Wonder not at all I have seen on my journeys or at the lands I have visited; for everything I have seen, my horse has seen too, and wherever I’ve gone, my bags have come with me. Wonder instead at all I have learned of exotic lands. Because there is no greater or lasting delight than to keep learn.
An abbé and traveler, XVII century
It was years ago that I sat down to write Carpathian Games for my friends Leopold Kukačka and Vláďa Slouka of Ústí nad Labem. With great devotion, they had just put out the first Czech language guide to the Romanian mountains, for at the time, ranges in more distant lands were difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary pilgrims to visit. I was assigned one mountain range which they asked me to describe as precisely and thoroughly as possible, omitting no signpost, forgetting no bunk bed in any mountain cabin. That approach, you may imagine, went against my very grain. And besides, I probably would not have been up to the task since I had crisscrossed the Carpathians mostly without a map, and never slept in a cabin. It is testimony to the nobleness of their souls, then, that they published four editions (in 1982, 1986, 1988 and 1989) of Carpathian Games at several hundred copies apiece, despite it bearing so little resemblance to their original vision. I am much indebted to them. Carpathian Games, therefore, was not samizdat in the true sense, that would be too strong a word, but neither was it a book printed in normal fashion. Both of my friends risked trouble and sanctions, and for that, I am very grateful. In order for the book to come out as it did, however, I had to adhere to strict, unbendable rules: thirty-two lines of type for each and every mountain range, whether big or small, beautiful or ordinary and a precise length of the manuscript, set to the page. I had just been reading the remarkable writer Nikolai Leskov, and caught myself saying with Alexander of Soligalich that it was precisely the length that should “suffice the devoted servant”.
My friends were also responsible for the book’s graphic design. The first edition was illustrated by Petr Chvojka, the following three by Zdeněk Urban. I merely harvested the undeserved fruits of their labor (for without friends there would be no book), receiving the most wonderful letters from timid, gracious people all across Czechoslovakia. It was due to those letters that I realized the only forgivable reason to write books is to make people better, to help them discover the good in themselves. All else is worthless.
I traveled to Romania every year for twenty-six years – with a few breaks here and there – and spent many months of my life there. On mountaintops, in lowlands, in the Danube delta. Sometimes alone, more often with rover scouts from Liberec who had lost their stomping grounds after scouting was banned in 1970. Together, we discovered the poorest, emptiest corners of Europe, just as Captain Cook in the 18th century discovered the Pacific islands. He was not the first person to set foot in Hawaii, just the first European. For hundreds of years, people of only slightly darker complexion than his own sailors had lived in the South Seas and rejoiced in volcanoes and deep rainforests. Yet he was – just like us – an explorer!
I loved Romania very much, a land where mountain folk and country folk lived modestly, struggling to make an honest living, and youngsters in towns were not rude and rough and did not ruin what others had built. A friendly land where we could freely wander, eat and sleep, and where we learned the truth of the antique philosopher’s words, “Happiness belongs to the self-sufficient.” Before 1989, there were few such lands, and it would be ungrateful to forget that.
Then, with the ease of gods, someone tore down the wall, and the world changed remarkably. One month to another, one week to the next. The Carpathians became deserted. Those who had not been allowed to go anywhere else suddenly, breathlessly, flooded wealthier countries in Europe and North America like happy indigent lemmings. But the time will come again for the Carpathians, for the mountains of Russia and Asia too, and their plains and steppes, because most beautiful of all is to wander through poor and deserted lands that have not yet lost their distinct and ancient appearance.
There is yet another way the world’ changes have ushered in a new era: for the first time since it was written, Carpathian Games was be published – in print! Skauting, Miloš Zapletal and Jaroslav Šťastný’s Liberec based publishing house issued the book twice, once in 1992 and again in 2000, in an edition called Skautské cesty (Scouting Journeys). The new editions contained dozens of old engravings of Romanian mountains I had found by coincidence in a twenty-four volume collection called Die österreichisch-ungarische Monarchie, published in Vienna between 1887 and 1902.
In 2006, Vestri, another Liberec based publisher, graciously published the seventh edition of my manuscript. Thanks to the owner-editor-and-publisher-in-one, Carpathian Games became a book for the first time. Hardbound and with superb graphic design by Miroslav Fulín, it contains gorgeous color photographs that, for the first time, let you experience the captivating Carpathian beauty for yourself. I am ever so grateful.
Ten years have gone by, and Vestri has decided it is time for the eighth edition, this time differing from all previous versions at least as regards graphic design. To illustrate it, the publisher asked our mutual friend, Ludvík Kunc, expert and admirer of Carpathian landscapes, nature and its four-legged dwellers bear, lynx and wolf. His watercolors gave the book a new face, and I am much indebted to him. It was issued in hardback and, per request, in paperback so it could be carried in packs and read around pilgrim fires. The manuscript remains unchanged except for a word added here and another subtracted there – I can add nothing in my old age to the enchantment of my youth. Remaining, too, is the outdated word ‘Czechoslovakia,’ the name of my beautiful birthland, land where I lived most of my life, land that, to my great sorrow, no longer exists.
And one final note. Thirty-five years have passed since Carpathian Games was first written and published. If you read, therefore, of an experience I had thirty or forty years ago, do not forget to add to that number, monstrous and unimaginable as it must seem, the additional third of a century that has passed since!
The old abbé’s words which stand at the head of this chapter – whether he truly lived or not – are wise and true, and there is nothing for it but to keep them. It is wonderful to run over mountains as free and oblivious as a wild horse, drinking from the waters of streams, resting in the grass. But far better is to walk those lands like a knowledgeable abbé, like one who knows. He, too, drinks of fresh mountain waters and falls asleep beneath starry skies, but he also knows things horses do not. How beautiful, little brother, if Carpathian Games helped you discover greater wisdom. It may even come in handy when one day you write your own book of Games. Chances are they will be about a different country in a different time, but write them you should, for every land deserves its own. And as you write, remember the Russian saying, “A land with no poet is a land that has ceased to exist.”
Miloslav Nevrlý, 2017