If life has grown drab and listless, full of the same sights and sounds day in and day out, imagine for a moment the 2022 spring of Caitlin McCauley.
Since mid-April, the 31-year-old Apalachicola woman has been bicycling through Europe, not enhanced by subway and train rides, and staying in fancy hotels.
McCauley is a purist sort of tourist, and has done it the rugged feet on the ground, pedal to the medal, sleeping in a tent beneath the stars, sometimes a hostel, sort of way.
She’s chronicled the journey with daily entries on Facebook, featuring intriguing photos she’s taken with her smartphone of the places she has ventured through, everywhere from World War II bunkers in the Netherlands, to the opulent galleries of Vienna to remote islands in the Adriatic Sea off Croatia.
And equally important has been her encounters with the people she has met, smiling faces that illustrate her Facebook chronicles.
“Met this girl who I swear if we lived in the same country we would be best friends. We spent two days exploring and drinking together. “Before I left she made me a friendship bracelet,” wrote McCauley, with a picture of the bracelet.
“I’ve met many very sweet people on this trip, no one too strange though,” she wrote in another entry. “One of my favorite people I met was Raphael, an older French man who helped me with a flat tire in France. When we found out my pump was broken and the bike shop was closed, he gave me his bike pump and biked with me to the river.
“While in Germany an elderly cycling couple invited me over to their house for the night. We met on the bike path while I was scoping out a place to camp,” McCauley recounted, of her encounter with Elisabeth and Jogi.” They showed me around their house and to the shower. We spent the afternoon drinking wine together in the garden, and saw fireworks from the next town over.
“I slept in the guest room downstairs,” she wrote, together with a picture of the couple. “They had children my age, I’m guessing that’s why they were so nurturing.”
The steps that led McCauley to take a trip were forged ever since she rode down to Apalachicola four years ago from Chicago.
“Although I didn’t really grow up camping, I did live by some woods I enjoyed exploring with my dog,” she wrote in an email. “I had a somewhat sheltered upbringing, which is maybe why I find bicycle touring so liberating, fulfilling and exciting.”
McCauley discovered Apalachicola on a bicycle tour in March 2018, and six months later, moved out of her Chicago apartment and bicycled down here.
“I left Apalachicola a few more times for multi-month bicycle tours but always came back,” she wrote. “I had been dreaming about doing something like this for 10 years, but it wasn’t ‘til I let my Chicago apartment go that I was able to really pursue it.
“It was a great journey. Chicago to Gary, Indiana, to Louisville, Kentucky, winding through Chattanooga into Nashville, Tennessee, and straight down though Atlanta and on from Tallahassee,” McCauley wrote. “I spent two months on it and got back to the Apalachicola Coffee and Chocolate Company in time for the holiday rush. Good ride! Worked on a farm and got lost in a cave.”
McCauley is grateful for the support she has received from Faith Ward and Kirk Lynch, owners of the Apalachicola Chocolate Company. “They have let me work with them five times now in between tours. Very supportive boss/environment,” she wrote.
While in Apalachicola, she formed a bond with Tommy Cooper, and he can hardly hide his excitement to see her again after she flies back to Chicago on July 6, and then comes back to Apalachicola a week or two after that.
It will be the end of an American in Europe adventure that began in mid-April, after she arrived with a modified cruiser hybrid that she packed up at Kevin’s Bike Shop in Apalachicola and then flew over after a visit with family in Chicago.
“I currently have a Salsa Marrakesh touring bicycle, but I arrived on a modified cruiser hybrid and did most of my tours on a mountain bike,” she said.
On April 22, McCauley left Paris and headed to Bruges, Belgium, and then rode along the northern islands of the Netherlands where she visited Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. She picked up the Rhine River a little south of that and rode south through Germany, visiting such places as Duisburg, Dusseldorf, Cologne, and Bonn, and then headed through Baden Baden east to the Black Forest.
From there she picked up the Danube River and rode across the rest of Germany into Passau, then Austria. She visited Vienna for a few days and then made the detour to Brno, Czech Republic, through wine country. From there she continued south and back onto the Danube in Bratislava, Slovenia until she arrived in Budapest, Hungary.
From there she headed towards Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Hungary, and continued biking along lakes in Hungary until the border of Croatia. “These were very long hot days of biking at this point,” she wrote. “I spent a few hours exploring Zagreb before climbing the Dinaric Alps to get to the coast of Croatia.
“I write to you currently from the island of Pag,” McCauley wrote a week or so ago. “I am spending my last week hopping around the islands of Croatia, exploring leisurely with my bicycle.”
She wrote that the most unusual part of the trip occurred on her last night of camping along the Danube when she found a secluded spot in the woods to hang her hammock and build a fire.
“I had a very nice strong fire going. As the sun set, the woods seemed to grow eerily quiet. A small patch of leaves started to flap brilliantly despite the lack of wind. Only a small patch of leaves. I thought maybe it was the heat from the flame but even the closer leaves didn’t move. And then from behind the treeline behind the river this giant orange full moon started peaking out. It felt like a very special goodbye from the Danube River.”
She wrote that she endured one of the hardest nights of camping along Lake Balaton, where a severe thunderstorm blew her tent sideways and rain pummeled down for two hours.
McCauley said one of her favorite nights was when she discovered a wine cellar with a small lounge inside and refrigerated local wine for sale on a rainy afternoon.
“As the evening rolled on and no one showed up I started to cook dinner and set out my sleeping pad. Late at night the owner showed up to lock up,” she said. “I explained to him I came with peace and respect. He offered to let me rent a room in the house for the night and I told him I preferred the lounge in the cellar. He said that was fine.
“He then drove me to his other cellar a block down where he had wine fermenting. His wife brought out three glasses and we all sampled wines. I went back to bed in the cellar that night (and left a nice note with some cash behind),” she said.
One night she spent in a giant aluminum fish sculpture she had spotted along the bike path in Austria just as rain rolled in. “I listened to the pitter patter of rain drops on the aluminum roof all night long, I left the next morning at the crack of dawn,” she wrote.
She said the best beer she tasted was a wheat beer from Kloster Weltenburg, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, monastic breweries on earth, brewing beer since 1022. “It was full-bodied and very bright, with notes of banana and clove,” she wrote. “I have also been enjoying radlers, a beer mixed with lemonade, and Kwak, a very nice Belgian beer. Overall, the best beer was probably in Belgium or Germany.”
Her regular routine, because of the hot weather, is to be on the road by 6:30 a.m. And then to start looking for a place to camp around 8 p.m. if I do not have a hostel booked. “I’ll bike anywhere from 50 to 80 miles a day, but I’ll have zero days too sometimes to explore cities,” McCauley wrote. “The riding conditions vary greatly, in the Netherlands the biking infrastructure is amazing, bikes have their own traffic lights, roundabout lanes and are distinctly separate from the road.
“These past few days in Croatia have mostly been narrow fast-paced with no bike lanes at all. I have enjoyed a few gravel detours along this trip and have ridden along a few euro velo routes (basically designated long distance bike routes),” she wrote. “I’ll listen to NPR news podcasts in the morning and the music to the mood/terrain. Ramones for uphill climbs, Cat Stevens for windy peaceful roads through woods.”