Hiking the Kom Emine Trail Backwards Part 2

Howdy! 

Well, I finally did it. I managed to complete the Kom-Emine trail (or rather, Emine-Kom trail), and then make my way from Bulgaria to its western neighbor, Serbia. I'm currently writing from the city Niš, which is around eighty or so kilometers away from the Bulgarian border. 

IMG_1909.JPG

So far things in Serbia have been just grand. I managed to connect with the Serbian hiking organization, and let me tell you, they are some amazing folks. After crossing over the border (the border police don't give you any hassle when you have a passport from the United States), I was greeted by three kind fellows. They treated me to a beer, went over my route for the next several weeks, took me to a hotel and even footed the bill. I must say, I am most impressed (and honored) to have been given such amazing treatment in such a short span of time.

So, before I get into the second part of the Kom-Emine, I'll give y'all a quick update about my travel plans for the next month. 

It looks like I'll be abandoning the E3 trail for the next several weeks. Because Bulgaria's section of the E3 does not go connect to another country, Mr. Marcel Sofariu, the head of Romania's main hiking organization, recommended that I explore Serbia and test out a newly formulated trail. Turns out Romania and Serbia communicate more regularly than they do with Bulgaria, so they've developed a trail that connects Serbia's section of the E4 trail to Romania's section of the E3.

Now, no tourist has ever hiked the E4 section in Serbia (or the E3 in Romania for that matter), so I'm going to be the guinea pig. I don't mean this to seem as though I'm acting as some maverick hiker; these trails/roads have existed for centuries and are still used by the locals to this day. It's taken up until now for hiking organizations to formulate these official routes. A Romanian expedition team has already done the exploring and the planning, now the Romanian and Serbian hiking organizations need a hiker to test out their planned trail and provide feedback on the experience.

 The Road to Pirot in Serbia.

The Road to Pirot in Serbia.

Needless to say, I am tickled pink by the prospect of helping the Serbian and Romanian groups out by walking. I don't know what the trail is going to look like, but I do know that the weather is going to be hot. Very hot. The next several weeks are the beginning of the brutal part of summer, so I'll be drowning myself with water every chance I get.

Before I get to the trail, I'll need to cross a little over 100 kilometers of highway. I'm not really excited by this idea. I've been told that there are natural paths that I can use, but I really need to get back to the E3 as soon as possible. I only have so many months before snow starts to fall, and I do NOT want to get stuck in the snow this year.

So, the highway it is. I'll most likely get through the highway section in four days, then I'll be hiking along the E4 until I cross over into Romania. As soon as I cross over, I'll be back on the E3 again. Thankfully the Romanians have just finished marking off the trail, so I should be able to avoid getting lost. Here's hoping!

But before I get back to pounding the pavement, I decided to take this weekend off and explore Serbia's third largest city, Niš. I lucked out by meeting a swell gal named Andrea who was kind enough to lend me the key to her apartment. I've been hanging out with her roommate Lazar and his friends.

Lazar is a huge Mediterranean version of a viking who has a wicked sense of humor, and an appreciation for English/American literature as well as the English language. Last night Lazar introduced me to a few of his fellow droogs, and we spent the night doing what all young Serbian men do in Niš: drinking liters of beer at an amphitheater and flirting with the local girls until four in the morning. Several of Lazar's friends are playing a trash metal gig tonight, so I'm very much looking forward to being surrounded by distortion and covered in sweat. All in all, Nisš is an amazing city. There are incredibly friendly folks, tasty food, and plenty of cheap beer.

So, for now I'm a tourist, but I'll be going back to being a hiker soon enough. Alrighty, the update is over. Now for the second part of the Emine-Kom.

If you missed the first part of the Emine-Kom hike, just click here. Come on back when you've caught up.

Hiking From Buzludzha to Kom

Buzludzha is a great halfway point to take a break from hiking. I had left behind the eastern half of Bulgaria, and I was officially entering the western side. From this point on, I was going to have to deal with the hardest part of the Kom-Emine. There would be mountains and peaks (so, so many peaks), and they were not going to end until I had climbed the 2,016 meters to Kom Peak.

