So You Decided to Sit With the Gods?
You look at the biro-ink peaks of Mount Olympus on the back of your ouzo receipt. The receptionist at your previous Greek hostel made them look more innocent than what was to come. The triangular mountains are dotted with the incision lines of the E4 track; it will lead you to your refuge for the night before you reach the summit. It looks simple, like cruising along a highway with a few pit stops.
“Now don’t try and go to the very summit,” you recall the receptionist telling you back in Thessaloniki as they laboured over their crude excuse for a hiking map.
“Too much ice. Without the proper gear, you’ll probably die.”
Opting to probably survive, you get off the bus at Litoro station, receipt in hand. A few directions later, you’re standing on the start line of the E4, staring into the belly of Enipeas Gorge, famous for running below Zeus’ rocky throne. You have 18 kilometres until the next town and another five until you reach the refuge. It’s already late morning.
At 293 metres altitude, you’re plodding alongside the echo of rapid water. It’s a crispy November, but you’re already working up a sweat.
You turn around every so often to gain inspiration from the ocean playing peek-a-boo from vantage point to vantage point. Smiling, you turn back to the giant’s rocky fingers curled into a distant fist. The obvious simplicity of why ‘Mount’ is a precursor to Olympus becomes apparent. The running blue water laughs from below as your cheeks go red like a mood ring. Yet you march on, stopping to take photos of natural wonders from 17 different angles.
A group of seven or eight leathery retirees overtake you, led by a gorgeous multi-coloured mountain dog. You hear them babbling in a familiar language. Not being able to resist, you ask if you can give their Lassie a pat. They laugh at you.
“This isn’t our dog,” says the man with the matching walking sticks. “He’s a stray. The track is crawling with them,” he laughs. You pat the stray on your now-favourite track. He smiles back at you.
A few kilometres later, a local hiker stops you.
“Look,” they point into the autumn leaf litter. Slimy black and yellow salamanders are pasted along the sidewalk. The hiker laughs at your response to their magic trick called observation. They move on well before you can come to terms with the presence of these creatures.
You follow the salamanders along the E4 like some kind of Hansel and Gretel acid trip. Daylight is slipping through the fingers that hold your camera phone. An E4 sign points up a flight of stairs carved into the earth. It could be labelling the stairs or telling you to ignore and continue. You decide to go up.
Ominous pine shadows stripe the forest floor as you go to higher grounds. You take a look at your trusty receipt. The pen lines clearly say you should still be contouring the gorge, at least until you reach the next town, Priona. Fuck. Instinct pulls at your Gore-Tex jacket, breaking your legs into a panicked downhill bolt. The landing of your thudding boots is punctured with the worst words you know.
Finally, you’re back at the misleading sign, lungs wrung out. Sure enough, you walk 20 minutes down your original path and see a second sign. It’s for the E4. You kick a rock.
Another hour passes of listening to the self-deprecating inner monologue you’ve subscribed to. You are drained and need some self-care, so you stop to rest at a sturdy boulder, cracking out the chocolate for your party of one. You’ve barely devoured a row of the block when the grudge-holding E4 decides to punish you for your previous mishap. It cracks its knuckles to let loose a Samsung-sized rock shard. You can guess where it is going to land.
Your head is still throbbing from the dull smack of the sky falling. But you’re no chicken little, you know better, and for that, you burst into tears. You are alone.
The sun has retreated behind the gorge’s walls as the precious minutes stride on by. Like when treating a fallen tent, you take the poles of your collapsed spirit and re-pitch. The fly is around the wrong way, but it will keep you dry for now. Time to move. You flip off the nearby monastery that organised hikers have the luxury of adding to their Insta-story.
It’s 5pm; you have arrived at Priona. 1020 meters above sea level. Yet five more kilometres of uphill awaits you: you’re running behind schedule. Stopping to refill your water bottle, a much needed stray approaches you. It’s unbelievably well-groomed; you imagine it brushing its fur against the pine trees at night. She looks like a Sally. You feed Sally some of your limited bread supply and the rest is history.
You and Sally zig-zag up the continuing trail: this is the closest you will ever be to a Pokémon master. After sharing a decent silence, an interesting smell that’s exclusive to dogs pulls Sally from the path. You understand, grateful for her company in the first place, and move on.
Twilight is brewing in the sky. Pebbles have become boulders. Dense trees have shrunk to dry grass in wild mountain fields. You are so close, yet dusk sets past the land and into your thoughts.
You have been away from home for almost a year now. You try to recall what your partner’s nose looks like without using your phone as a cheat sheet. Home-cooked meals are no longer cliché as you find yourself begging for your mother’s lentil stew. Or the quiet company of your cocker spaniel sleeping on the deck. Have your friends kept your space warm while you have been away? Or had it already been filled in with cement. What if that rock had knocked you out? If your passed-out body was out of sight? You realise that you’re the most adventurous masochist you know.
Chafing heels drag you from your homesick musings. Artificial lights flick on from the hill above; you almost forgot about those. It hits you like a rock. You’re almost here: Spillos Agapitos Refuge. 2100 metres. You turn on your head torch and power through the last kilometre.
You drag your body inside, although it’s your soul that’s worn down by the 22 kilometres of walking. Throw money at the receptionist; the melting pot of human accents almost brings you to tears. You take a shower and try not to fall into your soup as the Greeks at your table try to make small talk with your husk. Too exhausted for camaraderie, you change into your thermals and climb into your bunk. Sleep has never felt more immediate.
“Time to summit,” your alarm chimes. You groan, but pull yourself up.
You line up for porridge and bring it outside to eat with the pack of resident dogs. Turns out your refugee looks after them on a donation basis. They scowl and wrestle with each other to the dismay of the guests.
Your bowl is clean, so collect your shoes and bags.
“No,” your legs beg, but you’ve come this far.
The next five kilometres are cold, diagonal and mouldy with last night’s snow. You turn a corner around a boulder, and see it. The dusty white canyon, a crown of mountain peaks contouring today’s edge of the earth. Microscopic goats gallop in the belly of Mount Olympus. You battle the remaining the slope of loose gravel to Skolio, the third highest summit. There, you can see the throne cut into the face of Mytikas: the highest peak. From your third place ledge, you sit beside Zeus like a champion. He smiles.
“Fuck me, you actually did it,” he thunders.
Rummaging through your pack, you take out the ouzo you saved for this occasion and raise it to the imaginary deities.
You clink your small bottle with the snap-frozen air, higher than you have ever been in your life.
Cover by Dan Chung; inset by the author