Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Between Kosovo and Alaska- part six (Indiana, Minnesota, and Norway)

(Link back to Part one of this series)

So this is sort of about Norway. Obviously I wasn't driving there, but in stopping to see friends in Indiana and Minnesota, I was going back in time almost thirty years. 1989 was when I left home to spend a year as an exchange student in Norway, an act of teenage rebellion (I was 16) that set me on my current path. It was a tough year, especially in the age before email, cable news, or cheap phone calls. When my best friend Erich died a month after I arrived in Norway, I was cut off for a year from my friends and family, and immediately turned to those who understood best my situation-- other exchange students. (They could also reply to a letter within days, compared to the two-week turnaround for letters to the US.)

Me with Terri and Julia in Paris, May 1990

Julia and Terri were two of those friends- and with whom I also saw much of Europe, from East Berlin and Prague to Nice and Paris. Julia was a fellow Badger from La Crosse (and later a classmate at UW-Madison), Terri a Hoosier who spoke with an Indiana twang. It was perhaps appropriate that they lived along my route to Alaska, and that I'd planned to stop and see them along the way. Like 30 years earlier, I was in trouble and needed them.

The last time I'd seen Terri was on the broad steps in front of the Oslo train station in 1990. A year older than me, she'd gone on to college after Norway, while Julia and I had to endure a final year of high school back in the US. Terri and I had kept in touch for a time after 1990, then a long hiatus until Facebook reconnected us. Thirty years. Had I ever gone that long without seeing someone? How was that possible, I was barely even 30 years old, right? Right?

I was having a hard time comprehending this as I left Maryland in the early hours on Monday, July 15. I left the DC area on I-270 toward Rockville, a route I'd taken countless times when I used to commute between Pennsylvania and DC. Most of the traffic was going into DC, so once off the Beltway it was quick driving to the northwest, past bedroom communities and Civil War battlefields. Once I reached Frederick I had to remind myself not to exit toward Gettysburg, the old route that Kent Butts at the Army War College had taught me as a way to avoid driving through Philly and the I-95 mess. I then took I-76 toward Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania and then Ohio turnpikes. In retrospect I should have taken the backroads, but was in a rush to reach Indiana.

In Pennsylvania I stopped at a roadside waystation, the sorts of places you can stop for slightly overpriced gas and food and avoid exiting the turnpike and paying extra tolls. I had driven without being able to decide what to listen to, and was too distracted to be able to listen well to audio books. I knew the University of Alaska board of regents would be meeting that day, and while I didn't question the outcome of that meeting, it still felt ominous. The state legislature had failed to override the governor's line-item vetoes the previous week (on July 10), which would have restored university funding. The legislature couldn't even agree on where to meet, with some stubbornly staying in Wasilla as the rest tried to reset the budget in Juneau. So in many ways, the fate was already sealed unless the governor himself agreed to change things. But a vote of financial exigency would allow the university to start slashing programs and positions, including tenured professors. As a new administrator, I would only have a legal right to two month's notice before losing my job. Assuming I even started in August.

All this was going through my head as I stood in front of a Quizno's Subs, waiting for my order. A short woman with long, brown hair was standing next to me, and said something small-talkish meant to be friendly. The usual thing for Americans was to remark on the hot weather (it was baking outside) and how far one had to drive. But asking me that second question, this woman got more than she bargained for. She was from Ohio, she explained, where was I going?

"Indiana, at least for tonight."
"So Indiana isn't where you live? Where are you driving after that?"
She was trying to be nice, but my answers just kept bewildering her.
"Alaska. Wait, what?! Alaska? You can do that? You're, wow, that's far. Where are you coming from?"
"Kosovo, in Europe."
[uncomfortable silence] "Um, I've been to Europe before, but please help me out."
"Former Yugoslavia, north of Greece. I'm American but was based there for four years."
She was beginning to look slightly panicked.
"I taught in Kosovo, and did defense work in Ukraine. Now I'm transferring to Alaska, but because of massive budget cuts to the university I don't know if I'll have a job once I get there." I briefly explained the political situation and the scale of the cuts.
This wasn't the conversation she thought she was going to have. She did rally a bit, but I hardly understood her when she then asked, "Is there some way I can pray for you?"

I saw her t-shirt then, something about a Catholic summer camp. Oh, I was back in the US. I don't remember exactly what I said in response to that- I know she meant well and was confused, so it was along the lines of, "Thanks, I won't stop you." I had grown used to the habit of avoiding asking how someone was in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, you opened yourself up to all manner of answers from personal to war-related tragedies. Greetings were more direct, or a question would translate to "you good?" which didn't require an explanation in response. These crazy Americans were actually asking how I was.

The rest of the drive was unremarkable, and I regretted not taking the backroads instead of the construction-plagued turnpikes (and I had to pay tolls for these?), but DC to Indiana was a long distance, and I wanted to arrive as early as possible. After all, it had been twenty-nine years. How was that possible? Was I even that old? Where had I been during that time? What was I connected to back in the US?

I'd last driven this turnpike in 2006 on the way to a new job in Pennsylvania-- same car, but the car hadn't been this far west since that time. I tried listening to a PG Wodehouse book on audio (The Girl on the Boat) but the characters were annoying me. I shifted to Jane Eyre, which is dark but my Audible version has a wonderful narrator and the cadence was a bit soothing. Besides, I knew the story so didn't have to pay attention. 

I finally hit the backroads just before crossing into Indiana, heading south toward Terri's hometown of Auburn. It was a pleasant evening, and the country roads were far more relaxing than the turnpike had been. Lesson to myself: avoid the interstate when possible in coming weeks. I followed the Google directions into Auburn, into a green area outside of town, and found a large house next to a golf course. Terri and her family warmly met me, and immediately put some heavily vodka-ish drink in my hand. I hadn't checked my phone for news yet.

So, there it was. Not a surprise, but things were not improving. 

Terri and her family were great at distracting me. There was a large dinner, smores (including with Reeses peanut butter cups-- note: traditional chocolate still works better), more drinks... I sort of lost track. I remember being amazed at Terri's daughter Khloe, in the sense that many of my American friends had kids, but young ones. Khloe was 24, a professional engineer, asking me not about bike glasses but hybrid war and Chernobyl. It was a bit disorienting, not just to see Terri after so long, but to see how different our lives were. While Tracy and I often said that we didn't crave stability, we were at the time on the far end of instability... and I was envious of my friend. Terri herself looked great, in better health than I had known her before, and still had that empathy I had known her for years before. It's the rare friend who can look right into you, where there's no point pretending because she already knows whatever truth you want to hide from the rest of the world. Perhaps I looked just as damaged and shell-shocked as back in 1990.

