Chosen paths and dead ends

We usually talk of dead ends metaphorically. What we mean is that something didn’t work out. We feel we cannot continue along a certain path. But sometimes dead ends are real endpoints – there is nothing beyond them and we cannot turn back either. And while there may be warnings along the way, there’s no gradual build-up to this moment, no preparation and no obvious red flag.

A few years ago, during a visit to my home country, I took a day trip in the mountains. It was a sunny and cold January morning. I caught a very early train, then the first cable car going up. Around 9:30 I was already on the high plateau, enjoying the view all around me. Snowy valleys to the left and the right. Silence. Hardly anybody else around, for as far as I could see.

View of the valleys and distant mountain ranges from the high plateau

I wandered around for a while with no plan, freezing but happy. When I realized that it’s getting late and I have a train to catch, I chose one trail that was supposed to take me to the train station in about 4 hours.

As I discovered soon enough, this trail was closed during the winter. I passed by several warning signs, thinking whether to go up all the way back and take another path. Each time, I decided to go on. It was less a matter of careful reasoning as much as a combination of overconfidence, unwillingness to go all the way back up, and sheer inertia.

At first, the hike was pleasant. The snow was frozen, which helped me advance faster. On the steeper areas, I could follow the trail created by previous climbers and step on the shoe marks dug in the snow. I took out my camera. I was at ease. From time to time, the trail opened up to reveal the whole valley and the huge drop separating me from the villages below.

Frozen snow

But then the shoe marks disappeared. I could only follow the trail by the trail signs and posts, and they were few and far in between. I was descending in zigzag on a steep slope that was almost never exposed to the sun, and thus the snow was frozen solid.

For a while, I could still advance slowly, making sure each foot is firmly in place before I move the other. Then it all grinded to a halt. I could not go forward because the slope was too steep, and I couldn’t go back because the simple gesture of turning around could have broken my unstable balance.

The first part of the descent. Looking back at where I’ve started from.

Ahead of me lied a portion of 30 meters or so with no trees, no bushes, no rocks, nothing to hold on to. All of a sudden, I looked around me and I felt like walking on a tight rope above the abyss. Clinging to a slope that got steeper without me realizing it. The slope was opening, to my right, into a straight drop into the valley.

Seen from the outside, there are several possible exits from such a situation. I could have walked backwards, retracing my steps in the snow. I could have searched in my backpack for something I could use to dig in the snow. But our brain works differently under stress. It’s not that I could not envisage all these possibilities. It’s that they seemed irrelevant to me. There was only one thing I felt I needed to do: to cross the 30 meters of ice in front of me and reach the tree on the other side.

And so I did – otherwise I won’t be here writing this. But they were the most labour-intensive 30 meters that I ever walked. I dug and clawed my way forward, not knowing if I’ll be able to keep my balance on the next step. Before placing each step, I had to hit a dozen times in the frozen snow in order to dig a small indentation that could support my weight. It wasn’t the digging that took most of my energy; it was trying to control the trembling of my legs, so I don’t lose my grip.

Although I was fully immersed in digging my way forward, somewhere at the back of my mind I kept on watching myself as if from the outside. I thought about the stupidity of dying on the mountain, after having bypassed so many warnings. One more metal cross on these lonely slopes. I was not sad. There was something slightly amused and ironic in how I regarded myself: “So that’s how it happens.”

The whole thing did not take more than 20-25 minutes, but it felt like forever. I got to the tree on the other side and I held on to it as you would with somebody who pulled you out of the water when you were about to drown. The rest of the descent was uneventful. I got to the train station in time. In a few hours, I was back in my hotel room, seemingly far away from the cold and the drama.

The crossing. The photo was taken just after having reached the other side. Obviously, photo focus was not my priority.

Up there, I was close to facing a real dead end. And this made me think, later on, about how the world would have looked like without me. The simple answer is that it would have looked exactly the same. The sun would have risen just the same, the people would have gone on about their lives just the same. Everything I was doing or planning to do – the earth would have kept on spinning without it.

