Tag Archives: hiking

new footsteps in old montenegro

it was only about a two hour drive down the coast to reach kotor, montenegro, but dave and i had been so enraptured with dubrovnik that we had spent too much time wandering the walls and hadn’t left until sunset.  by the time we reached the border crossing, it was dark, and dave and i pulled into the passport inspection trepidatiously, unsure of how it worked or if we were proceeding correctly.  i had never driven across a border before, and most of europe’s borders are open, due to the schengen agreement (schengen is an agreement throughout a majority of european countries that states that all internal borders among countries are open and allow travelers to move unencumbered without having to produce documents to enter or exit countries.  the only enforced borders are external borders, or borders from the countries on the outer boundaries of the schengen zone.  when entering into through those ports -or airports, obviously- you go through a security zone where documents are checked, passports stamped, and then your countdown begins for allowable time spent in the zone starts – for americans this is a total of 90 days allowed spent in europe during a 6 month period.  once your 90 days are up, it’s time to leave the schengen zone), but montenegro’s border is secured entirely by the montenegro government, as they are not part of the schengen agreement.  as we approached the gate slowly in our vw golf rental

okay, this is checkpoint charlie in berlin. this is not what the montenegro border control looks like.

car, i was reminded of all my favorite cold war era spy movies, where you drive into a cleared out area, approach a gate with heavily armed guards and official-looking military uniforms that command attention.  i started joking with dave about what his spy name was and then suddenly snapped to attention when we pulled up by the guard station.  i rolled down my window and held out our passports and rental car paperwork.  i was surprised when the guard emerged from the window, revealing herself to be a very attractive woman in her late 20s.  she smiled politely, said hello, and then sat back down in the booth, checking to make sure everything was in order.  i looked back at dave to make eye contact and silently mouth the word “HOT!” to him.  he smiled and nodded and we looked back.

without looking up from her work, the woman addressed us.  “why do you come to montenegro?”

expecting the question, i didn’t hesitate. “we want to see beautiful kotor!” i said cheerfully.

the woman glanced up and then held her gaze.  time froze for a second, just long enough to wonder if i had just said the wrong thing, and suddenly she burst into a cute, relaxed laughter.  confused, i smiled in relief and waited for some sort of explanation.

“guys, you can relax.” she said through a giggle.  i looked back at dave, who had the same confused smile i had.  we were both leaning forward and looking up at the guards with almost uncomfortable curiosity and intensity.  we had been so on edge and so intent on making sure we didn’t mess this up that we looked like a couple of overeager schoolboys on the first day of class.
“is only montenegro,” she said with a knowing smile, “welcome and enjoy.”  she returned our papers and the arm of the barricade lifted up.  we slowly pulled out of the border control zone, laughing at our own silliness.

we drove the winding roads in the dark for another 15 minutes before passing through the first major town, herceg novi.  it was dimly lit, with sparse street lighting that cast a shadowy atmosphere over the city.  it appeared to be more on the industrial side, with few things attracting passersby or tourists.  we passed by a few graffiti decorated buildings and a couple sections of roadside with broken up sidewalk with weeds growing up through the rubble, and people walking along, not too far from the road.

“yikes.  this seems a little shady.” dave expressed a little concern.  it was then that i realized that this was probably the closest to “unsafe” that dave had ever experienced while traveling.  we certainly hadn’t been anywhere in italy or dubrovnik that was off the beaten path.  i smiled, unconcerned with any potential danger.  i knew exactly what dave was feeling, but it had been awhile.  i actually missed the feeling a little.  the light fear of the unknown, the inexperience of a new culture, the insecurity of the new.  i had been traveling long enough now that this was my new norm.  suddenly i got excited.  i was going to get to watch the evolution of dave.  i would get to be front and center as dave interacted with new cultures and became exposed to different worldviews, and i would get to see how his thoughts would expand and change, just as mine had over the previous four months.

we finally reached kotor, after driving all the way around the bay.  everything was dark, so we hadn’t been able to see the giant body of water we had been driving alongside, but as we approached the city, we stared in awe at the dimly lit compound that loomed high in the mountains above the city.  it was the medieval fortifications of the city from ancient times, preserved now with rebuilt walkways and steps and leading all the way up to st. john’s castle at the top of the mountain.  the hazy, dull orange glow from the streetlamps illuminated the perimeter as it rose high above the city.  dave and i agreed we would hike to the top the next morning.

we found parking and located our hostel after entering the walled old town center and wandering around for 10 minutes trying to figure out how to get around when none of the avenues were labeled.  the old town was a small area, so it was easy to memorize if one was so inclined, but for a first time arrival, it confused us a little.  when we finally arrived at our hostel, the property manager, kokolo, greeted us cheerfully and took us on a tour of the city.

“you can leave the hostel?  but what if someone needs you?”  i asked earnestly.