Smores with Khloe
I considered getting up early and taking out the bike, and even had a Strava route mapped out on loaded on my Wahoo. But I was tired, and figured I could take off a day or two without penalty (the 100-mile ride in eastern Maryland had been just the day before), and again I wanted to get to my next destination (my hometown in Wisconsin) as early as possible the next day. I hated leaving after so little time, it was like a drive-by visit even though I went with Terri and her husband to breakfast the next morning, and wasn't out the door at the crack of dawn or anything. But I was still in a fog as I left Auburn and took the backroads toward Chicago and then Wisconsin.
Terri and me again after 29 years
Wisconsin is worth discussing separately, so let me skip ahead a week to Minnesota. I was admittedly in a bad mood by the time I left Wisconsin for Minneapolis. I had stayed in LaCrosse, the intention to retrace the 100km Killer Hill route that Erich and I had ridden in summer 1989, thirty years earlier. It was the last long ride the two of us ever did together, and before leaving Kosovo I had followed down a GPS track of someone who'd ridden the same route. I'd made some modifications, loaded it on my computer, and planned on riding it before then driving to see Julia in Minneapolis.

Well, it didn't work out that way. The day before I'd tried a 60-mile ride through the Drifltess region of Minnesota, crossing over the Mississippi River and following a route given by a local rider. Crossing the Mississippi was great (I'd done it before, long ago), but I seemed stuck on busy roads in Minnesota, following a long track south along State Highway 26, which was choked with heavy truck traffic. I finally turned off the highway in Brownsville, MN, climbing a steep hill and then a descent toward the town of Hokah. But here the route really fell apart, with a sign stating that the road I wanted was closed, cutting off the loop to the west. Frustrated, I turned back toward 26 and LaCrosse, and while 37 miles is respectable, it was not at all a good ride. (Strava)

But then it got worse. I woke up early the next morning, still intent on riding the Killer Hill loop on the Wisconsin side of the river. I started packing up the car, when something was niggling at my head about what was wrong. My mountain bike was gone. It had been on the car for a few hours already, it had been locked but I was too trusting, as it was an older bike I'd bought in California in 2002. But it was gone, the lock cut right through. Even more infuriating, the front wheel was still on the rack, meaning they'd taken an old, 26 inch wheel MTB but would probably receive almost no money for it. It was 6am, and calling the police would be useless, just a lot of waiting around for someone to appear. And I lost all motivation to try the Killer Hill loop. I was angry, after the day before I could see the roads I needed being cut off somehow, and I just wanted to get away. I texted Julia if I could show up earlier in Minneapolis, and she told me to get in the car and go. I finished loading up the car and my Trek5200, and left Wisconsin.

With Julia in the Minneapolis suburbs
LaCrosse (coincidentally Julia's hometown) to Minneapolis was not a long drive, so I arrived still in the morning. Julia runs a company (SuperCubes) from her house and couldn't just walk away for me, but I think like Robert in Virginia she sensed that I was better off if I got on my bike again. I drove to Minnehaha Park along the Mississippi River, where I could catch the municipal bike trails that wind through Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Heya Minneapolis
Again, it was a good distraction for me. Not at all a fast pace, I had to keep slow for the trail traffic, and especially the fact that while the trails were well kept, they weren't well connected to one another. Doing a 37-mile loop around the Twin Cities was an effort of Google navigation, of constantly referring to a photo map of the trail system, entering an intended destination, and hoping my Wahoo GPS could help me get there. 

This is a metaphor
The trails and roads were quite a sampling of the cities-- from leafy and wealthy lakeside neighborhoods, to rail yards, to the UMN campus, I was certainly wasn't lacking for variety. The ride took over three hours, with forty minutes of that spent stopped and staring at my phone for directions. I could only really get speed up at the last leg east down the Minnehaha Parkway, pouring on power to pass annoyed motorists. (Strava file)

The evening was spent with Julia and her family-- as I'd not seen her since 1994, I didn't know her husband Arvind or her five-year old son. Julia had studied in Russia, so asked a fair bit about Ukraine and also the situation (or what I knew of it) in Alaska. Like Indiana, it was odd to sit on the deck of this nice house, leafy neighborhood and yet know I wasn't the only one feeling uncertainty from the larger political environment. It was also still such a contrast from Kosovo (look, trees!) it would take some getting used to.

I don't want to get into details of other people's lives and their kids, but it's worth noting that Julia and her husband sang their son to sleep using football songs from the University of Wisconsin. Jump around and then collapse, I guess. (Varsity, my Badgers.)

The roadtrip for this part of July was intended to be easier. I had spent about a week in Wisconsin, a short drive to Minneapolis, a shortish drive from there to Fargo. It was after that the distances became truly long and epic, with at least five days planned where the driving would go more or less from dawn to dusk. In some ways, this felt like the next step off into the unknown, really jumping toward Alaska and the uncertain future. That's why I was reminded of Norway, not just because of Julia and Terri (though that link was undeniable), but because thirty years earlier I'd done something equally reckless of a sort. Leaving for a new home in the North that I barely knew except from studying, where I had no idea what would happen. In Norway bad things did happen, and in Alaska Very Bad Things were happening, so ... why didn't I choose an easier path than this?

In many ways I didn't have a choice. Erich's death had spun me adrift, there was nothing normal for me to go home to after that. I tried, I seriously tried, but there's that saying "you can never go home again." I was lucky to have met someone who couldn't really go home, either, and found uncertainty more comforting than a fated future. But what I was sensing was that no one felt certain, that by being adrift we were perhaps luckier than many. As I'd written before, while I was torn apart by the news from Alaska, how much worse would it be for students trying to graduate, for faculty and staff who have the kids and dogs and mortgages and the need for a constant experience and steady paycheck? That was disappearing, and not just in Alaska, it was like both Europe and the US were experiencing all the trusted public institutions being torn down, and not being replaced by anything other than gig jobs with Uber or the promise of a new Netflix series. Tracy and I were trained to deal with disasters-- everyone else was facing them, too, but often had nowhere to maneuver.

So while Thomas Wolfe had coined that phrase about not going home again in reference to being nostalgic, that's how I felt at times. That's why I had needed to see Wisconsin again. So before discussing Fargo, let me jump back a week...

Monday, December 2, 2019

Between Kosovo and Alaska- part five (Maryland)

In the movie Up in the Air, the character played by George Clooney had to teach his younger colleague how to pack effectively-- I was increasingly worried about this as I neared DC. But there was a detail from the book the movie didn't describe, which had always stuck with me: the main character described why he always stayed at the same hotel chain, and it was because in every hotel in every town, the room layout was exactly the same. He could get up at night and know his way around in the dark, because it was, essentially, his room. During the years when I was traveling non-stop (around 2008-2012), I kept thinking about this, and during my Air Force time we always stayed at Holiday Inns.

Officially, the explanation was that the hotel chain could offer official US government rates anywhere in the world, which were sometimes hard to find. They found me rooms when all others had been sold out (they kept a few in reserve for elite members) during emergencies, and like a poor man's James Bond, the hotel in Honolulu always knew me when I walked up to the desk to check in. But the biggest reason was because of the pillows. Everywhere I went in the world, from Appleton, Wisconsin to Vienna, Austria, the pillows were the same. It was a common comfort that I grew to rely on-- except I didn't have ones nearly as nice at home.

