How to Find Joy During a Frigid Journey: Thru-Hiking in Central Europe in Oct-Nov.

Several months have passed, and now it is my pleasure to revisit the memories of the Czech Republic and Poland. Please bear with me as I will do my best to set the stage for my month long journey through the cold and among the colors of the central Europe.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to provide all of the many details and names and the like. During my birthday weekend, I happened to misplace my journal and have lost the details and the names that I had been collecting since my journey began. I was distraught over this personal loss, but I hope that I may relate the tales in a sufficient and entertaining matter. Now, onto the tale. 

The snow is starting...

The snow is starting...

Hiking the E3 in the Czech Republic

On a cold and wet October 5th, I arrived at the Slovakian border to the Czech Republic. I was expecting to see the remnants from the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Instead, I found an empty hotel with a light on inside. My legs managed to carry me into the hotel where I was greeted by two very surprised German Czechs in the parlor.

Upon realizing that I was a prospective guest and not just some vagrant off the side of the road, both of the Czechs began to warm up to me. I've since learned that patronage is always a fine first impression. I asked if a room was available, and soon I was being led to a small room whose most recent renovation was a leaking water boiler from the 70s. There was a subtle draft to the room, but it would do for now.

The rain outside was turning into snow, and the white powder was slowly accumulating. Thank god I was indoors for the night.

The next morning was a blustery day. Both of the Czechs insisted that I stay inside for another evening and wait for the weather to improve. The snow was everywhere at this point, and I was to have my first day of winter hiking...two months before schedule.

At first I was enjoying the change in weather. It was cold, but the amount of effort it took to traverse through the snow managed to keep my body warm. As is to be expected, the higher I hiked the deeper the snow.

Since I was a fool who did not prepare for winter hiking, my socks and boots were soaking up the snow and the sweat like a sponge. As soon as I would stop walking my body would begin to freeze. I would start doing jumping jacks, run in place, stick my hands in my groin and armpits, all just to keep my body from dropping in temperature. Hours went by, and I was frozen. 

Frozen steps.

Frozen steps.

The first 100 kilometers in the Czech Republic weren't my favorite part of the E3. All of the trails and roads were covered in snow and it made navigating an even more frustratingly slow process. If you happened to walk away from the trail you could easily get lost in the woods for hours. With frozen socks and thoughts of frostbite, I pushed myself to keep moving and to keep sweating.

Around the time the sun was setting, I stumbled upon a winter resort that was slowly waking up for the season. There were several hotels and motels scattered along the mountain, but there was only one hotel was was open.

I walked inside and took off my wool gloves. Puddles were forming under my boots, and the holes in my boots were leaking a salty mixture of sweat and snow. The people running the hotel were obviously not thrilled that I was making a mess in their lobby, but they were kind enough to allow me to dry off for an hour. I asked to see where I could possibly find an ATM. The nearest ATM, as it turned out, was in a town about 14 km away, and the sun had already set.

I cursed. I had no koruna, and I couldn't convince myself to try and camp in the snow that night. My walking clothes were now sopping wet which meant that they were going to freeze if I didn't have a chance to dry them off.

One of the girls at the reception heard me cursing and proffered a potential solution. It turns out that she needed to get to the hospital, which meant that I could hitch a ride into town. I gladly accepted.

Soon we were piling into a tiny relic from the 80s. The heater in the "car" wasn't sufficient to defrost the windshield, but our driver tried his best to navigate down the mountain even though we were all essentially suffering from astigmatism. My palms were sweating with anxiety, but at least my fingers were warm.

After what felt like hours, I was dropped off in front of another hotel. As soon as I walked inside, I knew that I couldn't afford the hotel. Apparently, the driver thought I was a dandy of some sorts. I quickly asked where I could find a motel, and the gal at the reception was kind enough to point me in the right direction.

Statues in snow.

The receptionist warned me that I had to walk another "4 km" in order to find anything. I looked outside at the rain, sighed, then got back to walking. Soon enough I managed to find an ATM, retrieve some money and found a cheap room with plenty of hot water.