Although this was going to be the hardest part of the hike, the trail markers and the trail itself were fantastic. The signs were easy to locate, and the white-red-white stripes were freshly painted right where you wanted them to be. The trail itself was well laid out and had little overgrowth. Now, this wasn't the case the entire way though (this is Bulgaria after all), but compared to the Eastern side, I was in navigational heaven.

 The view from Mazalat.

The view from Mazalat.

Two days after leaving Buzludzha, I had entered the Central Balkan National Park. This park is full of sublime, raw, pristine nature. I was surrounded by large, rolling mountains, green grass that went on and on, and, of course, plenty of horse manure. The horses here are left to their own devices. Someone owns them, but they just let the horses go wherever the beasts pleased. Because of this, there was a surprising amount of poop.

I mentioned this to a few Bulgarians and they all laughed. "Y'know, that's a great metaphor for Bulgaria. Bulgaria: one of the most beautiful countries on the planet, but it's covered in shit."

Don't get me wrong, the feces doesn't detract from just how stunning the landscapes are in the Central Balkans, but you do have to look where you step.

The Central Balkans only extend for little over 85 kilometers, but good lord are they tough. Hill after hill, peak after peak; it just doesn't seem to stop. Not only do you have to worry about your knees, you also need to be incredibly careful with the weather. In one day you might have intense sunshine which then disappears when you get swallowed up by the clouds, pelted with frozen rain, blown over by the wind, then end up dripping in sweat when the sun reappears. Each day the weather remained unpredictable, so it is wise to listen to the managers of the mountain huts. They know the mountains well, and the mountains can be unforgiving.

After spending several days in the Central Balkans, you eventually move on to the Western third of Bulgaria. Because you've just spent day after day hiking straight up only to go straight down, your legs have either turned into one of two things: strong as birch-wood or as soft as gelatin. Going up the Black Sea from Istanbul had given me a head start on developing some much needed leg strength, but I could see why the majority of Kom-Emine hikers quit after their first week. This isn't just a relaxing stroll. This is tough work on your calves and thighs, not to mention your feet. 

 A steep and rocky ascent.

A steep and rocky ascent.

Throughout all of the difficulties of hiking, the mountain huts became absolute godsends (when they're open, of course). Even if you don't plan to stay the night, each hut can offer you a cheap meal as well as some much needed water. Granted, there were many cases that the huts were not open, but this happens from time to time. You can't come to expect anything in Bulgaria; you learn to just accept what's there. 

Being a beautiful national park, the Central Balkans are one of the most popular hiking destinations in Bulgaria. Due to its popularity, there are much more reliable (not to mention nicer) mountain huts that can be found in and around the park. These huts aren't just open during the summer season either. Apparently these huts are just as popular during the winter season, and offer open doors for all of those people who are crazy enough to hike along the ridges in the snow. I'm sure there is some great skiing in the Balkans, but you won't find any chair lifts to carry your butt back up the mountain. You're going to have to hike in the snow.

After the Central Balkans, things get a little more complicated, but nothing too terrible. There is some overgrowth, sometimes the markers are not in the best locations, and yes, it gets really hot when you descend from the mountains. But all in all, the westernmost section is nowhere near as confusing as the eastern half. If you've survived the Emine-Kom section this far, you'll do just fine for the last 100 kilometers. You'll find some beautiful views, climb intense ridges, drink tasty (but sweet) raspberry wine, and you may even stay with some Bulgarian cattlemen for the night.

The last section, Kom Peak, isn't as awful as you would think. You've already climbed the two highest peaks in the Balkans, not to mention the scores of other peaks as well. By the time you get to Kom your legs will be ready. The only thing stopping you from reaching the top is bad weather. If that's not the case, you can make the climb fairly easily. After Kom, it's all downhill from there. Before you know it, you'll be sipping on a beer (or rakia, if you want to be truly Balkan) at one of the two mountain huts in no time. From there you just need to make your way to the nearest town Berkovitsa, and then you're on your way home.