After driving from Blacksburg and riding 80 miles in the heat over Skyline Drive, I was back 'home' in a Holiday Inn in Greenbelt, Maryland.  (For the record, the book Up in the Air wasn't nearly as good as the movie version.)

But now I had to sort out stuff and packing.

We had a storage unit outside of Washington, DC since we moved to the District from Ottawa in 2013. Our apartment downtown couldn't hold everything, so this was a temporary measure. By the summer of 2014 I was expecting to take a job as an associate dean at a college in Albany, New York, but that fell through at the very last minute. Instead of moving all our stuff, we had to store most of it and then...figure out what came next, which at the end of our lease meant perching with my parents until we headed to Europe. And most of our things were still there. Tracy and I lived out of suitcases, more or less, from 2014 to 2019, when finally we would set up something more permanent again in Alaska, when we wouldn't be running, when there would be some permanency.

Well, except that wasn't happening.

The news from Alaska had grown worse, with the Board of Regents due to vote on financial exigency (major emergency), and the news rumors mentioning the system shutting down the Anchorage campus completely. It was uncharted territory for any state. The vote on financial exigency would take place on Monday, when I was due to drive to Indiana. For the weekend, though, I was stuck in Maryland.

I drove over to the storage unit, which I'd visited briefly in May after not seeing it for four years. Yes, there are questions about what we really need if we haven't lived with any of this stuff for years, and it's a valid question. We'd pared down over the years, left with essential books, photos, art, a few pieces of furniture, etc. But I stood looking at the boxes in bewilderment, because it represented so much. I wanted those books back, I wanted some sense of comfort again, but it wasn't going to happen. I could just stare at things still out of reach. I grabbed a few things I'd brought from Kosovo in May, but even then I couldn't decide. I left many of our winter clothes, since I still didn't even think I'd see Tracy again before I headed back to Europe in early 2020. I had an old mountain bike I wanted to take with me, some dress clothes, other small things that could fit in the car, but it was frustrating. And I had plenty of time to stew about it.

Since I'd wasted myself on the Shenandoah Mountains the day before, that Saturday I just rested in the air conditioning, watching depressing shows on HBO like The Hate that You Give and Years and Years. I'd biked through the Greenbelt area before in years past, but never comfortably. I'd brought the Trek to the hotel room and we just enjoyed the cool air together.

I got up before dawn the next morning, and loaded up the bike on the car, turning toward the Eastern Shore. I'd biked there once before, in 2014, on a century where I'd only done 80 miles due to a knee injury. I knew it was quiet, flat, and the roads easy to navigate. I drove to a town called Cambridge about two hours outside of DC, and started riding from the same park where the Six Pillars Century left from. I would follow the 100 mile (160km) route, since it led through the scarce number of towns where I could find water and food.

Sunrise over eastern Maryland
Even with a 6:55am start, it was brutally humid. The first hour was relatively cool, but already water was pouring down my back, and with the pancake flat roads I wasn't even working that hard. I had a slight tailwind from the start, along wooded lanes and quiet roads where I would see the occasional deer and maybe the occasional car. My GPS map had the aid stations marked, though on this early Sunday morning those were just empty lots or grassy parks. I would have to keep my own eyes open for water and food. I did miss Kosovo, where any small village had water and croissants, and natural springs could also be found in the mountains. I kept about a 20mph (32kph) pace, trying to keep up enough speed to be respectful. Flat courses, and this couldn't be any flatter (the highest point was on a bridge), can end up being much longer in time if one isn't careful, and I wanted to finish by early afternoon.

The US was experiencing a heat wave, just starting and would persist through much of the summer. 

It was important to start a ride early, and spend as little time as possible in the worst of the heat. When shooting for specific distances (and remember, I had to ride 1000 miles in July to get that t-shirt!), that meant riding faster, though the trade-off was that more speed = more power = more heat generated. 

I rode south from Cambridge through Smithville, across the Blackwater River and saltwater marshes. The other shore of Maryland and DC was visible to the west at points, and I crossed over bridges to the narrow peninsula of Fishing Creek. There was a small shop there, and I knew to stop for whatever water and Powerade they had, I was already losing so much fluid and it was only 9am. The towns were slowly waking up, but I was still the odd one out, a cyclist flashing by in emerald green.
This house is not prepared for sea level rise
The route backtracked over the bridges to the north, then headed east into a stiff headwind. The road snaked east through the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge toward Cedar Landing, and the wind and heat were really picking up. Seward had little more than a boat chandler shop, closed on Sunday morning, but I stopped and found a vending machine with Powerade. I drank one bottle and used the other to fill up my own water bottle, but was disappointed their water fountain (what some in Wisconsinese still call a bubbler) wasn't working. The road headed north a bit and I remembered this was close to where I cut the ride short five years earlier. Instead I turned east again into a remote part of the county, and I admit those extra miles were about to hurt.

There was nothing for the next 30 miles (50km) between Seward and when I finally found the south side of Cambridge again. It was remote farmland, winding roads but more exposed to the sun and wind than the course earlier in the morning. Two women on Harleys passed me, and then saw me again as they stood near a wooden bridge- they were about the only sign of life anywhere, save for the occasional osprey. I finally stopped at a church to look for water, a trick Betty Jean had taught me in Georgia, though I had doubts about how well my stomach (still sensitive) would handle rusty garden spigot quality. Still, it was better than going bone dry. The gas station I finally found at mile 90 was just south of Cambridge, but I didn't realize that as I hadn't panned my electronic map back out far enough to see. The water and Powerade I bought there were already gone ten miles later, or about 30 minutes it took me to loop back to the west and then east through town to the car. I finished just over 100 miles, with a total elevation gain of 300 feet! (100m)  A typical ride in Kosovo over that distance would require around 10,000ft of climbing. But hot and windy was tough in its own way.

Osprey at the Blackwater refuge (Source:

I still relied on McDonald's for mostly reliable restrooms, and for large $1 unsweetened ice tea. I think I (who must have smelled like a cattle pen) drank two liters of tea and downed a large ice cream, before I could even think of solid food. Often it's hard for me to eat much after a long ride, especially in extreme heat, so I turned up the AC in the car and headed back toward DC. Eating during this roadtrip and associated cycling was not easy. I've written before about what it takes to eat enough on long endurance rides, and when also traveling and driving the challenge was heightened. I was relying too much on reserves during rides like this one in Maryland- I would have Clif bars and bananas and such with me, but those only provided a fraction of what gets burned in one day while cycling 100 miles (I would use over 3000 calories just during the ride that day, so closer to 5000 for the whole day). And I was avoiding caffeine, which would just worsen my insomnia and stomach problems.

