Our muscles shook, spent. We were stuck.
The front tires of the two-wheel-drive Skoda hatchback, a rental, skidded and moaned before pulling us over a snowdrift and onto a dry section of road. I felt Shan Shan glance at me from the passenger seat, concerned. Rather than comment, I just raised my eyebrows and smiled, and pressed on along the mountain pass.
This snowdrift was the second we had encountered on our way through Montenegro’s Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that boasts rugged, Dinaric peaks and pristine glacial lakes. Because this second snowdrift, like the first one, had tire tracks through it, we assumed it hadn’t been serious enough to waylay other drivers. So, we shrugged off our minor traction-scare and continued toward our destination, an inn on the far edge of the park.
It wasn’t long, however, until we encountered a third drift, this one with a slightly steeper hump than the last. Our tires slipped again, only lurching free with the help of a push from Shan Shan from the back.
After the third came the fourth, the one that did us in. The patch of snow-covered road was on a slight incline, and our tires spun relentlessly, creating deep ruts in the snow. We tried everything to advance the vehicle. I put the car in first so the tires spun gently, left the driver’s door open and ran back to help Shan Shan push, but we needed more traction. I removed the floor mats from the back seats and shoved them under the front tires, but the spinning wheels simply frayed them and rubbed them down to the plastic. We pulled flat rocks from the roadside and tried to use them to excavate the tires. No use. We were sweating and puffing, rocking the car back and forth, shoes slipping in the snow on the road. Again and again, the car would rise up out of the tire grooves and then sink back down. Our muscles shook, spent. We were stuck.
I turned the car off and stood back with my hands on my head.
“I’m just going to walk up to the bend in the road ahead to get my bearings.” I said. “I need to recuperate.”
Shan Shan came with me. We stepped over the snowdrift to where the road was dry—so close and yet out of reach—and walked until we could see where the road had come from and where it was going. We stood in silence for a moment.
“Should we turn around and go back?” Shan Shan asked.
“I don’t think we’d be able to get over the hump in the previous snowdrift. We really created a predicament for ourselves, didn’t we?” I said and laughed. Shan Shan did not laugh.
We worked through the possible scenarios. Neither of us had a glimmer of cell service, so we were on our own. The car wasn’t going anywhere, so we reasoned we could either abandon it and seek help or wait with the car until someone else came by. We hadn’t passed another vehicle since the farming village we drove through before entering the park. How far back was the village, anyway? We had been so entranced by the curves of the road and the colossal scenery that we could only guess at how long it would take to walk back. Abandoning a rental car felt like an astronomical liability, but even arriving in the town after dark seemed a better option than hopelessly staying put. So, we left a note on the windshield of the car, which blocked the single- lane road from either direction, and filled our daypacks with our valuables and some snacks.
As we turned away, we found ourselves in an otherworldly place of overwhelming beauty and silence. Everything seemed to have sheen to it. The parched grass in the valleys between peaks was shot through with icy, days-old snow so that the hills beneath the road were like a glossy, undulating fabric. The lower dips in the topography cupped partially frozen lakes that caught the sun as we rounded the valleys. The sky bore a pearlescent haze, and even the peaks, soft yet powerful, had a warm slate color that seemed to glint as they encircled us.
Shan Shan and I exchanged a few words as we walked, but mostly we gaped. We had only met a few months prior, and comfort in silence felt like a benchmark in our developing friendship. We could have been chatting frantically about worst-case scenarios, but the awesome stillness of the landscape held our composure together, as if our huge surroundings dwarfed the dire feeling of our situation, just like they did us. We were getting what we asked for, after all: a hike in the mountains of Durmitor.
She and I were students in an arts program based in Greece and were traveling in the Balkans during our weeklong break from classes. A room-and-board offer from a friend of a friend in Sarajevo had created this travel opportunity for the two of us, and while Bosnia and Herzegovina was our primary destination, we had also planned a road trip into Montenegro to experience the reputedly beautiful mountains.
Our host family in Sarajevo had seemed unsure about this twenty-something American and Singaporean driving on mountain roads in a foreign land, but they nodded nonetheless, helped us secure a rental car and saw us off on our journey.
Five hours later, our rental car was quickly becoming a speck on the hillside behind us. It was a shell we had shed. We left man-made safety behind and ventured into a vast landscape with just our tiny bodies. Walking, I imagined a Russian doll set being unpacked, larger layers falling away to reveal an indivisible figure at its core.
The first and largest layer was my life before starting on the arts program, which had felt dominated by my marketing job. It had by no means been a full-fledged career, but leaving it behind to focus on creative writing had still felt like a pivot away from a stable norm.
