Greetings dearest reader, I hope that you are doing well, and I am so grateful for your patience. There has been a plethora of life and adventure on the E3 that was filled new challenges that needed to be overcome. I've just recently crossed over from Slovakia into the Czech Republic so Czech one more country off of the list (I couldn't help myself).
The past several days were full of frigid showers but the Czech Republic decided to escalate from the icy rain to wet snow. Perhaps the CR is worried that I'd be bored with its terrain after hiking through the Malá Fatra, and, in order to not disappoint me by being too easy, upped the ante by adding flurries of snow. Well played, Czech Republic. I have since dropped down in elevation, but the temperatures haven't risen. Time to get used to the cold.
So, what have I been up to for the past month? If you've been following me by my satellite tracker, you've already seen that I crossed into Eastern Slovakia over a month ago. If you haven't been following me on the tracker, well, surprise.
I spent a few days getting there, but I eventually got got stuck in Prešov (for reasons I'll get into soon enough). I then made my way north, then cut east while walking along the Slovakian border with Poland. Some hundred kilometers go by, then I made a giant loop and started walking west towards Slovakia. I soon crossed over into Slovakia for the second time, dealt with the brutality and splendor of the Malá Fatra, then I managed to cross over to the Czech Republic where I am now making my way back to Poland.
So, as is per usual in these posts, I'll provide a quick description of the E3 then move on and write from my journal entries. I haven't experimented with any hallucinogenics recently, so there will not be one-sided Q&A like there was in the last post. Enjoy!
The First Part of the E3 in Slovakia
After the doldrums of walking on flat plains of Hungary your spirits are immediately restored when you notice the several mountains and hills waiting for you on the Slovakian border. The Summer heat has ben turning the hills into golden mounds that are decorated with acres upon acres of grape vines. You have now crossed over into the Tokaj wine region of Slovakia where the sweet smells of the vineyard's bloom have matured into the woody, aphrodisiac perfume that makes every oenophile swoon.
The first day of walking is entirely spent on the pavement, but your legs are reminded that the flatlands are over when you begin to start an easy vertical climb. The hills are nothing challenging, but, after spending over a week in Hungary, your legs do experience a minor shock. The surprise of walking uphill soon subsides once you're high enough on the hill to see a real vista. Wineries are scattered throughout the mountains, and every residential building in each of the small villages are covered in grapes. I was even lucky enough to meet two locals who shared some of their homemade wine. It was a simple wine, but lord, it was delicious.
After the first day of walking through hills and on pavement, you're pleasantly surprised to find yourself back on a proper trail. Wide, soft, and oh so welcoming. After miles and miles of pavement and sand your legs are finally treated to the soft buoyancy of real earth. and your ankles will rejoice with each step. Wet with notes of citrus and the sweetness of sap, the smell of the forests becomes intoxicating. Slovakia's nature is a wonderful welcome after the repetitive forests and fields that compose all of Eastern Hungary.
Navigating your way through the E3 in Slovakia requires little to no thought. Every hour or so you'll encounter a sign that designates that yes, you are in fact on the E3, and that sign politely directs you along the right path. Perhaps the Slovakian hiking organizations were worried about hikers getting lost or, just maybe, they wanted to show off that they're more organized than Bulgaria. The trail is always well distinguished from other paths and roads and Every few meters you'll see a much appreciated trail marker. Ah, what a relief it is to not have to constantly monitor the electronic map on a phone. Instead of getting lost in the woods, you get a chance to get lost in the sights and sounds of Nature herself.
The first hundred kilometers in Slovakia takes you through the forests while forcing you to climb several mountains. The views of the hills are as impressive as they are massive leaving you plenty of time to reflect on the world below. After only a few days in the mountains, you'll find yourself making your descent and abandoning the dirt trails for pavement. You are now on your way to arriving at the third largest city in Slovakia, Prešov.
Prešov may have a population of 91,000+, but you never get the feeling that you're in a very large city. The roads and buildings are so spaced out that you almost feel as though you're in an American city. The illusion doesn't last long though—the signs in Slovakian are a dead giveaway.
The city center, filled with Baroque architecture and monuments dedicated to the town's history, is the main hub of sights to see and things to do in Prešov. The rest of the city is composed of wide roads, malls, supermarkets and the remnants from the Communist era: block apartments. The Prešov blocks are a bit more cheerful than the typical block apartments in Eastern Europe. Each block is painted a different and vibrant color. Perhaps the residents were tired of the monotony of granite?
Not long after departing Prešov, the mountains in Čergov gradually become more intense. Soon you'll start climbing five to six peaks per day, all of which take a toll on your legs. They aren't the most challenging mountains on the E3, but the sheer repetition of climbing to descend and descending only to climb is a tiring endeavor. The trail is mostly wooded, meaning that you're protected from the heat of the sun, but there are more than enough open spaces to appreciate the views of the area.
Sooner than later (about two days or so in the mountains) you arrive at the Polish border. Typically you cross the border, give yourself a pat on the back, and feel a sense of completion when you arrive at a border. This isn't the case when arriving at the Polish/Slovakian border. Rather than merely cross the border, you'll be walking along the border for around 100 kilometers, all while traveling east. Your goal? To get to the end of the border to then loop back towards from where you came from. Only this time, you're four kilometers north of the border.
Hiking along the border is not so much a physical challenge as it is a mental challenge. You'll continue the process of climbing and descending while constantly trudging through dense forests. Get used to spending hours to making slow ascensions and the crushing sense of disappointment. By the time you get close to the summit, you'll realize that you won't be able to see a damn thing. The forests are thick, meaning that your only view will of be of more trees. By the third day of staring at trees, your mind will start to turn against you.
