July 10, 2012
There is no fruit quite like a fresh fruit. Picked ripe and eaten immediately, fresh fruits exhibit the vibrant sugars and zesty acids that make them so attractive to foraging creatures and a key element in their evolutionary strategy. But fresh-picked fruit is generally unavailable to most of us. That’s because farmers usually harvest their stone fruits, berries, figs and other delicate seasonals well before they’ve even ripened. Then, the pickings spend a week or more in transit, finally arriving in the grocery store dull as a billy-clubbed mahi mahi, often mushy or pithy and a sad exhibition of their species’ full potential. Even sadder is that fact that we consumers must take what we can get, and we live our lives buying and eating this sub-prime fruit.
Unless, that is, we hit the road and take matters—and super-fresh fruit—into our own hands. All along the roadways of America, and the world, fruit trees grow within reach of passersby, and about now, as summer heats up, these trees are loaded—and their abundant branches are hanging over a fence near you. Here’s a list of best bets for roadside foraging this July:
Loquats. The orange color and the suffix “quat” (think kumquat) lead many people to assume that the loquat is a citrus fruit—but it’s not even related. A native of East Asia and a favorite summer snack in Europe, Japan, Israel and Brazil, the loquat in America is common yet just as obscure. Many homeowners are unaware that the fruits, growing in their own yards, are even edible—which is good news for you and me. That means you can knock on the door, ask permission and, almost without fail, receive the go-ahead to “take all you want.” Some homeowners may appear baffled and say, “Those are edible?” Yes—fantastic, in fact, and surely one of the most under-appreciated garden fruits. When picking loquats, leave a quarter-inch of stem attached to each fruit, which will reduce bruising, and carry them home wrapped in a sweat shirt for padding. Peel the skins and savor the sweet, juicy, zesty flesh. If you have a real bounty to work with, try juicing a portion and making loquat cider.
Avocados. The fact that avocados, one of the most recognized and desired tree fruits, can be had for free along public roadways is simply wonderful. NOTE: This is NOT an invitation to plunder an orchard, which is illegal, taken seriously by Southern California law enforcement agencies and could land you in jail. Rather, this is simply a reminder to cyclists and pedestrians south of Santa Barbara to watch the roadsides for avocado trees, and, when you see one, look to the ground below, or in the culvert along the road. These are the places where ripe avocados go—and if you don’t get them, the rodents will. Avocado trees, happily, fruit almost all year.
Figs. The bulk of the year’s figs arrive in late summer and fall, but many varieties of the fruit produce an early crop, as well—physiologically distinct from the main crop of September. Called the “breba” crop, this first flush of figs usually consists of fewer fruits than the longer-lasting autumn crop—but not always, and in some places, and with certain fig varieties, a bounty of breba figs may weight the tree branches toward the ground. The black mission fig, one of the main commercial and garden varieties of California, produces a heavy breba crop in June and July. So does the desert king, a jammy, juicy green variety. Countless fig trees grow wild or feral along small rural roadways and can be easily and safely accessed. Texas and other states of the South offer good fig-hunting opportunities, too—and Southern Europe is a fig hunter’s heaven, especially in the fall. Breba crop figs grow from the old-growth wood of the previous year, and so they may often be concealed by summer foliage. Push back the leaves and behold the whoppers. Only take them if they’re splitting, sagging and dripping with juices, as figs will not ripen once picked.
Mulberries. An Old World native grown in America largely as a shade tree, the mulberry is a prolific producer and one of the most under-appreciated of tree fruits. Some mulberry varieties are cotton-candy pink, while others are purple, and others jet black—and all, when ripe, are pure sweetness, lacking the tannins that make blackberries and other thorny bush-berries so often bitter and sour. In nations around the Mediterranean, mulberries are loved, cultivated and often eaten dried, like raisins. In many places, fallen mulberries carpet the pavement a half-inch thick during July. In California and the rest of America, most trees are of non-fruiting varieties—often planted along paths and roadways as shade trees—but those bearing berries begin to drop their crop in June. Cyclists have a great advantage in hunting the mulberry, able to cover large distances but moving slowly enough to watch the asphalt; when you see dark stains of splattered fruit on the ground, hit the brakes and look up.