Restaurant food was always a poor substitute for preparing on one's own, and there really wasn't much difference between McDonald's and Olive Garden, except that portions were easier to control at McD's. I had eaten at 5Guys the day before the ride, which was likely a whopping 2000 calorie meal (how on earth do people eat there who don't then burn it off at one go?!), but I tended to rely on grocery stores more than anything. In Greenbelt I'd gone to the Safeway and bought a number of prepared meals, extra boxes of Clif bars, fruit, etc. Having a microwave and fridge in each room when I stayed at hotels was essential, and I'd always look up grocery stores when arriving in a town.

I think I was trying to get my body's metabolism at such a level that I wouldn't notice the nervousness so much, but it required me to keep biking regularly and for long periods, and I had to keep eating an obscene amount of food. Anyone looking into my car and seeing the discarded wrappers would have thought I weighed 300lbs. I also relied on energy gels, fig bars, and even had a cache of Kosovo stroop waffles to use on long rides. I did stop at McD's at times, but stuck to breakfasts or McChickens when not just relying on iced tea and ice cream. Food when endurance cycling can be both a blessing and a curse. One can eat anything he/she wants, and I mean really get away with anything-- but the flip side is that one has to eat anything available (remember the Hawaiian tuna pizza?) and it becomes a grind at times finding enough calories to keep going.

And once one stops, as I did in August, it's like hitting a brick wall. But that's another story.

Not quite a photo of me (I don't wear glasses)
Typical Huddle House cycling breakfast, north Georgia, July 2019

The drive back toward DC was far busier than it was at 4am (obviously) and slowed by an accident. I finally made it back to the hotel in Greenbelt, where I sorted through emails, Viber texts from Tracy, and the dark news from Alaska.

Early Monday morning I would have to leave for Indiana. While feeling trapped in Maryland, I also didn't want to leave. Although I wanted to get to Indiana and see my friend Terri. I didn't know what I wanted. As a strategic planner, not knowing my own future, especially on the short time scale of the next few weeks, was absolutely maddening. The news looked worse and worse, I fully expected the Board of Regents to vote for financial exigency and allow firing of tenured professors, and had a hard time even planning as far ahead as Wisconsin. But I had to keep moving. Maybe Indiana was an appropriate destination- it was the location for the movie Breaking Away, as iconic a film as any for mixing cycling with uncertainty over one's future.

I would leave early the next morning.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Between Kosovo and Alaska - part four (Virginia)

I know I mentioned the movie Elizabethtown before, but I kept thinking about it. Tracy and I had seen the movie when we were living in Budapest in 2005-06, and the road trip montage at the end of the film was just so... North American (Canadians do them, too), it was something I had been thinking of since we knew Alaska was a possibility. I had the option of shipping the car to Anchorage, but it would have cost thousands, and it didn't really take much to persuade me to drive.

It's not that I like driving, because most often I don't. But I had been mostly living outside the US since I left Lehigh in 2010, and I had some feeling that I needed to see everything again, reconnect, and I knew I had friends and family most of the way from Atlanta to British Columbia. I now needed that - needed them - more than ever. My dad had installed a new radio in our old car, new tires, and I had arranged a detailed itinerary to Virginia, the DC area, and then stopping in Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, and then into Alaska. It would take 6000 miles (10,000 km) and three weeks. First stop was Blacksburg, Virginia.

I drove on back roads from Muscadine, Alabama into Georgia, then through Rome until I reached the interstate south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I knew the back roads of Georgia and Alabama well, Georgia largely from driving to bike rides, Alabama from the long drives between Montgomery (where Tracy I were based at Maxwell AFB) and my parents' house in Muscadine, west of Atlanta. Those roads often included plenty of struggling communities, the occasional Waffle House or Dollar General, gun shops and churches. When driving past the small Georgia Highlands College near Rome, what looked like a 2-year diploma mill of sorts, I wondered if I should stop and drop off a resume at their HR office. I drove through Tennessee (even saw a QAnon billboard), into Virginia, and reached Blacksburg early enough that I could go out for double margaritas (doctor's orders).

Tracy and I had first seen Blacksburg in 1999, visiting Erich's parents who had moved to nearby Christiansburg after leaving Wisconsin. I didn't go back until I started working with Robert and Jenny, two Virginia Tech professors I had met through an odd combination of circumstances. Robert had attended one of our scenario workshops in DC in early 2013, one focused on Hawaii, and as a tsunami expert he was hooked and kept wanting to work with us. I hadn't seen them since 2015, and when their son Linus was maybe a year old.

Kids, make sure your glasses fit in your helmet (from Tour des Stations, 2018)
So let me start with Linus, because this has to do with bikes. I know parents can call their 5-year old kids smart, be proud of them, but this kid wasn't just smart, he was smart about bikes. He saw my road bike, and started asking questions about rolling resistance, gear ratios, power output for pedaling, stuff that I sort of knew in 9th grade when I started cycling. Sort of. I'm still learning. I couldn't fool him, but in another sense he was still 5, and was most impressed with me not by my bike, or my racing skills (the UCI license did give him pause- I hope he didn't think I was doping), or my bike kit (I have a memory of a very young Linus four years ago, looking at me in disapproval as I left on a bike ride-- he didn't think bright colors were for me, apparently).... No, what impressed him the most was my ability to take off my glasses and stick them in my helmet, all while cycling. This was revolutionary.
My biggest fan

The first morning, Robert knew I would need to go out on the bike. He said we needed to be on campus by around 10:30am, so keep the ride short, he said. Yeah, uh-huh.

The sun rose over the mountains at 6:15. I started my Wahoo GPS at 6:14, and I knew where I was headed.

The film Dirty Dancing was filmed outside Blacksburg, on a hilltop resort off US460. The Mountain Lake Lodge is 18 miles (29km) from the Virginia Tech campus, but the busy highway is a deterrent to taking the straight road. I had ridden there via the quieter country roads in 2015, and since I was preparing for Kosovo, I had mapped out a climb along the way. I didn't really pay attention to the math at the time, meaning I knew how high the climb was but not the short distance it took to reach the summit. In other words, it is damn steep. When I reached the top in 2015, I stopped at the hikers' shop (this is along the Appalachian Trail) and joked to the cashier about how unexpectedly difficult the climb had just been. He looked at me strangely, "Dude, you just climbed the Mountain of Misery."

I knew that climb. Every serious cyclist in that part of the country had heard of the Mountain of Misery ride, and I had just finished the final climb without realizing it. What a noob.


So this time I knew what to expect. The roads took me past campus and into the countryside, quiet winding roads down to the New River, fog and mist still covering the water. I was still recovering from a sinus cold I had caught on the flight from Istanbul, so admittedly my memories of that landscape are tempered by coughing and hacking. To me at the time, that all seemed symbolic. I needed to get into the warm air, I needed to exert myself as much as possible, and I just needed to get out all these toxins and poisons.

