Small Steps

The house I’ve lived in with my family for the past two years is spacious and newly renovated. The comforts are numerous, the company good. But in the spring of 2020, the sense of normalcy is nonetheless beginning to crumble after six weeks of total lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. We enjoy walks in the area – thanks to the unusually warm and sunny weather for April – but we’re not allowed to leave our municipality and my youngest son is only four and so his strength must be taken into consideration when we plan our treks. Sometimes I think of going on a more challenging hike; I almost desire it. Maybe the longing comes from the safe place of knowing that there are no mountains in our vicinity and that there is no chance of a repeat of my ordeal from more than twenty-five years ago. It’s the end of April when we decide, at last, for a proper, long hike. We join our neighbours on a walk of about eight kilometres. Especially the children are brimming with excitement after being cooped up for weeks with only their annoying parents.

We’re all grateful to finally have some company. The landscape is lush and beautiful; the creek we discover despite the drought seems almost magical in this arid region. The going is easy, the laughter loud and genuine. When we reach a shady pool, we stop to snack and sip on a glass of wine while the children – too busy to eat – dash around, uncover secret nooks and explore the ruins of old mills which used to dot the valley.  

Already by this point, we’ve walked for over three hours, covering an unknown distance – our smart phones refuse to agree on the exact numbers. But the estimate is around eight kilometres. Wait, wasn’t that supposed to be the whole distance? I worry about my youngest son but he’s showing no signs of fatigue in the company of the older children. I’m reassured as we set off towards home.

The gravel path joins the asphalt road but we leave it soon to take a shortcut through the forest. My son begins to complain about his legs hurting but after we take a short break, he goes on. Painful memories begin to wake in me but I don’t allow them to surface. We’re close to the fifteen-kilometre mark when we stop to drink the last of the wine. It turns out, we drink the last of the water, too. My son skips along happily while my insides begin to churn. We’re nowhere near home yet and we’re left with no water. I try to control the tightening of my chest with slow and careful breathing. I will the chit chat of the others to distract me but with little success.

I think of an old photo I came across recently. On it, I’m wearing blue jogging trousers and a green top. My hair is short, I’m fourteen, and I’m at the top of Slovenia’s tallest mountain, having my backside smacked with a climbing rope as is the tradition on one’s first ascent to Triglav. You can’t see my expression but I was probably delighted and very much relieved at having reached the top. What the photo doesn’t show is that the previous day, I went through hell.

From a very early age, my sister and I joined our parents on their mountain treks, climbing some of the tallest mountains in Slovenia, both in the Julian Alps and in the Karavanke range on the Austrian border. I don’t remember ever being afraid; I was too young for that. I enjoyed the exercise and particularly surviving on sandwiches and chocolate for a week every summer. I didn’t care much for the landscape and the astonishing views from the top. I was too young for that, too.

The summer of 1993, we were set to climb to the top of Triglav, Slovenia’s tallest mountain at an elevation of 2,864 metres. Ascending Triglav has a symbolic meaning for Slovenians. The plan was to drive up the Trenta valley and then climb to the mountain cabin at Dolič at an elevation of 2,151 metres the first day. Early the next day, we would cover the last part of the way to the very top and then descend to the valley.

On that trip, we had the company of two experienced mountaineers. They set the pace from the very beginning. We walked fast. Despite the chilly morning air (it was barely dawn when we set off) we were soon sweating and taking off our anoraks and jumpers. We stopped for short breaks every hour or so and towards midday, we stopped to eat. I was parched and I guzzled down my two small cartons of juice. I felt the liquid sloshing in my empty stomach. My thirst was temporarily appeased. “There’ll be a spring on the path ahead and we’ll fill our bottles,” my father said when there was no water nor juice left.

We walked for several more hours that day. I was becoming slower and slower and I was yelled at for keeping everyone back and for being lazy. But my feet were lead and my muscles wouldn’t move any faster no matter how hard I willed them to. I needed more and more frequent breaks. I was winded after only a few steps. I didn’t sweat any longer. My tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth, throat dry as the rocks all around us. There was no mountain spring to fill our bottles with. Not a drop of water to wet my lips and I was excruciatingly thirsty. I felt my body drying up like prunes. But even prunes are sticky and pliable. I was like baking paper after it comes out of the oven – parched and brittle.

