.

He had no English, but he put me in the hands of two teenage girls, who told me my boat was right there — gesturing — though nothing about it matched anything on my voucher. They gave me a cup of tea and I waited, a little anxious.

At the exact time, two men came out of the restaurant and fired up the boat. It was just me and a guy with a little backpack and — mysteriously — a small gas can. One of the boat men tried to take my bike but he didn’t have the trick of its weight and it fell over on his leg. I poked him in the belly trying to convey he was going to hurt himself, and yanked it away from him and pulled it up the little ramp, gas can man pushing it from behind.

My instructions had variously called this boat a charter, a powerboat and a ferry, and suggested it took from 30 minutes to 2 hours. I submitted to the unknown, lying down on a bench and reading a book, grateful to be there.

My second last night is in a sweet holiday town on the sea called Nida, full of little holiday homes and families zipping around on scooters. Tomorrow I ride my last 60km, then start the journey home.

I don’t think I could be more chill.

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Taurage to Silute, 79 km (was supposed to be 60)

First half of today: flat farmland, nice little tailwind, cows, little lakes, grey herons, stork nests, la la la.

30 km came so fast I debated about whether I should even stop at the tidy, prosperous farm/ inn/ cafe I came across just outside of Vainutas. Today was supposed to be about 60km, and I actually had thoughts of getting to Silute in time for lunch.

I did stop, and the nice lady gave me a coffee and a cheese sandwich. I had a lovely rest and a little chat with Smith in Uganda. Because, #globalization.

After the break, I whipped along for a while, noting idly that when the road shifted, the nice little tailwind became a less nice crosswind. Still, all good, communing with cows, who ran to the road to see me.

When I came across a turn to one of the many holocaust memorials marking the country, I decided it was time to spend a little bit of time in this remembrance. I’d been thinking about this since Allen mentioned on the triadventure his family had been from Vilnius and almost all murdered during the war. Vilnius was actually known as the “Jerusalem of Eastern Europe” before the war, with a thriving and large Jewish community. In 1941, almost all of them — plus another 100,000 Jews who’d fled Poland — were herded into the woods and killed.

I rode 500 m off the road on a bumpy track, past a little farmhouse, to a small memorial marking mass graves in the woods.

I placed a rock in memory of Allen’s family, and just paused for a bit. History makes it clear that not many Lithuanians did anything to protect the Jewish population — in fact, many conspired.

It’s so hard to reconcile, for me. How quickly a group of perfectly ordinary people can start to “other” another group, rendering them not-human, and how the pattern that leads to cultural and actual genocide repeats itself, all through history. And we can visibly see it taking root right now. I find it agonizing that we can see and name the pattern but can’t seem to disrupt it. Anti “other” discourse is popping up even in my lefty neighbourhood:

https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/copmany-to-remove-maxime-bernier-billboards-against-mass-immigration-amid-public-outrage

After spending more than a decade with the kids in Uganda — many of whom were left in their circumstances because of the Rwandan genocide — and watching how their cultures still grindingly perpetuate divisions between groups, I don’t have answers.

So I get on my bike and ride.

And immediately have an encounter that underlines the absurdity of life. I had just been reflecting that I hadn’t been chased by dogs in Lithuania. And then, as I passed the farmhouse again, I was ferociously set on by two dogs.

Two PUGS.

I outpedalled them and their tiny pug outrage.

My next turn was more fateful. I reached a quiet town about 15 km away from my day’s goal. There was a turn, so I looked at the map, and consulted google maps just to be clear about where I was heading. Google wanted to send me on a 15 km detour to avoid construction on the more obvious road.

At first, I disregarded it, and rode the 2 km or so to the start of the construction. It looked nasty, so I turned around and took the detour. Another farm road, a little tailwind, la la la… hm, right foot won’t easily unclip. Stop, eat banana, fiddle with pedal, ride on.

Now shoe won’t clip into pedal, must have adjusted wrong way.

Stop, fiddle fiddle.

Go on, now locked into pedal like 12 year old locked into Snapchat. Gah.

Stop, fiddle fiddle, now too loose.

Also, time to turn left, 7 km into detour.

Left tells me it’s this road. For 16 km.

