What I did when I left the Courier
I didn’t tell many people. How could I? I had done some absurd things traveling before, but this was an entirely different level of extreme. Less than a week before I was set to depart, I decided that I would walk from Prague to Vienna in Central Europe, about two hundred miles as the crow flies. I was afraid that if I told many people, I would lose my resolve.
I consider myself fortunate to be able to travel, especially when so many people struggle just to get by. My family is no different. We’ve always been working class. Despite that, I developed a rhythm of working like crazy, then blowing all my saved money on a giant backpacking trip.
I had toiled away as a dishwasher, bag-boy, cashier and student journalist, but in exchange had been able to travel by train through Western Europe, backpack across Central America, road trip along the west coast, hitchhike through Germany and bike all over the Netherlands.
Why did I decide on such a long distance? Walking Prague to Vienna is certainly not something someone casually decides to embark upon, but I had an overwhelming itch of wanderlust that I needed desperately to scratch.
Thanks to Chemeketa providing students with a free New York Times subscription, I discovered an article about a bike trail called the Prague-Vienna Greenways. The author of the article had walked a portion of it and wrote of it favorably. I could practically picture it as I read the article: a scenic path that cut through the pastoral Bohemian countryside, dales, creeks, beer, beautiful architecture, forests, great food and something to write home about. It was during finals week, a week before I was set to leave, but I was enamored with the idea.
The Prague-Vienna Greenways only exist, in part, because of the Cold War. The Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia, was right on the edge of the Soviet bloc. The southern regions which border Austria were forcibly vacated during the conflict to make crossing the Iron Curtain more difficult. Nature flourished in isolation. Even as the Cold War faded into distant memories, the region stayed mostly unpopulated, with stretches of wilderness bisected by a long road once used for patrolling the border. It was going to be beautiful.
Unfortunately, I had trouble sleeping on the flight. I was stuck in the middle seat between a Kiss fan and an elderly, beret-clad Czech man. I came out of the flight groggy and encumbered with jetlag. Burdened with my comically oversized backpack, I sleepily navigated through the Vaclav Havel airport in Prague. Not only did I not speak any Czech, but I didn’t even have a plan for where I was going to sleep that night. Having brought a tent, I was sure that as long as I found somewhere to camp, I’d be fine.
The first couple of days passed like a bad dream. I should have been sleeping my jetlag off in a comfy bed, but instead, I found myself unable to sleep in a tent in a park in Prague. Despite my jetlag, I was riddled with insomnia and a sense that the walls of my tent were collapsing in on me.
It hit me: I was an unarmed foreigner camping alone in isolated regions of Central Europe. One of my scariest nights camping alone was when I heard a constant grunting noise outside my tent for a minute straight, a horrifying, waterlogged sound that was extremely close to my unprotected campsite. I sat breathlessly in quiet horror, waiting for it to pass.
Whatever that strange creature was, I knew there was nothing I could do. The sound was so foreign that I couldn’t even begin to fathom what it was. Across the field, maybe a quarter-mile away, I heard a similar, more distant sound. The sounds called and responded for another ten minutes, then suddenly stopped. I had trouble getting back to sleep that night.
Why had I left home? I could have used my savings for transferring to a four-year college and been happily jetlag-free in my bed. I had no service on my phone either; I couldn’t tell a soul how I was feeling.
Loneliness would be a common thread throughout my adventure. Of course I was lonely. The landscapes were often desolate, and the road I walked was mostly devoid of traffic. The areas I crossed seemed like relics of a forgotten age.
One day as I walked, I was surprised to see a World War II-era bunker every five hundred meters, like concrete buoys in a vast ocean. Everywhere I went, dilapidated buildings dotted the landscape. Not quite gone, but forgotten.
I spent the first three days of my trip exploring Prague, just walking around the city in the insufferable summer heat. The weight of my bag was enough to heavily reconsider this half-baked idea. In a last-minute attempt to salvage my trip, I attempted to buy a used bike, so I wouldn’t have to walk the trail. I had no such luck. Putting on a brave face, I left Prague in the early dawn and started walking south.
Long-distance walking can be difficult, but it isn’t unbearable. Even with 20-30 pounds on my back, it was completely doable. I rested whenever I wanted and camped wherever I found. On some days, I’d only walk 10 miles, others 20. When you have nothing to do but walk, you can go extremely far.
Water and food, the essentials for life, were constantly at the forefront of my mind. Gone were the stresses of college life as a much more urgent stress took their place. The further and further I got from Prague, the further villages were from each other. I initially carried only two liters of water, as I was extremely aware of their weight, but with the full power of summer heat and endless hiking bearing down on me, I needed much more than that. After the first couple of days, I gave in and began carrying at least five liters of water and sometimes even more.
There would be long periods of time where I’d be completely out of water while I walked. I’d desperately check my maps hoping for a village to apparate and quench my thirst. I once even hitchhiked with a man who didn’t know a word of English to a town just to get a drink. Worst of all was when I’d finally get to a village, only to find no stores or anywhere to get water. Sunday quickly became my least favorite day, as most stores would be closed then. Dehydration was a constant, looming threat.
Would I recommend anyone do this? I certainly felt miserable as I hiked. Something as simple as rain or heat could easily ruin an entire portion of my journey. The bizarre looks I’d receive from the locals and my inability to communicate made me feel like a complete outsider. But, despite all the suffering I endured, I found a certain peace in my journey.
There was magic in watching evening winds rustle through an endless sea of golden wheat. There was a spark of childlike wonder in stumbling upon medieval castles. There was a sense of adventure that came with not knowing what was ahead. It was exhilarating.
In the end, I’m glad I had this experience, but everyone is different. How I decided to travel may not work for you. I think that everyone should at least travel a couple times, especially while in college, but maybe learn from my travels and ease yourself into the radical walking trip through a foreign country.
Erik Timm worked on the Courier as Features Editor during the 2018-19 academic year.