 The winter poles act as a useful guide for the trail.

The winter poles act as a useful guide for the trail.

All in all, the second part of the Emine-Kom trail was my favorite section. Less confusion, less trash, and more hikers to chat with. After finishing the trail I now understand why tradition has you traveling from Kom to Emine. After making your descent from Kom, you get a few days to build up your legs, then you have to go full force in order to complete the next ten days.

They will be some of the most intense ten days of hiking you may ever do, but once they're over, you abandon the intensely physical section and move on to the intensely mental portion of the trail. The mountains become smaller, and days roll by one after another. After the Central Balkans, you're essentially over-prepared for the rest of the hike.

This isn't the case when you're traveling West. The Eastern section is by no means an easy section to hike, but it isn't awful. You learn to get used to going up, then down, then up again, but the hills don't become smaller. Instead, they only get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. The sections become more stunning, but with the beauty comes the pain. 

Granted, this is all my personal opinion. I'm sure there are people who would argue that going East is much more difficult than going West, but in the end it's all the same. You'll hike over 440 miles of mountains and ridges, and this isn't an easy task to do regardless of which direction you choose to hike.

All in all, the trek from Emine to Kom is going to be one of the highlights of my E3 hike, and I'm a little sad to say goodbye to it. Then again, I'm also stoked to know that I've already completed the most strenuous section of the E3 long distance trail. From here on out it's going to be the mental grind that I'm going to have to deal with. After Serbia and Romania, of course.

Now, just as I did in the last post, the next section is notes and stories from the journal.

Journal Entries June 9th - June 27th

June 9-13

After spending the night in a tent outside of the Buzludzha mountain hut, I made my way to the next hut Usana. I had anticipated an eight hour walk, but was surprised to have finished my hike for the day in less than five. The owner, an older Bulgarian with snowy white hair, a pierced ear, and the tanned skin of a fifty year smoking habit, greeted me at the front of the hut, and immediately opened me a beer.

From that point on we chatted in simplified English over beer and sunflower seeds. I've learned that the Bulgarians find chewing on sunflower seeds to be a disgusting and bizarre habit, so I did my best to follow their custom, which is to open each seed by hand, then suck out the delicious nut in the middle. 

 Botev from a distance.

Botev from a distance.

I had a great time at Usana. The owner cooked me up some tasty food, and gave me so much Mastika...too much Mastika. We had some great conversations that night, but if only I could remember what in the hell we were talking about. Music? Communism? Old empires that had conquered the world then collapsed?

The next morning, after drinking as much coffee and water as possible in a span of forty minutes, I was off to my next destination. The owner of Usana gave me a beer to take with me, and wished me luck.

The hike that day was very pleasant. Lots of shade to cover my spinning head, a slight uphill to keep the trail from getting boring, and finally: I entered the Central Balkan Park. I was told beforehand that this was the prettiest section of the trail, but good lord. The mountains were just incredible. The air was crisper, there wasn't a single scrap of trash, and everything was quiet save for the wind.

I spent that night at the hut Mazalat and had a chance to meet some other Bulgarian hikers, chat, play cards (get beaten in Chess), and relax. As I've learned, the weekends are packed with hikers and tourists, so the mountain huts began to fill up quickly. 

The next morning I was off to climb Botev, the highest peak in the Balkan mountain range. The weather that morning was perfect for hiking. The sun was shining, there was a good amount of breeze to keep the sweat on my back cool, and only a few clouds in the sky. Unfortunately this was not going to last for long. The farther I walked, the worse the weather became. At the next hut, the one right before Botev, I experienced a downpour of epic proportions. The roads were starting to flood, the trails turned into small rivers, and I still had another five hours to go.

 Soaked legs and soaked boots.

Soaked legs and soaked boots.

After leaving the comfort of the hut, I pushed forward and quickly became soaked with rain and with sweat. I learned from my mistakes after my first encounter with the rain, so this time I made sure to zip up my hard shell jacket all the way. I was unable to put my rain pants on in time, so I ended up enjoying a free, all natural, laundromat service courtesy of Mama Nature. 