Completely unridable by a bike with smooth tires and a 20 kilo load.

I cannot portage bike 16 km.

I decide to tackle construction road, turn around.

Now tailwind has become evil headwind and I discover I had been gently riding down a descent for 6 km.

I finally battle my way back to the crossroads, for the third time. I decide to take a popsicle and water break before heading into the construction zone.

The construction zone lasted 10 km, and was hot and nerve-wracking, one single lane broken into 1500 m chunks with lights to let cars and trucks going in the other direction pass.

I miscalculated at one set and ended up portaging in the carved up side of the road for a while. Then I was followed too closely by some sort of digger. Relief to land in Silute, where I ate a salad and drank a mineral water and small beer before I even went to my room.

Two more days of riding.

Raudone to Taurage, 67 km

Day 4 of cycling was lovely, fast and unadventurous. Until I got to the night’s town, it was only two roads, both fairly flat, and though the cars and trucks whipped by pretty quickly, there weren’t that many of them.

I took a short detour at 25km into a biggish town for water and snacks. I’m struck again by how cheap everything is here — this haul was 3 euros.

That’s two bottles of water, two packages of Kleenex, a banana, a bag of peanuts and a croissant. I can’t buy a coffee at home for 3 euros.

At the store, i had a lovely conversation with a seriously tanned (and a little dirty) Swedish man who is riding by himself in the opposite direction to me. I commented that he must be camping because he had so much stuff; he said sadly he has TOO much stuff. I nodded sagely. I always have too much stuff on the bike. We agreed that my anal need to book accommodations ahead of time makes this sort of thing much less fraught — he’s primarily camping because he has had a hard time finding places to stay. I rode off feeling pleased with myself.

The second part of the ride was through a lovely forest, the road a little deceptively uphill for a long time, but when that is the main thing you notice while riding, it’s a simple riding day.

There was also, toward the end, a very restless goat I stopped to briefly commune with. It’s not a holiday for me until I’ve been on a ferry (check!), had ice cream (check!) and seen a goat.

This one needed milking and had a tether that kept her walking in ever smaller circles.

My night’s town was small and pretty-ish, with hotel perched on the edge of a slightly overgrown river.

The hotel is of that weird 2-3 star homespun standard that breeds a remarkably similar experience all over the world — I feel I’ve stayed in this exact hotel in Rwanda, Laos, Brazil and Germany. Clean, tiny twin beds, synthetic pillows, no way to adjust the temp except to open the windows that lacked screens. But the people are nice and were careful to lock my bike away safely, it was quiet enough that i finally slept the whole night through, and the coffee in the morning was good enough.

I’ve reached the point in this trip where the riding is simple enough that there is more happening inside my head than on the outside. I’m listening to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad on audiobook, so I’m immersed in the mid 19th c American south. And I’m also contemplating the apparent serenity of this country, just 30 years removed from nearly a century of occupation and a very wretched history of Jewish genocide during WWII. I’m pondering the healing effect of the cultural narrative of “we won our independence by holding hands and singing”, as my scout put it the other day. It’s a beautiful way to view oneself — and I’m also aware that I’m not sure I’ve even seen five non-white people since i got here. (I also noticed yesterday this is the first country in Europe or Asia I’ve visited in the last decade that didn’t have busloads of Chinese tourists).

Homogeneity aside, this town seems idyllic for its inhabitants — the children jump happily into the river, teenagers hold hands and travel in packs, men buy beer by the large bottle in the supermarket. People are nice to a (white, female, middle aged) stranger on a bike. And my quite good dinner, with a beer and a bottle of mineral water, was 11 euros.

Now to pack up today’s cheese sandwiches and set off.

Kaunas to Raudone (66km)

Today was about the river Nemunas, a bit too much sun, a lot of gnats and rather a lot of bike portaging.

Bike portage: n or v. To transport a laden bike like an overloaded, unwieldy kayak across terrain suddenly inhospitable to bike. Made more difficult by #physics, which constantly pull the heavy rear of the bike over on its side.

