Walking Back

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Tatra National Park, Slovakia – June 2015

A rocky, uneven path. A steady, but gentle climb. Lots of room to stumble without falling over the edge. We make a lap around Popradské Pleso, a sapphire-colored tarn, and then continue up another trail. The sun blazes down, illuminating even the darkest corners of the forest. After a gloomy spring, it is a shock to the system. This is my farewell stroll in Slovakia. I already miss this country.

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The wilderness has always been my best medicine. I need it now. A few days ago, my body was seized by a sudden, intense rigidity. The force was so strong that my muscles hurt. My movements became jerky, abrupt. Like a marionette. It felt as if this body, the receptacle that holds my soul, no longer belonged to me. For days, all of my strength was spent warding off panic attacks. And then came the anger at not being able to get a grip. Then the profound dread: I was losing my mind. Then, after several debilitating days, depression: I can’t live like this.

The forest falls aways behind us. The rocks under my feet test my balance. One false step could mean a twisted ankle. I take slow, deep breaths and focus. Every step takes me a little further back into my self. I went to the doctor, something I rarely do. I don’t get regular checkups or tests. I take care of my own self. But I dragged myself in. The examination and tests came back perfectly normal. My physical and mental symptoms are those of a body in transition. I’ve simply begun to move on to the next phase of life. It’s normal for any previous anxiety, and especially panic disorder, to be intensified. The doctor brushed off my questions about herbal supplements and acupuncture. He wrote me a prescription for antidepressants. My heart sank. I threw it away when I got home. My husband held me and said, “We will take care of this together. You are not alone.” I’ve driven back the panic and can function again. But it is lurking just below the surface. To others, I seem normal. At least, that’s what they tell me.

We come to a junction. One way leads to Rysy peak, the other to Vel’ké Hincovo Pleso. Julia tells me that she made it up this far the last time she was here, but she had to turn back because there wasn’t enough daylight left. I let her lead. After nearly two years of hiking together, she has started to find her way without me. Her new confidence makes me smile. She will continue to hike long after I’m gone from Slovakia. Possibly she will forget about me. Such is the way of paths that converge for a short time.

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We stop by a stream that’s swollen with fresh snow melt. I cup my hands, fill them with ice-cold water, and then splash it over my face and neck. A simple, primitive pleasure. Further up the trail, the stream tumbles over large boulders. A flimsy cord is the only guide across. Julia steps from boulder to boulder. I close my eyes and steady myself. My motor coordination has never been strong, but now it’s seriously impaired. I grab onto the cord, and step to the first boulder. I sway back and forth. My head spins. Don’t get angry. You need to be kind to yourself. It’s okay to be unsure. Just focus. I loosen my grip on the useless cord and step across, boulder by boulder, to the other side.

From here, the trail becomes steeper. So steep that there are switchbacks. A rarity for trails in Slovakia. People who started the hike early in the morning are on their way back down. Families with small children. Groups of teenagers. A bare rock wall about three meters high rises before us. Going up is not as difficult as it looks, but I don’t want to think about the descent. The personalities that we pass become more colorful. A deeply tanned Polish woman wearing hot pink spandex and cradling a quivering, rodent-sized canine prances by with a haughty sniff. A young woman with an infant strapped to her back flashes us a goofy, blissful smile. Julia and I exchange an astonished look. How did she get that baby up the wall? Then there are the old ladies. They march along, stabbing their trekking poles into the earth between the rocks. Jaws set. Steely determination in their eyes. Get out of the way or else. Everyone is so confident. Except for me.

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However, what I lack in confidence and coordination, I make up for with stamina and endurance. That, at least, hasn’t left me. I pause to look down on the distance we’ve come. Then I take off. Julia gasps for breath and falls behind. Up here, above the snow line, my force kicks in. I bound forward until a cradle of jagged peaks surrounds me. My heart pounds, not from exertion, but from awe. Again that strange sensation of dissolution. As if my spirit wants to break free and soar and never return. A tremor of panic. I allow myself to feel it and it vanishes.

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I pause by a tiny, snow-crusted tarn and wait for Julia. “So, this must be Vel’ké Hincovo Pleso.”

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She laughs. We continue together towards the wall of peaks before us. Up and over one final hill. Sunlight shimmers off the melting tarn. A vast, magnificent silence. All voices are muffled here. I take a few photos and then flop on the freshly thawed ground. Julia wanders off on her own. Speech is counterproductive up here. It would dilute the magic.

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I spread my arms wide and gaze in reverence. Everything is out of my control. Let it go. The thunder of a rockslide breaks the silence, and then the only noise is the gentle shatter of melting ice on the tarn. I lie still until my awareness seeps back into my cells. I am back.

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84 thoughts on “Walking Back

  1. Beautiful photography that capture marvellous landscapes of Slovakia montains ! Voici de bien belles photos qui mettent en valeur le charme des montagnes slovaques…

    • Thanks, Robin. The sun was actually pretty brutal that day. Saw a lot of red skin on fellow hikers. I try not to judge others who resort to daily prescription medication, but it scares me. Taking magnesium supplements and cutting back on the espresso has worked wonders.

