We were a ragtag group of seven in an alien environment. Three Americans, two Canadians, one Frenchman, one dog – a German Shepherd bitch that seemed to appear out of nowhere and never tired. We gave it a nickname that’s since been forgotten. All of us: disheveled, vagrant, ill prepared, possibly with hangover—I don’t recall. Our alien environment: Cappadocia, a lunarscape in Central Anatolia, Turkey, made up of sandy canyons and ravines, skeletal trees, dead grape vines, ancient cave-ruins that had been carved into the sides of cliffs and nestled deep into the earth itself thousands of years ago by fearful locals seeking escape from pillaging armies. It’s home to giant sandstone towers. Some, which travel writers often melodiously refer to as “fairy chimneys,” have been shaped by the wind for so many millennia that they are now both the shape and hue of towering phalluses. It seems more psychedelic daydream than a place that actually exists. Yet it is real, an environment that would be fitting as the backdrop in a Wes Anderson film. Ultimately, it’s an ideal setting for getting hurt or lost or killed in the grand but often frowned-upon pursuit of adventure. Alas, we survived.
Our bikes: of the “mountain” variety, you could say, providing you ignored the “for commuter use only” stickers. Rear brake levers on the left rather than the right side of the handlebars, causing the uninitiated to nearly flip into scraggly, horned plants waiting at the base of singletrack descents. Plastic pedals and ripped seats. Shocks that had long since lost their spring. Gears that at times functioned and at times did not. We were on the shittiest bikes available in all of Cappadocia, mostly because my editor at Switchback Magazine requested that we “rent the shittiest bikes available” in all of Cappadocia. A reasonable request, really, given that adventure is best when experienced with either a complete lack of preparation or during a stretch of deprived decision-making.
Like, say, wandering off into the Amazon on a non-established trail leading away from your lodge to “check things out” only to discover that you are in fact surrounded by pythons and crocodiles. Or camping next to a river in near-freezing temperatures without a tent, a sleeping bag, or a shelter of any kind for that matter, on purpose, to see how things turn out once hypothermia begins to settle in. Maybe perhaps taking a bunch of mushrooms and then tripping balls while sitting, with legs dangling over the side, at the top of a 300-foot canyon wall at night.
The greatest stories—the greatest life experiences—are often born out of foolishness and misery. So when my kind editor—who certainly knows all of this to be true, as he’s the type of masochist who willingly participates in 24-hour races and that sort of nonsense—said to rent the shittiest bikes available, I knew he was in fact looking out for me.
In the honey-colored village of Göreme, population 2138, the happening center of Cappadocia, our group gathered, sought, discovered and rented the two-wheeled jalopies and thought, Sure. These will do. Some of our group, continuing with the theme, donned WWII-style helmets made of a variety of plastic that looked not at all equipped for impacts of any kind, let alone impacts occurring at high speeds, high heights, and hard surfaces, such as we were sure to face.
We rode south from Göreme. Or, wait. Was it north? Hard to say. Orienting oneself in Cappadocia is a challenge. It’s a sea of unending geographic oddities. Eventually, after a paved road, a dirt road, and then a trail, we arrived at Görkündere, AKA “Love Valley,” valley of the penis boulders. Just after the start, the trail widened to a flat-topped plateau where we passed an old guy in a skullcap peddling tea and coffee from a trailer. We privately questioned his business acumen, wondering who exactly he was planning on selling tea to in this relatively desolate stretch of trail, which narrowed once again and wended throughout the valley. I remember the ride only in bits and pieces, most of it scattered in what can’t possibly be chronological order. At one point, our drifter dog appeared, started trotting alongside us, and someone asked, to no one in particular, “Where’d this dog come from?”
One of our crew, Arthur, the Frenchman, burned down cigarettes as he rode up sandstone knolls and down singletrack of crumbling soil. Unlike the dog, Arthur indeed tired. One of the Canadians, Mark, who with a thick beard, the WWII helmet, a grungy striped shirt and aviators, looked like a modern-day bike-piloting pirate. My good friend Dan (burdened like so many Dans with the nickname “Dan The Man”), donning bright red knock-off Ray Bans, shorts, and what appeared to be combat boots, made note about Love Valley’s dick scenery and joked about gnawing on sausage.
