Odd, Isn't It?
I originally thought this was a logging community. It was, but not the type we usually think of...
Poprad is the economic center and rail junction of Slovakia’s High Tatras region of. Yet, when pulling into the station, one tends to wonder why. What’s the big deal? What mountains? Where? On an overcast day, the mountains are concealed in clouds, leaving the newly arrived to reconsider why they came this far for a mountain getaway. No mountains are to be found anywhere. Yet, as with the climate in regions where altitude plays a major role, a brisk east wind lifts the heavy gray curtain on the Tatras’ jagged and glacial peaks. However finite in area this range of the Carpathians is, the first time you set eyes upon them leaves a robust impression.
Starý Smokovec is the boss of a series of villages that rest upon the lower slopes of the High Tatras, linked directly from Poprad by an ultra-modern electric railroad. Hikers and skiers alike have easy access to trails, slopes, lodges, and a wide variety of outdoor activities. Starý Smokovec strives very hard to be an alpine resort, but falls well short of such a title. At any angle, Starý Smokovec is merely a mishmash of A-frames structures passing as pensions, hotels, strip malls, and ski
shops. Intermingled in its architectural emptiness are the required block apartment buildings that look even more out of place. In spite of this, all is forgiven when you gaze above the non-descript roofs and worn gutters to marvel at the stone precipices, snow packs, and rocky peaks that watch over from above 8,500 feet.
With help from Lukas in the town’s service center, I booked a room at the Palace Hotel, a palace only in name, I assure you. Yet, given that two clean beds, a TV with remote, a balcony, and an unobstructed view of the mountains set me back a mere $11 USD per night, I fittingly forgot about the shower and bathroom down the hall. In addition to this, I could also overlook the 1972 lobby furniture and accompanying era music being forced through the hanging speakers through the building.
Without any other means of economic survival, all the villages in the High Tatras rely on tourism. Most who come here are Slovaks and Czechs, a smattering of Poles, and of course, the Dutch make their presence known. Much to my surprise was the number of young Americans who have discovered the Tatras. I sincerely
The Power of Nature
It looked like this swept through yesterday...
did not expect too see so many of us prancing around. One in particular was easy to spot in the Montanara Restaurant. She went on in a stabbing voice on how she has been to Taipei, where the good ski refuges are, and oh, you must really see Addis Ababa. She is the kind of person who makes you part of her conversation five tables away, whether you like it or not. Outright obnoxious.
Regardless of the nationality, people come to these mountains with their backpacks. Young and old, women and men all arrive wrapped in Gore-Tex® jackets with supplies, tents, and trekking shoes hoisted on their back. These are true backpackers and hikers. My idea of backpacking is traveling by train, booking a cheap room, and finding the nearest pub in order to research the brewing techniques in my new destination. Hiking includes going out for the morning for a few hours, possibly even into the mountains, getting a few snapshots, and ensuring the ski lift will take me back down just as well as it got me up to the station to begin with. A cold drink in a parasol-decked café is a perk of my version of
Unmechanized romoval of fallen timber. The roar of chainsaws continue from dawn to dusk...
hiking. Their version of going for a walk, on the other hand, is leaving the hotel early Tuesday morning and come back on Friday sometime, having almost died of hypothermia, and loving every moment of it. For them, ski lifts are for losers, and you bring your own food along the way and boil the water you collect in mountain streams.
I have very little in common with these people.
Ever since last year, a brand new and thriving industry has surfaced in all along the base of the Tatras: logging. In fact it is outright odd for tourists at the railway station in Poprad to see mechanical cranes load the hundreds of rail cars and then carry away the uniformly cut logs. Europe has no immense stretch of forests, so the few old growth woodlands that they do preserve, in Slovakia for example, are cherished and preserved from harvesting. So, why all this fresh, unprocessed lumber?
Two stops north of Poprad and only four kilometers shy of Starý Smokovec, the grim answer gives way to the astonishment of those who first come upon the disaster. In Novermber 2004, a windstorm swept down one evening from the ominous Tatras
Why do places in the world value toilet poaper so much?
peaks and assaulted its south slope. It struck without warning, and even worse, at night. A mere thirty minutes of unthinkable power changed the physical layout of all the villages, from Štrebské Pleso to Tatranská Lomnica, for scores of years to come.
It all starts innocently. Some of the trees, mostly conifers, materialize from afar as mildly deformed; one or two may even have several thick branches sliced off. They strike you as awkward, but that’s all. Then, the train snakes trough a field of stumps where there was once old growth forest. Something is not right here, you think to yourself. Was there an avalanche, perhaps? No, because among the newly severed stumps rest the remains of uprooted tress lying on their sides. First there are ten, then fifty. Then the numbers become frighteningly too high to count.
As Starý Smokovec comes into view, the true character of the devastation makes itself known. Trunks three yards thick rise up only a few feet, only to have been snapped off and torn away. Ripped splinters from the decapitated trunks, some even twisted, point straight up in the air. Vast plots of land that was once forest remain as nothing but
Up, Up, And...
Into the Tatras...
a barren wasteland of twigs, fallen logs, and sandy roots. It is a real-life scene out of Dr. Seuss’ The Horax. Curiously enough, some trees did survive the onslaught, as one or two stand proud as lonely survivors in a graveyard of lost friends. Yet, the damage they incurred is clear: only the south side of the trees retained their branches, leaving the opposite side completely stripped bare. Those trees that miraculously suffered little harm were those with the slenderest of trunks. They were those that at the height of the storm, were able to bend and did not break. But they endure as sad and pathetic reminders of the utter desolation that lay around them.
In the direction of Štrebské Pleso, the destruction is so great, it can only be described as apocalyptic. It is a trip into the surreal. Not thousands, but millions of trees have collapsed in a manner so uniform that the gusts must have taken them out simultaneously. Their arrangement on the ground almost makes one think they were taking instructions on where to crash to maintain an orderly appearance.
What does this do to the ecology of the area? Clearly, the disaster has
Snow in July
It got cold very quickly...
created a newly-found tourist attraction, but has blighted the surroundings. If not for the hiking and skiing, Starý Smokovec would strike you as a recent war zone. The unharnessed potential of nature never ceases to amaze. Yet, what kind of terror did those who were here that fateful night go through? The north sides of buildings still remain blanketed in scaffolding. Many windows are in need of repair. The roar of chainsaws splits through the streets of town every waking moment of the day. People are now accustomed to it, as they are the odor of fresh sawdust that the wind sweeps in the air.
The power of nature belittles us. A visit to the Slovakian Tatras is evidence of this unbridled and unpredictable capability to transform landscapes and lives in the matter of minutes.
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