I didn’t use to think much of shitting in the woods. Or carrying toilet paper out of doors.
But in these times where the white fluff is in such high demand, I’m reminded of a woman I dated who wilded me. For the first time, scatting outside was temporal.
Those were the days when toilet paper was abundant and antibacterial gel was a small bottle one of your germ-conscious friends touted around on their backpack or purse, attached by that silly little plastic lanyard thing. It always struck me as excessive, until you really needed it.
Gel and TP. These consumer products have become symbols of basic needs gone unmet. They are the tip of the spear; the trifling consumer-end of an axis with a lack of healthcare and job insecurity at the other. When people worry about their long-term viability we compensate by hoarding the graspable representation of safety. Think cash runs on the bank or re-stocking your “french toast” supplies ahead of hurricanes.
Anyways, let’s talk about pooping outside.
I’ve been outdoors.
I go hiking, backpacking, and climbing. I was in the Scouts.
Still, I can’t remember ever pooping in the woods. I’m not sure why, but there are some guesses: I’ve held a slight aversion; There has always been access to an outhouse; Strong bowels. Really strong bowels?
Then a funny thing happened.
A few years ago a woman came into my life that liked to relieve herself outdoors. Dang it if every time we went on a trip to nature did she take advantage to plop one down in it.
Take Poland. 16km outside of Krakow is a valley with lots of old rock. We stayed at a well-made campground with a restaurant and plenty of toilets. A road winds through the grounds to access the climbing areas. One morning, we decided to go further afield. The path was quiet beside the clanking of metal carabiners that matched the tempo of our stride. Then, abruptly, she handed me her gear and darted up the hill. “Don’t look this way,” she called as I milled around. “And maybe walk on a bit.”
Take two, in Turkey. We had a routine at camp: Morning coffee, breakfast, and milling about. We’d wait for the sun to warm the rock and stir our souls. She had a routine at the crag: Harness on, about to rope up, and a dash off to the woods. It was uncanny and consistent, no matter the efforts made ahead of time. “I think it’s something about the walk here,” she’d begin. “And knowing I’ll be high up on a wall.”
I found it amusing, a touch annoying, and often preposterous in that, “Really? Again, really?” kinda way. But shame on me for expecting a different outcome. Call me mad.
Still, you have to hand it to her. She was always prepared. In the least, she had a package of tissue—a roll of toilet paper at best—and one or two of those fiddly transportable antibac bottles.
Even then, in the presence of an incontinent conspirator, I can’t say I took advantage of the opportunity.
Her preparation has stayed with me.
Now, always a package of tissue paper in my bag. Rarely antibacterial gel. It seems like a waste of plastic. But certainly water. Always a bottle of water. Which is close enough.
Alas, the time came. (Drumroll, please). A few weeks back I did the deed out of doors. (I’m waiting for your applause).
Walking about an expansive high desert mired by red dusty dirt swirling about red dusty spires, my stomach became tense and fraught with discomfort. There was no way I was holding it in.
I plopped down behind the cover of a dry dusty shrub. Seek if you will, under pine needles and small stones, lays my forever accomplishment.
In this time of seriousness and tension, her mannerisms for relieving pressing personal needs makes me laugh. That she was ready, inclined, and consistent speaks to her comfort and adaptability in the outdoors. Which I always did admire.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some duty to attend to.
Screeching trees and silent birds. Wind gusts blot out all beyond the chatter in my head. I am a cone cut off by walls of thrashing air. We are a skipper within a rushing sea, we are pods against the current, we are looking down on the world. Eyes watering.
For the next hour my ears ring with an acquired tinnitus. Emergency radio broadcast signal or post-concert hum. Chili at 10:40 and a muffin with “blueberry filling.”
“I’m tired.” “Oh me too. “Do you have to walk back down?” “No.” “Lucky.”
I lunch at a table with a view out the window that shows sky but censors everything below the sill: undulating mountains, rolling silhouettes that fade from deep blues to whites as they drift away and fall off the edge of the earth. I can’t see them but I can sketch the angular pop outs from the contours I traced with my legs on the hike up. Families gather by the glass to snap photos.
Today it’s just me and travel, me and conquest, me and stringy cheese catching in my beard. I dab my face with a paper napkin after each bite.
The air inside is stuffy and cold like a dirt cellar. I want to bounce but my body has captured the mind and I fade from the room daydreaming of sleep.
I take my time. The passing of the clock means little beyond accumulated fatigue, or recovery in this instance. There’s no dark to beat back, no deadlines.
