There are three things most beautiful in all the world, and the first of these is scent.


This is a game of kings, little brother – once born without it, you can never learn it, if it is yours from birth, it is yours forever. Sensing an aroma you have not smelled for a quarter-century transports you straight back to the journeys of yesteryear, to the girls of your youth, to wooden shacks long turned to dust, to river banks of old. It is as if you had left them but an hour before. Memory of scent is the clearest, deepest, and most animal of all. Perhaps only useless, passionate people possess it. Compared to scent, our travel diaries, memories, pictures, and collections are blurred and sightless. Concealed beneath our crown, vault of primeval smells, lie tucked away all the perfumes of places we have ever visited, fragrant details we have long forgotten, waiting for the wind to catch them up after decades of dust and sleep. Therefore, sniff to everything, my squeamish little brother. Wrinkle not your nose, complain not of foul odor. All things are fragrant if you wish, even the most odious. Put your nose to anything and take a breath. Your nostrils smart at the scent; it rises up into your head, never again to be forgotten.

That which you grow accustomed to in your youth is ambrosial in old age. Kings should sprinkle all newborns, children, milk, gruel, clothes, and toys with their odor, whatever it may be. They would gain a devoted nation. All the hive would smell as one, all would love their ruler’s scent. Therefore, sniff to everything, little brother. Soon nothing will disgust you, and that is important. World and people will spread out before you as an array of different aromas. It is good that each person has his own smell and unbearable to drown out one’s scent with artificial odors. All Americans smell alike, their toxic aftershaves deprive them of their individuality. An Eskimo kiss is a beautiful thing – man and woman breathe in each other’s smells. How diverse and wonderful the Eskimo scent must be, so deep and full, when they say that all white men – even unwashed hunters and woodsmen – smell of flowers.

Put your nose to everything. How wonderful that each girl has her own bouquet of smells. You will never forget the aroma of her secret places, the milky scent of thousands of fragrant little creatures. There is no greater death than to be repulsed by your lover’s scent. Smell is of utmost importance in marriage too. A thirty-year-old lecture by my zoology professor, Mr. Komárek, still sticks in my mind. The old man warned against marrying a girl whose scent did not please or excite us. Sight is not important. Beauty passes and we cease to notice unseemly things. Hearing, too, is not a decisive factor. We can grow accustomed even to a squawky voice. Touch is deceptive. Love makes what is rough tender. But smell cannot be deceived. What is unpleasant the first night becomes repugnant until death, we never grow used to it.

But enough, I am skating on thin and distant ice. Let us return to our pilgrim games! The game of smells is perfect for when you travel. You can use it to recall bygone lands. Have you forgotten what the Sázava River looked like when you were nine years old? Do you search your memory, vainly trying to conjure up visions of the past? Try letting three earthworms die in a matchbox, then open it two days later. That will do the trick! The unmistakable, heavy aroma (call it that, my squeamish little brother!) will evoke that July day of forty years ago. Suddenly, you remember everything. You wore red trousers, a white bird soared above the river. Willows swayed in the current, a barbel leapt above the water’s surface, a raftsman called in the distance. You were sorry for the earthworms that died, forgotten in the little box. If only their lives had ended in a better death – like at the end of a fishing line. One sniff and you remember it all: how wide the river, how slippery the stones. Someone ambling along the further bank. Lunch time, and the linden blossoms fading. The smell of tar and fish in your nostrils. The yearning to stand barefoot on a boat and sail off into the distance. What a remarkable eulogy to long dead earthworms. They did not die in vain!

Therefore, smell everything, little brother, your life will be the better for it!


THE HUNGARIAN MOUNTAINS. This little-known belt of mountains is nestled among the volcanic peaks of the inner Carpathians. At the foot of its highest summit, Seacă Mare, lies a steep, wooded crater, its northward face perforated by a rush of water. Amid the vast ragwort-juniper expanses of this dry mountain, stands a royal hunting lodge with pink ottomans and decorative, castellated flasks. It towers on stilts high above stunted scrub-pine thickets, windows gazing out in every direction in search of game.