Blackberries. A no-brainer, blackberries are probably America’s favorite wild fruit. The Himalayan blackberry is also one of the most hated invasive species ever to leave its Old World homeland. Introduced in 1885 to Sonoma County by fruit breeder Luther Burbank, the species now grows in wicked bramble patches across the continent, and the world. Road crews and property owners attack the vines with chain saws, but there’s no stopping this thorny invader—and every July and August, it’s pie time. America also has a native blackberry, with gentler thorns than the Himalayan and bearing slender, elongated fruits about a month earlier, beginning in June. Blackberries fall in the genus Rubus, which also includes raspberries, salmonberries and thimbleberries. Blueberries and huckleberries are also a summertime crop, and an easy one to forage.
Wild Plums. Remember the chapter in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire when he visits Kazakhstan’s wild apple forests and describes the fantastic abundance and diversity of the fruit, and the forest floor littered with a rainbow-colored layer of apples? Well, in parts of coastal California, the abundance of wild plums is almost as tremendous. Plum trees—growing wild, sprouted from seed—cover mountain slopes and bear fruits of a dozen colors. A quick skirmish with the brambles, and you’re among the trees. Taste through them until you find the best. TIP: You’ll find that the plums fallen and hiding in the grass are exceptionally sweet, ripened by days in the sun. Enjoy them on the spot, or take them home to make jam—or even wine. Planning on going Down Under? Then watch along the roads of New Zealand, where plums grow as wildly as in California.
The Prince Agaricus mushroom. A fungus fruit, the prince is one of the very best edible mushrooms, with a smell and flavor like almond extract that will knock almost any foodie to his knees as he begs you to tell just where you found these incredibly delicious things. Don’t tell—just share, and perhaps offer the basic scoop: The prince, Latin name Agaricus augustus, is a close relative of the cultivated portobello mushroom. Many other species in the genus are good to eat, as well—but the prince is the king. The mushroom is a summer fruiter, often occurring in areas touched by fog drip or in parks wetted by sprinklers. The mushrooms like to grow in disturbed soils—and right beside roadways is a great place to look. I’ve even encountered the prince while cycling through Bulgaria and Greece. Unsure I had met my old friend so far from home, I smelled the cap—and that almond-anise aroma left no doubt. When the mushrooms are barbecued, the sweet juices of the prince come out sizzling. The texture remains firm—never slimy—and the flavor is a knockout. Try dipping prince slices in egg, then sautéing and serving with a drizzle of maple syrup for mushroom French toast. NOTE: Do not forage mushrooms if you don’t know what you’re doing. This blog post is not to be used for identification purposes.
Don’t know where to start? Fallen Fruit serves as a foraging resource and a guide to collecting fruit from public trees in Los Angeles and beyond. Another group, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, calls itself Guerrilla Grafters and stalks the streets, grafting branches of prized fruit varieties onto non-fruit-bearing sidewalk trees with the goal of cultivating a free food resource for public use. How cool is that?
July 3, 2012
Tourists in Paris visit English-language bookstores hunting original Hemingway copies or go underground to wander the long, grim halls of the Catacombs. In Naples, they have espresso standing at the counter, then eat pizza while rooting for Italy on the televised soccer match. In Turkey, travelers pay 2 lira to take a photo of a camel wearing a leather top hat and a skirt, then drink scalding hot tea. Visitors to New Zealand buy packaged bungee jumping and helicopter-biking adventures.
And some tourists, between so many worldly sites and activities, do pull-ups. Recognized around the world, the pull-up is one of the simplest and most effective upper body weight-bearing exercises, and perfect for maintaining fitness while traveling. It requires only some rigid wood or steel and some simple geometry for one to get cranking—and in most places doing a few sets in public won’t draw the perplexed stares that doing, say, a yoga headstand in a village plaza in Morocco surely would. You might even make a few friends across the language barrier if the local village fitness buffs decide to work out with you. But in the far-flung hinterlands of the earth, finding a suitable pull-up structure isn’t always easy. In many cultures, exercise is simply not fashionable, and travelers on long journeys may abandon their workout routines until they return home. Nonetheless, going abroad needn’t mean going flabby—determined globe-trotters can find pull-up bars and other outdoor gymnastics equipment in some of the most unexpected places if they only remain a little vigilant. Following are some pointers toward a few of the world’s better places to hang out.
