Virtues and Plitvice

nemophilist n. A haunter of the woods; one who loves the forest, its beauty and solitude.

Pulling out of Zagreb, I was not in a mentally good place. Fortunately, I was on my way to somewhere I was hopefully could pull me out of it: the mountains. If there is anywhere in the world that can erase my troubles and make feel entirely at home, it is there. The ride to Plitvice Lakes National Parks was drab and dull much like the rest of my experience in Croatia thus far. The sky was dark with clouds and as I passed the dead landscape, still barren and skeletal from winter, I began to realize my previous plans of camping in my tent were looking more and more undesirable by the minute. Of course the question became if I wasn’t camping, where was I going to stay for the next two nights? I had no idea what type of accommodation they might have out at this remote national park and as the bus sped passed nothing but cement cinder block houses and old fashioned brick cabins, I became less and less encouraged that I would be able to find anything better than a barn. If it came down to it though, I supposed I could do worse. A barn would at least be more dry than my tent.

The drive was not exceedingly long and before I knew it, the bus pulled over next to the road at a three sided wooden bus stop and there I was. To my left lay a couple wooden cabins and the entrance to the Plitvice Lakes and beyond there, the area seemed devoid of anything besides dead birch forests. The tent suddenly seemed to weigh a thousand pounds on my pack as I went into the park information office and nervously asked where I might find accommodation. I crossed my fingers, half expecting something along the lines of, “Well you can walk 20km back along the road to the nearest town or sleep in the bus stop over there.” But she smiled and told me about a small village off the main road about 400 meters away. I couldn’t believe my luck but with a chain of “hvalah”s trailing after me, I exited the office and set off down the road.

The word village was generous at best to describe what I found. Bigfork is a village; This was a single street of houses. But they were all advertising rooms available and that was good enough for me. Now I had the unexpected task of choosing at which one I wanted to stay. After a thoughtful and sophisticated game of eenie meenie miney mo, I decided on House Spehar, mostly because the sign had a little symbol of a fireplace on it so I could only hope it had a wood stove. I knocked on the door, having absolutely no idea what kind of accommodation I was walking into. After a few moments, the door swung open and there stood an elderly woman leaning on a cane. We stared, not entirely sure what to make of the other, until I meekly asked, “Uh…Room?” She motioned me inside what looked like her home and led up a little stairway to a bedroom at the end of the hall. I realized that all these houses offering rooms in the villages were just that: peoples’ homes with rooms temporarily rented out.

The room was small, but quaint, with its own private bathroom and comfortable looking bed which was about really all I wanted after having not slept much in the last couple days. I asked how much and she told me 250 kuna per night. Hearing the number 250, I about choked at what seemed an extortionate amount but then I remembered the Croatian kuna is valued much lower than the dollar. In fact, I found out in Zagreb that chocolate bars cost about 3 kuna which is roughly $0.40. Needlessly to say, I bought several, following the tradition of chocolate my mother and I had been following on our travels. After using the 7:1 conversation ratio between the two, I calculated that to be about $35 per night for two nights. It was a bit more than I liked to spend on housing, but for the privacy and the fact that I wasn’t likely to find anything better, I took it. Plus she was cute, and I told myself that $70 would probably really help her out.

As much as I could have curled up and gone to sleep right then and there, I didn’t want to waste my time when I only had two days to spend hiking there. Plus the heater (alas no wood burning stove) had just been turned on and the room was still pretty frigid. Giving the heater time to take the chill off the room, I headed back to the Park Entrance, paying the slightly extortionate 130 kuna for a two day pass. “When in Croatia…” I told myself. Despite the chilly weather, I entered Plitvice. I had learned back in Croatia, it is pronounced like PLIT-veet-suh. This became the beginning of a long running lesson that rarely anything in Eastern Europe is actually pronounced the way it looks. Every new place becomes a game of trying overhearing the correct pronunciation before looking too much like an idiot and pronouncing it the American phonetical way.

Plitvice is spendid and stunning right from the beginning. Despite the dead deciduous forest that I was sure would look much prettier once it began to leaf out, it was still beautiful. The moment you walk into the park, you are greeted with the Vidikovac waterfall, the largest of all the falls, cascading down the cliff wall opposite to the entrance. To get there, one must descend into the canyon, circle along the lower lakes, then ascend up the opposite side, which is the route I planned for the day. I would leave the upper lakes for the following day. In terms of geography, Plitvice is essentially a string of sixteen lakes fed by mountain runoff and connected by strings of waterfalls. From the uppermost lake to the lowermost, where the water runs into the Korana River, it goes from 2,087 feet in elevation to 1,650 feet in approximately 8km. The basins of water that make up the lakes are all comprised of limestone and the constant flowing water over these limestone composites actually make it so that the entire string of lakes in constantly growing in height, bit by bit. It also explains the pretty extensive cave system around the lakes much like the one I descended down through to the water’s edge.

