I filled the 2-liter camel bag with tap water, and I shoved parts of the breakfast the lady from the kitchen had fixed for us at the top of the backpack and placed a few power bars in the outside pocket. I peed, brushed my teeth, and got dressed. I took the room key with me — an old fashioned, metal one. It was dark in the stairway, and I went down slowly, holding onto the rail on the side. I bumped into Vlad in the main hallway. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. In the twilight coming through the windows his bare legs looked strong in his sturdy hiking boots, and he seemed ready to go, impatient. He unlocked the front door and we stepped outside. There was nobody else around. Silently, Călin materialized from the shadows. In his blue jeans — obviously, the only pair of pants he had brought with him on this trip, his light beige sneakers, his dark windbreaker and old-fashioned rimmed glasses, he looked true to his stern, slender image. He carried a small backpack, and a black plastic pouch worn over his shoulder, with his camera and other photographic paraphernalia. We didn’t say much to each other.
Two white sheep dogs ran towards us, barking. We recognized the one in front as the bitch we had seen suckling a brown pup the day before, when we arrived and parked in front of the hotel. The second dog, also a female and still very young, was taking her clues from the older one. They came to within five yards of us and stopped, wagging their tails. The udders of the mother looked like shiny chestnuts under her belly. “Easy, dogs, easy,” Vlad said, and we started moving slowly in the direction of our trail. The dogs followed us, and then ran ahead, as if opening the path for us. I followed Vlad, and Călin followed me. We crossed a lazy stream that started at the lake, walked around a large boulder and went up. Rocks showed their sharp edges between wild grasses and spiny weeds. The trail was winding, the ascent steep right from the very beginning.
I fell into a pattern, a few steps, a deep breath, and a few more steps. My muscles started warming up. Slowly, the outside world lost its intensity and I entered the half-asleep universe inside me. It was a universe of void, of almost total emptiness, except for the few isolated and unrelated thoughts that came and left my mind, while the effort took over and dominated everything: one step, another step, a third step, one breath, another breath, place your foot here, mind this rock, make sure you don’t slip, lean on your right foot, on your left, adjust the strap on your backpack. The physical strain became my realm, and my mind turned lethargic and started to rest. It was the perfect rest, maybe the rest that Vio sometimes described to me as what she experiences during meditation. Yet, every time I stopped to look around, reality surprised and rewarded me. I could see the lake below, blue and sparkling, the buildings on the north side arranged like Monopoly homes in a half circle, the little cars in their parking spaces, the white and winding road that we had driven the previous afternoon and that disappeared in the abrupt mouth of the Transfăgărășan Tunnel, the mountainous range that surrounded the lake like a huge bowl, with its highest peak to the northeast (Vânătoarea lui Buteanu) 1,500 ft. above the elevation of the lake. We were climbing the Paltinu Mountain, a gain of about 1,000 ft. from the lodge. The sun was up, but still low on the horizon. The morning light glowed on a pale blue sky, with the moon, like a ghostly face, shining on the opposite side of the celestial dome. The world was stone gray, light blue, white, pale yellow and brown. There was total silence around me, and while my two friends were near, I could hear their breathing and their steps, and often enough I felt like I could read their thoughts. Gradually, the distance between us grew, first to a few feet, then to a few yards, to a few tens of yards, each of us falling into our own rhythm. The isolation was perfect. As we soon discovered, we didn’t have cell phone signal.
When we reached the first plateau, right under the Platinu Peak, we regrouped. The two dogs that had run far ahead turned back and came near. They looked at us seemingly amused, like they didn’t get us, as if wondering what took us so long and why we needed to stop now that we had almost reached the top. It had been a little over an hour since we had left, and a trail sign ahead of us indicated another four and a half hours to reach the Negoiu peak, our day’s destination. It was longer time wise than what the locals at the hotel had told us, but we rationalized it as most likely being a conservative estimate. Trails split and we followed the red stripe.
For a while, our path was flat, and we stayed together, joking, remembering old times, and talking about the Romanian folk ballad Miorița, a story of three shepherds. One of them, threatened to be killed by the other two, accepts his fate with philosophical resignation. We debated the meaning of his death and that of this ballad as the source of the so-called Mioritic space, filled with the people of Romania with their mild and fatalistic nature. Soon afterwards we found a patch of grass and rewarded ourselves with a breakfast consisting of yoghurt, farmer’s cheese, salam de Sibiu, and fresh bread. Clusters of white, yellow, red, and lilac wild flowers dotted the ground. We fed the dogs and I drank some water from my camel back.
We crossed the first large band of snow, which presented a challenge for Călin in his sneakers, and started climbing up again; then we went downhill along a narrow mountain ridge that opened on both sides into deep and wide pastures. The dogs ran in front, and waited for us in the shade of boulders, panting, their red tongues hanging out, and dashing out again ahead as soon as we caught up with them. I wondered at the source of their unguarded bursts of energy, at what possibly could explain their desire to run up the mountain for the sake of it, and I realized it was nothing but the joy of living.
Our next peak was called Vârful Laița. A sheepfold was visible far away in the valley below. The trail got narrower, and soon it became treacherous, with cables anchored in the rocky ground to facilitate passage. We were walking on the south side of the mountain ridge, in the shade, following the trail up and down, the valley to our left steep and as deep as the eye could see. Morning dew made the surfaces slippery. The dogs ran around us, but Călin was watching his steps. We struggled in total silence, and suddenly, in the distance we distinguished the silver surface of Lake Colțun. To its right rose Negoiu, an immense gray pyramid with the summit sign at the top, like a mosquito in the shimmering air, dark clouds gathering around it. We stopped and suddenly the dogs started barking. “Danger,” I said. “There must be animals,” said Vlad. “Mountain goats,” suggested Călin. We scrutinized the depth of the valley, and looked to the lake. We hiked up and checked the other side of the mountain. Nothing. No people, or wild animals of any kind, no predatory birds. Only the howling wind, the clouds above Negoiu, and our two dogs, quiet now, laying on the ground.
We were on the threshold of stepping into the next phase of our journey, crossing onto more difficult terrain, more dangerous, as if approaching the lair of a dragon we had traveled all this distance to face. Our senses were alert. Omens of the dragon abounded.
Come back Friday for the third (and last) part…