A new day is here!

                                                                                                The most beautiful cry.

SUNNY MORNINGS are a fiery sword, a single blow brings you to paradise! There should be a thousand words to describe such beauty. The sun rises above the mountain plains, a morning firebird. It soars, silent and dazzling. You have just awakened, born anew. A new day has begun; a new day in which anything can happen.

Sleep under an open sky when nights are clear. Only then will you wake before the sun has risen. You open your eyes to a pale dawn. Your sleeping bag is heavy with moisture, but you lie within, cloaked in your own warmth. The night’s chill still lies in the grass, and dew falls from the heavens. With each movement, a cold shiver runs through your body – better to rest still and quiet. Only your eyes gaze up at the pale, tranquil sky. Suddenly you experience the same second of joy as the Eskimos when, high up in the black sky at the end of the polar night, they spot a gleaming white bird. The first solitary bird returning north after winter! In the land of the Eskimos, it remains dark and cold and the sun still stays below the horizon. But from below, it sends forth the first ray, months unseen, weeks awaited, illuminating the breast of the flying bird. The first ray in the darkness! The white arctic bird wings silently through the air, oblivious to its dazzling prophecy, but down below, the people cheer, cry, jump and shout: the sun, warmth of life, is returning.

You, too, little brother, can see a little greenish cloud appear on the pale sky just above the northeastern horizon. It scuds alone across the sky, far and wide the only cloud. As of yet, no sight of the sun. But lo, while the back of the morning cloud remains in darkness, its belly has already begun to gleam. For he who shows and aligns its heavenly track has now begun to illuminate it with his glow. A new day is dawning in which anything can happen. Even death may come as you wait for night. Sleep, too, is a short death. But now a new day has come!

The cloud dissolves in the radiance of the rising sun. You lay wrapped in your sleeping bag, nostrils taking in the ever more fragrant air, eyes gazing into the brilliance which is still bearable. You smile your happiness – you have awoken to a sentence from the Hindu Upanishads which says that he who dwells within the sun dwells also within man. They are one. At these moments it is best to sing a morning song of celebration and thanksgiving if you know one. And if you do not, my impious little brother, make one up for it is sure to come useful. Steam is now rising from your sleeping bag as the fiery bird flaps ever more ardently, drawing from you the dewy damp of the night. Now you can finally move in your sleeping bag. Spread out lazily inside it. The cold shiver no longer runs through you, and the heavens rain down ever growing heat. Soon you will once more be unable to move – not for cold, but for warmth – for you will be doused in a sweltering humid cloud. As the sun rises, so does the temperature. Suddenly, the moment arrives when you can no longer bear another second in your sleeping bag. You tear it off, but you are still too hot. Unable to stand the heat, you strip off your clothes.

How wonderful to be on the plains alone. You can lay naked upon your sleeping bag, immeasurably relieved. The sun sings to you, the silky air gently fans you, and flies, first of friends, settle upon you. Do not chase them away, for they sing to you and lap you with their tongues. It delights them. Be grateful when you can delight someone, little brother, there may come a day when you would give your eyeteeth for that! The wind rises. Brother wind. Balmy, but the flies take to the air. How wonderfully un-European to lay naked in wild pastures. Laid bare to the sky. There is so much our ragged garments withhold from us!

And if, with the morning sun’s return, you are not alone? All the better, especially if you wake beside a shiny-eyed girl with a nose as gentle as a foal’s. Perhaps it is she will enkindle the lamp of love, that rosy glow that gleams so rarely in life, sometimes only for a second, sometimes only once, sometimes never, but which is always worth trudging the world for. You will never forget it. The universe hauls up its anchor for a voyage that is eternity in a single second. Shivers up and down your spine, tears of joy. A quiet ringing in your head, a murmuring and chiming, rosy light as you gaze upward through shut eyelids. The fullness of everything. You touch her gently, and the moment comes. The world is bathed in apple-blossom light. The ark of bliss rocks upon sunlit waters. This light, which comes always unexpected and unsummoned, shines elsewhere, too – in the deepest of monastic solitudes, on the peaks of great mountains, on Olympic pedestals before crowds of thousands, above a completed masterpiece, in a shepherd’s song, at a ship’s sailing. But most often, it is borne by girls, fragrant, light-legged light-bearers; fragrant, light legs play their oldest and most beautiful game.