This isn't to say that there aren't moments of beauty along the border, there certainly are. They're few and far between and feel completely underwhelming in comparison to what you've previously seen. All in all, walking the border is one of the least exciting parts of the E3, but it's still part of the E3.
The First Part of the E3 in Poland
Now, technically speaking, the border is part of the E3 in Poland. The trail spends so much time switching between the two countries that you're basically walking in Poland while you're walking in Slovakia and vice versa. However, you are closer supplies in Poland rather than Slovakia. You're near Gorlice, a popular tourist destination in Poland and there are plenty of outlets, markets and water fountains. Slovakia wise...well, there isn't a whole lot to find within a fifteen kilometer stretch, so I recommend relying on Poland. There are a plethora of spa towns and small villages where you should be able to find whatever it is you need. Just be sure to withdraw some Zloty; ain't nobody nohow gonna accept dem' der' Euros.
By the third day of the border your mind will start to wonder if you've made any progress on the hike. Everything looks the same and time seems to stall. When you finally arrive at the Dukliansky Memorial, take a sigh of relief. You finally get to hike north and, soon enough, west. The first "town" you'll run into is called Barwinek, but there isn't much to see besides two gas stations and a very busy highway.
The mountains still feel the same as they did when you're walking along the border, but fret not. There are more opportunities to walk through villages, see people, get distracted and feel like you're making actual progress. The mountains do get steeper as well as longer, but your legs get used to the constant stress.
The Polish part of the E3 is composed of several popular Polish trails, but the primary part of the E3 follows the Main Beskid trail. The Main Beskid trail is the longest continuous trail in Poland and it is filled with tourists. The majority of the hikers there are only doing sections of the trail, but you may encounter a few (mostly younger) hikers who were walking the entire 500 kilometers.
I was nearing the end of the season, but I was usually encountering four to ten other hikers who were making their way on the trail. Everyone was going in the opposite direction (well, I should say that I was going the opposite direction), but it was nice to see other people enjoying the outdoors and sharing a few hiking tips. You eventually split away from the Main Beskid trail to then enter the Pieniny National park. It's a smaller national park, but it is very pleasant. The trails are well maintained and the walking isn't too difficult and now you're was back on the proper E3.
Several days later you're close to the end of the first section of the Poland. Now the walk was becomes incredibly touristic. You'll see a splurge of hotels, hundreds of visitors from around Eastern Europe, and fewer and fewer places to camp. This part of Poland is incredibly popular for skiing and other winter sports. With the rise in popularity comes with it the rise of expenses, especially beer. Granted the prices "jumped" from the equivalent of $0.75 to $1.60, but still what tomfoolery.
While at first it may seem confusing to be walking past the hundreds of chalets and hotels, you soon learn why when you see them...the Tatras. Big, bold, and beautiful, these monsters look like something out of a fantasy novel. Their black mass swallows your gaze leaving little room to think of, or pay attention to, anything else. Not since the Central Balkans do you feel so humbled and minuscule in comparison to the raw power of Nature's sublimity.
The grandiosity of the mountains follows you as you walk along the E3, and thank goodness. The tourists and the traffic surrounding Zakopane (the number one spot in Poland for mountaineering and winter sports) and its neighboring resort towns become tiresome, but at least staring at the mountains directs your attention away from the roads and the noise.
Not long after departing the tourism of Zakopane you're back to the peacefulness and serenity of Poland. These hills have a natural vibrancy and the small towns appear picturesque. This region of Poland is a sight to behold, and the stillness—when you find it—is enlivening. You eventually make your way to the border town Chochołów. Chochołów isn't a very big town, but it's famous for having peculiar yet attractive Polish wooden houses. Not long after that, you'll cross the border and you're back in Slovakia where you begin to make your way to Czech Republic.
The Second Part of the E3 in Slovakia
By now your legs have become accustomed to climbing and descending the mountains. It's not necessarily easy, but your mind gets better at ignoring the pains in your calves and maintains a more refined focus on your goal. Just five more mountains...just four more mountains...etc. The end of another country is in sight, and you're willing to push yourself to feel the satisfaction of crossing yet another country.
The first three days of walking take you through even more tourist destinations, but they're not nearly as overwhelming as Zakopane. Here you'll walk through a ski resort and a large lake, which, depending on the season, could be filled with tourists. I was walking through at the end of the season, so I didn't encounter too many people.
The total number of kilometers in the second section is significantly less than the first section, but you'll spend the same amount of time hiking them as you did when you hiked to Poland. The first 60 kilometers are easy, but then you'll meet your biggest adversary. The Malá Fatra, a mountain range in the Western Carpathian, are an intense challenge for any hiker. They are beautiful to stare at, but absolute hell to hike up with a heavy backpack.
The first day you'll make some of the steepest ascents you've had so far on the trail, only to descend in a similar fashion. Thankfully chains are provided on several of the mountains, and you'll need them. Climbing becomes a literal part of the Malá Fatra. These mountains may not be as high as he Central Balkans, but at 1500-1700 meters (5,000-5,500 feet), but there are several of them in a mere 15 kilometers. By the end of the day it's impossible to keep your legs from trembling. Standing becomes painful, so you might as well continue walking until you find a place to sleep.
There are numerous mountain huts in the Malá Fatra, all of which provide a comfortable bed and good company. Drinking with the staff that work there (after everyone else has gone to bed) is commonplace, and you'll be spending most of the night sharing tales of your journeys with new friends that you'll forget that you need to get some sleep.
Spending several days in the Malá Fatra provides you with an amazing training. By having to push your legs to new lengths for hours upon hours, climbing 1000 feet in under a kilometer becomes much easier. The mind knows with certainty that it's done this type of work before, and it doesn't fear having to do it again. After a series of ridges and peaks later, you finally arrive at the Slovakian border to the Czech republic and you can cross off one more country off of the list.
