I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:
Why do a self-guided trip?
And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.
And now I’m home!
Working away, work work work.
I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:
Why do a self-guided trip?
And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.
And now I’m home!
Working away, work work work.
Well, last night in my Soviet-style guesthouse? The one above the butcher shop? The one where I had my own apartment, but one of the doors was mysteriously locked, and there was a kitchen with an unplugged fridge, and the shower room felt like it had echoes of being used for a felony? And I had the little room with the twin beds that didn’t have a lock of its own? The one with the big steel door downstairs I had to lock with a key I then had to keep near me while sleeping in case of fire? Along with my headlamp so I wouldn’t perish while trying to find the keyhole? That guesthouse?
Yeah, I will confess here that I pulled the other twin bed against the door.
Slept like a baby.
I was eager to get on the road this morning, with a “let’s get this job done” air about me. My calves are very tight and sore, and I had to stretch and massage and then use my “white monkey eating peach” hot rub I bought in Laos.
I was also a little iffy about the route. I saw in my trip notes last night that there was heavy construction in the first 15km which was the only road out of town. Since Paldiski is a port, there are a lot of trucks along that road. My trip notes suggested I might want to take the train to Klooga (cutting off about 20 km) or all the way to Tallinn — but also noted that the railway was also under construction, and I might have to transfer to a bus part way, which might not take my bike.
Along the main road, Tallinn was only about 50 km from Paldiski, and after fuss/conferring with my sister and a friend last night, I decided to just ride.
And of course, no construction at all. Smooth road, okay shoulder, trucks in nice predictable little clusters.
About 15 km in, I saw a sign for a Holocaust memorial, 2 km off to the right. I knew there was something Holocaust related in the town I was in last night, but I hadn’t been able to find it. I figured I needed to go see it.
Down a narrow forest road, a moving memorial to a death/labour camp I’d never heard of, where Estonian Jews were mass murdered. I thought I knew a fair bit about this part of history but I think east-of-Poland has always felt like a bit of a blur.
The memorial was several long concrete formations like shards of glass, over a long pathway, each exhibiting a significant part of the story, with two larger memorials, one on the site of the single day murder of 2000 people. I walked around the bird-chirpy lonely woods and thought about all of these dark craters of history just behind those rows of trees.
Part of me was wondering a bit about the location for the camp, but when I got back to the road, I realized that there were railroad tracks just beyond where I’d turned. Of course. The same tracks that ferried people here in cattle cars, still in use. The same tracks I’d have taken my bike on.
When I was in Riga, I went to the museum of occupation, and there was an exhibit about cattle cars, how some people were shunted back and forth across Latvia in the cattle cars for months as territory changed hands between the Soviets and the Germans. There was an account from one woman who lived in the car for months. This would be one of the places those cars ended up.
I rode on, glad I’d stopped.
The next major leg of the ride was idyllic. Perfect cool, sunny, clear weather, the vast majority of the distance on actual bike paths next to a main road. I ate my cheese sandwich next to a tiny waterfall about which a big deal was made. There was supposed to be a lunch place, and I wanted a cup of tea, but when I approached the door, a woman yammering on a cellphone at one of the outdoor tables got up and closed the door, not meeting my eye. I guess she was on her break? There was also no place to throw out any garbage, and the porta-johns were beyond foul and depositories of people’s lunch waste — like a cardboard box for a whole pie. That’s what happens when you don’t give people a garbage can.
After the waterfalls, it was really the outskirts of Tallinn. It’s Saturday, so lots of road bike riders heading out of town. I noted that of the dozens of cyclists near Riga, during the week or today, only two of them were women. And only the women returned my greetings.
I finally caught a tailwind for part of the ride, and was downright gleeful about it. Good flow, everything working — until the cycle trail ran right into massive construction in front of a mall on the edge of the city, and I found myself first riding on sand, then inside the barriers of a serious road-digging operation. (I skedaddled). That threw me off my instructions, and I ended up totally the wrong way at the beach, where women in bikinis pumped up inflatable kayaks and dozens of pale Estonians sunbathed, despite the 15 degrees.
