Albania 3: Theth to Valbona

It poured down rain overnight, timpani on the metal roof right above us. When I woke up, I thought about staying in bed all the next day in that chilly guesthouse, reading, but this plan suddenly seemed intolerable. I thought about walking back down into Theth and finding another guesthouse for the night, but that would only accomplish improving the conditions of waiting around. I had to keep moving. I checked the weather again. My phone couldn’t locate Theth, so I asked my hostess to check hers. Cloudy, slight chance of rain. Not a nice day for hiking.

Does every day have to be a nice day, whether you’re hiking or not? Isn’t there some corollary of this-is-just-one-place-and-I’m-just-one-person that posits that weather is just weather and any day for walking is as good as any other, as long as it isn’t pouring down rain? In any case, I had a rain jacket, and Lee had already set an example for me: he had decided to visit a waterfall partway up the Theth-Valbona trail and then come back and spend another night at our guesthouse. While I was deliberating on what to do, he did what should be done: he didn’t think about it; he just got up and left, shortly after our hostess cooked us frittatas she made with nettles harvested from her property—delicious.

There was only one thing to do. I shoved all my stuff back into my bag and announced that I was setting off for Valbona. The hostess’s mother, let’s call her bubbie, objected in Albanian. Snow! she warned. All that rain in the valley the night before wasn’t rain 1000 meters up, where the trail went. But her daughter wasn’t quite so worried. Possibly a light dusting, she said; perhaps mere rain. I asked how much I owed her for the room and the food. It was somewhere under twenty dollars, but I had forgotten exactly how much, and without WiFi—did I mention her guesthouse had no WiFi?—I couldn’t check the booking site; plus she’d fed me twice and given me a beer, so I owed her for board as well as room.

She was sheepish, and wouldn’t name a price. Her face betrayed awareness that her place was lacking, her son a problem. As if deleting amenities by the hour, after breakfast the power went out. Enough. I gave her a 2,000 lekë note (about $20), fairly close to the actual listed price of the place on booking-dot-com, plus a little extra for the food (she looked a bit surprised that I gave her anything at all); and I marched off.

Theth to Valbona is a very popular hike. There are websites that complain that it’s too popular, overcrowded, although I did not have anything like that problem in the third week of May. To be sure, the trail is easy to find and follow even for a clueless hippie. My guidebook devotes an entire page to a description of the route, which includes a pair of trailside cafés, and the internet is littered with accounts of walking it. I started up into the beech forest the guidebook promised, and around the time I emerged into the first clearing, perhaps an hour into the all-day hike, I saw my first few fellow hikers on the trails up ahead of me. They had stopped to chat in the way hikers like to do. And one of them, I was happy to see, was Lee!

It wasn’t that I was worried about growing lonesome. I love walking by myself and I alternate between quiet absorption and the delivery of extremely fascinating (to my audience, me) monologues of the sort I’m afraid you’re reading a slightly better edited cousin of right now. But I didn’t want to hear my own monologues, I wanted to hear Lee’s, if he had the English to recite them. What were his travels really like when you zoomed down to the level of those little jiggles barely discernible within the straight line he’d left behind him in macro on the map? Tell me about real places in Tajikistan, and about pitching a tent somewhere along the unfathomable width of all of Russia, and about Baku, Azerbaijan, a city Heather and I are going to this summer, a city that sounds impossible, on a sea that sounds impossible, a landlocked sea I never dreamed I’d see when I first learned about it in elementary school: the Caspian.

He waited for me to catch up with him, and we began walking together. He told me about a few of his favorite places, about how generous and pleasant people were almost everywhere he went. He talked about cycling along the border between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, right by a river separating the two countries (if I’m remembering correctly), and how strange it was to think about the vast difference of existence that depended on this small boundary. I asked him about Baku. That city is a bit crazy, he said. We’d heard that: a lot of money there, a startling collision of opulent-new with the very ancient. (Tomorrow, as I write this, Baku will host the UEFA Cup Final, an event fairly close to hosting the Super Bowl.) Lee said he had found a guesthouse in Baku for three dollars a night.