The ridges of the Gurghiu range are dry and ungrazed.  Their blanket of pine forests, snow-colored false hellebore, sky-hued adenostyles and mist-shrouded, water-worn roads are reminiscent of the Krkonoš Mountains. Yet not everything about them is similar. Forest tracks are deserted here, unused by people. Only an occasional musky pile of bear droppings, indigo from beetle shells or blueberries, can be found lying in their midst.

Fresh spring water pours out of the Bucin Pass, and the forests above appear tall and welcoming, full of dry wood and mushrooms. The track to the south along the ridge is poor, and eventually vanishes for disuse. To reach the Harghita Mountains, you must scrape your way southward, compass in hand, through rugged, bewildering forests. It is a strenuous journey and so easy to become lost.

The people dwelling at the foot of the Gurghiu Mountains are almost entirely Hungarian-speaking. These Romanian Magyars, or Székelys, sit at their potter’s wheels, turning out beautiful pitchers and cups that they decorate with flowers and doves to sell at markets all across Romania.

Snug in a salt karst lies the saline Ursu Lake; run around by a double fence, it bears little resemblance to the surrounding wilderness. Its buoyant surface is dotted with people floating like bloated, unsinkable frogs, heads propped up on boards to keep them from sinking as they sleep; the briny water grows hot in the sun.


THE DARK MOUNTAINS. Between the baths of Harghita and the Mădăraş mountain lodge lie deep black forests, the splendor of the range. They stand like dark parapets, black horizons, shadowy forest fleece, unbroken by clearings, untouched by the woodcutter’s hand. Forest hillslope fens are deserted and desolate, not many people hike the Harghitas. Ridges are grassy, sheep-trampled pastures, and the eighteen-hundred-meter-high peak is blanketed in bog bilberry, juniper, and moss.

Further to the north, the mountain ridges dwindle and lose their dark pall. But they remain trackless until reaching the neighboring Gurghius. Stones here are dark, too – testimony to the volcanic activity that formed this Carpathian belt.

The baths of Harghita are surreal. Lost amid mountains and forests, they undoubtedly remember better days. I climbed out of the valley with the mists of evening, and what I saw seemed dismal and strange. Ivory sentinels stood guard, kaolin mountains, from which water streamed into viscous alabaster lakes where the full moon shone. To and fro along muddy forest tracks, bristly old men and wide-hipped grandmothers hobbled toward rust-colored springs where they set about exuberantly healing their ills. Many headed straight for two tiny shacks that had been erected upon a muddy meadow. I peeked in. By the light of a kerosene lamp, people in hats and headscarves sat within a dry pit, dug stairwise into the ground, sighing and groaning with relief. The stench of sulfur permeated the shed, fumes that emanated from the depths of the earth. That, I imagined, is how a medieval plague pit must have smelled. The Harghita baths have no resident doctor, the grubby man I took to be a shepherd was, in fact, the facility’s administrator. Everyone there spoke Hungarian, their Romanian was not very good. The Harghitas are home to more Székelys, Romanian Magyars, than ethnic Romanians. Children in the baths greeted me with the unfamiliar word “choklom,” and when I responded in Romanian, they ran timidly away. The last building at the forest’s edge was a small wooden church with an organ. Hungarian all, inside and out. Not a Romanian word to be seen.

Further to the north, the mountain ridges dwindle and lose their dark pall. But they remain trackless until reaching the neighboring Gurghius. Stones here are dark, too – testimony to the volcanic activity that formed this Carpathian belt.