The road gently climbed from the river to the start of the mountain proper. It was much cooler than when I'd first climbed the mountain four years previous, so I'd hoped that this time I would be faster. I was in the end, by all of 23 seconds out of a time of 48 minutes. That was- not a great improvement. The climb itself is 10km long at an average 6% grade, though the last 4 km average 10%. It's a very quiet, winding climb, since most traffic to the mountaintop use the other road closer to the highway (and which is not nearly as steep). The only real disappointment was that there was no gift shop at the top, no T-shirts saying "Baby put me in a corner," or Patrick Swayze Christmas ornaments. I suppose there was the trail shop, but I reached the top before 9 AM and it wasn't open yet. I needed to keep moving, because I promised Robert that I would be back at the house by 10 AM. Twenty-nine kilometers in one hour, I could do that.
Baby was here
Back in 2015, I had simply retraced my route because I wanted to avoid the main highway. This time I took the main road, descending on extremely well maintained asphalt for 10 km. That part was fun, certainly more than the overly steep and winding misery descent, where in 2015 it'd been so hot I had to stop twice to let my wheel rims cool down from braking. This time I only had to lightly touch the brakes, and on the way down saw a group of students running the climb on the way up. That looked painful. Perhaps a hundred of them, their buses had gone on ahead to take them back down the mountain-- why work so hard when you can't enjoy descending? Anyway, a few of them even cheered me on, but their faces became more and more pained the farther back they were in the group.
Sinking Creek falls

The roads wound past Sinking Creek, and met up with the 460 highway, which led straight back to Blacksburg. I didn't enjoy the highway experience, especially the short segments where I had to climb, but at least the Wahoo map directed me onto parallel roads when it could. I reached the Virginia Tech campus again, back toward the house, and arrived just at the same time as Robert drove up in the car. I was exhausted, but happily so. (I'd ridden over 50 miles in 3.5 hours, with over a mile of climbing.)

We spent the morning on the VT campus, and this turned to disaster planning for Alaska. Robert helped me formulate a plan with the VT faculty and admins to share resources remotely, as a way of getting my Alaska MPP degree off the ground should I find I didn't have the resources in Anchorage. This was not a simple matter, since universities can spend years negotiating shared courses and tuition- we were cobbling an agreement together over two mornings. It gave me a sense that I wasn't alone and completely helpless, and after I'd written up the plan and sent it to the dean at UAA, she shared it with the provost as an example of how creatively (and quickly) I was trying to work through the crisis.

I left after three nights, this time bound for the Washington DC suburb of Greenbelt, Maryland. I was due to spend time there packing up the storage units we'd had since we'd lived in DC and before Europe, but the uncertainty of the situation had forced me to reconsider. Shipping everything would be expensive, and while Alaska had given me some funds for the move, a shipment that far would be horribly expensive, even more so if I had to turn around and ship it back, So the same morning I sent Karen the VT-UAA cooperation agreement, I called to cancel the moving trailer. But, the previous month this move had seemed essential, and so Greenbelt was the only place along these three weeks where I prepaid for a hotel room (and for three nights!), since under what circumstances would I NOT need to do this?

The drive from Blacksburg to DC is one I'd done a number of times before, but this time I chose to
stop along the way in the town of Front Royal, west of DC. I'd never biked through the Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, and wasn't about to pass it up this time. It meant a very hot noon start from near the 7-Eleven at the park entrance, and after buying my park pass ended up waiting in the sun for a long time waiting for a construction crew to open the road. Skyline Drive is over 100 miles long, running through the Virginia Mountains, and despite my time living in DC I'd not biked it. But rather than do a straight out and back to a certain point (I certainly didn't have time to ride 210 miles), I followed a loop that only went as far as Thornton Pass, then west through Luray and then up a western ridge.

The first climbs go up about 1000m (3000+ feet) from Front Royal, and I was one of the few cyclists on the road that day. It was the middle of the week and excessively hot, with temperatures in the 90s F (30s C) topping out around 104 (40). The climbs weren't that bad and the road was in very good shape, and from my time in Kosovo I was used to mountain climbs. The heat did wear on me, though, and stress with a combination of travel food and lingering issues from my spring trip to Egypt, was not a good mix.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
On one long climb I saw a black bear on the road in front of me, which was a first. I stopped right away, of course, and figured he had right-of-way. I waited there for a few minutes, when a park ranger in a truck drove up and scared the bear over a barrier fence with a loud horn. I continued up the first climbs, descended into Luray off the park boundaries, and stopped at the 7-Eleven there. Without going into gory details, this is where my stomach protested violently. It took awhile to leave Luray, and the second 40 miles of the ride were really, really rough.

It was one of those times when even the most die-hard cyclist wants to call a friend and just get picked up in a car. The route back to Front Royal had only one major climb, a 1000ft (300m) steep cliff outside of Luray, then rolling hills through forested farmland, with only one small village along the way (luckily the gas station was open to buy water). I limped back to the car, drove to a pharmacy to get something for my stomach, and then drove around DC to get to the Holiday Inn at Greenbelt. After a shower, I only had the energy to order room service and collapse into bed. Then I would have to figure out what came next. (Strava record of ride)

I had only just started the road trip, with two long days of driving (and neither pointed toward Alaska), and already I was tired, at least mentally. OK, physically, too, though much of that was a deliberate attempt to deal with stress. The night before I left Virginia, I saw news that a timetable had been set out by the University of Alaska system. The massive budget cuts would have to hit immediately, and many faculty and staff would be given notice by late October, with two months before getting laid off by the end of December. So I had until then, very likely. Tracy would likely have to stay in Kosovo, I might still try to work and save some money from August to December, and then what? Not even tenured professors were safe under the budget cuts, so what was I walking (driving) into?

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Between Kosovo and Alaska- part three (back in the USA)

“Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn't mean to take.”
― Angela N. Blount, Once Upon an Ever After

I left the bike cafe late on Friday night, the last of several farewell parties and bike rides, a quiet ending to four years in Kosovo. In some ways everything seemed routine, especially since Tracy and the cats remained in the apartment, and the only real difference was packing up the bikes and leaving no trace of cycling behind. In the morning I rode to the airport as I'd done dozens of times before, sat in the departure area with Aimee (another American leaving), and set for the flight to Istanbul and then long leg to Atlanta. I had no idea at that time what was happening back in Alaska, what political bombshell had been dropped about the same time I'd left the cafe late Friday night, and that everything was about to change.
With my Scott and Fondriest bikes, leaving Kosovo
What I didn't know was that at about the same hour I was leaving Kosovo, it was Friday afternoon in Alaska, and the governor was releasing a bombshell set of line-item vetoes that would set the state on fire, metaphorically speaking (much of the state would literally be on fire within weeks, but that's another story).