Lee was expert at finding things. He’d had to learn to be in his travels, of course. He was using maps.me, an unbelievably useful app everyone knows about, except that I had never heard of it and was just following the red-and-white trail blazes from Theth to Valbona: a gentle, clueless hippie. One of my favorite things about Lee was watching him open up maps.me and focus his gaze quietly, intently on the screen. When the little location-marking arrow appeared, he would hold the phone steady and turn his body around it to orient himself: a good way to live, I thought. Lee was of that rare breed of human being: gentle—a third of Zink’s recommended character—with a delicate, open, almost feminine face; in many ways a total naïf, unmarried, no career, and until age 27 untraveled, who would not be sensible enough to be dissuaded by the very large number of dangers associated with the notion of cycling across Asia and Europe, through all those snows and Stans; but prodigiously intelligent, hardy, penetrating, indomitable—a core of iron inside a soft imprintable cloth. People like this, scarce and quiet, living in our margins, are the mineral wealth of humanity. And he was at the peak of any young man’s powers. In one of numerous books I’ve partly or fully written and never published, I have the line: “He had just turned twenty-eight, the greatest age anyone ever turns.” Lee was living proof.

I resolved to download maps.me. I have made peace with smartphones in a certain context, and that context is travel. Smartphones were made for it. Maps.me, Google Translate, lodgings-apps: they make the world bigger and smaller at the same time, in the best sense of both.

We kept passing and then being passed by a couple of pleasant dudes in their early thirties who were obviously really experienced hikers (you could tell by their tattered backpacks) and were taking their time enjoying the walk: a stint and then a sit-down for pictures with a fancy camera on a tripod; another stint, a snack break. They were a Brit and a Belgian. We arrived ahead of them at the first café, which looked appealing to me, but I wasn’t sure about stopping. What if the walk was a good deal longer than I thought? I didn’t want to dally here and get caught out on the trail later on at nightfall.

Lee gave me an inquisitive look. “Stop for tea?” he asked. Ah, good: Lee was making the decision easy. We stopped for tea. Actually we had coffee and a pastry called fli, which is dough layered with butter and baked until it’s sort of like kugel: kind of the perfect snack for hiking. And the outdoor café had a fire going in the fireplace, a spigot gushing the sweetest coldest spring water, and it was ludicrous to think that I had considered not stopping here. The Brit and Belgian caught up with us. We invited them to sit with us  by the fire, where they knocked back a raki. Three young women coming the other direction, from Valbona, clattered in and drank tea with snacks they’d brought with them. They said we’d encounter snow on the way down, be careful. They were very sportive and were clearly going to be in Theth by noon or so, intrepid seasoned world-walkers (two Brits and an Aussie) making lightning time in their snappy gear. I didn’t want to tell them they should slow down because there was no reason to hang around Theth very long, but I did sort of tell them that anyway. The Aussie shrugged, her retroussé nose raising up to a near sneer at the ease of the trip she’d already nearly completed, well before noon. Maybe they’d just keep on walking to the next village, she fairly threatened. Sure.

Lee and I wound up walking with the Brit and the Belgian: Alex and Dieter were their names. It turned out that Alex was an ultrarunner nursing a slightly torn calf muscle, so he’d decided to do some strain-free walking instead, which for them meant a ten-day hike-and-camp across the lower Balkan range from Montenegro to Kosovo via Albania. He and Dieter were chums from school, both employed leading holiday treks with the sorts of companies that offered package tours to nature-liking vacationers. They were planning to start up their own business as guides, and were out here on recon for farther-flung itineraries than what most people are used to. The previous day had been a long two-for-one peak-crosser for them, in order to maximize their time between assignments with their respective expedition companies. Today was an easy day—only twenty kilometers. No reason not to throw down a shot of raki halfway up the mountain.

Hikers are great people.

You hear that Albanians are friendly, you hear that Burgundians are taciturn and suspicious. The Javanese are obsessed with status. Texans are bad drunks and worse drivers. Rhode Islanders are also bad drivers. So on. I’ve encountered radical exceptions to all of those descriptions, but never to hikers being great people. If what you’ve chosen to do is walk, how could you ever be on the wrong side of life?