Right before the hut, I had my first taste of misery. The several storms that were going on soon engulfed me, leaving me in a maze of fog. The storm decided that disorienting me wasn't nearly enough of a challenge, so it soon mixed in frozen rain and powerful gusts of wind just to see whether or not I was worthy of hiking to Botev. I fought the storm for twenty minutes, all the while slowly climbing uphill.

At the top of the first mound I was finally able to escape the storm. The sun was shining at the top, but I was shivering cold. There is one benefit to being soaked by small ice pellets and the like: your body temperature drops so fast that you feel more uncomfortable standing still rather than moving. So, I continued my shuffle upwards.

An hour later, I was finally at the top. I posted a video to Facebook and captured the swell of emotions that I felt that day, and I believe the video did it justice. I'm wet, cold, exhausted, but also filled with adrenaline from the rush of climbing the highest peak in the E3.

 Camaraderie at the top of Botev.

Camaraderie at the top of Botev.

That night I found a small hut. It was supposed to only fit fifteen people, but we managed to cram in over thirty. It was a close and cozy night indeed.

The next morning was more sunshine, but I did not receive any great news. The weather was supposed to become extremely turbulent later that afternoon, and my original trail was going to be nine hours of climbing peaks and ridges. Every person I talked to told me that I wouldn't be able to make it to the next hut. There was just no way.

Disappointed, I began looking at my options. I soon found out that there were actually two routes to the next hut. One, the harder route, would have me climb and descend six peaks, all of which were over 5500 feet, with one of them requiring the use of metal ropes for both the ascent and the descent. The thought of fighting wind and rain while actively trying not to slip and fall off of a mountain did not sound appealing.

Lucky for me, the second route was the alternative Kom-Emine trail that was used specifically for when the weather turned into madness. The second trail would have me go just below the top of the ridge, thereby having both tree coverage as well as enough space to fall over if the wind happen to knock me over.

 Music in the Botev Hut.

Music in the Botev Hut.

So I powered through the second alternative. The storm came, it hit, but at least there wasn't a flurry of ice bbs. Around seven hours later, I finally made it to the hut. No one spoke English, but one gent was fluent in Spanish. I was able to get my points across, purchase a warm meal, and change out of my (once again) soaked clothes.

At this point in the trip I saw that I had nearly run out of cash on hand. Because plastic is still unpopular in the majority of Bulgaria, I had to find some kind of ATM in order to purchase food and pay for shelter. The next hut, Dermenka, was run by a very unpleasant man. Every question I asked was met with either a "nye" or "da". Even if I asked questions that begged for an answer longer than one word, the response was generally a shrug and a look that said: "Could you stop bothering me? I'm trying to smoke a cigarette here."

After several hours of talking to a wall, I decided to move on from the hut and to try and make my way to a town with an ATM. This didn't work out very well. The mountain storms weren't done with me yet, so I spent the next several hours in more frozen rain. At one point I was literally trying to outrun a storm. This worked out as well as you can guess. I was swallowed by clouds, chewed up by the rain, saw lightning strike within half of a mile of me (it was a great time to be on a peak carrying two metal trekking poles), and was then spat out, shivering with cold and adrenaline.

At this point I had been walking with soaked boots, soaked pants, and had water pouring down my face for three days. I could feel the flesh of my feet slowly dissolving, and every time I scratched an itch on the pads of my feet, a tiny piece of flesh would peel off. I officially had trench foot, and it would be several days before I could walk normally.

 Trench foot is never a fun time.

Trench foot is never a fun time.

I eventually made it to a major road and was picked up by a van filled with a large Roma family. They were kind enough to drive me to an ATM and even helped me find a hotel. Unfortunately there weren't any pharmacies open when I arrived, so the only aid I could give my feet was a warm, and painful, soak. I spent next few days lying down in order to avoid standing on my feet, reading Ulysses and Thus Spake Zarathustra, writing a short legend for a winery, and engorging myself on as much food as possible. I wasn't happy to be away from the trail for several days, but my feet needed the help.