Back then, this realization used to fill me with sadness and discouragement, as if it showed my own insignificance. I saw what happened as being about me, my life, my impact on the world. We all have a hungry and demanding ego.

Now I tend to see it as a liberation. Like lifting a burden from my shoulders. What a relief that the world does not depend on any of us. We can simply continue doing what we are doing for the sake of it, for the pleasure of it. The change it may bring is for us to try but, ultimately, not for us to decide.

On the path

Late morning. I walk towards the rising sun. There’s a huge concert of birds all around me. The first bluebells are here, early heralds of what will soon be a deep blue forest cover.

I stop for a drink of coffee and I watch the play of light and shadow.

Being on the move means relaxing into change and transformation. Hiking is learning to enjoy the way things come and go.

I’m a pretty anxious person. There are many things that can get me off tracks. But my anxiety dwindles to almost nothing when I’m hiking. There is something about a forest footpath opening into the unknown. A gentle, subtle energy.

I don’t know where this path is leading and, frankly, I don’t care. I don’t want to arrive anywhere in particular. In fact, I have already arrived. I keep on moving just to stay there, in this space of lightness and flow.

Break of dawn

It’s still dark. As soon as I get out of the car, my breath turns to vapors in the freezing air. I leave the car behind as if I would leave the safety of a boat and launch myself into the open ocean. But this is why I’m here.

The narrow path takes me across the high rocks overlooking the river. The first sun rays hit the rocks but the river remains in the dark.

I imagine all the life down there, the silver fish flashing by in the cold water, the beavers slowly moving about and adding branches to their dam, the deer coming out of the forest to have a drink of water. The beating heart of the forest, still undisturbed by human presence.

Most of the trees have lost all leaves during the winter, but a few of them have miraculously kept their leaves. In the golden sunlight, they light up red-orange. It’s the afterlife of leaves shining bright for one moment. A string of fires punctuating the river valley.

Everything is clear in my head, but the clarity is so intense that it almost burns. There’s a howl somewhere in the distance and I feel a sudden pang of pain, as if it’s me howling through that animal. As if it’s the howling of all creatures under the sun.

But there’s no time for feeling low. Not here and now. I have this whole day in front of me, I have the sun in my eyes and the birds are singing their sunrise song all around.

Snowed in

Alone on the mountain. I’ve been hiking for a few hours. I can only hear my breathing and the sound of my steps in the snow.

It started around lunch. At first hesitant, a few snowflakes here and there. Then settling in, with a constant but calm snow fall all through the afternoon. Then fully unbound, with ridiculously big snowflakes. Like a thick white curtain blowing in the wind.

Winter up high. Sinaia (Romania), January 2018.

My mountain trail should have taken 5-6 hours to complete, but it became more and more difficult to advance through the fresh snow. I’ve lost, then found, then lost again the trail markers. It was late afternoon and I just stopped, with no plan and no hope to get back down before nightfall.

Half-frozen, I took refuge in a shack used by shepherds during the summer, as they travel slowly across the mountain range with their flock. The shack smelled of old wood and sheep skin. It smelled of loneliness.

I always have problems sleeping in a place I don’t know, but here I’ve dozed off almost instantly. It may have been my mind refusing to confront the situation. I say sleep but it felt more like falling into a bottomless pit. As if my mind completely shut off. There was dark, with only distant echoes of what would normally have been dreams.

And then there was light.

The light was coming from a small, dirty window pane.

It took me a minute to gather myself and realize where I am. The fright and confusion of last night seemed like distant memories. I was fully clothed and wrapped in a sheep-smelling blanket.

I stepped outside. Blinded by the light, I took in the cold air. Everything felt fresh, as if just created. I was ready to take my first step in the virgin snow.

Just as when I was little, I silently said “me” to remind myself that I am actually existing here and now. And, just as when I was little, I got dizzy from actually realizing this.