I started today by walking the bike 500m across the ripped up road in front of my hotel. Apparently I began as I meant to go on. (Also, yet another opaque first map direction: “ride out of hotel in the direction of the old town square.” No town square could be seen. Reminded me of someone from Colorado who commented on Torontonians’ habit of referring to places in relation to the (rarely seen) lake. She asked “can y’all SMELL the lake?”).

I managed to point in the correct direction, but then bumped my way again across the quaint “cobblestones” (like actual uneven stones) of old town Kaunas, then portage number 2 — a pedestrian underpass under a busy road. I’ve encountered this set up before, mostly at train stations — there is a ramp for bikes and strollers beside the stairs, but trying to control a loaded bike down that 45 degree angle is… an art. In the first of three phases, the bike toppled halfway, squashing me down. I yelped at some teenagers to help me please and they happily lifted the bike off me and carried it down. I managed to push it up the other side without mishap, but my forearms were shaky for a few minutes.

Then a bridge, then some vague directions involving “residential streets and a water treatment plant.” (I decided to treat the directions like enigmatic clues in the Amazing Race, and I enjoy them much more). After a couple of detours into industrial zones, and avoiding the first option that involved about 25 steep steps, I found the bike path along the river.

It was peaceful and safe and lovely, and filled with clouds of gnats.

Clouds of gnats. By the end of the day there were at least 100 embedded in my arms and face.

Gnats aside, it was an idyllic little 20 km or so, and I even stopped to climb up a hill and look at the view. (And eat a thing I took from the breakfast buffet. I thought it was a granola bar. It was a now melted chocolate yogurt fluff glop thing. #physics).

After the river was a little town, and another bike path, brand new. So new there was a wheelbarrow in the middle and two workers sleeping under a tree. So new that after 3 km it just… stopped… and I had to portage the bike through sand and stones, two workers refusing to play charades with me when I tried to figure out if I could get out.

Then a man in a bathing suit carrying a screaming naked child and a plastic floaty across the path, and a pretty little gothic church, and a few kilometres on a more major road, then 15 km on a less major road but still filled with cars absolutely blasting fast. Things slow down when you’re riding with a load in the sun.

One cheese sandwich and a map check, then the road to the ferry. Another corrugated, almost unridable road. And a wee tiny ferry across the river that cost me one euro.

Another portage up the cobbled road at the end of the ferry, a quick stop in a shop for water, and then off northwest. The rest of the day was pretty much one road, 35 or so kilometres along a busy road, the river on my left, a big hill with castles and churches on my right. Sun overhead. The lesson once more to stop and get water whenever I have a chance, because shops do not appear readily, even in this small and closely connected country.

Along the river, many of the houses are quite new and prosperous looking, even minimalist with dark lines and tones of natural wood. But the bright paint on many of the older wooden houses is peeling. Everyone has gardens, many with small greenhouses, and there is an air of carefulness. The guesthouse I’m staying in tonight is comfortable but frugal, the empty refrigerator in the kitchen turned off.

I was supposed to stay in a 5 inn in a castle tonight, but it was booked. I’m happy knowing I’m poking a few euros into this nice woman’s purse. It’s impeccably clean, and she’s making me dinner and she sent her husband across the street to buy me a beer. It reminds me of places our friends lived when I was a child in Germany. And the simplicity makes me feel restful. (Although there was another portage to get up the steep cobbled in into the town).

I was a bit tired today, and I’m looking forward to a good sleep and a shorter day tomorrow. Although I have no idea what I’ll find. I like this thing of not knowing, of discovering as I go along. As long as I have a cheese sandwich and enough water.

A Scout, an upheaval and a suburban train

“We gained our independence by holding hands and singing. We are very proud of that. We — the Baltic states — were the first. And now Hong Kong is learning from us.”

I met this 19 year old scout at a junction near Electrenai. He is on a 150 km walking pilgrimage, stopping to help people along the way. “Maybe an old grandma who needs help, if she trusts that I am not a thief. Sometimes it’s hard to trust people.”

Last night he spent the night in a convent, where the nuns took care of him, and tonight he expects to sleep in the forest. In the fall, he will join the military for a year, then go to school, probably to study biology.

Also, Lithuania is a country mad for basketball. (Ive been told several times since I arrived that one of the Raptors is Lithuanian, and then people shake my hand).