On the way down an older gentleman in a yellow wind jacket is battered about in the gales. He teeters on each landing, catches himself and readies for the off-balance maneuvering of the next step. He reminds me of a circus clown on stilts performing an exaggerated expectant tumble. He lets me pass.
Mounds as distance markers, wind as companion, clouds as serpents slithering over crests and shadow monsters crawling on the granitic carpet. A free market landscape of vastness and motion.
I wonder, what if I moved the world back with each step instead of pushing myself forward over its surface? How would that change things, to know you remained in place? It’s not that different than the lived experience, I decide, to feel as if everything revolves around your center of gravity.
Instead, what if you could experience the world barreling through space, or rotating on its axis? Would you feel enlarged, battered, guided by outside forces?
I’ve also heard walking described as controlled falling.
Descending uphill, I see dots in the distance that become human presence. Approach, smile, pass, approach, smile, pass. Each is a sample of tenderness or grief or tension or levity. How are there so many emotions on the trail?
An old man in a green AMC shirt works the lodge with a gaggle of a younger generation who giggle lots, fall into summer flings, and play pop music loudly from the kitchen.
The younger male attendant gives cleaning orders to the predominantly female staff, which consists of soapy water on floor for mopping and is met with gaiety in fulfillment. He moves to the window overlooking the west side of the ridge, a friendly companion sliding up on his right as they gaze out and talk of yesterdays ascent. They sneak intimacy in public view. She kissed him by the bathroom door, out of sight. I wonder what the old man does for companionship.
I wasn’t going for style points today, or hygiene; I’m hoping the clean boxers and shorts mask the day old damp and miasma that comes from climbing and no shower.
Some couples have full on matching dead bird kits: raging red, athletic cut, sunglasses atop head, uniformed to showcase they are on the same team. We talk about the wind.
No Everest lines here, but plenty of eager train-goers who paid the price of admission for a summit push and mob the sign declaring top. “You should let someone who earned this view through brawn take a picture,” I think to myself.
They are accustomed to standing on an escalator for their chance at cherry pie, elbowing about for a shot, of what I wonder? What does getting to the peak of a mountain under mechanical means mean to someone of able body? “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” and other such silly messages we display.
Mostly I’m annoyed that people push through while I wait my turn, then take so long for photos commemorating a cheap thrill. It’s a bit like a trophy for showing up, or paying your way into Harvard.
But maybe that’s because I relish in movement, of covering distance on my own accord, of seeing where you end up under motive power. The journey is me, the reward is my own. If I just wanted fast kicks I’d go to an amusement park. Oh curmudgeonly me…
The drive home is a route I’m getting accustomed to. Weekends at Rumney: climbing up then down, careening up then down, emotions up then down.”
Some people say they get depressed after sending a big project, “post-send blues” they call it. It’s a low after a long, hard push: of achievement and the release of emotional toil. These goals become a driving force in their life. Once achieved, there’s an overriding sense of not knowing what’s next, of what you are, and why you exist, to some extent. Mountaineers who spend 3-5 months in the Himalayas talk about re-entry to home life with similar complexity.
I don’t experience this, but I have a micro-lull come Monday. The come down is like withdrawal, I imagine.
Partly I feel utterly free on a good day of climbing. All concerns vanish and I wade in an ocean of unconcern until I get back. Climbing helps me reset and recalibrate. It’s a step back that let’s me see things with clear eyes, like emptying the cache in your browser and not getting guided suggestions on your every query. The history vanishes and you can attune yourself to what’s important now.
You’d think there would be big epiphanies after 31 years of existence. But that’s not the case. At least for me anyway.
On one hand growing older feels like a discerning scribe capturing acute particulars of a scene. They are bringing the details into ever increasing sharpness. On the other hand it’s like taking a step back from a picture you’ve been staring intently at, only to realize the painting is much larger in scope and complexity than you realized from your first, narrow vantage point. And you appreciate that the things you look at change in composition depending on just how close you are to it.
Thus the boundary between 30 and 31 came to pass, and nothing perceptible really happened. I was flooded with a sense of sadness upon waking, got caught up in comparisons to a vague sense of where I thought I ought to be, rollicked in joy at all the years I (hopefully) have in front of me, and grappled with day-to-day existence type shit, like where to go for lunch and “I should really respond to that email.”
In the end, I got to climb and play with a dog so it was a good day (as are all days where I get to climb and play with dogs).
