Hiking the Pebble

Before I moved to New Caledonia in 1999, I was a connoisseur of roads and paths. Interstates and back roads. Forest trails and city sidewalks. Michigan, California, Arizona. The states in between. America has an infinite supply of lines on maps. You can spend a lifetime exploring new routes and never see them all. But my road-tripping days came to an end.

Most of Grande Terre, New Caledonia’s main island, is uninhabited and inaccessible by vehicles. I exhausted the supply of road within months. I turned to the trails. So many landscapes to traverse. Beaches, of course. The arid ranch land north of Nouméa. Along the flowing waters of the Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue. I could gaze at the two round peaks of the Monts Koghi from my home. I learned those trails by heart. Few images exist of these wanderings. I carry them in my body.

The famous trails are marked, others are discovered by word of mouth. You must find your own way there and back. Hidden water holes. The strangest flora, much of it endemic. Primeval silence. I was not the first person to tread there, but it sure felt like it. But beware. Wandering down the wrong path can cost you your life. The boundaries of tribal land are invisible. In 2002, a Japanese tourist was the victim of a ritual murder on the Isle of Pines. Nothing was done about it. Nothing ever is.

I don’t understand why people like hiking. I’ve heard this remark on more than one occasion. Voices tinged with disapproval. Walking for hours and hours. No people around. How boring.

How to convey this communion with nature? Every step a sweet kiss on the Earth’s exquisite face. The atavistic gratification of traversing a land on my own two feet. And I guess I just don’t find my own company boring.

This pleasure came at a price. That picturesque red earth is made up of metals. Toxic metals. Nickel, chromium, cobalt. New Caledonia is the third largest source of nickel in the world. Dust kicked up by my boots, dust emitted into the atmosphere from the nickel smelters. The local produce is grown in this soil. Nickel is a known carcinogen. I am allergic to nickel jewelry, but somehow I didn’t make, or didn’t want to admit, the connection between this and the debilitating aftermath of any sort of physical exertion. No one else that I knew had this problem. For them, Le Caillou, The Pebble, was paradise. The longer I was there, the more severe the consequences of these jaunts became. I lost count of the nights I spent on the bathroom floor, throat shredded from vomiting, transcendent pain in my head. It took at least one more day to fully recover. Yet I persevered.

No way I was going to pass up an ascent of the Plateau de Dogny with my sister, who had come in search of Amborella, the oldest known flowering plant still in existence. Found only in New Caledonia, Amborella was the subject of her master’s thesis in genetics. Such a delightful morning that was. A German shepherd from the hotel at the trailhead trotted by our side, a gentle guardian. It is the only time in my life that I have been unable to complete a hike. Blurred vision, churning stomach, an ominous tremor in my cells. Just before the summit, I collapsed on the side of the trail and waited for my sister to return.

The Mt. Mou trail

A few months before my departure from New Caledonia in 2006, I did the infamous Mt. Mou ascent. My friend Lo and I were prepared for the inevitable bruises and scrapes. These are considered badges of honor. You haven’t truly hiked Le Caillou until you’ve climbed Mt. Mou. Dust underfoot morphs into moss-carpeted cloud forest. Tree roots transform into a staircase that disappears into the mist. Every step must be contemplated. Sometimes the only way forward is flat on your stomach through the decaying carcasses that have fallen across the path. Just beyond the peak, the wreckage of a WWII-era American military plane lies on the slopes. The exhilaration and relief that I felt at this place. No sign of any discomfort. Maybe this time would be different. But it crept up on me during the descent.

Photo taken by Lo Cherbeix

After I left New Caledonia, it didn’t take long for the symptoms to dissipate. I learned that they are indeed signs of nickel poisoning. Strength and endurance returned. It remains to be seen if permanent damage lurks in my cells. Even so, I don’t regret any of those explorations. These days, every hike is done with gratitude. Without pain, it’s impossible to experience the bliss of its absence.

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.

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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