“there is no one here!  there is only 4 japanese students staying here this week other than you two, and they don’t talk to me or anyone else.  they are kind of boring, so i don’t think they will need anything from me” he said with a laugh.  he was happy we had arrived.

as we walked around the old city, kokolo pointed out important historical buildings and the significance, happily teaching us about the history of his city and his country.  he stood about 5’8” and had a 10869887_10203450034919114_1000369602329276144_obig, toothy grin that always adorned his face, even when he was listening passively to someone else speak.  he had short black hair and thick eyebrows that sheltered his dark, honest eyes.  he had started to allow his beard to grow in thick, as the winter of december had begun to set in over the balkans, and he wore a hoodie sweatshirt and a jacket to combat the cold.

dave began to get more inquisitive and curious about this individual who had lived a wholly different life from him on the other side of the world, but was really very similar in interests and style of conversation.  i tailed from a distance, snapping off photos and listening attentively as dave and kokolo interacted.  neither dave nor i had known much about montenegro or its history, so it was really interesting not only to get a private tour of kotor, but to be able to get the local take on things without the tourguide spin.  kokolo was studying tourism in school, but he wasn’t practicing being a tourguide with us, he was genuinely interested in us and wanted to share his culture.  we asked him questions about managing the hostel, about life in montenegro, and eventually about the conflict in the 90s.  he shared with us freely, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

IMG_6217as we returned to the hostel, a young cat crossed our path casually (are cats ever not casual?) and kokolo excitedly scooped her up.  we had noticed quite a few cats throughout the old city, often picking through garbage bags left in back alleys, ready to be disposed of the next morning.  but this particular cat was one that kokolo was familiar with.  she affectionately cuddled up against him as he held her, and he enthusiastically informed us that he IMG_6218had been feeding her semi regularly until about a week ago she had
stopped coming by.  this was the first time he’d seen her since.

a little later, dave and i left the hostel to find some dinner.  we found a small local restaurant and had an unremarkable meal that filled us up and did its job.  after dinner i suggested we venture out again into the night and explore some of the areas that kokolo hadn’t taken us.  dave seemed unsure at first, but caved easily once i pressured him.

we wandered away from the well lit areas and explored into the darker alleys and walkways.  the further i pushed into the dark, the more uneasy we got, but it was fun and exciting to be extending into the unknown.  i found a steep staircase that i excitedly ran up, and found myself along one of the fortified walls.  i wanted to see what was on the other side, but there were no windows, only tall stone walls.  i found a small garden area with a small door in the corner where there clearly was a small apartment that someone must have lived in.
“dude i think we’re in someone’s front yard.  we should get out of here” dave suggested.

kotor at night“hah. cool.  okay we’ll get outta here, but let me just look down here first.”  i walked to the end of the walkway toward an archway that was in disrepair.  i poked my head in to find only darkness.  there was no roof, so the night sky hung low over the clearing i was now standing in, but i couldn’t see anything around me.  to my right, about 50 feet away, was the silhouette of a low portion of the wall.  on the ground below, a floodlight bathed the outside of the wall in illumination.  i turned to approach the edge and look out, but suddenly i heard a noise.  it was heavy breathing.  i froze.  i definitely should not be here.  i heard steps, growing louder and louder.  it was a faster pace than just casual walking.

DCIM100GOPRO“dude, let’s go!”  dave whispered violently.  i turned around and began to retreat when my eye caught the silhouette of an old man jogging near the floodlit wall.  he drew near to me as i made my way back the way i came, and suddenly i could see him better.  he muttered a phrase to me i couldn’t understand repeatedly and gestured for me to come in, come in, come in.  he passed by, not really caring to see if i actually would.  strange, i thought.  i turned back around and strode confidently into what appeared to be a courtyard area on the top of the wall.  i walked up to the edge of the wall and looked out.  a paved road ran underneath me, leading to i don’t know where, but the view was quite nice, if unspectacular, only due to the visibility as opposed to the darkness i’d been standing in.  i turned around as the strange old man lumbered by me, completing another lap of the courtyard.  in that moment, i felt a sudden comfort, and i wanted to stay and meet the old man, and explore more of this mystery area i’d discovered.  but the old man was getting his exercise in, and had merely detected that i was just a curious tourist and had wanted me to see this rather than retreat in fear.  i waved to the man, who didn’t see me, and returned to dave.  we retired for the night.

the next morning we awoke and consulted with kokolo about the best way to find the trailhead to climb the mountain to st. john’s castle.  he directed us accordingly and then asked us about our plans. IMG_6208 earlier on, before dave had arrived in italy, we had agreed to only focus our energies on croatia and montenegro, but i had been very eager to explore bosnia.  eventually i had ceded that we would be trying to squeeze too much in if we were going to make it to amsterdam for the new year.  we were up against a deadline, but i couldn’t help myself.  whenever i had found myself up against time constraints while traveling, instead of relaxing and focusing attention on one particular place like most people, it seemed to have an opposite effect on me.  i always tried to squeeze as many destinations and activities as humanly possible.

bay of kotor“do you think we have enough time to get to bosnia?”  i asked kokolo.  the tourguide in kokolo lit up, and he began telling us of the wonderful things to see in the country that a typical tourist might never even know about.  my eyes began to get big.  kokolo showed us a picture of an ancient arched bridge in the town of mostar that i immediately wanted to visit.  i looked at dave, pleadingly.  dave clearly wasn’t interested in bosnia.  he was looking forward to getting back to croatia.

“or should we stay here?  should we stay longer in kotor?”  i asked him, weighing options.

“well… you are here in offseason.  there is not much to do here now, and no people to hang out with.  i think you should go to mostar.  and then you will be halfway to sarajevo!  and this city is amazing!”  i was sold.  i wanted to go.  i pleaded with dave as we packed our bags and checked out.

