On Top of the Tatras

nefelibata n. Lit. "cloud walker"; one who lives in their dreams or does not obey the conventions of society.

The morning came far too early, as one might expect when one sets their alarm for 4:45am.  After quietly sneaking out of the hostel dorm, no doubt only hours after some people had gotten in, and grabbing one quick cup of instant coffee from the kitchen, I was off, walking the quiet sleepy streets of Bratislava under a cotton candy colored sky just barely dyed by the sun’s early rays.   My final destination for the day was a tiny village nestled in the foothills of the High Tatras named Ždiar, but to get there I first needed to take the train to Poprad where I could catch a fairly infrequent bus out to Ždiar.  I got to the train station and, failing to see Poprad written anywhere on the departure marquee, went to the Student Agency desk and asked from which platform the train was leaving.  “Platform 3,” he said.  I rushed off to the platform, very near to being late.  When I emerged on the platform, a train in front of me and after double-checking with the conductor that the train went to Poprad, a small gesture of confirmation that has become habit for me, I boarded. 

Something felt off right away when I noticed the orientation of the seats didn’t line up with the one I had booked.  On the website, I had booked a window eat looking forward on the left hand side of the train, so I could see the Tatras mountains better when they came into view.  On this train, my seat number was not even on the left hand side of the train.  But I figured that unsettling feeling in my gut was just me being neurotic or that I had simply misread the seating map on the website.  Either way, I took my seat and settled in for the ride. 

It wasn’t long before the train conductor came along and I handed her a little sticky note with the booking number for my ticket scrawled on it, like I did with all Student Agency buses.  I had never taken their Regiojet trains before but I figured the process would be the same.  She gave me a funny look, then started punching in some numbers on her fancy electronic pad.  Then she asked to see the confirmation. Uh-oh.  That meant something was wrong.  I pulled up a screenshot of the confirmation email I had received and showed it to her, confident that would clear everything up.  She read through it then shook her head and said, “This… wrong train.  Not ticket.”  Wrong train?  What did she mean, wrong train?  I double checked twice.  I started to spew panic induced word vomit at her.  “No I checked with the ticket booth and he said the train to Poprad was at platform 3 and this train was there and you said it went to Poprad.” She looked at me blankly, then held up her finger as if to say “wait” and went to fetch two girls sitting a few seats down the car. 

Two young girls, probably not much older than me, came over and I explained myself so they could translate to her.  After some discussion among themselves, one of the girls looked at me and gently said, “There were two train bound for Poprad at platform 3.  The Student Agency train was bright yellow and it was stationed ahead of this one.  It left five minutes before ours.”  I wanted to scream.  Whose stupid fucking idea was that?  No wonder there was confusion and I could hardly be blamed for the mistake.  The girls explained that I would need to buy a new ticket for this train, at which point I really panicked.  My heart started racing and tears sprung to my eyes despite attempts to staunch their flow.  Buy another ticket would mean spending nearly another 14€ and I just didn’t have the kind of money to be completely wasting it on stupid mistakes like that.  I’ve mentioned how I tend to beat myself up about money far more than I should and this was definitely one of those instances.  I didn’t even have much cash left on me and the bit I did have was meant to last me until Austria, three whole cities away. 

The girls comforted me and assured me it would be okay.  They exchanged a few more words with the conductor, who must have taken pity on poor little pathetic me because the girls said she would let me ride the train for free as far as some station I didn’t catch the name of, but after that when a different conductor got on, I would have to pay for a ticket for the remainder of the journey.  Still upset about my mistake, I don’t think I fully realized the kindness she had just done me in that moment but I said thank you to her several times and she continued on her way.  As for the two girls, they also returned to their seat but promised to come check on me a bit later.  I spent the next couple hours stewing on my mistake, let me emotions and frustrations boil inside me.  I have a nasty habit of dwelling on things and making them my fault even if they were just products of bad circumstance. 

