Monday, March 29, 2010

Mountain Marathons

I'm lovin' it again! As the last of the burnt skin of my arms, neck, face, ear tips (youch!), and shins peels away, I've climbed back into the cool mountains and have been much happier about everything.

I seem to have been training for these last four months for the challenges I now face. The mountainous landscape is gorgeous but the paths quite rugged. The streams are bank-full and then some with cold meltwater from above. The most difficult part is the infrequency of the villages - no where to socialize and find refreshment... like that's such a harsh punishment, ha! Notice the sidebar - 128 km in three days! And those were enormous mountain kilometers... my map can only show the closely spaced 100-meter contour lines, the altitude of the passes and peaks are so much higher than the valley floors. I upped and downed more than 800 spectacular vertical meters (2,600 ft) countless times each of those days. I can hardly believe I can do this! Sure, my legs are fatiqued spaghetti strands after the major descents, but even I'm amazed I can do this so easily.

When I do arrive in one of the isolated high-perched hamlets of goatherds and foresters, generally lacking a cafe, someone has always invariably invited me to sit with them in a shady spot to admire the view and have a beer. (Beer's great in Greece, as long as you like Amstel.) They are completely incredulous of the distance I've walked, though a quick glance at my exposed calves is the clearest demonstration of proof, enormous and muscularly cut (Irish genes!). 'You must walk around the mountain, not over it', they advise, 'it's not safe for a woman.' Hahahahahahaaaa! Yeah, right. The crowd in Gravia told me it I must walk around the mountains because the distance to Delphi requires three days to walk - they know from experience - and since there are no villages, it would mean camping out, which is out of the question because of the dangers, blah, blah, blah... cold, woman, alone... ugh, how tiresome this has become. So I walked the 50 km in one day and cherished every step of it.

How can I walk kilometer after kilometer? People ask me this all the time. I'm always curious about what's around the next bend, what I'll see over the next rise, or, often reflecting on Benny Hill's mispunctuated line: What's that in the road? A head? I see lots of things on the road, sometimes, indeed, there is a head - the skull of a deer or goat or cattle. Sometimes roadkill - badgers are particularly common here in Greece... sometimes the roadside shrines that look like miniature churches that someone tends regularly to keep the oil lamp lit. I've realized that these are generally placed as markers where paths intersect. Around one bend, then another; over one rise, down a valley, over another rise; into a village always full of quirkly village amusements... what's there not to like? I thought I was ready to be done three weeks ago, but that was the off cheese talking; then last week, but that was the distraction of the oppressive sunny heat... I'm nearly ready to be done, but these mountain experiences - long as they may need be - have been terrific. I've been keeping right below the snowline on these mountains. The soles of my boots are about as smooth as ballet slippers and the leather tops as cracked as a desert riverbed. I'm not done yet, but my boots will go the distance.

I witnessed a Nature moment on the dirt track high in the mountains aromatic with spruce and juniper trees... in the soft ground, clear deep footprints of a, well, giant dog, I'd prefer to think, met on the path by slightly smaller footprints of a wolverine, or some other creature with pointy toenails. Signs of a scuffle, uh oh, and then only the dog pawprints next to dragmarks of something broad and heavy... no more pointy-toed marks into the grassy verge below the rocks. Alas, nature.

I've been flirting with the heart of Greek mythology, up high in the clouds looking for Pan and his crowd. I've seen more goats in the mountains than bus-pilgrims in Meteora, but no Satyrs or Centaurs (yet). I climbed over the famed Mt Parnassus - sacred to Apollo, setting for Ovid's Metamorphoses, home of Pegasus... all that stuff from high school classic lit class - and descended into Delphi, the 'navel of the Earth'. Like my approach into Meteora, coming from the north, over the mountains is not the typical entrance. From above, Delphi looks like a small village on grassy slopes with the ancient ruins off to the side - a stadium, an amphitheater, some columns of various temples, the sea beyond the mouth of the valley; later, from the valley floor, I could look back and see the more typical view of the ancient place. From the stream amid the olive groves far below, the white houses with red-tile roofs hug the top of the slope just below the (nearly) impassable vertical rockfaces that soar into the clouds, dominating the landscape. Perspective says a lot.

People continue to be full of kindness for me. I walk in the wilderness and take advise from beekeepers and oliviers on what unmarked path to take to get to my next destination. I've been invited to share in many a meal of lamb on the backyard spit, with overly sweet delicacies oozing with honey from the numerous hives that dot the landscape. I find myself on challenging routes, and I'm fit for the challenge. I talk with people who have never met a pilgrim before. Nuns have joked with me when I ask for a night's accommodation - 'you must be Catholic, no Orthodox would do such a thing.' I've never been turned away. It's all still a lot of fun.


Anonymous said...

Wow...looks like your going to make it! Will have you in my prayers every day now!! Enjoy! and thanks again for such a great posting! Buen Camino, karin

Sansthing said...

I have been following your blog with great admiration (and envy). I hope your boots see you through. I believe the roadside shrines mark the spot where there has been a fatal accident, and are placed there and maintained by the bereaved relatives.

Sylvia said...

A thrilling adventure filled with all the ingredients to create a lifetime full of memories and bliss! Sending you my best for this Holy Week and Happy Easter!


domusorea said...

wow,wow,wow!I admire you...
buen camino!!

Anonymous said...

Seems like you are even more inspired now...not a wonder! You certainly are trailblazing and leaving your "footsteps" in many ways. Go peaceful pilgrim, on to Patras to celebrate Easter. We know you will get there! Nadja

AmeBenit said...

This is all so inspiring Ana... I was wondering as I read your enthusiastic and loving recount of what you have seen and experienced, what happens when you reach Patras? It is a life-changing, mind and soul changing experience you have lived out these last months.
I thought of myself... if I had to return to the states now... how would I feel? It's been like your climbs and descents... mountain-top experiences followed by steep and dangerous descents... only to rise again. You are in my thoughts and I wish you un neuvau chemin a suivre plein des bonne reves et esperance.
Veronica Cruz-Doane