Up in Smoke in Croatia
Updated: May 27, 2019
The Best Laid Plans
One bright and promising morning, my daughter Ali and I awoke in our Split Air Bnb apartment to tasty Croatian fritules and strong black coffee.
Our plan was to road trip from Split Croatia to Ljubljana Slovenia. Our mood was ebullient; we were excited about what lay ahead. Outside and above us, fair weather cumulous clouds dappled the sky while the great leaves of summer swayed in a hyacinth breeze.
An hour later, it's a different story.
We had left early to allow ample time to visit Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Croatia, with clear blue lakes and cascading waterfalls.
But after a few easy miles, we encountered an ominous road closure. And then another.
As I detoured off the main roads, we saw thick clouds of smoke in the distance. The smoke spread, like a voracious killdozer swallowing the sky chunk by chunk and scorching the already brown earth.
And closing in on us.
The Goat Road
As we drove further and further afield into the wilds of the Croatian countryside, my daughter and I had different reactions. Ali was a true believer in salvation by smart phone. She had embraced the "just around the bend" theory of extricating yourself when seemingly hopelessly lost.
I, on the other hand, was a true believe in back up plans and I didn't have one.
We turned right and turned left, weaving crazily down the side roads. We arrived at what can only be described as a goat path -- filled with ruts and decidedly not meant for rental cars or testing the camber of the road.
At least we had full insurance coverage.
The fire loomed immediately to our right. With a smidgeon of quixotic mirth and a whole lot of effusiveness, Ali screamed: "Hit the accelerator. Full speed ahead." And then we were lost, risking life and limb, speeding down the goat road.
"Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here"
Our species has a long history of getting lost. And there is usually some emotional deterioration involved.
I try forcing myself to stay calm. I inhale as deeply as possible, inflating my lungs, as if I was about to swim a race. But the panic slowly and inexorably sets in.
In terms of navigational technique ... well, I have none. I have no sense of direction whatsoever. Just ask my family; they will throw me under the bus. I get lost in my own neighborhood. I recently got lost in a parking garage.
My mind serpentines around the possibilities. How does one get un-lost in rural Croatia? Do we follow the water downstream? Stay put and wait for help? Would we have to survive on stored fat? Is my blood sugar low? A mind on the loose fixates on the worst case scenarios.
Would it be a full-blown meltdown?
Was my geographical cure going up in smoke?
I was in no mood for bland travel aphorisms. I didn't want to "truly find myself,""hone my problem solving skills,"or "confront my own flaws." Isn't that what psychotherapy is for back home? This was Ragnarok, plain and simple. Or at least the possibility was there.
What makes getting lost a seeming survival threat is how easily it can happen. You lose cell phone reception. Your battery is depleted. You don't have a map. You don't see a single other person. Even if you did, you couldn't communicate. And talking to goats and sheep seems ineffectual, though ever so slightly tempting in extremis.
I wondered if there was an app that could pinpoint our location if we needed rescuing.
None of this concerned Ali.
An Oddventurist Is Born
Ali embraced our oddverture wholeheartedly.
As she whipped out her iPhone, I could sense the stirrings of swagger. She had no sense that the flames might engulf us. She had no worry that we would be stranded, helpless, on the goat road with a flat tire. Not a flicker of fear wrinkled her brow. She had somehow inoculated herself against the queasy terror of being lost.
I envied her coolheadedness.
Internally, I rolled my eyes at the semi-patronizing "calm down Mom"platitudes Ali burbed out every so often. As often happens when trying to reason with an anxious person, all the encouragement and buck-up-ing lingo was only making things worse.
The Trip Tribe
The youngest generation of travelers don't need bucking up. They like fast, exciting activities. They are always searching for the next big adventure. They embrace adversity and misadventure as an "authentic" experience, especially if it can be stirringly recounted and instagrammed. An on the spot yolo experience is coveted, and this one fit the bill.
Could we outrun the fire or would we be forced to seek shelter in a nearby hut or even the sea itself?
Behold, A Paved Road
As Ali predicted, the smart phone GPS ultimately saved the day. After slowly grinding down bumpy dirt roads where seemingly no man has gone before, the smoke superimposed on the sky gradually faded into the distance and we found our salvation: a paved road.
Who knew that a road could inspire such profound happiness? That road eventually led us back to the main highway. Having successfully circumvented the forest fire and "saved" us, Ali unabashedly started some serious fist pumping.
I was a proud momma. Our mood was once again euphoric. A measly forest fire had not defeated our well-laid plans, just slightly delayed them. Life was good.
A Happy Ending
Later, we learned that forest fires along the Adriatic Coast had closed highways for hours and required the help of the Croatian Army as well as firefights. Much later, I heard that a friend heading to Zadar that same day had been stranded on the highway. Like the normal non-oddventurist, she had just pulled over and parked, mired in a sea of grumpy tourists ruminating about their foiled plans.
Thanks to Ali, we avoided that fate and blithely went on our merry way to Plitvice.
But I was mightily hungry. There is nothing like a dose of misadventure to give you a hearty appetite.
To travel, of course, is to be exposed to the incomprehensible whims of nature. Sometimes the resulting inconvenience is the most absurdly memorable event of a vacation.
I'm not sure we learned anything inherently valuable from the experience, but we were not burnt to a crisp by a Dracarys-like conflagration. We were glad to be alive, a sentiment that is sometimes elusive back home, and ready to tackle the rest of our trip. Nothing else could go wrong, right?
And then our car was towed ...