Republic of Georgia. In a culture strongly laced with cigarettes, distilled liquor and idleness whenever it’s affordable, performing unnecessary exercise on horizontal bars is not a common priority—but in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, somebody in the city planning office apparently once had the strange impetus to suggest, “Hey, let’s put an outdoor gymnastics center on Mount Mtatsminda”—and, lo and behold, they did. Today, hidden on a terrace off to the side of the stairway leading to the top, resides one of the finest exercise courts I’ve known. It offers bars going left, right, up and down, plus benches and poles and gymnastics rings, and is applicable to about every muscle group above the waist. The site offers a smashing view of the city below, as well, and doubles as a fine, shaded picnic site. When I found this place one morning in September 2010, a kid was already there, working the bars while his boombox blasted some cheesy electronic dance tunes. For an hour, I alternated my pull-ups with push-ups. A Georgian born and bred, the boy took cigarette breaks.
Spain. The Spanish may be slim and sporty, but their country’s pull-up infrastructure is weak in rural regions. While even the smallest villages provide road signs to the “instalaciones deportivas,” these athletic centers usually offer just a tennis court and a dusty soccer field swarming with rabbits. A workout can be improvised on the bars of the goal box—but keep your eyes open elsewhere around towns, because proper pull-up bars can be found. Good bets are public parks, especially along walking or cycling trails. In Panes, Asturias, there is a full exercise court by the Cares River, just a quarter-mile from the cider houses of the town’s main street. But the higher of the two bars is so low that an adult’s knees will touch the ground even at a dead hang—a particular problem in Spain’s outdoor fitness culture. Many bars, too, are sloppily tilted, and pull-up-prone tourists may often wonder just what pencil-pushing bureaucrats designed these structures. Well, the Spaniards seem to be making efforts in the right direction, anyway, but for now your best bet in Spain is to head to the soccer field or improvise on barn rafters or bridges.
France. They’ve given us escargot, the illustrious baguette, cheeses that smell like boot-rot and stove-top techniques like deglazing, flambéing and sautéing—but with their heads stuck in the kitchen, the French have often neglected to fit their public places with sufficient horizontal workout bars. Wonderful public parks, lush and vibrant with trees, lawns, lovers and lily ponds, usually lack exercise courts. What a shame. Thus, France—like Spain—is a nation where old buildings and doorways must often serve as pull-up structures. Just brush away the cobwebs and engage those biceps. But I’ll grant that the French, when they do install exercise bars, do it right: A number of jogging trails in small towns lead past well-built, smartly designed workout courts, with sit-up benches and parallel dip bars and rings. Great locations include the public park in the town of Condom (which features not one but two sets of pull-up bars) and—just maybe the best and most comfortable bar set in Western Europe—in Souillac, beside the equestrian park, in the shade of the trees on the bank of the Dordogne River.
Bulgaria. Many Eastern Europeans and members of the former Soviet states take their bar exercises seriously. Russians and Ukrainians often learn the ropes in high school, and their prowess as Olympic gymnasts speaks to their business-like approach to tossing their bodies about the high bars as nimbly as gibbons. Bulgaria is much the same, and in many schoolyards and parks you’ll find triple-tiered bar sets, solidly built, high enough for adults and plainly meant for real business. In Zlatograd, near the Greek border, you’ll find a great set of bars by the tennis courts, beside the Varbitza River. And in the Rhodope Mountains, in the town of Sarnitsa, a workout can be had on the bars in the schoolyard. Fear not: Your knees won’t hit the ground here, and unlike nearly anywhere else in rural Europe, you just may be sharing the bar with others—poker-faced, militant men with arms like telephone poles. But they’re friendly, and if you watch closely, you might even learn a few tricks. The pullover is a popular bar exercise in former Communist states (and much easier than it looks, in fact).
Turkey. Though agrarian, traditional and conservative in many parts, Turkey has fitted its promenades and town plazas surprisingly well with exercise equipment. This consists mostly of strange stationary pedaling and rowing machines that I never have been able to make sense of, but a few levelheaded community planners have installed no-nonsense pull-up bars in their public parks. In the beautiful town of Egirdir, for example, on the shores of the lake, a set of bars stands behind some hedges. School had just let out for the day when I found these bars, and the local boys swarmed me before I was done with my first pull-up set. But time your workout on the Egirdir bars for mid-morning, and they’re all yours.