The next day the weather had improved. After a few hours of drinking coffee and appreciating the wonders of insulation, I hiked back to the hotel on the resort. Several hours later, I was back at the hotel, and much too cold to continue. 

I decided to spend the night at the quiet hotel. I was the only guest at the hotel and enjoyed some incredible service. I think everyone at the hotel was so bored that they began to supply me with free coffee and free beer.

While I was the only guest at the hotel, I was far from alone. There were several hotel employees who oversaw the place, and they were ultimately overseeing me. As I mentioned before, the staff was incredibly considerate to all of my desires and needs, all while I spent the rest of the day writing a blog post and sipping on fine Czech beer.

After several hours of sitting and writing, everyone at the hotel knew of my story. They enjoyed my tales of the journey so much that they were soon bringing out plates of traditional Czech food and strange Czech liquors from around the region. Several of the staff even had me sign autographs.

While I can appreciate the gesture, I felt like I was being given too much kindness. Perhaps it's my own insecurities (okay, it's definitely my own insecurities), but being a "celebrity" feels incredibly awkward.

After writing to the point where my fingers were sore, I spent the rest of the night drinking hard liquor and beer with two of the employees in the billiards room. It turns out that Czechs play with some seriously different rules when it comes to billiards. Unsurprisingly, I ended up having to pay for the rounds after losing several bets. Ah well, I blame their rules.

The next several days were pleasant enough to walk. While I still had to walk through the snow in the mountains, the snow essentially disappeared once I dropped in elevation. It took some time to escape the mountains, but as soon as I was under 1000 meters in elevation, I had made it through the majority of the snow.

The E3 trail is really beautiful...when it isn't covered in snow.

The E3 trail is really beautiful...when it isn't covered in snow.

One memory that sticks out to me is that at one point during the hike I decided to set up camp in a gazebo near to a small town. The police saw me setting up my tent and then proceeded to interrogate me about why I was camping when a normal person would be sleeping indoors. It took some time to explain the situation, but they soon left me alone.

After the officers had left, I got back to setting up my tent. The tent was finished, now all I needed to do was inflate my sleeping pad, then get inside for some sleep. It's at that point that I noticed that my sleeping pad wasn't inflating. After a quick investigation, I discovered that my pad was covered in holes. The culprit? My snapped backpack frame. The metal in the frame had slowly burrowed a hole into my backpack, and the damn thing had been stabbing my sleeping pad for the last several days. 

That night was one of the worst nights of sleep that anyone can experience. I slept on a flat pad that was on top of frozen ground. Like a small rodent, I tried creating a nest to help me fall asleep, but the ground still managed to sap away all of my body heat. At some point in the night, some teenagers were hanging out by the gazebo getting stoned and drunk. I was too tired to be a grumpy old man, and just too damn cold to call out. They had their fun, and I froze.

I was eventually able to repair my sleeping pad when I found shelter at a very kind woman's house, but my repairs didn't last for long. This would become a recurring motif during the rest of my walk.

While the weather was freezing cold, the Czech Republic itself is a great country for hiking. The mountains are high, but the routes are calm. The trees were also exploding with color at this time of the year, even when the leaves were covered in the ice and snow. The E3 did feel a bit more like a road biking trail rather than a hiking trail at times, but the scenery was gorgeous.

Park in Czech Republic

I've also found out that I really enjoy the Czech. Nearly everyone I met in the Czech Republic is laid back, enjoys a fine brew, and are typically curious to talk to a foreigner. I also discovered that the laws regarding narcotics are very relaxed, and marijuana is culturally acceptable. Judging by the sheer number of Czechs supplying me with their own homegrown treats, the CR is well deserving of its +420 area code.

As soon as I had entered the Czech Republic, I reached out to the crazy Czechs that I had met in Romania. As it turns out I was going to be pretty close to their home, and they were more than excited to help me celebrate my birthday. 

The day before I was to meet the Czechs, I took on by far the worst weather of the journey. The weather was gray and below 0. As soon as the rains came, I knew that I was going to have a really difficult day.

I spent the next six hours hiking up in the mountains, and the rain storm turned into a blizzard. The trail had disappeared, and my eyes could barely make out the trail markers on the mountain. My feet were constantly sinking into the snow, and my backpack had never felt so cumbersome.