The baths of Harghita are surreal. Lost amid mountains and forests, they undoubtedly remember better days. I climbed out of the valley with the mists of evening, and what I saw seemed dismal and strange. Ivory sentinels stood guard, kaolin mountains, from which water streamed into viscous alabaster lakes where the full moon shone. To and fro along muddy forest tracks, bristly old men and wide-hipped grandmothers hobbled toward rust-colored springs where they set about exuberantly healing their ills. Many headed straight for two tiny shacks that had been erected upon a muddy meadow. I peeked in. By the light of a kerosene lamp, people in hats and headscarves sat within a dry pit, dug stairwise into the ground, sighing and groaning with relief. The stench of sulfur permeated the shed, fumes that emanated from the depths of the earth. That, I imagined, is how a medieval plague pit must have smelled. The Harghita baths have no resident doctor, the grubby man I took to be a shepherd was, in fact, the facility’s administrator. Everyone there spoke Hungarian, their Romanian was not very good. The Harghitas are home to more Székelys, Romanian Magyars, than ethnic Romanians. Children in the baths greeted me with the unfamiliar word “choklom,” and when I responded in Romanian, they ran timidly away. The last building at the forest’s edge was a small wooden church with an organ. Hungarian all, inside and out. Not a Romanian word to be seen.


THE CRATER MOUNTAINS. At the utmost southern edge of the volcanic Carpathians, two most remarkable Romanian craters rise into the sky. One is awash with pure lake water, the other is a mighty fen. The former is called St. Anne Lake. A small stone church is the only manmade structure at its crystal waters. The crater looms hundreds of meters above the Olt valley, and the view from the rim down into its center is breathtaking. The lake has two faces: on hot summer days it is aswarm with people, but in the evening it grows completely deserted, mild and clean. You can even drink its water; after all, the pilgrim has not much other choice. Forests of pine, beech, and birch descend from the crater’s rim down to the water’s edge. Peace and quiet wherever you look. Not far from where we stood, a great bear came out of the forest. It lumbered slowly along the shoreline in search of tidbits left behind by visitors. We drew close to him, but he did not retreat; at dusk, he was king of St. Anne Lake. Those of us who hid our packs from him fearfully in trees lost all our food: he returned at night to pull them down and eat our bread. 

A few hours’ journey hence, the baneful mountain of Puciosu rears above the lonely hamlet of Toria. Toxic gas streams from rocky fissures and small caves, yet only one such grotto has been marked. A weathered old sign notifies travelers of the dangers of venturing into the sulfane-breathing mouths: certain death. No other such vents have been marked despite more poison gas escaping here than in the fabled Neapolitan Cave of Dogs. Beyond the entrance, a candle’s flame goes out as if snuffed by Satan. In a nearby beechwood forest at the foot of a craggy old sulfur mine, another surprise awaits. Dozens of birds lie dead at the bottom of a damp ravine. Having flown too near the toxic openings, they were knocked clean out of the air. A gloomy and dismal place indeed. Death wherever you look – bleached pine needles, rotten birch twigs, talon-like, the snarling corpse of a wildcat. In most countries, an area like this would be turned into a nature reserve, but here only two words mark the spot, carved crudely in Magyar into a beech trunk: madarák temetö, bird cemetery.


There are five things that ensure mental and physical wellbeing. Exercise. Garlic. A clean conscience. Moderation. And faith in one’s own health.

A shepherd from the mountain plains of Ethiopia

A pilgrim on his journey, like an animal in the wild, is safe from illness, for no ailment can harm him. What’s more, any malady that afflicts him at his departure is sure to abandon him soon, washed by the first rain into a wayside ditch, and left to fade powerlessly in the distance. Wandering the wilderness has healing powers. It is a peculiar game, indeed. The less you worry about your health, the more indomitable and diamond-edged it becomes. You can walk for weeks in wet clothes and shoes without the slightest runny nose. At night you may shiver with cold, but in the morning, you are as fit as a fiddle. At home, it would be the death of you. Constantly monitoring yourself, swallowing pills and going for massages, you inevitably fall ill. But there is no time for illness when you travel, so you simply pay it no heed. Perhaps one day, when we shed our mortal coil and God holds us in the palm of His hand, we will come to regret all of that heedlessness, but until then, farewell first aid kits and soap and towels and band-aids and snake repellents and tissues and pills and enemas. We can go further without you. Yet this is no gambler’s game. On the contrary, far from civilization’s medicines and bandages, we are less rash, more cautious, and entirely self-reliant. Your health and wellbeing depend solely upon you. If you break your leg, bandages and medicine are far away. If for pride or ignorance, your kidneys catch a chill, there is no one to sympathize with you or give you the cure. Respect your health, but do not fear for it.