Making love in the morning is the most beautiful thing of all. So pure. With a girl whose eyes are like the sea. On the open plains in the embrace of the eager sun. Like wild horses, whinnying, manes flying. There, all cries dissipate. I hope it is no sin. It was not I who breathed into girls their wild fragrance or gave them such sultry skin. He who dwells within the sun dwells also within girls. On such amorous mornings when the sun hangs in the blue like a flaming tine, I think it better to make love just once in with a wild southern princess and die as punishment than a thousand times embrace a lethargic lemur. That a single scintillating year is better than fifty dull ones, and one day of fire is worth ten thousand days of darkness. Worry about today, little brother, tomorrow will take care of itself! But I don’t think that always, for the hot sun does not always blaze above open plains.

But beautiful mornings need not be lived only under the open skies of distant journeys, my life-weary little bother! A new day rises even amidst November’s gloom and chilly winds. Astonishingly, most people hate mornings, they hate waking and rebirth. They do not prattle on gleefully, but shuffle gloomily around the house in fear of the new day – old men and women lost to hope. They know too well how the day will end. Yet turning mornings gold and days to silver is such a simple task.  It requires but three things: a song of thanks, a cold bath and exercise or a wild dance. Three offensively simple things can change the world! Dismal thoughts and dreariness vanish, and strength and happiness swiftly take their place. Just three things – a song, a little water and a bit of movement – and mornings are transformed. Yet I know I write these words in vain, my life-weary brother, for you will not change – you will not even try it!

I walk along a morning street. Looking round, I see it is empty. So I dance my morning dance. I whirl around gleefully, stamping my feet because that is the only dance I know. It is a new day. The street is still empty. So I bleat loudly. Like a goat. Meehhh! A prostatic Prague Ratter urinates at length beneath an ash tree, I greet him in my best Frrrench: “Bon jour, mon ami, ça va?” And the street is still perfectly empty.

A morning song, a cold bath and a bit of exercise make you feel strong and healthy. Indomitable of body, insurmountable of soul. You can sit motionless, hands on the table, and yet feel as strong as a snow leopard, the most beautiful of animals. Of their own accord, the muscles in your back begin to coil. If you make a fist, no earthly power can unmake it against your will. You sit motionless like a leopard in wait of a mountain sheep, prepared to leap, full of explosive energy, yet seemingly inert. Resting on the snow, it looks like a boulder. You, too, sit quietly, but warmth and power emanate from within you, it is a wonderful feeling. At that morning hour, the entire world is yours. You sit alone, insignificant and unimportant, no one knows you exist. And yet on such mornings, the whole planet belongs to you.


THE ROSEBAY MOUNTAINS. Standing beneath them at the edge of the Maramureş Mountains, you might think yourself in Carpathian Ruthenia: streets strewn with river rocks, wood-gabled villages kilometers long, homes without chimneys, centuries-old wooden churches – onion-shaped – and paschal candles half a millennium old. Dusty hearths and shaggy-coated herds of goats. Shepherds in bast sandals, handmade leather shoes, and incredible hats, smelling biblically of sheep.

  Far up the two thousand three hundred meters high ridges of the Rodna Alps, beauty awaits – realms of grass, verdant mountain crests and millions of gentle-red rhododendrons. Here, the weather shifts from storms to mist to sunshine, sometimes twice a day. I liked the Rodna Mountains. Walking southeast along the ridge, you encounter nothing but grass for days; the tree line is far beneath your feet.  Occasionally, you may spot a small lake or herd of animals. Alpine accentors, their flight wild and whirring, alight on crags. Deserted mountain ridges. The only lodge far and wide is in Puzdrele, concealed among the sorrel of age-old sheep farms. In front of it, hogs with wires in their snouts root in the earth – without them they would surely root even more.

There are very few hikers on Rodna mountain ridges, though you may occasionally pass a band of shaved-headed Romanian pilgrims with loaves of bread tied to their backs. They carry satchels, and blankets hang around their necks. The person at the rear of the procession bears a kerosene lamp that swings from his rucksack. Sincere and modest people, they eat mostly tomatoes, bacon, and yellow kashkaval cheese.

  Beneath towering Ineu Mountain lies icy Lala Lake. On our final night in Rodna, we took refuge from a storm in a deserted hunting cabin just below the lake’s frigid waters. We thought of last year’s rutting season as we ate our fill of rotten potatoes around a fire of Witch’s Broom, the only wood that burns so wet, and the flooded Lala River roared below the cabin.