My instant affection for these two guys quickly cemented when Dieter was totally surprised to learn how old I was.

He thought I was ten years younger. This trip (so far) has been one of the only contexts in which broadcasting my age has been an advantage in numerous ways. It is not something I’m generally eager to share with strangers; I can see them wondering what to make of me. Yes, I’m almost fifty, alone in Albania, shouldering this pack up a thousand meters in running shoes, wearing clothes that aren’t keeping me warm enough. I don’t have maps.me or any other GPS navigator. I’m using my eyes; that’s how I spotted the carnivorous pitcher plants growing by the side of the trail. I’m almost fifty and I’m not gullible enough to pay you sixty euros for a taxi ride I know a bus will charge me six euros for if I wait half an hour. I’m almost fifty and I don’t need costly or artificial stimuli in order to find contentment. I don’t consume a lot of food anymore, I require less fuel to run on. The older I get, the lighter my tread on the earth, the more easily I walk over it, the less I need to ask of it.

I remember having a conversation with a former colleague of mine at the restaurant where I used to work, and we were talking about being in our forties and a good deal older than most of our colleagues. He was a little older still than I was and had formed certain qualities of authority and forthrightness that I didn’t feel like I had quite acquired. By way of explanation and comparison, and as if to settle the matter of age once and for all, he said, “I’m forty-eight.” He landed really hard on the eight. The full four-dozen years seemed to mark an emphatic difference between one stage of life and the next, which one had not yet reached at forty-seven. He had already managed a restaurant or two, gotten tired of the responsibility, went back to sharing tips with rookies half his age, and would soon leave our place in a rash dustup and move on through two more restaurants in short sequence.

His ways perplexed me a bit: If you’re forty-eight, why not settle in somewhere, get situated, stop being so restless? Just take the whole question of occupation off the agenda and free yourself to consider more important ones. But once I turned forty-eight, I began to see what might have been happening with him. Most remunerative work, what one does for income (as opposed to the work one does for oneself alone), any mere job, loses relevance. The time for making money and families, proof of earthly substance and success, has come and gone whether you’ve realized them or not. You’ve moved past a certain malleable or reversible point on the actuarial table, and it’s not cause for recrimination; it’s liberating. You are not going to change, even if you should suddenly want to, and you don’t have to worry very much anymore about who you are or will be. Never change–because you can’t. A sort of resolved self-assurance follows on, but having left much of life’s productive machinery behind, it is not a loss of identity but rather abulia and velleity that are the active dangers, so you absolutely must keep moving. Otherwise midlife crisis looms. I’m forty-eight.

Lee is twenty-eight; Alex and Dieter are in their early thirties. Together we made a good foursome, me the older goat among the kids, able to keep pace on a mere single-peak day, with a guesthouse rather than a trailside tent awaiting at night. Alex and Dieter thought Lee’s transcontinental bike ride maniacal (and remember that Alex runs a hundred miles just for fun). I had read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s vivid memoirs of walking in the 1930s from Holland all the way to Istanbul, along with an engaging latter-day retracing of Leigh Fermor’s route by a Brit named Nick Hunt, who, like Lee, often slept in subzero conditions and was occasionally beset by nasties and loneliness and so on. Maniacal? I suppose. But people have been doing this sort of thing for eons, and a bike isn’t that much faster than shoes. The most natural thing in the world is to want to see it.

We rounded a bend and came upon one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen.

I called ahead to Alex and Dieter, “As we say in America, ‘Holy fucking shit.’”

Alex said, “We say that in England, too.”

“And in Belgium,” Dieter said.

Lee smirked, because he understood us.

Here is the picture I took of that view, which will give you a sense of it in the way that a menu will give you a sense of the food.