Soon enough, the station the conductor had mentioned passed by and I realized it was only a matter of time before I had to fork over an unknown amount of euros to pay for the train ticket I had already bought.  But shortly after, the two girls came over again and each of them set down a euro in front of me.  “No, I really can’t accept this,” I told them.  This was all my own mistake.  The brown haired one with a round and friendly face said, “No we insist.  I understand because when I was in Vancouver traveling and people helped me out with things.”  They wouldn’t take no for an answer, no matter how many times I pushed the coins back at them. You should know that even though I define myself as a bit of a vagabond, handouts are the last thing I want.  Growing up in an old mining town, I was raised with a fierce sense of work ethic and a fatal pride that tends to not let me ask for help, even in situations when I need it.  I have always fended for myself and worked hard for everything.  Accepting help, and especially money from strangers, was new to me but it all goes back to that call to pay if forward I was talking about a few posts ago.  After months, I am still shocked by the kindness of strangers and once again, I found just how affirming travel is in the way of generosity.  It is the fastest remedy to cynicism and jadedness.  When the new conductor came around, I ended up only paying 4€ of my own money plus the 2€ the girls had given me.  Saving 2€ may not seem like much, but to me, it felt like the world, because it symbolized more than money.  That 2€was a symbol of people willing to help out other people for no reason or gain for themselves. 

But my struggles weren’t over yet, no, not by a long shot.  Bad things happen in three just as good things do and as I had just spent a great three days, I needed to counter- balance that somehow.  Even though the train I ended up in departed Bratislava just minutes behind the one I was meant to be on, it was over an hour slower and delayed even further.  As we sat inching along the track, I was practically vibrating on my seat on the verge of a nervous break.  Maybe it was the exhaustion, the stress of the day, but my anxiety became almost overwhelming in that moment.  I tried to hide it but that’s easier said than done.  I needed to be off the train immediately, for the sake of my sanity.  It had been such a rollercoaster of a day and it wasn’t even noon yet.

The delays on the train made it so that I missed the bus Poprad to Ždiar that I meant to catch.  The next bus was not due to leave for another two hours, meaning that, all in all, my transportation issues had cost four valuable hours of hiking or at least hanging out in the mountains and I desperately needed a dose of mountain medicine in that moment.  If anything could wipe away my anxieties, it was that.  As I sat in the sweltering bus terminal (seriously the sign was reading 41°C which is about 10°C hotter than this Montana girl can handle), I thought I might as well get some writing done, but as I did so, a fly kept buzzing around, landing on my fingers, and driving me crazy.  “Fly, you and I are going to have some problems if you don’t buzz off… literally.”  After I said that out loud, I realized two things: 1) I’m still punny even when I’m pissed off.  2) I was talking to an insect.  Bring me to those beautiful blue mountains in the distance immediately before the last threads of my sanity snap.

The bus finally came and I encountered yet another nice person to help make my day just a little bit brighter.  As I handed over the 2€ bus fare and hesitantly said, “Ždiar”, unsure if I was even pronouncing it right, the driver looked at my pack and asked, “Ginger Monkey?”  That was the name of the hostel I would be staying at so I nodded, thankful that I would at least end up in the right place.  But as the bus ride went on, I began to doubt that.  The directions on the hostel website said to get off at the stop as soon as you see the petrol sign, so I was on the lookout for that.  But it also said the bus from Poprad was about 20 minutes long.  I had been on the bus for far longer than 20 minutes… Shit, I must have missed it! At the next stop I approached the driver but he waved for me to sit down.  “I tell you,” he said.  And thank God for that because the bus ride ended up being well over an hour long.  Had I listened to the website’s directions, I would have been doomed.  This would, unfortunately, not be my last encounter with shitty Slovakian directions, but more on that later.

For the rest of the ride I kept making occasional nervous eye contact with the bus driver through the rearview mirror.  As promised, right when I saw the petrol station sign, the bus driver nodded at me and motioned to the bus door.  I gathered up my stuff, stepped off the bus, and started trekking toward the hostel just up the road.  Ždiar was a quintessential village, established in 1590 by woodcutters, coalmen, and farmers.  Even today, its population is only about 1,300, far smaller than even Bigfork.  It was quiet and kind, with wooden folk buildings adorned with brightly painted ornamentations.  Unfortunately, I could not dawdle outside and look around for long.  In the hour or so that I had been on the bus, the sky had darkened menacingly and the air smelled like the brink of a storm.  Sure enough, just as the hostel came into view, small raindrops started pattering down and I made it inside just before the sky opened up.  Well I guess I wouldn’t be doing any hiking that day, at least not for a while. 