“okay fine.  let’s go to mostar and if we don’t like it, we’ll just go back to croatia,”  dave compromised, “but first let’s do this hike.”   i was ecstatic.  we made it to the trailhead and ascended the stone switchbacks at a breakneck pace.  we now needed to get up and down and on the road quickly if we were going to get to mostar before dark.

out on the balconythere was no one else on the trail, almost as abandoned and forgotten as many of the thousand-year-old ramparts and fortifications that we passed alongside on the path.  by the time we reached the top, we were exhausted.  the view was incredible.  the bay of kotor reaching all the way down the channel with the hills stretching up to create a perfect green and brown contrast to the deep blue of the water.  the city below was small.  a light breeze drifted along the top of the ruins of st. john’s castle as we ate sandwiches and energy bars.  we had the place to ourselves.  it was a perfect place for a perfect curious observermoment.  a tiny swallow landed a few feet from me and stared curiously at me for a moment while i basked in the sun and allowed my pulse to return to normal.

after 30 minutes dave and i agreed it was time to get moving.  we stowed our garbage into the backpacks and began our descent.  we ran the entire way down, taking stairs two at a time.  i almost fell twice, but the adrenaline rush was coursing through my body as my blood pumped wildly, sweat escaping my pores.  we got to the bottom and reentered the city in a breathless, sweaty mess.  a few old women sitting nearby looked at us funny and then began giggling.

we made our way back to the hostel, collected our belongings, bid farewell to kokolo and thanked him for his advice, and then went on our way.  next stop, bosnia.
——————-
this week’s musical magic comes from seattle electro pop quartet beat connection.  featuring fun little synth touches and a light dusting of guitar funk, the soft melodies of song “so good” will leave you swaying to the beat and relaxing in moments.  enjoy…

and for those following along on spotify…

Advertisements

a reunion in the ghost towns of cinque terre, italy

i had been in genoa for a couple days doing nothing when i finally received an email from dave, written in a brief and rushed manner:

“finally got rebooked.  boarding now from germany, see you in a couple hours.”

a few hours later i was wandering around the empty streets of genoa trying to find my friend dave before he got too lost and i couldn’t find him.  i rounded a corner and saw him standing underneath the facade of a large university building, squinting at the signs in italian, searching for any kind of english or guidance as to where he should be going.

“need some help, gringo?!”  i called out as i approached.  he spun around and looked at me and burst into laughter.  i gave him a big hug, grabbed his bag and walked him to the hostel, where the hostel manager, a thin, lively man named carlo, was giving a few of the guests a little lesson on how to prepare noodles in italy.  we got dave checked in and situated in the dorm room and hurried back down to be a part of the action. Continue reading a reunion in the ghost towns of cinque terre, italy

chefchaouen, morocco: the blue pearl of north africa

i met ben and abby in a dingy little coffee shop next door to the bus station in fes.  the coffee wasn’t particularly good, but i’m not sure what could be expected from bus station coffee shop.  i opted instead for a takeaway yogurt and boarded the bus.  we chatted idly for a couple hours, trying to enjoy the sights on the drive, but a strong tradewind from the north had sent storm clouds from europe sweeping down into morocco, dampening the sights and the air. thick clouds blocked many of the scenic views of the rif mountains, and when we did eventually stop for a break, everyone only piled off the bus and then huddled under the overhang of the gas station.  when we eventually arrived in chefchaouen hours later, it was raining lightly and we all just wanted to get to our hotels.  we parted ways and agreed to meet up again somewhere in town, though we never did.  i was okay with it;  they were on their own adventure and probably wanted some time alone, and i had a new city to explore.

chefchaouen is not a big city, and once again i incorrectly assumed that i could just find my own way to my hostel at riad baraka by navigating from memory.  after not being able to locate the hostel and stumbling up and down the uneven, serpentine streets, i began speaking to an old man who had been trying to lure me into his restaurant.  i ended up making a deal with him that he would show me where the hostel was if i ate at his restaurant.  fair enough, i was hungry anyway.  as i sat and ate, i noticed the horrible smell of rotting fish drifting from my pack, and suddenly remembered it as the same smell that had been emanating from the cargo hold of the bus i had ridden in.  something in that abyss of despair had spilled onto my gear, and now i smelled like yesterday’s garbage.  perfect.

harmony hotela spanish omelette and 2 pieces of bread later, the old man led me a few minutes walk away to the riad baraka, making sure to stay upwind of me.  when we arrived there he began asking me for some sort of token or gift to remember me by.  i didn’t really understand what he wanted at first, but i didn’t really have anything i could share with him and i felt badly about it.  i pack relatively simple, clothes and toiletries, and camera and laptop, and that’s about it. i don’t buy mementos or souvenirs. ever.  so i disappointed the man and Continue reading chefchaouen, morocco: the blue pearl of north africa