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Soon we came to the snowy descent we’d been warned about. We picked our way down by sinking our soles into the footprints other hikers had left before us—perhaps those of the women we encountered in the café. I got cold, and I was already wearing all my layers. A few times, I slipped and went downhill on my rear end for a few feet, getting a little more momentum from my big pack than I wanted. Alex outdid me by far: he deliberately cut the course entirely by ignoring the little switchback cuts in the snow and simply sliding straight down the slope on his bum, effectively skiing where I was merely sledding.

As for Lee, this is a good place to say that Lee was wearing Crocs. No socks. Shorts and a t-shirt. Alex and Dieter were amazed, even slightly annoyed by this. Crocs! The kid is showing us up, hiking downhill in the snow in footwear scarcely sturdier than shower sandals! At one point, he slipped on an icy patch and one of his Crocs came completely off his foot, which I saw was red-raw with icy cold. He just shrugged. He slid his foot back into it, reached into his little day pack and put on his hat.

Mostly I was just concentrating on every place I put my feet and hands, like you do in yoga, but in the instances when I could think of anything else, I formulated a life principle: uphill is harder, but downhill is more dangerous.

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Me walking through snow. Photo by Lee.

Later, as we gazed back up at a particular section of the trail we’d passed over earlier, Dieter said that when he saw how far down it was into the ravine below, he was briefly terrified. I hadn’t noticed, and happily told him so. Clueless. Not such a bad quality at times. And I concluded that Nell Zink’s apparently suggestion-free email actually gave essential counsel. She wasn’t describing but prescribing. A gentle clueless hippie isn’t only what you can be in Albania. It’s what you should be.

Valbona guesthouses began to appear down in the valley before us. We were getting there. But what about Lee’s waterfall? We must have been two-thirds of the way through our hike by now and hadn’t even come to his cascade yet; in fact I had completely forgotten about it. Was he really going to turn around after walking to it—if he could even find it—and then trek all the way back to Theth, in his Crocs? It might be dark by then. I had no doubt he would make it there if he decided to; I had no doubt about Lee accomplishing anything he set his mind to. But Alex and Dieter suggested, rather emphatically, that he might be better off just going ahead with us to Valbona for the night and returning to his bicycle the next day.

Soon enough, we could see the waterfall itself, an enormous dramatic tumbler that was probably farther away than it sounded from where we stood and looked like it might not even be possible to hike to at all, a steep rock face rising forbiddingly up out of the treeline. After a moment of appreciation, Lee allowed that just seeing it from here was probably sufficient, and resolved to stay in Valbona. I have to say that I was quite delighted.

We stopped at the second (and last) café on the trail. It hadn’t opened for the season, but Alex and Dieter found two beers sitting in a barrel of cold water, like gifts left by a benevolent Albanian god, and drank them. Lee pulled out a juice bottle and offered it to me. I took a drink of it: he’d filled it with Albanian red wine. He smirked. It was pretty bad, and under these circumstances delicious. All four of us shared our snacks around: potato chips, peanuts, chocolate.

We walked over an old dry riverbed, also noted in my guidebook, on the way into Valbona, late-afternoon sunlight turning the bluer-than-blue water just below us even bluer still, glittering in its course. Over these bleached white stones must once have roared quite a waterway, Dieter remarked, and then he started telling us about the geology all around us. It turned out that he and Alex, in school, had studied this stuff. “We can bore you all day telling you about it,” he said, grinning. I told him there was no danger of their boring me. I never get tired of learning about where I’ve just been. Andrzej Stasiuk:

I love traveling to little-known countries. Then I return, consult books, ask people, and gather a mountain of facts to determine where I was.

This seems to me the right way to do it: experience first, understand later, when the hike is over. My guidebook interests me more after I visit the places it describes. When I returned to America from Asia in 2001, I read eight histories of Cambodia.

Dieter and Alex had already booked a place to sleep in Valbona, which like Theth is mainly just a lot of guesthouses lining a river, but a much nicer river—”Valbona” is obviously an Italian-origin name, “beautiful valley,” and it is. Once we reached the banks of the river, we could see right to the bottom. Lee and I walked Alex and Dieter to their place. I had designs on another one a little further on that was mentioned in my guidebook. It also had a restaurant, and Dieter and Alex’s didn’t, so we agreed to meet a little later for dinner. The Tradita, a common name for hotel-restaurants in Albania, had little cabins with two beds for 30 euros. Although I’d only known Lee for 24 hours, I had come to consider him my trusty indispensable roomie, and also someone to halve the cost of my sleep. That really is a win-win.