New Zealand. Finally, welcome to pull-up paradise. New Zealand’s pristine wild scenery is its prime attraction for most visitors, but it’s an added bonus that in virtually every town in the country a traveler can locate at least one horizontal bar, seven or so feet off the ground in a field of soft green grass. These may be actual pull-up bars, or they may be monkey bars of a schoolyard playground—but it makes little difference, as long as you can grip, dangle and pull up. Schoolyards are open to the public and usually left unlocked, even on weekends. “Welcome to our playground,” many gates read. Why, thank you. Open, enter and enjoy. Some pull-up friendly structures are also available in city parks and make picture-perfect sites for a workout, some cool-down stretches and a picnic lunch afterward. In Christchurch’s Hagley Park, a jogging trail leads past 17 exercise stations, including a bar set in the woods—but the bars are way too fat to grip. “Jeez—what pencil-pushing bureaucrats—” Oh, never mind. Just move on 30 yards and use the hanging rings. If you get as far south as Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland, visit Milford Sound, cast a fly for a brown trout and cap your epic day on the pull-up bars at the town high-school rugby field.
January 24, 2012
From the window of a moving car, the landscape passes by all too quickly—without smell, sound or sweat, without headwind, tailwind or even a breeze and with little sense of satisfaction upon reaching a high mountain pass or the day’s destination.
It’s a far cry from bicycle travel, and I’m a bit jealous of the dozens of cyclists we pass every day. New Zealand’s roadways are thick with cyclists, and the nation appears to be a bicycling paradise. The towering Remarkables as they rise over the Clutha River, the sprawling valleys and vineyards, the greenery of the West Coast rainforest, the cliffs along the sea—all must be especially spectacular when seen from the saddle of a bicycle.
But one cyclist I met camping at a small wilderness lake north of Queenstown has been cycling in New Zealand for more than three months. She is now three-fourths of her way into a two-year tour of the world, and Pauline Symaniak, of Scotland, says New Zealand is a notch below thrilling, lacking a blend of adventure and excitement that was never absent from the Americas and Europe.
“To be quite honest, New Zealand has been the least satisfying of all the places I’ve been,” she told me.
Pauline began her journey in 2010 in Edinburgh. After quitting a relatively lifeless job working for the government, she pedaled through France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. She hopped aboard a cargo ship that delivered her to Argentina, where a continent in the height of summer lay at her wheels. She crossed Patagonia and the Andes, and went north into Bolivia, to Lake Titicaca. Then she boxed up her bike—always a logistical pain for cyclists—and flew to Miami, took the Greyhound to Boston, and from here pedaled with an old college friend across America to Seattle. Time was unlimited, with money in the bank, and so she flew to Auckland.
And then her fast adventure slowed to a puzzlingly sluggish pace, and it took Pauline a few weeks of exploring to realize what was going on.
“Even in America, there is history and magic, in layers,” she said. “There’s culture.”
But New Zealand, it seemed to her, lacks something. This country has tremendous wilderness, vast and unexplored, with thrilling mountain ranges scraping the sky like looming murals and beautiful coastlines of cliff and sea—but it is also orderly, tidy and tame, clean, trim and polished. None of which is bad, exactly, but for a woman who has left her job and home to circle the world on a bike, New Zealand may be too cozy for comfort.
In Pauline’s words, “New Zealand is great if you want to be comfortable.”
Even from a moving car, I can see it: There seems to be no dirt or imperfection across the land. Almost every turn in the road is marked with a neat sign and labeled on the map. Fences demarcate the country like a checkerboard and line every roadside. There is meanwhile an overbearing tourism industry that keeps a wet blanket over the spirit of true adventure. We’ve seen this in towns like Te Anau, Wanaka, Franz Josef and Queenstown, which all somewhat resemble Aspen, Tahoe or many other squeaky clean tourist magnets. In places like these, nearly every conceivable travel experience has been snatched up, polished, packaged and marketed to tourists. In almost every coffee shop and campground office we see posters and pamphlets for guided wine-tasting tours, hiking and river rafting “safaris” and so much else for tourists unable to see that New Zealand is beautiful even without tour buses and guides. Other experiences have been invented from scratch and pumped full of adrenaline, like flying lessons, skydiving excursions, water skiing and heli-biking (for mountain bikers unwilling to fight gravity).
