A gut Czech in the city of Bruno
Special to the Nevada Appeal
There was something ominous about Bratislava, as I stared at it from the window of a train car.
The train came to a halt, and I unlatched the large metal handle on the door of a boxcar and pulled into the crowd of unfamiliar faces standing on the platform.
Within moments, I was loose in a former communist country, rolling through faceless canyons of industrial concrete towered with smokestacks.
I reached the city center and it was as if I’d pedaled into a scene from the film “Dr. Zhivago.” Slovakians of all makes and models blanketed the sidewalks, most dressed in large fur caps, knee boots and long flowing trench coats.
The crowds moved in all directions, all but ignoring an icy wind that spun tiny tornadoes in the gathering spindrift.
At the head of the square, a Stalinesque building hid behind thick iron bars, where two uniformed guards marched straight-faced beneath Slovakia’s double-crossed flags. I pulled to the curb and took it all in for a moment, then struggled with ice and traffic until l I reached the steps of my tumble-down hostel.
There is something depressingly predictable about youth hostels. In fact, not just something, but everything.
These would include the staff, who, in most cases, would make perfect “Night Of The Living Dead” extras. They always seem to greet you with an extraordinary dullness, as if they had died years ago but had somehow neglected to inform their bodies.
Then you have the hostel’s inhabitants. Usually crowds of 20-somethings, who, having recently discovered the miracle of alcohol, come crashing like clockwork into your room at 4 a.m. This usually involves at least one person wearing underwear on his or her head who invariably wants to take pictures of you while you are trying to sleep.
Chances are fairly high that at some point in your hostel stay, you will be standing somewhere within the building with a knob in your hand wondering how to shut off the shower water – or how to escape as you’re trapped behind a bathroom door.
That said, there was a single redeeming quality about the Backpacker’s Hostel in Bratislava. Or to be exact, two. They were the towering bust of Lenin in gold perched on a bookshelf directly next to a wall-size poster of Bob Marley. A poetic gesture to say the least.
After I got checked in and cleaned up, I decided to hit the town. That’s when a disturbing fact descended on me. This was the fact that the single slice of knowledge I possessed regarding Slovakian culture came from their portrayal in a skit by actors Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin on the TV show “Saturday Night Live.” Thus whenever anyone around me spoke or gestured, I smirked and pushed down the solitary urge to shout out: “We are two wild and crazy guys!”
Had I acted on this urge, I thought later, I’d certainly be writing the next journal from within the confines of a Slovakian loony bin. Short of the tight slacks and gold chains, though, the “Saturday Night Live” skit seemed fairly accurate. For as I wandered beneath the beams of Bratislava’s high-timbered pubs, Slovakians appeared fun-loving, at ease and quick to laugh.
After three days of exploring, I cycled out of Bratislava, giddy with the idea that I’d be cycling within the borders of three different countries in one day: Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic.
But that giddiness all but froze when temperatures plummeted into the 20s and a light snow had raged into a full-fledged blizzard. By late afternoon, I was pushing through 4 inches of slush and pedaling ever farther out into traffic, where I vied for one of two strips of car tracks, the only rideable asphalt.
After hours in these harsh conditions wrapped in layers of down, fleece and Gore-tex, I felt as if I were attempting to become the first cyclist to reach the South Pole, or pedal into the deep nothingness of outer space.
With that came a profound feeling of disconnection with the world, my surroundings and most of all myself.
Night came quickly and the ensuing blackness recaptured my attention. Just before 10 p.m., I came around a corner and spotted four solitary spotlights burning near the base of the horizon. It was the Czech border. I fluttered up to it like a moth to light.
I only marginally caught the attention of the border officer, who sat warm and comfortably behind the glowing light of a computer screen.
I stood there peering in as if inside a fish tank. The blizzard had me glistening wet, covered in multiple layers of mud, snow and road splatter. The official turned from his computer monitor and slid open a small window. When his eyes finally adjusted, his mouth went agape. I smiled to reveal a mouth full of road grit. “Passport,” he inquired solemnly. I fumbled through my bag and handed it to him.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked in broken English.
“Uh … Bratislava.”
“But your passport is stamped in October from France?”
“Uh … yeah,” I said, “I’m on a bicycle tour.”
The border man ran his eyes once again over me disgustingly, shaking his head at the road muck.
He punched some numbers into the computer, then opened the window again and asked, “But why?”
It was less of a question than a statement of authority, then he handed me back my passport and indicated to move on through.
Sometime later, I pitched my tent in the shadowy thicket of pines well off the roadside and wrapped myself in a cocoon of nylon and down.
The next morning, I headed off for Czech’s hilltop city of Bruno.
The snow came again, only this time with a vengeance. By noon, I was once again struggling roadside, vying for road space and pummeled by waves of car-driven slush.
What was worse was the realization that I was coming down with a cold. Had that not been enough, I realized that after 6,000 miles, my gloves and shoes allowed water freely in and out.
I pedaled 50 miles in this condition until I reached the slick streets of Bruno. My hands and feet, now on the verge of frostbite, felt as though someone were pushing long needles through them. All the while my nose ran like Carl Lewis.
Searching unsuccessfully, I wandered the outer city in search of a cheap hotel.
Lost in a collection of winding side streets, my body temperature began to fall as I came under the steely glares of the inhabitants of a Ukrainian ghetto.
I wobbled mercilessly from there to the city center, where I struggled unsuccessfully to gain purchase over the newly formed ice. When I reached the hilltop, I was struggling to ride with traffic when my tire dropped into a snow-covered tram track that sent me airborne, head first onto the ground in the middle of traffic. Muddy, wet and cold, I got up and tried to adjust my bent handlebars.
That’s when something within me just broke.
I’d had it. After 6,000 miles, seven countries and six months of continuous travel, I had had enough.
At that moment, all I wanted was a return to the comfortable predictability of the 9-5 workplace and the soulless frustration of a heated cubicle. There was no more reason at that moment for me to see the rest of the world.
I could do that seated comfortably in an easy chair watching the Travel Channel.
After getting myself to the sidewalk, I checked myself for injuries, then checked into an overpriced hotel, where I flopped onto a bed and immediately plunged into a deep sleep.
The next morning came with a state of despair as TV newscasts predicted snow and storm damage across Europe. I had a thousand miles still to cross.
Reluctantly I hopped back on my bike and made my way out of the city.
Several hours later, on a small road that cut deep into the Czech woods, I came around a corner and witnessed something I hadn’t seen in days. It was the sun.
I pulled over for a moment and witnessed a snow-covered vista of indescribable beauty.
Every tree, trunk and gracefully arching branch, covered in white, sparkled with clean, clear icicles.
The scenery seemed to urge me to press on. And press on I did, as I pedaled for three days through bitter cold under steel-gray skies.
During those days, I passed cautiously on ice through tiny hamlets, alternately ascending and descending the hills and valleys of the Central Czech Republic. On the afternoon of the third day, I rolled into the outskirts, then into the enchanted streets of Prague, where I took my rest and recovered from the road’s recent battering.
I spent my time resting or mingling among artists, musicians and vagabonds – all the while making failed attempts at photographic creativity as my brain floated in my skull like a ping-pong ball floats in a bucket of snot. I spent my last day walking lazy loops around the city until I stood at the Charles Bridge and stared reflectively into the waters of the Vltava River.
In a moment of contemplation, it occurred to me that if the Czech Republic hadn’t killed me, then it had definitely made me stronger.
n Editor’s note: This the next in a series of articles submitted by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn, who is riding his bike around the world to raise awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. For more of his stories, go to rickgunnphotography.com.