I navigated my way through deep dales and imposing hills half hidden by heavy clouds, palming my compass every kilometer and now and then quickly consulting my map detailing the barely discernible brown lines announcing the monsters lying ahead. The wind slammed against a break of trees just over the summit of my newly conquered hill. My steady downhill pace turned into a frenzied and muddy tumble and slide as the melancholy-blue giants overhead flicked fresh yet foreboding drops of cold rain on my forehead. My Saturday hike to Dobogókő had been going so well. Yet, despite my initial determination and Boy Scout savvy, rash decisions, lack of courage and certainty, and the inability to see beyond the hills before me culminated in a failed objective, sore feet, and a defeated return journey home.
Dobogókő (or Dobogó-kő) translates roughly to “pulsating stone.” It is the name of a small area part of Pilisszentkereszt village in Hungary, a little over 20 miles northwest of the capital, Budapest. According to several suspect sources, legend has it that it is here – specifically, at a rock called Ferenczy sziklá – that the Earth’s energy lines intersect, creating a powerful and perceptible force and thus being referred to by many a hippie as the heart chakra of Mother Earth. For those seeking a more scientific explanation, the tremors purportedly perceived are caused by the remarkably thin crust in this particular geographic location, under which occurs incredible geothermal activity, thus giving Hungary its abundance of thermal spas.
Willing myself out of my warm bed at 5 a.m. to a hardly promising pitch-black sky, I cinched my mini duffel containing my map of northern Hungary, my grandpa’s hunting blade, and a cheap plastic compass and made for Nyugati train station, which was just beginning to stir with inland commuters and the last of the holiday-ers. The train ride to Pilisvörösvár took a mere 40 minutes, but the sun all the while had steadily crept over the Buda hills and presented itself fully before I even found my way through the pristine cobblestone main street of the Germanic town. In the distance, the obese Pilis hegy (pronounced something like “Pilish hedge”), its 756-meter (approximately 2,480 feet) peak ringed by deep-blue storm clouds, presided superiorly over the tiny yellow-red town abutting its rocky belly. To its right lied my path, a valley veering northeast of Pilisszántó, leading into védett fa, an area of marked and protected trees, and through the rolling obstacles between me and my fabled destination.
Unfortunately, northeast, it turned out, would take me just out of reach of Dobogókő, and into the thick of the southern section of Duna-Ipoly Nemzeti Park – nothing but tree-covered hill after steep mountain after more tree-y hill.
Believing myself to be heading in the right direction with the aid of my compass and map for bearings, I ignored the fading sunshine’s losing battle with devil-shadows flitting over neighboring hills by the ever-darkening clouds overhead and trudged through a land laden with sinkholes, ravines, and sudden igneous upshoots of Miocene andesite, phenomenal legacies of the tectonic work done by the former Tethys ocean and colliding African plate. Occasionally, as I crashed out of the brush on to an unexpected trail, a wooden signpost would declare Dobogókő to be directly West against my own stubborn notions and subsequent reliance on my trusty compass.
These signs were emblazoned, too, with a curious M with a cross through its middle leg, what I discovered later to be demarcations of a pilgrimage trail leading from Mariazell, Austria, to Csíksomlyó (or Şumuleu Ciuc, if you can stomach the pronunciation) in Romania. Perplexing to me at the time, my map labeled this as Mária Zarándokút in Hungarian and Marienwege in German. According to the Slovenian website promoting the yearly event, Marijina romarska pot, or Mary’s Pilgrimage Route, commemorates the saint with a 1,400-km (almost 870 miles, which could take up to 60 days to cover) spiritual sojourn, along which are places of worship, checkpoints, and towns holding events appropriate to the occasion.
Faithful to my own instincts, rather, I barely footed a kilometer of the neatly patted path when I crashed back into the gloppy mat of leaves and maze of tall birch and beeches covered by the horse hoof—like protrusions of the parasite-turned-decomposer Fomes fomentarius (which make for excellent Romanian amadou caps). Easily distracted by the forest’s bracket fungi, I stooped to collect the beautiful carnation-like Trametes versicolor and pleasingly soft, green T. gibbosa blossoming on felled trunks.
At this time, I had been nearly eight hours on my feet, had little indication as to what hill – or, well in fact, what county – I was traversing over, or how I was going to find a train or bus back to Budapest. Finally, I mudsurfed my way down a particularly hellish mountainside to find a route, along which for nearly three kilometers I attempted, unsuccessfully, to hitchhike to the next town. Thinking perhaps I could find my way back up the previous mountain to break in and spend the night in the tiny wooden shack I passed on its western-facing steppe, I noticed a large hotel to my right. Thermal Hotel Visegrád. Tempted to book a room with the mud bath package for the night, I walked farther toward the city center, where I spotted a stately castle perched high up on the edge of a towering hill. Unsure of what to do next, I plopped down, exhausted, on a crumbling staircase leading to nowhere when a beast of a yellow bus came to a stop directly in front of me. Budapest bound. 450 forint. Glorious heat.
My hands could barely function even after a few minutes warming up over the vent, but I realized I had hardly anything to write for all my troubles anyhow. I had experienced little than a normal hiking trip, albeit that I had failed to reach my true destination and touch the rock the Dalai lama himself had visited. I interacted with no one but myself, and I can say that I’m often not the best roadtrip buddy. At this point, I didn’t care; I was on my way home. Maybe I would do something productive, or maybe I’d just feed my face while watching forgotten episodes of The Simpsons. While doing the latter, I shamefully recognized the contrast between this disgusting and habitual comfort that would otherwise leave me an obese shut-in and the chances I take that, in the short-run and obscured view of things, might not seem worth the effort. I have to embrace my restlessness and heartache, pull myself up from the valley, and be a hedge.