As a lover of nature and all things symbolic there is nothing more moving to me than a mountain metaphor. The peaks and the valleys of life are the moments in which we experience our highest highs and, naturally, our lowest lows. I am drawn to the mountains for many reasons, one of which being that they are my natural habitat. Growing up in Vermont I grew up accustomed to the embrace of the Green Mountains. As such, I have always felt at home in the protection of a great mountain. And so, whether they are soft and green or jagged and rocky, it’s undeniable that the mountains are where I feel a sense of true belonging.
On this trip to Poland, I had two objectives–culture and nature (mountains), and I am grateful to say that I got everything that I wanted and more.
I just spent the last 3 days in a city called Zakopane, which is nestled away in the Polish Tatra Mountains. The down town itself is kitschy and touristy, but the mountains that surround Zakopane are magnificent and majestic. What’s more, the room I had booked for three nights in a quaint bed and breakfast called Domki Javorina, was a little slice of heaven on earth.
I arrived in Zakopane on Thursday morning with one intention–to get myself as swiftly as possible to the peak of a mountain. I wanted to experience the natural and metaphorical high of climbing into the clouds. And like any outdoor junky feels in the presence of a gorgeous mountain range, I knew that the Tatra’s would give me my fix.
Day one in Zakopane didn’t offer enough time to bus myself to the national park, so I opted to hike up to the top of a nearby ridge recommended by the sweet lady at my B&B. To my disappointment. there were so many strange tourist attractions on the top of this mountain, and it annoyed me that man had conquered this place and put up ridiculous games and restaurants in order to turn a profit. It was a low moment, in which I sincerely hoped that the next day in Tatra Park would rectify.
Thankfully, the next day did not disappoint. The sun was shining with all of its force when I woke up early Friday morning. I set off to find the bus that would take me to the park so I could hike out to Morskie Oko, a well known lakeside vista that the internet instructed me was a must see. After getting 16 different sets of directions to the bus station, I boarded a bus in the direction of Kusiniçe, which I would come to find out later was not at all where I was trying to go. I had a quick and sarcastic, “oh, great” moment, before I confirmed that there were some good trails in the direction I was headed in. And so, equipped with my trail map in hand, I started walking. To where? I had no clue. I just climbed and climbed and climbed following the blue trail markers higher and higher.
Along the way I met a few Polish trekkers and we exchanged some basics. They were astonished that I was from the USA and hiking alone in the Tatras. With a steep 5 miles behind me, I arrived at a large shelter. I asked around about where to head from there, and was told by various people that there was a lake nearby, perhaps another mile away. Again, I got mixed messages about where and how and if it was safe or not. Due to the glorious sun, the avalanche alert was high, and I was slightly under equipped for the snow without trekking poles or my gators, but I thought “what would Drake do?” And decided that he would tell me Y.O.L.O (you only live once). So I decided to heed the MOTTO and risk it in order to see the lake.
I walked along this narrow trail — if you could even call it that — and arrived 45 minutes later to Czarny Slaw Polski or Black Lake as it’s called in English. Ironically, Black Lake was completely covered in white snow, and it took me a second to realize that I had arrived at my destination.
I was almost completely alone, save for one other person, whom I passively cajoled into taking my photo after he watched me struggle with the auto-timer on my Nikon for a good 5 minutes. We chatted briefly, before he returned to his spot, content, like me, to be quiet in the midst of such an awe-inspiring view.
This was the peak that I was striving for, and the funny thing was that at the beginning of the day I had imagined myself fighting against throngs of tourists up to Morskie Oko–an achievable vista for people of all athletic abilities. My original game plan was to go easy on my first day and get my footing. I wanted to cordially get to know the park a bit before I conquered something more challenging. But of course, I never do things the “easy” way. I guess the universe knew what was best for me on this day. After all, I had set an intention that morning to proceed courageously. The Universe knew what I was craving and directed me accordingly.
At the lake I found a nice boulder and climbed up on top of it. I sat with my legs crossed, inhaling and exhaling deeply. I traced the outline of the peaks before me with my eyes, trying to memorize all of their zigs and zags. I knew a photo would never accurately portray the view. As I sat, I meditated on my morning’s intention, and what kept coming up was how far I would travel for something or someone that I love. Sitting alone, deep in the middle of the mountains, on the border of Poland and Slovakia, thousands of miles from home, I confirmed that I would, indeed, move mountains for the ideas that I believe in and the people that I love. In order to do this, though, I realized that can’t protect my heart’s ambitions from the fear of failure or heartbreak. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to be willing to find yourself in the valley, if you ever want to reach the peak.
Walking back down the mountain, I did my favorite 5-4-3-2-1 meditation that a friend taught me on El Camino de Santiago. To do this meditation you must describe, in as much detail as possible, 5 things you see, 5 things you hear and 5 things you feel. Then 4 things, then 3, 2, 1. I love this meditation because it brings you deeply into the present moment, insisting that you experience every detail around and within you. It doesn’t allow you to relive what has happened in the past or invent what will happen in the future.
Just here. Just now. Just the conifer trees whose branches bow from the heavy green needles, or the silvery snow, which is pock-marked from the trekking poles of fellow adventurers, or the sound of a bird’s wings flapping, or the way your muscles tighten and release carrying you up and down the mountain.
As the sun began to set over the mountain, I had to remind myself to proceed slowly down the steep and slippery trail. I didn’t want to get hurt, especially all by myself. So after finding center from my meditation, I allowed myself some music to help me concentrate and to keep the fear/exhilaration of being alone in these bold mountains from overwhelming me. I had already walked some 12 miles and knew that my legs were fatigued and I still had a few more to go. I had to keep it light, physically and mentally.
After stopping in a restaurant for a beer and a face full of pierogies Ruskie, I reached my bed and breakfast, showered off and collapsed into my bed ready to sleep instantly. As I drifted off, I gave thanks for the blue bird day, for the exciting adventure, for the wise lessons mother nature always provides, and for the mountains I moved.