Category Archives: songsoutofthecity

Országos Kéktúra – the National Blue Trail of Hungary

 

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The Hungarian flag emblem, and underneath the everpresent blue and white striped blaze of the Blue Trail

Touted as the oldest sanctioned walking route in Europe, the Országos Kéktúra makes a long loop around Hungary – traversing low mountains, ancient villages, rolling low hills of wheat and hay fields and extensive beech and other deciduous forest. Meandering on steep (Appalacian trail like) stone trail, rolling well groomed single track, seemingly unmaintained muddy forest trail, abandoned and active agricultural roads and some highway walking the tramp offers something significantly different from Harpo and my experience of walking the national scenic trails in the US.

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Well groomed single track thru expansive beech forest 

The road walking is kinda a bummer. After hiking for days on end thru high mountains in the Sierra, the green tunnel vibes, followed by a 5k pavement trek into town is a much different experience. This is offset by the fact that you can drink espresso every morning in some age old cafe, the bar tended by a patron only somewhat younger than the cobblestones that line the streets. And the energy, enthusiasm and kindness of the rural Hungarian people are unmatched. This is a kind of rural life we imagine with nostalgia in America, or even in Northern Europe (Huck reminds us – iz not like these even in Denmark anymore).

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If the blazes lead to the vineyard, prolly you’re headed the right direction. The various colored blazes indicate different hiking routes. 

The trail itself is exceptionally well marked – you’re in no danger of getting lost. There is also a set of GPS waypoints available that can be ported to Gaia or another GPS app. However, every time I had a question about routing, by the time I had my phone out of the holster I spied one of the distinctive blue and white striped blazes. Other blazes indicate side trails, ruins, loops, springs and other features of interest. And signs appear at every significant intersection with more information about sites, distances and prospective hiking times. As a bonus, every small town has several water pumps offering free, unchlorinated water which we drank unfiltered without problems.

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Huck with that 100km stare over one of many endless hay fields we traversed

For all the road and village walking, the sections through the hilltop forest are clearly the highlight. While this is all managed forest, we see a model of what contemporary forestry practices can yield. While I’m kinda bummed about walking past stacked lumber, it’s clear that these dudes know the value in sustainability of their forests. There are no clearcuts, and the diversity of bird and insect life is unrivaled by anything I’ve seen in the States outside of the Hoh rainforest. There seems to be a decent balance between nature and industry…as a conservationist it’s hard for me to approve, but I appreciate the openness of the manicured forest, and the acres of groomed roads that allow me to access it.

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The ‘mountains’ are really hills, but offer some exceptional views over the rural landscapes 

The most significant different is the language barrier, of course. In the cities on Hungary everyone is exited to practice their English, but in the countryside English is met with blank (if not a little embarrassed) stares. That said, Harpo and I managed to maintain our vegan diet with little problem, and people are SUPER NICE. Like, really nice. And Huck was praising the availability of things like homemade liver pâté and paprika cured sausage in small villages – local products mostly unavailable in urban areas in the US or norther Europe. There’s always bread baked daily and farm fresh veggies; also local schnapps.

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And then there are 100 year old ruins lost in the woods offering solace, a brief rest, and a look at graffiti from the 1800’s 

We ended up hiking the OZT in mid May, which according to the English language tourist site for the trail can entail heavy rain. We mostly avoids the rain, and the heat of the sunny days makes me wonder if an August walk would be unbearable hit. Given the terrain, we were able to easily cover 25/30 km a day (15 – 18 miles) including morning coffee breaks and long lunches. We were always building our evening cook fire before sunset. And given the frequency of small villages, we never carried more than a days’ worth of food (wit some emergency ramen in case of national holiday or not realizing shops in small towns close at 1 pm). We found our 2 season gear totally sufficient for the time of year and elevation – I never needed my base layer except when I was washing my hiking clothes.

As tramps go, our short 350 km section of the Országos Kéktúra has been super fun, and inspires me to explore more of the Euorpoean walking routes. The OKT is part of a longer trail – E4 – one of a series of walks that connect existing regional trails into long form traverses of northern and Eastern Europe. The sense of stepping back in time, traveling through pre and postwar Europe and even into feudal times – the unimaginable past, before the detritus of global capital forever littered the landscape – is irreplaceable. The lack of McD’s and billboards allows breathing room unlike the rural landscapes in the US – and offer a new and different sense of exploration.

Hazy Days on the Duckabush River

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Puget Sound headed towards Bainbridge Island

It started with a slate grey sky. The glass and steel of the city matte under a thick smear of wet clouds, pinpricks of light glistening on the concrete. I needed to get out – the architecture was hemming me in, constricting my breath, making the clouds seem even lower. The forecast for the weekend – 100% chance of precipitation at all hours. Welcome to March in the Northwest.

I’ve been battling a sense of aimlessness coming back from the trail. I often find myself drifting through interstitial spaces with a blank stare – a dissociated look, distracted by speed and movement, looking for some distant horizon but surprised instead only seeing dumpsters, closed windows and construction barriers in excruciating detail.

After thru hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2013 I immediately started working on a gallery show with New Mystics and had a performance with Saint Genet scheduled for the summer. Returning to the comforts of the known was satisfying – the measured productivity of work, the intellectual engagement of art making, the support of the crew. Even if Harpo and I didn’t have a permanent address we still had each other, even after spending the previous weeks battling ice storms in Georgia.

It’s unnerving, returning again.

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The Duckabush River running high through the Brothers Wilderness, Olympic National Forest in Washington’s Olympic peninsula.