June 17th - June 27th

My immersion foot had finally begun to subside, and I was antsy to get the hell out my hotel room. A day or two of r&r is nice, but after that, your brain starts buzzing with thoughts and anxieties. The trail has started to ruin me for I now need the peace of solitude. I live for becoming lost in my mind where the rhythm of my footsteps is my one reminder of reality. So as soon as my feet would allow me to walk and stand for periods of  two hours, I was out the door and back on the trail.

Walking again felt like going back to an old lover that you lost years ago. The path was worn but welcoming, the weather smiled on me, and I was back in my Zen mode. Lord, hiking by yourself is a wonderful thing, I can't recommend it enough.

That evening I managed to run into multiple groups of hikers (it was the weekend, after all). Three of the hikers, Vladimir, Alexander and Kaloyan, were all twenty-something year olds who loved the serenity of the Balkan mountains. We got to chatting, and soon I found a hiking group for the next day and a half. We climbed peaks, got burnt in the sun, shared stories and jokes, and all in all, enjoyed the company of each other. 

 Vladimir, myself, Alexander and Kaloyan before we went our separate ways.

Vladimir, myself, Alexander and Kaloyan before we went our separate ways.

I know that I personally prefer to walk solo, but having company with some likeminded individuals is a great experience. Throughout all of the difficulties and pleasures of the trail, climbing peaks and seeing the views with these three gentlemen was one of the highlights of my trip for I finally had someone to share my experience with. I love what I've done, and I'm very proud of what I've accomplished so far, but I do wish that I could say: "hey man, you remember that time when we (insert story here)?" For the 1.5 days of walking with the three Bulgarians, I had a chance to say that, and dang, that is a very lovely thing to be able to say.

After saying our goodbyes, I continued my hike. That day I had to go up and down around six peaks, all in the thick fog. It wasn't horrible, but I was relieved to make the final descent for the day and finally be able to see the damn trail.

The next hut was closed, but, lucky for me, a group of two families were walking by the hut. They were finishing up a weekend barbecue and were about to pack up their things in order to get back to their regular lives. They knew the manager of the hut, so they were able to call him up and found me the key.

 Having to shoo away the horses from the hut.

Having to shoo away the horses from the hut.

This party was a group of incredibly friendly people. They drove me down into town to stock up on supplies, they stuffed me full of food, and they gave me the warmth of family and friendship. I have been so very blessed on this adventure. My old nihilistic self has dissolved into a puddle of ether and chamomile. Sometimes humanity is just overwhelmingly kind, and it is the perfect remedy for the cynicism and pain of depression.

The next morning I had to leave some food behind. My pack was so heavy that I couldn't walk more than half a mile before saying "Ok, that's it, no more jars of jelly." After taking the burdensome weight off, I was free to walk. At the top of the first ridge I encountered the worst winds yet. I can't say that I know how fast these winds were going, but I do know that they were strong enough to knock me down several times, and that my hiking pace dropped from 3.45 MPH to 1.2. Several hours later, I finally managed to get down from the ridge. I then powered through the heat and arrived at the hut Chavdar.

Ivo, the manager of the hut Chavdar, is an interesting and odd man. Several days have gone by since I left his hut, and I'm still uncertain as to how I feel about the him. When I first arrived, Ivo was a little shy and conscientious about his English. We chatted all night, drank rakia, enjoyed some of his fine cooking, and I soon found out that he wasn't going to be charging me anything for my stay. Turns out Ivo is a huge Couchsurfer and has hosted hundreds of people at his mountain hut. I guess he just takes the salary from the government, hosts whoever he likes, then escapes Bulgaria to go traveling for several months a year. Not a bad life by ant means. 

While Ivo is a generous individual, he is an opinionated man with lots to say and little time to listen. You don't really have conversations with Ivo, Ivo has a conversation with you. Sometimes it can be entertaining, other times it can become maddening. Especially when he seemingly asks you a question, but never gives you a chance to give a proper response to what he's asked. I noticed this the first night and made plans to leave the next morning. But, because Ivo was very insistent, I ended up staying for another two nights. 

