Blood I Bled

waldeinsamkeit  n. (German) The feeling of being alone in the woods.

Before you worry, I did not severely injure myself and the blood implied in the title was actually just a small scrape on my ankle while hiking.  It did, however, provide me the necessary excuse to use the oh-so-punny title I had thought about.  Despite it’s name, Bled is actually a very peaceful and quaint little village in the heart of Slovenia’s Julian Alps, right by Triglav National Park.  Despite its small size, it is a huge tourist draw in the summer and turns into a bit of resort town for the months of July and August as people from all around the world flock to the shores of its beautiful lake to escape the heat.  In many ways, it is just like Bigfork in the summer, except this time, I got to be on the other end of what Bigfork locals call “Angry August” when we’re all fed up with the tourists and just want hem to go home.  It was odd being the tourist myself when I have spent the last six summers of my life waiting hand and foot on these people.  It all comes back around and I was just paying my dues it seems.

My journey to Bled, however, was anything but pleasant (surprise!).  It consisted of numerous legs in cramped trains in which we were all jam packed into the aisles like sardines as there no available seats left.  By the second to last train, I was sick of people.  With every shove in my back, I got more and more frustrated and finally turned around, probably knocking my pack into someone in the process, and snapped at the young guy behind me, “I can’t move any more!”  He looked prissily at me and said in an accent I couldn’t quite place, “Why?  Why you can’t move more?”  Seriously? Look at the damn isle mate.  I motioned in front of me at the massive traffic jam of people, children, and suitcases.  Did he expect me to bulldoze over them.  He rudely pushed past me and got stuck in the aisle just a few more people.  Congratulations, you made it three more meters down the car than I did, and now you’re farther from the door.

 On the last brief train ride from a podunk little station in Jesenice into Bled itself, I met a Dutch guy who had been staying at a nearby lake called Bojinja.  We talked for a while on the train and as I got up at my stop at Bled Jezero, he got up as well.  “I think I’m going to come with you and see if there’s any space in Bled tonight.”  I hesitated.  He was nice and all but not only did it seem strange for him to completely uproot his own plans to stay where I was going (even though all his stuff was in Bohinja) but it also seemed impractical and improbable that he would find space in Bled on such short notice.  But that was his deal, not mine, so I shrugged and off I went.

Naturally, because I had someone following me, I got hopelessly lost and took us down several wrong roads before finally sucking it up and asking directions.  Turns out, I wasn’t too far from the hostel, I just kept missing the turnoff to it.  Just as I finally figured out which direction my hostel was in, he realized he didn’t even have his passport with him, so he wouldn’t have been able to get a bed even if there was space.  He quickly ran to the bus station to catch the last bus to Bohinja.  I felt bad for him, and I felt especially bad for leading him around to hell and back as I tried to hind my hostel but at the same time, his random decision to stay in Bled that night simply because he had met me had been a bit reckless.  I am trying to learn that I am not responsible for other people’s stupid mistakes.   I have enough on my plate just being responsible for my own.

In ten minutes I was at the Hosteller hostel, which was really just a house converted into a hostel.  It had only three rooms and a total of fifteen beds between the three, so it would be nice and quiet.  The owner, Tom, and his dog Gaia greeted me at the door, and he explained how things worked there and showed me around.  While showing me the incredibly clean kitchen (easily the  cleanest of any hostel I have been in), he got briefly distracted to go dry a spot of water on the faucet.  I liked this guy already.  I went to bed in blissfully quiet hostel and fell sound asleep, getting probably the best night if rest I had gotten in several weeks. 

The next morning was raining, but I wasn’t overly upset by it.  A rainy day actually seemed like perfect weather to go out and explore the nearby gorge.  Clad in my bright blue raincoat, I stepped out into what had slowed to a drizzle and walked the three kilometer stretch through the quaint village houses outlying Bled.  Bled started as a small farming village and if you took the time to wander outside its center touristic area, it still was very much so that way.  Nearby every house I passed had an elaborate garden filled with vegetables just about ready for harvest and a whole host of various fruit trees, mostly apple and plum.  Most the houses were made of wood and many of them had stacks of split firewood piled beneath tarps and eves.  It was like stepping back in time. 

