There’s a philosophy of travel that I war with, and that I will continue to war with whenever I find myself on the road: whether to plan my peregrination or leave my wandering up to whim. I find both have a balancing constitution of advantage and disadvantage, but I know that I prefer the spontaneous and unexpected rather than the confidence in my course. That is the way I am in most aspects of life, to the point that sometimes I’m even weary of reading the back of a book because I’m afraid it’ll give too much away. That’s also why I want to have a good, long, possibly abusive talk with whoever is editing movie trailers these days. I want the faintest, barest, most naked notion of what something is about so that anything pleasant or unpleasant still remains a surprise. Do I have a great time every time I do this? Fack no! You can set yourself up for some epic failure following this course, but that’s part of the fun, baby! Because when you have no idea of what you’re getting into, possibly even terrified knowing you had a perfectly good, planned out alternative, and it ends up being this incredible experience that you never could have imagined yourself in, the natural ecstasy of that realization washes over you like cold, guzzled water hitting the back of your hungover brain. It’s a profound comprehension of joy that we forget when we live the same life day in and day out, going to the same place for work taking the same route going to the same bars on the weekend in the same neighborhoods because we’re so comfortable knowing our destination and so afraid of failing in the pursuit of something different that we’ve nearly lost the memory of what something beautifully unexpected feels like. And I assure you this isn’t a guilt trip designed especially for you, because for as much traveling as I’ve done, when I come home I do the exact same shit. The biggest excuse I can make is that I hate leading others into unfamiliar folly, because I hate being responsible for their good time if it ends up being a bust. But this one particular time in Armenia, I gave ample warning to the person who would join me on this adventure into the unknown.
I had spent nearly two weeks in the same hostel in Tbilisi, Georgia, doing work and hanging with the same expats who indefinitely called this place home. A fellow American, a charismatic North Carolina native by the name of Tino, sat down at breakfast and prompted me with the possibility of packing a weekend bag and heading to Armenia- in two hours. I deflected, feeding him some crap about having to work on my website, but after a little pressure I caved.
Now skirting along a panoramic river gorge as the sun descended into the canyon below, I knew I was smitten just from the ride in. There was no way I could only spend a weekend in this country. So once the weekend was up it was my turn to convince Tino to stay in Armenia a little longer and hit up Dilijan, a small village in the mountains. It was located in a place that harbored so much natural splendor the locals referred to it as “Little Switzerland”. While there we stumbled upon a group of classmates from some incredibly random international school tucked away in this remote Armenian village, and we stayed there with these students and a band of German hitchhikers basking in the fortune of our intertwined fate, knowing something higher or deeper had found a way of bringing us all together for that brief but beholden window of time (I’ll tell this story another time).
Tino was planning on heading back to Tbilisi afterwards, but I wanted to plan a few days trek to see this country a little more intimately. I scoured the Maps.Me app, which, for a free app that works without cell service or wifi, has an oddly extensive amount of trails indexed in these remote parts of the world. I wanted to find a path that connected villages over a portion of the Lesser Caucasus mountains. Something that would only take two or three days’ march. I found something, and intended on going it alone. But one of the German hitchhikers, Marlene, with her long blond dreads and keen predilection for improvisation, expressed interest in joining me. I was hesitant, though, mostly because I had grown fond of the idea of doing this alone. It was easier that way because I had no idea of what to expect on this journey. I warned Marlene gratuitously about this fact, but she was unfazed by this potential for misfortune or mundanity, and for all my initial reluctance, she was a joy to have with me and she was a charm when it came to getting all those chivalrous locals to hitch us a ride.
When we finally made it to the supposed start of the trail, we couldn’t find the trail. So off to a great start. The first half mile was up a gruelling incline off the side of the road, and, both of us carrying way too much on our backs, almost gave up, but I was familiar with the beginning of treks sucking and so I gave her the necessary encouragement to at least get her over the ridge. To our luck, we found the trail on the other side and it got significantly easier, taking us on an even stroll through green, rolling farmland. I guess this was a little too easy because soon I chose the wrong trail at a fork, decided to recalibrate by taking us down through dense woods and into a steep ravine, back up an impervious incline guarded by endless bramble barricades, all so we could get back to the right trail on the opposing side quicker. There’s a lot of adjectives I could use to describe that detour, but quicker certainly wasn't one of them. But hey, what’s the fun in seeing the same scenery twice amiright? … right. Eventually we make it to a secluded little hamlet nestled in the crease of the mountains’ feet, where a capable stream provided water for a few small cottages. It was the last point before we were forced to make the long ascent up.
It wasn’t the most onerous trail, but no ascent is all that enjoyable. It was a slow haul along extended switchbacks, and the higher we got the quicker a storm front moved in off the horizon. We made it nearly to the top of the mountain’s ridge about thirty minutes after sundown, at which point the wind was rattling, random spurts of cold rain portended a guarantee of reinforcements, and the natural water spring that was supposed to be in this exact location was nowhere to be found. There was nothing more we could do, so we found a spot with enough even ground and a little protection from the wind, set up the tent, and crawled in. We had plenty of food, but now we had to ration what little water we had left, and when it came to the dark chocolate morsels we saved for dessert, the rationing really hit home, but at least the dry mouth still made us laugh.