From the main trail, a side trail, or more like a narrow set of slippery limestone stairs, winds down through Cave Superla, known as the “hollow cave” because it is essentially a vertical passage with no floor or ceiling. Once through this vertical column of rock, I found myself standing on a wooden walkway, just floating on the surface of the water. To one side, one of the falls crashed down off the side of the wooden walkway and to the other, it wound across one of the lakes. Technically (which is always a word I use when I do not intend on following its subsequent mandate), all of these lower pathways were closed due to flooding, and for good reason considering water from the falls actually either bubbled up between the slats or crashed right down over them at various points but red tape has never stopped me in the past. Nor did it seem to be stopping other people. With my own disregard for trail prohibitions bolstered by everyone else that seemed to be doing the same thing, I spent the next couple hours just exploring the lower trails, walking over the wooden planks ways and staring into the deep teal waters just below my feet.

I’ve always held a fascination with creeks (proudly pronounced “cricks” for all you pretentious assholes out there who don’t seem to think Montanans aren’t allowed to have accents on certain words…you know who you are) and moving bodies of water. Even the roaring “fast water” of my childhood which my grandfather had to pack me across inspired both fear and obsession. There is something about water that is worth envying. It is always being, perpetually alive. I admire the chattering exuberance of moving water even in the dead of winter when everything around it is dead and covered in snow. Water survives. It is the oldest shaper of the world and will exist long after we are gone, still carving out the world indiscriminately and unifying it through one simple combination of two elements. I want to be like water, dangerous and powerful but also healing and rejuvenating. As a child, I would spend hours at creeks, making mud lies, catching frogs, collecting pebbles. For every camping trip, my grandparents would buy me a Kodak disposable camera (which is a very old thing to say) and I would fill up the entire roll of film with indistinguishable masses of pebbles, water, and weeds, interspersed with the occasional chipmunk. I loved water and all the beautiful complexities of its channels, from the smallest muddy trickle to the most dignifying roaring river. It’s a fascination that has never entirely died. I could sit on the banks of a stream staring into the water for hours and never get bored, which is essentially what I did for two days at Plitvice.

I stared at my feet, first to make sure I didn’t misstep and end up literally swimming with the fishes, and second to admire the beauty below. The waters of Plitvice were such a deep teal that it was like I was looking to the eyes of the earth. It was like being back in Montana and staring at the glacial waters of my youth, those of Darkhorse Lake, Jewel Basin, and Glacier National Park. It was tempting to jump in, to let those crystal wash over me, but I knew I’d regret that decision almost immediately. I may spend my summers jumping off bridges and glaciers but there is still something vastly different about jumping in cold water and emerging into warm air and jumping into cold water and emerging into cold air. Often times I would see fish swimming past, most of them tiny but with the occasional prize amongst minnows. The fisherman within me wanted to know if they were good to eat and how I might go about fashioning a fishing rod to catch them. Even the foam of churning water was beautiful and I smiled, recalling how my grandpa would always call such foam “Indian soap”.

My enjoyment from these observations was magnified by the difficulties wrought from the excessive amount of water on the trails. It wasn’t that I went onto these closed trails just to see more of the lakes, but also that I liked the challenge of the flooded land. While ascending up stairways beside waterfalls, every step was a gamble of timing to avoid the random spurts of water gushing through the boards, all while being mindful of their slick surface. Even when the trail turned from wood to dirt and circled around the outside borders of a lake rather than go directly over it, the water had washed over the rock edging and to pass one had to either plan on getting wet feet or step carefully across the narrow rock edge between the flooded trail and the lake. Me, having perhaps the worst balance in the world, which is always something you want to hear from someone who frequently finds herself in dangerously high places, struggled with the tightrope act. Had it not been for my tripod which I started using as a balancing stick, I might have fallen in several times.

Having finally exhausted the lower trails, I wound my way up the other side of the canyon until I stood at the base of the large waterfall, allowing its mist to consume me as thousands of gallons of water hit the rock every second. Here I noticed, for the first time, how cold I was and the now spitting sky did not help. My cozy little room seemed even more appealing. While wandering back through the village, I took real notice of the lifestyle for the first time. Almost every house had stacks of wood leaned up against the house with little curls of smoke trailing from chimneys. The very air smelled of wood smoke and pine forest, my two favorite smells in the world. I was instantly transported back to the campfires I would sit around as a child with my grandparents, enraptured in my grandpa’s ghost stories and silly rhymes. For a moment, I could feel the ghost of the warmth of embers in my bones and taste the sweetness of s’mores in my mouth. A felt a love for Croatia kindle in me in that moment. While much of it may be grey and gloomy, it is a gloom that comes from time. Much like an old photograph fades, so, too, had the countryside of Croatia. The lifestyle here was simple and old fashioned and in that way it reminded me greatly of Montana, a needed piece of familiarity for me.