Even the context of the arts program, the second layer, fell away on this trip to the Balkans with Shan Shan. We were in a foreign place, having all kinds of awkward, cross-cultural interactions—not to mention coming to terms with our own idiosyncrasies as travel companions.
Then we shed the third layer, the support of our host family in Bosnia, to journey into a slightly wilder place only to come to a halt in probably the remotest spot we could possibly get ourselves to in half a day.
Out of reach and out of ideas, we abandoned layer four, our vehicle—a symbol of civilization—and were just two people moving in a sort of limbo. We would make it out okay in one way or another, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the remaining pieces of the doll set, the layers I had never come so close to unlocking. A rare path opened up in front of me—one that led off of the road and down the ridge into the crunchy bramble and frozen gravel—one in which I shed my pack and clothes like snakeskin and dove naked into the dust and snow, laying bare life’s most basic impulses.
* * *
After an hour, it became apparent we would not reach the town before dark: we were only about a quarter of the way back, and the sun was sinking. On high points in the road, I began to receive a minimal level of cell service. I tried the number for the Montenegrin police whenever I could, but the calls were dropping. Eventually, I had a signal long enough to exchange words, only to discover the operator didn’t speak any English. I texted the inn we had reserved a room at saying we were stuck and could use help. No response. We kept walking.
Five hours later, our rental car was quickly becoming a speck on the hillside behind us. It was a shell we had shed.
What is a blend of kindness and incisive awareness? Wisdom, perhaps.
* * *
About then, a silver hatchback appeared at the bend ahead of us. We jolted and waved, and moved to the side of the road to greet the driver, our savior. It was a man in his 50s with a professorial appearance: he was bald with a short gray beard and wore rimmed glasses, a collared shirt, a wooly gray cardigan and corduroy pants. He had a slightly bemused expression as he rolled down his window.
“Hello, do you speak English?” I asked.
“Our car is stuck in the snow a ways back and we came looking for help.”
“Ah, well what can we do?” he said with a flicker of sincere concern.
“If you wouldn’t mind driving us back to the town—or somewhere where there is cell service—we could try calling someone for help.”
“Yes, I would be happy to help however I can.” His English was perfect, with a slight Slavic accent. “Please—get in,” he said and climbed out of the car to rearrange items on the back seat. We shook hands—his name was Brana.
After we made a Y-turn, we began to fill in the details of our predicament. At the first bend in the road, however, he stopped the car.
“If you don’t mind, I came out here to take photographs,” he said, lifting a DSLR from between the seats and stepping halfway out of the vehicle to snap several pictures. Shan Shan and I exchanged a quick glance. At the same time this man was graciously responding to our need, he was also scouring the landscape with a gentle lack of urgency.
“Are you a professional photographer?” I asked.
“Of a sort. I make portraits of people as a form of work,” he said.
Shan Shan chimed in from the back: “We are students in an art school in Greece. We are just visiting Montenegro during our break.”
“And you are studying photography?” he asked.
“Yes, and painting and drawing. Peter is studying writing, literature and drawing.” “Ah, and what kind of writing do you do?” he asked me.
“I mostly write poetry,” I said.
“I am not surprised—you seem like a sensitive fellow,” he said, catching me off guard.
“How old are you, if you don’t mind?” “Twenty-five.”
“That was my guess.”
“No, twenty-six,” Shan Shan said, correcting me. “Your birthday was on Friday.”
I laughed and corrected myself.
“This is refreshing,” Brana said, “to forget one’s age. People can be rather self-absorbed these days.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I smiled and looked out the window. What is a blend of kindness and incisive awareness? Wisdom, perhaps. Brana asked Shan Shan where she was from, and they talked briefly about politics in Singapore. He paused a few more times to take pictures.
“Shan Shan,” he said at one point, addressing the photography student, “I am trying to capture the different texture of reflected light on the road, the snow and clouds. Photography is so much about light.” She smiled and nodded.
Brana lowered his camera but paused before lowering himself back into the car. “These mountains have a sort of healing quality,” he commented. “When you come here, you feel lifted into the higher planes, or something like that.”
* * *
When farmhouses came into sight, we tried the police again, which initiated a scavenger hunt of phone calls that eventually led to a solution to our problem. Brana spoke in Serbo-Croatian with the dispatcher, who said the road through Durmitor was closed and asked why we hadn’t checked. He provided the number of a person who has been helping stranded tourists with his farm vehicle. Apparently, four Russians were in the same situation as us last week.
Brana called the number provided. This person was out of town but suggested we go to a restaurant in a nearby village where many locals gather. There would likely be someone there who could help free our vehicle.
