Serendipity at Thermopylae

Serendipity at Thermopylae

I’ve been wanting to share one of my favorite moments in Greece last summer. I’ll set it up, but I’m gonna start off with a tangent so don’t let it be too distracting.

 

PREFACE

I’ll try to set the scene.

When we took the boat back from Skiathos, we arrived at a port in Volos. We were about to buy bus tickets for the 4-hour drive back to Athens, but we got suckered into a Taxi ride all the way there, instead. For less money than the bus tickets. Remind me to tell you sometime about the part where Allison and I both considered very seriously the idea that we made a mistake by getting in the taxi, and were being kidnapped. We even got transferred from the first taxi to second taxi, with a driver who spoke zero English and was on the phone every 4 minutes. He was taking us well off course, and we ended up near a small airport. Allie, sitting to my left – directly behind the driver – leaned over to me at one point and whispered, “If it goes down, I’ll go for his eyes while you take care of the rest.” She was not joking.

 

SERENDIPITY

We were not kidnapped, of course, and I hate to tell a story about something that almost happened but didn’t. So that’s not what this post is about. 

I will say, though, that on that very same kidnapper-taxi ride back to Athens, about an hour or so into the drive, we randomly ended up taking a route along the coast that took us right past Thermopylae. It was fleeting, but I was thrilled to see it in person.

 

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I’ve read that the sea (not in frame) used to be much higher, here, with the shoreline reaching roughly where you see that modern highway.

In the photo, above, you can see that canyon on the left side of the frame. Those are the “Hot Gates,” the route the Persians would need to take to continue their invasion of Greece (and the rest of Europe) back in 480 B.C.  And that highway you see there is the one that our taxi driver ended up serendipitously taking back to Athens.

 

AS THE STORY GOES

Thermopylae (or Hot Gates, in Greek) is the setting of the famous battle in 480 B.C. where 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas, fought alongside a Greek force of around 7000 against the Persian King Xerxes and his invading army of somewhere between 100K-150K, which was sweeping the globe. Many of the Greek city-states had already pledged allegiance to him, in order to save their necks. Athens and Sparta were among those who opposed Xerxes. The decision to march on Xerxes at Thermopylae was not popular, and was surrounded in political controversy.

The Battle of Thermopylae is famous for the Spartan’s heroic last stand in the narrow mountain pass on the shoreline of the Aegean Sea. Because of terrain, strategy, and the logistics of marching your army so far from home, going through the pass at Thermopylae was the only good route for Xerxes’ army. Any other route involved high risk of his army being cut off and stranded in Europe; but with the bridges they had already built, and the navy they had in the Aegean, the Persians theorized that if they held Thermopylae, they could march throughout Greece and well into Europe. It was here that, against overwhelming odds, the meager Greek forces held off the invading Persian host for three days.

There’s a ton more to the story, with many separate battles, naval warfare, and much more. But Thermopylae was arguably the hinge pin to all of it.

As the story goes, Leonidas led the small Greek force to Thermopylae and met the Persians at the entrance to the canyon. Man for man, the Spartans were far better warriors, and seriously outmatched the Persian soldiers/conscripts. And while the Persians outnumbered the Greeks by at least 14 to 1 (likely more like 20 to 1), the Persian numbers meant nothing within that narrow pass. The Greeks – more especially the Spartans – slaughtered wave after wave of the Persian invaders.

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Yes, the movie 300 was a little dopey and not especially accurate. Fun, though.

 

After the second day of fighting, Leonidas and his men were betrayed by a local Greek, who told the Persian commanders of a small mountain pass that led behind the Greek lines. Leonidas became aware of the betrayal, and – knowing the Persians would soon surround them – he ordered nearly all of the Greek host to retreat (later to regroup) while he stayed behind with his 300 Spartans and about 1100 other Greek soldiers. This group of roughly 1400 Greeks held the pass for one more day, securing the retreat of the larger Greek force. Many sources say the Spartans outlasted the rest of their Greek brothers in arms, until all were surrounded. Given the chance, they refused surrender.