Pauline, like many cyclists, gets her thrills from simply watching landscapes come and go. Speaking of which, she soon leaves New Zealand and flies to Australia. After a brief tour of the Aussie East Coast, she will go to Istanbul, Turkey—where, as almost anyone who has been can attest, the thrills and beauty of discovery will resume. She rides west from there. As she goes, Pauline is blogging; follow her journey as she continues around the world.
Meanwhile, we have arrived in Kaikoura, a town flanked by sea to the east, flat green farmland to the west and staggering mountains to the north, and the beauty here has restored my faith in the possibilities of New Zealand. In fact, while my family is scheduled to go home, I have called the airline to extend my stay, and I’ll be reporting soon from the saddle of the sweetest vehicle and adventure-powerhouse I know: my bicycle.
November 15, 2011
Now that I’m home again and sleeping in a cumbersome nest of quilts, sheets, mattresses and pillows—an unnecessary luxury called a “bed”—there is at least one benefit: I can read late into the night without fear of being seen and mugged by good-willed Turkish Samaritans. This, precisely, happened to me in the highlands near Izmir. The other evening I came across the following words in the second edition of Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, by Stephen Lord, and I had to laugh: “An ideal camping place is unseen from the road and not in the line of vehicle headlights….”
This is plain, simple, accurate logic dictated by common sense, and I’ve known it for years.
Yet on one particular night in October in the Aydin Mountains, I was lazy and camped just 15 feet above the road. I was drinking wine and reading a book with my headlamp, flipping off the light each time I heard an approaching engine on the road. I felt graceful, sly, discreet—like I was a fearless, wise cat and the mountain all mine. I saw every passerby, but not a soul on Earth knew I was here—until I botched it at around 9 p.m. A car came around the bend and I wasn’t quick enough. My light, which I had restored with brand new batteries that afternoon, illuminated the entire hillside as I fumbled for the button. In a moment I managed to flip it off—but it was too late. The car pulled to a stop just below me, and a young man stepped out. Fearlessly—but with reassuring innocence—he plodded straight up the bank and into my camp and sat down beside me. We chatted for a few minutes, and he said he would be passing by later with a collection of buddies and that they would be sure to stop.
“Great,” I said.
He wasn’t lying. It must have been 2 a.m. when a van stopped below the road. Five drunk young men—the first visibly intoxicated men I think I’ve seen in Turkey—spilled out and began dancing in the highway to Turkish music from the car’s radio. One by one they clambered up the bank to sit with me. None spoke English, and we struggled to converse for the next 30 minutes. I realized that I was a host for once and these fellows guests in my modest pad. I had no tea but I offered wine. We passed the bottle around while making laborious conversation. They furnished me with all sorts of far-fetched warnings: There were snakes here, they said, and roving herds of vicious swine.
“Eh,” I said, shrugging.
They finally stood to go and insisted that I come with them to sleep in a spare bed. I’ve rarely been able to explain to the civilized people of the Earth—at least not in Turkish—that I prefer sleeping under stars than strange ceilings. Yet I held my ground and my friends departed.
Stephen Lord, I was amused to read, has had similar experiences on the road in the Middle East. “Good luck,” he writes in his Handbook, “in explaining your preference for camping over staying in their home where you will be expected to sing for your supper.”
He also writes that “…one reason to pursue ‘stealth’ or discreet camping is that you will eventually tire of being invited into locals’ homes. This tradition of hospitality is especially strong in Muslim countries…Refusal can be awkward so think ahead.”
And stick to the woods, keep clear of the road and beware of your headlamp.
Tucked into my blankets and comforters here in San Francisco, I’ve also been reading through Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, admiring Robert Louis Stevenson’s simple adventures in the south of France. I’m feeling a growing kinship with the author, for it seems he encountered some of the same paranoia that I’ve observed. One night early in his trip he stayed in a monastery—fashionable today among paying tourists but at the time just another option for the wayfarer—and the monks, Stevenson writes, “…threaten(ed) me with many ludicrous misadventures, and with sudden death in many surprising forms. Cold, wolves, robbers…were daily and eloquently forced on my attention. Yet…the true, patent danger was left out.”
