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Next and without stop or pause or breath but with a bellyful of flame-cooked meats and fresh cheeses and thick warm soup and fluffy crusty bread husks and all sorts of berries and cherries and gorged on local wine red and strong and smelly from constantly poured glass decanters discovered dusty and corked in the cellar, we find ourselves swept up and tumbled into a van and quickly on a winding forested road deep in the hills of southern Slovakia and the heartland of Eastern Europe with the Tatra mountain range peaking over the tops of trees with its face of ominous rock, being driven madly by four old wise mountain men stroking thick black grey beards who talk in their rumbling voices of old climbs and walks and the mysteries of life, as the settling dark grows around the van and pulls us into a field by the side of the road to pitch tents and eat from a spread of fresh loaf and salami, pate, cuts of meat and tomato, gherkin, cucumber, peppers and chili and smelly blue cheese, mozzarella, feta, emmantal and yoghurt and plums, peaches, apples, bananas and one still-cold bottle of beer each to drink down before a quick sleep. The Bear sleeps by himself in the tall grass under the stars and we all get down into our tents and bags and huddle up in the cold, a few quick hours before an early start tomorrow. In the clearest jet black sky above us the millions of stars glint and blink.
In the misty mountain canyon, dawn breaks early as we wake and can see where we are at four in the morn a little fresh from slumbering, feet into boots and out onto the dew wet grass and the shadow of the mountain all around. Such fresh cold air! We grab up the tents and rumble back into the van with torn bread and scoops of cream cheese shoveled into our mouths. Rubbing at our hands to keep the cold off and the warm in, it feels great to be surrounded by these tall walls of rock all tumbling with stones and the mighty great evergreen forests in the basins and valleys below cut through with winding old paths that scratch up the steep scarps and over peaks through sheer passes and along frozen creek beds.
So high up now twisting around these roads we can see the plains of Slavic Europe far below us still sleeping, distant townships with industry and traffic, but up here it’s so still and peaceful, crystal clear lakes in absolute mirror silence, so few cars on the road, just our chatter as we make our way to base camp and the start of our climb. Piling out now we tighten up laces and check packs for sleeping bags, roll mats, waterproofs, water bottles and warm woolly jumpers and hats before we hunkle down for another round of breakfast, more wholemeal bread and cans of tuna or sardines and sausages and olives all washed down with gulps of water. Then we pack the rest away for a big hearty dinner tonight and a bare breakfast tomorrow with whatever leftovers we can find. And now we go. Gabs uncle leading the way followed by his three age old pals who I’ve endearingly called Jack, The Bear and Old Man Mickey.
The track is mild at first, an easy incline over a rocky path through a wood teeming with fir trees and lilac flowers and berries and strong scents released as our legs brush up against herb plants and tall grass. The rising morning sunlight bursts through holes in the canopy and lights up our path like a disco ball. Warm summer sun pulsates on our backs and feels good on my neck. Around us only the oldest of sounds make any peep, the trickle of a stream over pebbles and wind rustling through the branches, squirrels and birds at play, the crunch of our feet on cones and twigs and the happy sound of our voices muttering in groups.
When the trees thin out to an end we can see the range looming up before us with its ravines and snow topped peaks, my calf muscles tense and relax in anticipation.
We walk on following winding paths that skirt the lower hills, headed straight down the throat of the range, its walls closing in on either side of our little party. Soon a stream crosses our path bridged by felled logs and we stop to spoon mouthfuls of this sweet cold water to refresh and quench our thirst. After that the terrain changes dramatically as we begin to scramble over loose rocks and giant boulders with small lakes dotted either side of the path, silvery reflective pools catching up all the clouds that roll overhead. A stony staircase has been worn into the side of the mountain and we follow it up, drifts of mist forming around us still in the early morning air. Crossing rise after fall after rise and each taking us higher and closer to the peak we want to claim until around midday we reach a wooden halfway hut with a warm chimney bellowing smoke where we can sit down out of the wind and buy steaming hot cups of coffee and tea and scoff down the most delicious slices of apple pie we’ve ever tasted.
Already at four thousand feet or more the air feels thin but to look down and around at the valleys is a knockout and now with a bellyful of apple pie and cream we are all ready to tackle the summit. Behind the hut the path rises steeply upwards now and the clouds seem to descend at the same time. Radio news predicted a storm tonight and we need to be over the pass and to the next hut before it and the darkness hit. Using my hands now to scramble up the scarp with loose stones sliding away under my feet I can see ahead the icy snowy tracks we will need to take across the north face of the mountain before we will find the last final climb and path over the ugly rocky pass with cliffs and vertical walls and overhangs like bite marks. Trudging across the snow field and looking down the sheer face of the mountain fills me with danger but there is no turning back point any longer, just the invitation of an angry mountain. I doggedly accept and pull my shirt tighter around me.
Taking the final climb my knees feel hard and tired, my legs pounding and shaking and muscles screaming for relief but with the peak and the top of the world just inches away we keep going reaching up for all we have left pulling at the rock pulling the sky closer to us and we make it! We sit on top of the mountain tired and so happy with the wind rushing around us like a chorus of cheering ghosts.
