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Risky Business

"You come one? Bravo! Bravissimo!" the old woman said when I checked into the Malyovitza lodge. I had traveled all day on Bulgaria’s winding country roads to reach this small resort town in the Rila mountains. Sofia, Bulgaria’s capitol city, is a bewildering maze of changed names, wrong numbers and misleading maps; finding the bus station, not to mention the right bus, was no small feat. My navigational prowess had earned me the right to tromp these hills.

I told the woman I planned to day-hike over Mt. Malyovitza and spend the night at the Rila Monastery, famous for its thousand candy-colored frescoes. Her face turned grim. The mountains are unpredictable, the paths can be confused, she said, clasping her shawl shut. Some of the rocks have become gravestones from such risky journeys, her colleague warned, shaking his head.

In spite of the horror my hosts tried to instill in me, I slept soundly on a belly of fatty sausage and plum brandy (rakia), Bulgaria’s national drink. I was used to disregarding the advice of my elders. Humans are so illogical about danger, scared to camp around garden snakes, yet trusting their lives with deathly beasts like cars. If I’d heeded my father’s warnings, I would still be back in San Francisco instead of a third into a solo trip around the world.

Starting out, I didn’t even need the vague trail map I’d torn out of an old Lonely Planet. The trail was well-marked, with red and blue rectangles painted on boulders and trees every few paces; the weather as mild and steady as the incline. Tiny purple and orange wildflowers courtsied to shimmery pink ones as I followed the rectangles skyward.

I reached the peak to find an abandoned hut with no door sitting in a two-inch-deep bowl of snow. It was the end of the trail.

I crunched through the snow to the mountain's edge. I could see a grey ribbon of road at its base far below. But in place of path were crumbled rock and patchy grass, with steep, useless cliffs on either side. I looked at my watch. I'd been hiking for over five hours. It was too late to turn back now.

THE BOULDERS slid at the touch of my feet. The fear in my chest urged me to go back, but adrenaline spurred me on.

I'll just go a little further. The road winked at me, promising to lead me to a four-poster bed in Rila's monastery-hostel, where frankincense and white tapers were burning in anticipation of my arrival. A rock fell from under me and I tumbled thirty feet, smashing my watch, ripping open the seat of my pants and slashing my arms and legs.

I scrambled on, feeling like I’d shape-shifted into the Aries ram symbolizing my horoscope. Coming to a tall rock with no footholds to scamper down, I jumped, luckily landing butter side up. I slid down a sleek stretch of grass on my behind, staining my pants chlorophyll-green and losing the jacket tied around my waist. Finally, I came to the trail’s final dead-end: a 180-degree drop.

My legs were wobbly and trembling, but with no extra clothes and a chill coming on, I knew I had to make it back to the hut by nightfall. I inched up like a panicked little red caboose, making a goal of each boulder.

Sore and bewildered from 11 hours of hiking – if you can call what I did hiking -- I reached the hut just past dusk. The wind wailed through its planks like a horror movie soundtrack.

A grin swept over my face -- the only muscles I could move. I survived. Walnut baklava in a Sofia café could have never tasted good as the soggy bread and tomatoes I devoured out of my pack. I managed to sleep soundly, buried under storm-eaten blankets an angel had left for fools like me.

HIKING BACK to the inn the next day, I realized I had indeed followed the trail – just the wrong color.

The wrinkled men back at the lodge tipped their hats and laughed at me. "Signo, signo! (blue, blue!)" they called out as the waitress poured stinging vodka on my bruised legs. I didn't dare show them my blackened butt, though I photographed it for posterity in the privacy of my room.

My journal entry for the day:
I HAVE AT LAST LEARNED A LESSON ABOUT TAKING FOOLISH RISKS AND WILL NEVER DO SUCH A THING AGAIN.

Yeah, right. Like Evil Kenevil, I always survive my death-defying stunts. Why reform now?

I by no means propose you follow in my missteps. But sometimes you need to seize the moment before securing a tourniquet, cell phone and three layers of specially engineered clothing. Follow that wily hair in your brain and take that midnight, moonlight run. Quit your job and hike the Appalachian Trail. Take the kids camping with the coyotes. Just don’t forget to let your guardian angel know your plans.


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