The next day a young Turk named Furkan was going to be joining us. We went down to the village to find him, bought some beer and some snacks, then went back to the mountain hut via the greatest homemade off-road vehicle that I've ever seen: Mountain Muncher (not her real name, but I think it's appropriate). The back is sawed off, two cushioned chairs are drilled into some plywood, all of the electronics and gauges were finagled together in some giant mess, and the thing bumped like a bronco.

 The mighty Mountain Muncher.

The mighty Mountain Muncher.

That evening we repeated the night before. We chatted, we drank, I got my butt handed to me while playing backgammon with Furkan (I have been having just bloody awful games since I've arrived in Europe), and all in all had a grand time. Ivo was pleasant that evening, and I had a chance to learn more about Bulgarian art, culture and music. Ivo is a knowledgeable fellow, but he is very particular.

After waking up the next morning, I realized that I had to leave for the trail. I needed to be alone, and I wanted to get to Serbia as soon as possible. Ivo wouldn't have it. "Come one, stay one night. You no go. You won't leave today. You stay for, one, maybe five more days." Furkan was also insistent that I not leave. After the twenty minutes of pleading, I relented and decided to stay just one more night. Only one more night.

That day I had finally had had enough of Ivo. His conversations were becoming stale, his opinions were starting to repeat, and time just dragged on. I eventually just ignored whatever he had to say in favor of soaking in the sunshine.

Oddly enough, a young couple walked up to the hut. The girl was very pretty, and the fellow was wearing a shirt that said West Point. I asked him about the shirt, and it turns out he's a recent graduate who is about to do his ten years of service. He's a Bulgarian who managed to get in to the Academy, so we chatted about the program, America, the military and the like. The couple were very kind, and I hope that they're doing well. At this point Ivo was displeased that we were chatting about a subject he knew nothing about, so he interrupted my conversation with the couple and would only speak in Bulgarian. I suppose he doesn't like to not be the center of the conversation. Ah well. So it goes.

 Furkan and myself holding on for dear life as we ride back to Chavdar.

Furkan and myself holding on for dear life as we ride back to Chavdar.

All in all I enjoyed my time in Chavdar, and I only felt irked by the end of my stay. Being on the trail has provided me with a very elusive form of insight, for it seems like I only learn the lessons about myself days after I could have used them. Because of my situation in Chavdar, I've grown tired of people who sap my energy and do little to provide me with more. My tolerance for what I find to be irksome is slowly waning, and I plan to become much more honest about what I'm feeling rather than politely nod my head when I'm frustrated from the doldrums of ignorance. We'll see how and when I'll put these skills to practice, but that's it. I'm done with nodding my head when I really want to say "no".

I left that next morning as early as I could. I drank my coffee, made my goodbyes, and was off. The three nights of rest had done my body good, for I was flying past the markers, making excellent time, and I felt as though I still had energy to hike all night if I so wanted to. Of course my body would eventually protest and force me to rest by overstimulating my mind with physical pain, but it was all good.

My plan for that evening was to walk past Murgash peak, a very steep peak with a brutal trail. Before I managed to get to the peak, I ran into a small, hastily made hut in the middle of a sea of cows. I saw that there were three gents inside the hut, and I walked over to see if I could find a water well in the area.

They didn't speak a word of English, but they understood me when I mentioned "voda". Rather than point me in the direction of water, they instead took off my pack, sat me down at their table, poured me a cup of water and a cup of yogurt-cucumber soup (tarator, as it's known in Bulgaria), then indicated that I was going to be staying the night there in the house. I was overwhelmed. That entire night I used a translator to converse. I learned more about their life, and they learned more about mine. We ate sardines for dinner, drank rakia and water, and spent a significant amount of the time laughing.

 The three very kind cattlemen.

The three very kind cattlemen.