All were killed. Their sacrifice helped to unite Greece and, in numerous ways, made possible the defeat of the Persians, and ultimately allowed for the formation and spread of democracy (an idea in its infancy at the time).

On a monument erected shortly after the battle is a short poem, whose translation comes out roughly:

Go tell the Spartans
Strangers passing by
That here, by Spartan law we lie

As you can see, I’m a real geek on the subject. It’s an inspiring story about a battle that profoundly affected the world in ways we’ll never fully understand. It’s a pivotal moment in world history. Who knows what the world would look like if Xerxes’ army was able to continue their march into Europe?

 

IT WAS ENOUGH

When we first arrived in Greece – because of some of the snags we hit with the crooks at Ryan Air – we had to choose which places we would and would not be able to visit. Remember that our business was about two and a half years old when we left, and we were doing this as minimalists, with an extremely limited budget; some have wondered why we went at all, with almost nothing in savings and such meager monthly income. It’s a fair enough question, from a conventional perspective. Maybe we had no business going at all.

Here’s my answer: If you have to ask why, the question is moot.

Anyway, you can imagine why I was disappointed when we had to re-assess our budget and I realized how just far out of the way Thermopylae is from where we were staying in Athens. We had to cut a few of the fun things, and visiting Thermopylae was one of them. Even when we went to Skiathos, the bus we took to Volos bypassed Thermopylae. It just seemed unrealistic to make it out there. I had written it off.

So imagine the grin on my face in the back of that taxi, when I saw the street signs on that coastal highway:

Θερμοπύλες | Thermopylae

With a start, I realized where we were. Allie did, too. She noticed the same green street sign and, excited for me, she asked, “is this it?” I looked eagerly out the right side of the taxi and recognized it in an instant. The Hot Gates.

“Yup.”

Looking on the narrow mountain pass, I remembered a passage from the novel Gates of Fire (award-winning historical fiction by Steven Pressfield), where a young Spartan in training (roughly equivalent of a squire) named Alexandros asks one of the veteran Spartan soldiers if he fears going to battle. The soldier responds by squeezing at the flesh on his arm and says:

“Never forget, Alexandros, that this flesh, this body, does not belong to us. Thank God it doesn’t. If I thought this stuff was mine, I could not advance a pace into the face of the enemy. But it is not ours, my friend. It belongs to the gods and to our children, our fathers and mothers and those of Lakedaemon a hundred, a thousand years yet unborn. It belongs to the city which gives us all we have and demands no less in requital.”

 

With reverence and wet eyes, I took in as much as I could as we flew along the highway. My inner-warrior relished the moment as I looked on the ancient battlefield where such heroes died for something larger than themselves. Allie knew what was going on, and squeezed my hand without a word. We didn’t stop the taxi. Our driver spoke no English, and I didn’t need to see the touristy souvenir stands anyway. We passed by at highway speeds, and within minutes it was well behind us. But it was enough.

VIDEO | Going Home – Part 8
Athens to NYC

Well this is it. Last video of our travels to Greece last summer. It takes you from our last days in Athens to the streets of NYC (my first visit ever). Amazing and surreal to go from seeing the remains of temples and buildings first constructed 5th Century B.C. to seeing the modern-day Manhattan.

The video starts out with us cruising through nearby neighborhoods and familiar sites that we walked through during our weekly routine. The Parliament building at Syntagma square. The food and markets at Monastiraki. Our metro station. The U.S. Embassy. Of course, before leaving Athens, we had to hike up the hill in the center of it all to see the Acropolis close up.

We were ready to go home.

Each time I’ve flown internationally, I’ve returned via NYC. But this would be the first time I actually left the airport and visited the city. It’s always a thrill to see the skyscrapers from the airports from the plane as you’re about to land. I almost don’t even mind the long wait to get through customs (almost). I enjoy the feeling of being back in the US, and seeing that giant American flag watching over the endless zig-zagging queue of travelers shuffling through line and waiting get their passport stamped.