After some of the longest hours of my life, the cabin came into view, at last. But there were still hundreds of metres to cross to get to it. My legs were cramping so badly I couldn’t walk. Every three or four steps, the pain became too much and I would collapse onto the rocky path. I would crawl the next few metres over the boulders until the muscles in my legs loosened and then I would attempt a few more strides. I needed more than half an hour to cross that last bit, a stone’s throw compared to the distance I’d already covered that day. I crawled to the wooden bench outside the cottage groaning from pain and in tears. Most of those, I think, were from the shame I felt for letting everyone down.

I didn’t understand that it wasn’t my fault, that I was severely dehydrated and that if this had happened today, mountain rescue would be called and I would probably spend a night in hospital. I had always been a swift climber, fit and fearless. Naturally, I was disappointed with myself and ashamed that I’d kept everyone back, slowing down our progress by being weak. Perhaps it hurt more because my sister, younger by three years, reached the finish line before me and without trouble.

The physical pain lessened once I drank some water, my muscles were soothed, tears dried up. I usually didn’t slept well in the mountain cottage because of the number of people and all the noises and snoring, but I don’t remember whether I slept that night or not. In any case, we got up before five the next morning. As we got ready for the last leg of the climb outside the cottage, we spotted several comets streak through the night sky. I made my wish and although it had nothing to do with the approaching climb (I still remember what it was), I reached the peak smoothly later that morning. There were no incidents this time and I don’t even remember my muscles aching from the strain of the previous day. My young body recuperated in mere hours. But perhaps my mind needed more time to grasp it all and process it because it was only days, weeks later that the memory of the experience would haunt me. I didn’t go climbing again.

Now, as I watch my son’s short legs persisting even though he’s tripping over branches and tall grass, brambles reaching for him, catching his trousers and t-shirt, I marvel at his resilience; I’m inspired by it. I don’t remember when was the last time I’ve walked such a distance. He, for sure, has never done it before. Yet his short legs march on and his blond head bobs up and down as he tries to catch up with the bigger children. Was this how I was at his age? I don’t know how old I was when I first went climbing with my parents. Older than him, certainly, but by only a few years.

I am grateful when we reach a cemetery. Not because I’d be ready to drop dead, but because one can always find a working tap there and in most places the water is drinkable. I fill my bottle with immense relief and the tiredness washes off me. With water bottles refilled, I could walk for many more kilometres.

The last part of the trek, my husband carries our youngest for short stretches of time on his shoulders. It’s late afternoon when we arrive home, tired but proud of our accomplishment. My four-year-old has walked for almost twenty kilometres. He’s so tired he’s laughing at the silliest things and talking nonsense. He drops into bed that evening without a peep.

Soon after, the anti-coronavirus measures are loosened and the very much needed summer of freedom starts. We meet up with friends we haven’t seen since January because of the lockdown and plan our holidays. We agree it wouldn’t be smart to leave the country and so we decide on Trenta and the astonishingly emerald river Soča.

Camping in Trenta can be chilly even at the height of summer. This year, as most of the warm and sunny weather seems to have been used up in the spring, it’s raining for most of July. Our tent never quite dries, the night-time showers are deafening with raindrops lashing the thin but resistant canvas. Nevertheless, I couldn’t be happier with the sweet, fresh air, lack of tourists, silence, and the splendid nature.

There, we go on an eight-kilometre hike to the source of the Soča river. Tall mountains surround us everywhere. They seem to be calling to me. For the first time in more than two decades, I see beauty instead of obstacles and pain when I look at them. Do I dare?

Later that summer, we meet with our friends again and walk up another valley to the church dedicated to the fallen Austro-Hungarian soldiers during the First World War. My four-year-old complains of being tired and I have to carry him part of the way back, but mostly, he walks in the happy company of his older brother and friends. On both occasions, I make absolutely sure we have enough water with us.