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The Valbona River.

We paid up, found WiFi—he didn’t have the Theth guesthouse’s contact information (he didn’t think he’d need it), so he had me email and What’s-App her to let her know that he’d be back the next day to stay another night, would she please look after his bicycle? We took showers and split a big beer in the restaurant. After a while, Alex and Dieter showed up. I wanted the trout listed on the menu but there was no trout; clearly, no one had fished for trout that day. I ordered “meat,” which in places like this is whatever meat they have, salted and grilled and cut into chewy pieces. It turned out to be their version of veal, which is just slightly younger beef. Alex ordered liver. That seemed a bit strange to me. He explained that he’d never eaten liver (never??) and wanted to try it. The circumstances—raging post-trek hunger—didn’t seem propitious for trying something new and gamy; but then, hunger is, as they say, the best sauce, and he ate the entire heaping portion, all of his fries, and part of my salad. The appetite of youth.

After dinner, we had a pour of Skënderbeu cognac, which was of good enough quality and price, a dollar a glass, that we had another. We shared some stories, and talked about the trekking outfit Alex and Dieter wanted to start up. (If they do, you should book with them!) What would an American want out of such an experience, they asked me, as opposed to a European?

Americans are inquisitive people, I was surprised to find myself telling them. On reflection, I’m increasingly concerned that we’re losing our inquisitiveness, buried as we are in our little aquariums of red or blue, our muddy little shallows of comfort, and less and less inclined to take to waters we don’t already know: a sententious and complacent populace despite our superficial agitations and our political mess; but at our best, Americans really are questioners, curious about the world, even voracious for experience—pursuers of happiness in any forms it might manage to take, sometimes including, or inventing, unhealthy ones. I sometimes think that America elected Donald Trump president simply because we couldn’t resist finding out what would happen if we did.

Alex and Dieter nodded in recognition. Europeans, they said, just want to hike: a stout number of kilometers each day, with some degree of strenuousness; check off this salubrious distance well walked; then go to bed and do it again tomorrow. They don’t tend to be interested in the culture, the history, or the people. But the Americans Alex and Dieter had led on hikes usually started peppering them with questions from the outset, even on the drive in from the airport. What’s that over there? And that? What do people do for a living here? Why is that over there shaped like that? All that sort of thing: Stasiuk’s childlike travelers, trying to make sense of an unknown world. I thought that Americans, if they came with Alex and Dieter to Theth, would want to see the kulla, and chat with other hikers, and learn about the geology (and, yes, go into the lightless snack bar and buy candy and beer). Actual miles logged would be a lower priority. It was that kind of guiding, comprehensive of more than just the trails, that Alex and Dieter wanted to do. They were developing a business plan, and I encouraged them toward their future.

And you? Dieter asked me. What are you up to, your priorities? Your next couple of years, what will they be all about? I appreciated the surprisingly longer view his question opened up, not of my next destination in Albania or even later in my travels with Heather, but well down the line, after our trip is over, back in the continuum of my life. I told him I was a writer, which I hadn’t yet disclosed and wasn’t planning to. Up to that point I’d only shown my usual bartender’s business card; it’s just easier, it leaves less room for the kinds of explanations I don’t like having to make when I say I’m a writer. But I felt the kinship of the trail with these guys, and was perfectly comfortable telling them that writing would in some way or another keep on keeping me busy, as it always does, even when I’m not writing.

