“Have you ever wondered why people become friendlier in the mountains?” I said.
Robert considered the question. “How do you mean?”
“Strangers start to greet you, acknowledge your existence, once you pass a certain point.”
“The wilderness, I suppose.” I said. “They realize anything can happen up here, outside society.”
“Hmm.” He said. “I prefer to look at it as people coming together, co-operating in a harsh environment.”
“Perhaps.” I said.
Adversity is a powerful bonding agent, I thought. Just look at all the relationships cemented through difficult experiences. People drawn closer by collaboration against seemingly insurmountable odds. You get a glimpse through the facade when people are put under pressure. The mask slips away and the truth is revealed, for a moment.
So which was it, I thought. Merely self-preservation, an instinct to try and avoid a Deliverance-style situation out here in the woods? Or a greater state of mind, true altruism. Humans working together to survive the treacherous unknown of nature?
Who knows for sure? Being in the wild tends to inspire this state of mind, however. The further you get from civilization, the greater the instinct.
I was roused from my reverie as two hikers approached from above. “Część.”
“Część.” I replied, with a polite smile.
I turned around to Robert and gave him a knowing glance.
He grinned and shook his head.
We had come to the Tartras range on the Polish-Slovakian border to climb the mountain Wołowiec (known as Volovec in Slovak) at 2,063m. After taking a bus from Krakow to the gateway town of Zakopane, we had taken a final bus to the Chochołowska Valley and hiked to the refuge below the peak.
We left at dawn the next morning. Mist cloaked the valley. Silence, save for the twigs snapping underfoot. We ascended for about an hour, before the sparse shrubland ceded to mist and icicle-encrusted outcrops.
The route to the summit was clearly signposted and sandbags lined the pathway, providing a comfortable hike. It almost felt too easy.
“They thought of everything.” I said. My words were whipped away by a sudden gust of wind, as we reached an exposed crest.
“What?” Robert said. He squinted into the sleet that was now pelting directly into our faces.
I had not see another soul for the entire ascent. Although this was clearly a popular tourist area, the path ahead was deserted. Or it appeared to be. The sleet had developed into a full-blown snowstorm and visibility was reducing quickly. I started to wonder whether there had been a storm warning that we had missed.
When we reached the summit, snow was swirling in from all directions. I crouched behind a rock for shelter.
“So.” I said. “Slovakia is out of the question.”
We had planned to advance to a nearby peak at an even higher altitude in Slovakia, if conditions had been favourable.
Robert became lost in thought for a moment before replying in the affirmative.
As we descended blinded by sleet and the howling wind, I noticed others hikers marching up the slope. This was definitely greeting territory. Perhaps my paranoid take was wrong. It pays to have friends when the shit hits the fan of course.
“Część.” Robert said as they wheezed towards us.
The mist cleared as we descended the long route back to the refuge. Passing many hikers on the way we greeted out way down the slopes. Eventually as we approached the refuge, a group of young women in jeans and trainers passed by.
“Część.” I said.
Nothing. Ignored like a WinZip evaluation notice.
I looked at Robert and raised an eyebrow. “Welcome back to civilization.”
We took the bus back to Krakow and strolled through the Old Town and the Jewish quarter. I had dumped my belongings at the hostel. Robert and his mother were heading home to Gdansk on the sleeper train that night.
As the sun began to set, we ate some zapiekanka from a kiosk, then took refuge from the cold, in a pub’s smoking room, accessed via a secret passage through the back of a wardrobe.
“So how did you find Poland?” Robert’s mother said.
We clinked glasses and downed our shots of cherry vodka.
I shivered. “It was great to spend time in the refuge actually. Just to be in a place where no-one really spoke English.”
I considered what my point was for a second.
“It’s hard to explain. Travel is all about the authentic experience, I guess. It’s become such an everyday thing to travel and be catered to as a tourist, it’s nice to see somewhere more real.”
She nodded and poured another three shots.
After a few more drinks I bade them farewell and trundled back to the hostel.
The scenery had been beautiful in the Tartras. The golden-hour sun glowing through the pine trees framed by snow-capped peaks as the river gurgled by. Just to be in the valleys of the Tartras is an ineffable joy.
My only gripe was the touristification. The Tartras were not majorly touristified compared to many places, but merely highlighted, I suppose, due to my expectations. We are so spolit as modern tourists, now not only demanding to travel and be catered to, but also now demanding an ‘authentic’ experience to boot.
The dilemma, in terms of areas of natural beauty presented by the influx of tourists in the travel boom of the last decade is of course that the people in charge of conservation, must necessarily make alterations to offset the damage caused by increased footfall.
There are no easy answers. Perhaps the dislike of touristification is not merely the grumbling of privileged western travellers, but a deeper rebellion of the human spirit. Authenticity, after all, is important. There is something beautiful about the will to escape the confines of society and strike out into the untameable wilderness.
With these grand thoughts swirling in my mind, I stomped up the stairs of the hostel and joined the bar crawl that was just beginning, mainly populated by British, Australian and American tourists.
“Whiskey and coke, please.” I said to the American barman who was wiping a glass behind the bar.
He poured the drink and took my money.
“Na zdrowie.” I said with a grin.
He shot me a fake smile which dissipated quickly as he returned to his task.