August 28 - September 1, Making my Way from Hungary to Prešov
Spending a night drinking to rambunctious amounts is never conducive to preparing the body for a walk. My body awoke much earlier than my mind, and soon I was off to meet the three Romanians for a cup of coffee. Unfortunately the town woke up much later than we did, so our only option for a coffee was a tobacco shop that happened to have a coffee dispenser. Of course we didn't know that the tobacco shop had a coffee dispenser, but a local was willing to help us once we were desperate enough to ask.
The local, a larger man with a Tony Soprano style of dress (and attitude to match), took us to the shop. Upon entering, Mr. Soprano spoke to the gal behind the counter about coffee. She immediately scowled, and directed us towards the machine. I bought a round of espressos for my new friends while Mr. Soprano looked at me expectingly. I met his gaze, saw that he wanted a cup of coffee, and I relented. He took his drink and left the shop. As soon as he left, the gal behind the counter spoke to us. "Do you know who that man is?" We replied that no, we did not. She responded curtly: "He's a crook. A very, very, bad man."
My compatriots and I left the shop, sipping our coffee and nursing our hangovers. Soon we said our goodbyes, made our well-wishes to one another, and they were off cycling down the narrow roads.
After writing a quick update to all of the folks on my email list and messaging my hosts in Prešov about my expected arrival, I packed my things and left for Slovakia. Crossing the border was most uneventful. Gone are the lines of traffic, and not a border patrol car in sight. The sun was beginning to shine harder than before, and I found myself craving the shade of the Hungarian forests.
The first several kilometers passed by smooth enough. I soon found myself passing through a small "village" of sorts. There was only one street with houses on both sides and all of the homes were decaying. A gentleman noticed me from a distance and called out to me in English. He asked if I'd like some water or coffee to which I replied joyfully, and soon I was imbibing in that glorious of all caffeinated beverages. I shared my story while the gentleman introduced me to his family, all of whom were incredibly polite. They shared their water and their coffee to which all i could do in return was display my gratitude.
I got back to walking while a small group of Roma children trailed behind me. They were mostly screaming random phrases in English, asking for money and asking if I was really an American. At first I responded politely, but I was soon replying curtly after noticing that one of the kids was brandishing a large pair of clippers and who was eying my bag with intense curiosity. I wasn't worried that he would attack me, but I was worried that he might be getting some ideas that would be most unfavorable to me.
Eventually the posse of children grew bored and let me be. I continued my walk, taking note of the families that were outside of their crumbling homes. Children were running naked, barn animals were living as lawn animals, and I couldn't help but reflect on how curious that this, of all the possible existences, is a normal life. My thoughts soon traveled on how curious my childhood was. Of all the possibilities in the world, I was blessed enough to be born into a well-to-do family and grew up among the vines in Sonoma County. These families, out of no power of their own, were born into rural poverty at the base of the Slovakian wine region.
The heat brought me out of my thoughts and back to my body, namely, my feet. My boots had been falling apart for well over a month, but the heat of the pavement was dissolving all of the grip I had left on the bottom of my soles. Finding new boots was going to be a priority, but first I had to find a bank to withdraw some Euros.
Alas, finding an ATM was futile. Apparently I had arrived on the day of a bank holiday, so I would have no luck with withdrawing some much needed cash. No matter, I had enough food to last for the next two days, and I was sure that I would be able to find a village with an ATM.
The day was hot, but the scenery was gorgeous. The sulfur emitting off of the grapes and the scent of the terroir was just as intoxicating as wine, and seeing the numerous wineries that adorned the mountainsides brought me back to the days of living in Sonoma County. It's incredible how just a scent can bring about waves of comfort, even when you're in a foreign land and sweating like a morbidly obese man at an all-you-can-eat buffet that offers a table dedicated to fried desserts.
Along the way I met several kind locals, two of which provided me enough fuel and sustenance for the day. The first, a heavily bearded man with a glorious ponytail, gifted me with several shots of his homemade wine. I made the mistake of sipping the wine rather than gulping it, so he took away my first shot and, after showing me how to properly "sample" his wine, passed a filled glass to me. After the quick tutorial I repeated his process much to his delight.
The second man proffered me several homegrown apples, a fitness bar, and a grandiose speech in Slovakian. I have no idea what he was talking about, but it was an emotional speech that I'm guessing was intended to inspire me. Perhaps he was amazed at my story, or maybe he had been sampling his friend's wine for the past several hours and was merely reciting the poetry of Dionysus. Either way, I felt honored that he felt moved enough to speak, and I continued my walk with wine-stained lips.
By the end of the day my ankles were becoming rigid. After days of walking on pavement the soreness in my feet was steadily increasing, leaving me worried that I was developing another round of shin splints. Not long after I passed by a small outdoor bar that was situated by a pristine lake. I found the barkeeper and inquired as to whether or not I could make camp by the lake. Two couples, each of around 50 years of age, overheard my American tongue butchering their language and spoke to me in English.
They were a happy group on vacation from Prešov. They were so impressed by my travels that each couple purchased me a pint of beer. I found out that yes, I could camp by the lake, and yes, there was a village with an ATM that was close by. After the pints and the good news, I set up camp by the lake and got ready for bed in the hopes of rising early enough to get to the ATM as soon as possible.
I awoke the next morning and felt inspired. Really inspired. I was down to several cans of food, had no money, and knew that I had to get moving so I could get to that damn ATM. I broke camp as fast as I could and made my way towards the mountains.
The first step away from the pavement felt as kind to my feet as a waiter is as kind to a patron asking for the most expensive bottle of wine on the list. The earth was going to take care of me to the best of its possibilities and without any effort on my part. The first steps were slow but steady. Before long I was back to my usual pace.