You need it for the journey, that is why you have it. Knowing you must not get sick, you don’t. A diamond-edged game.

Health and hygiene are sisters – good servants, but bad masters. Just as worrying too much about one’s health is counterproductive, being overly sanitary is also harmful, my squeaky-clean little brother. A reasonable amount of dirt is good for one’s health. Those who live too cleanly fall to the first illness they encounter. To gain the proper immunity, you must sometimes scrounge for food in garbage cans. And drink with sheep from rivers. And lick dogs. And not throw away bread that has touched the station floor. Then nothing will kill you. For cleanliness is relative, a graded scale from the toxic sterility of fretful ladies who sanitize the most luxurious of Paris hotel rooms to the Nenets of Siberia who, always healthy, dwell in muddy yurts among the remains of rotting fish. I am somewhere in between. The Nenets could not tell me apart from a starch-collared senator, and the senator, upon meeting me at my journey’s end, would think me a Nenets. Hygiene is viewed differently from culture to culture, custom to custom, era to era, upbringing to upbringing. Western culture is no panacea. Just think of the barbaric custom of storing snot in a cloth in your pocket. Nothing tops the good old Asian method of smacking your phlegm on a rock. There, all taken care of, all clean. Before your journey, have your teeth fixed and clip your fingernails. On your voyage, have plenty to drink, urinate regularly, and do not sit your sweaty buttocks on the cold ground. Garlic and a bit of alcohol will clean you out inside and send any little germs scurrying for cover. Do not weigh your pack down with nonessentials, my hygienic little brother! One bar of soap for all is plenty, river sand is nearly everywhere. And a single toothbrush. Forget about combs, towels, mirrors, tissues, and razors. Beards itch only between the eighth and ninth day. And bring no extra clothing either. Wash your clothes the ancient way, on warm river rocks, the day your shirt stiffens and sticks greasily, unbearably to your back. The day you begin to disgust yourself. The day your own billy-goat musk engulfs you, and you can no longer resist a bath. Here, too, applies that if you wish to feel gloriously clean and refreshed, you must first be as greasy, dirty, and sweaty as a buffalo. The dirtier you are, the greater the relief of the wash. All itches, bumps, exhaustion, and rashes vanish after a bath, it is that simple.

I still remember the most delightful wash I ever had. Heavily flea-bitten, I had thumbed a ride from the eastern reaches of Slovakia to the town of Liptovský Mikuláš. My shirt was ripped half-way up my back, and the heat, itchiness, weariness and stench sent me staggering. Suddenly, down a side street, I spotted the sign for a municipal bathhouse. A rather dubious looking place. And then a crazy idea occurred to me – why not take a bath?

Inside the building, clean, though antiquated, bathing chambers furnished with bathtubs, soap, and emerald bath salts awaited. I poured a bath. To its brim. There was the sparkling effervescence of bubbles and salts. I jumped in. It was like being struck by a fiery blade, unrepeatable. I roared. Hundreds of flea bites burned, but their sting was sweet. Like in lovemaking, when you cannot tell the difference between pain and pleasure. I roared with burn and bliss. My body flowed with sweat from the Slanské Hills, dirt from Branisko, fetor from Partium, fleas from Fričovce u Prešova. What a glorious, intoxicating sensation, such blissful absolution of corporeal filth. The bath, a fiery confessional.