Eventually, I stood outside the gates of Vintgar Gorge.  I hadn’t really expected to have to pay to get in, but alas and alack.  I went up to counter and promptly requested one student ticket, hoping she wouldn’t ask for a student ID as I had left mine back at the hostel.  “Do you have some ID?” Dammit.  “I don’t have it with me but-“ She cut me off by putting a finger to her lips, glancing behind her at the other person working, and handing me a student ticket anywhere.  Her secret was safe with me and I grabbed my ticket and headed off.  By this point, the rain had ceased but its left a thick hanging fog drifting eerily through the gorge, casting a fine veil of mist over the bright green foliage of the overgrown beech forest and Radivna River’s dark teal waters crashing through the steep rock canyon.  The gorge stretches for 1.6km before finally falling off Pod Slap, the highest fluvial waterfall in all of Slovenia.  Over the next few hours, I would explore this 1.6km, hiking down below Pod Slap and climbing out on a precarious logjam because I could, before repeating my journey back through the gorge.  The journey back was entirely different from the journey through.  The fog had lifted by this point and I was this time stunned by true colors of everything around me.  No man made dye or paint could ever replicate the beauty of nature’s colors.

Near the end of my hike, I found another trail that diverted off, and being curious to a fault, I followed it until it eventually led me to what I assumed were active railroad tracks.  I messed around on the tracks for a while (because what other completely safe thing do you do on active railroad tracks), taking photos and finally trying to get a good photo of my tattoo (which had finally stopped looking inflamed and scaly and settled for itching like mad and peeling just a bit).  Naturally, while I was occupied doing that, I didn’t realize that I had been standing directly in the middle of an anthill.  I have a nasty habit of constantly picking the one spot in an area that just happens to have an anthill.  You could me put on 1km. sq. tract of land with exactly one anthill on it and I guarantee you I would find it accidentally in moments.  So there I was, shirtless save for my swimsuit top, jumping around on the track trying the shake the ants off myself.  The only thing that could have made the moment more sitcom worthy would have been if a train rolled by.

I returned to the hostel for lunch where I sat in the front yard, absorbing the beautiful Karavanke mountain chain rising just in the distance.  I could get used to this view.  It felt great to just be, to return to the mountains and sit there contemplating them with nothing pressing down on me to see.  Traveling Europe is great, but backpacking Europe tends to gravitate toward cities.  That’s where a lot of the history and culture is centered, and I had started to grow weary of cities.  I missed Montana, I missed hiking, I missed sitting on my front porch in my underwear drinking coffee and reading with my mom on my days off. It felt great to just get away from the city and get away from people and side from home, I couldn’t think of a better place to do that.

After a while, I decided to take a leisurely wander into Bled itself and check out the number one attraction of the region: Lake Bled.  Lake Bled is a small, dark turquoise lake surrounded on one side by a small little resort town and various hills on the other.  It is characteristically unique because of the small island in its center bearing a single church that you can only get to by swimming or by boat.  While Bled was originally founded by the Prince Bishops of Brixen in 1004, it wasn’t until 1855 that it was really put on the map, when Swiss healer Arnold Rikli opened a spa there and brought tourism to Bled.  At least I had someone specific to blame then for the hosts of tourists crowded around the lakeshore.  But today’s village is far different from that original town, partially due to natural progression of society, but also partially due to a fire that destroyed over half the village in only half an hour in 1908. 

Unable to stand the amount of tourists and large waterfowl (seriously swans are terrifying- give me bears any day) down on the lake shores, I decided to climb up to Blejski Grad, or the Bled Castle that stood out as a marker for the town from miles away in any direction. I climbed the numerous stairs up and up, passing flocks of other tourists who were acting as though the climb was equivalent to scaling Everest before finally coming to the castle itself and, surprise surprise, there was an entrance fee.  Being frugal as I am, I didn’t much care to pay 10 to go see a stone building, but I did want to get a better view.  I circled around the castle, thinking I might be able to find a clear spot to overlook the lake and, sure enough, there was a narrow path winding up the side of the mountain to the base of the castle’s highest point.  The path eventually led to steep rocky outcropping from which I got a lovely view of Lake Bled and the town with no people around whatsoever.  Naturally, the minute I climbed up onto the rock outcropping, it started to rain so I snapped some hasty pictures then climbed down and returned to the hostel for the night.