I flew from Prishtina to the new airport in Istanbul, a sparkling, multi-billion dollar project that was perhaps too fancy for its own good. I raced through (extra security check, plus layers of document checks before boarding a flight to the US), just wanting a bottle of water to buy, not a Hermes scarf or a Rolex. Then a long flight to Atlanta, where upon landing I tried catching the free airport WiFi to check my mail. At the top of my email inbox was an odd message from the dean in Alaska, saying in effect, "We'll work through these cuts, nothing affects you personally yet. Don't panic."
The new Istanbul airport
That's weird, I thought. I knew it was the end of the fiscal year, and the legislature had agreed to cut the university budget by 5%. But we knew that already, right? Why would Karen try to reassure me over something I already knew about?

The WiFi cut out when entering the immigration hall in Atlanta, and I focused more on getting through and finding the bikes, hoping they were in good condition (they were). My dad met me at the arrivals hall, we drove back to my parents' house across the state line in Alabama, and I tried to get some sleep. Ambitious as I was, I had set up a bike ride for the next morning near Heflin, Alabama, and had invited several friends up from Georgia. Jen wrote the next morning saying she couldn't come, but Jim was driving from Carrollton, and Betty Jean from much farther away in Monticello.

Jim, a geology prof from West Georgia University, had ridden with me since 2014, while Betty Jean was an environmental engineer and cycling hero of mine since I 'd read about her RAAM race in 2015, and we'd become friends and long-distance cycling buddies since the following year. They'd agreed to meet me and ride the Cheaha route to the highest point in Alabama, and met at the Heflin ranger station. I'd tried thinking of everything I needed for the bike to be ready, the Trek 5200 I'd kept stored with my parents for long rides back in the US, and even gave myself extra time in case a tire was flat-- as one was.

But, and this was a big but, I'd forgotten my shoes. For those not into cycling this is not a minor point, as our pedals (and especially my Speedplays) don't work well without specialized shoes. So  -sigh-  we drove back toward my parents', and then rode a simpler route along the state line. Perhaps that was for the best anyway, the Cheaha route is punishing and this was more social, and I could reward Jim and Betty Jean with my mom's cookies while overlooking the Tallapoosa River.

The big problem with the easier Georgia/Alabama routes are the dog hazards. Unlike the rather tame Kosovo dogs, in the South they seem to appear every 400 meters along the road, chasing after us and even affecting which routes we choose. On the circle where I took Jim and BJ^2, one long stretch can really only be ridden south-to-north, as going the opposite direction requires a long climb where dogs are free to catch cyclists. If doing it as a descent, the trick is to keep up speeds above 25mph (40kph) to prevent dogs from having a chance at getting to the road. Admittedly, it's stressful and plenty of my local friends have crashed due to dog attacks.

I preferred the Kosovo cows.

With Jim and Betty Jean on the West Georgia roads
Betty Jean and Jim were, as ever, good riding companions. Always strong but laid back, they're the sort of cyclists who never complain about anything, are never out to prove anything to others, and are aware of their environment. I don't mind cyclists who are competitive and always focused on the bikes themselves, but bike rides can serve different purposes, and for relieving stress over long periods it's better to ride with someone who works with you instead of against you.

There's something deeply cathartic about the bike, and not just as an exercise in physical exhaustion -- in fact that often backfires on a bike, where it can be difficult to sleep after tearing up leg and back muscles. There is certainly the dopamine reaction, the release of euphoria-like chemicals in the brain after pain recedes (especially hard mountain climbs), but for me it has also been the escapist factor, too. Getting away, either alone or with friends, onto country backroads that few others see, escaping the closed rooms where I would just be pacing and fidgeting, focusing instead on the mechanics of the moment: speed, gear ratios, climb grade, cadence, shift position, stand up, signal to others, shift gear again... there is a constancy and simplicity to what needs to be done, and it allows the mind to clear. Well, except for when someone puts a song in my head, those can take ages to get rid of (and Betty Jean has been known to break into song on very long rides).

Group ride near Carrollton, Georgia
Oh, and we went to Burger Chick afterwards. If anyone finds themselves in Tallapoosa, Georgia, this small shack is a must-see experience.

With Linell and Jen at Burger Chick, April 2018
It wasn't until Sunday afternoon that I saw a message from a cycling friend in Colorado (Lisa) who wrote with a link from the University of Alaska president, and she asked how this would affect me. I read the letter.

Oh f*ck.

It would affect everything.

There are times when you see a news item and it just stops everything around you, not in the world-shattering 9/11 sense of things, but language being used in what should be quite a conventional manner but you immediately feel things unraveling around you. It was the same feeling I had when I saw this tweet pop up, what was for me early morning in London when the Tohoku earthquake occurred (later revised to a 9.1 event). It was a slow feeling of dread that bad things were about to happen, that if I kept looking at the computer I would just see carnage.
OK, this was a political earthquake, but I'm trained for that, too, right? I was between contracts, between homes, Tracy still in Kosovo and everything balanced on a tightrope that had suddenly been cut out. So how does one even raise this issue at the dinner table? How do I write to Tracy to alert her to the news? (Answer: she's used to disasters and war zones, too-- the blunt approach worked.) And what would it all mean? I had previously been a budget director, so I knew that my own position was especially vulnerable, an administrator for a program that did not yet exist, with a contract that did not start for another six weeks. I was instantly reminded of the start of the Michael J Fox movie from the 1980s, where he was unceremoniously fired the moment he showed up for work.

I found myself turning disaster planning skills onto my own life, something I've done time and again but always hated doing. Contingencies, plans A and B and C and mapping out possible alternate pathways, etc, etc. It's enough to drive anyone crazy, and I won't go into details. Suffice it to say that even my scenario planning skills were sorely tested, working through alternate logistics of whether to go to Alaska, what should be taken from where, if and when Tracy should fly to Anchorage (she already had airline tickets, including for the cats), and if somehow I still had a job when I arrived in Alaska, how to start a new program when everything else is being cut.

I had already set out a detailed itinerary of the road trip, which was due to start July 9. I kept abandoning my bewildered parents to ride with cycling friends. Jen, of Kosovo and Albania legend, had stayed in the area longer to see me, and we circled Carroll County while trying to think of how to prioritize protecting my own job, Tracy's well-being, my university program, the related research...
Trying to sort out problems with Jen, cycling Queen of Kosovo
I do not even remember where we biked, other than we started in Bremen. Jen and I had become friends during the Dublin 420 K back in 2016, the same long ride where I got to know Betty Jean and Julie G so well. Jen had flown to Kosovo the following year, after riding in the world championship in France, and we had spent two weeks (usually with Gjengiz and Migjen) climbing the mountains of Kosovo, Albania, and Montenegro. So it was not just the bike, riding with her was a good way to clear my head, to keep from pacing the hallways in my parents' house. Jen had to leave for Canada, but I really appreciated seeing one of my best friends before she went.

Then there was Jason. Jason had been a close riding partner starting in 2014, but especially during the summer of 2015 in the time between Budapest and Kosovo. A soft-spoken Marine, riding with him was never so much conversational as physically demanding- we would push each other's limits, save for 200km or longer rides, when I felt I had to hold him back a bit. He never complained when on the bike, whatever I threw at him or extra distance I caused by poor navigation. He and I rode in some backwoods areas I had not seen before, pushing the pace on the Scott I brought back from Kosovo.

