Over the years, we have been in a lot of unfortunate, ill-fated, and plainly dangerous situations. We already posted about being attacked by monkeys and will soon write out how we visited Egypt in the middle of the Arab Spring, lost our luggage in Barcelona, and ignored all anti-mugging advice on the dark streets of Brazil. But one of the last places I expected to fight for my life was in the picturesque Czech countryside. In retrospect, I realize there was a combination of factors that brought on my downfall.
- The year was 2009 before smartphones were commonplace and I was in a foreign country without GPS and a way of communicating with the outside world.
- I was young and thought that a large glass of dark potent beer was an appropriate lunch in the middle of a hot day.
- I changed my plans on a whim and decided to take a detour that I didn’t adequately plan or research.
- I was on my own and if Julia was there, she would have been smart enough to avoid this entire situation. (She made me write this.)
So here comes the whole sorted story. After spending three days in Prague, I decided to take a couple of day trips out of the city to see Czech’s small towns, castles, and countryside. My first day trip was to Karlštejn to visit its beautiful medieval castle. After grabbing a quick breakfast, I took a train to Karlštejn and then a long walk to the castle. From the outside, the castle was absolutely breathtaking. It was a sunny morning and this 14th-century Gothic castle looked majestic, basking in the warm summer light.
Elated, I walked inside to be instantly disappointed. The interior of the castle was almost completely bare. The tour inside of the castle lasted no more than 30 minutes and was unremarkable and completely skippable. As I later discovered in my travels, old castles, with few exceptions, rarely have interesting interiors. Honestly, it makes sense. Although the exterior and the walls of a castle can be renovated and restored to their former glory, most ancient castles have been abandoned or looted at least once and it is nearly impossible to recreate the original interior. A lot of castles I visited in my later travels had the same issue: they were either empty or else there was little to see inside.
I drowned my sorrow in a large glass of dark beer in a little pub in a close-by village and hastily decided that I wasn’t hungry enough for a full lunch. Because I allocated a full day to visit the castle, I was suddenly left with 6 hours until I had to be back in Prague to attend a soccer game of the Czech top league. As I finished my beer, I finalized the afternoon’s plans: I was going to hike to nearby canyons (well, quarries to be precise), Velká Amerika (Big America), and Mala Amerika (Small America). The canyons, I read in the guidebook, look enough like the Grand Canyon in the U.S. and European filmmakers take advantage of that to shoot Western films without traveling outside of the Czech Republic.
So here I was, full of disappointment and beer, with a map in a guidebook reassuringly telling me that Velka Canyon was only 4 km away from Karlštejn and Mala Amerika was only 1 km from there. The map in the guidebook was not very detailed, I didn’t have any water with me, and I have done no research or preparation for this hike. Now, I am all for flexibility and improvisation in travels, but 5km hikes through wilderness do require a bit of planning. I know that now. I apparently did not know it then. I should have just returned to Prague after visiting Karlštejn as they were plenty of things to do in the city. I should have realized that walking 4km to see a canyon also means that I would have to walk 4km back. I should have asked for directions instead of relying on very infrequent trail signs. But what I actually did was take a wrong turn and not realize it until I walked a couple of extra kilometers in a completely wrong direction. And although I initially enjoyed my walk through the Czech countryside, it soon became obvious that I was hopelessly lost and had no idea how to get to the canyons. Once again, the year was 2009, long before smartphones with GPS were commonplace.
After realizing that I was lost, I panicked and tried to get back to the correct route by crossing a field of tall wheat. I was making my way through the wheat, completely engrossed in the task of pushing my body through the dense growth, when a large tractor came barreling down right on top of me. I don’t know how I didn’t hear it. I probably did but didn’t realize how close it was to me. The tractor operator didn’t see me until the last moment and as he swerved to avoid the collision, he gave me a horrifying look and screamed something in Czech along with the lines: “What the hell are you doing here?”
What the hell was I doing there, wandering forests and fields without any water or clue as to where I was going? After walking at least 6 or 7 kilometers and not getting even close to the canyons, I started to feel dizzy. At this point, it slowly dawned on me that this whole thing may have been a mistake. Somehow, being almost killed by a tractor didn’t quite do the trick. Eventually, by a sheer stroke of luck, I made my way to the canyons. Both were beautiful and impressive and somehow, I managed to hold on to my consciousness despite dehydration and exhaustion. After taking a quick peek at both canyons, I knew I had to head back to Karlštejn as soon as possible.
Walking back, I kept imagining what water or Coca-Cola or juice or literally any liquid would feel like on my parched tongue. I finally made it to a nearby village and walked house to house, begging anyone I saw for water in four different languages, none of which was Czech. Finally, I came across a house of a Ukrainian woman, married to a local Czech man, who understood my pleas and offered me a glass of life-saving water and her entire life story.
But it was not over yet. Even with her help, I still couldn’t find anyone to give me a lift to the train station. On barely moving legs, I somehow stumbled the last 5-6 km to catch the train and by the time I got there, I had blisters on my toes and chafing between my legs (baby powder is now mandatory on all my trips). In total, what was supposed to be a quick improvised 4 km hike to the canyons ended up being almost a 20 km round trip hike, taken at the height of late spring heat, with no water, no proper map, and no clue.
There were a lot of lessons learned that day, all of which made me a better, more responsible traveler. I have learned to respect the natural elements and the toll they can take on the human body. I carry a bottle of water with me any time I step off the main road. Of course, I still make a ton of mistakes, but at least I can proudly say I have never since been almost run over by a tractor. By a tuk-tuk, yes. A cow in India once. By cars, every time we go to the U.K. By every single vehicle in Cambodia. But never again by a tractor. And that’s a win in my book.