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HISTORY of MESSINIA

Conquering the Mountain

By: Alex Gountras

 

Growing up in the “flatlands” of northern Indiana, I found it hard to imagine a place with much variation in landscape.  Fort Wayne has never been much of a challenge from a navigational aspect. The only obstacles on the road are the other drivers. As a kid, I would always imagine what it would be like to climb the highest mountain. I always imagined myself rolling from the top of the mountain to the bottom since it would be more of a thrill then rolling down the ten-foot hill behind my home. The only mountains and hills I could ever conceive of were the kind I would see in “National Geographic” magazine and the kind you would see on “Looney Tunes,” specifically the kind Wylie Coyote used to sabotage. Just around the time I thought these kind of landscapes were the kind you see in movies, my parents had informed me that we were going to visit family in Greece the summer of ‘99.  Even though I had been to Greece before I was never old enough to appreciate what was to lie ahead of me that summer.

After spending a few days in Athens right after arrival at the airport, it was time to head down to the southwest coast of Greece, where my dad is from. The town where are family lives is called Kopanaki. It is a town with a population of about 1,500 residents and is known for some of the first resistance against the German soldiers in World War 2. Arriving at my grandparent’s house, I felt the natural breeze of a town essentially untouched by the artificial “needs” of a metropolis. Even though this is where my father and mother would be spending most of their time, my sister and I would be staying in a town called Kyparissia located 7 miles outside of Kopanaki. This is where my cousins reside and it is has a seashore kissing the Ionian Sea. The population here is about 5,000 but doubles during the summer because of tourism. Kyparissia is surrounded by mountains and actually sits halfway on a mountain called Egaleo.

My quest began about three weeks into my trip. Drinking a “frappe” (a cold coffee drink) in a local coffee shop, I was discussing upcoming plans with my cousins and their friends when a religious holiday in Greece was brought up. I came to learn that every year during this holiday (the Assumption of the Virgin Mary) a group of people hike up the side of the Egaleo Mountain to celebrate the religious holiday. Everyone hikes up the mountain and spends the night at the top. I was informed that at the peak of this mountain there was a church where residents went to worship. After hearing this news I began to get excited. I thought, “this could be my opportunity”. I began to show interest in this event and asked my cousin if he was willing to go. After telling me he would have to work at his restaurant, and could not afford to go, he convinced me I should go with his friends and told me I would not regret it.

When the date of conquering the mountain came, I had to meet at my cousin’s friend Fani’s house with the other guys I would be hiking with. I was instructed to be there at 6:00 in the morning so we could travel up the mountain without the worst of the heat getting to us. There were four of us that were going to be traveling together. I was instructed to pack light with only the essentials: water, snacks, matches, sheets, a pillow, and clothes. We also packed an auxiliary bag that we would all use, it contained: extra water, scorpion deterrent powder, a small radio, more sheets, a first aid kit, and a fifth of vodka. We would drive as far up the mountainside as we could and from there we would hike to the top.

When we began our journey I felt a nervous but excited feeling jarring out of my stomach and racing to my heart. My cousin’s friend Dimitri was driving the car. I must say he was very skilled at taking the steep curvy rocky road up the side of the mountain. Looking up outside of the window, I could see that the top of the mountain was above the clouds and that there was quite a journey ahead of us. A couple of times the car slipped backward, because of the steepness, and Dimitri had to use the handbrake to stop the car. I swore I was going to die that day. If we made one bad move with the car we would fall off the side of the cliff.

Eventually the winding road ended and the journey up the mountain began. We unloaded our stuff from the car and began to strap it to our backs. It was about 8 in the morning now and already about 80 degrees out. I could hear the screeching of the locusts within the brush in the mountains. The smell was a mixture of pine type scent and some kind of organic blend probably coming from the red like soil that the trail was composed of. As we started hiking up the steep winding trail I began to notice how jagged and inconsistent a mountain side really is. Looking at the steep drops, sharp rocks, and the slanted trunks of trees, I realized my childhood dream of rolling down a mountainside was far from being tangible. As it got hotter I knew the time was getting closer to noon. I noticed, as my legs were feeling more worn out and the heat became unbearable, that the only thing that kept me going was making every shadow, on the trail, my new goal as we walked. It would cool me off just enough as we walked by to keep me going. I felt as though the locusts were mocking me about an hour and a half into the non-stop journey. I realized that I couldn’t even think about bailing out and stepping into a cool air-conditioned room or, for that matter, any type of structure to escape the sun. I began to wonder how the locust could stand such a harsh hot climate everyday.