But honestly, that didn’t break my heart.  After checking in through an extremely nice and helpful British guy working at the reception counter, I sat down in the kitchen of the quiet hostel with a cup of coffee to wash away any residual stress from the day’s travels.  Nearly everyone was our hiking so the hostel was virtually empty save for me and the staff and the blissful peace of the area.  There was no city traffic, no sirens, no mobs of people chattering away; only the rain on the rooftop, the occasional boom of thunder, and the hourly ringing of church bells that sent Wally, the hostel dog, into a cute fit of howling.  And of course, the terrifying monkey cuckoo clock in the kitchen that also sounded on the hour with a very loud and startling chimp noise.  I never got used to that.  I was in love with this hostel already.  I loved the mountain hiking lodge feel of it, with wood paneled walls lined with old skis and other outdoor equipment, crates of empty beer bottles in the mud room, a hammock strung across the porch, a shelf of tattered books for book exchange (always a favorite find in hostels for me), and a wall of hiking boots.  It didn’t feel so much like a hostel but a cabin, complete with a common room of comfortable couches, piles of woven blankets, a guitar, and even a fake wooden head mount of what I think was supposed to be a deer on the wall.  Replace that with a real deer mount and it was like being back in Montana.

Eventually, a group of other travelers returned from their day’s ventures to seek shelter from the rain.  I joined them in the common room to watch Wes Anderson’s, one of my favorite directors, The Grand Budapest Hotel as I waited out the rain and made an effort to catch up on my blog slightly (one day I’ll be caught up!).  As I sat there, I found myself enjoying this place more and more and the prospect of leaving the day after tomorrow just seemed too soon.  There was too much to do here, too many mountains to appreciate and absorb.  The consideration of extending my stay one day entered my mind and I thought about what that would mean.  Well, first I would have to see if the hostel would let me, then I would need to shift my hostel reservation in Budapest ahead by one day and rebook the train to Vienna, then cancel the first night in my Vienna hostel.  That wasn’t too bed, definitely feasible.  It’s funny how the prospect of deviating and changing plans had become less terrifying and more appealing the more I had done it.  After all, the two places I had gone that were not originally part of the sacred schedule had actually been two places I enjoyed most.  I told myself I would think on it and decide later.

After the film, I returned to the kitchen for another cup of coffee and to finish up posting on my blog.  While there, I met an American guy named Jeff, form Michigan, and got on quite well right away.  As the rain had come to halt, leaving only a misty veil over the mountains and a dark bruised sky overhead, we decided to go take a walk and perhaps explore the area for a bit.  After a quick stop at the local convenient store for a beer and grapefruit juice mixture thing (way better than it sounds), we headed off the road and started hiking directly up the hill opposite the hostel, figuring we would come out somewhere eventually.  Along the way, we discovered a trove of hidden treasures of the Tatras, mostly in the way of wild fruit.  There was everything from tiny wild strawberries so sweet they tasted like candy to massive patches of ripe wild raspberries.  It was a smorgasbord of wild foraging. We even found a small patch of huckleberries and if Jeff hadn’t been there, I would have though I was hallucinating and that missing Montana was driving me crazy.  Oddly enough, though we were constantly raspberries and strawberries, I never found another huckleberry in my time there.  It was as if that one small patch was a sign of comfort sent to me straight from Montana. 

Eventually, Jeff and I found ourselves sitting on the bank of a small stream where talked, drinking our beers for several hours as twilight descended upon the land.  The more we talked, the more I felt as though I had found a kindred spirit, someone who understood my philosophies about the world and could expound on my half baked ideas rather than just smile, nod, and fake understanding at the crazy person.  Someone who agreed with ideas of fate and the soul being intertwined with nature as opposed to some divine being.  It was eerie, actually, how in sync our minds seemed to be on certain subjects.  Spaced between these deep conversations were intermittent periods of silence in which we just sat and listened to the babbling of the crystal clear water over stones and the light wind creaking the trees.  In those moments, we were enraptured by the forest.  There was simply nothing that needed to be said.