As part and parcel of aging, I like to reflect on the past year. Rather than share lessons learned (which tend to be overly generalized in order to be relatable), here is a list of 31 things I’m grateful for (which make me feel good to think about, and might add some brightness to your day too):
Supportive and loving family. Those that put up with your shit when you are younger, who encourage you as you grow, which are are there for you through good and bad… No idea where I’d be without them
Healthy body that let’s me move in the world on my own volition, that let’s me express myself through motion
The open, random, dance of the world; That you never really know where a day may lead
Good coffee and a good book
Moments of silence and stillness. Of feeling light, like you might float away; When weight becomes discarded and you are left simply buoyant, unburdened
The sense of no separation that arises in rare moments, typically in nature; An electric expansiveness you don’t know whether it will ever stop, is beyond your conception of space, and which is unimportant in the moment, because. Everything.
Lounging (and otherwise) in bed until the afternoon with someone you love. No cares but to be close, as close as you can
Running light and free through forests, fields, city streets, across hills, along trails, in puddles, up stairs, weaving between crowds
A big meal after a long run (usually pizza)
Wandering, openly, absentmindedly in nature. And, walking around cities without a direction other than to follow the initial twitch of interest toward a certain place
The way you feel engaged and tuned in to each movement on a rock face
Poetry and art that shakes you
Laughing so hard it hurts
That once-in-a-while orange that is otherworldly sweet. Fresh apples off the tree, sliced. Ripe peaches that unleash torrents of nectar down your chin and hand when you bite into it. Frozen grapes that crunch and cool. Blueberries off the bush in the mountains. Has citrus ever been so tangy?
For ocean spray spritzing away and the sound of rolling waves, especially over a pebble beach; A vacuuming crash then rainstick needles falling and spreading, all the small bits, rolling along, rocking back and forth, click click click, silence and air drawn in. Repeat
For sun rises over water or mountain, and sunsets from a hill
Watching dumb movies with friends and genuinely enjoying it
Of learning self-love and compassion. I’m pretty alright after all
Oh hands in dirt and watching plants grow. That smell of richly alive soil, fuming with a sense of time immemorial, which also happens to smell like minerals, decaying leaves, and belonging
For animals, so many animals: Puppies (they are all puppies), kitties (same story), sheep, chickens, goofy ducks, cows, etc.
The smell of fresh snow in a pine forest. The sound of it crunching underfoot. Similarly, the shuffling, swishing, crackling of leaves as you walk about in Autumn
The smell of a light rain on a warm summer day, all metallic and crisp
That look you get when you know she loves you
Laying in piles of powder and watching the whirling flakes dance across your vision. The feeling of snow sprinkles melting on your face. For that matter, drifting away in open fields on a pillow of grass and letting the sky fill up your visual field
The way Ollie still tinkles himself when he’s excited. The way Brin still runs away
Giving a small gift, or thoughtful compliment, or cracking a joke just to see her smile
Pocket-sized notebooks and a pen with ink that flows just right
The shedding that comes with a good laugh and a good cry
Getting up extra early for no damn reason, having the city to yourself and watching it wake up
People, books, and music that seem to come into your life just when you need them
That first step into a new land after a long, long ride
Ballikayalar (or Honey Crag in Turkish) is the best outdoor climbing near Istanbul.
It is about an hour drive from the city of 15 million and consists of over 70 routes on limestone. The lines range from 7 to 35m, and most fall within a difficulty rating of 5.10 to 5.12 (or VI to IX- in UIAA). Many of the older routes were originally climbed as trad, and now that they are bolted the line naturally follow the cracks. There are two main sectors, the Left and the Right, as in, on the Left or Right of the valley (when peering into it).
To climb here is to steep in the history of rock climbing in Turkey. Ballikayalar is one of the original crags to be developed in the country. By sheer luck, I had the opportunity to climb with one of the pioneers: Emre has been climbing here for over 33 years and has many first and second ascents to his name.We were joined by Sevki, a big wall climber who has spent time at Yosemite. Fun fact: He met Alex Honnold there… on El Cap!… While Alex was free solo down-climbing!Overall, it’s a beautiful valley with a babbling brook running down the middle. After spending nearly a month in Istanbul, this was a desperately needed respite from a city sorely lacking in nature. Oddly, Balli sits on the edge of an industrial area. Look one way and you see factories spewing smoke. Turn around and it’s nature at it’s finest.
I am a beginner and stuck to the lower grades. Sevki and Emre showed me some of the “classics”, which had been developed in 1987 (older than I am!).