Days of hiking on flat terrain had spoiled my legs rotten and the hills were unmoved. My calves were distraught that I wasn't willing to give them a break, but I had to get to that village. Several exhausting hours later, I arrived at the village with the ATM.
I asked a few locals about where I could find an ATM and every one of them gave me a confused look while shrugging their shoulders. I checked my translator app, found out that ATM is a purely English word, then asked about where I could find a "bankomat". The responses were now much more useful. I followed their directions and arrived at the only building with a bankomat, the post office.
I saw that there were people inside and pushed on the door. No luck. It was locked from the inside, so gave a hearty rap on the door. Someone finally acknowledged my existence and opened the door. They gave a displeased grunt.
I tried explaining my situation as best as I could. The woman who opened the door stared at me bluntly. "Nie." I asked why not. She pointed to her watch. "14:05. Close at 14:00". I looked at her dumbly. "I need to get money, I need to buy food." Her disinterested gaze spoke legions, and she closed the door.
At this point I was distressed. I went to a park bench and went through my food bag to see what I had left. I had one can of chicken meat, two cans of baked beans, one can of kidney bean, and about 20 peanuts. I looked at my map: I had another seventy kilometers to get to the next Prešov, which was more than doable. I was going to be hungry, but I wasn't going to die from starvation. I set out on my way, determined to get as close as I could to the city.
I broke camp that night at around 21:00 feeling hungry and heavy-hearted. The walk had been exhausting, and I found out that what I had thought would be an area with some space to camp was, in fact, a roadside monument on a very popular highway. The monument was impossible to see at the time of night, but I saw across the highway that there were two soviet tanks parked next to a shack. I hobbled over to the tanks and went looking for any space where I could place a sleeping pad and sleeping bag. The only piece of grass available was right next to one of the tanks, so I set up my sleeping quarters on broken glass and cigarette butts, under the guard of the decommissioned tank and next to the highway filled with screaming cars.
Dinner that night was a meager meal. One can of beans, and eight peanuts. From my estimates I had burned close to 3000 calories that day, now I was eating a mere 400 . I went to bed with my stomach growling and the stench of cigarette butts around me. Sleep, as one would expect, did not come easy.
Later that night, some hooligans drove up and started to party. I was too tired to say or do anything, so I hid in my bag and prayed that they wouldn't notice the cocoon with a read beard hiding in the corner. Lucky for me, they were too busy getting drunk and listening to horrible music to notice me. Unlucky for me, they were busy getting drunk and listening to horrible music.
The next day I woke up beleaguered and exhausted. I slowly ate the remaining twelve peanuts, savoring each one for as long as possible, and cursed myself for not having had the foresight to save either the apples or the fitness bar that the kind Slovakian orator gave me. After my breakfast, I started to walk.
For the next 35 kilometers, food was all I could think about. I began craving just the ideas of food. Pasta with a thick ragù sounded like paradise, or possibly a big thick steak with potatoes. Hell, even lukewarm baby goat head soup sounded appetizing. While I was walking, I noticed that there were several blackberry bushes along the way. I ransacked each bush with a fierce intensity. It didn't matter to me if the berry was rotting, unripe or surrounded by thorns. Anything that was in my grasp, I took.
A full day of hunger pains later, I eventually made my way to my camp. I had been told that there was a newly built shelter with a fancy fireplace and a well with fresh water. There was a well with fresh water at the site, but the shelter was destroyed.
While I was disappointed to see that the shelter was in shambles, there was a silver lining. Inside the ruins of the shelter was a plastic bag, and inside the plastic bag...ten cucumbers! Whoever had been at the shelter last must have forgotten about the cucumbers, leaving me the splendor of sustenance. I screamed a humongous "Thank You" to the Universe, then devoured my snack.
That night I made a large campfire and watched the flames consume all that I had to give it. Several hikers arrived at the campsite. All of them were disappointed that the shelter was destroyed and left to make camp elsewhere. Apparently "it was fine just two days ago" but something happened. Ah well. So it goes.
Not long after the first hikers departed, another friendly hiker approached me and asked me what I was doing at the camp site. I explained my story and he immediately began to laugh. He knew all about the E3. Apparently he met a Norwegian gal who walked on the E3 from Bulgaria to Germany (who then walked off to Norway), and she so happens to be the very same Norwegian gal who helped me learn a little more about the E3. Of all the coincidences, to meet a stranger who happens to know a hiker that I only know of, and to meet in the mountains. Lord this world is a strange place.
After saying our goodbyes, the friendly hiker went off to meet his friend at a peak. As he left, I crawled into my bag and fell asleep next to the fire hoping that a spark wouldn't land on my sleeping bag.
I awoke the next morning and packed up my gear. As I was doing so, the very same friendly hiker emerged from the woods and walked over to me. He offered me a bag of food that he hadn't eaten. I was ecstatic. We once again wished the other well and went our separate ways. While the shelter may have been a disappointment, that campsite did manage to take care of me.
I was back on the trail, this time with a full stomach. All of the weight I had gained in Oradea and Hungary had disappeared, but my legs felt strong enough to carry me onwards. But by the end of the day, my body had little energy to continue onwards. It didn't matter at that point, I had arrived in Prešov.
By arriving in Prešov I mean to say that I technically arrived in the city. I was on the outskirts, and there wasn't anything to see, but there was a glorious 24-hour supermarket. I messaged my hosts about my location and I walked inside the supermarket. When I entered the market I almost yelled with glee. I somehow managed to stifle my yell, but I did let out a very loud hysterical giggle. I had arrived in a place with food, and I had finally found my damn bankomat. Little did I know that I was about to experience something out of a Kafka novel.
