I have my antennae up as I wander around Žilina, given its reputation as a hotbed of Slovak nationalism. Confirmation of this trait comes in the strangest of places. I step into a holičstvo for a quick beard trim, and there on the wall by the barber chairs is a photo of Jozef Tiso, the president of the so-called first Slovak state and a second world war criminal, at least as judged by the Allied victors. I'm tempted to play dumb and ask the barber about the photo, but she's holding a sharp pair of scissors and I don't feel like provoking her.
The next day I leave for Terchova in a driving rain. Rain, and the subsequent smelly boots and musty clothing, will become the theme of the walk for the next fortnight. September is in its third week now and I've seen perhaps four hours of sunlight the entire month. I walk through drizzle and downpour, and few days pass without a good soaking. Even when it's not raining, plants overgrowing the trail fling water at me. Walking to Terchová is like walking through a car wash for a few miles.
At the Šibenica Penzión in Terchová, Jana, the pretty blonde bartender, pours me a beer and a Moravian couple invite me to their table and offer slivovica. Czech is hard to understand; slurred Czech nearly impossible, but the man is friendly and generous and we agree to meet for breakfast.
Several days later, I head over the mountains to Liptovský Mikuláš. I'm walking through gorgeous green Orava pasture land, villages and cows in the distance below. I sit on a stump in Malatina, a village 800m up on a ridge, and every single villager that passes says "dobrú chuť" or some other greeting.
I promised myself a day off when I reached the Tatras, just relaxing and reading and watching television. That day turns out to be September 11. I'm in Penzión Guide in Štrbské Pleso, the nicest hotel I've stayed in on my walk, and I happen to be watching CNBC live as the hijacked airplanes begin assaulting America. I can't believe it, and aside from a 30 minute break for dinner, I sit glued to the television for 10 hours straight and turn it on first thing in the morning, aching for information.
I then meet Ed Sokol, a Slovak-American from Queens. He and his companion are going my way to Popradské Pleso. We spend the hour walking and talking about the attack. He knows people that may have been in the towers. I feel a strange relief talking to someone from home about it.
We have lunch at Popradské Pleso before I move on to Sliezký dom, the mountain hotel on Gerlach. I share a room there with three young Poles, two of whom join me for a beer. They are walking all around the Tatras on both sides of the border and want to climb Gerlach in the morning without a guide. "A guide is too expensive," one says. He then asks my age and if I'm married. I say no, "I'm a starý mládenec," (bachelor) using one of my favourite Slovak phrases. He tops it, however. "In Poland you are a starý kavalier." An old cavalier. It will be my new choice of description.
The morning brings sleet and rain. I hope the Poles are smart enough to not climb Gerlach in this mess. During the entire walk I can see sun shining on Starý Smokovec below and, indeed, as I drop below 1300 m, it warms, clears and is a pleasant day in the Tatras. So pleasant, in fact, that I decide to stay another night rather than reach Poprad as I'd planned. I find a cheap room near Tatranská Lomnica and spend the evening drying my things on a warm radiator. I go to the Tatra National Park Museum in Tatranská Lomnica, but I can't concentrate. My mind is still on New York and the image of those two towers falling to earth.
24. Sep 2001 at 0:00 | David McLean