I Climb to High Places: A Memoir

nubivagant adj. Moving among clouds.

On my third day in Podgorica, a strange thing for me to say considering the third day was usually when I moved on from a place, I decided to take another day trip out to one of Podgorica’s other popular surrounding towns: Kotor. Kotor is a fairly large town nestled right along shore of a bay between two large mountains and thus its most famous landmark is a huge 9th fortress that scrawls up the side of one of these mountains. It is open for visitors to climb the 1,200 meters to its peak for a fairly minimal fee. Who needs the gym when you have that? The early hours of the day were relatively cloudy and knowing the tiring climb to the top might be significantly less pleasant in the heat, I went directly to the fortress entrance.

To no one’s surprise at this point, I’m sure, the minute I climbed about 50 steps, the sun burned away all clouds in the sky in a matter of moments and soaked into the black dress I was wearing, which might have been mistake number one. But I was determined to ensure I did pack that one dress all that way for only one use. Mistake number two was one I seem to make quite often yet never learn room. On the map of the fortress right by the entrance, three different types of paths winding different routes up to the top were detailed, an easy, medium, and hard one essentially. Naturally, perhaps being a bit overconfident in my abilities, I selected the hard path when the split came. It wasn’t long before I noticed they weren’t kidding about the risk assessment of the path, though path might be too generous of a term to use. Almost immediately, the identifiable dirt groove all but vanished into a hill of shrubs and dense greenery, but that was nowhere near enough to deter me and I avidly began to follow the lightly matted track of grass up the steep hillside. At certain points, the trail narrowed to only a foot in width, with a sheer drop to Kotor below on one side, and rising cliffs on the other.

To make matters worse, the trail was lined with wild raspberry bushes, not yet fruited out, but plentiful in their thorns. The dress I had so intelligently chosen, a jersey knit fabric with a skirt longer in the back than in the front, seemed magnetically attracted to these thorns. Every few steps, I was carefully disentangling the light and easily tearable fabric from the thorns so I could continue on my way. This kept up for a ways until finally I had enough. I tore the dress skirt free from the thorns, angrily crumpled up the back half of it and stuffed it into the back of my underwear before hautily continuing my march up the mountain. Once my initial flare of temper wore away, I began to think about just how ridiculous I probably looked climbing through the brambles and branches in no pants. Not that it much mattered considering I was the only one either adventurous or stupid enough (take your pick as I find the terms often mean synonymous things) to take the trail marked on the map as a “high risk zone”. But still I had to grin at the image and stopped to set up my camera to document it. After all, those are the moments of travel that best reveal us. It also made me reminisce on the times last summer in which some friends of mine started a tradition of taking naked panorama pictures on remote Montana mountains. This was simply in the name of tradition.

With nothing to hang me up, I had a relatively easier time navigating the narrow stone ledges, even if the skin on my legs took on the brunt of the force of the thorns in the dress’ stead. Yet the remaining distance was anything but easy. Often times, the trail was completely overshadowed by shrubbery and I had to walk along the stone wall to pass, praying a sudden wind didn’t come up with each I step. Several times I ran into potentilla patches and for those who haven’t spent five years working in a greenhouse, I can tell you one thing about potentilla plants: they are bee heaven. For every tiny yellow bud of juicy nectar there were at least three bees and there were hundreds of flowers on these plants. Having been stung by bees, hornets, wasps, and basically anything else with a stinger a great deal in my life and told by my grandpa that one can develop an allergy to stings if stung enough, I am quite afraid of being stung, minimal though the pain may be. Preparing to pass though each shrub was like preparing to run across a bed of coals: steeling the nerves, taking a deep breath, then running like hell.

My third mistake of the day was choosing to wear my canvas Toms as opposed to my hiking boots. I hadn’t really intended on this climb being a full on hike, after all, but given the opportunity I wasn’t about to turn it down. My Toms are actually perhaps my favorite pair of shoes, lightweight and versatile in both look and use, dressy and casual, active and relaxing. For as comfortable as they are, they are not entirely useful in every situation. Toms are a trade off of traction for nimbleness and as I was scaling across rough rock blocks, a part of me desperately wanted that comfort of traction. Thus far my only sensical act of the day had been to at least think ahead and take my allergy medication at home so I wasn’t sneezing myself off the fortress.

Yet for the struggle the trail was proving to be, I would not have chosen the other routes even knowing what I knew then. Rather than taking the fact that no one else seemed to be hiking this trail as a sign of something off, I enjoyed the solitude, the quietness of being away from parents and whiny toddlers, the empty arena for my thoughts. It was too good to be true and I should have taken that as a sure fire indicator that it wasn’t. When the path finally merged into the middle difficulty one, I found the one I was on blocked off with a stretch of red tape that read “no admission”. So the trail was closed after all but funnily enough they had only deemed it logical to put the sign at the end of the trail. Of course, how silly to assume it should have been the other way around. The beginning trail was much less obvious so perhaps they thought no one would attempt a trail that looked so faded. They had clearly never met me. I was clearly not about to get in any trouble and so I shrugged and figured this had been fate’s way of rounding out my trifecta of hiking illegally on closed trails for the trip.

