The sun was high overhead despite the fact that it was late afternoon, and the air was beginning to feel thick. Or maybe that’s what I thought because my roommate and I had already walked more than 18 miles, as we handed our cards to the old man at the booth, who stamped them with finesse before handing them back. It was then that I realized we were being given pins, not the silly little medals I’d seen the others who had made the trek wearing in the middle of the day.
“Oh, no!” I cried, as I looked at my roommate. For some reason—probably heat, lack of food, an exhaustion—I felt like throwing a temper tantrum on the spot. I wanted my medal, darn it! I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, and I certainly was never going to wear it, but I wanted it.
Just then, the man slid a piece of paper toward me, handing me a pen. The paper had a list of names and addresses, and it was then that I realized he’d been trying to tell me that I just needed to write my contact information down so that they could send my little silver medal on a piece of thin ribbon in the mail.
The reason for all my angst and anxiety?
My roommate and I were nearly done walking the 35 kilometer Pot ob žici, or, in English: the path along the wire.
The path stretches nearly 22 miles, encircling most of the city of Ljubljana—or, at least, what Ljubljana used to be when the barbed wire fence was constructed around it back in 1942, when it was constructed to entrap the residents of Slovenia’s capital city during World War II. It was taken down in 1945.
Now, each year in the beginning of May, various races are held, giving locals the chance to compete for prizes as they run different parts of the path. For the rest of the population who can’t fathom running more than a half marathon, there’s the walk: a pleasant set of eight stations, each a few kilometers apart, where cards are stamped. Stations like the one where I was receiving my second-to-last stamp along the highway and signing my name to the list of would-be medal winners, not long before the stations closed down for the day.
The last few miles were the worst. During the first several, we’d followed a dirt path through fields and meadows, stopping to appreciate flowers and the sun. We’d picked up fruit-flavored ice cream cones along the way and even stopped to admire the view of a nearby lake, against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. We walked steadily all day, but we were enjoying the experience: not rushing through it so fast that we couldn’t stop to take it all in.
Closer to the beginning, we’d walked around five kilometers into the woods. Roots poked through the ground on well worn paths, and here we could see sections of the barbed wire fence still standing. In other areas of the path, stone pole markers with the dates 1942 – 1945 inscribed next to a logo of barbed wire commemorated the fence’s existence. It is not surprising that—for good reason—most of it was taken down years ago.
Some of the walkers were even more jolly than my roommate and me. Old men who looked far too old to be able to do the whole walk deftly cut through the woods, carrying bottles of homemade schnapps. At the stone marker poles, they stopped, took a swig of hard liquor, raised their Slovenian flags, and gathered groups to belt out traditional songs. Whether or not they walked a few kilometers or the whole eight-leg journey was unimportant, though I suspected that some of them probably did make it the whole way. It was the experience that mattered most.
At least, that’s what I tried to tell myself as the sun beat down on me after hours of walking, as we left the pretty parts of the path behind and walked along a strip of highway—a reminder that in the past decades, Ljubljana had sprawled past its 1940s borders.
Soon, however, the last strip of highway turned onto a tree-shaded path. The final mile seemed to take hours, though it we pushed through it far more quickly. The old man at the previous station had offered us a spot on the list for medals perhaps by mistake: we’d still had one leg of the walk left to go. We must have looked determined, and the clock was ticking, so I wondered if he was trying to extend us some kindness, a chance to sign the list because he knew we would eventually make it to the final station—but maybe not within the half-hour time frame before the stations closed down.
But sure enough, just as the final station workers were packing up boxes of medals and pins, we practically sprinted to the finish line, thrusting out our cards, nearly complete with the seven stamps. Even if we couldn’t get medals, we wanted our eighth stamp: proof we actually walked the whole Pot ob žici.
In another act of kindness, one of the workers reached into the box and pulled out the stamps.
In another act of childlike determination, I again wrote my name and address on the medal list, just in case the first list was lost, because I really, really wanted that medal.
Kristina Reardon, of Uxbridge, is in Ljubljana, Slovenia on a Fulbright grant for the 2010 – 11 school year. You can reach her at email@example.com. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Program.
Published yesterday by the Stonebridge Press.