There is always something special about camping under trees. They give us a sense of protection as night falls around us in an unfamiliar space.
In Montenegro, chestnut trees, some of which were a few hundred years old, also gave me a much-needed sense of calm… at least for a few hours.
Our first day in Montenegro is one we would prefer to forget. It was the day that I walked away from our walk and Lluís.
After several hours hours of walking uphill in intolerable heat with no shade, I called it quits.
This wasn’t a new threat. As I have written before, I quit this walk a 100 times every day when the repetitive pain of carrying a backpack and the monotony of propelling myself forward melts my body and mind.
A few weeks earlier, near Lake Orhid, Macedonia, I had another complete breakdown. On our our rest day, when I should have been in recovery mode, I became overwhelmed with the exertion waiting for me the week ahead, the constant feeling of dehydration that follows me everywhere and concern about having enough money to finish this leg of the journey to Slovenia or Italy. Despite the pretty landscape and handful of nice people we met, I just didn’t want to be doing this any more… this being walking in the summer. I didn’t want to be here in the Balkans, and I didn’t want to be home alone without Lluís, who come hell or high water is set to see this journey through to completion.
This feeling of distress and longing to stop subsided a bit in Albania, when the company of generous people wrapped me up with a sweet blanket of friendship and restored my determination to continue onwards. But, the shadow of this walk hit me again hard on a steep road during our first hours in Montenegro.
There, in the middle of nowhere, with sweat and exhaustion clouding my vision, I quit. I didn’t know where I was going to go, and worried myself with thoughts of how I could afford a few months off during the peak of tourist season, living somewhere that wasn’t home along the Adriatic coast. All I could think of was leaving, so I left.
With frustrated tears rolling down both our faces and a heaviness of leaving each other behind to pursue our individual path for the next few months, I sobbed into Lluís’ neck and told him I would meet him in Croatia in September when the weather was cooler. I walked downhill, and, as much as I didn’t want to, I turned around every few meters to see Lluís standing where Ieft him with a figurative punch in the gut. “I hate seeing you suffer so much, but I can’t make you stay here. Go and be happy,” he said before I left, embracing me with the resignation of not knowing what else to do to comfort me.
Knowing he wouldn’t come after me and not wanting him to give up a dream he wholeheartedly believes in, I cried each step for about two kilometers, wondering why I couldn’t find the peace and persistence he carried with him. Why was I always willing to give up this walk? Why does this walk take more than it gives me? Why does this feeling of being incomplete haunt me each day? Why can’t I savor those precious good moments we always seem to find along the way and let them lead me? Why do I let negativity get the better of me?
I reached a village that had a market and was near the bus stop with buses heading towards the sea. I figured I would go to the sea, and the sea would fix me, as it usually does. It would wash away my emotional hardship and create space where I could float.
I bought a bottle of cold soda from the market, letting the liquid sugar rewire my brain, and chatted with the teenager behind the counter about the hot weather. I sat down under tree and reflected on my consistent inconsistency.
The seaside sounded good as an impulsive retreat but it didn’t solve anything. Everything around this moment felt wrong. I made a commitment years ago to do this walk, and now here I am again quitting in the hardest moments, leaving Lluís to go at this alone (something I am sure he would prefer some moments of the day, especially these weeks during my self-induced feelings of weakness). I bought another bottle of soda, and decided to rejoin Lluís somewhere up the hill.
I walked and, when I heard cars shifting gears on the incline behind me, I hitchhiked, hoping some tourist would pick me on their way to Lake Skader. It took a while, but eventually a nice couple from Germany stopped and gave me a lift in their rental car.
We found Lluís near the top of the long winding shadeless road. To his surprise, I hopped out of the backseat.
“What are you doing here?” Lluís asked.
“I don’t know why I’m here, but I don’t want to leave you,” I said, waving goodbye to the couple as they drove off.
“Are you sure you want to continue?”
“No, I’m not sure, but walking away didn’t feel right,” I said.
We walk hand in a hand to a viewpoint, land in every direction touching a horizon. We keep moving towards the horizon that leads home.
A few hours later, with sunset approaching, we noticed the old trees, a few here, a few there, then more and more of them, twisted in silent reverie on the sides of the road. We would learn the next day that we were walking through one of Europe’s largest chestnut forests, with some trees dating back centuries.