My imagined warmth of the fire soon faded and I once again shivered in the rain, finding all I wanted was to take a hot shower, which is the first thing upon returning to my room. From there, I nestled down into my bed, piled with every spare woolen blanket the room had to offer. There I called my mom for the first time since we had parted, finding great relief in hearing her voice again, and did a bit of replannning for the upcoming two weeks. Looking back through my plans, I realized I had been a bit too ambitious and rather than spend the rest of the time completely overwhelmed I decided I would readjust some things and spend slightly longer bits of time in certain places to allow myself time to rest. Yet I did not get far in my planning because, before I knew it, my eyes grew too heavy to hold open. The bed felt like heaven, perhaps the best bed I have ever slept in, though that could have just been exhaustion fueling the thought. Without realizing it had happened, I found myself feeling immeasurably better about everything. This place, the mountains, the perfect little room, the ability to just sit and relax, were exactly the things I needed.

That night, I had my first great night of sleep in several nights. When I woke after near eleven hours, I felt refreshed and optimistic. With a clear head, I could see that all my discouragement and panic had simply been due to the sudden drastic change in my situation. If you take anything and force it into a new situation, no matter how suited it may be for that situation, it will need to adjust. I realized that it was not that I disliked or was incapable of traveling alone but rather that I had gotten used to not traveling alone and needed just a couple days to adjust. It’s actually pretty amazing how quickly we as humans are capable of making ourselves suitable for entirely new environments. Change can be scary but that fear is not permanent and it makes the subsequent joy that much more vibrant.

I made no effort to push myself into the park exorbitantly early, but rather woke up at my leisure, did a bit of writing, and took time to just relax and wake up naturally. When I figured the day might have warmed up a bit outside, despite the still cloudy weather, I returned to the park and this time set off for the upper loop of lakes. After following the same path I had followed the previous day for a small bit of time, I caught a ferry across one of the larger lakes where the upper loop begins. From there, I filed in line behind the long string of elderly people walking the same route, taking opportunities to pass and separate myself from the group as I went. The upper lakes differed from the lower in their intricacy. None of them were quite as deep or vast because each slap was much closer together and the falls quite literally surrounded me at every turn. I became lost in the rushing of water, the light mist in my face, the sparkle of sequined water in the occasional filtered rays of sunlight.

Surrounded by sheer natural wonder, I took no shame in taking countless blind selfies with my clunky DSLR and even painstakingly setting up my camera on a tripod to capture proof that such a place did not only exist in my imagination. I’ve gotten quite good at such methods of photography, even if it does take a couple tries to get the aim and timing right. But it is in little things like that in which I notice the weight of solo travel. Whereas I could normally thrust the camera at my mother and flit off to my desired photo spot, now it was not so simple. All my struggles eventually captured the attention of an old man who graciously volunteered to take some photos of me with my camera. For the rest of the day, we kept bumping into each other and exchanging photos, him taking some of me, and me returning the favor for him and his wife. After finally introducing ourselves, I found out he was originally from Iran but currently living in Sweden, a trend that seems to be common among middle eastern countries. Throughout the day, I thanked him profusely for his kindness and willingness to help me. I’ve run into such people willing to help me out even in the most seemingly insignificant ways time and time again. While solo travel may be difficult, it is also incredibly rewarding as you are easily reminded of the kindness of humanity.

When I finally ascended to the top of the park gazing out at the final lake before me, I found myself unready to go home. I wandered around for a while and eventually stumbled on a hiking trail that branched away from the main path. The trial had two options, of either 9km or 21km, neither of which I had time to hike at this late hour in the day, though I did seriously contemplate giving the 9km one a go. I actually ended up following the trial for a good 3km before the setting sun forced me stop saying, “Just around the next bend.” I returned to the top of the park where I needed to wait for the next tram bus to take me back to the entrance. Having about a half hour to kill until it would run by again, I settled down on the wooden boardwalk across the lake, now glinting like glass in the setting sun. I found it hard it believe that such a calm reservoir could possibly be the source of all those crashing falls. It hardly seemed as though the water was even moving and had it not been for the shimmering reflections of sunlight along the bottom, it wouldn’t have appeared as though it was at all. The deep moving channels of water were impossibly clear, and as I hung my feet from the walkway, the only way I could even discern its closeness was to push down my toes down until the rubber soles of my boots broke the tension across the surface. The late afternoon sun changed the water from teal to gold and eventually to dark blue as it sank below the tree line. “Nothing gold can stay…”

The bus pulled up in that moment and took me along a winding road that stressed the links between cars to the point of creaking and groaning, which is not a very comforting sound when one side of the road all but disappears into water. As I settled down to sleep for my final night before the next stage of my journey, I mulled over what this place had done for me, and I found myself once again in awe at the power of the mountains. It is comforting to know that should I ever lose myself, I always know where to go to find it again. Knowing that about myself, it makes my plans of hiking across the world feel that much more right. The ridges of my spine are mountains, my bones stout tree trunks, and my blood crystal clear teal waters.