Split, Croatia had turned out to be an agreeable place. The ancient Roman city had a wonderful old quarter, restored promenade and great views of the Adriatic Sea. Islands dotted the horizon to the west and mountains served as a rugged backdrop to the east. But my main draw to this country had been the prospect of outdoor adventure, which I wasn’t going to find in Croatia’s second largest urban area. So, one morning I decided to take a bus to the nearby Mosor Mountains for my nature fix.
My goal on a whim was to climb the region’s highest peak, Veliki Kabal. Andrew, who had had his own goal of washing his jeans in the sink, decided to spend the day in town. So I put on my hiking shorts and packed some meager supplies. My only guide, remarks from a travel blog, mentioned a trail starting in the village of Sitno Gornje. After an extended period of aimless wandering and inquiring about the village, I found the bus that was going to take me there.
Around 10 am, I shuffled onto a bus crowded with people who appeared as if they had survived and fought in the country’s last two major conflicts (one being WWII). We drove through the more unsightly parts of town filled with weathered relicts of Yugoslavia’s booming economic days. We stopped often. Old people got off and old people got on. All of them looked me over with expressions that read “why are you here, and what happened to the bottom section of your pants?”
As the bus left the city and began climbing into the foothills I felt even more out of place. And with the exception of two words scribbled on a torn piece of paper, I had no idea where I was going. An elderly woman, who had noticed my wide-eyed and helpless scanning of the horizons, put a hand on mine and motioned for the slip of paper. I pointed at the words and she repeated them, “Sitno Gornje.” After explaining something to me in Croatian, she raised a frail but sure hand and motioned up the hill. I nodded with understanding and smiled. She smiled back and said what could have only been words of encouragement and compliments about my boyish charm and striking features.
As we climbed higher the road became narrower and less what I’d consider to be a road. We took long slow turns around tight corners and even did several three point turns. Often taking up both lanes, the bus forced many vehicles and pedestrians nearly off the road. While everyone else stared forward, I looked around in surprise and excitement every time we executed a maneuver without incident. “Can you guys believe we made that one? Did you see that old man? We nearly crushed him good!” I wanted to say these things, of course. But because A: no one else seemed to share my sentiments, and B: no one would understand a damn word out of my mouth, I kept my delight to myself.
After 45 minutes, I saw the sign I was looking for. Relieved that Sitno Gornje actually existed, I stood up and deboarded with confidence. This feeling faded, however, as I stepped onto the cracked pavement and watched the yellow bus rumble away. The village consisted of one narrow street. Old stone houses, which matched the mountainside behind, lined the road and peppered the slopes below. There was no sign of a hiking trail – just gardens with dying grape vines, old wheelbarrows, crumbling walls and power lines running to some hastily built structures. I was standing on a road in a lonely village, 200 years past its prime… And I had no idea when that bus was coming back.
Scouting for this fabled trail, I strolled along until I noticed another elderly woman regarding me with great interest. I greeted her warmly and tried to pronounce the name of the mountain I wanted to climb, “Veliki Kabal.” Then I threw up my arms in the universal ‘I’m clueless’ fashion. She spoke excitedly and at length, as if the opportunity to do so didn’t come often. Eventually, her enlivened fingers indicated a direction. I gave a gracious nod and began to walk away, but she kept on speaking and smiling. I grew embarrassed because I had run out of things to say back. God knows it didn’t matter what I said: I could have spouted “well hell, I love waffles too! But, I tell you, throw some bacon and eggs into the mix and I’ll eat until Christmas!” and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Finally I resorted to backing up slowly before giving exaggerated goodbye and turning away. As I continued up the road, her voice grew distant and the air faded back into silence.
Eventually, the road condensed into a pathway, which I followed through a corridor of rock huts and houses. And Lo! At the village’s end, there appeared a faint outline of a trail into the mountains. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to find the beginning of a trail. But again, these feelings were fleeting. The route looked scantly traveled, rocky, steep and treacherous. Ominous gray clouds were moving in off the sea, filling the autumn sky and snuffing out the midday sun. The wind picked up and the temperature was dropping. Bad weather seemed imminent.
Inclement weather isn’t the end of the world for a prepared hiker. I, however, was unprepared to the fullest: I had no map, no waterproof gear, and no real idea what I was getting into. Furthermore, no one really knew where I was. Andrew had a vague notion I was somewhere off in the nearby mountains. But there were a lot of nearby mountains. All in all, proceeding was a foolish idea and I knew it. But we were leaving the next day and I had come to Croatia to hike; this was my only chance. So I pushed all nagging logic aside and began the journey up the cliffside.
To be continued… What will happen to Eric? Will he be eaten? Will the infamous Croatian hill people take him away? Will he survive? At this point, not even I know. Part II coming Thursday.
Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing