May 26th 2009
May fell from warming winter clouds and hit the fields running. Head down it split the persistent banks of snow with a subtle valley warmth that accompanied streams from every peak and rock and ripple of the landscape on their careening path into the rivers that would one day find the sea, before returning to the sky in the eternal cumulus dance of reincarnated raindrops and snowflakes.
Rocky towers lifted a dozen fingers of piled stone into the sky, filling the horizon on all sides to the brim, tickling the swelling underbelly of a cloudless spring sky, the paleness of its blue evaporating with the warming morning sun into a dark and opaque turcoise.
I lay on my back in the tea cup of a mountain valley littered with ambitious flowers that filled corners and crags and plains of a subtle palette of greens with the chirping hum of reds, purples, yellows and blues too numerous to enumerate.
Indian paintbrush tickled my bare feet, the hint of blisters and the smell of wool socks shucked like a bucket of brown water emptied into the gentle waves of a pristine sea.
I rocked between sleep and ecstasy, dreams and this dreamlike context, sore muscles and a quiet mind.
Seven days of walking, running, sleeping, writing, and watching, with very little else.
Seven days full and long.
Days unending, only bending in the sky’s eternal distance when seen from a mountaintop.
Nights full of light sleep in thin air under cloudless skies.
Stars to fill acres of light years in pantomime tentacles spinning at unfathomable infinite speeds yet motionless to my ageless eyes as they fought off the sleep that pulled my lids and lashes towards their nightly affair.
I had left Zakopanie exactly one week ago, my stomach full of sausage and my bag of paper and pen, lentils and dried fruit.
Dodging the border-guards since I had sold my passport to pay my way out of trouble in east Berlin, the Tatra mountains and, further to the east, the Carpathian mountains presented no great difficulty for discretion.
Spreading like vast thighs into the fertile polish valley around Zakopanie, the mountains arrived in the swell of a forest, bristles rolling into villages and along riverbeds full of deer, bear, and wolves.
I had taken a twenty mile detour through farmland and into the foremost thrust of Carpathian forest using the copy of a map so creased with folds and age that the pale green lines were like gouges of erosion on the topographic landscape, defying the gentle curves of rivers and cutting through hills like a line of strip mines.
My last night in town had been one of good fortune and friendship. A stranger leaving is often easier to like and trust than one arriving, for he is perhaps no longer a stranger.
I had worked for three months on Leszeck’s farm and had earned enough to spend enough to enjoy the few subtle pleasures the town offered. An impressive roll of zlotys that wasn’t worth as much as it was voluminous, permitted me to buy new soles for my boots, a rain coat to replace the one torn on a cargo train in Bratislava, and a good stone to sharpen my knife.
Leszeck had been an honest man, teaching me to skin the animals he hunted, milk his four cows, and almost be able to hold a plow on course behind a mule.
He had even let me sleep with his daughter, or let her sleep with me rather, teaching us how to make condoms out of sheep's bladder and laughing when we told him we were in love.
-“Love is only taking care to see the beauty of the other, of course you are in love, you are both beautiful, and neither of you blind.”
When I told him I was leaving to find “my way”, he told me he hoped my way would bring me back to Zakopanie and gave me a hand drawn copy, older than I, of the map that had brought me this far.
Halina and I cried and laughed alternately in the garden until dawn, making love only once, timidly, for the first time without a sheep's bladder.
In the greater shadow of my ignorance of proportion I had run out of food more than 24hours ago, having undertaken a crossing of mountains far more vivid than my imagination. Having taken food far smaller than my stomach.
I considered setting traps, which I could have done from the beginning, now that the though of killing to eat repulsed me less than when I had dried apples to nibble on, imagining my future as an herbivore after months of meat and milk. What stayed my hand was time.
By my calculations I had at least four days of hard hiking to reach the first Romanian villages and I cursed my voluntary detour through the snowy peaks behind me.
If I stopped to trap I would have to wait hours or days to see if the animals were hungry enough to stop smelling me.
So I walked on.
I had one last peak to cross and by no means the lesser. I could be there by noon if I walked on steadily and made no mistakes and could start my descent before nightfall.
It stood before me defiantly, namelessly at more than three miles as the crow flies and the valley of rolling cobble heading down from the crystal lake of my nights camp spread in unfathomable volume at my feet.
Water was a plenty and a well nourished man can live without food for a long time so my spirits were with the wind as I trotted down, relishing the emptiness in my stomach as the feather weight of my sack and the solidity of my boots gave wings to my young muscles.
To the north the wind swept shoulder of the mountain folded out a long taught arm, rippled with the age of time, sending fingers probing into the fertile earth of the valleys to either side.
The nameless peak raised it’s tight jaw in defiance of the crushing weight of millenniums, carved into spires, like unkempt locks of wild hair, standing on end in a storm.
It’s neck spread unto broad shoulders, sheer and definitive. Massive cliffs handing into the transparent wilderness of altitude and humming with the amplified resonance of a million points of minuscule sounds. A rock splitting in the dying suns eyes. The piercing arrow of a hawks wail. Water spilling in an infinity of dewdrops and rivulets and mists showering sunlit shadows with rainbows of blackberry blues and iron red rock oranges.
My footfalls came as an oblique rhythm to this soft utopie sonore. My breathing and my heart finding a rhythm that left sweet windows of silent listening.
Soon the mountain and I stood face to face. No sign of man, no crucifix nor adornment stood on its crown, no trails crisscrossed its flanks, no planes flew overhead and no sirens blared in anger at human destructiveness.