Brana must have noticed my fidgeting: “I think you do not have to worry,” he said. “From my call with this man, I believe you can consider your problem solved.”
“I guess I had it in my head we would call a tow truck or some kind of utility vehicle.”
“This is not so easy to coordinate around here.”
“How much daylight do you think we have left?”
“It will be dark in the next hour, I think, but I would not worry about the light. You will be working with mountain people, and they have a different kind of logic.”
Brana asked us more about our classes as we navigated to the restaurant, and Shan Shan shared about her experience painting for the first time. Brana seemed interested in this.
“I am a painter myself,” he shared. “A portrait artist, you could call me.”
“Ah, do you have a favorite artist?” Shan Shan asked.
“This is a very difficult question,” Brana said. He had seen it coming. After a pause, he listed a few artists whose work he admires.
“That being said,” he continued, “I find myself more influenced by aspects of other artists’ work than by the artists themselves. The way so-and-so handles light and shadow, or so-and-so’s grasp on realism. Many things piece together to influence and inspire our work.
“There is a poet whose work I admire greatly and find myself reading rather often,” he admitted. “Perhaps you know him: Rumi.”
“Yes, a Sufi mystic,” I said.
“Perhaps, but I find this poet transcends cultural and historical categories. He is pure spirit.” Categories didn’t stick to Brana either. We never learned the details of his profession, where he lived, whether he had a family—it didn’t matter in these circumstances. He was just Charon, ferrying us between planes.
* * *
We arrived at the restaurant, which turned out to be a lodge where adventure tourists could settle down between days of horseback riding, hiking, river rafting, and the like. The busy season was over, however, and the furniture for the patio out front was packed against the timber building for the winter. Inside, there was a small dining room with a fire going in the furnace, two booths and two round tables made from heavy logs. A window looked into a kitchen, and there was a pantry with snacks and a cooler of beverages. Two men and two women sat around the room, chatting.
We followed Brana inside rather sheepishly, and the room fell silent. Brana greeted the locals and motioned for us to sit at one of the booths. He began explaining our situation, and the people just blinked at him—unsurprised, unamused.
Eventually, one of the men—younger, tall and thin with dark hair and skin and a faint mustache—stood up and exchanged quiet words with Brana. The young man then pulled out his phone and stepped outside. One of the women stood up and went into the kitchen. Brana joined us at the booth.
“This lady will prepare some tea for us,” he said. “After I explained the situation, this young man stood and said—as if issuing a verdict—that your problem would be resolved.” Brana couldn’t help but smile. “You should feel totally comfortable with these people,” he said. “In general, people in this area are honest and unassuming—willing to help with no expectations.”
The woman from the kitchen returned and set down three mugs of herbal tea and a bowl of hard-boiled eggs. Brana promptly cracked one open and ate it. Shan Shan and I did the same, suddenly realizing how hungry we were. The young man returned and spoke to Brana, who then turned to us to translate.
“He is offering to help you retrieve your vehicle,” Brana explained. “For 50 Euro, he will take you in his truck to free your car. And, for no added cost, you can stay in a room here for the night—with breakfast included tomorrow morning.”
Shan Shan and I turned to each other and discussed briefly. The value of the offer far exceeded the asked-for price, in our minds. This must have been the “different kind of logic” and generosity of mountain people which Brana described. We accepted.
After finishing our tea, Brana expressed that he had a commitment that evening and must leave us with our new hosts. We shook hands—I looked him in the eye and thanked him, unsure what else I could do to repay his graciousness.
“It’s truly nothing,” he said. “Best of luck. Have complete confidence in these people.” And then he was gone.
And, for no added cost, you can stay in a room here for the night—with breakfast included tomorrow morning.”
He turned his truck around again, and we were clear.
* * *
Shan Shan asked to stay at the lodge while I left with the young man to get the car. There was no need for an extra person, and she looked exhausted. “I’ll be back,” I said with a here-we-go grin and went to meet him in the parking lot. Glorko was his name. I climbed into his truck, and we sped off toward the mountains.
When I reached back to put on my seatbelt, Glorko stopped me. “No, no. Okay, okay,” he said with a thick accent. I think what he meant was trust in my driving, buddy. He then held up his flip phone and fired off a few texts as we cruised over the slopes. No big deal.
I wasn’t sure how much English Glorko spoke but asked him where he lived: the nearby city of Pluzine. He worked for the lodge, I think, helping transport groups on their various expeditions. He was twenty-three.