Now, I cannot recall if I had mentioned this before, but I had been having troubles with my debit card for the last several months. Several weeks before I had left for Europe I had received an email from my bank stating that they were sending me a new debit card that included a security chip. I was going to be leaving before the card was going to arrive, so I found the nearest branch that could print out a debit card and then promptly left the country.
Unfortunately for me, the branch that printed my new card had printed out a new card with my same account number. Months go by, now I'm in Romania trying to access my savings. As I put the card in the ATM and prepare to withdraw some funds, the card is rejected. I call the bank to inquire as to why my card is being rejected. It turns out that the new card that the bank had sent me via mail had a new account number. Now that I "had" a card with a new account number, the old account number had been closed. However, the bank could send me a new card so long as I could provide them an address. I politely explained that I was living out of a tent in Europe, so sending a new card was going to be incredibly difficult.
After an hour of talking to representatives, the bank was able to come up with a solution. They could temporarily open my old account, but then they would have to close the account as soon as I made a cash withdrawal. They could repeat this process whenever I needed to make a withdrawal, but I would have to call the bank every single time I wanted to use an ATM. Seeing how this was my only option (besides waiting for a card to arrive in the mail), I relented. I've been calling the bank every time I needed to get some cash, all at an international calling rate.
Back to Slovakia. I go through the process of calling the bank and am eventually put on hold. During the thirty minutes of listening to staticky smooth jazz, I was dreaming of all the food that I was going to purchase as soon as I was able. Chips, pizza, a hamburger, hell, I may just buy a tub of ice cream and put myself in a lactose food coma. The smooth jazz went on. Still no response from the representative.
I was eventually taken off of hold. "Uh, sir? Your account has been flagged for fraudulent activity. I'm sorry but your card has been permanently closed." This was not the good news that I was hoping to hear. I began to question them and tried to find some kind of solution. Another thirty minutes later and several representatives later, I was having no luck.
I broke down and started to be that asshole that berates the folks working at the call center. "You realize that I'm in Europe, right? You realize that I've had to call you every, single, time, just to access my funds, right? I've been doing this for months. How the hell can there be proof of fraudulent activity when I've had to go through your security every goddamn time I needed to make a withdrawal? You realize that I haven't had a full meal in days? For God's sake, I've had to eat fucking wild berries for breakfast, and all I want to do is get some money to buy some fucking food. Why are you doing this to me? Why is (insert name of an American Bank here) going to let me starve? Why the hell are you doing this to me?" Hunger and exhaustion do not make for a pleasant Chris Lemanski.
Alas, there was nothing I could do. The bank said their apologies, then hung up. I began scouring the supermarket to see if anyone would accept an American credit card, an American credit card that had not been set up for cash withdrawal (stupid, I know). I eventually found a pizzeria in the supermarket, and the woman behind the counter nodded her head when I asked if she could accept credit. I ordered, ate my first real meal in days, and got ready to pay. As I'm sure you already predicted, she couldn't accept my credit card.
We went back and forth trying to communicate. She was obviously flustered and (understandably) thought that I was a homeless man trying to get a free meal. I tried to explain that I would pay her as soon as I could, but she wouldn't believe me. A man at the bar overheard us and asked what the problem was. After an explanation he offered to pay for my meal, so long as I kept my word and would pay him back. I promised that I would do just that, and he was kind enough to spend the five euro to pay for my pizza.
My hosts messaged me that they had arrived. After messaging my parents about my predicament, I met my hosts outside.
September 1-9 Stuck in Slovakia
Misery is always more manageable when you have great company. My hosts, a wonderful couple named Monika and David, were a wonderful sight to behold. I was lucky enough to have been introduced to them by Piotr. He slept on their couch back when he was hitchhiking through Slovakia, and he couldn't compliment them enough.
Monika, a slender woman with beautiful eyes that remind you of Judy Garland, quickly rattled off in bubbly excitement as soon as we met. David, the quieter half of the couple, remained cheerful with the sweetness and consideration of a saint. Both of them are wonderful folks, and I was so fortunate to have had the chance to enjoy their company.
After explaining my money troubles, Monika offered to host me for the next several days. Monika and David live in an apartment that is owned by Monika's family, and it turns out her parents aren't terribly keen on having strangers sleep over. But, because Monika's parents weren't going to be visiting for the next few days, Monika and David said that I shouldn't have any problems staying for a few nights.
That first night the cozy couple took me out to a trivia night at one of the local pubs. Now, trivia is difficult enough, but having someone try to translate the questions (most of which were Euro-centric) makes trivia an even greater challenge. I struggled for most of the night, but I did have my chance to shine. One section was about famous dogs (Snoopy, Lassie, Toto, etc.), which proved to be confusing for Europeans. While the dog category was a gimme, I finally had my category: America. The useless knowledge of my country finally had a purpose. Third largest city? Done. The national motto? Easy. Which state is this? Texas. I had become a hero to my trivia group, all because I remembered a few facts from grade school.
After talking to my parents, they agreed to sending me the new debit card to Slovakia. Monika was kind enough to let me use her apartment's address, and David was a hero by lending me some money until I could activate my credit card's ability to withdraw some cash. I finally had some cash on hand, now I just had to wait for a week for the card to arrive in the mail.
The next few days were very pleasant. We cooked a meal at home, I learned a little more about Slovakia, and I even had a chance to try Slovakia cuisine (lots of bacon and dumplings). I was taken out to a music festival hosted by the local brewery, and, what was probably the nicest experience I had in Prešov, I was invited to a family dinner courtesy of one of Monika's friends.
Being surrounded by a loving family that was making homemade pizzas warmed my soul. I've been thinking about whether or not I will ever have a family or a spouse (still undecided), but that family presence was overwhelmingly beautiful. The mother and father were kind, the kids (24, 16, 14) were a delight, and man...it felt calming to be around a group of happy individuals.
