Andy stopped ahead of me and I did too while we waited for the girls to catch up. Standing in the shade, I swung my arms around to warm up, and – suddenly – accidentally flung off the beaded bracelet I’d worn since leaving home. It flew through the air and into the undergrowth. I ran after it, digging in vain through the foliage, but it could not be found.
I scrambled back out from the bushes. ‘Damn it!’
‘I’ve just managed to lob my bracelet into oblivion!’
‘Was it a special bracelet, or something?’
‘Well . . . erm . . .’
The bracelet had been given to me by an ex-girlfriend. We’d been together for a few years – since university, in fact, where it had been easy enough to find ourselves heading in the same direction. But the relationship had been amongst the casualties of the Ride Earth idea. Along with a career, a salary and the expectations of my friends and family, my girlfriend had gradually been relegated to the world I wanted to leave behind, her relevance to my life dwindling beneath the magnitude of what I was planning to attempt. So self-involved had I become that I barely noticed it happening, and I should not have been surprised when, one weekend visit, she laid it bare to me: I clearly had better things to do than take our relationship seriously any more. I told her that was a load of bollocks; she dropped me off at the railway station and then bought a Lonely Planet guidebook and a pile of expensive apparel and a one-way ticket to New Zealand; I returned home furious and continued laying my very important plans. She had, of course, been absolutely right: I’d forgotten her needs almost entirely as a result of taking myself too seriously. The bracelet’s loss represented the last emotional tie I’d kept to my former life – apart from the presence of Andy himself, of course.
‘ . . . actually, you know what? It’s probably for the best.’
The two girls eventually emerged round the bend, both on foot; Maria red in the face but smiling, Magalie sauntering casually beside her, cracking jokes. Magalie’s new bike had twenty-one gears; Maria still rode the three-speed antique she’d found in the scrap-yard in Budapest, backpack strapped wonkily across the rear rack. Dressed in everyday summer clothes, happy to dismount and walk and laugh about it, they appeared to be perfectly normal people – two former schoolmates, a little older now, abroad for the summer, sharing the fun of a bike ride together. It was, I thought, almost enviable to be able to see it that simply. Because if they were serious about it for the long-term, they’d really need to equip themselves properly, as we had spent so long doing. It wouldn’t be long now before paved roads, bike shops and outdoor equipment supplies receded into the distance, and they obviously couldn’t continue in this carefree, haphazard way forever.
The day was drawing on, the air becoming chill, and we searched in vain for a concealed piece of ground where we could get our heads down for the night. Down in this narrow channel carved from the rock, it didn’t look likely that we’d find the dream location we’d fantasised about all afternoon, and, as the light grew fainter, tensions began to rise.
I tried to remember how I used to think about accommodation. It was easier in so many ways. I would have decided where to go, researched hostels or hotels and made a booking, and then turned up on the appointed date, dumped my bags and followed a guidebook around for a while. Simple, predictable, safe. Fun. A break from something called ‘the grind’. No chance of being lost deep in the Romanian mountains at sunset with nowhere to stay, no idea what might lie round the next bend.
Round the next bend was a village of Roma gypsies. Little roofs jutted half-hidden from the forested mountainside, high above the road to the east. On the far side of a little river, a dirt track ran parallel with our own, and lining the track was a jumbled row of walls and windows and fences and gates. Chickens pecked at the dust and dodged industrious women with brooms and baskets. Kids dashed and shouted. An untethered horse pawed at the ground and slurped from the stream. There wasn’t a car to be seen, no sound of machinery; no indication that the industrial age had penetrated this remote backwater of Eastern Europe, which looked for all the world like a turn-of-the-century peasant village reconstructed for some trite period drama – save for a gigantic communist-era concrete bridge that spanned the stream.
Before we could decide whether to turn back or ride straight through we were surrounded by dozens of inquisitive faces, feet shuffling to get a better look, eyes peering out at us from beneath headscarves and dusty hats. Nerves bristling, I asked Andy what he thought we should do, but Maria and Magalie were already befriending the mob of kids who emerged from between adult hips and legs and began inspecting our curious means of transport with a flurry of fingers and thumbs. My bike, with its bulging cargo trailer, was far more interesting than I was. But neither Andy nor I was in the mood for a repeat of the previous night’s extortion. We wanted to continue, to find a quiet spot and pitch our tents in peace and anonymity.
Then a young woman pushed her way through the growing crowd and introduced herself. She was around my age, somewhere in her early twenties; she carried a baby and spoke better English than anyone I’d yet met in Romania, and when we told her what we were doing and that we were looking for somewhere to camp she immediately invited us to follow her to her parents’ home.
