Someday when you find yourself in Georgia (the country, not the state) on a weekend without much to do, may I suggest you go on a hike? It might go something like this…
First, you will find five friends to go with you. These friends will love hiking, just like you. You love hiking. One of these friends will also have a car, preferably of the SUV variety, and be willing to drive through questionable off-road terrain.
You will pile into that car and head out. You will decide, after much hemming and hawing and also getting lost for a bit, to head to a destination 20 kilometers away from Akhaltsikhe, near the town of Adigeni. When you get close to that destination you will turn off the highway onto a dirt road, which will eventually turn into a drainage ditch. Amazingly, the SUV will straddle this ditch without falling into it. Inside the car you will be bounced around like a doll, causing you to be most thankful for your seat-belt. You will also begin to rethink that decision you made to have a big lunch. But you keep it together. No one barfs.
After traveling as far as possible via drainage ditch, you will finally stop the car and give the engine (which is now making weird sounds) a rest. You will all pile out because you’re going to walk the rest of the way.
You will pass many beautiful things on your walk. Like tiny snail colonies.
Stacks of hay.
Fields of wild flowers, some as tall as you. (You will still find this remarkable even though you are about half the height of a regular person.)
Then, in the distance, you will see your destination.
ოკროს ციხე, or okros tsikhe. The Golden Castle. You will sigh and think, “now this is a proper 13th century castle.”
As you walk and walk…and walk…you will realize that the castle, like a mirage, appears closer than it actually is. In fact, the castle might be moving away from you. Like literally scooting away from you as you walk toward it. Because really, why isn’t that castle getting any closer? Also, the ground will begin to slope and rise rapidly. Soon you and friends will slow your pace. You will stop, not infrequently, to catch your breath and eye the castle suspiciously.
As you trudge up the hill, the path will turn into dirt and slippery little pebbles. You’ll begin to wheeze a bit from the effort, not because you have asthma, but because you are pathetically out of shape. This will cause you to think back to when you were a child and secretly wished you did have asthma. Yeah, you totally wished for asthma, which would have gotten you one of those cool inhalers and (most importantly) lots of attention. In fact, the only thing that you wished for harder than asthma was to break your leg. Which would have gotten you crutches and even more (and better, higher-quality) attention. Alas, even though you were an awkward and uncoordinated child, you never developed asthma nor broke either of your legs. As you ponder these sweet childhood memories, two Georgian men wearing dress shoes and smoking cigarettes will effortlessly pass you.
Because you weren’t sure of the weather, you will have decided to wear jeans that day in case it turned cool. You will now regret this decision. It has not turned cool. It’s just hot and your jeans make it worse. Also now your inner thighs burn and tingle (in a bad way) from the denim rubbing back and forth against itself. You will wish you had worn something more athletic and slick, like spandex biker shorts spritzed with WD-40. Or maybe that your hip bones were set a bit wider and that your thighs were a bit thinner. You might think about how Gisele Bundchen probably does not have this problem when she goes hiking. But you will push down your bitterness about fate’s cruel gift of narrow hips and soldier on.
At this point you will remember that you actually hate hiking. You hate hiking. Absolutely [redacted] hate it. You will ask yourself, out loud, why the [redacted] you ever thought going on this hike was a good idea. Because this was actually a really [redacted] terrible idea. You will notice that you’re starting to curse a lot, but you won’t give even one tiny [redacted] about that because dropping f-bombs will make you feel better.
After what seems like an interminable amount of time, the castle will finally stop backing away from you and you will start to get close to the top of the hill. (Or is it a mountain? It sure does feel like a mountain.) The dirt and pebbles will give way to grass. You will start to hear voices and as you turn a corner you will see that a supra – a Georgian feast accompanied by large amounts of wine – is in full progress under some nearby trees. You will recognize the two Georgian men from earlier. They, and all their friends, will now be drunk.
In a gesture of hospitality, these men will race over to your group and invite you to join them. In case you don’t understand their kind offer, they’ll throw their arms around the shoulders of your male friends and try to pull and drag them over to the table. You will do your best to put them off. You may even pretend that you don’t know any Georgian, saying exclusively in English, “Oh thank you, but we can’t stay!” while avoiding eye contact. You will keep walking up the path until they finally give up.
You will push on. You’re so close! But the final stretch will be the steepest. You will probably start to think you’re going to have an actual heart attack and die on this godforsaken hill/mountain/whatever. In a hazy delirium you may begin to ponder how Peace Corps would go about medi-vacing your lifeless body. Would they send a helicopter? Would some special mountain-traversing utility vehicle be sent in? Or would one of the drunk men from the nearby supra simply lift you up and carry you down like a sack of potatoes?
But then, just as you start to get overwhelmed with these grim thoughts, you will finally arrive. You’ll look up and see this.
You will walk through an ancient doorway and be treated to a view of the entire world.
(Ok, maybe not the entire world. But almost, yes?)
You will rest. After catching your breath, you will climb over and around the crumbling walls and imagine what it would have been like to have lived there 500, 600, 700 years ago. (The view would have been to-die-for, you will conclude, but the drafts in the winter? Deal breaker.)
You and your friends will stay there for almost an hour, just sitting on the walls, drinking in the scenery. You will feel like you’ve been let in on something secret and special. You will feel a wonderful mixture of peace and euphoria.
Joy. Rapture. Bliss.
Finally, as the sun starts to dip lower in the sky, you will grudgingly decide it’s best to begin the journey back. But before you go you’ll prop your camera on a wall, set the timer, and gather for a group photo so that you can always remember this moment and with whom you shared it.
As you descend you will pass the supra again. You will resist their invitations, which will be even more insistent the second time around. You will manage to escape.
As the grass once more turns to dirt and pebbles, you will realize that the way down, while easier on your lungs, is ten times more perilous. You will slip and fall no less than three times. But because you get lots of practice falling down in your general everyday life, you will land gracefully and without hurting yourself. (And this is a good thing because as an adult you no longer wish for a broken leg.)
You will finish the trek down the hill and find yourself back in the meadow. You will admire the flowers and the hay stacks and the snails one more time. You will arrive at the car and all pile in. Your friend will drive back over the drainage ditch until it turns into the dirt road and then the paved highway. You will fall asleep from exhaustion as the car bounces along. Upon arriving at the door of your home you will be nudged awake and then bid your friends farewell. You will go inside, peel off your dusty jeans, and collapse into bed.
After a two-hour nap you will wake up and feel sore from all the exertion. The next day the soreness will be a little less intense. In two days you will almost feel like normal. The acute sensations of exhaustion, wheezing, and burning thighs will be but distant memories.
You will look through the pictures you took on the hike and recall the beauty of the Golden Castle and its surroundings. You will think about how amazing it was to see. You will feel accomplished for having climbed all the way to the top of that hill/mountain/whatever. You will feel proud and excited. You will feel very fortunate that there are so many mountaintop castles that one can hike to in Georgia.
You will tell yourself how much you like hiking. No, not like. Love. You love hiking. You will start to plan your next hike!
Because, really, is it not a truly interesting part of the human condition how easy it is to forget the difficult journey that brings us to a wonderful triumph? Or is that just me?