[Note from Christopher: In 2005, a publisher in the U.S. asked me to contribute a piece on the Czech Republic for a travel book they planned to publish called Travelers’ Tales, Prague & Czech Republic. So I wrote this short memoir essay for the book. The publisher liked it well enough to include in a subsequent global anthology titled The Best Travel Writing 2006, True Stories From Around the World. It’s not really a magazine article, but this seems a good place to present it.]
The full moon hovers midway down the southern sky, a platinum sphere afloat in a black sea of stars. I glance back at the cottage, at the small quarter-paned window aglow with firelight, the wood smoke curling off its rooftop chimney, then thrust both poles into snow and slide away down the slope toward the distant treeline.
Southern Bohemia, the remote countryside, on a wintry December night. The temperature hovers just below freezing. Fresh snowfall blankets the rolling fields and spreads under thick stands of conifers. The landscape spreads pale white and shadowed in gray, just right for a cross-country trek on skis by moonlight. After months of living within the urban confines of Prague, surrounded by too many people and too much noise, I need this solitary adventure.
I’d arrived earlier in the day with two friends after an hour’s drive from the city. The paved road off the main highway had given way to a paved lane undulating through snowblown hills fringed in trees. Sturdy farmhouses and stone cottages dotted the hills, an occasional frozen pond. Then another turnoff into a smaller lane, which might have been paved or not—one couldn’t tell for the drifting snow—and there eventually appeared a remote cluster of houses. Past them the lane abruptly stopped. There we parked and unloaded, piled our gear onto a sled and plunged across the fields toward the isolated cottage. It was a hard slog, thigh deep in snow, and before long we were sweating, stripping away our outer coats.
The cabin itself was either a weekend chata or chalupa (the latter is usually larger), and it seems almost every Czech family owns one. This one belonged to my friend Vaclav, who’d spent years working on it, improving it, maintaining it, a never-ending project. The single large room downstairs with a living area and kitchen felt cheerfully rustic, the two bedrooms upstairs cozy and snug. But then, Czechs seem to value comfort above all else. Between the latest electronic gadget and a comfortable pair of houseshoes, I do believe they’d choose the slippers. They often remind me of hobbits.
Having finally arrived, we threw open the cottage doors and aired it, cut firewood, built a fire in the stove, sat down to bread and sausage and beer. Following a brief rest, we strapped on our skis and set off for an afternoon trek through the surrounding countryside. Afterward, more food, more beer. Conversation by the stove’s warmth, dozing into a nap. Contented. As I say, a hobbit’s existence. Very pleasant.
By evening, though, the cabin had begun to feel claustrophobic, the friendly chatter noisy and intrusive. I needed to get away, outdoors, alone. This pressing need for solitary time seems peculiar to Czechs, the most sociable of peoples. But they are very tolerant, too, so smiled when I quickly explained myself and ducked out the door. Those crazy, restless Americans!
This is true, at least in my case. I’ve felt skittish lately, more than a little off-kilter. Fenced in. A Texan by birth and upbringing, I’m accustomed to open spaces, wide skies and large distances, and the Czech Republic, like most of Europe, often feels cloistered and crowded to me. Yet altogether civilized, and charming. I can’t imagine Americans living so compactly without social catastrophe. Even as it is, the sheer stress of daily life in the States seems to erupt in anger, in routine violence. But not here, though by comparison this country is poorer. It was the same when I lived in Mexico: so much poverty, so many smiles… well then, so much for the correlation between wealth and contentment. Quality of life cannot be measured with money. Convenience will never replace joy.
These thoughts pass through me scarcely noticed as I skim over the moonlit snow, my skis sliding down the gentle slope toward the treeline. The cold air gathers around me, encloses me in frost. My breath, at first ragged, falls into a rhythm. I move across the open field under a wide arc of scattered stars, headed into mystery, leaving everything extraneous behind, forgotten. Just me and the starry night and the snow slipping past underneath, as smooth as dreamless sleep. Lost in reverie beneath a Central European sky.
Reaching the treeline, I come to a slow halt, pause for a searching look. My eyes trace the deep shadows for an entry point, a trail. There it is, scant, twinned grooves almost covered in new snow. The towering evergreens loft over me, and beyond the first of them moonlight falls downward through the branches in small ragged splashes, reveals the surface of snowfall only dimly here and there. Beneath the thick canopy of the forest, I will have to see with my skis, an edgy prospect. I push off all the same, and enter.
The beauty of cross-country skiing is not found in what one sees so much as in what one does not hear. Snow subdues sound, absorbs and smothers it. Inside the woods, the stillness is profound. Such silence. What is left is emptiness. And that absence of things heard becomes uncanny, mystical. Like the nothingness of Zen. Except for my own quiet suspiration, the world no longer exists.
But trees certainly do, as I soon discover. Here in the murky forest, where the meandering trail is less seen than intuited, I find sudden, sharp, invisible declines fairly teeming with trees. I hurl downward, waving my ski poles wildly, frantically, bumping into low branches, finally smashing into a sturdy trunk, full stop, expelling a most unZen-like harrumph. Sprawled ungracefully, with snow down my collar, I think: A forest threadbare in moonlight is lovely, but perhaps not such a good idea.
