Среќен ден на независноста, Македонија!
Today is officially Independence Day, but I celebrated Sunday with a group hike to the top of the tallest mountain in Macedonia, Mt. Korab. Every year, people come from around the country to celebrate by scaling the tallest peak, along the western border with Albania.
It was a rough start. I camped out with some other volunteers in a town nearby along a lake, which sounded like a great idea, until one of the tent poles broke in the wind and the rain came. It was a less than five-star stay, but it’s about the adventure, right?
So after very little, soggy sleep, we met our kombi and headed to the mountain. About 10 minutes into the drive, we got a flat tire, and the lone Albanian speaking volunteer in the van said the driver told her he had never changed a flat before. So that was encouraging.
A few of us had flat tire experience and were ready to help, but it turns out, he had just never changed a tire on the vehicle he was driving. The hardest part was figuring out how to get the full-sized spare out from under the van. (Surprisingly difficult.) With four working tires, we got back on the road, but then our driver wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the trailhead.
We finally made it almost there, but he didn’t want to take us all the way to the trailhead because he said the roads were too bad. (He was the only one with that opinion, but he was also the one driving.) This added about an hour of hiking to our day, but what’s one more, right?
The next five hours were a combination of excitement, exhaustion, and anticipation. The hike started with two pretty steep climbs, so I was winded after the first 15 minutes of hiking. We also couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone about how long the hike took. One farmer told us five hours to go when we thought we were maybe halfway there. (He was wrong, thankfully.)
Then, time briefly stopped because there was a snake sighting on the trail and I nearly died. We stopped for a little break and looked to our left, where a family was heading down the mountain. (We were the only ones climbing upward at this point.) We saw the father, obviously a man of intelligence, beating the snake with a stick, and I immediately jumped up because we had not thoroughly inspected the area where we were sitting for snakes. Then, the daughter, who was not blessed with her father’s brains, picked up the now hopefully dead snake with a stick and putting it dangerously close to her face. Her mother was telling her otherwise, but the girl told her mom not to be scared because it was a small snake. (I know. This girl was insane.) THEN!! Then, this child puts the snake in a plastic bag and takes it down the trail with them. What?!
Anyway, I spent the rest of the day checking the grass and the rocks everywhere I sat down and periodically jumping because of phantom snake sightings. (The danger is real people!)
Despite some tough inclines, the hike was a lot of fun. And gorgeous. It was also really fun to be around hundreds of people enjoying being active outdoors.
Then our kombi driver called back. He said he wasn’t going to pick us up where he dropped us off, about an hour from the trail head. Instead, he was going to pick us up farther away, at least a two-hour walk. A few people in our group thought we would have to turn back before reaching the top to get down the mountain on time.
I wasn’t having any of that.
My friend Dave and I decided to play beat the clock and make it to the top, even if it meant missing the kombi and being stranded. (Thankfully, it didn’t mean either of those things.)
As we got closer to the top, we started to see other volunteers on their way down the mountain, which was encouraging. We also had a few people tell us the top of the mountain would be closed by the time we got there. We didn’t accept that. (I’m also not sure how you “close” a mountain.)
At the final push, we were both delirious and exhausted. (Remember not sleeping in the rain?) We took turns leading the way and complaining about not being able to feel our legs. We smiled whenever people told us, “a little more!” We also traded Sam and Frodo quotes because at times, I thought our mission was basically the same thing as bringing the ring to Mordor. (I also hoped against hope that the eagles would carry us from the peak to the kombi, but no such luck.)
The top was worth all of it.
The views were spectacular and it just felt amazing to finally accomplish our epic mission, especially after all of the morning mishaps. We were the very last hikers of the day to reach the summit, and we caught two other stragglers, who took a few photos of our triumph. (I also took some totally manly photos for Dave to use in his online dating profiles when he goes back to America in a few months. Tell your single friends. No big deal, but he’s hiked the tallest mountain in Macedonia.)
The trip down the mountain took at least an hour less than the trip up, because gravity, probably, but it was still tiring. Nine straight hours of hiking meant that everything hurt. But then we reminded each other that we just hiked the tallest mountain in Macedonia, and we were kind of a big deal.
So today, on actual Independence Day, I’ve enjoyed the freedom to lie in bed, fighting off the remainder of the stomach bug that attacked yesterday (Murphy’s Law for the win). I plan to continue enjoying the freedom to move as little as possible, because my legs still aren’t ready for the real world.