Taking the road less travelled
I had reached a fork in the road, a decision was required. It shouldn’t have been too hard a dilemma, both roads finishing up in the Albanian city of Peshkope. But, I looked left, a very tempting option; smooth tarmac and marginally flatter, it promised to whisk me there in less than 3 hours. Gazing right, the road became more of a track, unevenly littered with boulders, and taking me into the unknown – this was the old connection between Kukes and Peshkope, fallen entirely into disuse since the new road was constructed, and not even on my map!
I paused at the junction a while. I got on my bike. I chose adventure. I headed right. I took the road less travelled...
It was probably less than 60 seconds before I realised I was a massive idiot, I had chosen wrong. My thin tyres, completely ill-suited for the less travelled ‘road’ ricocheted off each rock, making staying on the bike akin to riding a rodeo bull. Everything on my bike, all my possessions, sounded like they were breaking, being rattled to an untimely end, and I feared that come Peshkope both me and my bike may not be in one piece. That is, if I ever reached Peshkope… my speed, even going downhill averaged only about 4 mph.
35 miles suddenly seemed a long, long way… My mind was filled with questions; did I have enough food? Water? Also, my frustration at myself was a constant niggling presence; why did I choose to make my life harder by taking the road less travelled? Was cycling to Australia not a challenge enough? My mind was plagued with worries and frustrations.
I’m coming across as being a bit grumpy, right? I’m glad you’ve realised. It is oft-quoted that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is all about your attitude. Thankfully I noticed this at the time pretty quickly too, and I was shocked — this was exactly the type of adventure I had left in search of. These were the type of moments you remember; I remembered how privileged I was to be here, while many at home were sitting in an office, wishing they were here themselves, yet here I was selfishly sulking about it, . With this change in mindset I headed off, to arise to the challenge, and ready to enjoy it.
It didn’t prove to be too hard; the track wound its way through its own untouched valley. There were a few remote settlements dotted about, housing people living the same simple, self-sufficient lives that their ancestors had for generations before. As I passed these, a child would often spot me. Not wanting the other local children to miss this rare and exciting event, a cry of “Eh, Turista” would be let out and suddenly, I would be descended on by smiling children from fields of all directions, abandoning the flocks of sheep they were tending or their other duties. They would help push me and the bike up the hills, while chatting away energetically, sometimes in Albanian, often attempting English. One boy, no more than 13, ran alongside me for 3 km before taking his mobile out and signalling for my number – it was quite endearing, although I’m not sure what he thought we would talk about!
Meeting people was a rare event however. I really was off the map, passed by just 3 cars all day, and even these civilisations were few and far between, so I learned to love the solitude. It is by complete coincidence however, that I met another bike tourer. I heard him long before I saw him, his squeaky brakes removing all element of surprise. Moritz, a professional guitarist, had cycled from Berlin and was headed for the coast. We shared our food and feasted on fresh melon and jaffa cakes, while telling tales of the adventures that had got us here, and his plans to cycle around the world next year. We ended up camping together that night, thankfully with no encounters with Albania’s bear and wolf population.
After a few hours cycling the next morning, we hit a larger village and with it, tarmac! Potholed as it was, after a colossal 23 hours being flung around, I couldn’t believe how smooth and beautiful it looked. Before we could try it out however, a café owner forcibly dragged us into his store to serve us a drink. When we left, he refused to charge us, which didn’t seem like the best business model, but was another great display of Albanian hospitality.
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’
The quote above rings so true - what could have been an unmemorable stretch of road, lost among the mass of others encountered this journey has instead become one of the highlights of the trip, and given me a great many memories (for all the right reasons). It serves as an important lesson, that easiest, and best, are two different things – it is when we challenge ourselves, when we take the road less travelled, that we find out most what we are capable of.