Percussion: VI/VI+. Originally climbed as a trad route (by Emre and others), this follows a thin line on the inner side of a cave. It involves lean-backs, bridging your feet wider than expected, and big reach ups. It is quite pumpy.
Davul (Drum): VI+: Emre had the first ascent on this one. This is pumpy, featuring big, juggy holds, bigger reaches and a lot of lean-backs. Drum and Percussion are meant as brothers of sorts, and their names allude to the pounding your arms take when climbing them.
How to Get There
The easiest way is by car. Take the E80 or D100 East towards Ankara. The closest town is Gebze.Public Transport: TheCrag.com and RockClimbing.com have suggestions for how to get there by bus. I won’t pretend to give advice here since I didn’t try this myself.
When to Go
Istanbul and the surrounding area to the East has mild weather in the Winter (we had 50 F/ 10 C in late December). Reading other people’s accounts, the area is climbable year round.
We started in a corner on the Left Sector away from the sun. The closest area to the entrance of the Left Sector faces the East and was receiving direct sun when we arrived. Around the bend, the sectors stayed in the shade until mid-afternoon. It had rained two days before and the routes were still wet in the shade. The Right Sector receives sun nearly all day.
You can pick up food and snacks in Gebze. There are several bodegas and cafes right in town.If you need climbing gear, Istanbul is unfortunately lacking in this regard. I only found two shops that sell climbing shoes (K2 Outdoor and Everest Outdoor). Atlas Outdoor had some draws and biners. Decathalon also sells some gear, but I didn’t check out the selection.
By my calculation, I’d arrive at the hut around 17:00, figuring I could best the planned time by 3 hours. If it did take 13 hours, I’d be there at 20:00. Still light out.
It was too early to checkout properly, but I hadn’t paid yet.
The night before, the vaporous matron had tried communicating by miming the turning of keys and performing exaggerated movements. She wanted me to do something before leaving, that much was clear.
She felt assured I understood her Polish, but mostly I had just nodded profusely so she’d leave the room. In any case, there were no lights on and no sounds to be heard. I figured Booking.com had my credit card information and they will charge me, right? Probably.
I waved my hands wildly like the ethereal wisp of a woman had done and left.
(Yes, Booking.com would charge me).
A Good Omen?
The morning was ripe and silent. The skies had cleared. I passed slowly milling cows and attempted to coax them to me. The bull huffed, I snorted in kind, and we parted ways amicably.
Descending the path I had the feeling of an other. I was startled by jostling rock and the trampling of roots. A creamy shape appeared below. A wolf? A Great Pyrenees? I froze, it stood still. Bahhh. A sheep. A sheep?
I made my way slowly towards the animal. It was wet, nervous, and shifted in place. I cooed to it in soothing tones, but the soggy fleeced beast jumped back. It walked up the hill like it was tip-toeing around a floor of spilled tacks. Its doughy eyes kept looking back. Ta-ta, Tatras bah-bah.
The serenity of the moment felt like a good omen.
Back in Zakopane I hopped in a shuttle bus to Kuźnice, where I would start the hike.Yellow trail to Blue to Red, then an easy descent down Yellow to the hut. It was straight-forward, but as I learned yesterday my map-reading skills are shit. I made sure to have the route clear from the get-go.
Well, you can’t plan for the unexpected. At the park entrance we were backed up twenty deep. The attendant was present but inattentive. She had to have her cup of coffee, catch up on the daily news, iron her clothes, and finish her magnum opus, I presumed.
We waited. If you arrive earlier can you simply walk in?, I wondered. A mental note for next time.
In time she slid open the ticket desk window. Those of us who had waited patiently felt a rush of wind as a woman cut the line with assertive overtones. She dragged her supine boyfriend like yanking the leash of a supplicating canine. She gestured lividly, to no one in particular, and showed something on her phone to the park attendant. She pushed on through. She seemed like a self-entitled bitch.
On The Trail to Orla Perć
Finally, I entered the park and made like the wind. I come to nature to get away from people!, I thought to myself.
The first few kilometers are stone-paved and rise at a 30 degree incline. It is surprisingly slippery. I started strong to pass the bottlenecked parties and because of nervous energy.I wanted some wiggle room by going quickly on the easier sections, but I was also aware that I shouldn’t burn myself out so soon.
The blue trail zigzags up and through the lower hills. These are what you see from town and they obscure the greater peaks. Steady climbing carries you to a vista overlooking Zakopane. A sharp 90 degree turn from here takes you up towards Hala Gąsienicowa, a series of small buildings, including a weather station and a hut where you can grab a meal, and away from sight of the town.