switzerland, pt 2: the blind leading the blind

the train ride to zermatt was going well and without incident until i reached visp and had to switch trains.  the trains in switzerland thus far had been very nice and very efficient, always on time.  but i suddenly was in doubt of that observation when the train made a routine stop and then an announcement was made stating that the train would not be going any further due to construction.  fresh off the salzburg debacle (where basically the same thing happened, plunging me into a day filled with chaos), i immediately got off the train and started looking for a backup option like a bus or similar alternative.  after looking around for a bit and getting confirmation that there were definitely no more trains going the correct direction, i noticed a IMG_2263few other people scrambling around in an aimless panic.  i laughed briefly to myself, knowing exactly how they felt, but i was also experiencing a weird confidence that was completely foreign to me. despite the fact that nothing appeared be going how i needed once again and there seemed to be a subdued panic setting in on the station, i unexpectedly felt more in control than i normally would have, and i wasn’t losing my cool.  i calmly found a man in a red vest who seemed to be an employee of the train and asked him if there was a bus that i needed to take to continue on to zermatt.  he pointed me to a bus on the other side of the platform, and i thanked him graciously as i left him.  as i passed the small crowd of confused tourists, i noticed one guy standing alone on the fringe with a lost look on his face.  it was a look i was all too familiar with.  it expressed exactly how i had felt any time on this trip when i felt completely helpless or lost and couldn’t understand any of the languages being spoken around me, and didn’t know what to do to remedy it.  i had felt it in paris when i’d had trouble figuring out public transit and couldn’t get any parisians to help me, i had felt it in austria during “the hitchhike,” i had felt it in northern germany when my friend had been late picking me up and i didn’t even know if i was in the right city and couldn’t understand a word that was written or spoken by any of the drunk clubgoers around me, and i had felt it countless more times that i can’t even now remember.  i threw him a lifeline.

“hey man, if you’re headed to zermatt, follow me.”  he looked over at me, relieved to hear english.  the truth is, he was of asian descent, so i wasn’t even sure if he was an english speaker, but he picked up his backpack and followed me over to the bus. people had started to figure out the train company had a contingency and were now starting to swarm, but my new friend and i were able to squeeze on to the first one just before it pulled away from the station, leaving dozens of people to wait for the next bus to scoop them up.  there was no seating left, so we had to stand in the middle with our giant packs for a 20 minute ride.  not the most comfortable thing ever, but at least we didn’t have to wait at the platform for the next ride in the cold of the quickly fading dusk.  up here in the mountains, once the sun was gone, it got cold.  fast.

IMG_0549
zermatt’s humble size pales alongside the monolith of the matterhorn

on the ride up i learned a little about scott.  he was american, from california, and working as a senior project manager at an aerospace company. he was currently on a quick vacation after finishing up a business trip to europe, and had decided to detour over to the swiss alps for an off-season snowboard session before heading back home.  scott was a cool dude, i really liked him.  he had a calm demeanor and was dressed a little too neatly to be of the backpacker variety i was accustomed to meeting on my trip. he also had a more introverted nature than a lot of the people i had been meeting, and i think something from his corporate background had called out to me on that platform, i can’t quite nail it down, but there’s something ethereal about people who have something in common with you that just shouts out to you in the strangest moments, if you are open to it.

as the bus pulled to a stop, everyone piled out and realized that we were still not at zermatt, but rather another train station.  i called to scott in the crowd and pointed at another train that appeared to be ready to leave.  i walked over to a machine and bought a ticket, and scott followed suit. scott joked about the chaos and lack of appropriate signage to let people know where they were supposed to be going.  i laughed and sympathized with him, sharing with him that this had recently happened to me and this was why i seemed to be moving along without incident.  as we rode along in the train i asked him more about his plans for zermatt and if he had any suggestions on where to stay.  he suggested a small hotel he had reservations at, but after hearing the price i knew my budget wouldn’t allow for that.  we exited the train and went our separate ways, but agreed to meet back up for pizza an hour later after i’d had time to secure a place to sleep that night.

i wandered over the bridge to the west side of zermatt and relievedly located a tired but zermatt stelliseecharming looking building that could only be a backpacker hostel, called jugendherberge matterhorn hostel. the building looked old, and it was old, marked by lots of old, aged wood, some areas in mismatched colors like the trimming or where signs were posted to let passersby know that this was the cheapest place to find a bed in zermatt (which still isn’t that cheap.  i paid 30 swiss francs per night, roughly about $30 usd – which is on the more expensive end for european hostels – but i had come to expect this from switzerland. it’s one of the most expensive countries to travel to in europe).  i eagerly entered the building, happy to get out of the cold, and got a room.  the proprietor was a friendly swiss guy who had laughed when i asked if he had any beds available.  “it is off season, my friend!  there’s nobody here!”

as i got settled in, one of my 2 roommates politely introduced himself to me.  the room was average dorm size and the beds not particularly large or comfortable, but they would do, and out of the 6 beds in the room, we 3 occupants were squished into the corner via our assigned beds.  i joked with my new roommates about expecting more guests.  1 didn’t laugh, a japanese guy who spent every waking moment i saw of him connected to a tablet or a phone. the other, the one who’d introduced himself, snickered appreciatively. jean was a frenchman who was in zermatt for a quick extended weekend of skiing before he returned home and began to look for work. tt sounded like a pretty typical thing to do for someone who lived in the area, since zermatt was near both the italian and french borders.

zermatt goat attention
a mountain goat gives me a little stinkeye

“and you? where do you call home?” he inquired.
“well i was living in denver, colorado before i left the states,” i answered earnestly. jean suddenly got a very excited look on his face.  he enthusiastically shared that he had actually lived in boulder, colorado for the last few years, and loved every minute of it.  he had loved the ski resorts in colorado, in fact he said he liked the snow better there than even the alps, but he’d had to leave somewhat abruptly due to some issues with his immigration status.  i responded sympathetically, but i noticed a hint of pain in his voice.  not interested in glossing over meaningful things, i pressed him for detail.