At some point during the storm, I broke down from frustration and just screamed. Why was I so stupid, why did I think that this was a good idea? Why did I climb up a bloody mountain when it's covered in the snow? I was angry and becoming semi-manic. This mountain was messing with my head, and I couldn't stand it. 

It was as cold as it looks.

It was as cold as it looks.

The problem with snow hiking is that you'll find out you made a mistake in only a matter of hours. My mistake? Not being prepared clothing wise or food wise. Both of which meant that, while I was unleashing my frustration, by body was beginning to freeze. I couldn't afford much time to sit and scream. If I stopped moving my body temperature began to drop, and I had lost sensation in my extremities hours ago.

I eventually was able to find a road and began to follow it, hoping that I could find a chalet and drink some tea. While I was on the road, dozens of excited skiers and winter sports enthusiasts were running past me. It turns out that there was a freak storm in the mountains that weekend, and all of the skiers and snowboarders were rushing to the slopes. I saw hundreds of happy faces and smiles, but I wasn't able to share in their enthusiasm. I managed to find a chalet, and soon I was shivering next to a water heater with a mug of tea in each hand.

The skiers had fully booked the Chalet, so I was forced to continue walking. My trail was going to direct me through even more mountains and snow, but I couldn't justify it. I didn't have the clothes for the snow, and all of my cans of beans were frozen through.

I think the beans were the final straw: I had to leave the mountains. I eventually managed to escape from the snow, and I  found an inn where I spent several hours soaking my feet in hot water. I ended up losing sensation in my feet for the next few days, but I did manage to avoid getting frostbite on my toes.

Trying to find the trail marker became even more difficult at this point.

Trying to find the trail marker became even more difficult at this point.

The next day, three of the crazy Czechs met me on the road in a little car. We embraced and we excited to see each other again. They had rented out a stone house in the middle of the woods, where we spent the next three days smoking cigarettes filled with wacky tobacky, drinking copious amounts of liquor and just being dudes. The spirit of our first meeting was alive and well for a few days.

Looking back, I realize that I needed those days more than anything. Andre, Petre, and Petr were all wonderful hosts who treated me to a fine celebration in the middle of the woods. As I've learned, shared happiness is much more fulfilling than isolated contentment. 

After our weekend of celebration and tom-foolery, it was time to get back to the walk. Andre and Petr brought me to their hometown where I was able to purchase some new gloves and some more socks. Now that I had some proper gear, it was time for me to get back to walking.

Petr and Ondre making potato pancakes.

Petr and Ondre making potato pancakes.

The rest of the walk in the Czech Republic wasn't very pleasant, but it was over soon enough. I decided to avoid the serious mountains at this point (the snow was only getting worse), and two days later, my introduction to the Czech Republic was over.

All in all, it took me little over a week and a half of walking to cross the 200 or so miles in the first section of the Czech Republic. While I did have to break away from the E3 to get around the snow, I did manage to walk a similar distance had I braved the weather. But, after my last experience in the snow, I've accepted that I made the wiser decision.

Soon enough I had crossed the Polish border and was back in the land of my father's ancestors.

The Luck of the Polish

Several days before I entered Poland for the second time, I was surprised to see a Facebook message from a Polish college student named Marcin. Apparently, at some point in the trail, I ran into Marcin and his hiking partner Malwina. My memory was slowly coming back to me. Ah, of course, Marcin!

It turns out that I must have left quite the impression on Marcin. Further on in his message, Marcin mentioned that I would be passing by a free mountain hut during my walk in Poland. I quickly responded to Marcin's message and thanked him for reaching out to me.

Not long after I sent my reply, Marcin sent his response and asked if I would mind if he joined me on the trail. It would be the first hiking company since Bulgaria, so I was all for having a companion for a few days of hiking. I messaged Marcin my arrival date in Poland, and soon enough we rendezvoused on the road leading to a small village.

I had arrived too late to go much further on the trail. The sun was setting and it was time to start planning for shelter. As it turns out, Marcin's family lived in a small village not too far away. We bought our train tickets and were on our way to spending the evening in a charming Polish city.