After a pause, he fiddled with the dashboard and some music came on. It had an unfamiliar, traditional sound. A male voice wailed and moaned, creating twisting melodies over the low drone of a stringed instrument. I later learned that this instrument is called a gusle and has been used in Balkan folk music since at least the medieval times. It has a hide-covered sound box, a wooden neck and a single string. The player rests the instrument on his or her lap and uses a bow to create a resinous tone.
The music added an eerie feeling to our ascent back into the snare of the mountains. The sky was dark except for a red streak low in the west, and as we rounded the first high bend of the mountain pass, we came into the gaze of a full moon, floating between two peaks like a disembodied eye—pale yellow glow reflected on the scaly textures all around us.
The truck jostled over the first two snowdrifts. When we got to the mound in the third, Glorko slowed down.
“You go over?” he asked.
“Stupid, I know,” I said.
The truck lurched over, and we arrived at our rental car, just as Shan Shan and I had left it. I got out and pulled the note off of the windshield, crumpled it into my pocket and unlocked the car. Glorko inspected the trenches beneath our front tires and then retrieved a shovel from the trunk of his truck. He jogged up the road until he found some gravel in the shoulder, scooped some and jogged back.
“How can I help?” I called.
“No, no, no,” he indicated as he patted the gravel in one of the tire trenches before returning for another scoop. With the new traction in place, he hopped into the rental and easily pulled forward out of the ruts. Where the snow had been slick and packy in the afternoon sun, it was now crunchy and dry. Glorko had no trouble making Y-turns with the rental and then his truck.
“You follow,” he said. “Slowly, slowly.”
We came to the snowdrift that Shan Shan and I had barely overcome. It had a steeper slope on this side, and Glorko was doubtful the car would be able to make it over on its own. He had me park so the car was halfway up the mound with the E-brake on. He fished in the trunk of the rental for a heavy eyebolt, which he then screwed into the front of the engine block through an opening in the bumper. He turned his truck around and attached a rope between the two vehicles and then came back to me.
“Okay, I go, you go.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said and mimed dropping the E-brake and stepping on the gas. He nodded.
The maneuver was a success, Glorko effectively towing me over the mound in the road. He turned his truck around again, and we were clear. I could barely keep up with his taillights on the drive back to the lodge.
* * *
I followed Glorko back inside and thanked him with body language that I hope translated as sincere humility. Shan Shan was still in the booth. I sat and told her what happened, and then we decided we wanted to get settled in our room. We grabbed our bags from the car, and the woman who had served us tea earlier led us around back and up a flight of stairs to a hallway of rooms. She unlocked one and let us in. We both reset with a hot shower and a change of clothes and then went back downstairs for dinner.
More people had gathered in the restaurant: a group of four in ATV gear sat in the second booth, and there was a man sitting against the wall near the entry, talking cheerfully and loudly with one of the women. Glorko sat at one of the tables, texting. I ordered a beer and gestured to him to see if he would like one, but he declined.
Shan Shan and I ordered veal soup, cabbage salad and a “traditional meal,” which turned out to be a huge plate of polenta stewed with a feta-like cheese. Shan Shan was feeling nauseated and didn’t eat much, so we hardly put a dent in the polenta. I worried leaving food would communicate ungratefulness to our hosts. In general, we were concerned about how we could thank them adequately for their aid and hospitality. We felt the impromptu lodging alone was worth 50 Euro, not to mention the vehicle rescue, so we decided we would pay them a little more than what they had requested.
Shan Shan headed up to bed, and another group came into the restaurant. As the chatter in the room grew to a din, I started to feel out of place—self-conscious about taking up a whole table by myself—so I swilled the last of the beer and got up to pay. The bill was 50 plus dinner, so I gave our host 100 and tried to indicate that I did not want change. Her brow furrowed in confusion, and she looked slowly at the dishes on the table and back at me. She nodded, in the end, and I thanked her and Glorko one more time before turning to leave.
On my way out, I stepped past the man sitting against the wall next to the door. He had a gusle in his lap and a bow in his hand, and as soon as I closed the door, a drone rang out and the conversations stopped. His voice flared up in a wavering melody.
I stood motionless on the patio. Had the musician been waiting for me to leave in order to begin? This was probably my outsider’s anxiety speaking, as he could have been waiting for countless reasons. Still, maybe he knew his ballad was not suited for the ears of a wandering foreigner—a bill-doling American. I would not have blamed him. His song, like the mountains, deserved more than a haphazard encounter.
I lingered a moment longer on the moonlit patio before returning to our room and crawling into bed. Sleep came slow, however, and I lay awake listening to the music, muffled through the walls, notes rising and coiling from the valley into the night.
Glorko sat at one of the tables, texting. I ordered a beer and gestured to him to see if he would like one, but he declined.
All images taken by Chow Shan Shan