The Indian may not know much, but what he does we would do well to heed.
JOE HAMANN in his book On the Trail of the Wild West
THOUGH IT MAY SEEM I start far afield, little brother, persevere. It is a virtue. Once upon a time, before mighty Indian chief Good Fortune (whose name Spanish missionaries translated centuries ago as Bona Ventura) began speaking to his little brothers – dark-headed Indian boys who would soon be men – he said to them: “Listen and let your hearts be filled with zeal!” Then he was silent. Placing one hand on the head of the nearest boy, he drew a circle with the other in the darkness. A great, enormous circle.
The fire crackled, and the boys sat as still as river minnows. In the darkness surrounding the fire, in the unending circle that stretched out in every direction, they could sense the world. Knowing nothing of it made them yearn for it all the more.
And Good Fortune began. He spoke of grasslands and wild horses that thundered freely across them. And though it was a still night, the boys could hear their distant whinnies. He spoke of lakes and shadows cast by mountain peaks. And though it was a windless night, the breeze that rushed over the crystal waters smelled to the boys of salmon. He spoke of deserts where the sky was a dusty haze. And though it was a chilly night, the boys could feel the white-hot desert sun and taste sand and thirst and freedom in their mouths. He spoke of dark fissures in gleaming chasms so deep there was no telling what lay below. And though it was a dark night, the boys glimpsed a bright-winged eagle soaring high above the cliffs in the sunlight. He spoke of endless lake-filled forests so vast it was beyond their comprehension. And though they sat around the fire, they could feel the silky coats of lynx, and the harsh twigs of bushes, and their feet caught firmly in cold marshes. Such was the power of Good Fortune’s words.
They listened and were filled with zeal. At that moment, the whole world belonged to them, and they yearned for it. But he spoke of more than the world and its lands. He spoke of the games of solitary hunters and pilgrims. The beauty of frosty mornings, the glory of summer’s dog days. The virtues of both full bellies and hunger. Of things that contradict and yet together are beautiful. Birth and death, each as fitting as the other. Of how in Indian lands, all things are good, and even bad things help those who love good to serve good. But here the missionaries transcribing Good Fortune’s words went a bit far; the Indian boys were still too young and eager. Little dark heads! They understood horses and grass, fish and lakes, eagles and treasure, even sand and dust clouds. And after all, why not? All things have their time. When dancing days have passed, other days come.
Good Fortune lives no more. Neither do those he spoke to of the world and its games. But new little heads have since been born. Blond, brown, black. And let us hope that the joy of simple things and clean lands has not faded, and the pilgrim still delights at what he encounters there. When I was as young as those Indian boys, silent as a river minnow, I, too, yearned for distant lands, strange animals, unfamiliar people, anything and everything. Books and travelogues, hundreds of them, they were my Chief Bona Ventura. They told of northern tundras and southern deserts, Mongolian plains and Alaskan mountains. Yet those were lands beyond the boundary of my circle. Back then, my circle was not endless, it was small and wiggly.
It looked like this:
Little could we travel then, and it was certain I would not glimpse taigas, deserts, fjords or dark-haired girls when I yearned for them most. I was left no choice but to set forth into my little circle of unique and winding form. I journeyed not broadly through the infinite circle of the world, but deeply through the little circle of my homeland. Though it was by virtue of necessity, it proved a wonderful circle indeed. Beautiful! I traveled mostly alone. On foot. For nearly a quarter century. Thousands of kilometers. It was a remarkable circle, containing all a little dark head could desire. Great rivers, majestic mountains, waterfalls, icefalls. Traps for lynx, cliffs for eagles – many species of eagles. Salty plains and hot prairies. Soft sands, steppe grasses and grazing horses. Lakes of sturgeon, riparian forests, unbearable swarms of mosquitos, still river bends, teeming with turtles! Mountains as far as the eye could see. The purest, loneliest of lakes. Craggy labyrinths abundant in the unforgettable sweet scents of plants whose names are ever sung in praise. Endless eastern beech forests ruled by black boar. Desolate peat bogs that fill a lonely little head with fear and gloom. Muddy sheer-banked rivers where bee-eaters, most colorful of birds, make their nests. Moose and salmon. Wolves and bears. Wildcats. Native girls singing beneath polonynas in words you cannot understand. When they dance, your fists clench and eyes moisten in gladness. Shepherds in wool coats, the ancient fragrance of sheep pastures. Gales! Wood for a thousand fires and as many solitary nights.
