A Path Obscured

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Veľká Fatra National Park, Slovakia – September 2014

No matter how much thought I put into preparing for a walk in the wilderness, there’s always something that I miscalculate. I should have worn my raincoat instead of the fleece. Listless raindrops tumble onto the canopy above. Drowsy percussive music that keeps time with my pace. The trail before us is straight and climbs relentlessly up the mountain. Hiking trails in Slovakia are brutal. There are rarely switchbacks to soften the ascent. Anyway, I prefer a hard, steady climb to a repetitious, winding stroll. The peak at the top is called Ostrá, which means sharp. The fog was so thick that we were unable to see the peak as we rode into Blatnica early this morning. The others on the bus, schoolchildren and mature ladies, headed in the direction of the other peak, whose name means round.

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We are alone on this trail. Two women with the same name. Birthdays one day, but many years apart. She grew up not so far from here, but she knows almost nothing about the wilderness. I take the lead, searching out the yellow arrows that mark the way. My steps are short and steady. We only wander off course once, for a couple of minutes. I spoke to her about bears. What we need to do if we see one. I try to speak loudly as we walk, to let them know we’re here. Just as you’re supposed to do. I end up talking to myself. She is too out of breath for conversation. I spot a bear track on the trail and quicken my pace. “Wait!” she gasps. “I have to stop.” I pause and scan the forest. My heart pounds, but not from exertion. What will I tell her mother if something happens to her?

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The forest falls away behind us. The rocky ridges are enveloped in fog. The trail up ahead falls off the end of the Earth. Any words that we speak are muffled. She crouches down by a rock, exhausted. I stand on the edge. The view from here must be magnificent in good weather, but somehow I don’t feel cheated. A wave of euphoria washes over me. I want to spread my arms wide and howl. I turn to her and say this. She glares at me in reply.

“This can’t be the peak,” I say a few moments later. “I’ve heard there’s a chain we need to use.” I peer into the fog, but all is obscured. The only thing to do is to continue forward. All will be revealed when it is time.

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We move forward with cautious steps. I look back over my shoulder and contemplate the trail we have traversed. The effort made and perils avoided. I turn my gaze forward. The hardest part remains. A vast sound emerges from the obscurity. The wind of high places. A shadow appears. An ominous blade slicing through the mist. We halt and gasp. It is just in front of us. But then it is shrouded again.

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The trail narrows along the last ridge. My backpack catches on the rocks, throwing me off balance. I take it off and toss it ahead. The dirt path becomes a rock wall. The chain disappears into the murk. Up there somewhere. I take a deep breath and grasp the cold metal. My shoes slip on the rocks, which are slick with condensation. After a couple of tries, I shake my head and step back. My mind is filled with clarity rather than disappointment. A reward is uncertain and the risks are many. Sometimes it’s better to wait for the right moment to reach for the top.

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