Breaking Away

Iceland – January 2018

So blue. “It means that they are newly capsized,” the guide explains before he turns everyone loose to explore. Blue is the color of breaking away.

Just when I thought I might never again be struck speechless by a landscape. Just when I thought I had given up travels to new lands, this unexpected chance arose. A stopover in Iceland on the way to the great unknown. A reward for listening to my intuition, despite the shrieks of my ego. Moving around all the time doesn’t necessarily keep ruts from forming beneath you. The time has come for massive change. It’s time to break away.

The creak and groan of ice in transition. The distant bellowing of seals. Muted human voices. Awe has a way of doing that. The five-hour ride down here started in darkness. A half moon dangled like a jewel in a black velvet sky. The shadow side’s gritty surface softly visible. Just beneath her, Mars and Jupiter peered out. Watchful, serene. The dingy morning light revealed towering waterfalls cloaked in mist. The sun rose to its zenith low on the horizon. The otherworldly landscape blurred by the window. Snow-capped volcanos mirrored in roadside puddles and immense moss-covered lava fields. The great glacier filled the windshield. No time to stop for photos. Light is precious this time of year. I arrived yesterday evening, on the tail of a severe gale. Another one is due tomorrow. This day is a sliver of light shining through the murk of the Icelandic winter.

A T Rex rises from the rear of the mass. From another angle, it’s an albatross readying itself for flight. I smile. The images that arise in the mind. What do they wish to say? I no longer believe that they are random.

Imperceptible drift. The lagoon is a womb-shaped lake at the base of the glacier. A narrow canal slices through the black volcanic earth. Just beyond, the ocean awaits. Perhaps total disintegration is just another form of rebirth.

The things that seem so beautiful and awesome and eternal. A pure, fearless light reveals the fractures. Uncomfortable truths. The futility of rescue. If something is meant to shatter, it will. No matter how hard you cling. The only thing left to do is let go and trust.

The mist thickens. The sun dilates and descends. Grainy tangerine radiance. Shadowy forms mill about the black sand beach. The waves have battered the ice into shards, sculpted them into lovely forms, and carried them back to shore. All that awaits is the slow seep back into the Earth. Nothing truly disappears. It is simply dispersed and assimilated. And the new incarnation begins.

Finding Lost Hope

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.

April 2017

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.

Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard

Edinburgh, Scotland – September 2016

Whatever it is, it emanates from here. At least that’s what they say. Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is the location of the most well-documented poltergeist in the world – the Mackenzie Poltergeist. Legend has it that, one dark and story night in 1998, a homeless guy broke into this mausoleum seeking shelter. It is the final resting place of George Mackenzie, a man responsible for the deaths of 18,000 of his compatriots. While the vagrant was ransacking the coffins he found on the lower level, he fell through the floor, landing on a pile of rotting corpses that had been dumped during the plague. He clawed his way out and ran screaming into the streets, never to be seen again. Ever since, hundreds of attacks on visitors to the graveyard have been reported. Scratches, bruises, and burns appearing on the skin. Sensations of being kicked or having hair pulled. One woman was found unconscious with bruises around her neck.

All is quiet around this little mausoleum. The hair on the back of my neck is at rest. We have just entered the cemetery, however. My mother, stepfather, and me. Tonight we are going on a Haunted Graveyard tour of this very place, but we wanted to see it in the daylight. We weave in and out of the gravestones, moving deeper within. These are the most sinister tombstone adornments I’ve ever seen: gaping skulls, leering demons, wicked cherubs. We attempt to decipher the faded epitaphs. Strolling through cemeteries usually gives me a sense of serenity. I’ve even adopted the Eastern European tradition of wandering at night through candlelit graveyards on All Saint’s Day. I pause to gaze into the weathered faces of twin girls. Demure hands clasped in prayer, a seductive glimpse of leg. Tainted virtue. Every image in this necropolis seems to mock the beholder. I’m not sure I could be paid to venture here alone in the daylight.