It's normal to miss your friends and family when you're traveling and I had been missing my family intensely at that point. I missed the late night conversations, I missed sharing a meal where everyone sits at the table and talks, I missed playing board games and cards, and I just missed being in my family. For that one night, I had that special comfort that only a family can provide.
Eventually it came time for me to leave Monika and David's apartment. Monika's parents were coming, and I really couldn't be there. Because I had seen everything that there was to see in Prešov (there really isn't much to see as a tourist), I made plans to go to Košice, another city about 30 kilometers away from Prešov.
I found a cheap hostel and left for Košice. It's a pleasant enough city. More charming than Prešov, and there are also a greater number pubs that offer a wider variety of beers. I didn't have much money to spend, so I generally spent my days walking around, reading, and drinking a few tasty brews. During my stay in Košice,
I was lucky enough to meet several interesting folks. There was the Polish/German gal, an intelligent young woman who had an interest in philosophy and literature (I can't deny it...I swooned), and the two fascinating Brits (Lee and Paris) who were on their way to South America. They were both wanderlusts, and both hilarious chaps. We spent an entire night laughing and drinking beer, trading stories about our travels and our plans. We may have only known each other for one night and a bit of a day, but I sincerely hope to see them again.
Several days passed and I was on the train from Košice returning to Prešov. It was time to finally get my damn debit card. Monika and David welcomed me back into their home, and we had a little celebratory port to wish us all well on our respective journeys.
The next morning I received the letter. When I held the letter in my hand I gave out a war woop. I excitedly tore the envelope apart withdrew the new card. I dialed the number to activate the card, and was given more bad news. "We're sorry, but this card has been reported as lost or stolen." I felt like the kid who opens his Christmas present only to find out that it's a box with a dog turd.
David had to go to work, and I went to a cafe and spent the next hour talking to representatives and my Pop. I didn't have any luck with the representatives, but my Pop was able to go to the local branch in Michigan. Corporate bureaucracy is a bit easier to work with when the representative can't put you on hold.
I received a text to test the card. Lo and behold, it worked! Either my father is a wizard, or the Universe wanted to give me a little bit of help. According to my father, some rep at the branch was inspired by my journeys and felt that the bank should be supporting such adventures rather than be a hindrance to them. To that kind bank rep, I tip my hat off to you.
Armed with a card and a sense of satisfaction, it was time to solve yet another discomfort: my boots. The soles were so worn down that my feet couldn't rest flat on the ground, much less grip the pavement. My ankles were in agony after having walked in them for so long, so I broke down and purchased some new boots. I could tell that my feet were going to be grumpy until these boots were broken in, but I had no choice.
I returned to the apartment, shared my good news with Monika and David, and gavethem a bottle of wine as a gift. They had been so kind and so patient for the last week that some wine seemed like the least that I could do to honor their hospitality. That night I slept like a baby. Finally, I was going to be walking again.
September 10-25 On Leaving Slovakia Only to Return
The next several days of walking (mostly) felt like a blessing. Each day I was back in nature and back to fulfilling what has given my life meaning for the last five months. Of course each day had its challenges, most of which were due to my feet being in pain from my boots. It was a rough introduction, to say the least.
Now, I'm sure that most of you know, boots require time and space to be broken in. They're sturdy beasts and they need time to get to know the shape of your unique feet. Breaking in your boots should be a gentle process. Walking 30 kilometers a day is not a gentle process. Every two hours of walking I would have to peel off my boots, wince or occasionally yell out, then give me feet a rest. They did not want to be in those boots, but I had no other choice. I had to make up for lost time.
After leaving Prešov, I made my way to a Slovakian ski resort. I was originally looking for the chalet that had been recommended to me, but instead of the chalet, I found a little mountain home owned by three Slovakian hunters. I asked if I was near the chalet, then they sat me down, poured me a drink, and I ended up spending the night on a wooden bench. One of the hunters had a guitar and sang most of the night away. I sang and played for a bit, but my fingers were clumsy after growing unaccustomed to strings. Still, the night was a joyful one that was filled with good food and fine company.
The next day was more foot pain and more mountains, but the views made up for stiffness in my feet. After hiking up the highest peak in the area, I met a young man who was hiking through the area. We hiked together for a spell and shared in the beauty of the area.
He was on a three day fast in order to cleanse himself and train his body to "feed" on the Sun's energy. I remembered my days of hunger and shuddered. Why the hell would anyone go hiking while fasting? He was a curious character, but we enjoyed the other's company for the short time that it lasted.
That night I camped near a small village on the Polish border under the stars. Then I heard them the most annoying noise in the world. It was a series of what sounded like the yells of drunken cows. The "moo" was never complete, and it sounded like a distorted melody that a drunk would sing into the gutter. It erupted from every direction. Their yells were painful, forlorn, and, most importantly, absolutely absurd. It sounded as though these beasts were so drunk that they would be secreting white Russians from their teats rather than milk. I didn't sleep well at all that night. All i could hear was "OOHOOOOHOOOOOOOOOOOHHOOOHHH!!!"
As it turns out, these weren't the calls of bodacious bovine, but was instead the mating call of the local deer. I had stumbled into the deer's mating season, and god. It's awful. For two weeks I had to listen to this monstrosity of a noise. The calls began at 21:00 and they wouldn't end until 4:00. Judging from the lengths of time that these deer were yelling, I'm guessing that most of them ended the night unfulfilled, kind of like a lot of the fraternity brothers I went to college with.