Mountains have a particular quality of scale; they look grand until you crane your head upwards to see the next one on yonder. It’s a consistent readjustment of “big” and makes you feel insignificant.
Off in the distance was the Orla Perć range. It was vast and it was high.
I packed light and moved fast: 12L bag, trekking poles, various layers, a puffy, a towel, sandals that I wouldn’t use, energy bars, snacks, and water.When hiking, there’s a bit of a game people play. You can tell those who fancy themselves a bit fit: They abhor being overtaken. When they hear you creeping up behind they speed up. Honk honk. Pull over!, I want to voice.
The elderly and families do move to the side. They know their place in the hiking hierarchy, slow-lane-right isn’t an ego thing for them.
Let’s be clear: I don’t like being passed either, but I’ll move out of the way if someone is demonstrably faster. My frustration comes when someone speeds up only because they know you’re behind them. Generally, they don’t maintain their new pace, so you pass eventually. Eat my dust.My companions in pace: A gabbing trio with La Sportiva boots, one young man in a green sweater and blue sweats, and another young lad using a single trekking pole. He had a self-assured comportment like that of a graduate student. We would all leap-frog each other along the way.
I took my first rest at Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy (the Black Pond).
At this point, the hiking has been steady. Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy is just over 6km from Kuźnice with an elevation gain of about 600 m or nearly 2,000 ft.
The recharge offered a long look at the next few kilometers across the water. It would be a steep ascent up to the peak of Mount Zawrat (2169 m), covering about 500 m (1640 ft.) over 1.5 km (~ 1 mile).
I started up again and bounded the rocks around the left side of the lake like the trajectory of a skipping stone. I made my way to scree patches at the base of Zawrat.Looking up, there were thin threads of water running down from the peak and one very large pile of boulders that was the trail.
The going was steep and proved to be the crux of the hike. Small steps were like knee-high step-ups. My thighs burned and calves felt squeezed as if in a mechanical juice press. Each top out of a bulge unveiled further rock afield. I’d never used trekking poles before and was glad to have my arms available to help.
Eventually the grass broke, the dirt gave way, and all that remained was cold rock that was slowly warming in the emerging sun. This section gave the first taste of the chains and scrambling to come.
The last leg was a thin path, my shoulder brushing the wall. This opened to the peak and a look at the other side of the range. Here, parties celebrated with lunch and pictures. In front and behind were steeply descending rock faces, and to the left-to-right was Orla Perć , the peak-to-peak traverse. And if you recall, the most dangerous trail in Poland.
Hiking the Most Dangerous Trail in Poland. Spoiler: I Didn’t Die
The fastest way from point A to B is a straight line, but Orla Perć doesn’t take this approach. It’s a zigzag of navigating a hundred meter down-climb, of rapid ascents across a gully to a higher peak, of foot-wide paths, and scrambles over and around boulders.
Groups were slow and some overly cautious — wearing helmets, harnesses and “clipping in” to the chains. Others pulled themselves up solely by the steel links, ignoring foot placements and juggy hand holds. This over-reliance on the protection caused a backlog and seemed dangerous to me. It’s all arms and overly showy.
The going was slow because of the chains. One long section of steel links is attached directly to the wall at two ends. It is threaded through circular bolts in the wall to hold it up. As you pull on the chain in one section it takes out the slack from the others and becomes taut. Thus, only one person at a time can use a length of chain.
I began veering off path. This maneuver felt safer than relying on the chains because there wasn’t the risk of interference from other people.
Besides, the climbing wasn’t technical per se, but did require focus amid the varied terrain, mist and wet conditions. The challenge actually wasn’t the physical demands but rather the continual attention required. One mis-step would have dire consequences.
Orla Perć culminates with a large flat bend, like a raging river dribbling into a quiet basin. The Yellow trail veers down to Schronisko PTTK w Dolinie Pięciu Stawów Polskich and the adjacent lakes, Wielki Staw (the Great Lake) and Zadni Staw, (the Hind Lake).
At the ledge, I reflected on the hike and couldn’t believe how quickly it seemed to pass, and how tired I was. I sank back to enjoy the aquamarine lakes below and savored the understanding that I was a day’s hike from the nearest town.
Yea, Great, but uhhh, Where to Sleep?
Several questions had been answered, but I still needed to figure out where to say that night.