“hold on, what did you mean about your ‘immigration status?’  did you get deported?”

“not exactly,”  he replied, and then slowly began to recount how he’d been in a 3 year relationship with a girl who had finished up her degree at the university of colorado (he also had attended there as part of an exchange program, and then had come back after graduating).  things had run the usual course, being the most amazing and meaningful relationship that he had ever been in during the first year, but the following year, after she had graduated, things had started to get very tense.  his girlfriend had landed a great job right out of college, but he was having trouble finding work as a french immigrant (despite that his english is good and he is a college graduate).  they had started to talk about marriage, and citizenship for him – and had even filed paperwork, but the timing just wasn’t right, especially since he didn’t have money or work, and they had been fighting a lot.  suddenly he had been offered a great opportunity that he would need to move back to france for, but the girlfriend had been very unsympathetic, even hostile, and had started delivering ultimatums.  she refused to leave her job to relocate to france (for the life of me i don’t understand that one), and she refused to convert their relationship to a long distance one, regardless of the time constraints.  jean was trapped in a tough spot, as she had threatened to break up with him if he made the wrong move, but he didn’t really have a “right” move.  during this rough patch, there had been some complications with the immigration paperwork and he had been denied an extension on his visa.  the only option if he wanted to stay in the US would be marriage.  jean then made the difficult decision to end his relationship and return to france.  he had been back in europe for 2 months and decided he needed to get away to clear his head, so he’d arrived that afternoon in zermatt.

once again, here i was talking with a complete stranger, and they were spilling their very personal and intimate stories to me, with seemingly no concern or inhibition.

zermatt mountain roadi was fascinated by jean’s story, and i could feel his pain, despite the fact that he was maturely trying to mask or dull its effect on him. he shared that he hadn’t been sure if he was in love with her, especially during all the conflict and stress they had been enduring, but now he knew.  he had been in love with her.  and now it was over.  for some reason, i always find myself drawn most to the people in this world whom have experienced real loss.  people who have been bruised and cut, whose wounds are never too far from the surface, but whom still find a way to carry on.  jean had been cut, but he wasn’t bleeding out.  he was carrying on.

i had been so enraptured with jean’s story that i forgot that scott was waiting for me to go get a pizza.  i apologized to jean and excused myself, and making plans to get a 6 pack of beer and drink it at the hostel after tomorrow’s events (he was going skiing and i aimed to go for a long hike) and finish the conversation.  he said he was interested in my story as well, and i promised to share it with him.

i met back up with scott at his hotel on the other side of the river after a sprint through the brisk night air.  we wandered down the empty streets, devoid of any activity and few options for dinner.  we made it all the way back down to the train station where we found a pizza shop that was open for another 30 minutes.  we each got a pizza and a beer, and resumed our conversation.  we mainly talked about backpacking, where i had started & my basic route, and i shared little tidbits of knowledge i had picked up along the way.  overall it was a good night, and the pizza was a welcome sustenance, as i had not realized how hungry i had gotten.

the next morning i arose early and procured a map from the front desk of the hostel.  the proprietor was preparing the breakfast (available for an extra 8 francs.  holy hell, switzerland is expensive), but there was no one in the lobby.  since he wasn’t overly occupied, i asked him if he had any suggestions for walking trails.  i had a couple ideas, but i was quickly realizing that this area had hundreds of walking paths and it was not easy to get to the trail heads without knowing exactly where you’re going zermatt switzerland forestor taking a gondola.  gondolas in zermatt are expensive.  i was not interested in paying for transport to get somewhere i could walk, so that eliminated a lot of the trails i thought might be possibilities.  also, according to the proprietor, during this weird time of year at the very end of october, the weather does weird things, so while there isn’t a ton of snow on the ski slopes, the snow still falls and it turns quickly to ice.  and since the mountain is empty, the resorts don’t have a heavy incentive to keep up the same maintenance on the trails as they do in the summer or winter.  so they simply close some of the walking paths.  after crossing off a majority of the interesting looking hikes, there were still 2 available that I had been interested in:  the 5 seenweg, or five lakes walk, or another more difficult trail that definitely had some ice, but i could probably scurry around if i was careful.  it was my intention to attempt this hike.  i wanted a challenge.

i spread a map out on the table and started marking entry and exit points to the trails, as well as break points and then started readying my pack with cliff bars and my camelback water reservoir.  in my focused preparation, i had failed to notice that a few other people had entered the lobby and began eating breakfast.  they had all been watching me, and to be fair, i did look a little weird compared to everyone else in the hostel.  the rest of the hostel guests were vacationers who were here off-season for a short jaunt in the alps without crowds, they all clearly had decent jobs and were well dressed, whereas i, with my scraggly bright red ginger beard, furrowed brow, and warm, well-traveled-in clothing… well i looked like i’d been sleeping under a bridge for the last few years.