A black Labrador bounds back and forth along the back wall. It jumps on one of the tall tombstones and wags its tail. A male voice barks an unintelligible command. It takes a while for the ear to become accustomed to the Scottish accent. The dog stands up, catches a ball in its mouth, and carries it to the man. And the cycle continues. My parents and I exchange bewildered glances. As we approach, I notice an upturned hat. Ah, so that’s the purpose of this unexpected show. My stepfather adds his contribution to the hat, and we move on.

The wall curves around, leading back towards the entrance. The conversation turns to family stuff. Catching up. I’ve crashed my parents’ Scotland trip. Or rather, their voyage to this part of the world was an excuse for a much-needed reunion. A flicker on my left. A shadowy figure appears. Immobile, yet infused with sentience. Watchful. An abrupt halt. I gasp. “Woah.” We peer into the murkiness. Stillness like an indrawn breath before a forceful, taunting BOO.

A young man strides towards us, all arms and legs. Blonde hair protrudes from his skull. He pauses, twists his long neck towards the dark effigy, shakes his head, and proclaims, “Tha thing’s skelly as fook!” He lopes away with a chuckle.

I look at my parents with a snicker. “Did you understand that?”

My stepfather smiles and nods. My mother shakes her head. “What?” When my stepfather translates for her, she laughs.

I roll my eyes and laugh. “Scotland.”

Night falls. Intermittent rain and humid gusts of wind. I wonder what it takes to be classified as dark and stormy in Scotland. The tour guide is a tall young woman with long black hair. Black leather trench coat and combat boots. She is perfect for the part. She pauses inside the entrance of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. The group clusters around her. We are on a hill, but it’s not a natural hill. It’s made up of tens of thousands of bodies that were discarded here. Most of them died in horrible conditions or are the very worst of criminals. There are so many bones that, if there’s been a particularly heavy rain, they will rise out of the ground. You see the buildings next to the graveyard? Since the Mackenzie Poltergeist was awakened, there have been unexplained fires and other misfortunes for those who live there. Be warned: it’s not unusual to feel nausea or headaches or faint.

And she leads us deeper into the shadows. To the very back, where the black dog and its master were so joyfully playing just hours earlier. This is where the rogues are buried. Bad people. She launches into a tale of murder and mayhem. Torture. They used to lay a bottomless metal box on the abdomen of a prisoner, put a live rat in the box, and then heat the box until it was blazing hot. There was only one way for the rat to escape…

A sharp exhalation of disgust escapes me. I’ve been making an effort, lately, to dislike humanity a little less. This is not helping my attitude.

But the description of the torture is not finished! Do you know how long it takes for a rat to eat its way out of a human body? Sometimes they got lost and chewed their way up instead of out. Like into the arm. And how long can a human survive this situation? Hours!

My head spins. I step back and take a deep breath. The migraine I had earlier in the day has come back.

My mother moves beside me. “I’m starting to feel sick, but it’s probably just jet lag,” she whispers.

I nod my head at the rest of the group, their blank expressions. “I think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t feel sick after hearing that.”

I close my eyes. She’s surely embellishing the story. A memory arises. There was a game the kids in our neighborhood loved to play in the autumn. When the air was rich with the smell of decaying apples and burning leaves. For a night or two, rivals made a truce. Because: the more the better for Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard.

We gathered at my family’s house, because we had the biggest yard in the neighborhood. My brother and sister, me, the neighbor twins, the bully who lived down the street, and his brother and sister. Two people were picked to be the ghost and the tour guide. We turned our backs while the ghost hid. The bully was usually the tour guide, because he was the most entertaining. His name was Derek Farrio*. He was the oldest. Scrawny, but vicious. He had a skinny, oblong head covered with black hair. Chimpanzee smile. He was the terror of the Catholic school. The altar boy from Hell. He made faces at the priest’s back during mass. He brayed the hymns with exaggerated fervor, even after the organ’s last notes had died away. Even the teachers had a hard time keeping a straight face. Undeterred by the punishment that was bestowed upon him, he operated by stealth. His impassive expression was the most fearsome. Lips at rest, watchful orbs under heavy eyelids as he prowled the school bus aisle looking for a target.