THE TRACKLESS MOUNTAINS. Not one tourist marker sullies this mountain range, not one tourist cabin. Only military fences from another era lie toppled and disused below the grassy border. We hike along the old frontier for days. To the north, all of eastern Carpathian Ruthenia lies at our feet, the ancient comitat of Máramaros, the Tisza River valley, the highlands of [1] Nikola Šuhaj, snow covered Mount Hoverla, mighty Pip Ivan Peak. The Romanian side of the former Hungarian territory breathes fresh and green – endless forests, long valleys, pasture lands. Near the summit of Farcău Mountain, a lake lies where horned oxen drink each evening among blackbird flocks and windblown meadows. Beyond the old border tripoint of Stoh, even the uprooted border markers seem different: cast-iron posts lie, pink and decorative, amid the grass and wildflowers along the old Romanian-Polish frontier. And still we have not met a soul. Over the course of five days, we meet seven shepherds and two border guards who we appease with handwritten authorizations and homemade stamps – such documents work wonders in those deserted mountains! There is little water and few people atop the ridges that make up the western edge of Máramaros, and the border there is at times unmarked, at others secured by five layers of fencing, as the Rodna Mountains hem in the southern horizon. According to a sixty-year-old general map, we are scarcely clinging to a wild, forested ridge between the Ruscovei and Vaser valleys. Miserable forest crossroads fade into the undergrowth; this is a trackless land. We wander through rainstorms, Carpathian mists, and steep, rocky, rain-soaked pine thickets. We bed down near forest peat bogs, uprooted by wild beasts. We sleep near grouse droppings, wolf scat, sheep cadavers, horse bones strung across crooked pines: how bleak those rainy nights are! Huts emerge from the mountain fog, inhabited mostly by Rusyns, whose language is remarkably similar to Czech. They are kind, chasing the dogs away and giving us sheep’s milk and cheese – sweet and salty. But most beautiful of all is the music they play on their long fujaras to accompany us on our way. They blow their eastern song into great, glossy, homemade pipes until we are forever lost to sight among the junipers, scrub-pines, and trackless forests of the Maramureş Mountains. 

[1] Nikola Šuhaj was an outlaw and local folk hero from Carpathian Ruthenia.


My tent, airy and windswept, is sweeter than the finest palace.

Um-Jesid, mother of the sixth Caliph of Islam

Nights are the cornerstones of every journey and the games of kings. Days can be hot or rainy, merry or monotonous, endless, or a mere blink of an eye. But the pilgrim faces them wide awake. When night comes, however, he goes helplessly forward, vulnerable and at the mercy of the darkness. When the windy tail of day sweeps away its footprints and evening falls restless as a pregnant doe, it is time to seek safety, shelter, and rest. I see the land with different eyes, forests take on a new shape at dusk. On balmy evenings, they beckon to me, and their dry peripheries spread out before me like a beautiful maiden. But on nights of hail amid strange mountains, an evening mist at two thousand meters bodes uncertainty, even doom. On such nights, I wish to be far away among people, basking in the sun of morning. But I have no choice. It is time to sleep, time to search for a place to spend the night. Fear not, my timid little brother, I have gone to sleep every night and always woken the following morning. The less I take with me on my journey, the more I am at the mercy of the night and the unknown, and the more beautiful and unusual nights I spend.

With a tent, I am a millionaire: indifferent, oblivious, self-assured. I can go wherever I wish. Spreading out my palace of green, my fear of night vanishes.  Heed only the words of the Prophet Muhammad, “First tie your camel firmly to a tree, then consign him to God’s protection.” Thus, I build my tent securely and do not rely impertinently on the mercy of the night. For it is long, and better is to sleep than to patch canvas in darkness, hunt the winds for possessions borne on gusty wings, or bale water out of sleeping bags. Only then do I lie down to sleep.

Tents are like girls, each one has a different smell, but all are equally fragrant. And though they all let the sunlight in, each morning has its own hue. It is strange – some people have never slept in such airy palaces. What unfortunates!

Possessing only a tarp, I am still a wealthy man. A two-by-two-meter canvas is a bundle light and small, and I need not fear the night. I lay beneath it feeling as glad as the rich man and as happy as the outlaw. I have a home, but I also have the wind and the stars. Raindrops, though meddlesome in a tent with a floor, dry up and disappear, absorbed by the earth. When the rain stops, the stars reappear. I lean out from under my roof like a caddis fly from its watery conduit. An occasional drop falls on my face from the branches above, but who cares, my body is dry, and my eyes gaze upwards at the night sky. Strange – some people have never fallen asleep with their gaze fixed on the stars. What unfortunates!

Finally, there are the journeys when I carry no shelter at all. I prepare for the night without tent or tarp. It is bad to walk into long and rainy darkness. My gaze scours the sky, the clouds, and the thickets. It is alright, the afternoon clouds have dispersed with the coming evening, dissolving into faded blues and vanishing altogether. It is growing rapidly cooler. The night will be clear and cold, but I do not mind the chill, I adapt to it quickly. I console myself with the memory of Taras Bulba, knowing that evening frost on wild fields gladdens Cossack bones. Lowering my pack, the day is behind me. Suddenly, there is plenty of time. I sprawl in the grass. The earth has completed her daily Sun Dance; having twirled before her star, her face fades with the approaching night. Strange – some people cannot carry all they need upon their backs. What unfortunates!