Anyway, here’s last video from our wandering last summer:

Watch the other videos on our home page by scrolling down to that section. Or click here.

 

Allison’s sister, Annie, was there to pick us up when we got stateside. We arranged to get a hotel and spend a little time exploring some of that NYC has to offer.

I’ll include a few of my favorite images from NYC, in [roughly] the order that I saw experienced them.

 

TAKING THE STATEN ISLAND FERRY

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CENTRAL PARK

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MIDTOWN, THE SUBWAY, & LOWER MANHATTAN

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9/11 MEMORIAL MUSEUM

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BROOKLYN BRIDGE & NY AT NIGHT

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It was stunning and a bit unbelievable to see the city up close for the first time. I’ve been to some big cities, but nothing like New York. I was amazed by the cleanliness of Central Park. I was surprised by the filth and complexity of the NY subway system, as compared to that found in London and Athens. I was gratified with the reverence and tone of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I was both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the busy-ness of Times Square.

Also, I was unimpressed by New York pizza that I’ve heard so much about. Meh. I’ll have to try Chicago next.

I really enjoyed walking the Brooklyn Bridge. While taking in the sites and sounds, I remembered watching the news footage the day of the 9/11 attacks, and watching all the masses leave Manhattan on foot using this same bridge (and others).

Overall, I was in awe of the scope of it all . . . just how big, and just how small New York is. I mean, they built it on a tiny little island, and filled up every possible space with buildings and people. To get to one of the biggest cities in the world, you have to take a boat or a bridge. Unreal.

By the time nightfall came – after all the flights and sleeping in airports and walking around Manhattan Island on foot – we were spent. Sitting on the ferry, the low hum and rumble of the engines was a soothing lullaby, and Allie prettymuch passed out immediately. Aside from getting back to Utah, our journey was at it’s end.

 

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VIDEO | Getting There – Part 7
Saying Goodbye to Mystras

My original plan with Allison was just a two-day, one-night motorbike ride to Sparta and back. But the exhilaration and beauty of being back on a motorcycle . . . in mountain country . . . in Sparta . . . we fell in love with the place and couldn’t leave right away. In fact, the tiny little town of Mystras (just 5 minutes outside of Sparta) was the place that really stole our hearts. So after ditching our plans and getting lost in the Taygetus Mountains west of Sparta, we made our way back to the town of Mystras and found a place to spend the night.

 

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Mystras is a formerly-fortified town that sits on the steep slopes at the base of the Taygetus Mountains. They still proudly fly their own, bright-yellow flag side-by-side (sometimes) with the Greek flag. There’s some great Byzantine history there, and they still pride themselves on the role they played in the Greece’s long, war-filled history. In fact, the night we were there, we were surprised to be witness to the grand finish to a half-marathon which they hold annually to celebrate their heritage, and more specifically to commemorate the death of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine Palaiologos, who ruled in Mystras until he went to war; he fought and died in defense of Constantinople from the Turks. His statue is prominently displayed in the city center.

I had a hard time sleeping that night, and after hours of trying to go back to sleep, I decided to go out for a walk at sunrise. The town was silent and bathed in golden light from the east.

 

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My favorite part of that walk was the snap dragons (pictured above), growing right through the mortar of a rock wall. A fitting tribute to a tough, beautiful town stuck on the side of a mountain.

It was hard to leave Mystras. It’s become one of our favorite places; we’ve even remarked, since leaving, that if we ever go back go Greece it would be to stay in Mystras longer, and wander those mountains some more. But it was now Day 3 of our motorbike adventure, and we had some miles to cover if we were going to make Athens by sunset.

 

 


 

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VIDEO | Getting There – Part 6 Sparta on a Motorbike

VIDEO | Getting There – Part 6
Sparta on a Motorbike

Exactly one year and one day ago (as I write this), Allison and I rented a BMW F650GS and left our Athens apartment for someplace better. For those of you who appreciate more details, there’s a more contextual post about it here.