Finding my hotel was tedious and involved a lot of squinting at google maps (which has weirdly decided to be black), through my sunglasses (making it harder), while navigating traffic. I found the place, anti-climatically. No cheering crowds of people, no one handing me a freshly squeezed passion fruit. Just me looking like a chaotic mess trying to sort out the bike, the bags, a need to put it in the garage and lock it somehow.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was mildly grumpy. Partly there are more tourists here and I had to search for a table for lunch, and dealing with my bike in the hotel was confusing, and the guy who came to pick up my bike was downright pissy — but mostly, my sense of purpose was suddenly gone. I feel done with riding right now. I don’t know if my legs could take a ton more of pushing that load — my feet hurt, I am flirting with sciatica in my right leg, and the backs of my calves are scraped up from catching on the wrong side of the pedals. But seeing this country this way, winding my way around the sea, making friends with the wind, feeling this world from the ground up, finding my way without drama, moving completely at my own speed and under my own locomotion over more than 500 km — it lets me be the me I most like.
I’m not going home for another week — I have a few days here in Tallinn then St. Petersburg — and I will find my new rhythm. Grateful for this time and space. And for an excellent vegan meal with the delightful server Karl Ander tonight.
Today started out sublime. Haapsalu was one of the favoured resorts of the Russian Tsars for decades, and the promenade and many fin de siècle buildings are still standing. It’s one of those towns that wears its tourism standing well, like Hoi An in Vietnam and Luang Prabang in Laos. Not overrun, not overdeveloped, just graceful, accessible, good food and pleasant surroundings. (“Boring in the winter,” though, complained the woman behind the desk at my hotel this morning).
Because it was such a lovely morning and the promenade was right there, I took myself for a walk along the sea before I left. I hadn’t done that before — most mornings I’m hopping to get on the road, after breakfast (where I squirrel away a cheese sandwich), 15 minutes doing the NYT crossword while listening to the BBC world news morning update, then off. Today I did the breakfast, theft and crossword rituals, but spent half an hour going for a walk. It was my second last morning on the bike part of this trip, and I wanted to slow down.
The sea was flat, the terns and gulls were busy, a few older men were fishing, one tourist was running, two or three people were walking with physiotherapists in front of the beautifully situated neuro rehab centre next to my hotel. (I told Danny that if I get a brain injury, this is where I want to come). I wandered, took photos, breathed in a day of perfection.
I had a fleeting thought that I could stay in Haapsalu an extra day and then take the train to Tallin. After all, 400 km on a loaded bike was nothing to sneeze at. But I’m a weird completist so I packed up, got on the bike and left.
Like leaving Parnu, I found the instructions to find my way out of Haapsalu frustrating. “Find the city centre and at the main junction turn left toward Tallinn and Paldiski.” No mention of *roads*. I figured it out, but needed google, despite the pile of maps stuffed into my bike bag.
The first leg was about 12 km along the main road to Tallinn, on helpful, easy bike path separated from the road. Seeing distance-possible signs to Tallinn made me wonder again if I should just keep going — 95 km along this road would be tedious, and possibly truck-y, but not impossible. But when the bike path ended, I turned, as I was supposed to.
I’m going to take a turn into my inner dialogue here — the thing that was swirling for me in this ride, other than sheer pleasure in a truly beautiful, relatively not-windy, blue sky day — was a gnawing sense of the ending. I get like this as I start to finish things — I get impatient to be done, and then in the last moments as the time has run out, I have a deep pinch of sadness that it’s done. I noticed this a lot when I was scuba diving, always tracking with one part of my brain how long I’d been down, even as I was oohing at what I was seeing. As the 50 or 60 minutes started to get closer, I would get restless to be done. And then, as soon as I got the signal to surface, I would be suffused with resistance to ending.
I think about this a lot, about how hard it is for me to just be where I am, not be thinking about where else I might like to go someday, or what I will do when I get to Tallinn. (Some spa pampering, some different clothes). I don’t think I’m alone in this. But just being in the moment is such a vital practice for me about being peaceful with uncertainty, letting go of trying to control the uncontrollable. (This is what I teach and coach, often, but it’s certainly an example of something that’s in the centre of my life because I have to learn and relearn it).
Today, like yesterday, I stopped when I saw things that made me happy. A bench along the promenade honouring Tchaikovsky that played one of his symphonies. Fieldpoppies. The sweetest little pieces of land with cabins and outbuildings that look like they grew from the ground. The ruins of a 13th c monastery. My first glimpse of the sea after a day mostly inland. I played podcasts for a while but turned them off, because it felt like everything on Ideas was about an intractable problem. I just breathed where I was.
I knew nothing about where I was going tonight, but I should have felt a hint when I was buzzed by two fighter jets about 25 km from my ultimate destination. It felt strange to realize that I’m close enough to the Russian border I can’t be sure they were NATO jets. The unease about the state of the world tickled my underbelly again.
