Originally published at homeofmillican.com.
In an obscure corner of Armenia, in the town of Dilijan, just shy of the central square, a rickety wooden staircase leads up from the street, through the trees, and into the unknown. If you climb these stairs and follow the red-and-white symbols, you’ll rise far above town along pathways etched between pine trees, leaving outlying farmsteads behind you, foraying deeper into the woods on narrow trails among oak and ash and hornbeam – until finally you’ll burst out upon the alpine meadows, and the full glory of Dilijan National Park will be draped across the landscape below. You’ll stop, put down your backpack, and admire the hard-earned spectacle. And you’ll probably think: ‘why am I the only one here doing this?’.
It was the summer of 2015, that same thought snowballed into the Transcaucasian Trail, one of the world’s newest long-distance walking routes. One day, I hope, it will cross three countries and traverse 2,000 miles of mountain ranges at the crossing point between Russia, Persia and Europe. I’d been wandering the mountains of Armenia for some weeks, struggling to find good routes with no maps or information in any language I could understand. Then I met a Frenchman who’d walked all the way from Paris. He listened with great patience to my moaning about the lack of a good long-distance trail across the Caucasus. Then he replied, quite simply, ‘well, why don’t you build one?’.
Perhaps if I’d been busier – perhaps if the walk hadn’t softened my thoughts – I’d have rejected the idea out of hand. But the truth was I couldn’t think of a single convincing reason why I should not try and build a Transcaucasian Trail.
Last month, when I climbed that rickety staircase once more and emerged upon the mountaintop, all was brown, the grass cropped short by the haymakers, only a few purple chicory flowers peering through. The forests were of honey and bronze; soon the branches would be bare. In early summer these meadows would be thrumming with buzz and colour; a wildflower (and honey) enthusiast’s paradise. Many would be familiar species, but being a few thousand miles east in the biodiversity hotspot of the Caucasus would also mean an abundance of the unfamiliar and exotic; curiosity with every footstep.
I dipped into the forest and sat down for lunch at a spot I’d shared so many times with a dozen idealists who’d volunteered to start making the Transcaucasian Trail real. I’d chosen Dilijan National Park for logical reasons: its convenient location between Yerevan and Tbilisi, the enthusiasm of the park staff, its reputation (among Soviet citizens at least) as a bountiful region for the rambler. But in retrospect, it was also because these ancient forests and grassy uplands made me feel at home. I wanted to spend more time here. This was strange, because there is no comparable landscape I can think of in my homeland of the English Midlands, save for a few spots of ornamental woodland and some remote bits of the Peak. Perhaps this is what is meant by ‘collective memory’; a deep idea of how things once were, never articulated but embedded in the subconscious until triggered by some event that reminds us of places from where we all came.
Walking towards the end of the trail at Parz Lake, I indulged in happy nostalgia. There’s that wedge-shaped piece of wood we’d propped against a tree as a seat; there’s that tricky spot we’d reinforced with a stone retaining wall that walkers would never even notice; there’s that clearing we camped in for a week while chiselling a path through a patch of bedrock. Like all who’d worked on the trail that summer, a chapter of my life was written along this path; a simple story of hard graft, hearty meals, campfire chit-chat, and that feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves.
Light fading, I raised my eyes to admire the double-trunked oriental beech that’d had us in awe as we’d carved a path around it. And I remembered that we’d given it a name, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Because memories will fade, and legacies will be forgotten. But if we did our jobs well, the trail will always remain.