On hearing my true occupation in life, Dieter gave one of those long, fully comprehending, Now-I-understand-what-you’re-doing-here nods. And not only because it helped settle the question of why I had chosen as place as romantically outré as Albania, so far from home, which my more superficial 1-2-3 answers (see blog post #1) hadn’t quite resolved for him. He also understood more intimately what kind of life most writers have, because—he responded, pointing to his friend—Alex is a writer, too. Cued, Alex reached into his bag and pulled out one of the hiking guides he’s written. As anyone who has used guidebooks can tell you, they’re an art in themselves: in fact a form of literature, in my estimation, as valuable as many other, more “literary” genres and indeed more substantial than most; they are both a record of a place in time and a sort of practical scripture whose clarity and trustworthiness are absolutely essential. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that people holding your guidebook in their hands are placing their lives in yours. You have to be the very model of a reliable narrator, which is not easy to be even with earnest effort.

Alex also writes travel stories for magazines, and he proceeded to tell us about something that had recently happened to him and would soon be one of those stories: an absorbing account of a town-dwelling dog he temporarily inherited during a long multiday hike, who wouldn’t leave his side; and so I scared up from the internet John Muir’s delightful dog-on-a-hike chronicle, Stickeen, and emailed it to him.

I’ll never see Dieter and Alex again, or probably even email them, but they’re my friends for life. Yes, hikers are great people.

Speaking of friends for life, next morning Lee and I walked along the Valbona River for a while. He was heading for another waterfall that happened to be not far from the road to the next place I was going. Our discourse grew more personal. I had told him I was married and had plans to meet Heather a few weeks on. He said he was curious about love, hoped he would find it someday, and we talked about that, and about the deep joys of traveling. He said that despite those joys he sometimes grew lonely on his voyage and had occasionally found himself considering going back to Korea before reaching his planned endpoint in Spain. I told him I understood those feelings and that consideration, but he was so close now to his goal, and in any case the places he was going to next, central and western Europe, were more densely populated than the steppe and the Stans, Europeans do a lot of hiking and biking, especially in summer, and he’d meet a lot more of them and be less lonely. I’m not big on advice, but I told him to push on.

As for love and marriage, I gave him two advices older men have been giving younger men since forever: 1) marry a woman you’ll still enjoy talking to after fifty years, which is how I feel about Heather—I feel that about her more assuredly than I feel about anyone else I know on earth; 2) men have given women an awful lot of thought over the course of human civilization, and, inspired by them, have built some of its highest pinnacles of art, literature, and other monuments of history, and the one thing we have come to understand about women without a doubt is that we don’t know the first thing about them.

Lee and I had talked about all sorts of things by the time we came to the place where he was to turn off the road for his waterfall. We embraced and wished each other well and I gave him my email address. He had taken a couple of pictures of me on the trail that he wanted to send me. (Really I just wanted to hear from him, pictures or no.)

As I write this, I’m sitting in my room in a very pleasant hotel room, which costs only 15 euros a night, with a balcony looking over the lovely, lively but placid square of an even pleasanter town in southern Albania called Përmet. In order to arrive here I did a lot of travel: a ton of walking and bussing and negotiating and navigating and lugging, and some little amount of sweating. I did plenty of sightseeing along the way, took dozens of pictures and thousands of hairpin turns—I’ll bore you with some of the yield of all of it in the next few days, probably—and now that I’m here in this tranquil little jewel of a city, everything about my existence is relaxed, untroubled, easy: days of literal wine and literal roses (Përmet is famous in Albania for its roses). Gentle, clueless, hippie days. Meanwhile Lee is pedaling somewhere, probably uphill, sweating, willing, unresting, going against all convention and the winds, or pitching a tent in the cold mountain dusk and gnawing on meager snacks, driven by some inscrutable but implacable purpose whose articulation lies beyond nearly all human powers. All the power is in his legs, his youth, his instincts, and his monastic fidelity to his goal. To think of him fills me with the benevolent, spent envy an older man feels toward a younger; pride and joy to have walked with him; and inner shouts of encouragement up on his way, although he doesn’t need them, toward Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrims journey. Go, Lee! Go for me, go for everyone, go just to go! Go while you can! Keep moving, never change!

I couldn’t bear to watch him part from me and go up his path toward the waterfall, so I made myself turn away and continue on down the road by the river. I figured someone, some vehicle, would come along to get me soon enough. The very first car that came by stopped, and I introduced myself and got in.

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Me & Lee.
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