Was there anything serious about this ride? It appeared not, even though there was plenty about it that should have been. The terrain owes its existence to two surrounding volcanoes, which some 30 million years ago spewed, cloaking the valley in ash and lava that eventually compressed into a powdery tuff and tough basalt. It’s the sort of place you read about in history books, one of the world’s longest continually inhabited regions, however sparsely at times. The Hittites, the Persians (before Alexander the Great arrived and laid waste to them, anyways) and then the Romans, all conquered the area. It was part of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Each consecutive kingdom arrived, decided they’d like to own this sliver of the world, and then stormed around in massive armies causing havoc and mayhem. Yet here we were with our Huffys, a stray dog, and no deeper thoughts beyond, “Man, these rocks look like giant dicks.” But such is the nature of some adventures, especially the finer ones, when you’re not concerned with etiquette, up-class decorum or any of that nonsense and instead let yourself become just another mangy animal.
Like, say, not knowing a thing about rock climbing, then attempting to free solo what looks like an easy pitch of granite that turns out to be not easy at all and nearly sends you to your death for what seems like hours until you literally (but not literally, thank the Christ) shit yourself. Or driving through the most remote part of Patagonia on a gravel road in a snow storm in a two-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf with no cell phone and no food and no water and having the Golf break down, and then experience a kind of freak-out that lingers at the threshold of complete mental breakdown. Or going to a place called Cappadocia, renting bikes on the verge of collapse and venturing out into remote canyons armed with a “map” comprised of nothing but cartoonish renderings of penis mountains with squiggly lines darting throughout, not to scale or scope or to any other measure of accuracy, winding up on a series of trails that eventually lead, without you knowing it at all, to a slot canyon the width of a starving cow, with oh-shit-serious cliff-side drops, and instead of saying, Yeah, this is probably the place to turn around, you shoulder the Huffy, carry it down the precipice and become filthy with dust and mud and stench and… Oh. Wait. Sorry. Walking down a precipice isn’t exactly earth shaking, is it? There’s no certain-death element in getting kind of muddy, is there? Sometimes looking for adventure means intentionally being ill prepared. But here’s the takeaway. Try as you might, you can’t plan adventure. It just has to happen. Riding bikes in Cappadocia—while awesome and exciting, for sure—is nothing to truly egregious outings like getting lost in Patagonia or tripping out with your legs dangling off a cliff or being swarmed by man-eating reptiles in the Amazon.
Here’s what it’s like to ride in Cappadocia: If it’s at any one of five specific times of the day, you might be cranking towards a bluff that offers a view of a thousands-year-old church carved 100 feet high into a cliff, and hear the simultaneously enchanting and haunting calls to prayer sent out by nearby mosques. The wailing prayers will echo throughout the valleys and against the cliffs. If it’s near sunset, and the call to prayer is singing, and the sun is low, and the air is crisp because it’s winter, you might get the sudden sensation of being on an entirely different planet. You’ll realize that this is some of the best riding you’ve experienced in a long time, so good that it comes as no surprise that the 2007 European XC World Cup took place here. If you ride until the weather turns, you might be pelted by hail balls the size of small marbles. If you ride until night and need to sleep, you’ll find a cave that once upon a time was used as both a home and hideaway from an army, and you won’t worry about the weather at all because you’ll be perfectly protected, tucked away deep within a mountain where nothing can get at you but the continued sensation of being somewhere truly unique. While in the cave, especially at night when there is absolutely no presence of light whatsoever, you might marvel at how the people from so many centuries ago could live in such conditions, sometimes hiding from the armies for literally months on end until it was safe to emerge. You might think back on the ride and wonder why mountain biking isn’t more popular in a country that seems to have been crafted from the earth for exactly that purpose. Or you might just drink some beers, revel in your filth, and make jokes about rocks that look like dicks.