Later than night, two young hikers came strolling in. Turns out someone recommended these Bulgarian cattlemen to them, so they too would spend the night drinking rakia, eating dinner, and all around enjoying themselves. The young hikers, Dinko and Zdravko, are absolutely insane hikers. They were going to try and hike 40 kilometers a day, and their goal was to finish the entire trail in 20 days. I gave them my advice, shared my experience, and they did the same for me. They told me where to go, what to avoid, and all in all gave solid advice.

The next morning we all parted ways. Dinko gave me a can of mace for the animals, and Zdravko gave me a beaded crucifix from a Bulgarian monastery. "It's for strength" he said. "Whenever you think you can't do it, give the crucifix a kiss, and you'll be fine." I'm not a religious man, but I am becoming a superstitious one. Since I've started carrying this crucifix, I've noticed that I have more confidence in my abilities than ever before.

It's strange what symbolism does to the mind. Why, of all things, do symbols constitute such an important part of our lives? We can point back to the first cave paintings as well as the first sculptures and figurines that were made. Homo Sapiens obviously need symbolism in their lives, and I can't help but wonder why. I suppose this is something else I'll have to ponder while on the trail.

I continued my walk, lost the trail, went an extra four miles and then had to turn back (the last of which was a mile straight uphill on slate and loose rock). At this point I was exhausted, but I still had six more hours to go. The day was tough. There was a sudden rain storm that soaked my boots, but then the sun returned only to burn my skin and make me sweat.

 Intense winds on the trail.

Intense winds on the trail.

After staying with Ivo, I've learned how to eat only one proper meal a day and still demand my body to walk. Because of this, I had a harder time walking around that day, but in the end my body made the twenty-something miles to the next hut, all on a cup of coffee, a lot of water, a handful of peanuts, and a  few pieces of bread and salami.

The next hut was officially closed, but the front door was open and there were beds inside. I finally had some much needed solitude. I have myself a quick cold water bath, drank as much water as I could, read some Ulysses, then called it a night.

The next morning was a great day of walking. Perfect weather, plenty of time, and the hut that day was going to be something special. The hut Trastena isn't just a hut, it also happens to be a raspberry farm that produces raspberry wine as well as a wine that is 50% raspberry 50% Cabernet. The wine is a little sweet, but lord, it is tasty. I arrived to see around forty people at the hut. Apparently it's a popular place (but hey, what place with wine isn't?), so I had a grand time.

The first couple I met took me in and had me join in on their Dungeons and Dragons game (it was pretty sweet). We chatted, rolled the 20-sided die, then went our separate ways. Later on I began chatting with the group to my left. They all had been coworkers at one time or another and they have a tradition of escaping from the cities to go into the mountains. We chatted about life, my walk, their work, and they eventually had me join their group.

 Raspberry farm at Trastena.

Raspberry farm at Trastena.

All in all Trastena was a grand time. I met some more friendly people, drank my fill on wine, learned a Bulgarian card game with the most confusing method of scoring possible, and slept next to a large dog that snored louder than any human being ever could. It wasn't a great night of sleep, but the wine helped me doze off in between the dog's "ZCHHHCHCHCHHHCHHHHHH".

The hike the next day was one of my prouder moments. I was told that the hike to the next hut was going to be an exhausting six hours, and the hut was not going to be open. I headed out and managed to complete the slow, elongated ascent to Proboinitsa where I met a man with two cows. We didn't understand one another too well, but we managed to have a pleasant conversation. He gave me some fresh milk from his favorite cow Maya, which was a kind gesture, but my American sensibilities still prefer refrigerated milk.

After resting for an hour, I had a decision to make. The time was 17:00, and the next hut, Petrohan was supposedly another six hours away. I was told that walking from Proboinitsa to Kom would be a lengthy hike in of itself, and that I probably wouldn't have time to climb Kom Peak (or the energy) if I left from Proboinitsa. So, I had a choice: continue hiking until late in the evening, or wait until the early morning to make my departure. I chose the former.

The hike was long and painful, but I managed to arrive at Petrohan around 21:00. I had busted my butt to get there, and I was famished. The old man running the place was surprised to see me, and he didn't speak English. Even though there was a language barrier, he still managed to make his political leanings known in the first three minutes of meeting me. "You...America....Terrorist! Boom, boom! Bomb!"