Marcin's family were as accepting of me as their food was delicious. Warm vegetable soup, cuts of meat, bread, cheese, and more. Marcin's father treated me to a concert by performing in the bathroom (better acoustics there), as well as gifted me with a leather bracelet that he had made himself. All in all, we had a grand night that was followed by some much-needed rest.

The photo just can't do this place justice.

The photo just can't do this place justice.

The next morning Marcin and I returned to the trail. The weather was frigid and gray. Halfway through our walk, we were hit with a huge storm. We were soon drenched and the mountain trails had become small creeks. 

Regardless of the miserable weather conditions, Marcin's company kept my spirit strong. We were constantly swapping stories of adventure and past hikes, laughing about movie references and other jokes, as well as swapping bits of philosophy and life lessons learned. Soon enough we were walking through snow, but we couldn't care less. Marcin took out his flute and played the melody to Lord of the Rings, and all was fine.

After several hours of hiking, we took a break at a small mountain hut and ordered some soup. After our meal, Marcin produced a small cupcake and other Polish desserts. He put a candle in the cupcake and passed it over to me. The man had remembered my birthday. Hot damn, two birthdays in one week? What a lucky dog, I am.

Our celebration was small but appreciated. Soon we went back to the walk. Just as the sun was setting, the clouds managed to break, and the view was glorious. Thousands of trees were slowly shifting from summer to fall. The colors were so intense that it was almost as if I had taken some more DMT. Oh Poland, you're an amazing country.

Marcin, the Polish adventurer.

Marcin, the Polish adventurer.

We managed to make our way to the small hut Marcin had recommended by sun fall, and I was impressed. It was a small shepherd hut that had been abandoned for decades, but all of the local hikers knew its location.

The hut had a ratty stove, an attic, a bedroom, as well as all the supplies one could possibly need for arranging a meal. It was a dingy place whose charm hid in its rustic style. Someone had covered the front door with a rune from the Lord of the Rings mythos. I liked the place, but Christ on a crutch, I was freezing. 

Our first mission was to build a fire on the stove and start warming ourselves as much as possible. We had some rudimentary saws and axes, so we went to work. We made good time with our sawing and hacking away, but all of our wood was absolutely soaked. Once we had a sufficient amount of wood we were ready for finally getting to our fire. Alas, we were to spend the next hour and a half trying to build a bloody fire.

The stove was an antique that had seen some better days. There were holes on the hood of the stove, so we resorted to plugging the holes with pieces of wet cloth and some socks that we had found in a corner.

Starting that fire felt as though we were Sisyphus trying to move a boulder up the hill. As soon as we would have a small fire built, the lack of space in the stove would start building smoke, and our larger pieces of wet tinder would smother each flame. We went through hundreds of matches, several candles and tried every fire structure known to man. 

We soon lost the feeling in our feet, and our hands were getting clumsy. The cold was starting to become miserable, but at least I had Marcin for my company. Oddly enough, a miserable experience soon turns into an absurd and hilarious situation, so long as you have some company. I wouldn't have been able to make it in the hut had it not been for Marcin.

Soon we were at the last of our large matches, and we were getting desperate. Marcin created an abomination of a fire pile and we loaded it with as many matches that we had to spare. Marcin struck a match, then tried to light the fire. It didn't work.

Fall is here.

Fall is here.

Frustrated, Marcin suggested that we may head back to a warmer hut. Staying the night would just be too cold if we couldn't get the stove going. I saw that we had one last large match. I struck the match and took the burning starter to the pile. I saw several match heads in a corner and applied the heat. The match heads ignited, and the pile was soon ablaze. 

We both let out a huge yell, and then spent the rest of the night huddling by the fire. It was still around 6 degrees celsius, but at least it wasn't below freezing. Like our walk and all great things, the evening passed by much too quickly.

Marcin is an incredibly strong and determined individual with a curious mind. His thirst for adventure is going to take him many places in the world, and I look forward to seeing where he goes. I still think about him when I'm freezing cold. I knew I was laughing about the cold then, and his memory helps me chuckle at the cold now.

The next morning was an early start. Marcin had to get back to university, and I needed to keep walking. We shook hands, embraced, wished the other well, then went on our separate ways.

