The 1,600-mile Commute

The cash deposit I’d paid was all the ATM would give me, and a handwritten receipt was all I got back. So once I’d landed back in the UK, I transferred some money to my new Bulgarian bank account and jumped on the bike back to the European Union’s most easterly member. I was on a mission to turn the deposit into a purchase, and the receipt into an official document of ownership before anything changed: minds, price, exchange rates, or regulations. 

The ferry docks late in Holland and, with no time to put my phone on charge, I’m waved down the unloading ramp. It’s OK, I’ve written the key towns and turnoffs on a piece of paper and put it in the tank bag. With a roaming signal, I’ve finally got a response from the ex I texted. She’s not home, she’s in Holland. ‘So am I’, I write, but the reply is slower than I am. It’s Friday night rush hour round Rotterdam but the traffic is calm and considerate. Within three hours I’m in Germany and speed limits are irrelevant. I sit at my comfortable cruising speed of 80 mph—well, I thought it was 80 mph, but my phone says it’s actually 74mph. For all this time I’ve been less illegal than I thought I was. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

It’s the perfect summer evening and I want to ride as much of it as I can. The sun sets in my mirrors and I grab glances over my shoulder to see it without reflection. Sunsets, hopefully, will start to make a regular appearance in my life again soon. I’d love to ride right through Germany, right through the night. I don’t know where I will stop or stay tonight, and the liberation of that feeling keeps me going into the summer darkness. West of Kassel, I pass a wind farm standing in a field of golden swaying wheat. Stopping in a parking lay-by, I walk into the field and find a little path. Without hesitation I run back to the bike, and ride up the curb, past the picnic tables between the hedge and down a track that weaves between the giant turbines. The track ends and looks out over fields and a village below in the valley. I kill the ignition and am engulfed by darkness and silence. This is perfect. I roll out my sleeping bag and lay on top of it. A rabbit comes by, either blind, brave, or maybe just friendly. The blades turn, the wheat bends, and I look down at the quiet sparkling village. The nomad in me loves this.

 

 

I get some emergency sleep and no deluxe extras. When it’s time for a wee, I touch something that isn’t me, a slug is inside my waistband. It wakes me more than I’d like. Still, it was a free night, a place to pass the dark hours. There is light in the sky now, but not enough to write my diary by. That will have to wait, I’ve got a new day to ride into.

I roll up a slightly damp sleeping bag and put on a cool sweatshirt. I got away with a wild camp. I make my getaway into a misty morning with dewy mirrors and a screen of moisture. Back to the parking area, I contemplate a toilet stop but just ride out. No dinner to speak of last night, no drink this morning; I just ride, and slowly the day lightens up. I was aware last night that the sound of traffic never stopped. As I join the permanent flow it remains constant but light. It was a 3 a.m. start according to my body clock—that’s about 8 hours sleep in the last 48.  After a few hours, my delusional thoughts alert me to the need for more sleep. This is the only accurate deduction I can make from my reflections of misperception. I pull over and doze with my head on the tank bag. It’s not enough, so I lay on a bench and an hour passes. Air escaping from a truck’s suspension wakes me—it’s not my tyres, wheels of confusion, making me crazy. 

 

 

I don’t need to make this an endurance ride but I’m enjoying this aspect of it. It’s not my usual style at all, and it’s exciting to push the limits of my stamina. Knowing there is no prize to win or deadline to make, I’m just playing at being hardcore. I can stop whenever I want. There hasn’t been much of anything across the landscape, and when a service area and the double yellow curves of an internationally recognized restaurant appear, it seems like an opportunity to fill the tank and empty the discomfort. Full tank, full tummy, empty bladder, fully charged. The momentary delight of no reason to want. Everything is at desirable levels. 

As soon as I get going everyone else stops. The traffic is backed up, and the Saturday morning pleasure drivers are wandering around the Autobahn stretching their legs. They are without consideration or awareness of a moving vehicle. In this case, a big orange Austrian-made motorcycle ridden by a sleep-deprived, relocating Brit who has the filtering abilities of a garden shed due to his excessively wide panniers. For their benefit, said Brit doesn’t even know if it’s legal to ride down the middle of stationary traffic, and consequently is exhibiting extreme caution. This, combined with his obtrusive exhaust note, means no knees are knobbled by protrusions, wing mirrors removed by misjudgment and, if words of hostility or disapproval are spoken, they are not heard.

 

With the affronted and motionless behind me, I’m faced with the open mouth of a closed tunnel. It has the appearance of a facility that shuts at night, and the man who opens it has overslept. So, with the bike on its centre stand, I get out my diary and try to catch up on the journey so far. However, before I’ve gotten very far, Herr Schlafen has risen and raised the barrier. My creativity is hastily stashed, and so begins the onslaught of all those outraged Audi drivers making up for downtime as I ride at a speed faster than any British law allows.

