More difficult than any exam I've ever taken, more demanding than any job I've worked, and more strenuous than any exercise I've performed was scrambling for four days up peaks and navigating through thick fog and foreign signs for 30-plus miles, with 35 pounds of gear on my back, through Central Balkan National Park in central Bulgaria.
Other than trekking portions of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia and Pennsylvania, this was my first real extended hiking venture with a complete set of gear. I knew I wanted to finally put my REI pack to proper use on this trip, which spanned three months across the Europe, from Paris to Istanbul. I mostly used Flexbus (the European version of Megabus), as well as some well-timed hitchhiking maneuvers to get to Bulgaria, but once I got there, this portion through the Balkan Mountains was strictly on foot.
The plan was to begin the journey at the small mountain village of Divchovoto, about two hours east of Bulgaria's capital, Sofia. I met a local on the bus from Sofia who was kind enough to show me her town, join me for a meal, and even arrange a cab to drop me at the trailhead of Central Balkan National Park. In our brief time together, I gained a perspective of what Bulgaria was all about - how a less-than-desirable economy still survives on the perseverance of the people, strong traditions, and good food.
The beginning of the hike was easily the most tumultuous, as I was left stranded in the middle of the mountains after an abrupt, monsoonlike storm fell upon me right at dusk. I was left desperate for cover and spent that night under a fallen tree, wet to the bone, thinking of all the things I could've done differently. In the end, it's extremely hard to convince ourselves we're meant to grow from these situations, no matter how bleak they may seem.
I learned from my poorly budgeted time that first night and spent the next two nights paying little to nothing to stay in cabin houses with woodstoves and soft beds. Each night was better than the last, but the day hiking didn't get any easier. On the fourth day, I grappled with large rocks and slick roots up inclines of 45-plus degrees in order to reach Vezhen, the highest peak in this section of the national park, which rises 2,198 meters, a quarter of the size of Everest.
That fourth and final day was the hardest, but it was also the most fulfilling. Once I summited the peak of Vezhen and made it through a brief hailstorm, the weather broke and I began exclusively hiking along the ridge of the Stara Planina mountain range, Bulgaria's largest span of mountains extending west to east. This meant wild horses, lush grass, and rolling saddles and valleys as far as one could see.
There were several points on this portion of the hike where I really had to stop and gather myself to take in the views. It was so vast and expansive that walking while trying to get a solid perception was impossible at times. It would make you dizzy and force you to take a break in order to process and appreciate what you were seeing.
There were also times on the hike when I would find myself so tired and annoyed while ascending a ridiculous incline that I would forget about the elevation and incredible lookouts that were changing around me. It was as though nature was there, just waiting for me to turn around and show me the payoff of putting all my effort into something special. It was also there telling me to step back and slow down.
Moments like these set the tone for the remainder of my trip on and off the mountain, and it made me realize why I was doing this; not for any recognition or self-validation, but to encounter a challenge I'd never experienced before, and to do it away from cities and in one of the most organic parts of our earth.