An hour later, I finally find myself through it, emerging from its far side into another open field. I am a bit lost now, but if I turn left and travel far enough, I think I can circumvent the trees and circle back into fields near the cottage. At least it seems so. But of course the immediate way is uphill. And quite a long, steep hill at that, a real effort. It will cost something to climb a hill like that on skis more willing to slide down than up. But one does what circumstances require, one must. This is a lesson, I tell myself. This is the adventure. Any bold exploit teaches us something, unwanted or not. And it does not come free.
So off I go. Halfway up, I calculate the cost, and it seems very high. The temperature has plummeted, the air biting cold, but beneath my coat, my sweater, I am drenched in sweat. And tired, out of breath. I stop to take a rest, doubled over. The silence settles over me again. The emptiness. Now there is nothing in the world but my fatigue and this hill. For some reason, the notion that my life has come down to this, a simple but perfect metaphor, seems depressing. What could be worse?
The answer promptly rises through the silence, cuts through it like a knife: distant howls. Eerie, unearthly, hair-raising howls. But very much of this earth, I gather, and of these woods. Wolf howls. Or wild dog howls. And not one, but several. This is not a sound I wished to hear. It is not even a sound I thought might exist here. But it does, undeniably so, and it is coming my way.
There are moments in all our lives when we wonder at our own capacity for creating dilemmas. Not just ordinary dilemmas, but absurd ones. Outrageous ones. The sort of predicament that could make a fine story, if we survive it. And if we don’t, well then, no one will ever know just how foolish and wretched we felt in those final forsaken moments. This is not reassuring, to realize the options are so extreme: a fine tale that becomes more comical with each retelling versus, for example, an ignominious end being ravaged and devoured by wild dogs.
This notion—not just an idea, mind you, but an actual image, and a gut-wrenching sensation in my belly—spurs me into action. My fatigue is palpable, but so is the fear, and what muscles won’t accomplish is assisted by adrenaline. I move upward, gaining the slope, and when the skis seem to be holding me back, I rip them off and climb with my boots, plowing the knee-deep snow like a machine. My heart is thumping, my breath flushing raucous clouds of exhaust like a steam engine. The metaphor of the hill now seems trivial. It is nothing compared to the mythos of the wolf, the wild dog archetype, of the primeval canine predator that terrorized our prehistoric ancestors and still lurks forgotten within the marrow of our bones.
The howls have come much nearer, are circling now. They rise from the woods, echo through the trees. The dogs—for this is surely what they are; wolves must have been killed out of these parts a hundred years ago, because after all this is Europe, the Czech Republic, not Montana, not the Yukon… right?—these dogs must be tracking me by smell, downwind. But staying out of sight, a good sign. On the other hand, perhaps they simply haven’t found me yet. But they’re looking.
I push on through the snow, clothes soaking wet to my skin. Thinking they probably aren’t wild dogs anyhow. Most likely, they are farm dogs. Pets, really. Though of course, when you get a pack of them running together… well, we’ve all seen what humans can do in packs, much less dogs. People use guns, bombers, nuclear warheads. Then pretend afterward they didn’t enjoy it. Whereas dogs suffer no such guilt. They just rip with their teeth, go for the entrails, growling, snarling their primordial pleasure.
At the top of hill, I quickly lower the skis off my shoulder and refasten them to my feet, shove off down the slope aiming toward a place, just discernible, where the treeline seems to come to a point in the moonlight. The freezing air whips past my eyes, turns tears into thin strings of crusted ice down my cheeks. Behind the near treeline, the howling paces me. This is the closest they’ve been yet. I can practically feel them there, briefly believe I see their loping eyes. I drive the poles into the drifting snow, pushing hard, thrusting forward, no longer thinking—or at least I’m unaware if I am. It’s down to me and them in a race, and while they’re faster, I have more to lose than they have to gain. If it comes to that, I can bite, too. And scream. In Canada once, I had a black bear come into my tent and when I screamed it scrambled out quick, it couldn’t get away fast enough. Recalling the incident now, I smile. It has over the years become a fine story, a staple for late nights over a beer with friends in this tavern or that.
And this escapade will, too. I feel almost certain of it. But first…
Reaching the bottom point of the treeline, I turn the skis to skirt it and see in the distance across a wide rolling expanse a small flickering light. A golden twinkle set against a squat silhouette. The cottage, its window. My friends. I strike out for them, moving more steadily now. From the woods behind me rises a tumultuous chorus of howls. It ascends in what seems to me a bitter, keening complaint, as if even nature can prove unjust. The hair at my neck stands on end and I shudder.
Half an hour later, I lean against the cabin steps and remove my skis, prop them against a wall and stand watching the dark line of trees beyond the luminous snowfield. I listen closely. From inside the cottage, a murmur of voices. But from the distant forest, nothing. Over it hovers the Bohemian night with stars like diamonds strewn across a black velvet cloak. The wide lucid moon reaches down the sky.
After a while, I walk up the steps and open the cottage door, go inside. My friends look up from their chairs beside the stove, their expressions both welcoming and surprised at once. They’re wearing flannel pajamas and big cozy houseshoes.
“Tak, dobry vecer,” calls out Vaclav. Well then, good evening. He holds out a Pilsner in my direction. “How was the skiing?”
“It was great,” I reply, taking a seat, “a real adventure. Want to hear about it?”
They both smile. Yes, of course. Why not?