I break off pine boughs to place under my sleeping bag. Blessed is the land where I can go about this work and fear no pricking of the conscience. For breaking off branches in Carpathian forests is like pulling a few hairs from a girl’s mane in love-play: it only makes her wilder. Yet preparing such a bed of boughs in Czech forests is like tearing out the last of an old man’s bristles.

Before nightfall, I gather wood for a “foc mare”, a great Romanian fire. Blessed are the lands where there is still wood enough for the nocturnal pilgrim! Fire, the most sparkling of nighttime games, would deserve its own chapter. Fires are joyful and pure, you can gaze into them for hours. I remember them as I do lovers. The quiet, three-log fire I slept by in Poloniny National Park. The secret watch-fires of forest dells and craggy glens. The fragrant fires of precious woods from the southern Slovak Karst. The blazing pine-log fires which illuminated and heated our rocky shelters beneath the limestone walls of Veľká Fatra and the sandstone overhangs of Děčín. Driftwood fires on the sandy shores of the Tisza River, the smell of fish, mud, freedom, and bacon cooking on a willow stick, the hot dust of herds and plains. The clear fires of wood from beaver dams at the border of Poland and Lithuania where pure water splashes down onto the steep, desolate banks of deep Suwalki lakes, and sheldrakes’ cries ring out above the surface of the water.  Shepherds’ fires of juniper, rosebay and scrub-pine amid the Transylvanian Carpathians and the Macedonian Pirin Mountains.  Fire and sheep – such safe and soothing smells. We lived among them for thousands of years, a few short years amid the stony walls of cities cannot wipe that out. I sleep with shepherds near silent flocks. Sheep bleat from their dreams. They shake their heads with a soft ringing of bells and a dog laps the stranger’s dusty hand. Silence. Such great good cannot be expressed in words and I can never be grateful enough to fire, the oldest good, which fends off wild animals, and banishes fear from the soul and cold from the body. I believe I would never be done with the game of sparkling fire, so beautiful and so beneficial. And therefore I will spare no more words upon it, my blanket-loving brother! But when you grow tired of your blankets and your bed, pull night’s wide and starry brim down around your head! For who knows if the term wide open sky did not originally come from the wide hats under which 19th century poets slept as they wondered the land, or if instead it reminds us of the broad midnight heavens so familiar to ancient pilgrims. Thus, when you grow tired of the world, pull night’s wide and starry brim down around your head! Bed down under a moonlit bluff, bed down in a south-facing fallow. There the ground is dry and hard and your bed of plants smells pungent beneath your head as crickets sing. Above such mattresses, the stars shine brightest and the full moon glows like the window of a dark ship on the Black Sea. I lie in the grass recalling the names of constellations. Once I knew them all and had learned them with delight, but now I see it was not necessary. It is good in youth to know much about stars – though not only about stars – but even better is, in old age, to knowingly forget unimportant external things. To keep only what is meaningful – only what nourishes us inwardly. Just as the names of animals and plants are not what is most significant about them, neither are the shapes of age-old constellations that which is most important about stars. It is enough to lie beneath them, to graze your thoughts on verdant pastures and water your deeds at clear streams as the words of an evening song of thanks flit like silver swallows upon your lips.  

So as not to discourage you from nocturnal journeys, my chilly little brother, I will comfort you. There are other ways to sleep beneath the starry heavens that are just as beautiful! Under the open sky I wake often to check the midnight breezes and scour the sky for clouds. The calls of night birds wake me too. I sleep lightly under the open sky, like an animal prepared for anything, ready to flee in search of shelter from rain, storms, danger. Remember that the best place to sleep is in the hay – amidst dried grasses. Perhaps that is because our early ancestors hearkened from the sultry eastern steppes. We are the brothers of horses. Moonlight streams into the old hay shed. The fragrant warmth of a fresh night wafts through the air. You lie in the depths of your sanctuary. If there is someone to place a warm arm around your neck before you sleep, all the better. So much the better, my sensuous little brother. Hay sheds: the most wonderful confluence of nature and civilization, grass and ingenuity. Unsurpassable. I lie there exhausted and satiated.  All that was meant to happen has happened, the day is finished. A last gentle burp and the heavenly taste of the departing day, with all its blessings, drifts through the body. The balanced taste of garlic and chocolate. Two seemingly disparate smells blend silkily together. Garlocolate.