After about 2 hours of walking we decided to stop and refresh ourselves. I remember finding an isolated spot under one of the huge trees scattered across the trail. We sat on one of the big roots of the tree that seemed like it had grown there to serve as a seat of comfort in the hard journey. In the shade it seemed like the breeze was a lot cooler and it seemed to compliment the trickling sweat on our foreheads. We each had a couple of hard boiled eggs along with some cool water. We knew we could not eat too much because it would affect our endurance for the rest of our trip. At this point, about three-quarters of the way up, I remember sitting on the root of the tree and actually having more time to analyze my surroundings. I remember at one point about halfway through my meal looking up and seeing what seemed like hundreds of spider webs spread out through the trees of the surrounding mountainside. I remember my instinct convinced me to be alarmed when I first saw these threatening structures. I sat for a while and let my heartbeat slow down as I persuaded myself to think more logically. The spiders were not a threat to me in fact if they understood us they probably would think we are more of a threat to them. I was intrigued at how well built their webs were. They were spread out and connected in just the right places. I thought about how these creatures had spent thousands if not millions of years, perfecting these amazing structures. It almost seemed as if they were competing amongst each other for all the best places on the mountainside; like how business competes for the best location in a city.  

I remember thinking back to a time when my Uncle in Greece was going through a hard time with his restaurant. He had been in business for about five years and had the best location in the town of Kyparrisia.  He had all his tables spread across a wide sidewalk across from the actual restaurant itself. The wide sidewalk overlooks the town and the sea because of a twelve foot drop right past the wide sidewalk. You could see the sun set there everyday and the sea seems to consume it. This restaurant location is in a prime spot because in order to get to an ancient castle located on the side of the mountain you have to travel through the street in front of the restaurant. Eventually, the man that owned the structure next to the restaurant wanted some of that market and decided to open his own restaurant. Upon doing this he legally was able to take half of the sidewalk over looking the town and sea because it was located across the street in front of his building. In turn this took half of the business away from my uncle’s restaurant. I remember sitting on that tree wondering if the spiders had a similar kind of rivalry on the mountain side for prime web locations. Instead of customers they obviously compete for insects.

We continued to walk up the mountain and continued to drench our cloths with sweat and body odor. The sun beat down on us like a giant oven. I noticed the further up we traveled the more frequent breaks we took. I am not sure if we took the breaks because of the exhaustion or because of the scenic views higher up. Climbing up this high, for this long, made me feel like I was back in soccer training, the only difference was that there was no building or ambulance to come get you if you passed out. I really had a new appreciation for people who mountain climb. The higher up you get the harder it is to keep your breath since the air pressure is different. For once, in a long time, I felt primitive. I realized that growing up for so long in a pampered environment does not prepare you for anything like this.

We finally arrived at the top area of the mountain around noon. Dying from exhaustion, the first thing we did was lay down on the ground and rest. It felt great to have successfully completed such a journey. There were already about 20 other people at the top of the mountain including a priest. The priest was going to be conducting a church service at the top of the mountain the next morning. He looked like he was about 60 years old. This made me wonder how he made it up the enormous mountain side. Soon after that, I heard a pant of some sort and upon looking to my left I realized he rode a donkey the whole way up.  We weren’t exactly at the peak of the mountain but it was pretty close. The reason we had stopped here is because there was enough flat area for us all to sleep. The first thing we had to do, after we got up, was to choose our sleeping location. Our location seemed to be enclosed by a huge rock and some surrounding trees. Next, my new friend Dimitri sprinkled Scorpion deterrent power in a huge circle all around our sleeping site. I had never encountered a scorpion before and it made me nervous. The other boys seemed to act like it was an everyday thing to run into one.  After selecting our site, throwing our stuff down, and securing our spot from scorpions we went to go find some sticks to build a fire.  It was tougher than I thought to find the right kind of sticks we needed to build a fire. We needed big logs, medium branches, and small sticks. We went deep into some of the woods up on the mountain to find the wood. At one point I had went alone into what seemed like untouched woods. It made me feel really alone, isolated from everything in the world. It had reminded me of being a child.