As I head east and see signs for Leipzig and Dresden, the sun shines. Nothing feels foreign, and loneliness isn’t even a consideration. Again, this is a world away from how I felt on these roads two years ago en route to Iraq. 

I’ve got friends in the Czech Republic who enter my thoughts as I cross the border, but this is a destination-driven journey, not a social jolly. Another stop to rehydrate my body and tank. It might be 11 a.m. I manage to zero my trip gauge as I try to change the time, so that little statistic is gone forever.

Prague has a ring road that requires constant attention not to deviate from. When I do, there is stationary traffic in the other direction. I hope I don’t have to double back through that lot. A sign for Brno says I don’t, I’m on the right road. This feels fabulous. I stop for a slice of pizza and a coke and have my motorway snack in the shade of a parked truck. The stench of rancid piss radiates up from the asphalt. As a trucker for 17 years, I did my part to contribute to this truck stop aroma, but it’s still a nasty environment, and a heavy downpour doesn’t do much to dissolve it.

I change to cooler clothes and queue for a vignette only to find bikes are exempt. I suppose I’m pleased. Into Slovakia, and I think I need a vignette here, but I’ll be out the other side in an hour and I’m not stopping. Bratislava is a capital that, even from the motorway, coaxes out the camera. I glance at the castle and bridges as I cross the Danube. ‘See you in Romania’, I say under my visor.

In Hungary, I definitely seem to need a vignette. There are a lot of signs emphasizing this. While I’m stopped, I get out my atlas, look at the big picture, and decide at Győr I’ll get off the motorway. I have a want for some slower evening roads. It’s still 33°C, I’m feeling the fatigue I’ve generated now, and I may possibly have a cold coming too. The back-road bonus: I stop at a village shop and stock up on some healthy food—a perfectly ripe avocado, cheese, tomatoes and bread, the staple of the road warrior. 

One more fuel stop and then with the kind of timing a solo traveler would wish to share, a sign for a campsite appears. I pull in. It’s deserted. Closed. With the stealth and instantaneous reaction of a lone biker, I ride past the gate. There are multiple gatherings of caravans and mobile homes, empty playgrounds and locked toilet blocks. It just looks so available, but is abandoned. Screw it, I’m staying anyway. I strategically park in a way that could be seen as out of sight if no one notices me, or looking for a site if someone does. Some people come, a Dutch couple, they open up their caravan and confirm the place is closed. I ask if it’s OK to stay and don’t get a straight answer. I make a spectacular sandwich, and decide to put up my tent. It instantly turns into a sweat tank. I turn it round to face the evening breeze. It doesn’t help. I lie on top of my sleeping bag and get my second night’s free sleep. Wild camping in a campground, it’s naughty-lite.

 At 5 a.m., I see pink clouds through the open flap of the tent. I’m late, I’d prefer to be riding into that sky than looking out at it. Still, I slept soundly despite the gunshot crow scarer in the neighbouring field. With the regularity of a chiming clock, it soon lost its irritating qualities—to me, at least, if not the crows. It’s peaceful now, only the chirpy buzzing of this Hungarian Sunday morning. I pack with such efficiency I can’t imagine anyone’s help could make the process move any faster. I brush my teeth as I roll my mattress and talk into my voice recorder— listening back to this now as I write—I have absolutely no idea what I was trying to express. I know a girl who can not only speak while brushing her teeth but can also sound just like Sean Connery. I just sound like I’m choking on whipped cream from a nitrous-filled aerosol.

 

In an act of reckless bravado, I’d let the bike charge my phone as I slept. This morning I have the satisfaction of full charge and the bonus of the bike coming to life like a wake-up call. I definitely have a cold; I can feel its unmistakable onset in my throat. Conversely, the sun this morning has a haze about it which says it’s going to be an unmercifully hot day. 

Leaving the motorway last night was exactly the right thing to do, but this morning, with progress paramount in my mind, it’s a little frustrating to be zigzagging through the countryside. I don’t think I’m adding mileage to the journey—I’m going to miss Budapest (I don’t mean I’m visiting the local beauty queen).

At Baja I cross the Danube—so we meet again. We are both taking indirect routes to the border. I have to admit this river has chosen some very picturesque places to flow through, or perhaps it paints the picture as it passes. I wonder if I could do that. 

 

Same name, same heat, and same clothes as when I was riding in Mexico four months ago. The similarities end there though. I won’t be getting fragrances of fajitas drifting under my visor. However, now that I’m back in travel mode, the distance between the journeys has disappeared. There is a continuity—this could be the same road, further down the journey of escapism, on a quest for contentment.