On Derek’s tours, the front porch became the site of a bloody battle. A smoldering pile of leaves became a plane crash. An unremarkable bush became “The place where JFK, um, shitted on.” We’d giggle behind our hands. He was the only one brave enough to swear. It was all a way to distract us. This was the goal of the game. When we reached the ghost’s hiding place, Derek would screech, “And this is…Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard!” We’d squeal and scatter. The person who was unfortunate enough to be caught by the ghost would be the next ghost. And so it continued.

I smile to myself in the dark. As we are shepherded towards the finale of the tour, I share the memory with my mother. She remembers Derek, of course. The bumps and bruises and hurt feelings she had to soothe because of him.

“His sister told me, not so long ago, that he was actually bullied by the kids in his class. That’s why he took it out on us littler ones.”

My mother snorts. “That’s no excuse.”

“No, not an excuse, but an explanation. He was the one with the problem, not us.” Bullies are so often the result of bullies. It comes from a need to feel powerful. Those who are truly strong feel no urge to perpetuate the cycle. Scars are so much easier to bear than guilt. “She also told me that his kids are worse than he was. What goes around always comes around.”

Our lovely and talented guide pauses at the gates of the Covenanter’s Prison. She pulls a large key from her pocket. The tour company had to take out extra insurance for the right to enter. This is where the majority of attacks have taken place. “I’ve seen people become very distressed very quickly in here. You are not obligated to go inside.” She pauses. There are no objections, so she rattles the gate open and closes it behind us. We follow her down the long row of mausoleums. Twelve hundred religious prisoners were crammed in here and left to fend for themselves. George Mackenzie, “Bluidy Mackenzie”, was the overlord. Hence the connection with the present hauntings. He was awakened to wander in perpetual torment. What goes around comes around. Always.

As the guide continues her florid account, we are herded into a tiny mausoleum. She stands in the doorway, facing us. Voice lilting with rising drama. A masked face lurches into view. A scream blasts us. Deafening, elongated, heartfelt. A collective scream erupts in reply. The face disappears. The shock is replaced with laughter.

“My goodness, that was impressive. It’s rare to see someone with such passion for their job these days,” I say to the guide as we make our way back to the gates.

She nods. “Yes, he takes his job very seriously.”

Fat raindrops begin to fall. One more stop before we are free. I come to rest at the back of the group with my parents. A couple stands in front of us. They have stood to the side for most of the tour, casting disdainful looks at the rest of us. Her gold metallic platform sneakers glitter in the darkness. She pulls a fur-trimmed hood over her blonde hair. The guy wrestles an umbrella out of his coat pocket. It opens into a mangled mess. He lifts it above his head anyway. My mother nudges me. We attempt to stifle our giggles. The guy looks over his shoulder at us with a haughty smirk. The tremor intensifies. The worst thing to do with a laughing fit is try to control it.

My stepfather rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “Men are so stupid.”

Through the gates and into the streets we go. Dispersed into the night. My parents and I trod back to the hotel. My eyes in the bathroom mirror are glassy, exhausted. When I lower my gaze, I notice three scratches, like claw marks, on my chest.

Photo by T. Blackhurst

*Name changed, but the rhyme is the same.

My stepfather took the last photo, which is of the Covenanter’s Prison, on his iPhone. We sent it to the tour company. They added it to their collection of hundreds of such photos. The photo of my scratches is blurry and unimpressive, so I didn’t post it. I made an effort to check my skin before the tour, so I know that it was clear. Except for the migraine, I felt absolutely no pain during the tour. Apparently, most people don’t. The marks just appear.