Eventually, despite the peace of the area, my butt had grown numb and I needed to use the toilet considerably bad so we set off for home, ascending back up and over the hill to the hostel.            The next task on the to-do list was food.  I hadn’t really thought much about dinner that night I was considerably ill prepared save for a few bags of peanuts and a jar of Nutella, things that have quickly become traveling staples.  I also, however, always carry a bag of either rice or pasta (pasta preferably as it weighs less) in my bag on the chance that I get into a hostel late at night and have no other options for supper.  And thus, I cooked up a giant pot of buttered pasta with chili powder (another thing I keep in my pack to make backpacking food seem just a bit less bland) and whatever herb packets I found in the cabinets for Jeff and myself.  As we ate in the common room, we each began making new acquaintances and I ended up talking to Mitchel, a young post grad from the Perth side of Australia (imagine that, someone not from the Gold Coast), for quite some time.  People slowly filtered off to bed and I was quick to follow, having a quite exhaustive day planned for the morrow.

Unfortunately, my body decided it didn’t need a good night of sleep and at about 5:30am, I was wide awake, staring at the bottom of the upper bunk and cursing the fact that it was already so light outside.  My biological clock has been a bit screwy lately.  Usually, I sleep just about exactly eights hours before waking, so it was strange for my body to be so wide awake after only about five hours of sleep.  I attributed it to the excitement of hiking that day.  I tried to lay in bed and fall back to sleep but when I rolled her and saw one of my bunkmates with his back to me, a hole in his boxers right where his ass crack was, I took that as a sign to get up and attempt some early morning productivity. 

Enlivened by a cup of hot coffee and some stunning views from the front porch, I started reworking some of my plans.  I had decided I definitely wanted to stay another night there and, truth be told, even longer had I not had something specific scheduled in Budapest that demanded I be there on Monday.  But by extending my stay here to three nights at least, I would still have two full days.  I went up to the British girl working at the reception desk.  She couldn’t have been over five foot, but she was also one of the peppiest, sweetest people I have ever met.  When I asked whether of I might be able to stay one extra night she said, “Sure!  Of course you can!  I’ll get you all sorted!”  Unfortunately, all the beds were completely booked that night but she promised she would figure something out for me, even if it meant me sleeping at another accommodation in the village but still coming over to the Ginger Monkey for breakfast and to hang out.  Since I wasn’t too keen on moving all my stuff to another accommodation down the road, I finally asked if I might be able to stay on the couch in the lounge or on the hammock outside.  While one girl I talked too wasn’t thrilled with that idea, as it is technically against their policy, they all eventually decided it wouldn’t be a problem and that I could stay on the couch for 10€.  Funnily enough, it was 3€ less than I was paying for a bed to actually have my own private room on that final night.

As the time neared 8am, the start of free breakfast, more and more people began to rise and I was joined by Jeff at the breakfast table.  Just before we set off, I ran into Mitchel and invited him along on the hike.  He readily joined and the three of us were off.  Our plans for the day were fairly ambitious and I myself was excited to get back into fairly challenging mountainous terrain.  The Tatras mountains span the border between Poland and Slovakia but we were staying on the Slovakian side, heading south directly out of Ždiar and into the heart of the High Tatras, or Vysoké Tatry, some of the highest peaks in the range.  Our plan was to hike the fairly easy going green trail until it split onto the #0930 red trail, which we would hike section A of before turning off onto the yellow trial and following it back to the road.  The red trail, spanning from Skalnate Pleso to Velke Biele Pleso, the highest point in the Tatranska Magistrala, climbed over 500 meters in a few kilometers and thus it was considered to have a strenuous grade.  Challenge accepted.

The first bit of the hike was smooth sailing, cruising over a subtly inclined path that wound along the stream through lush, green forests.  Then, all of a sudden, the incline sharpened and my legs began burning. Now I consider myself a good hiker.  Granted, I am considerably out of shape right now and I was huffing and puffing going up those grades. While I spend my days doing nothing but walking while backpacking, hiking wise, I am still at a huge disadvantage right now.  But still, I can usually keep up a pretty good pace up a mountain.  Jeff, however, put both Mitchel and me to absolute shame.  He was like a dog, literally running up the trail and leaving both of us behind in the dust.  In all honesty, it didn’t bother me one bit.  First of all, I didn’t really need yet another of my new friends to see me red faced and struggling to get up the mountain, though I was comforted in knowing that Mitchel was about on par with me in that respect.  But second, I was happy that he was off doing his own thing and not letting himself be slowed up by us.  I, for one, hate being slowed down by people and I equally hate feeling like I am the one holding people back.  Such feelings will make me push myself beyond my own physical limitations and that can be dangerous.  That’s why I want to do the Triple Crown solo.  Hike your own hike and if your hike happens to match with someone else’s then great but if not, just keep moving at your own pace.  We eventually found Jeff again when he popped out of the brush behind us, having somehow found his way off trail for a bit.

