I’m a fellow USAC alum who also spent a semester abroad in Prague (fall 2009). Facebook recently reminded me that 8 years ago, I was also crazy enough to hike through 35 miles of Czech forest during the middle of the night. I came across your travel blog because I couldn’t remember the name of the town we hiked to from Prague, so I Googled “czech overnight pilgrimage hike” and bam, there was your blog post!
I really enjoyed reading your account of the “35 mile hike from hell.” Only someone who experienced the same struggle can ever really relate. So in the spirit of shared experience and the beautiful randomness of the internet, I wanted share my account (written now 8 years later) of our semester’s hike with you.
As you may remember, our program director Jan was quite the outdoorsman. Actually, the guy was a total beast when it came to athletics. He easily outran me in some of the local races he encouraged us to participate in. When he asked if we wanted to join his group in an annual overnight pilgrimage to a Czech town with a historic church, I didn’t think twice about not going; of course I was in. The hike is in honor of students who would make this trek in the middle of the night to avoid scrutiny during Communism (religion and Communism don’t mesh). What a cool experience, I thought! I even convinced my best friend who was visiting from his study abroad program in Vienna to join us on the adventure.
First step was to stock up on bottled water, cheese sandwiches, and pocket-size bottles of vodka (for warmth) from the bus station kiosk. Then we set off! After about an hour of light hiking, the group stopped at a rustic Czech restaurant on the outskirts of town. I noticed all the experienced Czech hikers were eating heaping plates of steamed potato dumplings and stewed meats. I should have followed their example, but instead, only ordered a beer and french fries because I had eaten before leaving the apartment (clearly a mistake).
Ok, back into the woods for what would be the remainder of the night. Although it was a cold night with misty rain on and off, I remember our spirits were high for at least the first few hours. Someone slips down the rocky hillside and would laugh it off. Then someone trips over a rock hidden by 100 years of leaves and we would have another good laugh. Haha! ha … ha.
…the novelty is starting to wear off.
The next phase I’ll call “content silence.” The distance between hikers begins to grow as we march down the trail. I was enjoying myself, just walking and listening to my iPod with the occasional sip of vodka. We stop for a group photo (I’m top left). Smiles are still present.
The hills get steeper, the rocks get harder, and the darkness gets darker, or that’s how it felt about 5 hours into the hike. The group stops for a few minutes to rest our feet and reality starts to set in. Everyone is looking weary and we are not even half way. I pass around the vodka to lift our spirits, if only momentarily.
The aches and pains begin. Each step is harder than the last. We bond over our shared misery, only until everyone gets separated. At certain times, the closest person is barely within ear shot. I’m cold, but sweaty. Every pebble feels like a boulder through my shoes and the vodka is no longer helping. I think I’m following the correct painted trail markings on the trees, but I have my doubts. I see a friend walking back from the direction I am heading. We made a wrong turn. I’ve never heard worse news in my life.
Our only way out of the Czech forest
Miraculously, we get back on track. My body enters zombie mode and I continue to trudge through the cold in a state of semi-consciousness. Hours creep by. I find the group stopped for final time, now down to a few students, Geiger, and one Czech woman. We all sleep for 15 pristeen minutes. We start again and I eat the last bits of the food I brought (the vodka is long gone). A faint dawn light starts to break through the darkness. Eventually, daylight brings on a new form of delirium. The terrain flattens out and I start to pass small homes that I’m sure were quaint, but I don’t care at this point. ZOMBIE MODE
Finally, I walk into the town of Příbram, our destination. I made it, or whatever. I didn’t even go into the church. All I could focus on was finding the bus stop and leaving immediately. I saw my friends down the street getting on a bus and they yelled, “HURRY, it’s the last bust for an hour!” Somehow I ran that last 100 yards to the bus and immediately fell into a groggy half-sleep back to Prague.
Am I glad I did it? That in that moment, I would have told you HELL NO. Eight years later, I like to tell the story. Would I do it again? Not without multiple flashlights, GPS tracking, a thermos full of coffee, real hiking shoes, plus a grand feast and scheduled ride waiting at the end.
So probably not.