After shaking hands with the scout and bidding him a safe and meaningful journey, I continued mine. It was a perfect, warm day, long stretches of gently rolling hills, lakes, farms.

I was completely happy riding, thinking little butterflies of fleeting thoughts, noticing a weird squeak of the bike but not seeing anything in particular wrong. I had a tiny thread of anxiety about the need for a train for 25 km because of inhospitable roads, and was aware it was Sunday, with a sparser schedule.

I had two options for the train, Zasliai or, 12 km further, Kaisiadorys. It was such a glowing day, with perfect riding — and the Zasliai train station seemed deserted — so I kept going.

And then… the upheaval. The directions from the company that booked my route were a little sketchy, so I pulled out google maps. But here’s the thing: google maps doesn’t have a cycling option for Lithuania. So it’s either cars — with roads I’m forbidden to ride on — or walking. I chose walking.

Hm.

So I turned left at a junction I should have turned right on. At first, it was a sweet little road, and I passed the imposing convent my scout must have spent the night at.

But then the road became a track, corrugated and rutted by farm vehicles, everything rattling as I bumped and shook.

See that bike up there? That’s mine, abandoned briefly after I turned around two kilometres into the rattle, and realized that my bike lock and its moorings haD been hurled off.

I rescued the lock (a new bordu, $150), and one of its straps, and pressed on back to the convent and its paved roads. Where I realized that the jerry rigged handlebar bag was completely awry and was resting on the front wheel. Explaining the noise a lot like I used to get as a child when I clothespegged a hockey card to the spoke.

I paused in front of the convent to remove the bike bag, cutting the zip ties irrevocably and strapping it haphazardly to one of my panniers with the sole surviving lock strap. (My quick turn around packing meant I didn’t stock up on bungee cords or extra zip ties.)

I ate a tiny breakfast-purloined cheese sandwich and figured out the roads to the train. I rode with joy and determination again, the handlebar bag bumping against my butt but more or less staying put.

I found the train station, guarded by three little boys making fun of my English and my bike, and got a ticket for less than 3 euros. The train was 15 minutes away (star kissed!) but I had to haul the bike and my bags up and down a long set of stairs to the opposite platform.

I tried to persuade the little boys to help me, and two of the three dived in. The third just shouted NO at me, but reluctantly grabbed a pannier when the other two ignored him. I gave them 5 euros at the bottom, which I quickly realized was completely excessive when they danced away before I could change my mind.

The train was clean and efficient and barely gave me a minute to spill all of my gear on-board. I had half an hour to drink the last of my water and eat my second cheese sandwich, figuring out how to get from the detour train station in the suburbs to downtown Kaunas. (Another 12 km or so on top of the 60 ridden to the train).

As I lifted my bike off the train, I realized that the upheaval road had jolted every single braze-on screw on my rear rack almost completely loose. Another kilometre and I would have had a catastrophic rack failure (and possibly lost the screws for good).

There was another set of stairs waiting for me at this platform, but the train guy noticed me and let me out a secret locker gate. I crouched in the dirt and fixed the rack, and then rode off, passing the squinting travelers waiting for the shuttle bus to the central station.

The last 12 km was tedious and hot and a bit trafficky, but unremarkable and with only a little getting lost. My hotel is on a street with two blocks of messy construction, but the desk clerk was nice and found a place for my bike, and upgraded my room.

I sat outside for a while in my cycling kit with a giant bottle of sparkling water and a small beer (2 euros — I really overpaid those kids), and then googled “where to eat near me.”

I showered and headed to the restaurant closest to me — and had a miraculous dinner, with a server who made Game of Thrones jokes.

Lithuania makes me happy. Now, what to do about the unwieldy, useless handlebar bag.

Trakai, breakfast

I’m eating breakfast on a beautiful terrace with a pink castle across the little lake. A man with excellent waiter manners is bringing me breakfast. I’m 100% happy.

And — I’m also deeply aware at this moment why some people find the notion of this kind of solo travel hard to contemplate.

Now that I’m out of Vilnius, there isn’t much English. And while Lithuanian is easier for me to wrap my tongue around than, say, Vietnamese (where I never even managed to say thank you in a recognizable way), I don’t happen to speak Lithuanian.