Steadily we ascended out of the valley and into the fog bank that had dramatically and ominously concealed the mountain peaks from below.  Eventually, the trail’s steepness became not only muscularly straining but technically difficult as well.  The ground eventually switched from soil and inlaid tree roots to muddy ground and large boulders slick from the night’s rain.  At that point, Mitchel and I were scrambling with both hands and feet to keep ourselves steady.  I can’t say how Jeff handled it because he had once again pulled ahead and we hadn’t seen him for quite a while.  Mitchel and I just kept on trucking, playing tag with a group of Slovakian guys also on the trail.  While it was cool and cloudy out, we were dripping sweat, out clothes drenched in both humidity and sweat.  I was thankfully for the cloudy weather, unsure how I would have managed had the temperatures been as high as they had been the last few days.  Only stopping at a cool mountain spring for the refreshing drink of water I’ve ever had and to rinse the sweat off ourselves, we kept pushing, upward and onward.  Eventually, the trail began to smooth a bit as we moved from the mountainside into the Siroké Sedlo Saddle between two peaks.  Despite the thick layer of fog filling the gap, the meadow pass still brightly popped with dark purple and vibrant magenta wildflowers.

At this point, I started to actually worry about Jeff.  It had been about 40 minutes since we last saw him.  While I was sure he was entirely competent in the woods, accidents can happen, and on such slick stones, I began to think that maybe he fell off the mountain or even took a wrong turn again, and as I was the one with the map, finding his way back might be a tad bit difficult.  In case he wandered off trail again and was behind us, Mitchel and I stopped on a little log bench beside the trail right in the middle of the saddle for a snack to give him time to catch up.  I sat there studying the map, hardly even noticing that the fog being burned away by the nubile sun.  Suddenly, the fog cleared momentarily and far off in the distance, framed by the two peaks beside the valley in which we now sat, we could see Ždiar, the single stretch of mountain homes, even the bright yellow church right next to our hostel.  It’s always funny, seeing how far you’ve walked from above, and I think both of silently felt that moment of appreciation and pride for the energy we had just spent.  That view was our reward. 

At the end of the valley where it rose up again onto the ridgeline, we found Jeff, notebook in hand, writing away and patiently waiting for us.  We stopped again for a quick snack of biscuits and Nutella, toasting them together and saying, “Nazdrave,” and of course making eye contact with each other as we did so.  Czech legend has it that if you don’t make eye contact with everyone you toast with, you’re doomed to seven years of bad sex. Well, we wouldn’t want that.

We finally crawled out of the valley onto the ridgeline and the highest point of our hike, a spot called Vysné Kopske, topping at 1,933 meters in elevation.  From there, we could see dramatic views of sharp valleys below and we all took turns running out to the edges of the cliffs and looking down.  It was nice to be hiking with people who didn’t look like they were about to have a heart attack each time I did that.  The fog had moved back in and now rippled in haunting banks across the valley, alternating between clear views and soupy white walls.  Eventually, we caught back up to the group of Slovakian guys and they asked us whether we had heard about the storm that was supposed to hit that afternoon.  We had, but we weren’t entirely concerned about it.  We would simply keep trucking on and hope we weren’t too exposed if lightning began striking. 

Just before we started descending on the other side of the ridge, an animal moved through the fog on the hillside ahead.  We stared at it for a while, trying to get a glimpse of what it was.  It’s hind quarters big, similar to an elk, but it’s horns looked more goat like.  Eventually, we ran into another a little ways down the trail, and Jeff challenged himself to see how close he could get. Getting a better glimpse of the creature, we were able to recognize it on a wildlife sign a little ways down the trail as a chamois, one of about 720 remaining in the Tatras mountains.  While my photos are not really good enough to give you a good picture of the creature, I later found a cartoon drawing of one in the hostel guestbook so there you go.

