Don’t cross remote alpine passes in sandals and socks, they said. Don’t hike the high alpine pass immediately following a rare autumn snowstorm, they said. Don’t put cheese on your seafood pasta, they said. Are these just customs…..?
I strapped on my $30 Bulgarian velcro sandals that had brought me around Europe without a single expression of entitlement or expectation, I grabbed my belongings, headed out the door and didn’t look back.
It was a moment of courage, of bravado, of unbridled gallantry. Similar to those mornings when you wake up feeling so fresh that you venture to the outside world consuming a mere single shot of espresso instead of your usual double. A moment akin to when your feeling fresh enough to attempt conversation with your fellow soul-sacrificer in casual carpool. It felt like the sun came out. Breaking the chains. Alive!
We walked out of the little cabin we took shelter in the night before and started strolling to the street. It was 11 am, we were only 3 hours late for the recommended start time. But we adjusted for this – skipped breakfast.
Expectation and reality are not always in alignment. But, this isn’t something that can get you down. At least, thats what I tell myself when life brings the curveball. This morning’s curveball was the fact that instead of being close to the trailhead like we thought, we were actually 8 kilometers away. So, hitchhike! Its the solution to all transportation problems in the Balkans, and there are many.
Zoom! Right before we get to the street a blue sedan rushes by. This is especially disappointing because it was an almost assured ride. Not because Albania is a fabulously easy place to hitchhike in, but because the more you “auto-stop,” as they call it, the more you are able to profile the incoming car. Blue is a solid color. Black, not so much. Grey, not great. Colors, for whatever reason, are signs of outgoing ridesharers. Call me crazy, do a study, prove me right.
So we start walking. Of course, our cabin offered us a transfer to the trailhead, but at a cost of 30 dollars that idea was shut down faster than an American study abroader trying to pick up a Spanish local in a dance club.
As we wandered down the road it was hot, then it was cold, then it was hot. The mountain sun seared through the thin 30 F air. As soon as we took off our jackets, it felt like it was 30 F, so back on they went. A torturous cycle, really. Not only was the slightly gradual incline just enough to make us devastated that it wasn’t flat, but the mental fatigue caused by this cyclic distraction was raising us to wits end. 1 kilometer in.
Then it happens. We brought food to the cabin, they didn’t have a communal kitchen, so we saved the food (no wasting!). Carrying our raw vegetables and half kilo of pasta wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t that bad. Until the bag ripped. Not a full rip, just enough to allow the sly cucumber to slide out and onto the road. Like a melting glacier, every slide releases the bag’s integrity just a little more until even the honest tomato begins to follow the sly cucumber and falter. When finally all hope was lost, we consolidated our good, overstuffed our backpacks forged on…..regretfully forgetting the forsaken and ill-destined bananas that I indeed packed into the bottom of my backpack the night before.
But the views. We came for the views, the solitude, the feeling of escape and freedom that only the rare and lesser touched regions of the world and provide. The potato farmers digging the last harvest before the winter. The locals insulating their wood and cement homes. The cows “mooing” with pleasure. No cars came down the road, but it was okay, we reached the vast valley the lies below the cavernous alpine walls of the Valbona Valley. Glacial peaks, barely visible to the eye, peaked out just below the sun. Heavenly white with snow, black with stone, lifted by the autumn Balkan’s blood orange forests..
As we continued through the valley, we reached the river bed and our trail head. It was noon, the sun was setting is six hours. But, after an obligatory backpacker chocolate break (BCB), we felt confident and decided to go for the hike. We had no idea that the hike was going to climb up and over the walls that were framing the valley we were standing it. It was probably better that we didn’t know.
Up and up! We take water breaks at natural springs hidden in abandoned campsites that closed when winter arrived 3 weeks before. Wild horses pass us on the same trail, indifferently. As we reached the elevation where snow started to accumulate, hikers who walking the trail in reverse started to cross our paths. We only saw about 10 people on the trail that day. Each one saw my exposed feet, sandals and socks and all, and just laughed, nervously, and questioned my sanity. Confidently, a assured them all was taken care of. I told them I was from Alaska and this is what we do!
Soon enough, however, our pace was slowed to a crawl as we had to place our feet perfectly on the trail so as to avoid wet feet and slippery snow or ice. It was getting harder, 3 pm came and it was getting colder, but every time we turned around the view was getting better.
After a long haul up, no slides down the snow cliffs, we reached the summit. Ate that sly cucumber, devoured the now questionably honest tomato, and even seasoned our meal with a little oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper we bagged up from the cabin, look at us now!
1000 meters (3,200 ft) below us we could see, almost vertically downward, the dry river valley that we stumbled through earlier. A few photos, no deaths by selfie, and we decided to pack in up and head down. As we cruised through the turmeric orange forests, we admired the mountains around us, proud of our arguably misguided but successful summit and completion. Sandals going strong, socks only slightly damp, toes pretty much numb, legs turning to spaghetti, but hearts full of adventure.
We reached the bottom of mountain in the dark. I opened my bag to get my wallet to pay for the guest house that we found when we arrived. Those poor ill-fated licentious bananas had gotten brown and hot, found themselves a friend and smeared themselves onto my wallet. We had ourselves a little laugh and cleaned up the wallet. Who can blame them, it was just a little banana, after all. I guess before you go, you might as well have a little fun. Everyone deserves a little fun.