As I got closer to Paldiski, I saw shipyards, petrochemical and oil tanks, ships, large trucks, people in military uniform. The wind got whippier off the sea, and as the town unfolded, I realized I was in the most working town I’ve been yet. Everything was 5 or 6 floor soviet-style apartment blocks, utterly utilitarian.
My directions were vague, but I was reassured that the B&B I was headed to was in google. After some hoo ha (and encountering the least appealing sushi restaurant I’ve ever seen), I found the address.
There was no sign. There was an ancient little shop with two pigs heads thrusting out of the top, curtains drawn. A place I inferred was a bar because of the stylized P with a beer foam head on it.
This is the moment where “travel” transmutes into “adventure.” Tentatively standing up my overloaded bike, I went into the bar. “Hotel?” I said to the only man in there, who was eating potatoes and watching tv. He grunted and pointed behind him, in the direction of the shop.
I went into the shop. It had a huge case of meat and some candy behind the counter. “B&B?” I sad to the woman, thinking wildly, I don’t want to sleep in a butcher shop! She shook her head angrily and grunted, sweeping her arm in a half circle.
I went back outside and found a tiny sign that said “rooms and apartments for rent.” I opened the gate and went around to the back and knocked on a huge steel door. It opened and I asked “B&B?” A woman up a flight of stairs nodded. I pulled out my voucher for the night. “Am I in the right place?” Yes.
All right. Soviet era utility it is.
Mariska showed me my apartment — twin beds, a defunct kitchen, a WC and a horrifying shower room. She turned on the boiler, and when asked, showed me the wifi and made me a cup of tea.
I showered, happy with the hot water, glad I had my own soap, contemplating surprise. Haapsalu, the guesthouse by the sea in Varbla, the food in Parnu — all excellent surprises. This one, a little more disconcerting. But bracing. A chance to see a town that isn’t oriented to tourists, to eat good Russian food in the one restaurant among a sword and dagger collection, to feel the edges of constraint in a country I really haven’t felt much but landscape in yet. The perfect last night before I arrive in Tallinn.
Today was the longest day — just under 100 km — and the day I finally found my “just be here” presence. Yes, I’m headed for Haapsalu. Yes, it’s far, and it’s still windy. But I was just riding. That sensation where “I’m going from A to B” transmutes into “this is what I do — ride this slightly unwieldy, mostly obedient, sturdy bike, with all my things on it. I have nothing else to do and nowhere else to be.”
And at the end, my favourite town yet, Haapsalu, where I ate an enormous piece of rhubarb cake and drank a pot of tea at the foot of a castle. Where today’s random Estonian soundtrack included a Josh Ritter album that was one of my dissertation-writing playlists. (Lunch was ABBA)
Haapsalu is little fingers of land clustered around a bay, a resort town for the last century and a half. A favourite of the doomed Russian royal family, apparently. Sweet winding streets, colourful wooden houses, happy blonde families eating on patios. Sparkling blue sea all around. Big enough to have a bike shop so I could get a new lock.
My ride today was steady, persistent effort, but less of a tussle. Hard to say if it’s because I finally gave in and just accepted what is, I’m feeling stronger, or the wind was less. Probably a combination of all of them, though I can say with certainty that I have yet to feel a tailwind. The pedalling was effort, but I took the time to wander a few kilometres off course to see a random village — where I was intrigued that wooden buildings had historic markers on them in both Estonian and English, to stop to eat sour Russian soup and pancakes for lunch in a restaurant by the side of the road, to go 350 m off the road to see a view.
I’ve seen a lot of signs indicating a view, but they are usually 3 or more km away, and no view in western Estonia is worth an extra 6 km on a gravel road on a 97 km day. But I figured 350 m was doable… and found a very elaborate, mobility-accessible, viewing platform for migrating cranes and greylag geese and breeding great snipe. In September and October this place will be rocking. But for now, it’s more farmland. But I was glad I stopped to see it, glad that I felt so in flow that I was comfortable taking my time, looking at the world.