“where are you going?” a delicate voice with an korean accent whispered to me.  to my right was a petite woman eating breakfast with a playful smile.  i think she had been watching me for a couple minutes.

“oh, just gonna head up to the fresh air and clear my head.  not entirely sure just yet, but i’ll figure it out as i go.”  i smiled politely.  ordinarily i’d slow down and make friends, but morning was starting to evaporate, and i had come to the mountains for one thing only:  to commune with nature by myself.  i had spent too much time in cities the past 2 months, and this was to be my escape.

“wow cool, you are mountain man”  she giggled.  i cracked a smile.

“ah no, not really.  i just like to be outside.” as much as i would love to think of myself as a true mountain man, and as much as i probably looked the part, i’m not.  i’ve only been tested a couple times in the wild, and i had experts with me and plenty of supplies, and never on anything longer than a couple nights.  but i didn’t mind letting this pretty lady’s imagination make its own assumptions about me in the meantime.

toblerone matterhorn
katherine would later teach me that the toblerone’s logo was the matterhorn. i’m oblivious.

we chatted plainly for a few minutes while i finished my preparations, exchanging the usual information – where are you from, what brings you here type questions.  i was surprised to learn that katherine was actually from new york, not south korea like i had expected (to be fair, she was born and raised in seoul, south korea, and now worked for a major airline with new york as her base). i noticed another pair of eyes in the room curiously looking over at us, eavesdropping on the conversation.  i was trying to figure out how to excuse myself politely when katherine respectfully but quickly asked “can i come with you?”

“uh, sure!  yeah if you really want to…” i had been caught off guard.  i looked her up and down quickly and noticed that she was in shape, but definitely did not have the right gear.  i also knew that manhattan didn’t exactly have a wealth of challenging hikes available, so there was a good chance that this might not be a good idea.  but i also had been trying my best lately to say “yes” to as many things as i could, in keeping with the mantra of the traveler, so i tried my best to adjust my expectation.

“oh thank you! are you sure?”  she could sense the hesitation in my voice.

zermatt grindjisee“yeah definitely, it’ll be fun!  go get a backpack and some warm clothes on and be quick about it. we need to leave soon if we’re going to get back before dark.”  she scurried up the stairs and disappeared.

“hey, I couldn’t help but overhear you’re going on a hike… any chance i could tag along as well?  i’m wesley.”  a hand to my left was extended to me.  i shook the hand and looked up to see who was attached to it.  a tall, good looking canadian guy was standing there with a smile on his face.

“yeah sure, why not, grab your stuff.  we leave in 5 minutes.”  wesley bolted out of the room to grab his things.  what just happened?  my plan had been to go on a hike and push myself a little physically, and suddenly i had just become ranger rick, guiding a bunch of tourists through a place i had never been before… the swiss alps.  and i still didn’t technically know where i was going.  i looked across the room to see the proprietor of the hostel wiping his hands with a dish cloth, laughing.

“you should go on the 5 seenweg hike.  it would be unwise to take them on the other one,” he offered.  i shook my head and laughed.  i couldn’t have predicted this if i tried. about 15 minutes later wesley and katherine had made their way down the stairs and were ready.  they didn’t have any food for the day, however, so we needed to stop by a grocery store.  i wasn’t thrilled, but i knew i couldn’t take them on a 7 or 8 hour hike with no food, so we walked 15 minutes across town to the only grocery around.  while there, despite my stubborn pride in having already had food ready to go, i picked up a few fresh fruit items, knowing it would be more appetizing than just my cliff bars. we finished up the shopping and headed for the trail head. i was silently thankful the other two had forced me to go shopping. now i could have a real lunch.

zermatt wesley pondering
wesley ponders the matterhorn

it took us about 15 minutes to get back across town, and then another 15 minutes just to find the trailhead, as the mountain neighborhood roads were not marked clearly and didn’t follow any logic other than what the terrain offered when they were built.  we were way behind schedule at this point, and i was starting to get grumpy about it. i decided to just keep my mouth shut and lead on.

katherine and wesley chatted cheerfully behind me, and it wasn’t long before we had our first full view of the matterhorn and the zermatt valley below.  my attitude problem was instantly gone.  the views on these mountains were absolutely breathtaking, and there wasn’t a soul around us to ruin it.

the 5 seenweg, or five lakes trail, is exactly what it sounds like:  a lovely meandering walk that takes you through five different bodies of water in a large loop around the mountainside, fraught with clear and direct views of the monolithic matterhorn. i will say that, to call these bodies of water “lakes” might be a bit of a stretch.  a couple were little more than ponds (particularly grunsee and moosjisee), but they are still beautiful.  it isn’t a particularly grueling hike, but it does have a few sections that can get pretty steep, and will definitely wear you out if you don’t take your time.

findeln hamlet, zermatt
findeln hamlet, zermatt

ordinarily this hike can be completed in 3 hours if you pay to take a tram and don’t stop too often for pictures, but good luck with the latter of those two components; everywhere you look seems like it is straight out of national geographic coffee table literature.  Adding to our time crunch was my stubborn refusal to take the tram, so we started our hike straight from zermatt, trekking to the little hamlet of findeln (which is only accessible by foot, or skis if the season is right), and then onward up the mountain to the actual 5 seenweg walk, and ultimately walking all the way back down into zermatt again.