I pass a field of burning stubble. Flames lap against the road. The bright orange KTM in a flaming field, burning up the parched soil under a smoke-filled sky, would make a fantastic photo. However, I don’t stop. Instead, I spend the next hour wishing I had.

I head east towards Romania, as the sun goes behind clouds that look like rain. I won’t believe it; this morning’s greasy humidity has barely worn off. The sky won’t lie, it’s only for me to misinterpret, and the truth will reveal itself as I ride into it. The laptop-and-desk days seem so far away already. My WiFi withdrawal is at manageable levels; liberation fills the void.

I do feel a bit of a hypocrite: the preacher who extolled the benefits of a slower pace is really enjoying this fast and direct style of riding. The only slow thing about this trip is my growing confidence in my bike’s reliability. I’m thinking of breakfast, but the motorway is new. I take the service slip road to nowhere. On the concrete plains of potential, porta-potties are the only conveniences. 

 

The rain falls mainly on the Romanian side of the border. The motorway is incomplete and the road turns toa truck-choked single carriageway. Overtaking any of them is pointless as the procession is endless. It’s only the rear-end view that varies and the filth that is thrown up distorts the differences. 

This is a new personal record: 285 miles and five-and-a-half hours riding before I break my fast which, by now, is brunch. At a roadside restaurant with rooms, every need is satisfied with ease, and I’m back on the road again absolutely loving this pace. Hazy Sunday afternoon sun shines through the spray to reveal a mountainous horizon and that never fails to induce a thrill. Perhaps these are the ones I saw last week from the Ryanair window seat. The rain becomes a memory. The only drops are stains on the screen. 

It’s 35°C, and I’m wondering if my pannier contents were stolen while I stopped, the bike feels so light and responsive. A wiggly road up a mountainside happily corresponds with a break in the traffic. The bike flicks round the bends, and the tyres hold the road with reverence, but still I misjudge the lines like I’m partying with rock stars.

I meet up with the Danube again. The land on the far shore is Serbia, and at this point, the river has flowed into its most stunning setting so far. Navigation is as simple as following the road that follows the river that divides countries. It has cliff-cutting, gorge-forming, dam-making, lake-creating, and turbine-generating variety and grandeur. 

At 3 p.m. the temperature tops out at 39°C. There are benches of pensioners. Old men with big bellies and no distinguishing features sit in the shade; younger men pour out of the bars, working on growing their stomachs. But they always wave—well, not always. Some of them wave, I’ve definitely had some waves, I can categorically state that I’ve not been totally blanked. God, I’m hot…I think I’m delirious…flash a passport, over the bridge, goodbye Danube, hello Bulgaria, time for some serious helmet whooping. I’m hot beyond hot, I want a shower more than I want a beer. The roads are bad, the traffic scarce, the brutal Soviet-style architecture as hard to comprehend as the Cyrillic alphabet. I’m so forgiving, in love with it all—long may it last.

I pass a truck stop. The resting drivers are soaking the steaming concrete with a high-volume hosepipe. I missed the fire photo shoot, but I’m stopping for this. I pull up in front of them, euphoric for making it here, demented from the heat. I point at the hose and open my jacket. ‘Yeah? Are you sure?’ is the expression I’m getting. I confirm I am. Underestimating the amount they have had to drink and the unexpected break from the truck stop monotony I’m providing, the flow is directed at me. For a second it’s shocking, for the next three it’s refreshing, then it’s soaking and soon relentless. ‘Enough!’ I roar away, thumb in the air, leaving them wracked with laughter. I think I wanted that. I’m definitely cooler now and, simultaneously, perhaps a little stupider too.

The home straight. Got to keep my speed down. Shadows are stretching, the temperature falling, the smell of pines drifts down from the mountain highs as I cross a valley. The scenery is engulfing and I will stay under its spell watching every day, every season, every sunrise and set. I think another beginning is occurring. I pull up at a guest house in the village I’m to call home. 

An eleven-hour riding day, 635 miles, the KTM performed faultlessly. It may be too tall and too heavy, but it certainly made Europe smaller. The gates are opened for me, more in disbelief than with a welcome.

‘You did it in 48 hours?’

‘Well, from the ferry, yes.’ 

‘You rode in 40° heat?’ 

‘It wasn’t all that hot’, I say. Perhaps playing at being hardcore wasn’t a game, maybe I really am. 

By pure coincidence, the man I’m buying the house off just happens to be here. Any doubts he had of how serious I was have left with my arrival. I shake his hand and want to speak with him. Apparently there is no exact moving date yet. We have an appointment with the notary at 9 a.m. on Tuesday. I could have taken a day longer to do the trip, but how much fun would that have been? I don’t want to make a habit out of this high-speed commute, but equally, it was an exhilarating journey, and I’m once again near Varna.

 

Read more of Graham’s adventures in his fourth book, “Near Varna,” which is now available. 


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