When I was about five years old I remember being in the supermarket with my mother.  She was browsing through different types of cereal and such, when I saw the candy aisle. I remember running in fascination over to the delicious treats that filled me with glee. I got sucked in to all the different colors and flavors laid out before me. At one point I remember making the childlike decision that I was going to tell my mother that we needed some of these healthy snacks.  When I ran back to the cereal aisle my mother had vanished. My heart felt like it dropped to my stomach and it started beating faster.  I remember for the first time feeling that I was truly alone. As a child it seems like the end of the world, until you come to find out twenty seconds later that the whole time your mother was in the next aisle. When I was sitting there in those woods, by myself I began to get some of those same feelings. Now that I was sixteen, I could definitely handle the situation a lot better and actually enjoy being alone for once. It was just me and the mountain. I felt like perhaps I was the only one to ever stand on that spot in the history of the mountain, at least it made me feel good to believe that. I remember seeing a variety of trees that had pine needles of some sort, but that did not look like the pine trees I had seen in America. The branches seemed more spread out and sporadic with what seemed like puffs of pine needles. On the ground I remember seeing a bed of those pine needles and I wondered whether there were scorpions buried below the surface. Soon I had to get back to my location and remember following the familiar path I had taken to get to where I was. I had brought back some medium size sticks and adjoined them with the huge pile of wood my fellow conquerors had stacked.  We lit the fire with little sticks on the bottom, medium sticks above, and the logs on top. Now we had a fire going and I truly felt like I was camping.

After about three hours of resting in front of the fire, I noticed that it had gotten quite a bit cooler outside and the sun was going to set soon. We decided to hike up a little bit further and check out the church. It was about a ten minute hike to the peak. The trail up to the peak was a lot more untamed then the trail we took to our resting place.  There were slippery spots, and about a 45 degree angle slope that would eat you up if you were not careful. Upon reaching the top, I remember feeling a sense of pride and amazement at the same time. I saw a small blue and white structure that seemed to be the church. The air up on that peak was crisp, refreshing, and untouched. As I walked closer to the little white structure, I remember the cool wind grazing my face in an aerodynamic fashion. Up on the peak there were hardly any trees but there was a view that surpassed any natural thing I had seen before. I remember the first thing I noticed was that we were above the clouds. I did not realize how high up we really were. I could see past the clouds and look out to what seemed to be an endless ocean. I could even see an isolated island out in the distance. A view of inspiration is described in David Thoreau’s work Walking. Thoreau writes, “Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go West as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down” (page 88). Reading this passage, I understood what David Thoreau felt when he wrote this. From that single memory looking to the West from the top of a mountain peak, he had made a lot of sense. I had now completed a journey I had started as a kid, maybe not physically but in my mind.

After aesthetically and soulfully fulfilling my needs at the top of that peak, my crew and I carefully wondered back down to our camp site. With the sun falling into the sea behind us, we were on our way to celebrate our great journey. The rest of that night was filled with music, laughter, a few drinks and stories. Being up on that mountain, we knew there would be no distractions of the artificial world we had come to know so well. My cousin had told me that I would not regret going on this journey, and boy was he right. I knew that all too soon we would have to gather our stuff and head back down that mountainside again to civilization. Even though I had always found comfort in a city like environment, I never knew that I could find a different maybe more real type of comfort on top of that mountain.

Looking at a mountain in pictures, on movies, or even on cartoons gives us a sense of something big, even something great. When I hiked up that mountain I realized a sense of something more than that. I realized a mountain is a living thing that is indulged with life. I thought about the thousands of years this mountain had been here, and it made me understand why the ancient mythologies spoke of such entities.  It made me realize that even though there are no mountain ranges in northern Indiana, I could always relate to her majesty because I was there. I knew this experience could never be taken away from me and that I could never be taken away from this experience. 

 

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