I spent the next several days slowly making my way through the gray and the wet. I had several hours of sunshine here and there, but I learned that October really is the start of winter in central Europe. The majority of the time I wasn't encountering many people on the trails. I did meet a few foragers hunting for mushrooms, but other than that, I was mostly by myself.

Signs from the Polish hiking group PTTK.

Signs from the Polish hiking group PTTK.

My backpack managed to once again stab my sleeping pad, so I did spend a few more nights on the frozen ground. I was not amused and soon started spending more and more days in inns and the like. Frozen ground just isn't one of those things your body gets used to.

Occasionally I would meet an older local who would have an extra room and would be willing to rent it out for the night. These were generally cheap arrangements, and I would occasionally get some type of breakfast in the morning.

Much like my first section in the Czech Republic, the second Polish section flew by. Granted, it wasn't a terribly long distance, and the mountains were much easier than before. Still, the hike itself was beautiful, and it did have its challenges. 

Several days before I finished the Polish section, I managed to do a 40 km hike up several grandiose mountains. I was determined to arrive in the city of Wałbrzych (a word which to this day I still can't pronounce correctly). Sometime around 18:30 I managed to get to the outskirts of town. I was freezing, but my determination was stronger.

As I was walking, I managed to come across a gentleman who was dressed like the many of the hip cats I know back in California. It was the first sight of someone cool in several months, and it felt bizarre being in his presence. 

The hip Pole's name was Bart, and damn was he a legitimately cool guy. Bart is a sound engineer and produces music in Poland, and is well acquainted with all things chic. Bart offered me his couch in his music studio, and I gladly accepted. Unfortunately for me, Bart's wife was a bit more logical and felt a little bizarre having a strange man sleep in the room next to their infant, so I was politely asked to leave.

Bart felt awful about the situation, so, in order to not leave me empty handed, Bart personally drove me into the city to look for a cheap place to sleep. After some hunting, we found a "mountain hut" in the middle of the city park. It was an odd place to see a mountain hut, but I was grateful.

Bart gave me some cash to pay for the night, then made plans to meet me in the morning and show me around the city. True to his word, Bart met me the next day and showed me his city. Wałbrzych isn't the prettiest city in the world, but it does have some impressive sights.

The things you'll find along the trail...

The things you'll find along the trail...

We drove around, chatted about life and its mysteries, ate delicious pierogis, and managed to sneak into the main castle to watch all the inhabitants bustling away, and soon enough it was time to part. Bart had some work to do, and I needed to walk.

Not long after Wałbrzych, I was back in the Czech Republic, and almost halfway finished with my hike.

A Quick Return to the Czechs

I'm not sure what I have ever done to the Czech Republic, but the country's climate really enjoyed torturing me with the cold. Not long after crossing into the country, the weather seemed to keep worsening every day I decided to walk. Frozen rain and hail were not uncommon, especially during the section where I hiked above 1000 meters.

Just after I was shocked by Bart's hip nature, I was surprised when I entered Liberec. Located in the middle of several peaks (Jested being one of the highest), Liberec is young, hip, and full of life. It's not nearly as international or as large as Prague, but Liberec can hold its own.

The town hall in Liberec.

The town hall in Liberec.

Before entering Liberec, I had reached out to a Couchsurfing host named Vojte who seemed like a kindred spirit. He was a walker himself who had a wonderful control of the English language.

When describing himself, Vojte would say something like: "Friendly, approachable, an outgoing introvert, well adjusted, quirky, fussy, routinely inconsistent, enjoy challenging and being challenged." True to his word, Vojte is all of those things. Unfortunately, Vojte wasn't going to come back until the next day, so I needed to find accommodation for a single night.

At this point, it's fair to say that I looked haggard. My walking shirt was full of holes and slowly dissolving, I hadn't had a chance to take a real shower in days, and my beard was an absolute mess. I decided to rest in the main town square in front of the town hall.

After taking off my backpack, I took off my cap to let my hair dry. No less than 30-seconds after I had taken my hat off, an older gentleman threw a few coins into my hat. I looked at the money, then looked at my reflection in a window. Damn. It was time to visit a barber.

