I have seen many a wild and beautiful place on the border between the States and Canada that no white man has laid eyes on since. Mine was the first white face to bend to the clear waters of Yellowstone Lake. Those were wonderful moments. They cost me toil, struggle, hunger, suffering, danger, and health, but I regret nothing. Yet, now, looking back at all the journeys I have embarked upon, half-blind and old as I am,  none were more wonderful than my two-day trek across Porcupine Valley into the woods behind my father’s farm. I was thirteen years old then, and my father did not want to allow it. Never have I had to overcome such fear of solitude, distance and the unknown as that time, and never has the victory been sweeter and my happiness and pride greater than when, after the first lonely night, I gazed from the top of Badger Hill at the endless forests of the north for the first time in my life.

JIM BRIDGER, mountain man and explorer of the Wild West, 1881

How glad I am the world still lies before you, little brother! All who set out on journeys in their youth are like the princes in fairytales of old. The boy, the king-to-be, forges ahead into strange and distant lands. He wanders alone, himself a stranger, seeking what others have never dared seek. He is not driven by lust of aim, delusions of grandeur, avarice or ambition, but by quiet attentiveness to the bright and distant star of his destiny. He experiences much, but always returns home again – I have never read of a prince who does not return happily home.

The time of quests begins when a child enters adolescence, when he becomes a prince. A boy’s aim might seem small – the top of Badger Hill overlooking Porcupine Valley – but the blissful feeling of victorious independence is so complete, nothing can surpass it. The expeditions of youth are like the universe compressed before the Big Bang, like the fruits of adulthood yet a kernel in some heavenly flower. Adults may undertake longer and more ostentatious voyages, but who is to say, little brother, which is the greater prize – ten kilometers as a boy or a thousand in adulthood? For just as a person ages, so does all of humanity. Yearning to experience the bliss of its youth, it sets its goals further and further afield. A century ago, men ascended the Alps in woolen pants, bearing bottles of brandy and wearing funny hobnail boots. Mountaineers through and through, they risked their health and their necks, overjoyed to reach the place where cable cars and automobiles can carry you today, bored and indifferent. For mountain climbers today to sense the same self-assuredness and exceptionality, they must spend years training in the harshest conditions. Then clambering into trucks packed with high-tech space-age equipment, they rumble across the globe before finally reaching the Himalayas, or the Andes, or the Pamir Mountains. Once it was enough to sail the Black Sea in search of the Golden Fleece, now we must send shock troops in airtight suits all the way to the moon.

It is easier for boys. There will come a day when everyone seems stale, pallid and insufferable. That is the moment to leave for fresher lands where true and distant suns shine. Those are the journeys that remain most luminously imprinted on the soul. Never again will there be so much to remember and so much triumphant pride. I was lucky, for that was the age I explored all the Czechoslovakian mountain ranges. I hiked through each of them, one after the other, usually alone and without a guide, using only some outdated military maps. I walked through Slovakia and ascended the Carpathians just as boys from coastal lands would venture out into the southern seas. I must have traveled thousands of kilometers, and though I did not count any of them, I remember each one. That was my domain! I came to realize that the most beautiful moments are experienced in silence and solitude, far from a parent’s care which may dispel hunger and fear, but which crushes joy and independence. I also learned to endure, for there is nothing worse than not achieving your dream because of rain, weariness, cold or fear of hunger and solitude. Always keep going, tomorrow will be better! Whenever I turned my back on my journey’s aim, the cost in time, money and suffering to return was always greater; for even more unbearable than cold and hunger is not bending to the waters of the lake you have dreamed of for so many months. Remember, little brother, mud washes away and hunger is forgotten, but the pure taste of fresh lake water remains forever in your soul. Do not forget that the honor of every prince and conquistador is heroic endurance. The worse things get, the better – repeat those words often, and if you weep, weep quietly.

All later trips are mere reflections of pilgrimages embarked upon in the prince-years of long ago. With sadness, you come to realize you will never see every mountain or cross every meridian. But if you do not grow bitter or small-minded, adulthood is not lost! For it is only then you acquire a king’s knowledge, wisdom no prince possesses – and discover the world is beautiful wherever you are and wonderful days are to be had even in weed-grown landfills.