We couldn’t get out of Athens fast enough. We sped along the coast to Corinth, then south through the mountainous Peloponnese Peninsula. It was on this ride that Allison and I rediscovered just how much we belong in the mountains. Skiathos had shown us what a Greek island paradise is all about, and we loved it there. We needed it. But – for me at least – the beaches and sand didn’t hold a candle to what happened to my soul in the Taygetus mountains overlooking Sparta. This was originally going to be an over-nighter, leaving on Friday, staying the night in Sparta, and returning to Athens on Saturday. But waking up that next morning in Sparta, the mountains were calling to us. We answered.

We originally thought we’d take a quick ride up the canyon for a bit that morning, then get back on the road and head home. But once we found ourselves in those winding canyons and cloud-covered peaks, we abandoned all our planning and routes and schedules. We spent all day getting deliberately lost. It’s a lesson I learned in Morocco, and had to re-learn here:

It’s amazing what you can find when you shed your fear of not knowing where you are and replace it with the wonder of discovering where you are.

This latest video starts where we left off in Part No. 5 and takes you through Day 1 and 2 of our Sparta ride.

 

Watch the other videos on our home page by scrolling down to that section. Or click here.

 


 

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VIDEO | Getting There – Parts 4 & 5

VIDEO | Getting There – Parts 4 & 5

As I write this, it’s been nearly a year since Allie and I left on this adventure. Seems I should get caught up. The good news is that business has been good. Allie and I have been busy enough that keeping current on here hasn’t been a priority. But we’ll try to balance that out a bit.

At any rate, the video Part No. 4 (below) starts out on our last day in Italy, and follows us to Greece. In editing it, I’ve tried to capture the emotion of our travels; what it was like to say goodbye to Florence and Rome, and to be greeted by Athens. I made an effort to include shots from the daily/weekly routine – like “planning meetings” on the beach in Glyfada, taking the subway everywhere, and occasional visits to the market in Monastiraki.

We’ve already mentioned the somewhat-bitter taste that Athens left in our mouth, but it’s so important to keep it all in context and remember the soul-quenching feelings and experiences that come from travelling outside of your country (not to mention comfort zone).

These videos are a self-indulgence for me, in the sense that they’re really just for my own entertainment and benefit. Obviously I want to have something to share with friends, family, and future kiddos. But I’m a collector. I want to capture moments like this – the visual, the emotion, the nostalgia – and keep it all, and have it to take with me. There really is beauty and magic to be found while wandering foreign places – even in the dirty, dumpy streets of cities who have all but given up. I’m glad we got to sample life in Athens, even for just nine weeks.

 

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

And then there was Skiathos.

For all the stress and hard work in Athens, the pay off was Skiathos. This was our much needed get away. Allison and I wrote all about it already (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) if you want more of the back stories and photos. I’m sure it sounds obnoxious to complain that we needed a break from Athens, but so be it.

We needed a break from Athens. And this was it.

 

 

Watch the other videos on our home page by scrolling down to that section. Or click here.

 


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Sparta on a Motorbike | Day One: The Gods Smiled on Us

I think Allison would agree with me that the highlight of our time in Greece was – without a doubt – the motorcycle ride from Athens to ancient Sparta (and a good chunk of the Peloponnese Peninsula). As you can see on the map, this first day of travel would take us from our apartment in Athens along the bay to ancient Corinth, down through Argos and a magnificent mountain range near Achladokampos on the way to Tripoli, then down to Sparta.

It would turn out to be one of the best weekends of my life. I hope you’ll humor me and read along while I describe the events leading up to it.

Or don’t. The pictures are pretty, too. :) 

* * *

When we first set out for Italy and Greece in March, I was hoping to rent a motorcycle once in Florence, then again at some point in Athens. I’ve already mentioned that we were on a minimal budget, and – having encountered some unexpected expenses – we had all but accepted the idea that we wouldn’t be able to afford this second Mediterranian motorcycle ride.