In the valley below, we came to a small shallow little lake where we kicked off our hiking boots and let our hot, swollen feet cool off in the icy water.  Both Jeff and Mitchel ended up dipping their bodies in, Jeff a bit accidentally at first, and had it not just started to rain, I might have joined, but I was at a pleasantly cool temperature and didn’t want to risk getting cold.  As the rain picked up, we grabbed our stuff and high tailed it to a little picnic table beneath a lean-to where we attempted to start a tiny little fire to warm ourselves.  Unfortunately, the woods chips and kindling we found were either too wet or too green to be of much use and our endeavor failed, though not for lack of effort on Jeff’s part.  Kudos.

Instead, we munched on snacks and eventually left our little shelter once the rain died down.  If this really was a precursor to a storm, we had best get a move on.  At least the trail was easy going and downhill at this point, if still a bit rocky, so we could pick up pace.  Then we came upon a curious find: a little white and grey cat standing on a boulder in the middle of trail, looking at us expectantly.  What the hell was a cat doing out here in the middle of the woods?  It clearly wasn’t feral because it seemed quite familiar with people and gladly let us pet her.  She rubbed up against our legs and started following us down the trail.  It seemed as though we had inadvertently adopted a pet.  We hoped the hostel wouldn’t mind another cat in addition to the two they already had.  Thinking she might be hungry, we stopped and gave her a bit of food.  Cats like Nutella, apparently.  Who knew?  And that solidified it, she was going to be our cat.  We named her Tatra and decided to take her back with us.  Jeff hoisted her into his arms and carried her with us for a while until she began squirming to be set down.  She bolted back up the trail, turned around and look at us, and was gone.  Whoever this cat was and however she had gotten there, she seemed to enjoy it out there.  It was her home and far be it for us to take her away from it.

But the mystery of Tatra cleared up about half a kilometer ahead when we stumbled upon a mountain lodge and a café.  As the lodge seemed to have its own dog sitting lazily on the porch, we could only assume that Tatra also belonged to the owners of the lodge, or at least had at one point.  The lodge was like something out of a fairy tale, nestled right on the shores of a bright cerulean lake, crystal clear like the waters of Montana.  It shores were covered in bright green foliage and vibrant wildflowers, fading into rough stone on the opposite shore that held a waterfall.  The entire last sat in the center of a bowl of sharp mountains whose silhouettes were only just visible through the cloudbank.  It was stunning, peaceful, and haunting all at the same time.  I found myself thinking of Darkhorse Lake and its own turquoise waters revealing the forested graveyard at its depths and the sharp rocky crags my dad once climbed.  I missed nature and I missed mountains.  All the European cities I had seen had been great and exciting but ultimately, they were still cities and I craved the wild untamed reaches of the world.  Out there, I found myself remembering the bare roots of who I was.

Right after the lodge, the trail split and we took the yellow path rather than continuing on the red that could have taken us several days to hike.  The yellow path was wider, more groomer, and designed for cycles and small vehicles.  Nevertheless, it was covered in small sharp stones and as I felt every single rock on the soles of my feet, I began to realize just how broken down my boots were getting.  They had seen a lot of miles since February when I bought them, far more than the 500 mile recommended life of a hiking boot.  They would last me until the end of my travels, but they wouldn’t be making it back to the States. 

The remainder of our hike ran along a crystal clear stream and despite the cool temperature of the day now, its blue pools were too much to resist and we stripped down to our underwear and dove into the glacial water.  Probably only a few degrees above freezing, it was too cold to remain in for long and thus we quickly bailed out and stood at the edge of the trail, waiting to dry off a bit before donning our clothes again.  Passing hikers gave us strange looks.  From their point of view, they couldn’t tell we had jus gone swimming and so to them, we were a group of half naked young people shivering beside a trail.  “They probably think we’re making some weird porno or something,” Jeff jokes.  “Into the Wild,” Mitchell titled it and we all broke down laughing. 