zermatt matthorn reflectionduring the hike, i got to know wesley and katherine quite well, as we labored through our trek together.  since the 5 seenweg is lower in elevation, and doesn’t have any true summits in it, the temperature stayed well within manageable, and we only encountered light ice a couple of times, none of which was dangerous.  this was a relief to me, as i wasn’t sure if the tennis shoes the other two were wearing would be adequate on the trail, but they held up fine.

as we walked along, wesley’s youthful energy shone through, and he excitedly talked about his life up in canada, how he had grown up extremely far north, up in the arctic circle, where it could get extremely cold, but there weren’t as many scenic mountains to climb like in the alps.  katherine meanwhile seemed overwhelmed by the beauty that was all around us, always stopping to take photos at any chance she could get.  i didn’t mind that at all, as it offered me an opportunity to dig my camera out as well and snap some photos.  i had needed to make sure that i kept moving us along because i knew that once the sun set, it was going to get very dark and very cold, and we would be stranded. so i continually prodded the two to keep moving, and i felt bad about it, because i also wanted to stop and enjoy the landscape as much as possible.

we made it to the highest point of the hike, to stellisee lake, and as we were snapping photos, we noticed a commotion off to our left.  about a hundred yards away was a herd of free-roaming mountain goats.  we quickly scrambled over and began following the goats, taking photos and videos, watching the mischievous little devils battle each other, ramming their horns into each other and trying to establish their dominance.  at one point, i got a little too close and one of the adult goats backed me down, chasing after my gopro camera as if to inform me that i was not welcome among their herd.  eventually the goat herd got far enough from the path that we let them go and resumed our trek, cognizant of the impending darkness that would be descending soon.

but along the way it occurred to me that i was extremely glad that these two strangers had joined me.  when the day began, i had a very specific plan and idea for what i wanted this day to be, and suddenly i had allowed that to be wrestled away from me, and i had been a little sour about it for a few fleeting minutes.  i had started the day wanting to conquer a mountain, to climb to the top of a summit and take some risks, and feel a triumph over something.  but now here i was, on the back half of a 7 hour journey, and i was actually thankful that i hadn’t done zermatt wesley lookbackthat.  i had changed my perspective, and i was now on a more leisurely and more enjoyable trek with a couple of beautiful and innocent souls who would likely have overpaid to board a gondola and ride up to the top of some scenic overlook that would undoubtedly have been breathtaking, but they wouldn’t have earned it.  but this?  this was work. this was sweat.  and i could see that despite the exhaustion, they were having the time of their lives.  i felt proud of that.

but i was also humbled by my new friends.  they had taught me something.  they had taught me that only doing what i want didn’t necessarily mean i was going to have the best experience possible, and they had confirmed for me that the mantra of the traveler, that “say yes” attitude and “stay open” mentality was the only true way to travel and authentically experience the world.

as the sun set behind the mighty matterhorn, we quickened our pace, trying to beat the darkness back to zermatt.  our legs were worn and exhausted, but we made it back into town just as dusk turned to night and the streetlights flickered to life in sleepy zermatt.  perfect timing.  a perfect day.

———

today’s track is a piece of relaxed folktronica beauty by howard, from his brand new album, religion.  put this on while you commute to work in the morning and you haven’t quite woken up yet.  follow the slowly growing playlist below to continue receiving new songs.  enjoy…

 

visual feedback: iceland

i’ve been taking a little break in nice, france between posts to rethink a little of my format and content in posts.  over the next couple weeks i’ll be writing a few posts sporadically that talk more about state of mind and observation as opposed to destination-based.  during this break, i had a chance to throw together a video of my time in iceland, where the whole trip started.  have a look and enjoy the amazing scenery.  watch it full screen to get the full “hd experience!”

 

skogafoss

“it is like a disease, you know”

…aaaaaaand we’re back.  as soon as i landed in iceland, i disappeared.  i caught a red-eye departing at 7pm and arriving at 630AM local time, during which i did not sleep one wink (i wrote my previous post on the plane). i also only slept about 3 hours the night before so i could definitely sleep on the plane, so that didn’t work out. once i landed, i took a bus straight to my hostel where i dropped my bags off in a storage closet, then boarded another bus bound for a volcano hike.  the bus ride was about 1.5 hours outside the city, then the hike was only about 1 hour across desolate terrain up to the Thrihnukagigur Volcano, located in a very active system of volcanos, but which is itself dormant right now. it is the only volcano in the world for which the lava chamber has remained intact post-eruption.  the group was divided into 3 teams of 6 and then each team took a turn descending down 400 feet into darkness via a modified german window washing high-rise contraption/death cage.  i did manage to get a lot of this on video, but unfortunately the quality is not very good, as you can imagine the lighting quality was pretty poor. nevertheless, when i have the time to do some editing, you will see it!  in the meantime, check out some of these images to see the crazy colors down below that formed after extended periods of time with an active lava pot just baking the ground around it