We worked hard to create extra projects and new services to offer our Vagabond Original clients. I was glad that we earned some extra play money and made it out to Skiathos. Once we got back from that much-needed island hiatus, we were basically preparing to head home soon. IT wasn’t looking like we’d be able to rent a motorbike after all.

But it was eating at me. There was a naughty little motorcycle demon, gnawing on my black, leather boots and playing in my motorcycle jacket hanging sadly in the closet.

The demon knew. The very first time I started seriously considering a visit to Greece, I knew I wanted to ride a motorcycle to Sparta. And no amount of consoling myself with lists of amazing things we had already done would assuage this demon. There was only one way to exorcise it, and it involved two wheels and gasoline.

By some miracle, I as able to work hard and scrape together some last minute funds. Return tickets had already been purchased well in advance, and we had our other expenses budgeted and covered. This extra cash was just for some last-minute playing before we would leave. I started searching frantically for a motorcycle rental shop, but it was a bit last minute, so most of the places we called didn’t have anything available besides goofy little scooters and tiny 150-250 CC motorcycles (not nearly big enough).

The demon laughed and shook his chains.

But someone on Mount Olympus was looking out for us, even in seemingly insignificant ways. I found a place that had a 650 CC bike available. A Honda. Nothing wrong with that, but I had to dismiss my hopes of riding a BMW this time. Still – while 650 CC is at the small end of the spectrum for two-up riding – this was the best option available to us, and I was just thrilled that we were doing this thing.

The plan (originally) was just to leave on Friday (our last Friday in Greece, in fact), stay the night in Sparta, then ride back the next day in time to drop it off before getting charged out the nose for a 3-day weekend rental. So it would be a quick trip – just an over-nighter. This would be enough to satiate me (and the horned imp, now waltzing around in my leather gloves).

So the motorcycle was booked. Our room in Sparta was booked. The route was planned. Kilometers and liters were factored again and again.

Then, with a distant thunder bolt and a clap of thunder hanging in the air, the guy I had just booked the bike with called back with a deal we couldn’t refuse.

“We were thinking, here, that this is not a long time for you to have the motorbike. If you’d like, we wanted to offer you to still pick up the motorbike on Friday, and then have the motorcycle through the weekend – three days – and drop it off on Monday morning, but we would only charge you for two days. Would you be interested in this?”

Yes.

That would give us enough time to do some extra riding on Saturday, make it back to our apartment in Athens, and maybe screw around a little on Sunday before dropping it off Monday morning.

This flexibility would pay off in a different way than we imagined. But that’s for later.

Thursday night, we checked the whether report for our trip. It had been raining pretty hard that week. It looked like there would be thunderstorms Friday morning in Athens, blowing through around 11am, with more thunderstorms in Peloponnese (where we would be riding) around noon for a few hours. But if we timed it right, it appeared that the Peloponnese storms would blow through before we got there; meanwhile, the heavy rains would reach Athens again, but not until after we had left.

In theory.

Like I said, it felt as if someone On High was taking care of the tiniest details. This pattern of happy circumstances would continue throughout the weekend.

Friday morning came, and went about as planned. There was rain first thing in the morning which let up by the time we got to the bike rental shop. Once there, we were looking over the Honda that we were about to rent. While in the garage, I noticed that someone had brought back a BMW F650GS.

“Is the GS available?”

It was.  She was. Another bonus.

* * *

The first leg took us out of Athens, along the bay, and straight to Corinth. There was plenty of traffic getting out of Athens, and more lane-splitting than Allison would have liked.

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Corinth is located on the narrow neck of land connecting the Peloponnese Peninsula to mainland Greece. It actually has a narrow canal (think Panama) carved right through it to allow ships to pass from the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf and out to the Aegean Sea without having to travel all the way around the peninsula (you can see the canal if you zoom in on the embedded map at the top of this post).