I woke up the next morning rearing to go.  Since the previous day had been fairly relaxing, my plan for the day was to hike hard.  The previous night, Tom had explained to me various hiking routes in the area, first starting with some of the easier and more touristic hikes.  A bit insulted, I ensured him that I was looking for something a bit more difficult, in which he told me about Stol, the highest point on the Karavanke ridgeline just north of the hostel.  That was my destination for the day.  Tom had even volunteered to drive me to trailhead, about 10km down the road, so I could start the hike with fresh legs.  At half eight, we set off and ten minutes later, I waved goodbye to his car and started my hike.  The first part of the hike was fairly easy going, with a steady rocky grade that would have been even easier if I didn’t get cocky and take a sharp uphill path that I assumed to be a shortcut and turned out to just go off its own direction.  Grumbling about wasting nearly 20 minutes when I was on a fair bit of a time crunch as it was, I picked up pace and kept going.  The first part of the path, taking just over an hour, led me to the first hut at Valvasor.  From there, the trail ascended sharply up on a much steeper path that would eventually take me to Stol.

I looped my hands under the shoulder straps of Nellie and started the climb.  When I hike alone, I love listening to Podcasts.  They’re not quite as deafening to the natural sounds of nature as music but still keep my mind occupied.  My current podcast obsession (and by current I mean the last six months considering there are so many episodes) is NPR’s Snap Judgment, a story telling podcast that reinvents the idea of oral storytelling by simple people.  I could listen to Snap Judgment endlessly.  But through the enrapturing voice of Glen Washington , I became aware of another noise, a clinking of some bell.  At first I thought it was just part of the sound design of the podcast but I quickly decided it wasn’t that.  On the way to trailhead, we passed a little restaurant that Tom told me owned a pair of bears.  They had been found in the woods as cubs without any mother so they took them in and put them in a big cage where they live today.  I had two thoughts to that predicament: First, how sad that they’re kept in small cages, and second, that means there are bears here.  I guess I got used to hiking in the U.K. where the most dangerous thing you’re going to find is an angry old British man who might through a scone at you.  For some reason, I just assumed the rest of Europe was the same, but this proved that there were actually wild animals here I needed to be aware of..  So when I heard a mysterious cowbell clinking in the distance, my mind instantly went to the worst.  Of course, the bone of an unknown animal I found in the middle of the trail just a short ways back didn’t help.  Now did the fact that the Snap Judgment episode I was currently listening to was on the theme of “Monsters”. 

Turns out, it was a random field of horses up ahead on the trail.  So far less scary than I had imagined and I even made a friend in the form of a little colt who bounded up to me and pushed his nose into my hand.  He quickly lost interest when he discovered I didn’t have food. I continued on my way up the steep path.  The higher I went, the soupier the atmosphere got as I ascended into the cloudbank that was shrouding the mountain.  I eventually went above the clouds even, getting a lovely view of the valley containing Bled and its surrounding villages below.  At this point, the trail became nothing but a steep field of white rocks and finding the red  and white trail blazes became a wilderness version of Where’s Waldo. 

Finally, 3.5 hours after I began the hike I crested the knifelike ridgeline that also served as the Slovenian/Austrian border and came to the little Presernova Koĉa hut positioned right on the top of the mountain, for all intents and purposes in the middle of nowhere.  From there, it was another 15 minute climb to ascend the final peak, the top of Stol, 2,236 meters in elevation.  There I found a metal box containing a trail register where I signed my name, the date, where I was from, and, of course, my Chris McCandless quote.  I think he would be proud to have his words immortalized on that mountain. 

While the fog had not entirety drifted and swirled about the scene preventing any complete views, it was still stunning.  On the south side of the slope lies the gradually rolling green hills of Slovenia, an endless valley of villages and lakes.  The on the northern Austria side lie wild and precipitous peaks, bare stone crags that pierce the sky in one sharp motion before falling off a plunging cliff.  Even the peak of the mountain on which I stood was narrow, with a huge rocky drop-off on the northern side that left little room error and a lot of room for falling. 