I woke up craving coffee, but had to settle for water. It was time to walk the border. Other hikers told me that people generally skip this loop. It's boring, it's tiring, and it forces you to travel east when you should be traveling west. I was considering the possibility of skipping the loop, but, as Monika and David rightfully pointed out, "If you skip that loop, you didn't walk the entire E3." So, begrudgingly, I walked.
I eventually realized that I had had run out of water, and that I didn't have a chance of finding a well along the trail. It was also at this point that I found that I had a family of ticks taking roost in my clothing bag as well as several other ticks crawling over me. So, for the sake of destroying the ticks and filling up my water, I walked towards a Polish spa town, found a place to sleep, found an ATM, and proceeded to check all of my belongings for those blood sucking parasites.
At the little inn I had the pleasure of learning that I am much more Polish than I thought I was. First off, Polish women are incredibly attractive, but, more importantly, pierogis are absolutely delicious. As soon as I tried my first real Polish pierogi, I was in heaven and I couldn't have enough of them. So simple but so...incredible. It was like some part of my genetic code had been awakened, and my body demanded more dumplings.
After waking up I tried putting on my boots. Holy Hell! My feet felt as though they're going through Chinese foot binding. The boots were rigid and my feet were becoming crooked. It took thirty minutes to steady myself and prepare to walk. This was going to be an unpleasant day of walking, and, from what I could tell, it was going to be mindlessly repetitive.
I wasn't wrong. Miles went by, kilometers disappeared, and I was in absolute agony. At one point I had to sit down and just stare at the sky. I loved what I was doing with my life, but at that moment, I really didn't like it. I disliked it intensely, and I couldn't get my mind to think otherwise. I eventually escaped from the mountains to a road and tried to find someone who could help me find some water.
Walking on that road was painful, but I finally had a chance to really see what I was walking through. After being in the forests for the last several days I had forgotten what these mountains look like, but from the valley, they were beautiful. The sun was setting, and I could see every color light up brilliantly as if to remind me that yes, Poland is beautiful. Very beautiful in fact.
I made my way to a large home and asked whether there was any water in the area. The man of the house couldn't understand me and left to go inside. He kept yelling "Ania!" over and over again. I couldn't tell what an "Ania" was, but I was hoping that it would help me find some water.
Suddenly a young woman appeared. She looked at the me and was puzzled as to what I was doing there. Lucky for me, she spoke English and I was able to explain my situation. She quickly showed me a hose for water, and she offered her family's front yard as a place to camp. I was touched, and I accepted her offer.
We spent the night chatting away. I talked about my journeys, she spoke of her life in Poland, her family heritage, and her studies. She brought me a sandwich made of homemade sausage and butter as well as a cup of fresh milk. She was happy to meet an adventurer, and I was happy to finally get out of my head.
Over and over again I kept thanking Ania for her and her family's help. Every time I would thank her she would have the same response: "It's nothing." It might have been nothing for her, but that evening, it was everything.
I left early the next morning and continued trekking through the mountains. Yes, these mountains are dull, and yes, the walk becomes monotonous. But I had a chance to meet a beautiful human being, and I was able to learn a little more about the kindness of being human. Maybe there is something to these Polish hills.
The next few days were repetitive to say the least. I met more kind and wonderful people, ate more pierogis, stayed at a few shelters, swooned for yet another Polish girl (a gal who was hiking the entire Beskids trail), and, of course, walked. I don't mean to say that these days were boring, but it was more and more of the same instances. Every time I met a new person my soul swelled, and I became motivated to walk further.
Each day my feet screamed, and each day I kept walking. I wanted to get this loop over with, and I wasn't going to spend more time than was necessary to get it over with. Soon enough, the loop was over. I was back to heading west, and I was back to my old spirits. Purpose had come back to me and I was so grateful that it had returned.
Sooner than later the weather turned to the worst. Clouds enveloped the mountains, and I was getting soaked. First Poland hid its beauty with the trees, now it was hiding its beauty with the clouds. I couldn't understand why Poland would do this to me, but ah well. That's Mother Nature, right?
While the weather was frigid, the people were wonderful. Many individuals bought me drinks, taught the importance of the word "kurwa", left me with interesting conversations, and make me want to return to Poland for an adventure that doesn't require walking. Ah, to all of those wonderful folks who shared their days with me, I thank you. You made visiting the country of my ancestors an unforgettable and beautiful experience. Your kindness and your warmth will stay with me forever...
Before I knew it, I was back in Slovakia, and I had to say goodbye to Poland (but only for now).
September 25 - October 4 Sickness, Suffering and Success
Before crossing over into Slovakia I made sure to have one last plate of pierogis before I left (I'm addicted to dumplings, I know). Upon entering Slovakia I was feeling a little faint. After having spent a night in a hostel in Zakopane I was sure that I was just exhausted from having had stayed up until the wee hours chatting away with more interesting characters. I made my way across the border to the next border town, Suchá Hora, and found a cheap inn to stay the night.
Suchá Hora is not an impressive village by any means. Upon entering I noticed the series of shops advertising alcohol (about six shops in just the first block for a village of 1,400 people), and that there were many shops had been closed down long ago. While the village isn't going to be featured on a post card anytime soon, it had a place to sleep and a cheap pizzeria, which were the only two things that I craved. One beer and one cheap pizza later, I was content and headed for bed. I got into a proper bed, and worked on falling asleep.
That night I could barely sleep. Every half hour I would awake covered in sweat only to try and fall asleep while going through the throes of the chills. I had picked up a bug in Zakopane, and it wasn't going to let me off easy.
I awoke feeling groggy and weak. I attempted to pick up my backpack, but my attempt was futile. My knees buckled under the weight while I almost fell over. My throat was sore, my head felt as though it was about to explode, and I couldn't stop coughing. I crawled out to the owner of the inn and whispered as to whether or not I could stay another night. He said yes.
