This is our dog, Pango. At the time of this picture, he is lying quietly and patiently outside my tent, guarding me while I prepare to go to sleep. He has not questioned why I’ve decided to sleep on top of a desolate stony mountain in late October. Nor why we had to spend the whole day slowly, doggedly, carrying some 30 kilos of equipment, extra blankets, cameras, batteries, paint and other assorted bits and bobs UP this mountain. Nor has he questioned the need for him to preface this expedition by running some 10 km, helpfully herding the car to the other end of the valley — well, he wouldn’t question THAT — it clearly beats the hell out of getting inside the infernal machine. At the time that this picture was taken, he hasn’t even realized yet that we are counting on finding snow to melt to drink for the next three days, and there’s only a ration of 3 sausages per day for him, and I am on a pure cake diet (fyi: the result of extensive testing shows that cake is the ideal, and only really useful, form of camping food).*
If it comes to that, I’m not sure that I know why we needed to do this. I have taken advantage of one of Alfred’s slips of frustration, in which he gets tired of my . . . . well, not nagging — but one-hundredth mention of the fact that I can’t see how on earth we will ever get the trail-marking done on this path without camping. And how we really are supposed to have finished that trail, and we haven’t even started it yet. And how as long as I’ve got to slog half way to the pass in order to change the batteries and check the photos on one of the camera traps, I may as well do some trail marking too. And how since I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere in the mountains without Pango, who in addition to needing the exercise and being damn good company, is also the most accomplished GPP (forget GPS – Geo-Positioning Pango is failsafe!), there’s no point making him run all the way to the other end of the valley AND back again for several days in a row . . . . And Alfred snaps that he hasn’t got TIME TO GO WITH ME. And I say, Of course I know this – he is much too busy! and He (this is where he makes his fatal mistake) says “You want to go? Go! Do whatever you want to do!” Never dreaming of course that I WILL. Which of course I DO.
I might as well add that there are a few extra complications here. Of course there is the usual “Never go hiking the mountains alone” problem. Here, in the “Accursed Mountains” this injunction is taken even more seriously. Avdyl Dudi (my hero) lectured me most strictly about this. He repeated to me what his father (or grandfather?) had said: “One person alone in the mountains is ZERO! ZERO! Two people is a half – wait – no – YES! Two people is a half, and THREE people is ONE!” Meaning that you should never go with less than 3 people, in case one gets hurt, 1 can go for help, while the other 2 wait. Perfectly sensible. But I remember my shock when someone (my lawyer, I think it was) told me in NY that I should never go hiking in the Catskills alone – not safe! “But isn’t that the POINT of going hiking?” I remember saying – “To get away from every-one and -thing else?” At any rate. Here in Northern Albania, there is another problem, which is that women don’t usually go wandering around on their own. Foreigners, okay – but they’re all strange and crazy anyhow! But having been accepted as an honorary local, my behavior becomes exponentially more incomprehensible and barmy. Hence why Alfred is appalled.
At any rate Pango and I are happy enough, perched on the edge of the sky, in a land so ancient and silent that one feels certain one ought to be having profound thoughts. The spine of the ridge which sharply defines this boundary of the valley is composed of improbable fingers and shafts of stone, which point skywards from a skirt of scree. It looks as if someone’s poured the scree over the peaks – possibly only just last week. Or as if some maniac giant had only just been building sandcastles of stone. But in the 3 days I was up there, I heard exactly ONE pebble break free from the stone and roll down the slope. And in the return to silence after it came to rest (and SO? I thought) it took a moment to be sort of giddily amused and horrified to realize – if THAT’s the rate at which those stones have slithered free and slipped down the mountainside, then I am sitting there looking at 1000’s of years of accumulated teeny-tiny events. Of course one learns this sort of thing in school, but still . . . . . It makes sitting there eating cake seem even sillier.
At some other point in those 3 days, still sitting and pondering the non-arrival of my profoundest thoughts, I suddenly duck and throw an arm over my head — WHAT the . . . . Something has just flashed over my head, making a loud sound like tearing silk. I uncrouch and look around. A crow has flown over head. It is SO silent, that I realize I can hear the sound of the wind in his feathers. The noise of it is echoing off the walls of rock around me. It must be something like what the crow himself hears, as he cuts through the sky. I sit there (lump of cake no doubt forgotten in my hand) and watch delighted as the crow weaves its way across the sky: Now the noisy thrusting flaps, and then, with a sudden whistling cutting sound, the wings are pulled in and the crow speeds into a dive, flipping topside down and over again, and then wings are thrown out to arrest the fall and up and away he soars . . . . . I’m sure my mouth was open.
At any rate. At the end, after I packed up the tent and carefully filled the bags, I sat and made a list of everything I enjoyed thinking while I was up there. Things I noticed, and things I’d like to remember. But my profoundest thought? I thought of this: You know, you never hear of arctic or antarctic expeditions, where when the boat had been crushed by the ice, and the supplies were running out and winter had finally set in, the dogs decided, ever-so-rationally “Well, it’s us or them!” and set to and ate the people. Never, not once. Whereas in the annals of polar expeditions the stage at which the Dogs Get Eaten is well-recognized. Which makes me realize – the dogs would sit, as Pango patiently sits, and sigh, and restrain themselves to just one level, weighted look: “Did you think this was a good idea?” and then flop down — perhaps a bit dramatically — and sensibly go to sleep. Good Dog, Pango.
* NB: In the end, I gave most of the cake to Pango as well. Just in case you thought I was cruel. Who can resist the hypnotic stare of a hungry dog?