Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

(This entry was published on 30 Aug 2014 and backdated to the time of the hike.)

2011.  My first full day in the Czech Republic on my Fulbright.  As I met the representatives of the schools where I would be, I couldn't help but admire the tan lines Jana had on her temples around where her sunglasses had been.  She explained that she'd been in Slovakia hiking with her husband and invited me to join them sometime.  Many things began that day, including my Fulbright experience and my friendship with Jana, but that also began my longing to visit the Fatra or the Tatry mountain ranges.  (The Fatra consist of the Malá Fatra or the Velká Fatra [little or big] and the Tatry include the west, the high, and the low.)

Though I was able to do some hiking on some hills/mountains in Slovakia in 2011, I hadn't gotten out to the Fatra or Tatry until Saturday.  What's to follow is an account of that day presented in two possible accounts.

Version A: Dr. Jekyll
Saturday morning, I woke up with the glow of the sun rather than an alarm.  I knew it was the day I would finally go to the Fatra.  Warmed by the thought and eager to get out the door to begin the day, I got out of bed and began my morning omelet in preparation.  I had a look at the weather while my eggs cooked, only to discover a few droplets of rain winking from a very innocent-looking cloud.  Shutting my computer, I turned my attention back to my eggs noting that I should put an extra fleece in my pack.

Karel and I were to go by car.  En route, we admired the blue sky above.  As we crossed the border, I entertained myself by reading the various billboards which had shifted to Slovak.  Cemeteries were filled with flowers, crosses and little devotional nooks to Mary appeared frequently, and soon so did the Malá Fatra.

We pulled into the parking lot, where a pot-bellied, bald Slovak man began to hassle Karel to repark, lest a bus come and hit his car.  Though already in the parking space, Karel backed up the car, though not quite enough to keep the man to give the Slovak version of, "well, if a bus hits your car, you can't say I didn't warn you."  We set off, Karel's striped socks visible in his sandals--his hiking boots mysteriously forgotten--and me listing reasons the pot-bellied man could be mad.  These naturally ranged from his having stepped in cow excrement that morning to his realizing that his dream of becoming a professional footballer would never be realized.

I could definitely feel that it'd been a while since I'd done a proper hike, but the landscape was dramatic with its rock faces and meadows, distracting me from my weakness.  Gusty winds came across us when we left the shelter of forest, so I put on another layer as we sat for our first snack.  Karel had made a wonderful selection for our picnic: brie, soy bread, banana, and hazelnut chocolate.  I smiled to myself as he divided each part of our meal in half between us (okay, so it was normally a 60%-40% division; he requires a bit more than I do).  I tried to be patient as he pulled out his camera . . . a situation which had me wanting to get back on the trail.

Janošíkovy Diery
Photo: Karel Dušík
Our trail continued over a stream and then up and up.  We began to see other hikers--especially families with kids--and we began to hop-scotch past the groups.  Below, the ground was wet with rain, and roots and rocks became desirable alternatives to the mulchy patches that disguised wet earth and mud traps.  At one point, Karel was succeeding a bit more than I at let's-jump-past-this-fertile-family and I landed on my rear end in a wet patch.  Luckily, no injury was incurred, and he waited for me at the next reasonable spot.

Our journey continued and soon he predicted that I would really like the path ahead.  His description was mild.  At first, it just looked like a nice stream that had cut through the mineral/rock next to it.  Then soon these rock/minerals rose up, revealing us to be in a small canyon.  Metal trails took up where the natural ones failed, and at times we had to walk down or up steel ladders.  Every time Karel's smartphone appeared to take a photo, I silently prayed that he wouldn't drop it in in the rushing stream below.

Gratefulness to be seeing such a wonderful bit of nature and towards the man who brought me there struck me.  Once we'd passed various canyons and waterfalls and lilly-pads growing from mud that used to be covered by water, we soon left the hills and entered a meadow filled with the effortless chaos of wildflowers . . .

Version B: Mr. Hyde
I rolled out of bed feeling sluggish.  Each leg felt like it weighed 50 kilos.  As I lay curled up in a ball, I wondered what the most desirable thing would be on that day.  I imagined spending the day comfortably curled up with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Karel and I had discussed maybe changing our plans dependent on weather.  When we looked at it, the predictions were spotty.  There was definitely a miniature lightning and temperatures measuring in the mid-teens Celcius.  But, in perfect indecision, I shrugged along with our plan.  We got in the car, and I pulled out Harry Potter while Karel did all the real work: driving, shopping for mid-hike snacks, not getting us lost, etc.  In my gratefulness, I kept on reading.  I figured at some point I should put my book down to enjoy the views.  I did so before we got on a winding road.  The forests around were beautiful, and perhaps I could have better acknowledged this, had I not been so focused on my churning stomach.  I suddenly wished for chewing gum or water--which were conveniently in the trunk of the car.

Once we got there, I found that my stomach was soon in knots and I still felt like a junior sumo champion.  After paying the peppery man in the parking lot, who barked at us with unwarranted aggression about our parking (indisputably within the lines), we set off up a slight incline, as I gave absurd reasons for his anxieties--many of which having to do with a dissatisfactory marriage.

The wind whipped around us in a way that couldn't convince me it was nearly summer.  Yet the sweeping beauty of the area couldn't be lost on me, though my attitude tasted of the same pepper of the parking lot manager.  I appreciated our break for a snack and was eager to get walking again--if nothing else to escape the cold that was settling into me.

Soon we walked along a typical trail, littered with un-flockable children and Kaja's speed in overtaking them disgruntled me--especially as I slipped in the wet mud and took on some natural accessory to my trousers.  I fumed inside at his inattentiveness.  We continued on, and the lush green forests gave way to rocks, which surrounded a stream which had carved through it.  The canyon had a surprising beauty in the midst of my unforgiving attitude.  Yet I continued to begrudge Kaja his abundance of energy, as I walked along, trying to keep up, again slipping and this time scratching my hand along the rough rock surface . . .

* * *

Have you discovered the true story yet?  My attitude is more accurately represented in the second, though the first contains a true account of the beauty that was there and that I could have freely and purely experienced had I not let myself be so caught up in an amplified perception of my own discomfort.  (I could blame PMS, but Kaja even supplied me with chocolate during and after the hike.)

I've recently read about how decision fatigue and an abundance of undone tasks in the mind can deplete one of willpower.  At the time of the hike, it was peak grading season.  I hardly felt I could manage all the grading, planning, field trips, paperwork, and extra work duties, let alone buy groceries or cook a meal.  In that state (+PMS mind you), climbing a mountain was quite the ordeal, and maintaining a positive attitude seemed impossible.

But again, the error was in my focus.  We always have the power to control our thoughts and reactions, and moreover, we are culpable and responsible for the consuequences.

Not many weeks later, in that same area (see our exact locations here), at Vratna dolina, floods and rockslides occurred (see photos here or here), damaging the region and stranding some tourists.  The region will never quite look the same, and I have missed an opportunity to have fully enjoyed its beauty.

After our walk around the river, we took a cable car up one mountain and then hiked for a couple hours along the ridge.
I learned a lot about the power of the human mind, as even while I pondered this beauty I battled my own negative attitude.  Photo taken above Vratna dolina. Photo: Karel Dušík.


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