These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Veľký Choč

Caution advised

 photo: Chris Togneri

A curious thing happened to me recently. While hiking the rugged wilderness of Veľký Choč mountain outside Dolný Kubín, I chanced upon a family of bears, two adults and two cubs. And here’s the amazing thing: they did not eat me.

This feat, mind you, was achieved purely by accident. I had entered a small meadow about an hour into the hike when I was seized by one of my annual springtime sneezing fits. These are violent affairs that tend to include up to ten body-rattling convulsions that, as the case may be, create a rich timbre heard for miles throughout an otherwise silent forest.

My spasm concluded, I regained balance and noticed that my outburst had scared something up a tree 40 metres away. The small evergreen was quaking under the significant weight of an animal that could not have been a squirrel. Five seconds later a bear cub plopped out of the branches.

Clearly a new-born, the cub staggered awkwardly on its ungainly little legs. Such a harmless little creature! I felt blessed to have witnessed this scene. But then came the terrifying thought: where’s mamma bear? I turned to my right and saw her less than 30 metres away standing on her hind legs aside another large bear peering in the direction of the startled cub. A baby pawed the ground nearby, then looked up and locked eyes with me.

Five seconds and 100 metres later I had sprinted back down the hill in a stride comparable to that of a cheetah. The bears did not follow.

Now, for most people this may seem like a small feat. But for me, the fact that my limbs are still my limbs is of enormous significance. For over the past several months while preparing this magazine, I have learned a very disturbing lesson: I am a danger to myself (Som sám sebe hrozbou). In this case, had it not been for my hay fever, I would have walked straight into that bear cub (the tree it climbed straddled the trail I was approaching). And never mind that I had managed to enter a tiny meadow without noticing several potentially hungry bears frolicking in the grass.

The problem is that I am hopelessly careless (nepozorný). Combine this with another new discovery - namely, that I am scatter-brained (roztržitý) - and hiking alone in the woods is a dangerous proposition for me. It is not just that the trails are steep and the woods rugged and full of bears. For me, everything holds the potential of disaster.

My most recent pitfall occurred while hiking Strážov mountain outside Čičmany. Passing a patch of snow, I scooped up a handful and began happily sucking on the ice - a bad idea for the nepozorný, who need absolute focus on what is for us the challenging act of placing one foot in front of the other.

So, of course, while preoccupied with deciding which bit of ice to bite off next, I walked straight off the path and tumbled five feet down a cliff onto a large stone. My shin still bears the red scar tissue as a trophy.

Being nepozorný and roztržitý does have its benefits, though. Mainly, it seems to amuse others to no end. I am now regularly asked how many times I fell down or walked into something hard and immovable every time I return from a trip. People expect me to hurt myself. Just today, in fact, while telling a friend about those bears, I said: ‘Guess what happened to me!’ And he responded - without hesitation, I noted - ‘Si spadol.’ (You fell down).

On the other hand, being nepozorný and roztržitý is unfortunate because my body is running out of space to store my growing collection of scars (jazvy) and wounds (zranenie). Furthermore, I am not as cautious (opatrný) as one like me should be.

For example, last month I spent the day hiking in Slovenský raj National Park, which is known for its steep, narrow gorges. Several of these clefts are not passable but for the installed safety chains and ladders that help hikers navigate the rough terrain. Some of these ladders are over 100 feet high. And they are dangerous, which is precisely why hikers are only allowed to go up the valleys and not down them.

Of course I tried to go down. And - of course - I fell off the ladder. That was over a month ago. Yet even now when I do something strenuous (like breathing) the entire right side of my rib cage stabs me in angry protest.

It should be noted here that roztržitý and nepozorný are not the same as nemotorný or neobratný, which are closer to uncoordinated. Slovak-English dictionaries will also list netaktný and ťažkopádny under clumsy, but neither are accurate. Netaktný describes a person lacking tact, someone who will barge into a serious conversation and lead unwilling interlocutors down an unrelated conversational path. Ťažkopádny, on the other hand, is used to describe the manner in which obese people walk, shifting weight laboriously from one foot to another, like an elephant.

I am neither, but I am undoubtedly nepozorný and roztržitý. My friends like to remind me - because I need reminding - that I am mimo (literally, withdrawn). They know well that glazed-eye look suggesting that I am not, contrary to appearances, sitting in that chair opposite them, a look that inspired my ex-girlfriend to daily snap: ‘Povedz mi na čo teraz myslíš.’ (Tell me what you are thinking now). Luckily, I usually can’t remember.

It’s not my fault, though. I have a perfectly good excuse: I am simply too preoccupied with this travel magazine. After all, I have 150 pages - I think - of new text to write. I have a lot on my mind. The unfortunate result, however, is that I do regrettable things that often leave me looking like an idiot (or hlupák, somár).

But that is not the point of this story. The point is, naturally, something that I have long ago lost track of. If any of you can figure out exactly what this all means, I would appreciate you dropping me a line at I’ll read your message the moment I remember my password.

- Chris Togneri

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

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