I held my breath and listened. It’s whispered roar fed me with a great anticipation.
The only way over was up.
There was no around.
I knelt and tightened my laces.
I filled my flask and drank deeply of a nearby stream whose water slid along my rips and sent shivers through my insides.
I was truly awake.
I thanked the mountain and begged its passage, plotted my course by making a quick but fairly accurate sketch in my book, and pressed on, for the first time that day feeling the weight of my body in the tired strength of my legs.
The first third of the mountain held me in a tight grip of rock gullies, water rolling in rapid white to and from the surface, a reasonable bed of strewn boulders for footing; the going was good.
After an ungraceful scramble over loose stone, I stepped over a small ridge onto a steep lunar plain. Small rock flighted down its slope in echoes, dilated by the suns rays and popping loose into thousands of feet of degrigolade.
Three steps forward, a step back, three steps forward, a slide of stone.
My ankles bent in awkward and painful angles, my knees bent and locked, strained and alarmed.
When I reached the foot of the last third of the mountain, the first spine of continental hemorrhage, the sun spun behind its peak, leaving me temporarily blind, its long shadow falling on me with the cold weight of a castle door breaching its moat.
I pulled on my windbreaker and looked alternately in all the pockets of my bag for a last bit of nourishment.
I pulled on my wool cap and pulled a long drought from my flask, careful not to loose a drop, even to wet my neck stinging from the relentless lashes of the mountain sun.
I placed both hands on the rock, felt its dying warmth, almost felt it shiver.
I chose my spot and began to climb, footing sure and stone dry and adhesive to the touch, almost rasping under my fingers and pulling at the hardened skin at their tips.
Quickly I was far too high, far too scared and far too inexperienced for this climb.
My only hope was the clemency of nature and a dose of ability acquired instinctively from ancestors in some distant universe.
I was frankly quite scared.
The mountain pulled from under me almost a hundred feet of vide, the wind, gentle but with a howling underscore that lifted me into equilibrium pulled me backwards.
I held on with imaginary claws.
No fumbles, no falls, I reached the ridge and considered for less than a second climbing the peak seventy feet away on my left. The sun welcomed my trembling body onto a flat stone where I sat, gripping firmly onto its sides despite the relative security of my position.
I caught my breath and pleaded with my heart to listen to reason when I saw it.
At about twenty feet below on the eastern face of the slope a huge black tidal wave of agitated clouds churned at my feet, rushing towards me like a horde of horses attacked by wasps.
My lips shuddered uncontrollably. As I puled my poncho out of my bag and looked for loose rock to weigh me down. I piled heavy flat stones on all its edges, now moving wildly inches away from the edge of infinity, headless of the danger of the ridge, terrified by the storm.
The last image I saw, before pulling the poncho tight around me and placing a heavy rock on its inside fold, was an insane face, its beard in mad curls whirling in intricate spirals, its eyes explodes in thrusts of black molten as I pulled my shelter tight around me.
Heavy thunder thrust me flat against the rock, a curtain of liquid wind slithered instantly through every breach of impermeability. A sudden vacuum lifted me invisibly from the stony ridge pulling at the rocks holding my poncho, tearing at every gaping centimeter, before slamming me hard against the mountain. My breath stolen in a shrill collapse, I struggled to pull the thin material of my poncho tighter around me, suffocating, the stone still hot from the suns rays grinding into my aching face. A scream escaped my lips in animal desperation, ripped unripe and flung into the abyss of beyond my parka in a mute stagger. A dense roaring intensified, again, still more, too much, my ears where to explode, the air so charges with electric and hydrological pressure my eyes began to burn, trying to leap from their sockets.
I could not breath, nor imagine the slightest possibility of survival. A life shattering howl filled my ears pushing my skull to its elastic limits, the outer wind crushing it against the stone.
I held onto the ridge so tight its edges lacerated my knuckles, my muscles tearing as shreds of hope fluttered in the hot breath of the mountain.
Blinding explosions of lightning shown through the normally opaque material of my shelter, splitting atoms, leaving them sizzling in timelessness, instant waves of thunder roared in angry bellow, shaking the very stone of the mountain.
A terrible claw seized my body and tore upward with a ripping cackle, the poncho volatilized in an upward flight and I floated for the longest second of my life before all was still.
The storm went crashing down the north face of the slope and my tense body laid motionlessly against warm wet stone. The sun shone in reflection from over and under as I collapsed in a pool of light. The roar of chaos rolled away harmlessly, slithering over ridges and valleys in flashes of translucent blue, darkening the landscape. I cried and laid still for several eternities.
My shaking legs carried me uneventfully across a bleak valley strewn with dead wood, shadows of mist clinging to rocky outcroppings in the evaporating heat. A clear stagnant lake reflected a cloudless sky. I fell more than climbed for more than two days without food before a Shepard fed me warm milk and dried meats, perfumed with unknown herbs and mountain salts.
When I arrived at the first village the peasants pointed to the mountain, teasingly amazed at my survival, they gave me hay to sleep and hot milk and wine, small hard breads and a dry bit of tackle.
The crossing was like a memory when, much later, I stopped to eat blueberries and camped next to a soft grey lake, wolves howling into a night filled with pale light. And the mountain fed me its warmth far into the inner country of Romania, sometimes warning of it’s violent imagination with distant rumblings and sudden winds, but never again was I to feel so small next to such a magnificent creature, its breath howling along my spine and into memory.