I lay and I listen – is someone dancing outside in the dark? No, it is only the grass running before the wind. Strange that I do not believe in grass fairies, for all that is necessary for their birth and dance lies here at hand, beneath the stars of the heavens. Perhaps I do not believe in them simply because I cannot see them, just like without a radio receiver, I cannot believe in radio waves that travel around the earth, inaudibly roaring even through the silence of my moonlit hay shed. After that I rest without thoughts, heavy with fatigue, as warm and hefty as pewter. I can no longer move my arms, sleep is a light death. From out of the forest, night, the dark sister of time, enters the hay shed. She lays down beside me and presses close, I can no longer hold my eyes open. In vain do I remind her of the Prophet’s words – that prayer is better than sleep. She laughs, her warm body fills the depths of my sanctuary. Her kingdom draws ever nearer, the realm of sleep, the realm of sleeep, the realm of sleeee…


THE SMALL MOUNTAINS. They stand upon the left Bank of the Golden Bistrița River in an area once called Bukovina and are composed of two parts: Giumalău and Rarău. The most stunning and well-known place here is a remote stony fortress, a craggy pinnacle of white limestone called Pietrele Doamnei or “Lady’s Stones”. It reaches skyward, high above the surrounding forests and grazing lands, feet planted among the rarest of mountain grasses. Once at its base I gathered yellow oat grass, beautiful and silky.

The Rarău Mountains were where I first saw people making homemade lime. A group of old men stoked a blazing kiln – a devil’s forge – cracking off chunks of limestone and baking them in the fierce heat. Sweat poured off them as they merrily worked the bellows, and all around the limekiln, nothing but grass and forests – inspiration for the rest of the world’s factories.

A few kilometers on, a group of monks mowed grass amid trees and meadows. Young and old, dressed in black, with tall hats and coal-black beards. Sweat poured off them too as they brandished their scythes, their dark cassocks fluttering behind them. A short way on, there stood a small solitary monastery, and the sound of orthodox chants floated through the still air.

In a merry little hut beneath Lady’s Stones, wine flows to the spluttering of a kerosene lamp and a voice there sings long into the night. Drinking is not frowned upon in Romania: it seems moderation is the law of the land, often reinforced by grave-looking constables in faded blue uniforms, though they are not the real reason for restraint. After all, beată – the Romanian word for an inebriated woman – is nearly identical to the Latin word, beata, meaning a blissful woman. Thus, blissful women sing among the Giumalău Mountains as Lady’s Stones gleam softly in the moonlight.


THE SULFUR MOUNTAINS. Enormous, tree-covered, volcanic, deserted. There is not so much as a single tourist cabin. Vultures wing aloft in the pale firmament above. Wildly jagged cliffs stand at crater’s edge – igneous apostles. Below, ferocious dogs guard mottled herds. They surround the pilgrims, their teeth snapping close. In vain, you brandish your stick – it only makes them. A shepherd boy of about five years old runs towards you. He kicks the dogs who turn and slink back to their herds, tails between their legs. At crude sulfur mines, you collect the yellow brimstone that lies strewn upon the ground. Its smoke will come handy when you tell your tales of hellish Călimanic adventures. Over a century ago, the borders of Hungarian Transylvania, Austrian Bukovina, and Romanian Moldavia met here in Căliman. Even today, there is evidence of Maria Theresa’s influence alongside the remains of World War I era military trenches. But peace has long reigned in this region, and the Căliman Mountains now belong to a single country. Grassy ridges and rugged cliffs stretch on gently till they are lost to sight at the horizon. Vast expanses, wild horses, and gentle breezes.

We arrived from the north, passing around the crater and across Negoi peak. You must have your own food and bedding wherever you go there. Though once we dined with some shepherds on mamaliga – thick, rustic cornmeal porridge and sheep curds – washing it down with amber schnapps.  Enormous fleas leaped from their woolly coats, but it would have been impolite to show our surprise, and anyway, the little creatures vanished swiftly enough. But the taste of yellow porridge and amber schnapps will stay with us forever. What more could you ask, little brother?

We endured many storms in Căliman, which clouded trout-filled streams. But at long last, we descended from the ridge, climbing down into the long Ilvy valley and the villages of upper Mureş. We had grown wild and hungry in those mountains and were in need of a good shirt-washing and fingernail trimming. The feast in Wallachian Hot Springs was nearly at hand.


For thou art man and not God, thou art flesh and not of angels. How couldst thou remain forever in this state of grace being neither an angel in heaven nor the first man in Paradise?  I am He who comforteth the downcast with gladness.

