We were rescued by a mountain of a man. A self-proclaimed champion of the 100-mile barefoot race in Japan back in ’92. Or maybe it was South Korea. His English was bad. My Bulgarian was worse. But he was strong, and eager, and drove a car that could outrun the bears.
By the time we’d met him, I’d been reduced to a tear-stained, soggy human being. Everything ached. Finally sheltered from the brutal winter storm, I held the hot tea in my pink and clammy fingers. I had pulled my unsteady metal stool as close as was possible to the warmth of the cracking fire licking inside the stove. Steam rose from our soaked-through jeans, our hair in tangled drippy strands. We still had over 13 kilometres to walk towards the village that offered a bus ride home. Kostas, boisterous and big, would either be our saviour, or yet another unplanned challenge on our hiking adventure.
He was the second Bulgarian, the second human, in fact, we’d seen in days. An elderly woman lived in the hut where’d we’d spent the last night, isolated in a frozen fold of mountain. She greeted us with wrinkly smiles through rounded glasses too big for her tiny face. Her thin white hair was held back with a child’s plastic barrette, and somewhat resembled a kindly Gollum. She lived there alone through the winter months, with no heating and a souring outhouse. Babbling pleasantly in Bulgarian, she welcomed weary hikers and offered them “chay” – hot herbal tea to defrost their fingers.
Half a day later, bloody and thirsty, driven down icy slopes by sleet and lightning, we were desperate. The elements were unforgiving, and I found myself trying to remember basic survival instincts: Keeping my chest dry, wiggling my fingers and toes, despite reopening wounds, keeping to the rise of the hills when trees could not shelter, eating frozen snow to keep hydrated – these reminders kept my mind from despair. My nose was red and numb, and could smell only the bitter cold.
Both Len and I kept our spirits up with the memory of Gollum’s canteen we’d just left that morning. A corner stove warmed the aroma of spices and roasted dried fruits. The scent infused the air, cloves and apple settled over us like a warm blanket. Somewhere on the mountain between the Gollum’s cloves and Kostas’ chay, we had frozen and become soaked to the bone, wandering without a clue as to when we’d reach the next hut, not knowing if it would even be open, or would be abandoned for the winter.
But I digress. The memory of overwhelming helplessness I felt keeps overtaking my story. It wasn’t this bad from the beginning. The trip began with high spirits and lots of enthusiasm, if not with lots of supplies.