Camping in the Polish Mountains

I found myself sitting in a room with balcony overlooking the only street in my ancestral village.

It had been a couple weeks since I returned from Nepal where I trekked through the tallest mountain range in the world. Outside during that time, I enjoyed unspoiled nature and freedom from civilization in the comfort of my tent. The stars were just a step away. But things were different now and everything felt alien. Instead of rocks, I was sitting on a chair, and instead of the peaceful calm of distant views, I stared into my monitor with tabs and tabs of distractions.

Perhaps a sign, I discovered something outside of my window. Across the street and down a little, there was a nest on top of the firehouse. Inside were two storks and a baby. Watching them mesmerized me; the parents would spend the day bringing back food for the baby, twigs for the nest, and making “klak-klak-klak” noises in symphony together. Each day the baby would stretch its wings larger as if to capture the gentle wind and grow from it.

Mother stork waiting for her partner, the baby curled in the nest.

I needed to stretch too. My comfortable room had become confining, and just outside awaited paradise.

My backyard was the Pieniny National Park, a beautiful outcropping of mountains that sits like an island over the surrounding rolling hills. These are the lands of my ancestors who inhabited this village for over 700 years. My grandfather and his grandfather, and his grandfather, and so on… all hiked into the forests and cliffs to gather food, cultivate open fields, and catch a view of the Tatra Mountains in the distance. Though we “own” patches of land in the park, there has been a natural symbiosis and my family has preserved and protected the balance of man and nature still present here today.

The desire to go overwhelmed me and I started to talk about it to anyone I met. Wild camping is illegal in Poland, especially in National Parks in the Małopolska region. In addition, I was warned about animals like bears and boars, but I had to find a way… and then I did. It turns out that those who own land in the National Parks cannot cut down trees or build permanent structures, but they can otherwise use the land without a problem – including camping.

I purchased a map and identified my first destination. It is a small rocky hill just on the outskirts of the park, co-owned by a group of villagers. Because of its shape it is too steep to be farmed, but that provides anyone who climbs it a perfect panoramic view. And so, with permission from the landowners, I was set.

The thing about taking off like this is that you never feel like you have time.

I didn’t sit inside because I wanted to avoid being outside, it was because there is always so much work to do. I know that everyone feels it, the intense sense of responsibility that your obligations should come first. But, this is an unhealthy habit; one that stays the fulfillment of your innermost needs and starves your soul. You end up filling the void instead with vapid pleasures and habits that provide a quick fix like smoking, eating sweets, or browsing mind-numbing memes that are instantly forgotten. I learned that such quick fixes rapidly take root as bad habits, causing inexplicable guilt and anxiety, and invite only worse into your life.

Right up until the moment I started to march up the street, I felt anxious. “You can’t just take off, you can do so much in one day!” This echoed in my head as I packed, causing me to haphazardly throw things into my bag. It felt like a bell was ringing in my head, a headache that could only be relieved if I dropped what I was doing and sat in front of the glowing surface perched on my desk. “No,” I made up my mind… “I promised myself.”

The thing is you regret it if you don’t, but you never regret going.

As I walked towards my destination, resigned that the next 16 hours or so would be spent away from my computer, a profound change took root inside me. It felt like ice was melting. The sun was warm on my face and gave everything so much color that the details in my surroundings came into focus. Instead of walking past the cow above, I stopped and stared at it – almost forgetting to take a picture. I was looking at a creature and it was staring back, perhaps not many people come up so close. I noticed the incredible amount of flowers in the fields, bees, butterflies, and other insects. I didn’t rush, but took my time… and continued lighter on my feet, ascending physically and spiritually.

Finally reaching the hill, I discovered that tonight was one of those times in my life when everything would align. The weather, fickle with rain until this evening, cleared the sky of any threatening rain and instead provided beautiful textured clouds that rolled into existence and disappeared as they approached. The colors on the horizon stretched and glimmered into beautiful bands that wrapped the full way around, gently fading upwards and allowing the stars to flicker through.

As the sun set I sat next to my camera and wrote in my journal, recounting my gentle descent into relaxation. I would occasionally look up to see the sun as it glimmered, casting gentle orange over the landscape, and then quietly disappear. But, the best part was yet to come.

 

Once the sun had set, I stood up to turn the camera off and noticed something shining in the distance. Behind my back, and out of view from this gorgeous theater, was another celestial body that emerged from the horizon… the full moon.

I could not believe it, the one day I chose to enjoy a night outside expecting just to spend some time alone with my thoughts, was a full program of surprises and fantasy scenery. The moon was fully illuminated and completely revealed. My jaw dropped, “wow.” The sun had left the sky in a rainbow of navy, violet, and red, and created the perfect backdrop for the next star of the show. There it was, it hung in the sky as if deliberately put there, glowing a golden yellow and distinct from everything else that was now taking on another hue.

This was the moment that everything came into focus. I felt fulfilled; the desire inside for something I couldn’t define was being satiated right now. The colors were only becoming more vibrant as the light dimmed, the moon shone like a spotlight down on the hills and mountains that stretched over the horizon, and the stars were shining ever-brighter overhead. It felt like a scene from a sci-fi movie, another planet. I watched this ballet with childlike amazement and a giant smile stretched across my face. It dawned upon me that I was here for the rest of the show, shooting stars and all. Perched atop possibly the most scenic and safe place for a first night out, I gazed across this landscape and understood exactly why my ancestors would choose this place to live. It was so beautiful.

The sun sets late at this latitude and it was not long before midnight rolled around, but it didn’t matter. I was not here to rest my body, but to rest my soul. Even though I stayed up watching the sky fade to total black and the moon light up the landscape as it rolled across a star-speckled sky, I felt so energized that I was up and alert before the sun had a chance to reappear. The night was cold and silent, with a blanket of fog gently lapping at the footsteps of my hill, but otherwise stillness and quiet. I woke up to a beautiful array of colors across the horizon, and the moon on the opposite side now, bidding me goodbye with one last incredible view.

Standing in my jacket and warming my hands on hot mint tea I had picked from the riverside the other day and sweetened with wild honey, a smile of fulfillment spread from ear to ear. I resisted so hard to feel this, to feel alive; I allowed the work and obligations to pile up and layer around me into walls of confinement. Even as I left my house, I would have turned around and thrown my backpack into a corner with frustration had the desire been weaker. But I am so happy that I learned to keep the promises I make to myself.

This was a lesson, one that I had to work to earn. It was emotional struggle, releasing the ingrained habits that were taught to me since childhood and enjoying not doing something. We are taught to do our homework first, and though this is certainly a lesson in responsibility and discipline, it also teaches us that work is always the priority. We tend to think of what we have yet to do instead of what we are doing in the moment. When our mind wanders because we are allowing it some space, it reverts right back to that little ‘to-do’ list in our heads and highlights the unfinished items. This can be maddening and steals the opportunity to appreciate stillness and silence.

But this, this was different. It was sitting and staring at a fantastic landscape; and appreciating. I returned the next day so fulfilled and happy, and this lasted for the remainder of the week. If this was a drug and could be administered in the form of a capsule, there is no doubt that it would rapidly be consumed around the world. But it is not, and perhaps that is the reason it carries such weight; because you have to work for it.

Thank you for joining me. Namaste.


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