Linell is another story. Jen's best friend and bike/running partner, Linell was the Tennessee state mountain bike champion when she was younger, and apparently never lost any of her energy since that time. From previous rides with her, I had these vivid memories of her climbing hills on her big (53) chain ring, calmly dictating text messages into her phone, and then wondering why everyone else was staring at her. Pure energy and pure goodness, we also rode together on a long, rambling circle around Carroll County.
Rare shot of Linell slowing down to check directions
Riding with Jim on the 4th of July
I also escaped for two days to north Georgia to ride with Julie, another long-distance randonneur and professor at Emory U. She had invited me to come and stay with her and her husband at a cabin near Dahlonega, meant as a group ride but for some reason only I was brave enough to follow her around the mountains. Our roughly 200km ride had over 3000m (10000ft) of climbing, often the short, sharp hills that are easy enough at first, but increasingly wearing as they offer no rest. We were in the back of beyond in north Georgia near the Tennessee border, a hot day spent dodging thunderstorms, visiting general stores where Fourth of July sales had candy and firearms on offer, and where I was completely, utterly lost. Julie always knew where we were, and she did remarkably keep us clear of thunderstorms that we could hear crashing around us.
With Julie in the north Georgia 'secret gaps'
The night before the ride we watched the movie Animal House, my choice and perhaps trying to find some humor in university administration-- though I was beginning to sympathize with Dean Wormer.

What happened in Alaska on June 28th shattered not only my own peace of mind, but those of most Alaskans and others across the US. Ignoring the bipartisan compromise budget the state legislature had worked out over months, Governor Dunleavy had, with one stroke of the veto pen, erased $135 million of funding from the University of Alaska system, along with a number of social programs, infrastructure, and other public goods. No university in the US had ever been attacked like this, given a 41% operating budget cut the afternoon before the new fiscal year, and ignoring the majority of Alaskans and their representatives. My feelings were summed up here fairly well.

I kept texting with Tracy as best I could given the time difference, and give her credit for her coolness under fire. She emphasized that she'd be there with me, whatever we decided or what happened. It was a rotten time to be apart, though that had happened often enough in the past. But we had to sort out what the budget cuts really meant. I figured I would start on the road trip, and kept having visions of Karen (the dean, and my immediate boss in Alaska) calling me when I was on the bike in Wisconsin, telling me to stay in Madison because there would be nothing for me in Anchorage. I did not even know what to pack, not knowing how long I would be in Alaska, and I tossed out earlier plans to mail boxes of clothes and books from Alabama to my new office. The car ended up being packed with a strange mixture of summer clothes, emergency road equipment, my laptops, and admittedly a fair amount of biking gear (including and especially the Trek 5200- the Scott and Fondriest would stay in Alabama).

So on July 9, I left early in the morning on the first day of three weeks across the continent - first stop Blacksburg, Virginia, where my friend were experts in disasters and tsunamis.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Between Kosovo and Alaska- part two

“At the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair messy, and your eyes sparkling.” –Shanti

With Miriam at the Woodrow Wilson Center
I traveled to Washington, DC in May to launch the new book with Miriam (please buy it!), an event where I was struggling with a high fever and then collapsed afterwards for a few days. I limped back home to Kosovo, finally got back on the bike for a few shorter routes, and then left again for Ukraine. Odessa was strange- I won’t get into it here, but between the disbelief from my colleagues over moving to Alaska and the realization that I wouldn't escape the war anytime soon, it was sobering to realize that I had to leave Europe in a few short weeks. We'd been in Europe for almost five years at a stretch, and it would be a shock going back to the US.  The plan was for a road trip across the continent, with Tracy then flying with the cats straight from Kosovo to Anchorage. Our car was still in Alabama, I would drive up to DC to arrange for our things still in storage to be moved, and I would have a chance to reconnect with the US and Canada on the road. Sort of like the end of the movie Elizabethtown, though over three weeks and an entire continent.

The summer would also be notable for trying to cram in as much cycling as a could between the middle of June and the beginning of August. There were really only two goals involved. I had to bike as much as possible in Kosovo in the two weeks before I left, and then once back in the US, I had to bike 1000 miles (1600km) in order to earn a Trek t-shirt. Yeah, I know. T-shirts can be bought in stores, they can be ordered from my phone while laying comfortably in bed, and there is no concrete need to wake up at 4am and pedal for hundreds of miles just to get a free one. It's funny how we react to small incentives. No one could pay me to work so hard, but for something I already loved, that I knew I needed (ha, no idea yet!), having a set goal was necessary. Promise that I'll bike 20 miles and I feel no incentive. Promise myself that I'll bike 1000 and I build up spreadsheets to make sure I reach the goal and don't fall behind, spend hours researching maps and charting routes so I can hit 1000 (spoiler: I reached 1000 miles my last day of cycling in July, in front of a Tim Horton's in Banff, Canada).
With Uta and Tracy at the Bike Cafe
I had to start the goodbyes already- Uta was about to leave again for Nepal, and we wouldn't see each other again before I left Europe. She had been a great influence on me and remains a good friend, so it was hard when Tracy and I had to say farewell (hopefully she can come to Alaska and climb Denali).
With Bashkim and the "No Fun Club"
For Kosovo, I needed to spend more time with my local cycling friends, and there were two other related goals that needed attention. I had not climbed the south side of Bajgora mountain north of Prishtina- I had twice climbed the north road, and once raced up the new and incredibly steep section from Vushtrii, but the long, winding climb from Podujeva had escaped me. Bashkim and I rode that once I was back from Ukraine, on a foggy morning where we climbed Stallova above the clouds, descending again toward Dyz, and then on the long slog toward Bajgora.
Above the clouds on Stallova-Koliq
Northern Kosovo road furniture
The Bajgora ride, which turned out to be just under 100 miles for me in the end, was an example of the challenges in dressing for a long cycling route in Kosovo. It was cold and rainy at the start, warmed up on the first climb, was cold on the descent, grew outright hot toward the start of the big climb, and on the way back we were trying to stay ahead of a massive thunderstorm. While we can carry extra clothes, the immense amount of climbing involved in Kosovo makes that ponderous- even a couple extra kilograms are really noticeable, plus bulky in the back of a summer jersey (in the photo above, you can see Bashkim was wearing a vest early on).
Local cycling heroine Vera (right) and her slower husband Lindi crest the Gateway climb
The route back included a new climb that had just been paved in the spring, and which (for some reason that now escapes me) I had named the Koliq Gateway climb. It was tough, 5km of steep climbing with rolling grades between -1 to +16%, so steep that tired legs have trouble moving at any speed, and this came at the end of a long day of climbing. I kept a decent pace up, but Bashkim was definitely slowing down, and was some 15 minutes behind me. All the while, I saw this massive storm front moving in, could see lightning and hear the thunder, and I kept wishing Bashkim would hurry up so we could outrun the storm back into town. Getting caught in the Grashtica valley with this storm would be Bad. That's not a joke- despite the lack of tornadoes and such in Kosovo, the poor road drainage and geography make rain storms dangerous for bikes, even more so when one considers roads covered in motor oil and full of potholes. Just before leaving Ukraine this last time I had been caught in a storm, lightning all around me on the Prison Break climb, then coming into Prishtina my wheels were submerged in at least four inches (12 cm) of water, brakes not working and the risk of potholes or slipping all around. Getting wet I don't mind, drowning while still on my bike would just be embarrassing.