  2. ” Speech is counterproductive up here. It would dilute the magic.” I was needing a dose of wilderness this morning. Beautiful country, beautiful photos, Julie. Your description of your symptoms also touched me, your trepidation is tangible. I’ve been catching up on your posts this morning and since your comments are closed on the past two, I’ll summarize. I continually marvel at your exquisite rendering of the unruly world of mental illness. You are in my thoughts, Julie, even when I’m not on your screen. It’s been a strange spring and summer for me, more when I have time to post..

    • Hi Viv – So nice to hear from you. I’ve stepped back from my blog a little, hence the decrease in posting frequency and the closed comments on older posts. It’s getting hard to keep up, especially since I just moved to Prague. And I want to focus more on finally finishing my book. Anyway, your presence is very much missed around here. Hope you will find the energy to post soon.

  3. The wilderness is my medicine, too, and if I can’t get it in big doses like that gorgeous hike, I find small chunks here and there – a wooded bike trail, a little creek, whatever I can find. And when even those are unavailable on any given day, I can hike vicariously through such beautiful posts as yours! Stunning photos and story.

  4. When things seem the darkest, it is so healing to step outside and restore. The place this happened for you in breathtakingly beautiful. So happy you got to let it go. Be well, Julie.

  5. “However, what I lack in confidence and coordination, I make up for with stamina and endurance.”
    I like that line a lot. It epitomizes my virtual understanding of you and is a source of admiration. Well done with the inner and outer trekking!

    • Thank you. The ability to move for long distances at a strong, steady pace is a talent that I discovered as a child, to the surprise of many. So grateful that I can still tear it up. 🙂

  6. Great visuals and narration of your therapeutic hike around Propadske Pleso. What is, however, of greater concern are the worrying cirques and tarns on your health front, Julie, and here is wishing your speedy recovery…best wishes.

  7. how is life in Prague? have you found a job there? we were there in June. seems like quite the party town.

  8. Nature is the best medicine I find:) What a stunning hike, your pictures are awesome. Makes me want to hit the trail again right now!

  9. Incredible sky and colours for Summer, Julie. Trekking into the mountains, movement and motion, changes in elevation, highs and lows. Such metaphors for adaptive change, coupled with stamina and endurance to see you through.

  10. Congratulations on making your climb. What a terrific and rewarding accomplishment!
    My husband, our youngest son who was a teen at the time, and I were in Phoenix,AZ. We decided to climb Camelback (nothing like your climb), and as I tried to keep pace with my husband and son, my asthma kicked in and I couldn’t keep up. I told my husband and son to go ahead, and I would wait for them there. As soon as my breathing calmed, I started the climb once again – at my pace, resting when I needed to. As I continued to climb, people on their way down, encouraged me to keep going. One kind Mexican gentleman looked at my face and said in broken English that I didn’t look good, and made me sit and rest. When my breathing and color returned, we both went our separate ways. The last part of the climb was truly difficult for me. I made it to the top to the surprise of my husband and son. The view was spectacular, but more than that, the feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment I felt were beyond description. I’ve done the climb several times since.

  11. Beautiful Julie …the gratefulness you express for your life is so endearing to me , your description of other hikers so vivid , and the spirit of quietness while experiencing awe is so sacred … I am here with you in the wilderness where the earth vibrates love ….I want to travel with you my friend , thank you for taking me along ….deer hugs and love , megxxx

  12. This is one of my favorites so far that you have written. Awesome job! I share this same feeling with you when it comes to the outdoors. It took me back to when you visited and we went to our woods and the river. I will never forget that day. Those kind of days for me are very slim whereas I don’t take the time to go do and my body needs that time to heal. Now you know what you need to do and where to go. Great job on your hike!! I look forward to visiting you in the future. I never knew Slovakia was so beautiful until now. Thank you for sharing this and go find that kind of place in your new area. I know you will.

  13. PS: Enjoyed the read on the previous post about the old bazaar (comments closed though). I particularly liked the barber shop photo. An interesting sight way at the back. 🙂

  14. My, you do get around! Beautiful images of beautiful scenery – I really like the last, with the flowers in the foreground. Now I’ll have to look for your reflection…

  15. Comments were closed on your last post but I wanted to say how beautiful that young lady looked in the cafe, and your street photos were so vivid. And then I come here. To paradise! 🙂 Sympathy, Julie, because I know only too well what an ongoing struggle depression can be. Good job you have that lovely husband to keep giving you hugs.
    Another beautiful post! Thanks, hon. Take care! 🙂

  16. What a great farewell stroll you took, really such stunning surroundings and captures of this wilderness of Slovakia. There is nothing quite like going out and hitting the mountains and testing your resolve, but then again that is what the wilderness does and the rewards are just as you describe in your words. Brilliant day ~ brilliant photos ~ brilliant writing. 🙂

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