 My favorite shot I took while in the Balkans.

My favorite shot I took while in the Balkans.

At this point I was too exhausted and hungry to question him or challenge him, so, rather than be a proper patriot, I went along. "Da," I said. "Sure. America, terrorist. Russia, terrorist. Syria, terrorist. World, terrorist. Yeah. Food?" During our conversations (if you can call them that) he'd constantly exclaim in excitement "Putin," or "Castro!" He'd then would ramble on in Bulgarian about something or other about the good old days and the like, all the while sipping rakia or water from his Putin coffee mug. He proudly showed off his collection of Putin articles, his posters of Putin and Stalin and repeated, with his hand on his heart, "Putin! My brother!"

Before he would let me take a shower or get a bite to eat, he took me upstairs to his athletic room. It was a large room with bare walls, rectangular and dusty windows that were all tightly controlled, a carpet that was slowly rotting, one exercise bike and his prized possession: a ping pong table. He gave me a paddle and said: "Bulgaria! USA! Bulgaria vs. USA!".

Mind you, this was past 21:00, I had just hiked what I was told would be an impossible hike to do in one day (take that naysayers), and I was starving, exhausted, and smelled positively awful. Yet the old communist demanded a ping pong battle of the East vs. the West, Communism vs. Capitalism, the Proletariat vs. the Bourgeoisie. So, in order to humor the man, I played. I played and I played, and every match the Old Communist would destroy me.

The first score was 4-21, the next, 6-21. We played several more rounds, and each time he would annihilate me with some of the hardest and quickest shots that I'd ever seen. Not that I'm a great ping pong player by any means, but damn. This 73-year-old man was a killer at ping pong. After being dominated for forty-five minutes, the Old Communist chuckled proudly and finally allowed me to go take a shower. 

The next day was my final day on the Kom-Emine trail. I had walked, been injured, taken numerous breaks, met amazing people and slept in a variety of locations. All of this was finally going to be over. Kom was only four hours away from Petrohan. It was so close I could taste it. The hike to Kom went by in what seemed to me like a matter of minutes. Before I knew it, my feet were at a crossroad. Take a left to go to Kom, take a right to go the hut. The weather was starting to become nasty, so I took off my pack, found a safe place to stash it, then started running up the hill to the peak.

 The weather is getting rough, and I'm not even at the top.

The weather is getting rough, and I'm not even at the top.

Relieving yourself of 20 kilos is an amazing sensation. Your ground feels like a pillow, and your legs begin moving at incredibly fast rates with little exhaustion. I began sprinting up to the top, all the while listening to Jay Reatard's singles collection and The Jesus and the Mary Chain. As soon as I made my way to the top of the first hill, I saw the mess that I'd have to get into. The peak was covered in a thick sea of clouds, and it was starting to rain. I had to move fast.

I ran past a group of horses, met some Serbian hikers who had just started the Kom-Emine, chatted for all of ten seconds, then continued my dash to the top. The Serbs warned me that the weather was going to get even worse, so I had to be quick. I eventually made it into the clouds, and the visibility was awful. Each time I hiked up what I thought was the peak, I'd be disappointed to see that I still had more trail to go. This happened about four or five times. Get to the top, give a loud whoop, then curse when I saw that I had to go further. 

Finally, I made it to the top. The rain and wind was picking up, and I couldn't see a thing around me. I was going to take a photo of me at the top, but I knew that there would be no point in taking the photo: you wouldn't be able to see me if I did. So, just a quickly as I clambered up the peak, I went back down. I eventually got back to my pack, and I was off to find the hut.

Several hours later, I arrived at the hut. I was wet, tired, but in very good spirits. The hut was a nice place. They had a menu (something else besides bean soup), and cheap beer. After getting myself a brew, I toasted to the trail, to the people I met while on the trail, and soon called it a night.

 Kom Peak is somewhere in those clouds.

Kom Peak is somewhere in those clouds.