It’s 5:15 pm. You’ve walked twenty-eight kilometres, and you feel every bit of it. There’s a dull, weary pain emanating upwards from the soles of your feet, and, alas, you’ve already eaten your chocolate for the day.
Even though you’d like nothing more than to lie down on the nearest patch of ground – and all ground is comfortable at this point – you’re at an intersection and you have a decision to make. To your right is a five kilometre ascent to a mountain shelter of unknown quality. From there you could summit the mountain of Crnopac tomorrow, before heading back down to the town of Gračac. This is the plan, but there’s thunderstorms forecast (it’s already raining) and Crnopac is too dangerous to climb in bad weather. So instead you could turn left for a five kilometre descent straight into Gračac and the bed that’s waiting for you there.
What do you do?
Today was a connecting day. A thirty kilometer stretch from Sveto brdo to the last real mountain of the Velebit range, Veliki Crnopac. He’s a bit of a loner, this Crnopac; while the other Velebit mountains crowd together in a long, rolling ridge, he stands apart, wearing the jagged limestone crown that makes him so difficult to climb. While the other peaks drop sharply into the flanks of their neighbours, his forested robes descend languidly into the surrounding valley.
It’s this valley that we crossed today, following the thread of a leafy forestry road. It was a day of easy plodding. A day for my feet to walk, while my mind wandered off and did it’s own thing.
Sometimes I worry that I don’t really connect with nature whilst hiking: I’m a bit of head-down cover-ground sort of hiker, and, while I walk, my thoughts are usually far away from the beautiful scenery. This uninhibited daydreaming is actually something I really enjoy about hiking, but it also slightly concerns me: if I don’t commune with nature, don’t appreciate the journey for its own sake, am I even really hiking? Do I even know what hiking is?
I’m not sure.
In the past, I’ve made disparaging comments about those people who hike for ‘the wrong reasons,’ that you’ve got to stop and smell the roses and so on. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that I am one of those people. I often hike simply to get places, to daydream, for exercise, for a sense of achievement or even to make a nice GPS track, but rarely do I hike solely to appreciate the natural beauty of a trail. And even if I am hiking for the purest of motives, I find that I’m usually far too sore, tired, hungry and behind schedule to get the most out of a landscape.
No, to say that hiking is foremost about appreciating nature is to limit the experience of hiking to its most direct interaction. None of these things – dreaming, exercise, adventure – occur in a vacuum, and none would be as rewarding without the accompaniment of the natural world.
So yes, today I spent most of my time thinking about guitar (after seven months I do miss it), rather than the endless rolling meadows, the intriguing abandoned houses, or even the gauntlet of minefields that hugged the track. Sometimes it’s hard to occupy myself with such long periods of time to fill, so I go over one idea – in this case, a world in which I actually finish writing music – over and over. Like looping a fragment of song while you run. It’s kind of on the borderline between being annoyingly stuck in your head, and also actually quite a helpful thing for your brain to focus on. And once I get on to a train of thought, I can happily muse upon the theme more or less indefinitely, our at least until I start getting hungry.
When your body starts to complain, however, your mind gets pulled down into the minutiae of walking. Every step suddenly warrants your attention, and soon your brain is getting tired too. Today I reached that point by around the twenty kilometre mark. By kilometer twenty-eight I was ready to call it a day, to kick off my boots and sleep by the road.
But that, of course, wasn’t a real option. We had to choose: comfortable town, or unknown mountain shelter.
What do you do?
It actually took a fair bit of consideration, but in the end we went up to the sklonište, despite the likelihood that storms would make it a futile gesture. I think it was mostly out of a vague sense of ‘doing the right thing’ – this being the official route – but also due to the possibility that perhaps the forecast would be wrong, and if we went to the town, we’d then miss out on the mountain for no reason.
I think we did the right thing, but did we do it for the right reasons? How much do ‘right reasons’ even matter? I suppose that’s kind of what I’m trying to get at. Right reasons are a flawed ideal. If you’re going to spend a day walking up a hill, you have to do it for reasons that work for you. Or something. I don’t know, it’s all a bit muddled and a daily blog doesn’t give me much time to figure it out. But we’re here now, at the hut, halfway up a mountain, and, despite my groaning legs, I’m happy.
It’s a beautifully made sklonište, with an even more beautiful view. Carved animals and russet red trees dot the perilous limestone cliffs. It’s a dramatic place, and I look forward to hiking through here. Let’s hope it doesn’t storm.
Approximate distance: 34 km