From the third book of Rhenish traveler THOMAS à KEMPIS (1379 – 1471)

That day is sure to come, as unexpectedly as a lone swan appearing upon the northern horizon. Rare, snowy white, it flaps its wings slowly – far has it yet fly. An other-worldly day, unburdened by time. The longer you sweat and toil beneath the weight of time, the greater the certainty that the day will soon arrive. Days when I feel the ponderousness of time and my own diminishing vigor are days when I strain and struggle. Time and a stallion’s strength are the hounds that drive me. I feel I must see everything, climb each craggy slope, ford each rushing river, explore each winding valley, and record it all in my memory. I trudge arduously through the mountains. The joy I feel is not silent and knowing, but fierce and animal. On such days, I yearn to try all that life has to offer. To rob my own father. To give all my money away to Gypsies. To make love to four girls at once. To have all my teeth knocked out. To kill whales in the South Seas, to freeze my feet off on Lake Athabasca. To dance myself to death, to burn at the stake for the salvation of all. A thousand seductive things. And if I knew I could resurrect the dead, I would even kill someone – run them through, just once in my life. But instead, I stumble through the mountains as my life forces become slowly spent. Let these secrets remain between us though, my tender-eared brother, they are not truths for everyone’s ears!

On the evening of such feral days, I stink of sweat, I cannot eat for sheer exhaustion, even sleep is long in coming. Once in the Carpathians years ago, I had come to the end of my strength. I could not take another step, so complete was my fatigue. Earlier that day, I had spent hours climbing sheer hillsides without so much as a bite to eat, my heavy pack strapped to my back. Suddenly, I felt my legs turn to lead, lactic acid infused my muscles, and I collapsed. I used to laugh at tales of heroes who, for their wounds or exhaustion, crawled theatrically toward an unattainable aim, only to collapse forever a meter before it. That evening I was no different from them. My pack lay over me, and I could not move. I lay there for a very long time. But those are not the days when a swan appears upon the northern horizon.

Swan days are different. I remember one of them in the Eastern Carpathians. I was alone with three sun-filled, jubilant, weary, feral days behind me. I had not met a soul the entire time. It was the end of September and the shepherds had already led their flocks down into the valleys. After dark on the third day, I descended below the pastures to find shelter beneath a tree. Morning broke foggy and rainy. My back was sore, the weather was dismal and cold. The smoke from the fire stung my eyes, my body was weary from the strain of the previous days and my clothes were damp and sticky. I felt so miserable, I could have cried. But I had to keep going, the rest of my holiday had been planned out precisely. I was suddenly overcome by utter fatigue, more emotional than physical. Another day of lugging myself toward empty and futile goals! On long journeys, ambivalence is dangerous and indecision can be fatal. I stood there blankly. My very being rebelled against leaving, I shook with cold and feebleness. Then I looked up and noticed a black hut standing in the fog. I must have missed it in the dark the evening before. Or had a ghost built it over night? Like Muhammad in his visions, I did not know who was tempting me – was it a good or evil spirit? I drew closer, the hay shed was open. I felt relieved, it was decided. Haste, that wily comrade, vanished and I saw a swan circling above the mountains.  

I changed back into dry clothes, and with my sleeping bag, crawled into the darkest corner. Rain drummed on the roof, ancient rain. How sweet to listen to it while lying in dry hay. The first moment of bliss, and how many more awaited me that day! I felt completely and utterly safe, like a child, racked with fever, but cared for by his mother. My classmates were at school, and I lay unconcerned in the uncustomary light of my bedroom, ravaged by illness, yet in safety’s arms, having vivid dreams that are not dreamt at other times. No ill could befall me.

Here, too, walls of wood, hay, darkness, warmth and wafting aromas took motherly care of me. The river of time flowed sweetly by, and its waters took on a new dimension. I lay there for minutes, then hours without moving, the rain drummed, and I sank into the fragrant emerald void. Oh, if death could be so sweet – a crossing into another state of consciousness. Strength vanished, I felt only the boundless yearning to rest. My body yielded to its bed. I lifted my foot, such heavenly exhaustion, a moment later I could no longer even lift a finger.  The muscles in my face loosened, their ever-present grimace vanished along with the mask that accompanies people wherever they go. I fell freely into my subconscious. Wonderful imagery arose there, but I had no power or will to capture it. My notebook and pencil were within grasp, but I did not have the strength to reach for them. I was incapable of writing down the thoughts that floated around me that others might experience my joy and assurance, however distantly. Such sublime happiness did not permit me to move, or draw my clumsy hand vacuously across paper. Perhaps later, once the body regains its loathsome, shallow cheerfulness, and the soul reclaims its bothersome busy-bee alacrity which drives a person incessantly and instinctively from nowhere to nowhere. The hours passed silently by, and my soul drank its fill at the wellspring. Such swan days must serve us long, for who knows when they will return again. Without their solitude, the soul would shrivel and dry, becoming like Zarathustra’s empty sacks of flour which might still cloud the air with their dust, but would be of little other use. In those moments, I clearly sensed how most of what people do comes down to mere games and substitution. Everything is a game: work, hobbies, property, art, power. And people – small and self-important. Chubby little toddlers. Of all material necessities, being fed, warm and dry are all we need to survive. And that is all easily attainable.

