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