When I ride like this, I start to feel a little bit of the women who inspired me to start riding in the first place. About 25 years ago, I started to read books by women who just sort of got on their bikes and just kept going. Dervla Murphy, who left her unhappy life of caring for her aging parents in Ireland in her 30s to just go for a bike ride and eventually became a travel writer doing astonishing things by bike, trekking, by trans-Siberian railroad. Anne Mustoe, who retired from her life as a headmistress in an English girls’ school and thought she might ride to Italy on the bike the girls gave her as a gift — and didn’t stop until she’d gone around the world. Many times. The tiny perky Josie Dew who rode across Japan, the US, the Sahara, New Zealand. They are the ones who made me believe it’s possible for a woman to ride alone, to travel alone in unexpected places, to love other people but prefer your own company while immersing yourself in a new place. I’ve written before about why I like traveling alone, and it’s these women who inspired me to take that leap.
I think one of the most important things these women made possible for me was trust that other people are much more likely to want to help you than to hurt you. When I went to Myanmar, one of the first things someone told me was “people want to help — just ask them.” In my experience, this is almost always true. And it’s a much better way to navigate the world than with a flare of fear.
It’s fairly common for people — especially women — to say that I’m “brave” for traveling alone. I don’t feel brave, but then I suspect people mean a lot of different things by it, depending on the nature of their fears and anxieties. Fear of getting hurt and no one helping, fear of the unknown, fear of being not at your best when you don’t sleep or eat well, fear of not getting your needs met, someone stealing your stuff, discomfort with not knowing how things work, fear of what happens in your inner soul when you’re alone too long? I am not a stranger to anxiety, and I spent a whole lot of my life not doing things because they scared me. I can be impatient, especially when I’m hungry and service is super slow. But somewhere along the way I realized that travel was a practice to work toward grace with whatever is.
I’m a fan of this podcast called My Favorite Murder, two women talking about true crime. They have a huge following of mostly women who call themselves “murderinos.” It’s actually a very funny and fun podcast, but the two women and the community around it are really leaning into a very real fear and belief that the world is a dangerous place, especially for women, and that dark murdering strangers are lurking around every corner. Their tag lines — like “stay out of the forest!” and “stay sexy, don’t get murdered” are expressions of real, everyday anxiety. When I went on my first solo bike trip, a co-worker said “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get snatched!”
I think I felt that fear once — but I don’t now. The world is mostly a warm place, a friendly place, maybe sometimes an indifferent place — the Estonians really don’t smile and say hi — but most of the things that scare us are in our heads. And when I’m on a bike riding nearly 100 km through fields of hay and canola, through tiny villages, past old women tending to thriving gardens , feel the layers of history in this land — I feel this more than any other time. I feel strong and so grateful even for the effort and the flickers of boredom. I do have moments where I think, hm, that truck carrying bales of hay is kind of leaning — wouldn’t it be a weird and absurd death if I were crushed to death by hay in Estonia? But that’s not scary, just… absurd. In the best way of life. So I ride on.
Täna oli nii tuuline means “it’s very windy today” in Estonian. I should have named my bike Tuule instead of Sigrid.
The thing about wind is that when you’re pedalling, it wraps itself around you and the sound drowns out everything. It’s a loud bully shaking you by the shoulders. Insistent, persistent, roar. Then you stop pedalling and suddenly, it’s gone. From roaring whirl to silence. So that if you say, oof, the wind, to someone not on a bike, they say “oh, is it windy? I didn’t notice.”
Today was 79 kilometres, and it felt like every metre was into the wind. When it’s that windy, everything else recedes. I note the interesting wooden church, the way some of the houses are spruced up and other same vintage houses have peeling paint and sagging eaves, the way that Estonians don’t nod and smile when you greet them — and it’s all a minor key soundtrack. The wind and I, we are in this predominant tussle. Like going on a holiday with someone you’re near to ending a relationship with and all you remember about that magical place is how miserable you were eating that romantic dinner.
Day four is never my best day on a cycling or hiking trip, generally. It’s usually the day where my fatigue shows up. Grabbing the handlebars this morning I had this shooting thought about how much I would love to stay in this town and just wander the windy beach today. Instead I got on the bike and tried to make sense of the directions “make your way out of town following National Cycling Route 1/Velo 10.”
That would be fine if I could figure out which way “out of town” was. Parnu is actually a significant town, with the touristy bit in a little round peninsula I was in the disoriented middle of. Around it is a lot of spread-y apartments and industrial areas. Today I couldn’t even find the cycle route until I’d ridden around for 15 minutes. It turned out to be a block from my hotel, leading me the wrong way down a one way street. Well. Silly me.