I’m reminded immediately of all the warnings I received of wolves and bears in Turkey while no practical advice was ever offered about true annoyances and hazards to the bike tourist: steep slopes without ground to camp on, no running water in the next 30 kilometers, asphalt so bumpy it’s as bad as cobblestones, and hunters who drive the roads at night with loaded rifles aimed into the bushes.
And the same mis-prioritized system of cautioning tourists occurs in the Republic of Georgia, where I toured for three weeks in 2010 and never received a single word of caution about the perils of the highways, which in Georgia are exceedingly dangerous. I recall the day I entered Georgia from northeast Turkey. In the first mile I saw two vehicles run oncoming cars off the road and onto the shoulder as they made harrowing attempts to pass others, all parties honking wildly at the others. I grew accustomed to simply ignoring this madness of the Georgian highway. But it would have been nice if someone had kindly warned me, “My friend, watch out on the road or we’ll run you down!”
But almost all I heard about, time and again, was the threat of Armenians and wolves. So feared were the latter of these enemies that on one particular night 10 grim-faced people stood around me in the street, all excitedly chattering about wolves. A girl who spoke English said that a pair of folks in eastern Georgia had been killed by wolves recently. These people had their way, in the end, and I was taken to a home. “Can I sleep out here in the yard?” I asked as we entered the gate. “Wolves,” they answered and stuffed me into a dark room with two snoring men.
The next evening, as I camped high in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, I heard howling in the wind, across the hills.
I later did some research, and guess what? Fatal wolf attacks did indeed occur in Georgia in 2009 and 2010. In the Balkans, I received bear warnings in 2009, though no one spoke much about the landmines—which are, thankfully, clearly announced by ominous signs bearing skulls and the word “Mines.” As for the feared Turkish bears, two people were killed by them between 2003 and 2008. Still, I wasn’t a bit nervous when I encountered a whopping pile of scat in the hill country just south of Bursa this October.
But as I read through the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook from the comforts of home, I’m pleased to find that Mr. Lord is all business and reason; the threat of bears is not even discussed. And Stevenson in his Cevennes account further wins my approval when he writes, “I was much disturbed by the barking of a dog, an animal that I fear more than any wolf.”
November 1, 2011
Izmir is to the fig what Bordeaux is to wine. The fruit didn’t originate here, but the region produces more and probably better figs than almost anywhere else. Those large, chewy, sugar-encrusted, dried Turkish figs that you find at some natural foods stores were likely grown in the prosperous valleys near Izmir. So renowned were this region’s figs in America even 130 years ago that California entrepreneurs of the time, keen on becoming fig farmers, imported wood cuttings of Turkey’s best fig trees from the southwest Smyrna region, especially the Sari Lop variety. They planted the trees by the thousands in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. It took several years of failed crops for farmers to discover that a particular species of pollinating wasp was also needed for the figs to ripen, and so the U.S. Department of Agriculture isolated, imported and released the Eurasian bug in California. That did the trick, and at last, at the turn of the 20th century, the first bumper crops of California Sari Lop figs arrived. In honor of its old and its new homelands, the variety was renamed the Calimyrna. The San Joaquin Valley would become the nucleus of New World fig production.
Especially in the Menderes River drainage near the city of Aydın, fig trees cover almost every fold of earth deep into mountain ravines and across the valley floor. In warehouses and empty shop fronts, four-foot-deep heaps of dried figs spill out of doorways, waiting to be exported to the world, and fresh figs are sold along roadways and carefully packed and sent around the nation. Those who enjoy roadside fig hunting may be in paradise here, though the sport should be pursued with respect and restraint. Orchards are off limits, of course, while any trees dropping figs to the pavement are fair game for plundering, in my mind.
And though more figs grow here than most other places, Turkey produces more of almost every other crop as well. Its apple harvest, for instance, was more than 20 times greater than its fig harvest in 2008—the former weighing 2.5 million tons over the fig’s national total of 205,000 tons—and the fact remains that almost no one, anywhere, eats figs.