I had two options: 1) Dolinie Pięciu Stawów Polskich which was a 1:45 hike down the Yellow Trail or 2) Schronisko PTTK przy Morskim Oku (the Morskie Oko Mountain Hut), which was another 1:45 from the lakes. Camping in the park is not allowed.
I didn’t want to have to hike another 3.5 hours.
The Yellow Trail felt like a grind after the active meditation of Orla Perć .
The descent was slow going. I was excited by the idea of food and sleep, but also aware that I may have to delay gratification another few hours.
As I rounded the last curve in the trail, I could see the hut up ahead. I motivate myself with the thought of food during endurance events and I Homer-Simpson-dreamed of a frothy beer the whole time.
Needless to say, I made it. Upon arrival, I threw my arms up and went inside for that beer of mine!
Then, and only then, did I make my way to the information desk to inquire about a room. I managed the last spot in the “dorm”, a private room with mats on the floor, big enough for 16 people to lie side-by-side. Lucky me.
Well, it turns out I had nothing to worry about all along because the park has a rule: If you arrive after a certain time, or the weather is inclement, they cannot turn you away.
In practice, they don’t turn anyone out.
Any and all places are up for grabs so that by the end of the night people were crammed on top of and under cafeteria tables, lined both sides of the hallways, sprawled on staircases, and so on.
I enjoyed my mat that night.
A Night Cap to the Evening
In the dorm, friends were made. We went to dinner. More friends were made. The kitchen closed.
We moved dinner tables out of the cafeteria for a mass service but stayed outside to drink. We peered in every so often.
The night turned cold but our laughter grew louder.
Under the awning of the hut we got drunk on schnapps and Wiśniówka, a cherry-basedPolish liqueur. We debated the morality and stupidity of Chris McCandless and discussed our views on letting the thing you love kill you, vis-a-vis Whiplash.
All the benches were occupied with huddled bodies in sleeping bags trying to rest. We were a disruption.
“Some people come to the mountains to find silence,” a man grumbled at us, before shuffling back to his perch.
“I agree,” Piotr declared, softly yet assuredly. His demeanor was to lead with jokes which belied the seriousness of his character that poked out at times like these.
We nodded in agreement and quieted down. I hadn’t expected this uniform acceptance, but it fits with a hiker’s credo of sorts: To respect your impact on the larger context.
Laughter simmered then smoldered in the cold. We called it a night and dispersed to various nooks of the hut.
I would go from the most difficult trail in the Tatras to the highest peak tomorrow.
Before Taking Flight on Orla Perć… My Not Very Good Stay in Zakopane
Orla Perć is known as the most difficult and dangerous hiking trail in Poland. According to Wikipedia more than 140 people have lost their lives on the route. For the 4.5km stretch of hiking/ scrambling/ climbing, that comes out to 31.11 people dead/ km.
The hike itself is a ridge traverse that consists of rock scrambling, metal chains, and the occasional slick ladder. The peaks are thin and jagged, rising and falling like sharp spires. To move horizontally across the path requires ascending and descending hundreds of feet (or, like, many meters) — down then up then down then up. As a result, while the line is only a few kilometers long, you end up doing much more with the vertical movement.
The trip I had planned was to take 13 hours, consisting of 16km of distance (about 10 miles) and 3,183m (10,443 total feet) of elevation gain and loss.
I never trust these estimates and figured it would take me about 10 hours.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, The Lead Up
The “Eagle’s Path” came onto my radar via S, someone with whom I have an “it’s complicated” relationship. Which is really neither here nor there.
We were on one of our upswings and decided to spend a long weekend together. We were deliberating between four days of climbing in the Będkowska Valley or hiking in the High Tatras, both in Poland.
“I’ve wanted to do Orla Perć for awhile, want to do that? It’s supposed to be pretty dangerous. But I think you can do it,” She offered.
“It’s probably not so bad, you just have to be careful. People do die every year, though.” She can be rather matter of fact.
“Uhh, are you trying to get me to have an accident?” I mean, we have had our ups-and-downs…
Logistically, the Tatras were going to be a challenge. This was high season in the mountains and rooms at the huts had been booked out months in advance (I had called and emailed several of the lodges, and thanks to internety magic (google translate) determined there was nothing available. That is zero. Zilch.). There’s also no camping in the park.
(Later, I’d learn the huts have a rule that prevents them from turning you away. You can show up in the evening and sleep on the floor, wherever you can find space. It’s supposed to be for safety in case of inclement weather, but they don’t seem to make a fuss of it. This would come in handy in a few days.)