My first rest day was dedicated to healing. If I was going to be miserable while awake, well I would just sleep the day away and drink soup during my waking hours. It wasn't a pleasant day, but it passed by soon enough.
The next morning I felt some relief. I wasn't back to my usual health, but I felt like I could still walk. I would experiment and see how I would feel after thirteen kilometers when I would arrive in the next resort town. Unfortunately for me, I wasn't feeling better, so I took another day and a half off and dedicated it to sleeping, watching some Netflix, and drinking tea.
After resting for yet another day, I started moving. I still had to cough and spit and hawk the entire day away, but at least I was walking. I only covered 25 kilometers until I had to admit that I was too exhausted to continue. I found more lodging with more soup, rested, then repeated the process.
Another day later and I was finally at the base of the Malá Fatra. I took a quick glance at my map and winced. It was going to be a long and strenuous day. I found one sign that warned me that to go 18 kilometers was going to take 9 hours. Oof. These mountains were not to be trifled with.
The day was painful, as was expected, but what I wasn't expecting was to see so many hikers on the trail. Apparently there was a bank holiday in the Czech Republic, so hundreds of Czechs flocked to the mountains. All the while I was walking I was meeting more people. A kind couple told me of a mountain chalet that served food, and, after hours of intense hills, I found myself at the chalet.
The chalet was very pleasant. The folks running the place were kind, and all of the guests were in good spirits. I soon got to chatting with a couple, which led to more chatting with another couple. Then there were beers, a shot of hard liquor and a plethora of laughter and good stories. I went to bed feeling rejuvenated after a day of hard walking, and my feet had finally stopped aching from my boots breaking my feet.
After the first day of hiking up the Malá Fatra the rest of the hike became much easier. Mountains that were just as high were taking less of a toll on my body, and my mind was enjoying the experience. I soon found myself at yet another chalet where I tried to figure out a good place to camp.. After asking two gents, Tomas and Jozef, as to where would be a good place to camp, they convinced me to stay at the chalet.
We began by drinking beer, then moved onto Slovakian liquor, then onto wine. At some point Tomas, one of the only people I've met who understood the term SEO, pulled out a Cuban cigar that he had brought with him from the island. It's not often that you get treated to a cuban cigar, so I gladly accepted. Now, I'm not a cigar aficionado, but the legends are true. Cubans taste like what a cigar should taste like. Light, but not flavorless, sweet, but subtle. Tart, but just the right amount. It makes sense as to why Fidel has one in his mouth every minute of the day. They're just that good.
Spending time with Jozef and Tomas was like being with old friends. We were able to laugh, talk politics, share dreams and our passions. At one point Tomas asked me one of the more honest favors that I've been asked this entire trip: "Whatever you do, don't forget this night. Don't let this night fade away. If you can just remember us as people, and not just as a memory, then I'll be happy." I haven't forgotten yet Tomas, and I'm determined to hold onto all of the detail of that beautiful night.
The walk the next morning took a little longer than expected. My mind was faded from the mixing, and my spirits were disheartened when I had to say goodbye to Jozef and Tomas. After separating, I dedicated myself to hiking as hard as I could, which, to be honest, wasn't nearly as hard as I had been walking several months ago. I continued to make my way until I managed to stumble across a pleasant surprise; I had found mountain hut in the mountains that was free for anyone to use.
Apparently these mountain huts are fairly common in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and they are sorely needed in the United States. In this particular hut you had access to water, an outhouse, several kitchen supplies and, best of all, several bunk beds with comfortable mattresses. There were two Czechs who were making their way through Slovakia. They were two kind men, both of pleasant disposition and very friendly. We chatted, shared a meal of couscous mixed with corn and salami, then went to bed in order to rise up early in the morning.
I was only two days away from reaching the border, and my excitement was building. Soon I would be in another country, and soon I was going to be enjoying some amazing Czech Beer. While my excitement for finishing another country was building, Slovakia didn't want me to have an easy exit.
The final ridges of the Malá Fatra were exhausting. Still more intense trails, but they were especially difficult when cold and bitter rains turned the path into a mud slide. Each step required the scouting of rocks, roots, and anything else that might keep my foot in place, otherwise I would slide backwards or, even worse, slide down the mountains. Each kilometer I walked the closer I was to reaching the Czech Republic.
While the mud and rain were intense, I was able to arrive at the Slovakian border "town" (it's just a hotel and a restaurant) Bumbálka. I had reached the Czech Republic, and now it was time to hang my soaked socks over one of the water heaters in the little hotel.
This last month of walking has been one of the more challenging months I've faced since Istanbul. From the intense heat to the cold winds, from getting sick to having to press on through the mountains, Slovakia and Poland have pushed me. After hiking in Bulgaria I had expressed how happy I was to finally be done with the most strenuous part of the hike. Oh, how naive I was then.
The trail never ceases to be a challenge. It may become repetitive or it may become dull, but there lies yet another challenge. The E3 never ceases to push your personal boundaries or your comforts, testing you nonstop for thousands of kilometers.
I've come to realize that, in the end, this trail is not something that exists to be challenged. That is to say, it doesn't exist in order for someone to conquer it. The Trail just is. It will never recognize itself nor will it recognize me. However, it is I who exists in order to be challenged and it is my selfhood that exists in order to be conquered. Or better yet, it is I who exists in order to be challenged.
Never have I been so pushed, been so irked or been so uncomfortable for such periods of time. Yet at the same time, never have I been so happy to be alive. I opened this blog hoping that I would become a more fulfilled or possibly happier person, and I can admit that I've already succeeded. I plan to finish this hike and I'm determined to finish this hike. But I cannot deny that I've already reached my goal.
Human beings...we're a weird bunch, ain't we?