As I was walking along this narrow ridgeline (come on, did you expect any less of me?) a Slovenian mother and daughter pair, named Dami and Maya respectively, looked worriedly at me and tried to wave me away from the edge.  People are always telling me that when I climb to high places.  It’s almost as if they don’t trust my ability not to trip and fall or something.  I got to talking with them in their broken English and they kept offering me white wine or beer.  I graciously declined each time.  I was pretty confident in my ability no to fall down the mountain but put some alcohol in me and I might actually do it.  Pretty soon, they were insisting on taking photos with me, giving me their Facebook and Instagram names, and continually looking at me and saying, “So cute!” Ah yes, I call this look Sweaty and Sporty.  The secret to the look: the dirt smudged across my shins and forehead.  So cute. 

Finally, Dami and Maya bid me farewell and their matching highlighter yellow sport pullovers disappeared over the slope of the mountain.  I was left alone on the summit once again, which is when I got an idea: to resume my previous summer’s tradition of taking a naked photo on the top of the mountain.  That requires a small explanation.  Last summer, I befriended a group of technicians and musicians from the summer stock theatre in my town, as I do every year, but this particular year we bonded very close together.  We called ourselves Marmot Army and on any day off we could manage, the five of us would set off into the woods to go hiking.  One particular member of his group, let’s call him Jeffrey, really likes being naked and at the top of every mountain we climbed, he would get naked and take a photo.  At first, we rolled our eyes and shook our heads at the loveable Jeffrey, but by the end of the summer, we were all doing it.  I have a lovely panoramic photo of a remote off trail location in Glacier National Park and if you look close enough, you’ll see me bare white ass turned toward the camera and me arms out wide, as if trying to embrace the wild world around me.  It is one of my favorite photos.  I took a similar one on the top of Stol but don’t scroll down and expect to it.  Sorry folks, that’s just for me.

Before I began the long descent down, I took a few final moments to bask in the solitude of the peak and the untouchable feeling you can only get when standing inches away from slipping and plummeting to your death.  I raised my water bottle and made a silent toast to mortality.  We travelers live like we are immortal, untouchable because we are so acutely aware, more than most, how completely mortal we actually are.  We do what we do because we know life will take us in the end regardless of whether we have accomplished everything we wanted to do and seen everything we wanted to see.  Mortality will win the war we wage but the difference between us and everyone else is that we are fighting it.  We are meeting it head on in the battle field so that if it takes us prematurely, we know it was our choice to go down fighting, not to surrender.

And go down I almost did, many times on the descent.  While I was above the cloudbank on the peak, it had rained on the rest of the mountain, just enough to make the rocks on the trail slick and turn the red soil to soft clay.  Every step was a careful and tentative plant and my hands quickly became smeared with dirt and grimed from guiding myself down.  By the time the land flattened and I reached the lower hut, my thigh muscles were quivering with fatigue to the point that they would actually twitch when I stood stationary. 

By the time I reached the road again, I was quite shattered and while the 6km wasn’t exactly a long trek, I wasn’t looking forward to it either.  Plus, the fact that the roads were about only wide enough to accommodate one car but cars going both directions still managed to zip around the blind corners using nothing but roadside mirrors as visual guides didn’t give me a lot of confidence in walking on the narrow shoulder of the road.  So I decided to hitchhike.  After stopping briefly to see the bears at the restaurant Tom had pointed out to me earlier (now feeling even sadder at the side of their cage), and walking the 1km through the village back to the main road that would lead straight to my hostel, I hit the road and stuck out my thumb, trying to look as exhausted and pitiful as possible.  Sadly, car after car passed me by.  The road literally only went to Bled, come on people.  I needed a sign, something along the lines of, “I promise I don’t have an axe hidden in my pack and I have no intentions of murdering you so could you please give me a lift to Bled?”.  Finally, after about another kilometer of walking, a young pulled over and let me hop in.  He knew exactly where the hostel was and dropped me off right at the door. So that was two successful hitchhiking experiences for me.  It was almost like I was actually starting to get good at this whole budget travel thing.