I finally found the right signs, but first went the wrong way (which I figured out when my bike computer said I was going south), then had a lot of sighing and pondering when, for example, one bike route sign pointed to across the bridge and another one with the same routing numbers around the bridge… taking me exactly the wrong way along a canal. Much internal harrumphing until I found the actual bike path that seemed to match up with my directions… a nicely segregated paved path but along a very uninspiring divided highway. Then I was out of town, and there was a route choice that I couldn’t make sense of — the bike path had been extended since those directions were written, and my kilometre indicators were not synced with the directions because it had taken me so long to find the route. So I rode for a good hour before I even felt confident that I was on the right road. Not a great beginning.
So I pedalled, and puzzled out that even if I’d taken the more scenic option, I’d still land up back on this main cycle route at around the 26 km mark. So I chilled and trusted that I was going in the right direction… but without the anxiety of determining where to go, I started to notice the wind.
After the hoo ha of getting out of Parnu, the main cycling route was about 5 km inland, paved, and mostly treed on both sides, with the odd farm dotted here and there. Spoiler alert: it all looks like this. Picture riding through Algonquin park in late September. Almost no one around. The only people I’d seen in an hour were in a stopped car, with an older man coming out of the forest with a small bucket, an older woman sitting in the car. Mushrooms? They’re big on mushrooms here. No one else. Just riding. Always into the wind, always way more effort to manage 17km/hr than I imagined.
Today I had to smuggle my pilfered cheese sandwich from breakfast by wrapping it in a cloth napkin and tucking it under my jersey. The hotel had a fancy dining room that offered sparkling wine with breakfast. Definitely a beach town, though in a slightly formal, frowsy 1920s hotel kind of way. I start thinking about that cheese sandwich about an hour into the ride, and realize I’m actually hungry. I take an actual break, sitting on the ground beside the road with my sandwich and apricots.
I’m sore as I ride, body a bit tired, and saddle weary. I start doing what I think of as a cycling vinyasa — stand up off the pedals to relieve my butt, sigh involuntarily as the numbness wears off and ache spreads hard through my body, utter an involuntary f-uuuuuu-ck — take a deep breath in — let my bike roll forward with my feet locked in one position while I encounter my shadow, then exhale sharply as I sit down. I repeat this every few kilometres, noting dispassionately that the f–uu-c-k seems to be optional but the rest of it isn’t.
This is one long, not that interesting road, and the trees, which are a bit boring, are better than the open fields, which are windier. I don’t like feeling restless like this on my bike, where I’m impatiently ticking off kilometres, thinking about the next possible meaningful stop. One of the main reasons I ride is for a kind of mindfulness — to just be in the moment, be with what is, not be attached to anything. I write about this a lot, and it’s a steady practice. But it’s hard on days like this — I want the 5km segments to tick past faster, and I get attached to anticipating a treat. The trip notes say there’s a restaurant in Tostamaa, and since I’ve eaten my cheese sandwich and apricots at 1115, I figure I’ll eat lunch before arriving at my destination, which I haven’t generally been doing. Tostamaa is about 20 km before my guesthouse for the night, so this seems perfect. I start to happily count the kilometres, irritated when I can’t push myself faster than 13 or 14 km/hour.
I stop occasionally to look at a church, ponder what Santa-related activity could possibly be happening on September 17, snack a bit, intentionally drink water. All the time happily anticipating the Coetz café in Tostamaa.
And I find it, and two men in delivery guy type uniforms are eating lunch on a sunny sheltered back patio. And I go in the front door and there is a sign that — even though I don’t read Estonian — I know with a sinking heart means that it’s closed for an event.
Sure enough, I go in and the place is empty but the tables are set with a custardy jammy dessert, and the nice young woman behind the counter tells me that I could have soup but that the circus is in town, and the restaurant is closed to feed the circus people.
I don’t want the soup, but I do have a spinach cheese pastry thing and a cup of tea. They offer me fresh honey, and I realize I’m coughing from the wind. The tea and honey is perfect, and I wonder why I don’t make this a treat at home. So simple, so perfect.
I spend a pleasant half hour in the sunshine, poking at my maps and looking around. The two guys eating lunch resolutely ignore me — it IS a thing, how differently the Estonians greet my presence than the Latvians — and then go away. The circus people arrive and just look like regular people. I ponder how the air is so still until I’m actually on the bike. Does the bike EVOKE the wind? I think of the line from a Magnetic Fields song that I used as the preface to my dissertation “You need me /like the wind needs the trees /to blow in.”
I’m babbling a little in my head.
