Zakopane, Poland – June 2007
It’s not easy to get a photo of Morskie Oko without the crowds, but it is possible. I tilt my camera slightly up towards the sky. Unfortunately, my sister Penelope and I did not get up early enough to make it here before the crowds and the high noon sun. It’s not optimum photo-taking conditions.
“There’s a trail that leads to a second lake up there.” I keep my voice neutral.
Pebby squints at the ridge. “Let’s go.” She motions me to go first.
We circle around Morskie Oko. A few minutes away from the lodge, the crowd thins out leaving a steady stream of hikers moving in both directions. I walk at a slow pace, but pretend it’s normal so she doesn’t think that I’m babying her. Every once in while I hear her swear. “I’m so stupid. Why did I buy cheap hiking boots?” She bought new boots just before this trip and they’ve worn the skin off her ankles. She’s put bandage upon bandage over the sores. We spent the last few days with our cousins who live in the foothills of the Tatras. We’ve been hiking almost every day. Her feet can’t take much more.
We reach the junction to Czarny Staw. Black Lake. The trail is now straight up and pure rock. Pebby takes a few steps and then comes to a halt. She pulls off the boots with a few choice words. Other hikers look at her in amusement. “That’s it. I’m going barefoot.” She ties the boots to her backpack and starts up the trail. The bandages on the backs of her feet rasp against her pant legs.
I let her go first without saying a word. The trail narrows. There’s barely space for two people going up or down at a time. Other hikers hurry by, oblivious to Pebby’s handicap. When she teeters or slips, I restrain myself from reaching out to steady her. I’ve heard that even experienced hikers often injure themselves on the easy stretches. As if sensing my unease, she halts. “Will you just go on up ahead of me? Jeez!”
I pass by her without a word. We haven’t fought at all on this trip, in spite of our personality differences. She’s a beach person, a surfer. She’s high energy and loves extreme sports. I’m lethargic, introverted, and need quiet tests of endurance. Elevation is my element.
We do have some things in common – big appetites, hot tempers, a fondness for rabbits that borders on obsession, and an aversion to having our photos taken.
I snap a quick photo of the trail while she’s looking down. I’ll email her the photo after she’s home and the sores have healed. So she can remember her perserverance. My legs burn, but it’s a pain that I welcome. A small waterfall tumbles down from the ridge. We’re almost there.
I push on ahead. Putting one foot in front of the other is the best therapy for my anxieties. In a couple of days, Pebby will go home. I will go to Poznań and begin a new life. I’m walking along the edge of a precipice. So many things can come along and knock me off. Or not.
There are others on the ridge, but they speak in hushed voices. If they speak at all. The silence of the high mountains is like that of a sharp indrawn breath. What will follow – a scream or a laugh?
I gaze down at my little sister as she stands on the edge.