In the end, we went to Będkowska.
We camped, we climbed, ate pierogi, had fun. Our transitory, back-and-forth relationship-thingy continued and I followed her to Budapest to stay for a few days. When the going’s good keep it going, I guess.
Now or Never to Hike Rysy and (Maybe) Orla Perć
Rysy, the highest peak on the Polish side of the Tatras, had been firmly on my radar since July. This was the mountain I was excited for. Orla Perć, not so much.
I only had a few free days before flying home for my sister’s wedding, and I wasn’t sure if or when I’d ever be back in Poland. It was now or neverish.
And what the hell, Orla Perć is right there, so I added it to the itinerary.
But but but #YERGONNADIE!, you say?
Well ya, but the pictures look cool.
I took an overnight bus from Budapest to Krakow and would leave for the Tatras the next day.
Day One of the Tatras was a parade of minor frustrations.
I arrived in Krakow at 7am, groggy and achy. The bus had been light of fellow passengers and I’d wrangled the back row to myself. I was able lie down completely. Lovely! If not for the belt buckles gouging my ribs it would have been quite accommodating.
The first step was to gather my gear from an airbnb host who had been holding on to it (thank you again!). I needed to wait for them to wake up, and it was unclear when that would be.
The hope was to leave Krakow by 9am and attempt Orla Perć that day. She’d been responsive the night before and knew I was getting in early. There was a chance.
In the meantime, I wandered through empty squares in the Old Town. Tranquility emanated from huddled walls while the cobblestone streets hummed softly. On the sidewalk, an elderly sweeper gathered dust with gentle strokes from a straw broom.
Around the corner a club was closing up. There was a throng of partiers carousing on the sidewalk surrounded by a moat of cigarette butts. I felt like a grumpy old man. I sat along the Vistula River for awhile and waited.
By 10am I was arranging my pack and made it on the bus to Zakopane at 11. I’d arrive around 1pm which meant I would have to put off the long hike for the next day. Oh well.
Zakopane, You Obtrusive Impediment to Wonderful Mountains
Zakopane is a mountain resort town. It’s full of annoying tourists doing annoying touristy things like clogging up the trails and eating smoked cheese. Stuff I would never do.
That night, I’d have to find a place to stay alongside them. Yuck.
During the bus ride down, I scanned my options on HostelWorld (nothing!), made a desperate plea to a hostel on Facebook (could I sleep on the floor?), and felt disheartened by the listings on Booking.com (every place had “only one room left!”) and was expensive.
While I waited to hear back from the hostel I took a nap in lieu of making a decision.
An hour later, I still hadn’t heard from the hostel and hotel listings were disappearing. I’d be in Zakopane in half an hour.
I bit the bullet and choose a place with good enough ratings at a reasonable enough price. On the map, it wasn’t too far from the bus station.
A Mountain Town
We pulled in around 1pm as expected. I disembarked and made my way towards the bnb. The route zigzagged along traffic circles, up into a residential neighborhood and onto a hiking path. Interesting.
Then the rain started.
Turns out the place was located at the top of a small mountain, a 1,000 feet up (or 300m if I’m staying consistent with units of measurement). By now it was pouring and the trail was muddy. I’d get a hike in after all.
The path passed through spotty tree cover, fields and farm land. 45 minutes later, one last damp road veered to the left and opened into a clearing.
The map said this was my destination. I stared about at a chained compound featuring, seemingly, a ski lift. Huh. I walked around, poked my head this way and that then moved to an awning. Nope. Nah. Didn’t appear to be the place. No sir.
I double checked the confirmation email and, lo and behold, it listed two addresses. The Polish instructions were still unreadable. I plugged the other coordinates into me map and made like Keanu Reeves in Constantine (to get the hell out of here).
Well, I’m Bad at Reading Maps
It looked like I had to follow the road away from the lift. The rain soaked street was flagged by a procession of quaint shops and restaurants. It felt like an empty carnival. A group of kids were splattered over with neon paint, for some reason.
A few hundred meters down things didn’t feel right. I checked my phone and it was the wrong direction. Then where was this place? There was only that sharp left at the top of the hiking trail… I backtracked anyways, found a smaller trail (aha!) that did indeed head to the right, tip-toed across downed branches and came to a field clearing. Map said that a-way. I passed by cows that “moo’d.”
