Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović
Nature is my natural enemy. Ever since I’ve known of myself, that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it’s going to be. I don’t know how to say it differently or more eloquently without getting away from the truth so I won’t even try. Nature or wilderness, which is by far and long a more precise term for the inaccessible and truly wild spaces, makes a man ridiculous and helpless. Not every man, of course, but people like myself have no business going there without the company of experienced guides armed to their teeth. Chances of a pallid-complexioned, thin-skinned creature prone to every disease known to man, as I have always been, surviving on his own in the wilderness for longer than half a day are at the very start brought down to a minimum. In ninety-five percent of the cases something would kill me: a black widow, an alligator, a lesser spotted eagle, a bear, insects of this kind or that, leeches, snakes, lightning and thunder or, if nothing else, I would trip over, cut my forehead open on a sharp rock and die on the spot.
In lower grades of the elementary school, and that’s the last thing I’ll add, they enrolled me in boy scouts. As I was of puny physique and eternally pale in the face, my parents probably thought that spending some time in nature and in the company of others would not hurt. Not more than a few meetings later they took us camping. And even though I was very young, I felt that something might go wrong. We set up our tents, raised our boy scout flag on the pole, made our campfire in the evening, and the next day – a competition. The last and key discipline brought the most points and it consisted in passing several control spots on a terrain that for the most part, naturally, spread over some thick woods. At one moment, I have to admit, I too was overcome with a touch of enthusiasm and competitive spirit. That boy scout zeal could be felt on every step and I was not left immune to that, to be fair, completely irrational excitement. I didn’t know exactly what we were doing, but I followed others who fanatically hopped around completing all of the tasks that needed to be completed. One of the tasks was to use a rope, that was supposed to act as a jungle vine, and jump from one to the other side of a smallish river, a creek or a swampy puddle. I let go off the rope too early, fell down and rolled down the bankside into the water. It wasn’t a steep fall, nor was the water deep, and I wasn’t the only one who got stuck there, but I was the only one who, while splish-splashing up the hill, was attacked by a swarm of forest killer bees. To be fair, it wasn’t a whole swarm and they were not killers, there were perhaps only ten or fifteen of the most belligerent and angriest bees out of which three managed to sting me: into my neck, forearm and my forehead.
This last sting, right in the middle of my forehead, made my whole head swell. That very day they took me back to my parents with my face completely deformed. For three days no one could even look at me from all the horror – I looked like a tiny, skinny freak with a head three sizes too big. And so my boy scout career ended – too quickly and ingloriously.
For thirty years I kept to civilization as my natural habitat. The beauties of wild spaces can be seen on television or on photographs of friends who visit such places in an attempt to cure themselves from the city bustle, stress and other predicaments. For thirty solid years I never took one step out of the city transportation zone, and then, just like that, I accepted the invitation by Tanja Mravak and the CAWH (Croatian Association of Writers-Hikers) to join her and a couple of foreign authors and visit our colleague Blaž Petrović who, for the past few years, had been living in a log-cabin on Mt. Velebit. As the founder and president of this small association, Tanja, once a year, by the end of summer, in cooperation with the CWA-SS (Croatian Writers Association – Sector South), organized excursions to hills and mountains for the writers from Croatia, the world and the region.
She phoned me and said, “C’mon, dog, come with us, join us. We’ll take a couple of them foreign writers to see Blaž.”
“I can’t, I really can’t…”
“C’mon, don’t be a dick. It’ll be a nice, nice people too, c’mon, don’t be scared, nothing bad’s gonna happen, on my word.”
As if anything less than a Mountain Rescue Service with two helicopters, thirty men on the ground, and six well-trained German Shepherds could guarantee anything to anyone, I thought, especially up there in the wilds of Velebit where the great Blaž Perković arranged the stars in heavens with his hazel stick.
“I’ll be with you in the spirit, but my body must remain in Zagreb.”
“There you go again… don’t fight it, if Senko Karuza could’ve done it last summer – you can do it too.”
“You and Karuza are a whole different story…”
In the end, I don’t exactly know how and why, I accepted the invitation. Probably I thought well – I’ll do it, pick up some ticks up there or some exotic hill-mountain disease, and she’ll leave me alone. Wild mountain lynx lives on Velebit, I remembered right after our conversation, venomous snakes, and, I’m sure, wolves.
After a long and slow drive, during which I’d never once broken the speed limit, I finally pulled over by the shores of the Velebit Channel, in a small town marred by hundreds of ugly, mostly half-finished weekend houses that had sprouted out and, I’m sure, keep sprouting out of the ground without order or sense.
The pebbled beach spreading to the left and to the right of the town’s pier did not look enticing. Nevertheless, temporary tenants of the camping-settlement and several nearby hotels – women, men and children of most diverse age groups – baked in the sun, others floated in the ripples not giving away any signs of life, while a group of older ones entertained themselves by retrieving sea-urchins from the sea bottom. They left those cursed creatures on the shore to die. In the air there was a scent of pine needles, mild desperation, and about a dozen different kinds of sun lotion. For a few long minutes I observed this second-rate, terrifyingly boring summer postcard and then drove down to the very edge of the town.