My teeth chattered as I wiggled toward the wood-burning stove. For warmth, Jenelle had curled up beside me on the splintery platform. Built of stone and wood, the tiny hut was vaporous with exhaust. In about 10 minutes, Jenelle’s alarm–set for every hour through the night–would ring as a reminder to stoke the fire. As we waited for the bell to ring again we clung to each other’s shivering sooty bodies, drifting in and out of sleep.
Laying in an abandoned shepherd’s hut miles from anyone or anything, I began to take stock of our situation. What if my backpacking partner got hurt? I would be forced to desert her to find help. To reach the nearest village would involve an eight-hour hike through the mountains. Then I would be tasked with finding someone with a phone, and a car, who could drive me to the nearest area with cell reception. My body tensed up. I knew I had to purge these thoughts from my mind—to stay warm I needed to conserve every last bit of energy.
In planning our trek through the unexplored, aesthetic Balkan peaks, we had set out to get off the grid. But neither of us could have known just how remote we would soon find ourselves.
Our trek began five days earlier in the picturesque Albanian mountain village of Theth. To get there, we drove in a violent rainstorm on a road carved into a mountain. A man we met in the city of Shkodra willing to brave this precarious road at night became our shifty chauffeur. Turns out, he wasn’t the most experienced mountain driver. While Jenelle fought not to lose her Albanian pizza, I clenched my fists. Each precipitous turn delivered us closer to the edge of a sharp cliff that fortunately, I had trouble deciphering in the darkness.
When we finally arrived in the valley we felt like we were victors in a dubious battle. But the real battle had just begun.
We told the driver the name of our guesthouse and showed him a screen shot of the address. Immediately he shook his head, rejecting our request. Instead he drove us to a van where a man waited for us. The man opened my car door, ushering plumes of cigarette smoke into the vehicle. He pointed to a photo of what was presumably his house as he spoke to us in Albanian. We quickly realized that this was where the men intended for us to stay. A language barrier significantly detracted from our stellar persuasion skills. So we were reduced to repeating ourselves.
“Villa Gjejac,” we firmly insisted again and again, our voices growing louder. In response to our demands, the driver simply shook his head and acted confused, as though he had never heard of the place. Instead he pointed to a loaf of bread he had purchased on our way and adamantly declared something in Albanian.
Jenelle and I exchanged uneasy glances. What had we gotten ourselves into?
To be continued…