On the square, I bought curd cheese, garlic, and a new shirt – what incredible luxury. Outside the town, I bid my old shirt – aged, decrepit friend – farewell. I hate throwing old things away. It’s like losing family.

Yellow with black stripes, it had journeyed with me for years, growing ever more threadbare with each journey. Happier thoughts now – garlic and fresh curd cheese. Heavenly, diamond-edged manna. I hitched a ride in a truck. Standing outside on the bed, I gulped in good health, cleanliness, and warm wind. A fragrant banner of garlic blew in the breeze behind me, wafting down the river Váh. All of Liptov Comitat and the Choč Mountains were swathed in that glorious metallic smell – my diamond-edged greetings to the northern Hungarian lands.


THE FORSAKEN MOUNTAINS. Crossing the Ivaneţ ridge with its salt springs, gleaming meadows, and Orthodox crosses – date bearers of genesis – we finally arrive in the most distant of Buzău mountain ranges. The village of Lopătari rests at the foot of the mountains. Everything about it is remarkable. Mailmen sit astride horses. Saltwater courses through riverbeds. Solitary fires burn for weeks and centuries on banks of forest brooks and amid barren pastures. They feed on gas rushing from the earth’s core and the singed ground smokes sweetly. Not long ago, local children and a colony of ants discovered the blaze around which we cook and sleep. Just a few meters away, a black pool lies concealed amidst the undergrowth. From it, a tarry current pours into the river and another bubbles up from the river bottom. Natural oil seeps. Ten meters further on among some hazelnut bushes, the air is thick with sulfur, and alabaster water gushes from the mightiest of sulfur springs. Across the valley, strange cliffs loom; their stones, when thrown into flames, are set alight. The salt encrusted underworlds of Meledic and Sărata, deep gashes in a great salt karst, present another miracle. Stones, branches and dead insects are coated in elaborate briny blooms, white battlements of salt in a prehistoric canyon. A karst lake lies amid open plains, a fairytale realm among steepest Carpathians in a cracked and barren land.

Two crystalline rivers embrace the Penteleu Mountains – the Bâsca Mare and the Bâsca Mică: green waters, white bluffs, shallow pools. Stately beech trees stand amid the virgin forests of Viforîta surrounded by muddy bear tracks, tall fir trees, three-toed woodpeckers and ancient sycamores. A beautiful corner of the Carpathians indeed. Ridge-top sheep folds are enclosed by fences to keep wolves and bears at bay. Days go by without meeting a single tourist. Making camp above beautiful Red Lake, bear scaring in the woods, quiet singing deep into the night – and not a soul knows we are about. At the end of a day’s march through grass, muddy beech forests, and damp pinewood thickets, we reach the end of the map with storms approaching. Drenched to the bone, we forge miserably onward not knowing if we have crossed into the Vranceas which must lie somewhere before us. Such days remain long in your memory, little brother, they are well worth the slog.


THE PINEY MOUNTAINS. Sweeping, dwellingless. We crossed them without a map. Wandering high up at the boundaries of ancient principalities: Transylvania, Wallachia, Moldavia. Ridges stretch from horizon to horizon and beyond. We arrived by way of Benedec, a solitary Carpathian settlement with four wooden buildings, good silent people, and the scent of cows and bitter brook-side plants. Evening chill rises from Bâsca Mică’s clear waters and creeps from dusky forests. No road leads there, but a mysterious forest train – tiny, brassy, ancient – makes the daily journey; it’s like nothing you would ever see at home. The Vrancean forests must once have been heavily logged, today most of the hillsides are covered in pine trees, only on the Transylvanian side to the west can beech wealds still be found. Gora, the highest mountain far and wide, stands bestrewn with smooth white, stones and dark mountain pines. From its elevation of seventeen hundred meters, forested mountainsides are all that meets the eye. Even the distant peaks of Sboina, Coza, and Furu are Vrancea!