Sometimes I slept; waking and dreaming merged together. This was no sloth or idleness. It was life to which belong both days of labor and days of rest. I floated in peace and immobility while still clearly realizing all that was going on in the cosmos around me. I lay in the silence of a Carpathian hay shed while one man somewhere shot at another. And throngs of people listened attentively to someone’s speech. And a ship sank into the sea. And billions of spermatozoa surrounded their planet, their earth-like egg. And silent reindeer trekked across the tundra. And a grandmother in Malaysia told her little grandchildren fairytales.

Above the mountains, the day was passing. The hay shed was silent, and I, too, remained quiet and immobile. But life swirled in both of us; we were part of cosmic events. Love and extinction. Tears of joy and realization rolled down my cheeks. I had lain there the whole day without eating or drinking anything, in the dark and the rain. Yet – tears of joy. An old friend of mine told me he had experienced his most profound moments of happiness in a concentration camp during the war. Absolute happiness. And I believe him. The deeper the valley, the higher the mountain, the greater the despair, the more dazzling the exultation. Gratefulness for small things. For all things. If great pain vanishes from the world, so too will great joy. If sin vanishes, so too will forgiveness.

It must have been afternoon, the rain had stopped. The hay shed shone. A fox crossed a corner of the meadow, hunting for voles. It leaped, straight-pawed, into the air, landed, and with a shake of its head went round the other side of the shed. I was beginning my return to the world. The sun was pulling me back. It gleamed through the roof between shingles. My lethargy was dissipating. Thousands of grass seeds and grains of dust danced in the glowing rays, life swirled and turned to gold. As is written in the Vedas, “The sun is the soul of the world.” Fragrant mists rose from the meadows, and the sun awoke amorous fantasies. Pray that the darkest fantasies never come to pass – they would destroy body and soul. I had almost awoken. The swan day had come to an end. I gazed at the evening heavens. Yellow, green, and red clouds scudded swiftly westward. Island-like. Crete, New Guinea, Iceland. Painted monsters. They glided across the, where a high wind blew. How fresh and crisp it must be. To fly with it! Rush with it! How fast would I have to run to feel warm in it? Because the faster I race downhill on a bike or skis, the chillier I feel. And how about a meteor blazing through the air? At what speed do cold and heat meet in perfect balance so the aeronaut can sit astride it in comfort?

The game of the emerald void had come to an end. Night had arrived, the swan had disappeared beyond the horizon, and the day was at its end. A blessed day and a blessed game. Vital and purifying. The wellsprings were replenished, the soul cleansed, the body resurrected. It had revived from its daylong stupor like an Indian saint waking in an underground grave. A moonbeam passed through the roof, piercing the darkness. Silver-gleaming. I suddenly felt my old stallion-strength returning. The yearning to press onwards. I knew that both were wonderful and human: animal strength and clear consciousness. I also knew that the morning after such days would find me once again prepared to bear cold and heat, hunger and thirst, ready to ford treacherous waters, give all my possession to Gypsies, make love to four girls at once, burn at the stake for all of humanity. But let the secret of the emerald void, which breaks time’s reign of terror and snaps the futile whip of haste, remain between us, my tender-eared little brother. That truth is not for all!


THE WHITE-FLECKED MOUNTAINS. These are a wild belt of conglomerate mountains. They stand above the mild waters of the Golden Bistrița River from whose waters you scoop fresh zeal for sheer climbs up mountainsides and green-white mountain gorges. Their peaks, blanketed in green, mossy plains and dark scrub-pine thickets, are beautiful to behold. But most stunning of all are their white cliffs. Not hillsides or slopes, but precipices hundreds of meters high. Around their brinks, edelweiss and mouse-ears reach into the abyss like the hanging gardens of old. But August is not the best month for botanizing in Ceahlău, for the Moldavian sun has singed most of the color out of its plants. As you walk along the brink of a precipice, a raven takes flight beneath your feet. It beats the air with its wings and is suddenly above the abyss, taking with it the whir of its plumage. Many such dark-winged birds soar above the white cliffs.