With my luck, I happened upon one of the nicest barber shops in the Czech Republic. I was immediately given a snifter of scotch, and the barber was kind enough to wash my hair. Good god, this is what life is all about. After getting trimmed up and beautified, I gave the barber a farewell, then went out to find a cafe with Wifi.

Looking a bit better than I had been.

Looking a bit better than I had been.

I managed to find just what I was looking for, then went on a hunt to find a host or at the very least a cheap motel. Before I was able to pull out my phone, two gents at the bar looked over to me and gave me a thumbs up. 

-That's an amazing beard man.

-Ah thanks, guys. Cheers.

-Would you like a drink?

I looked over, thought, what the hell, then joined them at the bar. The older of the gents introduced himself as the "Maharaj" of Liberec, the other introduced himself as Tomaš. Both of the guys were locals and both were curious to learn more about the foreigner in their midst.

We soon got to chatting, and that meant that we soon got to drinking. Both of the gents were impressed, as were the ladies running the bar/cafe. Before I knew it, the Maharaj had bought me dinner, then handed me the equivalent of $50 in Koruna. Not to be outdone, Tomaš offered me a friend's apartment as a place to stay, as well as plenty of beer. I was set for the evening.

The next day, Tomaš took me out for lunch and a tour of Liberec. Man, the Czechs are just genuinely wonderful people.

After Tomaš took his leave, I was finally able to meet Vojte. It was friendship in only a matter of minutes. We chatted, ate delicious food, spoke in ridiculous French accents, philosophized, and learned more about the world. Vojte is a long distance hiker himself, and I was able to learn much about the mind and the spirit from him.

I was only supposed to stay for one night, but I ended up staying for several days. Occasionally I helped Vojte teach his English class, and I once babysat his daughter Pepinka (the cutest little thing since puppies). By the end of my stay, I was sorry to have to say goodbye. Ah well, so it goes. I do owe Vojte a postcard, but I hope that I'm able to make it back to Liberec to see him and Pepinka again.

The next several days flew by like a dream. The weather wasn't as awful as it had been, and my mind disappeared from reality. Along the way, I managed to meet multiple wonderful folks. Some gifted me with beer, others a meal, sometimes it was just a smile.

I've learned to appreciate such things as being a part of the wonder of life. Human beings don't have to be courteous or kind, but the majority of us are. It seems people just want to have an opportunity to help a stranger.

A Split in the Road

After a few days, I ended up losing the E3. As it turns out, the E3 splits into separate sections. One trail, the more difficult trail, winds through the mountains in the Czech Republic. The second trail takes you through Saxony on the German side of the border.

Seeing how there were tons of snow in the mountains, I decided to choose the second route. Besides, I had been offered a place to stay by my fellow E3 hiker in Leipzig.

Hiking in Saxony.

Hiking in Saxony.

I'm not sure if you remember him, but I did mention him and his brother in another post. The brother who offered me a place to stay is named is Michael, his brother, Christoph. Michael and Christoph happened to be walking the same hiking trail from Bulgaria to Germany. We were put in touch by the Romanian hiking organization, and we had been emailing back and forth for months.

Now I had a chance to explore more of Germany, and I couldn't pass up an opportunity to meet the only two people in the world who happened to walk the same trail as me in 2016. Soon I was taking a bus from Bad Schandau to Dresden where I had a peculiar two nights. After my stay in Dresden (where I happened to pick up a ukulele), I was off to Leipzig.

Christoph and Michael.

Christoph and Michael.

The next several days were some of the best days of the journey. Not only did I get a chance to listen to hang out with some exceptional folks, I had a chance to get a taste for probably the coolest city in Germany. Michael, his girlfriend Tina, and Christoph, were all incredibly helpful and happy to give me the authentic experience. I meant to only stay for a night or two, but, as is usual, for me, I had to stay longer.

I have more thoughts and ideas to say, but that will have to be for another post. Right now, Tina and Michael are making me a cup of coffee (I had to come back to Leipzig). 

Well, that's all for now. Until next time.

Ich liebe Leipzig.

Ich liebe Leipzig.