In that winding circle I experienced all I had read about in books of distant lands, all I had so yearned for. I experienced moments that seemed so glorious to me, yet I know there are not many who would even notice them. Hunger, cold, thirst and adventure that many would think nothing of. Fears and joys they would laugh at. I have seen lands whose peace, purity, loneliness and beauty will forever remain etched in my memory. And yet those who walked with me did not even raise their eyes; they just passed them indifferently by. They can go to the devil, it is their loss! They have lost their childlike soul.
Then something began happening to the blessed Slovak land of my youth. At first invisibly. There were ever more restrictions, smells, foreigners, obesity, asphalt. Thirty years ago, I pitched camp in Roháče at the far end of Látané Doliny. I carried in enough food for a month from the town of Zuberec, and during the four weeks I spent in that rainy valley, I saw no one. But today? A waste of words. I hated hiding like an outlaw in mountains I had spent so much time in alone and where I had done no harm to anyone. Like a timid animal, it was time to move on. And so I went east along the Carpathians until I came to Romania! I fell in love with that land as blindly and ridiculously as an old man who, to the laughter of all, falls in love with a young girl. But it gave me back my joy, little brother! I discovered mountains so deserted you do not meet a soul. Mountains of sweet waters and uncharted forests. Where you can play ancient games upon pastures and cliffs tops. I was reminded of how Slovakia, northern Hungarian land, looked so many years ago. For in Transylvania, time still passes lazily by, and gazing from mountain tops at midnight, you see no human lights in the valleys below, just dark forests and endless plains.
And now I’ve come to the important part! For though I lack much, if not all of Good Fortune’s blessed wisdom, I wish to tell you of Romanian mountain ranges and the games that can still be played there.
I have little hope you will listen or be filled with zeal. Yet it is still worth a try, for each continent, land and age has its own little dark heads, its soft sands, its eagles, its freedom and its nocturnal glimmering fires.
I wish to describe to you, little brother, some regions of Romania as if they were fairytale lands, half realistically, half as a child sees them: simply and with a sense of mystery. Briefly in a few short lines. It is not to be the guide you may be accustomed to, the all-encompassing handbook of maps, hotels, dates, color-coded hiking trails, timetables, precise instructions on where to turn or go straight. That is merely excess information. Those books are never necessary and, more often than not, lay waste to fantasy and independence while obliterating all urge to wander and discover. The answer lies elsewhere. The freer you travel, the better. You will try more and experience more!
You should be prepared, however, that you may not find Romania exactly as I did only a short time ago. Times there are changing swiftly too – hurry! But that is as it has always been. Each age has had to redefine nature’s beauty and wildness for itself. As did I. If our long-dead ancestors rose from the dead and encountered the wilderness of Slovakia as I knew it in all her supposed savageness, they would weep for the land that was, for it would appear wretched and miserable to them. In vain would they hunt the European bison. As for me, I hunted no bison for they went extinct long before I was born. I never knew the thunder of their feet. But I miss the solitude of the Roháč valleys, that has vanished in my lifetime. And so it will be with you, little brother! Only the games of solitary pilgrims remain unchanged. I will tell you a few of them for they brought me much joy in my better youthful days!
My opening words are now drawing to a close, and carefully as an Indian, I creep toward your camp fire. I wish to tell you something. To teach you. Yet I know not why. Afraid to cause more harm than good, I have put it off for years. I never thought to change your life, let alone take any interest in it. I only cared for the prairie grasses that run before the wind. The mountain maples that turn to gold, the sandy shores at evening along chill waters. I held all that dearer than you. The solitude of evening fires was most precious to me. I loved games too. Solitary roving games, and wildly joyful forest song that brings you to tears. And now I approach you almost fearfully! Perhaps I come because I sense in your camp both boredom and yearning. Emptiness and weariness, but also good will. Laziness and determination. Envy and eagerness. Come, my velvety little brother, it is better to give than to take! And most importantly, to awaken desire, to open your eyes, to fill you with zeal. A most difficult task. The rest is up to you.
Those last words may have sounded grandiose and delusional, but that is not how I meant them.
Let Good Fortune guide my words!