As I get back on the road, I feel raindrops despite the bright sunshine. It’s only about 13 degrees, and the wind is vicious in this last bit. I don’t want to be totally focused on my destination — I want to be in the ride — but I’m also tired. I give in to something I rarely do on a bike, and spend the next hour listening to CBC Ideas, first on Vimy then on expletives.
I finally turn off onto a gravel road for the guesthouse on the coast as a woman with Tourette’s is telling her story. I find myself in… a wind farm. Indeed. I could be a scattered seed for this farm. The turbines are stunningly big and whirring around quite industriously. Of course they are. I break out the peanut m&ms I’ve kept for a moment of fatigue and push on… grateful for the slight downhill, but knowing that I will resent it in the morning. No, be here now. It’s sunny and the bike is feeling ease. Don’t worry about tomorrow. A few more confused signage moments, and I find my hotel at the edge of the world. No cars, no other guests. Just me and the lovely woman Lea doing everything. I discover I’ve lost the key for the bike lock (I knew that was going to happen), and imagine right where I’ve let it drop and forgotten to pick it up at the morning’s hotel. It’s a good thing this is so remote.
I have a cup of tea and some biscuits on my little deck, the wind whipping everything around but making me feel alive, here, on the fringe of the Baltic Sea. Terns, gulls, marsh grasses, white waves. A comfortable room with a big view of the sea in a land with no night.
The squeak of the suspension, a slight rattle of my handlebar bag. Soft wind, sky dissolving from bright blue to faintly grey. Slight bruising in my sitting bones after two and a half days on the bike, slightly sore right foot. Left foot not clipped in because I lost a screw from the spd yesterday and it seized when I tried to make do with one screw. Fields of golden wheat on one side, green green on the other, purple lupins and an occasional daisy. Silent road, except for the occasional, always faintly ominous, farm dog. About 35 km into my ride.
I breathe deep and am suffused with a moment of ease, pure gratitude. How is it I ended up on this lonely Estonian country road? How is it I have a life that means I’m physically strong enough, supported enough, flush enough, lucky enough, to do this kind of trip? Rolling steadily, elemental cellular level gratitude.
Minutes later, the headwind starts. I make an oof noise as I push myself harder, fight myself and the loaded bike into the wind. I try to sing for distraction, but am working too hard to get more than a few words out. I wonder again who else I know who would actually enjoy doing this kind of thing, ponder for the nth time in my life the difference between pain, over-exertion and simple discomfort. So far, all just discomfort. The kind that feels so good when it’s done.
The first part of my morning was absolutely idyllic — a coastal road winding past cottages, the sea always just over my shoulder. Sunny but just the right kind of cool for riding, trees on both sides of the road most of the time, sheltering me from wind. No seam between Latvia and Estonia — the same quality of road, same type of signage, same houses, same bus stops every 500 m or so, same blonde families on the road, weathered men driving small vans. Sensible European road signs that rely on visuals, not language.
The first 25 km, I rolled along on the coastal road and found everything delightful. I crossed the Estonian border without fanfare. Passed fairy tale cottages just set back from the road, my longed-for roadside bun and coffee, the sea flickering, teenage girls lying in the chill sun outside their little holiday cabins, a holiday camp, farms set right by the sea, a quirky bus shelter shaped like a Viking ship, a fishing enterprise with silver fish, heads removed, hanging high near the road to dry.
When I shifted into the more remote route that was the second part of my ride, it was an alternative to 26 km on the autostrada. It promised 7 km of “good gravel” roads, and I wasn’t disappointed. Very rare cars passed me, and until the headwind began, it was utterly remote and the perfect ride.
As I fought the wind in the last bit of that road, I thought again about how conditions that are good for cycling are so basic. Wind, relatively predictable terrain so you don’t have to stare down, reasonably polite traffic, chill or rain but preferably not both at the same time. Some people don’t like heat, but I can soldier through it.
The wind is my nemesis, though. It’s easy to complain about but almost impossible to describe. How it whips up so much louder on a bike than any other conveyance, jumbling your inner ease. How it’s unpredictable, suddenly slamming you sideways, actively toying with you in a mocking way. I always feel like I can actually see it, but then struggle to find it in a way I can photograph what it means. . The wheat bending slightly, the flag flapping around — they don’t capture what it takes to PUSH your body and about 40 kilos forward into the gusts, stay upright, what it means to barely eke out a speed of 13 km hour on a flat road.