Entering the region from the northeast, the first thing that caught my eye was not the fig trees but the beautiful Bozdag Mountains. They loomed on the horizon, just south of the Gediz River valley. The Bozdags stand as high as two miles above sea level—and they climb to these heights from sea level, or just about, making for the sharpest of geographic relief and thrilling scenery. As I drew near, I saw deep, shadowy ravines and canyons slicing into the north-facing flank of the mountains, and I could see the orchards petering out on the slopes and giving way to the pines and granite of altitude. When I came to a road sign pointing into the mountains to a town called Bozdag, I bagged some figs, bought some almonds and broke for it.
The valley dropped below me, and thunderheads hanging over the Gediz valley turned pink and blue as the sun went down. On the mountainside there was no flat ground to camp on, and I raced onward for the top, turning my blinking lights on as darkness fell. The stars were out when I finally reached level ground, and I pulled up by a fruit shack to ask the owner if I could camp in his adjacent picnic patch. He was a bit flustered by my sudden appearance, but he shrugged and said yes. “Here, please, 5 lira,” I said, handing over a bill. He looked puzzled but accepted without taking insult, and I made my camp as the night’s chill set in. For the next five days, I bounced back and forth between the parallel east-west Aydin and Bozdag mountain ranges, dropping each morning into the green lowlands and spending the afternoons on long, laborious, out-of-saddle climbs back into the summits. Climbing by bicycle into the peaks of wild and strange mountains is one of the greatest joys I know—though I’ve met touring cyclists who avoid hills and highlands like sailors might a notoriously nasty shoal. They nervously study their maps and hug the coastlines and follow the main roads and, I suppose, never know what thrills they’re missing.
But touring this region wasn’t all fun and games, high roads and mountain air, because I was a tourist, and I had important work to do. Precisely, I had to go visit Ephesus, renowned as one of the most stunning ruined cities of the Roman era. But when I got there, I reeled backward from the wildest circus of mayhem, gridlock and crowds I’d seen since rush hour at Beşiktaş. I hadn’t met a single tourist in days, and in the parking lot of Ephesus were least a hundred full-sized buses, fleets of taxis, and several thousand people. What appetite I ever had for Roman amphitheatres and pillars of fluted marble evaporated in an instant. I sat on a bench in the shade for 30 minutes, dazed by the chaos, tormented by indecision, and unsure whether to bounce back into the mountains or do my duty and enter this ancient place. Finally, I stood. “Our history blogger will never forgive me,” I muttered, but there were no regrets as I rolled out the exit. A surprise northward tailwind picked me up from behind, and my spirits exploded like the full billowing sail of a racing catamaran. Giddy and glad, I sprinted north, and by dusk I was hauling my way uphill for my last beautiful night in the Bozdag Mountains.
Why do I love mountains? Because they’re there. Wait—no. That’s a weak answer. Here’s why: Mountains transform worlds. One may travel thousands of miles horizontally in any direction and see little or no change in the landscape; pedal across Siberia, and it remains Siberia from Finland to Kamchatka. But travel just 4,000 feet vertically, and the world around you rapidly transforms. Climate zones come, and they go. The tree fruits vanish as chestnuts and pines appear, and thrilling views open across the widening vista. Boredom, which rules the flatlands of sea level, dissolves, and while blubbery cows may graze listlessly in the hot, dreadful valleys, in the cool air of the summits and passes are sleek wild horses, bears and wolves. There are even parts in southern Turkey where an afternoon’s ride can take you from muggy, subtropical banana groves into a landscape resembling tundra. How incredible is that? In the Bozdag and Aydin ranges, so thrilling was the act of climbing that most evenings I was still pedaling well after dark by the light of my headlamp. I just never wanted to quit.
And the people! They were as collectively warm and generous as any I’d met. One morning in the Aydins, a huge Kangal stud leaped off a bank, bent on my destruction and snarling savagely in my path. A young man, attracted by the ruckus, hurried up a dirt driveway. “Mustafa!” he scolded, which turned the dog friendly. The family had me in for tea, then showed me through their two-acre farm. They gave me a melon, a pile of sweet cherry tomatoes and, of all the kindly but baffling gifts to offer a cyclist on a hot day, four pounds of fresh-cut broccoli. I could think of only one thing to say: “Petrol!” Onward, calls for tea followed me through the region. If I ever complained before about tea invitations, can I take it back? The unstoppable torrent of kindliness, friendly honks and open smiles was phenomenal, and many exchanges with locals sent me away giddy and rapturous—and always, every afternoon, looking for the nearest road up.