The only human dwelling about is a lighthouse-like weather station atop Lacauţ peak where bearded sentries watch over fog and wind. They defy the Carpathian climate for weeks, baking their bread and telling of bear adventures. The last day. We descend blindly, hungrily through rain and fog. Ever westward. First down then up, along sheep tracks, through mud, scree, and thickets. We ask about a strange and distant city, Covasna, our salvation. Located in Hungarian Transylvania, most of its inhabitants still speak Hungarian. The shepherds only wave their hands far into the distance. At the fog-shrouded headwaters of Bâsca Mare, a woodcutter’s son takes us under his wing. He leads us over hill and dale, forest and clearing, windthrow and wet thicket to distant Transylvania. At the foot of the mountains, he bows, turns, and sets off homeward, a little grey bird ascending the steep, wooded, Vrancean mountainsides. Out of the goodness of his heart, he took us all the way. Twenty long kilometers on foot.


THE SCENIC MOUNTAINS. The Green-White Mountains. The Juniper Mountains. The Rough-Hewn Mountains – all are fitting epithets. Not a large range, it can be crossed in a day taking Bratocea Pass eastward to the inner Eastern Carpathians. But don’t forget, the Ciucaş extend westward too. There they are called Bobu, or – if I understood the toothless shepherd – Babeş. Once long ago, I hiked mapless across the mountains, foolishly thinking to arrive at Piatra Mare in the Bîrsei Mountains, the utter edge of the Eastern Carpathians, by evening. Unaware that between us stood Gîrbovei, Doftanu, and Baiu peaks, I got no farther than the sheep-grazed, blueberry-covered western Ciucaş. Plovers hopped about plateau marshes, and the high plains stretched ever onward. I returned to the pass and headed eastward. That, little brother, is where the true Ciucaş lie! Curious, white, conglomerate cliffs shaped into craggy needles, clusters, labyrinths, and enormous rough walls. Wind-chiseled orbs and cornices: beautiful, decorative, white, steep, and overgrown with juniper, rosebay, and grass. Once I saw a similar landscape on a photograph from southern China. The Sphinx of Bratocea, God’s finger: abloom with purple asters, it rises solitarily skyward at the boundaries of Wallachia and Transylvania. We look on as cold, murky Transylvanian mists bear down on one side, and Wallachian sun illuminates the other. The Rock of Truth we call it. Its roots sink deep beneath yellow flowers of lady’s mantel, the likes of which I have never seen before.

Upon Chiruşca plain nestled among mountains, stands a hut so austere it brings one to tears – the hub of Ciucaş tourism. From there, we traverse grassy expanses, dells of white bulls, and dense beech forests high above Sheepfold Valley, finally arriving at Bonecuţa pass. What distant reaches, little brother. The headwaters of the Buzău River, where picturesque Ciucaş Mountains give way to Siriu peaks, the westernmost summits of Buzău. Onward from there, few pilgrims venture. Only teams of oxen wearily haul great beech logs along miserable forest roads.


THE BUZᾸU MOUNTAINS. Surrounded on three side by the lazy Buzău River, these mountains are entirely deserted aside from an occasional shepherd. Dog shacks and green alders stand near sheep tracks. Clear springs bubble beneath grassy ridges, forests turn to pastures, pastures to alpine mists. The basin between Tatar and Siriu peaks grows dense in wild, far-reaching forests. Above our heads a clearing stands, partially overgrown with beech so impenetrable, the path through it has become a tunnel, home to millions of aphids. With nowhere to turn, the mud of the path has collected animal tracks, one printed atop the other: evening hooves of sheep, nighttime paws of bears, morning prints of boots. Piles of bear droppings lie strewn across the path. Bear tracks lead us steeply upwards to the Sirian plains above, where we are met with astonishing vistas, grasses and pine groves. As we draw nearer Winds’ Gate, trees diminish, grass remains. Beneath the windy portal lies Dry Lake, Icelandic in appearance, a little further on, silvery black Eagle Lake. At day’s close, we find ourselves far below the ridge amidst silky fir-beech forests, dry and light. Towering trees, fast streams, scree and enormous mushrooms. We burn entire tree trunks at our forest camp, then depart the mountains where pure Sirian waters join the lazy Buzău River. Fringe of hot Wallachian lands, we head for realms of mud volcanoes that lie not far away.