Watching the world below, I fill with joy at its beauty in my eyes. The random tapestry of colors and textures and tastes. Thinking about the places I’ve been, the places I’m going to. The people I’ve loved and who haven’t loved me back. I just want to sit here and be content, but with gulps of water and trickles splashing down my chin we up and muscle on, facing down the craggy descent with its ropes and hangers and tumbling rock and before long we can see our overnight hut nestled into the rock spilling its fire warmth out to us, the windows blazing with light and sing-a-long good times. We race down eager to be inside.
The hut is warm on the inside, a warmth so inviting and pleasant, a warmth generated from old boots removed by the door and congratulatory handshakes and shoulder rubbing against shoulder as men squeeze in between tables and raise their glasses for a clink and gulping the cold nectar down in strides, warmth from exhaustion and knowing you’ve just conquered the mountain and deserve a shot of the strong stuff, and the mountains picking up the bill. We shuffle in and get a table and order our drinks and chase them down. We eat a fill from our supplies, gulping cold frothy beer between mouthfuls and chatting excitedly about the routes we’ve taken and the things we’ve seen. More and more men pile in.
The night slowly pulls itself around us finally and envelopes the hut in a dark stormy swirl. The newsman had been right with his prophesy. The windows rattling in old frames. Doors slamming shut as smokers and adventurous picture takers come in from the cold, lashed by the wind, wet from the storm. Lightning smashes open the sky with savage might, illuminating the angry grey teeth of the rock that surrounds us in a terrifying moment of awe. A chill courses through our bones as the mountain rumbles and the wind moans and the rain cries down the window pane. The hut is shaken and strains against its timber supports. A hush descends; the wild talk becomes no more than a whisper as strong men yield to the power of a wild nature that seems hell bent on their destruction.
Then it’s time for bed and sleep and rest for tired bodies. The gale must be allowed to rage. Every man and woman looks into the eyes of others in the hut and nobody can fight the thunderstorm that holds us captive. Every boom is a blink to the sturdiest man.
The wooden tables we’d eaten over earlier are moved to one side and onto the hard floor bed mats are unrolled and sleeping bags unfurled and clothes pulled from trembling limbs to be rolled up as pillows and placed behind the head, a man calls out “lights out” and dark descends upon us now, only the unpredictable lightning flash lest we forget where we lay. For a while I lay listening to the shuffling of folk in the dark and their coarse breathing then everyone drifts off trying to forget things, all kinds of things. The storm thrills me and the darkness and I can’t think of anything to forget.
With the morning still at an early hour people start to rise from their body-warm sleeping bags and wipe crusty sleep from their eyes and wipe palms across the cold dripping screen of condensation on the inside of our hut windows to expose the morning and the mountain on the other side. A dark morning, torn by the storm that had raged loudly all through the night. Slick slippery fields of rock and gully’s funneling the rain torrents downtown. Ravaged trees uprooted and slain, lying across the paths. Splatters of mud everywhere. We let the condensation reform and hide the mess. As the room wakes up groups roll away mats and bags and pull on socks and settle down for breakfasts and cups of tea and coffee. The leftover crusts of bread and sausage stumps come out, wheels and wedges of cheese and juicy tomatoes quartered and salted, hard boiled eggs cracked open shell skins peeled away white flesh and buttery yellow yolk cores eaten with delight. Morning plans discussed with excitement. A friendly buzz in the room, the shared experience of mountain men living above the clouds.
But with the door dragged open the chaos confronts us all and the rain whips in against our ankles. Wet weather gear comes out. Our party hustles their things away and we step out into the heavy rain and I will never forget the photograph of six men shrouded in grey, eyes shining. Gab and I set off with our shoulders up, skating across the slippery rocks, catching ledges with the heels of our boots, crunching over the fallen branches of mountain trees and jumping gaping holes in the track where the mud and rock has slipped and settled somewhere else down below. Gabs holler is one of joy. I follow. We race each other down the mountain side, side by side, with the rain in our faces until the slope levels out and the trees thicken all around us and we can see ahead the tall church steeple at the centre of the village where we’ve left the van. Hear we hold up and crouch under the boughs of a wet heavy tree for shelter next to a mountain stream gushing strong and white, spitting up at the put-upon banks and clutching dead mossy branches in its wake. Gab pulls two apples from his pack and we chomp them down. Gab gives me a look and I know what he means. I hope he sees it in me too. We wait for the others, the rushing river noise too terrible to talk over. With them all we walk slowly those last steps and let our legs stretch and relax.
Gabs uncle and his buddies Jack and The Bear and Old Man Mickey and Gab and finally me all fall into the van dead tired of feet and legs and shoulders and wet through. Tossed packs in the back. Engine on we pull away from the mountain, watching the hotel of the wilds recede in the rear view with its unchanging smile. We’re all happy with the way things are just the way they are, happy with the mountain and happy with the success of our expedition. We face the road home and I fall soundlessly deeply asleep and don’t wake up again until the van twists in to a halt at the Hungarian house hidden by the trees and the high fence and the dog. Home for a night. The only home I know when I’ve left mine so far away, where ever I lay my hat and all that.