Bashkim did finally make it up the Gateway climb, and we pushed on tailwinds ahead of the storm, which... well, come to think of it, for some reason it didn't hit Prishtina. Stupid clouds. (Strava record of ride)

Early morning to Mitrovica
The other goal before leaving Kosovo was really more Gjengiz's idea than my own. After completing the 420km Dublin ride with Jen, Betty Jean and Julie in 2016, a jealous Gjengiz had mapped out a 300km route inside Kosovo. There were a few variants, but essentially it called for a counter-clockwise circling of most of the country, heading straight north from Prishtina to Mitrovica, southwest to Peja, southeast to Gjakova and Prizren, over the Prevalla pass, and back to Prishtina via Gjilan. I wasn't a fan of the route, and my own variants had us skipping the Gjilan road in favor of a tougher, hillier route. I had frequently biked the Gjilan road over short segments, but it's busy and dangerous, and in the summer Schatzi season especially so. But Gjengiz had no one else who would do this ride with him, and I agreed to give it a try.

We left at sunrise around the summer solstice, figuring that an early morning dash up the Mitrovica highway would be safe and quiet-- which it was. From there we had a vague idea where to turn, but it was strange for me as I had done this same-ish route but in reverse during a multi-day ride in 2017. The leg from Mitrovica to Peja was green and rolling hills, with the Prokletije (Accursed) Mountains to our right. We joked about taking a short detour up Kulla Pass to the border, that without my passport I couldn't climb all the way into Montenegro, but it was the sort of joking bluster that masked our uncertainty over how long our planned ride would take.

Stopping at towns along the way, we restocked on bananas and water in Peja, and then found the main road from Peja to Gjakova was busier than expected-- plus, it was being resurfaced. For some 15km (at least) we had stretches where the asphalt had been stripped, leaving waving grooves in the roads and raw tar that coated the bottoms of our bikes. It was not at all pleasant. We arrived in the lovely town of Gjakova around 10:30am, having already biked some 150km, and had decided that we would rest for lunch there. We found a restaurant willing to serve lunch early, and indecisive between sweet and salty, I ordered a Hawaiian pizza.
 Gjakova bike lanes- don't go anywhere and are used by horses
OK, for those of you who don't like Hawaiian pizzas, I got my punishment. Apparently for Gjakovars, Hawaiian pizza is not just ham and pineapple, and in fact the fruit portion was a bit scarce. No, they seemed to think that since Hawaii consists of islands, that the pizza also needed fish, so they added plenty of tuna. Tuna. And not white albacore tuna, but the brownish, low quality tinned tuna that most cats turn their noses up to. Yeah, I ate it anyway. All of it. Carbs, protein, whatever. For some reason I was reminded of the Anne Bancroft lines from Home for the Holidays, "Where is everybody? There are starving people in the former Yugoslavia." Maybe the taste made me hallucinate. Even the memory of it makes me a bit dizzy.

The road from Gjavoka to Prizren was mostly flat, climbing toward the second city before the road disappeared into the Sharr Mountains and Prevalla Pass. Gjengiz and I had just raced on much of the same road in April, during our epic breakaway. This time I could tell that Gjengiz was slowing down. He had turned to running recently, and long distance was never his specialty, so as we crossed over 100 miles (160km) I was impressed he had made it that far. And I figured he would be done by the top of Prevalla, an HC (beyond category) climb to an elevation of 5000 feet (1500+m), one which we knew well, and while a fairly gradual climb, was always a tough effort. We stopped near the start of the Prevalla climb to fill up on water and take a dose of electrolytes, but he told me to go on ahead. It was a slower pace for me, and I stopped at one point to talk to a rival racer from a nearby Serbian village, who was coming from the other side of the pass. He was surprised I was leaving Kosovo, and said, "So, you go to US, and you must send back someone like you. We need serious cyclists." (Jimmy, you're up.)
Prevalla Pass (photo taken with Anja Kalan in Sept 2018)
Although I thought I was checking my phone, I didn't see the text I was expecting from Gjengiz throwing in the towel. I turned around and rode back down, which I was happy to say had come at the end of road repairs for the Prevalla road. It's a long. long descent to Prizren, and this time on the best road conditions I'd seen in Kosovo. It was a great end to my last HC climb of the season, and I was glad to avoid the Gjilan road on a Saturday night. We took the bus back to Prishtina. (Strava record here)
On the Grashtica Road leaving Prishtina
The last rides I took were familiar roads with familiar friends, perfect summer weather around Batllava reservoir, and the simpler ride to the Bear Park. I will always miss this rides from Lindi and Vera's bike cafe, the dodging of traffic out of Prishtina to the Grashtica road, the endless coffees and the stoic cows, the kids cheering us on from the sides of the road, I know those rides will always be unique in my memory to Kosovo. I saw most of the country that way, all the cities, hundreds of villages, the beauty of mountain passes and the scars of environmental damage. I could not imagine having a feel for the country had I just stayed in the city, writing from my office. And while I took a bike with my to Kosovo when I first moved in 2015, without Tolga and others I would never have explored so far into the countryside and the mountains. Thanks, guys.
With Tolga near Badovac Lake
With teammate Migjen and others at the bike cafe
There was one last thing I had to do before leaving. I had thought that I would miss it, but the Kosovo Security Forces had their ceremony for commissioning cadets into officers. I struggled to dig out my suit, scrounged for dress shoes to borrow (thanks, Agim), and tried to remember how to find the barracks in Ferizaj (they leave military installations off Google maps). Cadets had been part of my classes in Kosovo from my first semester, and I had taught them everything from information warfare to ethics.

I was proud of them, and happy that I could attend as they became junior officers in the KSF. A few of them that day had been first semester freshmen my first fall in Kosovo, so it was a rare chance to see how far they'd come. 

I'd wanted to think that I had learned a great deal in four years, as well.  The cadets and civilian students had certainly taught me a trick or two about irregular warfare in simulations, things so surprising I had to include them in the book. I'd learned about Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia, I'd spent months in Ukraine working and learning Russian. We'd adopted two cats and rescued/rehomed about a dozen dogs to the US and Canada-- some of it seemed like drops in a bucket, but one had to try.

But I had to learn something new, live somewhere I'd not been before, get back into climate security issues where I felt more comfortably than tangling with Russian security services. 

Alaska would challenge me more than I could imagine.