Despite it being the middle of summer, it was freezing that night on the top of that mountain, so we bundled up as best we could. We woke up mildly refreshed, discussed our options, and decided to continue on hoping to find water at the next supposed spring. Breakfast was light considering we had a quarter liter to wash it down with. We got off the trail and trudged down a grassy decline, gaining hope as the ground got softer under our boots, but instead of a spring, all that remained was a marshy oasis of flora slurping up the last moisture in these dusty dog days of summer. This time we had no more laughter left for our dessicated tongues. At this point Marlene was definitely going to head back, but she waited for me to decide what I was going to do. I could push on foolishly without any promise of water, or I could admit defeat and chalk this up as the failure it was. As much as I wanted to continue, the memory of a recent trek equally as ill-planned urged me to be better than my duplicitous pride, so I decided to join her in reluctant retreat.
The way down was quicker, especially fuelled by the promise of water. We made it back to the stream running casually through the remote cottage community we passed the day before, and lost no time in taking our first sputtering gulps. I dunked my head into the cool, rejuvenating water and washed the heat of afternoon off my dehydrated husk. We laid there drinking, eating, and recuperating in the rays of our recently refriended sun. A few horses came up to join us, as the burly bark of a penned up dog echoed through the narrow vale. Two older women spotted us and came over to say hello, and, although they only spoke Armenian, we could understand the implication of “what the hell are you doing here?” Asked with friendly curiosity rather than hostile insistence. We smiled and conveyed as much as we could about hiking up the mountain and failing to find water, which prompted them to invite us into one of their cottages for coffee and candy. Obviously we accepted, following them into a tiny wood hovel, dark and strewn with only the necessities of such isolation.
This was the home of the older of the two, an affectionate elder with a grandmotherly bearing. She started heating up some Turkish coffee while the other lady went to fetch something from her home. She came back with an actual wheel of cheese and a reused quart container filled with creamy curd, almost like a more viscous brie, for us to take with us. ‘Oh wow’ Marlene and I looked at each other, ‘there’s no way we can accept all of this!’ But of course no is something I’ve found grandmothers around the world tend to ignore. We drank a few small cups of coffee, accepted a few handfuls of carmel wrapped candies, and conversed about as much as we could. We gathered that they thought we were a couple, and our embarrassed refusal only made us look all the more cute to them. The afternoon passed subtly by in their company, and soon the woman who brought us the cheese asked if we’d like to stay with her for the night. Marlene and I looked at each other again, calculating the time and wondering how we’d gotten so sidetracked. If we continued on we might’ve made it back to the road by nightfall, but what then? This was a solid alternative, and a more authentic opportunity than either of us could have imagined ourselves being offered.
We set up the tent on a part of her house built directly into the hillside behind, grassy turf providing the roof underneath. The rest of the house was sturdy but modest, comprised of three rooms and a straight, extended eave under which a worn, wooden table invited us to sit. To have considered it a cottage the day before was indulgent, for that term denotes some sense of cute or quaintness. This was more of a dignified shack, composed functionally from rough wood beams, stone and earthen mortar, and the occasional warped window panes, probably hand blown and perfectly imperfect in all their irregular glory. They caught the slanted light from the setting sun, sending random splotches of light onto the diverse clothing hanging from the lines draped across the fenced in yard. Volg, her suspecting dog, would take obligatory nips at us as we attempted to cross the porch-like threshold, making sure we knew there was still someone around here who didn’t like strangers.
Our host shooed him away, then took out her porcelain tea cups, decorative and chipped, and poured us turkish coffee from an ancient tin pot she had boiling over the stove inside. She offered more cheese and some apples, all fresh and natural. I’d say organic, but to me that means intentionally raised without modern modification; these people lacked the intention because they also lacked the necessary options. Natural was all they knew, from the sunrise to the soil. She explained once she sat down that soon her husband would herd the cows back home and then we would all have dinner. After all the cheese and snacks, Marlene and I were in no rush. We strolled leisurely around the narrow valley, chasing the warmth from the suns rescinding rays, before the heralding darkness turned the air chill and moist. It was about this time that the husband came ambling up the road, ushering his cattle and keeping an eye on his rowdy, three-year-old grandson.
In all honesty I wondered what he would think of his wife inviting two wandering travelers over to stay the night, but he was just as good-natured as his other half, albeit a little more quiet. We explained as much as we could of who we were and where we were from, but after that everything became more of an attempt. The only limitless source of conversation was
their cute blond-haired, rosy-cheeked grandson, romping around with his toy gun killing all the imaginary enemies that overtook the fort. Sometimes we became the enemy, but we took it well. You can’t always be on the winning side. We passed around more bread and cheese, politely stuffing ourselves as much as possible, when the wife brought over fresh milk from the cow, still warm and subtly sweet. When the meal had finished and the cigarettes were lit, a contented silence spanned the home. A clear night with a brilliant canopy of stars illuminated the shadowed vale. The little tyke sat on his grandfather’s lap, yawns stretching wide and eyelids drooping shut. The look his grandfather gave him was intelligible in every country, in every language and aberrant culture. Love is never hard to distinguish, even in parts unknown. But seeing it in this small hovel tucked away in the simple sincerity of the Armenian countryside, in a place that I never would have found myself in if the springs weren’t dry and my mountain trek didn’t fail, stirred something inside of me. It brought memories of my own grandfather, of my own home, of the blessing of having him and the blessing of being here. And in that emotional moment, in a place so different yet so familiar from the warmth of the people that called it home, I felt the poignant purity of overwhelming gratitude. Whatever force or fate brought me to failure upon that mountain, I was undoubtedly in its debt.