So unlike most hotels, at this little guesthouse on the lake, they just bring food without asking. First a plate of cheese and meats that look like they’ve been cured with moss. A harsh coffee. An omelet that is brown on the top and suspiciously fluffy inside, containing both ham (though I told the server I didn’t eat meat to explain my abandoning that plate) and, I’m certain, the cream I’m allergic to. Wasps hover in the air ready to dive into the coffee.

Last night, I fell asleep at 9, the time lag finally tripping me at the ankles, but was awakened at midnight by a dance version of old town road when the DJ at the small wedding here kicked into gear.

As I push my breakfast around on the plate, I try to make sense of my map for the day. There is a train partway because the only roads into Kaunas are either unbikeable or double the distance. But the trains take you to the wrong station because of construction, and there might be a bus, but they don’t all have racks for bikes, and maybe I should just take a bus instead of a train…

And in any case, I can’t even figure out if I’m supposed to turn right or left leaving the hotel. And there are instructions like “take a small road” that depend on me knowing what kilometre I’m at.

I wrote a couple of posts on the feminist fitness blog about our trip to Newfoundland and how that kind of terrain requires grit. This kind of trip is less gritty — the weather is perfect, the people are happy, the land is pretty flat. But this kind of travel takes wit — and the assumption that all will be well. My bike was lost in transit but I didn’t stress about it, and Lo it appeared. Bits were missing from my handlebar bag but zip ties sufficed. The woman here didn’t want me to bring my bike inside but we found a nook. My room reeked of air freshener that triggered my asthma but i opened the windows and it dissipated. I woke up at 6 and got to see a beautiful sunrise over the castle. And then went back to sleep.

All will be well.

Vilnius to Trakai, 38 km

It’s always confusing getting out of a city on a loaded bike. Today, I first got the feel of this bike with its first panniers (not a perfect fit with the new rack) by dodging slow and unpredictable tourists on the cobbled streets (and ruefully passing shiny cafes I wanted to try one by one!). Then I rode down Gediminas, a fancy shopping street, empty of cars for the weekend. I was followed by someone on a bike having a shouting match with someone in his head.

I had my turn by turn directions on my jerry-rigged handlebar bag, but I got lost at the first turn, the arrow that said go straight to the pedestrian bridge. (I turned left on a bike path). A couple of consults with google maps and many turns later, I made it through the park and then promptly almost entered the main — not bike friendly — highway. Stop, regroup, stop, regroup, and try to make sense of directions.

Five kilometres on the slightly less terrible highway, and i get the direction “turn left at the old road (18th c).” It looks like this:

How does one know if an uphill climb made of ancient knobbly rocks is the right old (18th c) road?

At that moment my sister texted and asked how it was going. I was pretty sure I was either lost or about to time travel into a cluster of merchants in rough linen carrying pigs to market, but that infamous grit kicked in. Riding up the rocky — yet sandy and soft — old road, I passed three people walking their bikes. And found myself right back on the road I had been on?

It was supposed to be a 30 km ride today, but I got lost a LOT, and I was reminded that riding even gentle uphills with a loaded bike is slow going. But as I wound through the suburbs of Vilnius on a good tree-lined road, I found my pedalling feet again.

Once I trusted I was on the right road to the little holiday town of Trakai, I realized with a start that I finally have space to think. So much has happened over the past month in my life, all so affirming, but so so busy — on the road, true gratitude and new understanding started to flicker into clarity.

Then I found the town, and the castle where the capital of the Duchy of Lithuania once was.

After checking in to a white lace guest house and a shower, I hunted an early dinner by the lake. I flicked a drowned wasp out of my beer and an early dinner that included a beer and ate a serviceable pizza and a plate of the bright pink Baltic borscht I loved in Latvia, this one fancied up with bleu cheese and cannabis seeds.

At the table next to me, a child who was eating the same non-challenging pizza was entranced by baby shark videos with the volume turned up. On the lake, a gaggle of girls on a hen party, all in red except for the bride, posed on a slowly drifting boat.

I ate an ice cream and watched hot air balloons over the lake. They really are lit by fire.

Tomorrow, Kaunus, which involves both a ferry and a train. And, I hope, more time to just flow.