No . . . not again. I explained that we had no money and that we just wanted to camp. And at that moment, I realised with horror that it was absolutely true. I’d given my last lei to Simon, and in all of the fury and haste of escaping Sebeş I had completely forgotten to withdraw any more cash. We faced a long, remote adventure through the Fagaras mountains without a penny to our names.
‘Look at them, Tom!’ implored Magalie. ‘They don’t want anything from us!’
Money was not important, the woman insisted. We were welcome to stay the night in this village. Neither she nor her parents wanted anything in return. They had everything they needed.
I was left with little choice but to let my reservations fall by the wayside. And I hoped that my faith in the kindness of strangers would, through these people, be rescued. Maria and Magalie were excitedly making their way down to the concrete bridge that looked so hopelessly out of place amongst the trees and dirt roads and timber-framed buildings. There was no backing out now.
The evening would be worthwhile, of course, and challenging, requiring mental energies that were difficult to muster after a day in the saddle. I would have to entertain the girl’s effervescent father and her one-eyed mother, whose mouthful of gold teeth cut through the darkness of their tiny shelter. But this was also the point. It was why, now I’d tasted the thrill of the unknown, I could never go back to the pleasant blandness of pre-planned travel. Life would never again be so easy, so convenient, so predictable. I would forever relish not knowing what lay round the next bend.
Up through the pines, the scattered homes twirling wood-smoke into the sky were outnumbered by the abandoned ones; otherwise little sign of life existed in these eerie alpine wonderlands, the track gradually disintegrating until it was little more than a trail of rocks and scree, cut through with channels formed by heavy rainfall. We came out onto a plateau, the summit of the pass, and then the track pointed downhill.
I had almost forgotten how it felt to be freewheeling, so long had we pedalled perpetually upwards, and I was taken by surprise to find my wheels rolling without input. Suddenly the southern valley opened up, a sea of forested ridges and peaks extending to the horizon. I’d spent several days looking ahead at nothing but valley sides and the prospect of further climbs, and the sight of these endless, undulating lands produced a satisfaction that arriving here by car could never hope to reproduce. It was the most brilliant venue for lunch, and Andy, Maria, Magalie and I sat gobbling up the last of our scavenged food in the sun, looking out across the great expanse.
We’d found refuge the previous night in a small mountain lodge. The staff, taking pity on us, had fed us bean soup and given us a room to sleep in and a bundle of firewood for the stove. In the morning we’d raided the buffet laid out for the lodge’s paying guests, leaving with several bags of cooked sausages, salami, bread and chunks of omelette. Munching the last fragments of egg at the highest point of this detour, which far outclassed Britain’s highest peaks, the rewards now lay at our feet. Yes! And we swept down from on high, whooping with adrenaline, the bikes we’d built for precisely these conditions eating up the terrain as we sped through the untouched Carpathian forests. And, on a particularly tight bend, Maria’s slender form was projected with Olympian grace over her handlebars to land in a blur of limbs on the gravel surface of the road.
‘It’s just a flesh wound,’ joked Magalie, borrowing the words of Monty Python’s Black Knight. Maria laughed. She was shaking with adrenaline, but her injuries seemed trivial, though there was quite a bit of blood on show. Miraculously, the clapped-out old bike had survived unscathed. Maria had been having so much fun on the downhill that she’d overestimated the control afforded by bald tyres on the loose surface – a beginner’s mistake.
We stopped to patch the poor girl up on a wide piece of grass, strangely glad to have found a use for Andy’s extensive first-aid supplies, which occupied almost an entire pannier. Maria propped herself up on a convenient boulder, ably tended by Magalie, ever the optimist and joker. The valley drained out of the mountains, opening up as it did so, and there was a stream flowing nearby featuring a small and inviting waterfall. It was an opportunity too good to miss: I had lost track of how long it had been since I’d had a decent wash. Andy and I stripped down to our shorts and plunged beneath the torrent; it took all my strength just to remain standing beneath the icy bombardment.
The decision to take the mountain detour had hung in the air, as we’d worried that the higher passes would already be snowbound and impassable. But we’d been forced to take our chances after our unfortunate run-in with Simon. Escaping Sebeş had taken precedence, and there had been no room to change our route or turn back. Now, heading back down from the silent magic of those mountains, it seemed absurd to think that there had been a real question over which option would be better: a few hundred miles of filthy motorway, sharing our journey with transcontinental freight lorries and badly-driven Ladas and four-by-fours; or an unpredictable adventure amid pristine wilderness and among people who would look after us, whose feet were planted firmly on the ground?
The detour had been a glimpse of my much-dreamed-of travelling fantasy. It would be easy to attribute it to chance, but the reality wasn’t so simple. Chance could never have sprung if we hadn’t put our trust in the mystery of what lay ahead. The result, I reckoned, had probably been the most memorable week of my life. Was this, in fact, the essence of adventure – something internal, intangible, impossible to describe in terms of routes and maps and schedules?