Somewhere in Bohemia – September 2016
I go in search of Lost Hope. The trail snakes alongside the Vltava River as it slices through the forested hills south of Prague. Patches of fading foliage announce summer’s impending end. Couples, families, and groups of teenagers meander the narrow path as it twists and turns and rises and falls. Czech trails are always busy on the weekends. Every once in a while, I pass other lone spirits. We exchange glances of solidarity. I’m not sure what I will find when I get to the osada. The tramp camp. Will I be lucky enough to happen upon a gathering of tramps?
Czech Tramping has been around since the early 20th century, but it took on a deeper significance during the Communist era. What started out as a weekend pastime became an act of rebellion. Although it seemed like the tramps were protesting the regime, they weren’t interested in politics. It was a revolt against civilization itself. Against the futility of fighting. They opted, instead, for merry nonconformity. Rather than consume the culture that was forced upon them, they created their own.
Some tramps were solitary, others were members of camps such as Lost Hope. They adopted new names and identities. Inspiration came from the American West and from the hobos of the Great Depression. They dressed in military camouflage or as cowboys and Indians. Distinctive music was composed. Melancholy melodies. Songs of the road’s bittersweet loneliness. Czech bluegrass was born.
Every weekend was a temporary escape. They rode the rails to the trails. Hop on, hop off. Into the woods they would amble, their backpacks filled with the barest necessities. No tents. A roof may protect you, but it obscures your view of the sky. On Monday, it was back to work. To the oppressive illusion of real life.
An hour or so passes in wistful contemplation as one foot moves in front of the other. I have lived in a similar state of intellectual insubordination for years. I know how lonely this road can be. There is no going back. I don’t necessarily need to meet these other defiant souls, however. It’s enough just to know that they’re out there.
The bends in the river deepen. A lone swan swims in constipated little circles near the riverbank. It spews a beastly hiss at me as I pass. Up ahead, a clearing appears. Cabins dot the hillside. A faded totem pole stands on a high mound. The sign on the wooden cabin next to the river announces Ztracenka. Lost. This is the place.
A shirtless man is repairing the porch bench. The smell of freshly cut grass fills the air. I prop myself against a sturdy tree and eat some cookies. A woman emerges from another cabin, a bucket of water in her grip. She stalks across the grass, answering my smile with a territorial glare. And I understand: this place is someone’s possession now. Random wanderers are no longer welcome. I get up, dust myself off, and mosey along.
Another day, another hike. Up and down verdant hills. Dandelions sway in the soft breeze. The trail leads from Karlštejn Castle to Velká Amerika. Great America. During the Communist era, Czechs weren’t allowed to travel to the real Grand Canyon, so the tramps baptized this abandoned limestone quarry as their own. The path along the steep cliffs is at your own risk. I slip under the barrier and walk as close to the edge as I can handle. Deep breaths and careful steps. This is the only way to get a photo of it all. The jewel-colored water shimmers in the delicate spring sunshine.
Maybe the profoundest act of rebellion is to just turn away from it all and head into the wilderness. Alone. Detox from the poison of indoctrination. Rediscover the wisdom of our own intuition. While it’s still possible.
Communism has retreated, but the fascination with tramping has not. During my many hikes in the Czech Republic, I’ve often crossed paths with solitary young people. Vintage backpacks slung over their shoulders and dreamy looks in their eyes. Cowboy hats and camouflage. They are free to wander far, now. Even to Amerika. Maybe they’ve figured out that there’s nothing more liberating than a ramble into the depths of the imagination.