Finally redressed, we continued on but it wasn’t long before we ran into a group of old Slovakian guys sitting on the side of the trail, drinking bottled of who knows what.  They started talking to us the moment we came into view, not saying much in English outside, “Two guys, one girl,” and giving the boys a thumbs up.  I cringed.  Men are pigs in any language and I was glad to have both of them with me in that moment.  They pulled out bottled of alcohol and gave Jeff the last shot in a bottle of vodka.  Turning to Mitchell and me, all they had left was a clear bottle with some unknown liquid in it.  Mitchell hesitated but shrugged, not wanting to offend them, and tipped it back.  Then it was my turn.  On my own, I would have said, “No way in hell,” but emboldened by the protection granted to me by Mitchell and Jeff, I went against everything I was ever taught and tipped back the mystery elixir.  It burned like fire and tasted about as good as vodka and gin mixed together.  Mitchel and I exchanged disgusted expressions and figuring we had now satisfied their Slovakian hospitality, quickly bid them farewell and moved away.  At least if we ended up passing out from whatever it was, Jeff promised to pack us home on his back.  That would at least be an improvement on the rock Jeff kept carrying, holding straight out in front of him as he hiked.  “What? It’s a great workout,” he said.  “I’m working out my legs by hiking and I feel like I need balance.”  To each their own.

Over the last couple kilometers, we chatted away, listening to Simon and Garfunkel playing from my iPod.  I tell you, nothing matches the atmosphere of a cloudy drizzly day in the woods than Simon and Garfunkel, but I am a bit biased.  In this section of the trail, we also stumbled upon the mother load of raspberries and sat there filling our hands and cheeks with the dark red berries.  We were consumed in the berries that we were watching out steps and Mitchell went flailing through the pushed onto his face with a spectacular wail.  Only being able to hear him and see the blur of movement through the bushes, I burst out laughing before deciding I should probably ask if he was okay.  I told you, I’m kind of an asshole.

Finally, after about 20km of hiking in total, we reached the road.  There was a bus stop right across the way but the timetable had peeled off so we had no idea when or even if any bus would actually stop there.  Now on a time crunch to make it back to the hostel for the Mexican dinner night we had signed up for at 8pm, we decided to try our hand at hitchhiking.  None of us had ever hitchhiked before but both Mitchel and I were keen to try it and we had the benefits of each other company when doing so.  As a girl, it was safer for me with two guys and for them, it was easier to get picked up having a girl with them.  As car after car passed without so much as slowing down, I felt increasingly discouraged, thinking we would never make it back.  You could tell none of us had hitchhiked before because we instantly starting thinking of worst case scenario after only 15 minutes, which is hardly anything in the world of hitchhiking.  It takes patience and persistence.  Luckily enough, after about 20 minutes of having my thumb out, an elderly lady pulled over and let us in her car.  She didn’t speak much English but I showed her on the map where we were going.  While she wasn’t going all the way to Ždiar, she would at least get us a good distance closer.  She pulled into a restaurant in a village about 5km down the road.  We thanked her profusely and offered her a couple euros in exchange but she refused.  Now we just needed to make it the rest of the way.  Mexican night was only about 20 minutes away and it was looking more and more like we were going to miss it.  Suddenly, we noticed a bus stop, this one with a time table reading that a bus should be stopping there soon.  Five minutes later, we were on the bus on our way to Ždiar.  And I had officially tried hitching for the first time.

We got back to the hostel right at 8pm but Mexican night had already started and we had to worm our way inside to pile our plates with rice, beans, cheese, and tortilla chips.  Even better, the British girl at the reception counter handed us each generous cups of tequila.  In the soft, fading light of dusk, a large group of us gathered on the front porch, eating our food and listening to one extremely talented guy play on the guitar.  It was the perfect peaceful evening and I eventually broke out my tobacco pipe.  I save it for rare evenings such as this because nothing is better than listening to guitar, the scent of fresh tobacco smoke mingling with mountain air, and a blanket of stars overhead.

Eventually, when the guitar came to me, Jeff and I did an improvised duet of Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock’s “Picture”.  Considering I hadn’t even heard that song in years and that I had never played it, we didn’t do too badly.  And God did I miss the intoxicating and addicting feel of steel beneath my fingertips.  I went to bed with excitement and anticipation for Jeff, Mitchel, and I’s adventures the next day.  If it was anything like today, who could predict where the day would take us.  At the time, I didn’t think that statement would take on quite such a literal meaning.