Coming back from the PCT has been a familiar animal in a different skin. After so many peregrinations the connection between my body and the body politic seemed unravelled, tenuous. Feeling alien in a hostile landscape, I find myself trying to conjure images of plenitude that somehow always seem two dimensional and unfulfilling, grasping at the tattered ends of some familiar memory faded by sun and worn thin by absence.

The easy, transportable sense of home that comes from pitching a tarp wherever you end up is harder to attain in the city. The sense of purpose inherent in the continual forward motion of thru hiking make feeling at home easy on trail. A community is simply manifest because a sense of commonality is clear – we’re all here in the woods together, mostly doing the same thing – escaping the city.

The city – a multifaceted and fractured beast – rapidly transforms itself, always eating it’s own tail. It’s hard to hold on because of the rapidly shifting topography; every memory becomes unrooted and unreal as the architecture that housed it changes or disappears. People are all travelling on different vectors, subject to unknown or unknowable forces, riding strange waves towards disseperate futures. It can feel isolating, as if everything is moving away from an invisible center you’ve just accidentally arrived at.

The pressure of architecture, the continual compression of dense human consciousness, the alienation originating in feeling alone in a crowd provides a contrast to the expansive space of nature, where details are infinitely complex yet uncrowded, quiet yet never silent. Swallowed by that quiet, resting in the belly of the Earth, I feel secure again. My sense of discontinuity fades away as I’m soaked by the pouring rain, as I traverse icy streams with frozen toes, as my perception creeps closer to my reality. This kind of loneliness is satisfying…

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Trail magic deep in the cut – 3 full cans of Bud Lite, one empty MRE and a lexan spoon.

PCT Memories 2015

Riding on a Cloud

IMG_4356I went to see a great show at On the Boards last night. OtB is known in Seattle as the premier presenter of new theatre and dance works. Riding on a Cloud, by Rabih Mroué, fits squarely in the modern theatre category – featuring a single ‘actor’ seated at a table with various props (a cassette machine, a DVD player, a stack of DVD’s, some paper notes, a glass of water) and a large video screen. The piece seemed simple at first, even minimal, yet revealed its complexity in very satisfying ways.

The work plays on the balance between fictive and real narratives, the precocious nature of memory, and the problem of representation. Yasser, the ‘actor’ plays himself on stage (thereby frictionally representing his ‘real’ self, as everything in theatre is fiction), occasionally wandering away even from his role as himself to observe the audience. The audience tries to determine what is true versus fictional in Yasser’s narrative, which is presented through a series of DVDs he plays throughout the performance. It’s telling that after 20 minutes of performance we learn that the DVDs are made in the wake of Yasser’s traumatic brain injury, the result of a sniper’s bullet during sectarian fighting in Lebanon (a true story, as it turns out). The DVDs are footage created in response to a real event which dictates the dramatic action of the show, rather than the other way around. We learn that Yasser has difficulty with representation – he is unable to create relationships between objects and photographs of the same objects, even photos of himself. The show is full of things which could be true, and some which might not. Other things are only hinted at, and then revealed over time – these reversals highlight the tension between the dramatic narrative and the nearly silent actor on stage, who’s story is represented only through media – otherwise he exists only as he is, somewhat charming and a little bit injured.

A Brother’s Tale, the New Yorker review of the show, does a good job of situating the work in it’s national and political context. I found myself more interested in it’s exploration of our relationship with language and representation. Creating our personal narrative – our portrayal of ourselves to others, is our most significant act of representation. This practice often hinges on language, our most basic tool. When we share our experience with others, we depend on language to bridge the gap between us, to ensure the continuity of our experience, to reassure us of our assumed truths. These are narratives that we depend on being true – our memories, relationships, our personal history and moral code. Language and (Bataille would argue) sex are the only hope humans have of overcoming our inherent isolation.

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My x-ray after brain surgery – the result of a bike accident, I was in a coma for 12 days. The last thing I remember was having dreadlocks (I hadn’t had a haircut in a decade)… imagine my surprise at waking up unable to speak, fully intubated, and with a rat tail. Also, my business partner at the time had press released my injury to the Stranger, and while I know not to read the comments, my moms did not – which caused her considerable anguish – and overlays another layer of ‘unreality’ on a very surreal situation.

The experience of the traumatic brain injury (TBI) brings into sharp focus how narrative is plastic, flexible, and often uncertain. A sufferer of a traumatic brain injury, I experienced aphasia similar to what Yasser describes. The radical shift aphasia engenders is a restructuring of language, which in turn drastically shifts how we understand our relationships with others and ourself. I relearned how to speak, the names of things, and beyond that, redefined my relationships with people. Or more accurately, taught myself to believe the stories people told me.  If we can not assume that any narrative is true, then even memory becomes an uncertain and slippery thing. I had the hardest time connecting to close friends, where I could not connect emotionally to the narrative they presented – I felt cut off from intimacy, alienated and alone. Retelling stories of people around me, including my own, eventually allowed me to reconnect with myself and others – to recreate myself in my own image – yet for me the certainty remained that I was a completely different person before and after. For any survivor dealing with aphasia, there is a very real and continual question about what is true versus what is believed, and there is no clear way of distinguishing which is which. I have spent years trying to dovetail these two competing realities, sometimes more successfully than others.

Ultimately, Riding on a Cloud is a dark but uplifting show, addressing heavy issues with poignancy, humor and a genuine and interesting voice. Yasser becomes a poet after his TBI – after his loss of language he sees through the broken words to discover the most direct and beautiful phrases. His life, along with the framing of his personal narrative through the device of a theatre show, are victories of identity over insecurity. His story, whether true in whole or in part, allows us to examine our own stories. Yasser’s overcoming is an affirmation of personal narrative, revealing the inherent validity of our struggle for identity, the value of our own stories and the importance of telling them.