Toaca Peak, a towering, nearly two-thousand-meter-tall summit, resembles the gleaming crown of “the olden king of Moldavian Carpathia,” as Romanian bards have called the Ceahlău Mountains. We have trekked across them from north to south, and from south to north. They are not as deserted as other Romanian ranges. On folk holidays, people climb all the way up to their myth shrouded plains. We had very little to eat once, the tiny shop at the foot of the mountains was closed. From sacks that stood open before the shop, we scooped rough cornmeal and begged a farmer for some drippings: meat baked in lard, garnished with dead fly larvae. We cooked mamaliga on an open fire, greased it with the fatty, fly-infested residue and disinfected our stomachs in the Eastern fashion: with firewater. Life in the Ceahlău Mountains was good and healthy.

If you are not strong of lung or sure of foot, do not go Ceahlău. The mountains are exceedingly steep from all sides, perhaps the steepest in all of Romania: above the waterfall of Duruitoarea, hikers wept for sheer exhaustion.


THE MONASTERY MOUNTAINS. This range lies in the easternmost Carpathians where three “obcinas”, or mountain ridges, rest side by side. Obcina Mare – the Great Ridge, home to the largest number of monasteries – lies furthest eastward. At the foot of mountains only twelve hundred meters tall, painted monastery churches have stood for half a millennium. Deep in the ancient Muntenian principality of Moldavia, long dead heroes, rulers, voivodes, and princes rest beneath the gravestones of forest-fringed orthodox monasteries. Everything about them is simple and modest. Clear brooks flow near verdant forests. Enter any church and thousands of faces stare down at you from the walls – saints and sinners painted in colors that neither fade nor tarnish. A dusky and secretive world. Faces appear on the outside walls of churches too, shining with bluish hues beneath an azure Moldavian sky. Saints gaze with dark, glittering stares, their beards woven reverently like braided loaves. Sinners and saint-slayers all have small pointy noses. Evil Turkish soldiers had their eyes gouged out by pilgrims long ago. Others, too, have carved into the old paintings. Ever since 1775, when the Sublime Porte ceded northern Moldavia to Maria Theresa who renamed it Bukovina, Austrian pilgrims have travelled to those forest monasteries and carved their names barbarically into the painted walls. Thousands of ornate signatures can still be seen today. Years there are also different, counted from the creation of the world. Thus 1981 is said to be the year five thousand seven hundred and forty-one.

If you ever venture into those lands, little brother, visit the monasteries by mountain route. The journey from Putna to Sucevița monastery will take several hours, and you will have to cross a fir-covered mountain ridge where heart-leaf oxeyes shine from green riverbanks. The path on the rim becomes nearly indiscernible, grouse fly from thickets, the smallest chick taking last to the air. Great silver beeches of Bukovina. From Sucevița to Moldovița, you must cross the main ridge. Forests rise up to the mountain rim on the eastward side, the west-facing slopes are a mix of trees and grass. Do not forget that most beautiful is the descent to the monasteries.


THE DAPPLED MOUNTAINS. White limestone cliffs, dark pinewood forests, fresh sheep pastures, the Hagymás of old Hungary. Lonely Rock, the most famous landmark, towers above a wooden tourist lodge, the only one far and wide. At the foot of the mountains near the little town of Balan, people mine for copper, but the area is otherwise deserted and grows ever more so the further north you travel. Most wild and beautiful it seemed below Black Hăşmaş Peak where great white bluffs, precipices and rock pinnacles soar above sweeping pastures. Dogs and shepherd children race from ramshackle huts to beg for whatever we give them. The sweets they so desire are a long way off.

Crossing the Hăşmaş Mountains, we continued northward for about a day from Pingaraţi Pass, which is spanned by the road to Bicaz, without knowing if we’d entered the Giurgeu Mountains or not. There seemed to be fewer sheep and more cows, and streams of water trickled down wooded slopes more frequently than in the southern Hăşmaş. There were also fewer pine forests on mountain rims and broad clearings were commonplace. Gradually dissipating forest paths led us southward and roundabout from a tributary of the Bicaz River to the enormous cliffs of Little Suhard Mountain. Above crystal clear brooks: bluffs of meadowsweets, giant fir trees, nocturnal fires and teas of seven rare Hăşmaş herbs. Evenings were silent despite the proximity of Bicaz gorge.

Bicaz Gorge is unparalleled among Romanian gorges. Plunging hundreds of meters between sheer limestone walls, its floor is barely wide enough for the pure water that bubbles at its bottom. Even the road that runs through it had to be cut into the rock in places. The busy route disturbs the gorge’s beauty, but peace reigns in adjoining canyons where white waterfalls rush above great watery pools. Below Bicaz and on its eastward end, the narrow Șugăul Gorge opens up on the left, its wooden footbridge dangling dozens of meters above the water. The cliff walls and flora of Bicaz Gorge have no equal: it was there I collected some of the rarest European bluegrass for my herbarium.