It’s a lot of work for me. I find myself grunting and creaking like swaying wooden mast on a ship, muttering Shakespearean curses. My nose and eyes stream. There are a few spits of rain, wet and hard like someone is actually hurling them at me angrily, one at a time. I start making promises about when I’ll allow myself to stop and eat today’s stolen cheese sandwich. “The first bus shelter that has a place to sit after 45 km…”
I find a very civilized bus shelter in the first village I’ve come to since I got on this road, drink water, eat my sandwich, a few dried apricots. Very grateful for the apricots, which were left as a gift for me the night before I left.
An old man stops his car and limps up to the mailbox next to my little shelter, not responding to my greeting or head nod. “How old is an old man?” I find myself wondering, in the nonsensical, wind-blown head way of hours alone on the bike.
After the sandwich and the shelter, the road ends and I face the inevitable 8 km on the autostrada. The shoulder is less than a metre. The anxiety of close traffic and fatigue sets in, the consequences of losing my thin line of safety so high. I unclip my one functional pedal, not trusting it for a fast exit, and focus on steady forward, resolutely ignoring the trucks that pass me less than a metre away at 100 km/hr. My time in Vietnam was good training for this. The wind is still fighting me, with the odd sideways gust that makes me even more focused. 6 km, 4, 2, 500 m — I scamper awkwardly across the busy highway to the relief of the outskirts of Parnu, Estonia’s most celebrated beach town.
It’s chilly, and a little gloomy, but so calm after the autostrada. I roll past uninspiring apartment blocks, ponder how no one would rent a sixth floor walk up in Canada. I spot a bike shop on my way into town and manage to navigate the purchase of a new set of spds for my left shoe. I feel tipped back upright.
My hotel is on the edge of an elderly green park, and I’m given a room with one single bed, in that way of European hotels. I shower, find lunch in the old town that is determined to be celebratory, music and jugglers and sidewalk cafes. I eat under an awning until the rain forces me inside. Marinated salmon, potatoes, tomatoes, bread and a simply enormous amount of vanilla and rhubarb ice cream with berries and chia seeds. I tell the server I’m hungry because I rode from Ainazi and she rushes my food, gives me extra ice cream.
Later, I walk to the beach and watch the indefatigable Estonians cherish the sun 630 pm sun. A couple sit on the wall and play cards. Children push scooters and drive little go carts. People smoke, despite the wind. It could be any decade.
Pushing my bike into motion on the gravel roads this morning took a force of will. It was raining, and the soft loose gravel was even less appealing wet than it was yesterday. I had said no when the woman serving me breakfast had offered to drive me to the nearest town to get past the gravel roads. Once again, Latvians prove to be the nicest people on earth — this is one of the few times I’ve encountered when someone offering to help me while cycling actually suggests something useful to a cyclist’s logic. I toyed with the idea, but my completist self prevailed. Unlike guided trips, I’d planned this one with no transfers after the train to Sigulda. And I was going to do it.
Anda had made me a vast breakfast, and I tucked away a cheese sandwich in my pocket. Something told me it might be useful. I only had one small coffee, envisioning a 15 km wet gravel road ride into Limbazi, then finding a sweet café for coffee and a pastry. Earned.
The rain made the gravel roads around the farmland less harrowing than yesterday, tamping them down a bit. I sailed along at a soggy, rapid-for-the-terrain 18 km /hour. The rain made it chilly, but the roads were nicely Nordic. White birches, brooding forests.
After about 14 km, I began to squint at the directions from the bike tour company. Hm. It didn’t look like I was supposed to go into Limbazi. What about my cakes and coffee?
I looked at the actual map and decided it was fine if I veered off course. I turned right, eager for my treats. It’s Monday, surely this little town would have a place for me to warm up, a little fire. It started pouring and gusting wind as I rode up and down the streets. One sign I thought meant “cafe” turned out to be a clothing store, not open. An apothecary, small grocery store, tire shop. Rain streaming off my helmet, I asked a man holding his hood over his head as he talked on the phone — “coffee?” — he pointed down, mimed a hill, I went in that direction and… everything looked tight shut against the rain.
I remember having this experience in Iceland thinking there would be a sweet little bakery with cakes whenever I wanted it. But the population just didn’t support it. I rode out of Limbazi, having seen little of what my cycling guide writer had described as “the spirit of Limbazi.” Unless that spirit was “stay in the damn house it’s horrible out.”
I cycled back to the junction and realized that I was actually quite cold. “Surely there must be a tea shop somewhere along here, the main route to the sea?” I didn’t see one, but pulled into a small food shop. I mimed tea. The woman took me to a section of teabags. I looked sad, and indicated my warmer shirt. “May I?” She let me change in the room full of soda and freezers, pretending to check something on the other side of the room in case I was not what I appear. What do I appear?