Do not omit this corner of the world, little brother! On drylands near the village of Pîcle, oil pumps rock like storks hunting with their beaks; no longer disrupting the view, they have become the landscape. Amidst a barren fallow, an alien planet: soft, salty sludge bubbles from the earth, pulsing to the top of muddy cones. Everything strangely colorful and bizarre, it is the only place in all Romania where salty nitre bushes grow. In the distance, feather grass waves upon steppes and air shimmers with heat.


If one lives too long on cranberries, he loses all self-assurance.

From the journal of ataman Yermak, 16th century conquest of Siberia

Do you hear the call, my voracious little brother? It is hunger’s yearly cry. The hungry wolf-days of summer once again creep down from the mountains, days when you eat gratefully things you wouldn’t touch in times of plenty. Do not complain, do not howl at the summer moon, it is you who put your head into the wolf’s snare. With anticipation and anxiety, you wait to see if you will endure. You fear your appetite, yet are glad to be, if but slightly, more like the rest of humanity. To merge with the hungering millions. From the corner of your eye, you glimpse a life of scarcity. On journeys, eat to live, eat to be.

Without food, there’s no going on. The traveler’s pride – bearing ten day’s rations on his back. A long, meaningful, but arduous game. Food is heavy and cumbersome, it turns runny and goes bad. At our latitudes, victuals and not subzero temperatures, monsoons, beasts of prey, stormy seas, natives or disease, play the deciding role in summer journeys. On real expeditions – like to the Romanian Carpathians – where civilization is distant and people are days away, food is the most important of all belongings. It hangs like a specter over campfires and sunbaked marches, it is on everyone’s tongue, and visions of bounty pass before all eyes as each imagines when next he’ll eat his fill. Good luck depriving us of that. Food, like life, is a gift. How easy at home to go hungry for three days, I have tried it. Sitting by an illuminated window at the end of the second day, I feel no hunger as I grow sweetly weaker, inwardly brighter. My soul lightened of flab and lust. Fasting is liberating, releasing within different, better forces. Yet one might come to erroneously believe that matter, food, the senses hold no sway over him, he is their master. But no one is ever rid of the burden of the senses, no one can easily escape their embrace, and eluding one, you fall straight into the arms of the other. What we overcome in appetite, we make up in sensuality.

Three days of hunger in the mountains can be disastrous, however. Stumbling listlessly beneath a heavy pack, ears roaring, heart throbbing, legs buckling, you curse the day you set out on your journey. Things do not often become so severe, though. There is always something that can pass for food lying at the bottom of the pack – a few damp grains of sugar, some rancid bacon, the dusty remnants of oat flakes, a bit of slimy cheese, a cube of bouillon, some cocoa powder. A unique palate of tastes to be sure. Knead it all into a barely edible ball, and your life has been saved. You can survive another day. Travelogues from lands of adversity and hunger have always fascinated me, as have the diets of Eskimos, Nambikwara, and Tungusic Peoples. Everything, or nearly everything, is edible. As a boy, I learned to eat all things, determined not to be choosy or repulsed. I believed the Czech wilderness would feed me. I ate earthworms and dined on May bugs, and was able to discern which had lived on oak leaves, which on maple – maple eaters were sweeter. I did worse things too, but quit soon enough because my classmates thought me disgusting. Try to survive on insects in Europe, and people think you’re crazy. The habit of smelling and tasting everything has remained with me since, however, along with the realization that the European wild cannot provide for all the traveler’s needs. It is too small and too inhabited a continent! Game, fruit, eggs, potatoes, fish, corn, squirrels, it all belongs to somebody. Mushrooms do not satiate, I’m sorry for frogs, and an omelet of worms and seagull eggs served with a bowl of water flea soup repulses most people. I began to eat more normal food. But each time I went a-roving, I played a different eating game. Sometimes gladly, other times not. A week long ago in South Bohemia: seven days on bread rolls and red, war-era jam. Out of necessity. Another week many years later: white south Slovak bread, bacon, and a few drops of plum brandy. What joy! Those fiery drops washed the dust off my soul. Another time in Polana: seven days on salami, which grew blacker each day; when it was blackest, I fell ill. I had no cure for my “salami sickness” until I reached Rimavská Sobota and drank plenty of bitters. Afterwards, the dresses of gypsy girls seemed brighter, more colorful, and their teeth gleamed like silver. But beware, little brother, a small amount usually suffices; the saints did not drink at all. Have you heard the Scandinavian saying about Saint Olaf, who felt as good without liquor as a drunken sailor felt with it?