You can wander through saltbush thickets like a giant over forest-covered mountains. Such wastelands hold many secrets, and there, as everywhere, the sun shines down on both good and evil. No more do you feel pride in fleeing people’s pallidness. In adulthood, you finally learn to wander the countryside. To saunter aimlessly yet knowingly, without sweat and toil. Lowlands, ponds, fields, muddy dirt roads; no matter where you are, it is all beautiful. Once a year in spring, I walk through the countryside like Sir Peleček, the knight, with nothing but my leather jacket and a sleeping bag. I roam the lowlands I had no time for in my youth, the country I once despised. Those journeys are like sunbaths after winter, returning strength to back and spring to step. Above the forests, birds call, and I go slowly and lightly. I rest on pine needles and lie in the fallows. It is on such journeys I have most of my ideas; they are an annual spiritual renewal and the announcement of spring. Taking no food with me, I follow wherever my eyes lead. I go without the obstinacy of youth, without pride and disappointed expectations; I go with joy. I walk, I wave, I am. I stride lovingly through places many would find disagreeable, places I would not have visited in my youth: village peripheries that have a long way to Scandinavian neatness, villages like the Slavic [1] “zadrugas” of old; mud after winter, wilted goosefoot, dead grass amid unmown dropwort marshes; broken fences, goose droppings, unpruned apple trees with last year’s apples rotting beneath them. I like it all. The smell of spring, the rawness, the manure: those are smells I love. Having breathed them for thousands of years, they have entered the human bloodstream; in cities we have lived for no more than a few hundred. Here alone, among good-natured ruffians, farmers and country girls, do I find the remnants of genuine community, uncorrupted by money and tourism. [2] Zadruga – one comrade for another. They give you milk to drink and offer you a bed of hay to sleep on, but that, too, is fading. Nights on spring journeys are often spent in forests beneath pheasant feeders. They are usually dry inside with plenty of food left over from winter. Before sleep, I pick out kernels of wheat from among the weeds and bird droppings. It grows sweet in the mouth, most ancient of foods. On warm nights I sleep in deer mangers beneath blackthorn bushes, occasionally in the attics of deserted fishing huts or in the homes of good people if I find any.

How long ago those princehood journeys now seem, how distant the voyages to wild mountains and the yearning for southern seas! Once again, I feel humans were not created to love but one thing. For we often love – is it our salvation or our doom, little brother? – incongruously. Towering mountains and muddy villages, the solitude of evening fires and the jungle roar of taverns. The silence of lakeshores and the thundering of orchestrions. The unwavering faithfulness of one woman and unbridled debauchery. The rigidness of the oak tree which snaps in the storm and the suppleness of the reeds which bend before the gale. The chasteness of the desert and the filthiness of landfills, apostolic poverty and innumerable riches. Arctic waters and warm seas, rags and glamor, unfettered feasting and a life of simple fare. You carry it all within you, little brother!

Two games are now drawing to a close: that of prince and that of king. Know that you can play both in the beautiful land of Romania. As a prince, you walk through melancholic mountains gripped by their desolation, and the strange words of shepherds fail to brighten your smile. Storms wail darkly about you – beware, or you may falter. As a king, you wander lazily through steppe sands sensing, amidst the vast plains, beauty not all perceive as the sun rains its heat down slantwise upon the flat land and your journey feels torrid, endless, and senseless.

Fear nothing. Travel to the end of the world – wherever you go, things will be what they are. Hunger does not kill, neither thirst nor distance. But fear of them does. Have you reached the Himalayas? You may well find they seemed more terrifying in books. The truth is, they are a land of shepherds. If you content yourself with barley cakes and tea as the natives do, you can walk right below the highest mountains in the world as lightly as in the Carpathians. Join the barefooted shepherds who graze their sheep at glaciers’ edge just where climbers make their basecamp. Walk softly as the princes of old, clear of mind, quietly alert, towards your bright and distant star.

[1] Patriarchal farmsteads in old Slavic societies where an extended family or clan of related families lived, worked, and took care of one another for the benefit of the entire community.

[2] The term “zadruga” is from Old Slavonic and is derived from the words “za” meaning “for” and “drug” meaning “comrade.” Thus the literal meaning translates to “for a comrade.”