We had limited time, and the timing with the storms had to be monitored, so we bypassed the modern city and went straight for Ancient Corinth, situated just south-southwest at the base of a steep, rocky hill that has to be described as a mini, mound-like mountain. On top of this hill is a large, ancient fort.

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It was amazing to see the Temple of Apollo and imagine the apostle Paul walking those same paths and preaching Christ’s gospel to the Corinthians.

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We couldn’t help but sigh in disappointment at the junk lying around, typical of so many of the sites we saw in Greece.

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No matter.

One of my favorite things about Corinth was the large fortresses built on the hilltops.

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From one fort, you could see another fort on top of some distant hilltop on the horizon (if you look closely, you’ll see it).

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Turn around, and you could see another, on yet another hilltop in the other direction.

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This is Persephone.

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We stopped here and explored the hill a bit before sitting down in the golden grass for a picnic.

Just as we described in our Skiathos posts, our adventure picnic was, again, made up of hard boiled eggs and some fresh oranges. Not much of a meal. Just some proteins and sugars to get us to where we were going. I look back fondly on these meager lunches. Hard-boiled eggs will forever remind me of adventuring.

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The beauty of it all was staggering. Still thinking about the apostle Paul, I wondered aloud if he ever wandered on this same hillside, lamenting the sins of the locals in the city below.

We took turns with the camera, trying to capture just a bit more of the feeling of this place before getting back on the road.

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The day had grown warm, and the sky was gorgeous. Although we couldn’t see them, the storms between us and Sparta were dissipating as planned. We got back on the road and headed south, toward Argos.

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It was great riding. We leaned into curve after curve as the road snaked its way up into the mountains south of Corinth.

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The stretch of road through the mountains near Achladokampos (between Argos and Tripoli) was particularly spectacular – both scenery and riding. I wish the camera could have captured even a tenth-part of the depth of those mountains and valleys. The landscape, sky, and lighting added drama to the high-speed curves of those foreign highways. Talk about a natural high.

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I got a little emotional a couple times, doing what I love, with the woman I love, feeling watched over by a God that I love.

We were doing it. The stuff we’d been talking about. The motivation behind quitting my desk job after Morocco was the catalyst that led me to Allison, led us both to full-time freelancing, had recently led us through the cities and countryside of Italy, and had now led us here, flying down a mountain road I knew I would never see again, in some of the most dramatic lighting, scenery, and context I could dream up.

I felt an overwhelming sense of exhilaration and peace. We were doing it. And we were going to be okay.

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In the noise of the engine and wind, I found myself shouting expletives of joy inside my helmet. If only you could have seen what this sky really looked like.

After stopping to take these photos, we put away the camera and took a moment for ourselves to absorb the stillness, and observe the movement of the shadows and the light.

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And with that, the demon was gone.

The sun had just begun to set when we made our way down a twisty canyon that opened up into the valley where we set our eyes on the city of Sparta. With large, rolling hills to the east, and the towering Taygetus Mountains overlooking the city from the west, Sparta was nestled in a valley not that unlike the one we’re used to in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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Editor’s note: For the sake of context – here’s a photo that we took on Day 3, as we were leaving Sparta. For those of you familiar with the Wasatch Front in Utah, the peaks of the Taygetus that you see in the photo below are roughly 1000 ft taller (valley floor to tallest peak) than Mount Timpanogos. Impressive.

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For probably-very-obvious reasons, Sparta was a special place for me (I’ll gush about that later in the Man Things section). It was my Mecca. And the mountains made it feel a little like home.

Historical significance aside, it was a lovely little city. We got checked into our lovely little hotel room with plenty of time left in the evening to stroll around and find a much-needed meal (the eggs and oranges had worn off by now). Maybe it was to be expected, but Sparta is a town that knows why it’s on the map. We didn’t have to walk far before we came across reminders of Sparta’s heritage.

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After eating, sitting, and a bit more wandering, we walked back to our hotel and settled in for the night. It was a lovely day of riding. And Day Two was looking to be even better.

We had no idea.