I left the shop with a warmer shirt and dry raincoat on, minus tea. I spent at least the next 10 minutes of the ride thinking about nothing but the sheer pleasure of a warm dry shirt when you are cold and wet.
I rode that road for another 40 km without encountering another pedestrian or a sign of commerce of any kind. A white stork walking slowly across the road, more birch, fields of hay and canola, purple thistle, tall huge stork nests. The roads are pristine, without a single mar of litter.
At around the 45 km mark, I accepted that there was going to be no coffee, no tea, no little cakes. I pulled off to the side of the road and ate my pilfered cheese sandwich standing up over my bike, a handful of dried apricots I’d brought with me. The rain had mostly stopped, and I consulted the directions and the map again. Hm. More gravel coming on this road,, and instructions to turn onto an even lesser gravel road for about 18 km.
I looked at the actual map, and deduced that the secondary cycling route had me continuing on this road to the coast. The mapped route from my bike tour company had me crossing fields and a river and coming into the town for the night on another gravel road. I did some math and concluded that continuing straight to the coast on this road equalled less gravel. “Surely there must be a bike route up the coast?” I thought.
The thing about traveling at all, and riding in particular, is that you really really have to accept what is. It’s a constant theme with me — probably the thing I have to engage with most when I travel. You can plan your ASS off and you will have imperfect clothes, a bike load that feels off balance, a blithe instruction that says “take a train” that actually requires about 12 steps to decode and do. You can’t travel by bike or in unexpected places and expect perfect flow. (I can’t remember how many times our car broke down in Uganda on the same route). But somehow, I still feel pegged to certain aspects of my planning — like following the route set out by the bike company, even though I am ALONE on my bike in Latvia, I have a map, and I know my destination.
So when I got to the turn, I paused. It looked sinky. I stayed on the road I was on. 13 km to Saulkrasti, it said, where I would turn and head north along the coast.
I’m not gonna lie: the road I stayed on was not easy. Corrugations, soft sand tugging at my back wheel, logging trucks, the constant frogger dance of trying to find the one line that was steadier than the others. Intermittent rain. And then the road became asphalt again, and I finally came to a junction — and the sign for Saulkrasti — my last hope for a cheese bialy, a coffee — pointed one way, and the cycling route the other. I tried to google map but google has not yet located cycling routes for the Latvian/Estonian border area. I went with the little blue “cycling route 7” as the sun came out. 65 km or so, still no stop, more than 3.5 hours.
I rode and it became town, and I crossed the A1, the main Baltic highway. Two lanes, but fast. I rode through the town and found a lighthouse, took my photo on thr edge of the Baltic Sea — and yet, still no tea shop. “I’m almost at Ainazi,” I thought. “There I shall find solace.” I start to think in broken, archaic English on the bike after a while.
I poked myself north, and realized I was joining the Autostrada. That can’t be good. Many trucks, speeding cars. But wait — a sweet bike lane alongside it!
I zipped along the bike lane for four or five kilometres, avoiding bleary and presumably hungover teenagers carrying creeping bags that had escaped their moorings, backpacks. A few trying to hitchhike, a whack on a bus, several dropping their stuff in the path. Two girls walking barefoot in the gravel, holding their shoes, on the other side of the highway crying a little. The residue of a music festival or something
I’m preening over the wisdom of the Latvians for making this beautiful bike path, this perfect accompaniment to the busy highway, wondering why we can’t do this. When it stops. For the next 8 km or so, I straddle the not-quite-shoulder, try not to be blown away by the trucks. Try to decide if this is better than the sinking gravel roads on the planned route.
There is no way to know. There only is.
My hotel is one km from the Estonian border, in a small fishing village. Suddenly it’s sunny with blue skies. I am covered in mud that won’t come off in one shower and damp, unciviled in this clean, quiet, friendly hotel. There’s a cosy restaurant, and a nice woman at the desk. I order fish and vegtables and a small beer, shower, come down and sink into my meal, a cosy chair. Two older women who followed their lunches with a beer each toast me.
Later, I find a shop selling ice cream and walk around eating it. I think one house is haunted and abandoned until I hear a baby cry in front of it. I’m just tired enough to let the thought that it’s a ghost baby wash over me. But it’s too sunny and the town has a sleek wind-powered energy supply, and Latvians are too nice to let ghost babies take over their towns.