Rivers, Alligators, and Chocolate Bars

.Bosnia+Herzegovina.

I spent the morning carving my way downhill after the climb to the physical border between Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The entrance to this new country was grandeur as I stood overlooking green mountains, exposed rockfaces and the wide river that cut through the valley below. I had been riding through the beautiful mountains of Montenegro for the past week but this was the first time that I got a river. It is emerald green and so clear that I could see the rocks and stones far below the surface. I marveled at it. Stopping multiple times to just watch the ripples dash across its green surface. Little did I know, that later that evening, this celestial body of water would be the source of despair, a call to my inner-strength and the catalyst for a really bad cold.

Being alone on the road has been conducive to a lot of inner dialogues. “I’m tired” my lazy self would say “Come on, Nicole. This country is too beautiful not to camp in!” my adventurous self would plead. I never know which will win the argument but yesterday, it was my adventurous self. I picked myself up out of a café chair which I had lingered at far too long, got myself to a grocery store, and picked up some pasta and vegetables for dinner. The grocery store in Trebinje was big and lit up and stood in great contrast to the surrounding town which was old and quaint with stone bridges and homes, red roofs, monasteries on cliff sides and wooden water mills in the rivers making one feel like they’ve stepped into an old storybook.

 

I knew from the onset that I wanted to camp by the river, so after my 66 km descent into the town, I rode 15 km into the countryside, past tiny villages dotted along at the foot of a rockface smattered with some greenery but mostly standing tall and exposed and protecting of the valley below. Idyllic is an understatement. I rode up and down little hills, a smile spread wide across my face and deep in my heart. I passed trail after trail but none of them called to me. None of them were by the river which I was determined to fall asleep near. Clouds started to gather overhead, deep and threatening rain. Eventually, a pitter-patter began and I knew that I had to make a choice–Stop and set up my tent as quickly as possible or keep riding into the rain. After almost a week of sleeping in a damp tent, I decided to stop and duck for cover as quickly as possible. Falling asleep with a damp, down sleeping bag sticking to your legs, on a cold damp mat is not ideal, no actually, it flat out sucks. To my right, I saw a small herders path. I dropped my bike and sprinted down it to see what I could find.

There it was, the perfect spot. Flatland directly beside the cool calm emerald river. I ran back up to my bike, pedaled down and set up my tent as quickly as I could manage. The rain stopped just in time and I was able to sit in the grass, relaxing and journaling before the sunset and it was time for sleep. I was so pleased. “Everything works out in the end,” I said to myself. “Sometimes, you just strike gold with a campsite.” There are many reasons why camping by a river is ideal. The water supply for cooking and cleaning, the tranquility, the soft sound of water moving along its course as you drift into sleep, being some of the main reasons. I have been so lucky to camp by rivers much of the time over the last year and take advantage of all the gifts it has to offer.

On this particular night, the river offered a different kind of gift. It was 11:30 pm when I woke up suddenly and grabbed for my phone to check the time. As I felt around the dark tent for my phone, I wobbled. “Oh no.” I grabbed my phone and turned on the flashlight. But as I sat up, I sank, as if on a trampoline, and water started to come up from the beneath me. It felt as if I were on a waterbed, and in a sense, I was. I unzipped the inner layer of my tent and saw my red Ortlieb panniers bobbing about, trapped, thankfully by the rainfly. I unzipped the other side to see my slippers floating, my toilet paper roll soaked through and deteriorating and my water bottle pressed against the rainfly wall trying desperately to break free. I opened the zip and stepped out to assess the situation. I was in the river. Water was rising fast. But where was it coming from? It wasn’t raining, there weren’t even many clouds! I stood, ankle deep in water eyes pointed to the stars and stared, frozen. Moments passed and passed, but I couldn’t move. I just stared at the stars hoping for some stroke of urgency or plan of action. Nothing. The water spread up my pant legs, I shivered, a knot formed in my throat and tears started to streak down my cheeks as my belly trembled from both the cold and the panic that was starting to wake up inside me. Helpless and utterly alone I begged the stars for a sign, and when it didn’t answer, I heard one within myself. “Move, you idiot, the situation won’t fix itself.”