But none of that is food fit for the roaming pilgrim. His provisions must be as light and dry as possible. Flour, rice, noodles. There was the era of gruels – corn, semolina, barley. The age of soy flour flatbreads. The years of oats. The months of rice. The weeks of noodles. The days of buckwheat. Always combined with salt or sugar. Dried apricots, ears of Chinese princesses, can be nibbled with anything.

A little food is all you need, carry only what is truly essential. Supper takes ten minutes to eat, but ten hours to bear on your back. Do not take food that is too tasty. Unpalatable, repetitive meals will help you eat in moderation. You’ll eat only of necessity and hunger. That is good. You didn’t embark on your journey to experience gastronomical heights. You’ll soon forget your misery and later take pride in it. Hunger will leave you. Knowing you ventured where you couldn’t have with a knapsack heavy with victuals – that remains. What you see, you’ll remember forever. But food, both good and bad, swiftly vanishes from memory. Fear not, little brother, you will still enjoy your meals. When the angel of hunger passes over you, each bite is blissful. Bread tastes like cake and water like wine – those are moments to savor. Celebrate, for you are living life to the fullest! Such a diet keeps you healthy and not overfed. Hardy as a wolf. You’ll learn many things. That garlic goes with every meal. That cheese, the product of rotting milk, is always a welcome ingredient. That bacon is the only fat that doesn’t spill. That teas from certain herbs force you often from your tent. That stale bread can be broken with a stone and boiled. That when staying with shepherds, you eat what they give you. That there are better provisions than canned food, which is heavy, cumbersome, full of water, expensive, unhealthy, and pollutes the forest. That russulas are the only mushrooms whose edibility can be determined by taste: if sweet when raw, they are not poisonous. That the simpler the meal, the more delicious it is. And hundreds more!

When I prepare food for my summer journeys, calculating sugars, carbohydrates, weighing out raisins, and measuring out powdered milk, I often think of a Romanian shepherd I met in the Godeanu Mountains, a wizened old man. Every morning at sunrise, he took his sheep to the summit of Gugu peak. In his hand, his day’s provisions: a cold lump of corn mamaliga, food most of us wouldn’t touch. That was his way of life. I think of him and feel ashamed. I yearn to roam the Southern Carpathians with a handful of flour and less food in my pack. And even if I removed most of it, I wouldn’t die – hunger is not a hasty killer!

Once, as I sat on the shore of the Georgiiski Lakes in the Pirin, nary a bite to eat, the nearest settlement a long journey away, I thought of all those who had found themselves in much greater misery. In particular, Huc and Gabet, two French missionaries, whose plight a hundred and thirty years ago was distressing indeed: “For two years we ate nothing more than black barley cakes cooked on fires of dried cow dung, drinking nothing more than salty tea and rancid butter. But even for that, we were grateful. God gave us strength and a joyful spirit. With His guidance, we safely crossed the terrible, barren lands of Mongolia, Manchuria, northern China, and Tibet.”

My thoughts on the two French friars, I folded my pinions and fell peacefully to sleep.