In autumn, for the first time in my life, I buy trekking equipment. A pair of trousers, a backpack, a softshell jacket. However, I don’t invest in a pair of trekking shoes. I’m not that certain yet. Instead, I plan an ascent to the top of a mountain close to my hometown. My first climb since Triglav. It’s less than two hours one way yet I carry four bottles of water. Just to be safe. Although I rarely think of the agony of my climb to Triglav, I was starkly reminded of it on the long hike six months before. I don’t want a repeat.

The morning air is so sharp I feel it all the way to my lungs, almost like a liquid. My running shoes sink into deep mud. It’s as though the ground shifts beneath me. But the higher up we go, the firmer it gets with rocks and gravel replacing the dirt. We pass empty mountain cottages and pastures but we don’t meet a single person. I’ve fallen into a good rhythm and my step is light. The doubts melt away. We don’t talk much; we soak up the loud silence of nature instead.

The landscape here was irrevocably scarred during the First World War. There are kilometres of tunnels drilled into these hills and mountains, some preserved as open-air museums, some crumbling and deserted. It’s not rare to come across an unexploded grenade. We don’t find any of those but in a large cavern dug into sheer rock, there’s an altar built by Austro-Hungarian soldiers. A remnant of a grenade was used as a container for the holy water at the entrance. It’s no wonder a lieutenant called it the mountain of blood and sighs, I think, when I look around at the man-made cave, the conditions – particularly in winter – the soldiers and local fighters lived and fought in more than a hundred years ago. And I get anxious over running out of water on a two-hour ascent. It puts things in perspective.

Only a few paces further on, I’m flooded by another perspective-giving view. That of the beauty of this place we live in. The last of the red rose hips sway brightly in the breeze against the contrasting blue backdrop of the sky. In the valley below, fog swirls over the steep slopes and gorges, but up here, the sky is clear and painfully beautiful. The distant mountain peaks are covered with snow, an image straight from a postcard. The shepherd’s station below us is quiet and still since most of the cattle has already been driven back down to the valley after the long summer.

I feel like an afterthought. We are mayflies. Up here, that becomes abundantly clear. The world is so much bigger than us. But I realise something else, too. Fear makes us grow. On that dreadful climb so long ago when my enfeebled state could’ve led to an injury or even my death, fear was the last thing on my mind. But I’ve become acquainted with fear since then. I fear for my sons like I’ve never feared for anything. I dread things I never even thought about before I had children. Yet, because of this fear, or in spite of it, I’ve developed a special sort of courage. One that I didn’t choose but was forced into the moment I brought a child into this world that can be ugly, scary, overwhelming, tragic, and – sometimes – beautiful. Because of that beauty we hope and dare and try – every time we outgrow the fears, we moult into someone new and braver and we do it on a daily basis.

Although the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic are dreadful and long-lasting, the unexpected events of 2020 offered us a timeout. A period of stagnation, rest, slowing down which allowed us – perhaps forced us – to check in with ourselves and our families. If not for the lockdowns and the subsequent joy when we were at last allowed to leave our homes again, I wouldn’t go on that long trek with my sons. I wouldn’t see just how persistent my youngest is, how strong and fearless. How (un)like me?

It will take many more treks and years for me to be able to answer that question as I watch him grow into himself. As I experience growing alongside him.

About Brigita Orel

Brigita Orel has published short stories, essays and poems in various journals, including in Litro, Two-Thirds North, and Cinnamon Press anthologies. Her picture book The Pirate Tree (Lantana Publishing, 2019) was shortlisted for the Derby Children's Picture Book Award. She lives in Slovenia where she works as a literary translator.

Brigita Orel has published short stories, essays and poems in various journals, including in Litro, Two-Thirds North, and Cinnamon Press anthologies. Her picture book The Pirate Tree (Lantana Publishing, 2019) was shortlisted for the Derby Children's Picture Book Award. She lives in Slovenia where she works as a literary translator.

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