 

Still crying I moved toward the back of my tent, my legs were heavy as they sloshed through the now calf-deep water, and I started carrying bag after bag toward my bike which, at this point, was still on dry land. I took whatever I could grab in the darkness from the front zip and removed the pegs around my tent. Water had now filled the inside of my tent and I tried to drag it over to my bike. It was so heavy with water that I started to take everything out one by one– my heavy soaked sleeping bag, my saturated sleeping mat, my bag of clothes (which doubles as my pillow), my handlebar bag with my most valuable items in it, also filled with water. Eventually, it was just light enough to drag through the water up to where my bike leaned against a rock which was now becoming less and less dry land and more and more claimed by the river. “It’s not good enough. I have to move everything elsewhere.” My inner get-shit-done-voice said again. So with heavy legs and heavy arms, I grabbed bag after bag and brought them uphill to the road. I searched my bag for my headtorch. It was dead. “Batteries… I know I have spare batteries somewhere!!” Digging through my bags I found them and put them in the head torch. I went back down to get my bike and was now knee deep in water. Each trip down to my bags and back up to the road was efficient, fast moving and motivated. With the emergence of this new inner voice as a guide I, though fighting myself the whole way, got everything out of there while holding my emotions relatively together. Until I saw it. A dense elongated jaw bone, the length of my foot with sharp polished teeth glaring up at me. “oh my GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!!” This is when my inner-strength voice ran and hid and my THIS-IS-AN-EMERGENCY voice decided to step up.

Standing up the road, now with all my gear around me, my tent still set up, I called Jerry. He didn’t answer. I called Charlie. “Hey! What’s up?” He said ever so casually. “THE. RIVER. ROSE. I’M. SOAKED. AND. SO COLD. AND ALLIGATORS ARE IN THE RIVER. TELL ME WHAT TO DO!”
“Okay, tell me the situation,” I told him everything–About the river rising, about my gear being soaked and the cold, about the jaw bone with spiked teeth glaring up at me from the water. “Alright, just take a deep breath, you’re out of it now, why don’t you just hang up your stuff in a tree and try to sleep.” This is the most classic Charlie advice. The rough-and-tough response. The phone then went silent. I tried calling again and again but we couldn’t hear each other. Alone. I have to do this alone. I CAN’T DO THIS ALONE! I tried calling Oliver and Claudia, a South African couple I braved the Mongolian steppe with. They’ll know what to do.

“HEYHEY WHATSUPPPPP!” they yelled from the other side of the world. We haven’t caught up much since we split ways in Mongolia so they were definitely not expecting what followed. “I’M ALONE AND ALL THIS SHIT HAPPENED AND IDK WHAT TO DO!”
“take a breath Nicole, I can hear your voice is shaking. We’ve got you and we’ll figure this out. Send us your location and we’ll find the closest town. Pack up your bike and go there. WHAT A LIFE! HAH!” Okay. A plan. And some comedic relief. God, I love those people. I packed my sopping wet gear into my panniers and into plastic bags I had tucked away for “just-in-case” situations, undid my tent, rolled it up and slopped it onto the back of my bike and rode into the night. The cold wind rushed past my face, chilling me to the bone. I rode for about 10 km until I saw a gas station and pulled over to take a look at my phone and see if there were any guesthouses. I found one and gave them a call… being that it was 2 am I was not very hopeful, but Apolon Guesthouse provided. “Hello. I am sleeping. What are you saying?”
“I have a problem!!! Can I come now?!”
“Yes.”
“see you in 10 minutes.”

I left the gas station and out of nowhere, the rain started. “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” I yelled at the clouds. But at this point, the fear had fallen away. I was taking action. I was riding in the night in the rain and I felt alive. After a few wrong turns, I made it to Apolon Guesthouse. Without any questions or any interest, he showed me the room, turned heel and went back to bed. I dumped my things in the room and jumped in a hot shower, ate an entire bar of chocolate, and passed the F out around 3:30 am. I woke up the next morning feeling hungover. Sloppily dried out my things, cooked some pasta and called my friends and fam to tell them what happened and that I was alright. Sitting in numb reflection on the patio of this lovely guesthouse, I thought about the happenings of the night before. The fluid transition of shock, fear, tears, action, empowerment, comedy that transpired in a matter of hours. Remembering the glaring white teeth, I googled “Bosnian wildlife” and realized that my panicked mind had turned a Gar or Pike fish jaw into an alligator. Go figure.

Rivers are the givers of life and usually, the givers of a great damn camp spot. Last night, the river gave me something else. Yes, fear and shock and terror, but a meeting with a usually evasive inner strength that took hold and got me the fuck out of there. There are very few times that I have had an encounter with this Nicole Voice. She hasn’t really had to come out much. But the river brought her to me and she got me out of there alive and well and with a hell of a story to tell.

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nicoleheker

I'm a 25 year old recent graduate of Penn State and am embarking on a mission to see the world in hopes to unlearn, relearn, connect and just be me for a while.

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