A Quiet, Quiet Place. Except for the Screaming
A mere hour-fifteen after getting off the bus I came to a three-building complex that appeared empty. There was a car in the driveway. I walked into the building closest to the road. No reception. This too appeared empty. I entered the dining room. The place was empty(!), save an open laptop and a disarray of receipts on a table in the corner.
I called out, “dzień dobry!,” and a wraith-like woman slithered in from the shadows.
“Czy mówisz po angielsku?”
“Nie mówię po polsku.” We stared at each other.
But she was a professional and knew the routine. She fished some keys out of a plastic bag all jumbled and clanking with metal. I was guided to the other side of the complex where I saw shoes drying outside a door. Signs of life! On the second floor there were more booties around the corner from mine.
Ah. Home sweet home. We entered my residence, a cold room with a lot of exposed wood. I was ready for a quiet evening when… Noise! Noise like banging and screaming. I noticed. She seemed to willfully ignore the sadistic groans above.
She proceeded to give me a tour consisting of a dirty shower stall, a kitchen counter, and the flicking of some lights this way and that. I just wanted her to leave. She made to the door and gestured concernedly about the keys in the lock and other sorts of handwaving. She wanted to make sure I understood so I nodded like I did.
Her vaporous body shuffled down the hall and slipped into the floorboards.
Finally alone, I began to take my wet clothes off to dry. The compound hadbeen dead silent until now. The only noise was being summoned from hell directly above my room. It was a sort of thumping, cackling horror film blaring with overactive teenagers jumping from bed to bed.
We walked to the quarry and had our first talk of the end.
She’d come to visit from Budapest and was staying for a long weekend. We’d last seen each other five weeks before and spent the ensuing time apart on separate continents. We left on good turns.
Now we were back in Krakow and a lot had changed. I hadn’t realized how much. She had no idea.
We were feeling claustrophobic in the apartment, and in our own heads.
We needed to get out.
Krakow contains several parks. We sought refuge in nature.
The Zakrzówek quarry is rumored to contain black magic. Pan Twardowski, a sorcerer from the 16th century, made a deal with the devil for great knowledge and supernatural power. He allegedly practiced his dark art among the rocks.
Pan is said to still be alive: He lives on the moon and keeps tabs on Krakovian gossip via a spider’s thread spun down to the city center.
Today, we were trying to disentangle our own web.
We walked from the apartment to the quarry, 4km west from Kazimierez. We strode along the Vistula and atop hard concrete sidewalks desperate for fresh air.
The weather was cold, clouds hung heavy and damp. It smelled of decaying leaves, slightly sweet. Like stale black tea. Oranges, reds, yellows and dark grays were sprayed along paths and dusted the windshields of parked cars.
At the conclusion of a few sharp turns, the quarry strode open and evoked an antediluvian fortress or a secret garden. Sheer limestone walls enclose old apple trees and a shrunken deciduous forest. The trees were lithe and thin. We walked in. I had to piss. She kept on.
To our right, chalky stains ran along the wall. It’s the closest outdoor climbing in Krakow and the cues are all over.
There were signs marking our relationship too: Difficulty fully committing to each other, a chasing of narratives and expectations across cities, countries, continents. In the process we ended up in different places and at different conclusions.
We moved to the long crack in the rock face and played on the limestone in street clothes and inappropriate shoes. We scaled a short traverse, the stone was slick. Climbing had been a way for us to bond. I had learned to lead climb with her.
All around it was quiet. The winter breeze rushed into the valley and swirled around the posthole quarry. It felt like a day for endings.
We made our way to the top of the rock and peered about. We sat at the edge and observed the pastel colors of fall and a sunken sky.
We talked about us and the future.
It was the first of several conversations we would have that week.
I moved away and became cold and despondent. We walked on and spoke in terse tones.
Tension was strung between us, the spider’s line might snap at any moment. I wasn’t being compassionate.
We walked around the lake. The vibrancy of the fall palette and crisp air remained fixed in view. I was moving down a hole.
“You don’t have to wait here for me,” she urged as she sat staring out glassy-eyed over the water. “I need some time to myself, since I’m not getting any empathy from you.”
I was being a jerk, detached. I was falling into old patterns. Needs were met with ice. A stonewalled heart. My gut tightened with regret. Past car crash moments flashed by. My shoulders and back tensed, the breath became shallow and rapid. It’s fight or flight.
I tried to get out of my own head, to stop the record and listen. There she was, right there, you could reach out and touch her, offer support. You could throw a lifeline.
You’re iced through.
Cold to the touch, prickly.
Why? Why do this? You ask yourself often over the coming days.