We followed a rocky path off the road, and ended up in a chestnut grove, sitting under trees filled with spiky green balls, protective layers helping the nuts inside mature.
We pitched the tent under one of these amazing trees wishing to replace the sadness of the afternoon with fresh breaths of hope for tomorrow. It’s this kind of calm I want to come with me, to be a companion when I lose my sense of self. In the morning, I hug a few of the trees goodbye and thank them for being there.
I’d like to say the night under the chestnut trees changed my outlook, but it didn’t.
What happened here?
As much as I have been looking forward to the Balkans as a gateway to Europe, this space fills me with sadness that keeps showing up in ways that my eyes can’t process.
For many kilometers, we walk through mostly empty villages and abandoned left-behind places, a pattern that repeats itself for weeks in various countries.
Although we have 2.5+ years experience in finding a safe place to sleep every night (a statistic that still shocks both of us), I can’t shake off the creepiness I usually feel a when we decide to stay in an old building. We find ourselves asking how can so many places in the world be collapsing in ruins. What happened that made these houses and the people who once lived there fall into the decrepit state we find them in?
During our last evening in Montenegro, we ponder this question again.
As more black clouds envelope us, we seek out the protection of an abandoned house. We pitch our tent in the entranceway of what used to be the ground-floor stable.
We move falling-apart chairs and planks of wood and set up the wobbly table for our backpacks. Lluís climbs the overgrown path to the upper level and checks the rooms above us. He found dusty blankets, broken dishes and a mess of other things scattered on the floor and shelves.
“What happened to these people who once lived here?” we mull over as thunder rumbles overhead.
“Maybe they had to leave in a hurry. Maybe they were attacked,” I say, thinking about the consequences of the 1990s civil war that tore Yugoslavia apart.
“Maybe they were killed, or died here,” Lluís adds. It’s a morbid thought, but it is a possibility. It’s something we have asked ourselves silently many times in many places, and something we will wonder many times again as pass through left-behind places.
We fall asleep to light rain tapping the leaves of trees near us, grateful for a makeshift shelter. We surround ourselves with light and hope it outshines whatever darkness left this old house in ruins.
The few people we meet
Unlike other countries, we only had a handful of encounters with kindness in Montenegro. The country has only about 400,000 people, and we picked a route where few people live.
Since many of the villages we passed were far off-road, a kilometer or two uphill or downhill from the road cutting the landscape, we suffered shortages of water. Houses closer to the road were either deserted or locked up weekend houses; we could not access water from the faucets in the garden or pull up the well covers. Shops and cafes were rare surprises, popping up every 20 or so kilometers, if we were lucky.
When we came across the one public well we saw in days near a war memorial in a wide field, we celebrated and downed as much as we could drink, repeating our frequent mantra in between sips, “Please don’t make us sick.”
As we drank our fill, we heard someone shouting at us from the hilltop. “Please come here. Coffee” were the snippets we caught in the wind.
A coffee invitation is always appealing. But, it was getting late and soon we would need to find a campsite. Since I have some Balkan language, I went up the hill not so much for the coffee, but to ask if we could pitch our tent in their garden. We got the thumbs up and Lluís and I returned with the backpacks.
At the top of the hill, in this tiny village with a few houses occupied by a few cousins, we were welcomed in by Dushan, a middle-age man spending a few weeks caring for his elderly mother, Maria.
Like in many places in this region, Turkish coffee and rakija (distilled liquor) were the introductory icebreakers, and ushered in a couple afternoons of easy-going conversation and a couple of nights of easy-going garden camping. We helped milk the cows, swatted flies and spent hours sharing details of our lives.
While we cherish our time in the company of kind people we meet along the way, sometimes we just need to shut out the world and wash our underwear and sew our socks, preferably behind closed doors.
The couple nights a week of rest in pensions, guesthouses or low-cost hotels are as divine to me as the days when a stranger takes us in. I love having a hot shower and a bed to sleep in. And, I love the moments when I can stop thinking about where we will sleep this night and whether or not we’ll be safe.
We lock the door behind us and leave the world behind for a few hours. It will be there tomorrow when we pick up our backpacks again.