the next day i awoke very early to hike up the fimmvörðuháls trail to the site of Eyjafjallajökull, commonly remembered as the volcano that erupted in 2010 and wreaked equally as much havoc in the european air traffic industry (due to expansive ash clouds covering all of europe for weeks) as it did among news anchors around the world having fits trying to figure out how to pronounce it.  this was a long day.  it involved about 15 miles of grueling hiking combined with extreme cold and rain with temperatures in the high 30s (Fahrenheit), along with winds up to 50 miles per hour on steep, unforgiving volcanic rock. it was a struggle to get up there, and our group had set a blistering pace (one that i admit i wish we had gone slower. partly so we could appreciate the hike, but also so i could give my burning quads a rest).  again, i got a lot of this on video, so i won’t bore with details here and save surprises for the film, but i will say that this hike offered some of the most amazing backdrops of starkly contrasted scenery that must be available to see on this earth.  beautiful green moss fields that emitted an almost eerie glow as they blanketed the rocky landscape, breaking only in areas where the harsh rocky terrain refused to let anything live, allowing the color void to create black canvases that made you wonder if you were staring off into space itself. as we edged higher and closer to the volcano, the terrain seemed to shift even more, offering red hues of volcanic leftovers hinting at the destruction that not so long ago completely obliterated anything within its reach, and warning us that it could just as easily do it again if it so pleased.

once we reached the top, we dug our hands into the ground and, despite the cold elements all around us, the volcano beneath us was still very, very warm.  it was spooky.  there’s still activity down there.  we decided to get down the mountain and out of the wet cold to our SuperJeep, where we did some offroading to get back to civilization.  bouncing around the inside of one of those things while we forded rivers and created our own road was really, really fun.  if you don’t get motion sick, definitely try it some day.

that night, i went to dinner with a couple of my hiking trail friends to this little hole in the wall place called the “Sea Baron.”  my new french friends were very funny and agreeable and they invited me along to try this place out that “had whale steak.”  i had yet to have an authentic icelandic meal so i joined them.  on our walk to the spot, they entertained me by talking about how much their friends back home in the french riviera didn’t understand why they would leave the comfortable banks of the french coast to journey to the harsh climate of the land of fire & ice.  they joked about how they wanted very much to break out of their circle and see something entirely different, something new and exciting and kind of scary, and something not french.  honestly, despite my french heritage, i think french culture intimidates me the most, but once my friends gregory and Þómas began sharing these thoughts, i knew i was among friends.  we joined another french girl they had met on their flight named Anaëlle and, as we walked across town to the restaurant, they joked and poked fun at typical french travelers and how they seemingly complain about everything. it was all in good humor, and they were being very self-deprecating, but in some weird way, i think it really did help me understand a little of how to interact with people when i eventually get to paris.  i was thankful for that.

when we arrived at the sea baron, a dingy little place on the docks by the edge of the city with its own earnest charm, we placed our order and then wandered around aimlessly for a seat.  the place was packed, and they were to close within an hour.  the only seating available was in the upstairs area, and, in what was to be the funniest part of my time in iceland, there was only one table left available to sit at.  i quickly and triumphantly strode over and claimed the table for my new friends, but when i turned around, my 3 new french friends stood frozen in the doorway with a look of something that can only be described as dismay.  i asked them what was the matter, to which Þómas replied in disgust with a thick french accent “everyone in this room is speaking french. they’re all french.  it is like a disease, you know.”   he said this with no refrain or care that someone might hear him.  i laughed uncontrollably, and as he and the others approached the table, i urged him to use a little tact so that he doesn’t offend anyone.  he replied “brandon, the thing you don’t understand is that people from france don’t speak anything but french. they have no idea what i’m saying.”  (obviously he was slightly exaggerating for humorous effect, but not a single person in the room seemed to understand or care about his less-than-cautious barbs.   i still couldn’t stop laughing.  we spent the rest of the meal laughing like we were sitting at the kids table at christmas, snickering at a word a grownup had said.  greg and Þómas interpreted the various different complaints or statements that qualified as “stupid” to them, and the whole situation just kept getting funnier and funnier, until finally a gentleman from the group of french tourists came back into the room and spat out (in french) to his friends: “they only have ice cream for dessert.”   the 4 of us lost it and made a scene, laughing over our meals, causing a few of the group to look over and wonder what was so funny before losing interest after a few moments.

after dinner we parted ways.  my french colleagues were returning to the french riviera at 6am the next morning and it was getting late.  meanwhile i had to find a bus and make my way to the southeast corner of the island to do some exploring in the ice. we said our goodbyes and they extended the invite to look them up if i should find my way to the city of Nice.  i just may.

the next morning i awoke to bad news. the season had changed that very day, and there were no more buses going the direction i needed to go until april. in order to find my way to the remote fishing village of höfn, i would need to rent an expensive car and follow a map to find my own way (i have no cell phone or gps or data plan at all. i rely solely on wifi in hostels for connection).  and so the journey continues…

here’s a picture of a big cliff:

 

fimmvörðuháls

 

guide companies used:
fimmvörðuháls hike:  http://www.adventures.is/Iceland/Hiking/VolcanoAlley2days/ 
experience rating:  A+    difficulty rating:  4/5   guide company rating:  B- (tour started late due to problems with the Superjeep, and guide was somewhat impersonable, not very talkative. very skilled guide however, and an incredible athlete. showed no fatigue at all on the aggressive hike.

Thrihnukagigur hike:  http://www.insidethevolcano.com/  
experience rating:  A+   difficulty: 2/5    guide company rating:  A+ (guides were knowledgeable, friendly, and passionate.)

and of course, your daily listen…