Back on the sanctioned trail, I found I was only about halfway up to the fortress, despite the great distance I had already climbed. The rest of the way was made of smooth marble steps, worn down from thousands of feet over the many years of its existence. Once again, I regretted the non-traction Toms decision, especially when I slipped and barely caught myself before drilling my tailbone into the marble. Honestly, all in all, the climb should not have taken very long but I also have the attention span and energy of a strobe light when you put me in a remotely mountainous situation. At every single fortress platform or overlook, I was climbing off the steps to the crumbling ramparts and bastions to see what hidden gems I might be able to find.

And boy did I find one. On one of the little grassy knolls tucked away off the trail, there as a window marked with a little red target, an international indication of a hiking trail. Through said window, one could easily climb down onto the opposite side of the fortress where a tiny and ancient little church stood made of tottering stone. Beyond it, a trail led into the mountains and while I knew I would not have time to fully explore the trail, as the sun was already setting, I did trot along it a little ways until I came to perhaps the most remote house I have ever encountered. Directly on the mountainside behind this huge fortress with no road leading to it, was the home of an entire family who seemed to make a living selling food to passing hikers. For me, it was a blended wedge of homemade goat and cow cheese, which turned out to be just about the best cheese I’ve ever eaten in my entire life and trust me, I know my cheeses. It was almost as if I was fated to find this house. I bid the family farewell and returned to the fortress, wondering how many people knew about that little gold mine.

I finally made it to the top of the fortress and looked down at the red roofed town of Kotor, almost like toy houses against the expanding bay and dwarfing mountains. As stunning as the view was, it honestly was not nearly as thrilling to me as various other points of my journey to reach it. I thought about how many people people climbed that for what they find at the top and then there was me somehow feeling a little let down after the high of the climb. The real prize was the process. I didn’t spend a terrible amount of time at the top, as I knew the were still plenty of hidden nooks to explore on the way down, especially since I intended on taking the actual path this time, not because I didn’t like the challenging one, but simply because I hadn’t walked much of the other path. Who knew what sorts of mysteries it held. As I knew it would be the journey down was filled with distractions, missed turns, and plenty more stairs descended, ascended, then re-descended again. Though the main path encompasses roughly 1,400 steps, I’m certain I climbed far more than that by the time the day was done.

After finally feeling as though I had relatively exhausted the secrets of the fortress, or at least exhausted myself if nothing else, I wandered through Kotor’s Stari Grad for an hour or so. As small as it was, there wasn’t terribly much to see outside a couple churches, a cat museum, and plenty of stray cats to match. Plus after my fortress adventure, something about the idea of wandering the streets of a city didn’t seem too appealing so I caught the soonest minibus back to Podgorica. Only a few minutes into my ride, the young guy sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’m sorry but I heard you speaking English to the driver. Are you American?” Is it really that obvious? But I found out he too was American doing some work abroad and we talked for a bit before he got off at the nearby town of Budva, a place with an even smaller Old Town than Kotor.

I mulled over the encounter after he left. It occurred to me how amazing it really was that people are so adept at seeking out fellow speakers of their language. English speakers are like little blips on our radar systems and we gravitate toward them naturally. Though we all travel for a dish of the unfamiliar, we are all also incredibly grateful for the occasional spoonful of the familiar. Even on fortress, I ran into a great number of people, from college kids to elderly couples, who would throw some English words my way almost as if testing the water. Looking at someone, you can never quite tell who speaks English but generally after a greeting you can decide. After the light bulb turns on and all at once both parties become incredibly talkative. Such encounters become a breath of fresh air in a choking cloud of isolation. Even though a great many people from other countries speak some degree of English as well, there is comfort in hearing an American accent especially. It’s little things like that you don’t realize how much you miss when traveling.

That night, upon returning to the hostel, I walked in to smell the glorious scents of Marco’s cooking. We had planned on having a dinner party to celebrate Danielle’s successful baking of a cheesecake, despite some incredibly strange and unusual Montenegro baking ingredients (I’m sorry but their butter does NOT look like butter). According to Danielle, “You can’t just eat something like cheesecake. It has to go along with a dinner party.” And I had to agree. So we celebrated and toasted to new friends (“Ziveli!” as they say), drank wine, and filled ourselves with delicious cheesecake. No matter what Danielle said about it being a bit dry dry, I wouldn’t hear it. I realized at dinner how much I would miss this. I would miss the quiet calm of Podgorica, I would miss free breakfasts, I would miss Turkish coffee while watching MTV music videos, but most of all, I would miss the people. I hadn’t been there long, but the thought of leaving filled me with such an inexplicable sense of sadness. It was the first time over my journey that I had experienced such a feeling.

Traveling seems to make a person necessarily faster to form attachments, otherwise you’ll never connect with anyone. Making connections with people from all walks of life is the single most rewarding part of traveling and that was perhaps the biggest lesson I had learned over my travels. I often like to regard myself as a loner, spurning interactions with other people out of sheer stubborn pride. But I learned that I do need people. As much as I hate to admit it, I really do. Needing people is not some sign of weakness or incompatible trait with a wanderer’s lifestyle. In fact, the two are almost intrinsically tied together and the minute one realizes that, the more complete an experience they can have. And just as anything in this world, people are good and bad. They can enrich any situation or they can erode it, but either way they are necessary for one to truly see the world. It’s not, after all, the place itself that makes a location but the people you meet there. For that lesson, I am forever indebted to Danielle, Marco, Yelena, and everyone else I met at the Montenegro Hostel (except maybe the guy who snored in my room my second night there). Thank you.