Sunday, 28 May 2023

In a matter of hours, my trip to Armenia would come to an end. Though I would leave with a heavy heart, I was glad to have had another opportunity to explore my homeland, to see it from the new vantage point of mountain peaks near and far. I will have covered more than 120 km of trails in the Armenian highland over the course of eight hikes in sixteen days. More than 100 km of these hikes were logged during the six trips with Armenian Geographic.

Today’s hike was a choice not made easily. I’d originally extended my trip by eight days when ArmGeo scheduled an overnight hike to Mt. Khustup in the Syunik region for this weekend. Talking to Roman and the other guides last weekend, though, I realized that the Khustup trip would return to Yerevan well after midnight on Monday morning. In the best of circumstances, this would give me less than three hours to make it to my flight home. The slightest delay in the five-hour drive back to Yerevan and I’d miss my flight. The decision to forego this hike rendered an entire suitcase full of gear, my large backpack, my sleeping bag and mat, my jetboil and freeze-dried food, all useless on this trip. Plan B, joining the ever-popular weekly hike to Mt. Dimats, I also discarded.

Earlier in the week, I’d called to visit the ArmGeo offices to meet Tigran Varag, the founder of ArmGeo. This proved to be inexplicably difficult to make happen. It was suggested that I join the Harsnakar hike as it would be led by Tigran, and I could meet him during the trek. This was the one unpalatable aspect of the ArmGeo front office. From the moment I’d contacted them months ago, there had been consistent skepticism shown toward my preparedness for their hikes, an attitude that had not completely gone away even after two weekends and four strenuous hikes, and even after I gently pointed out to them that they’d somehow not extended that skepticism to locals who were clearly unprepared in every way, both in terms of gear and actual hiking stamina and experience. I should have learned my lesson early and talked big, as many of these straggling hikers did, as that clearly did the trick. All it took, then, for all the disappointment I felt to evaporate, was to meet the front office staff this morning. They were just trying to do their job and make sure that inexperienced hikers didn’t ruin the trip for everyone else.

Dawn on May 28th–Independence Day for the First Republic of Armenia–gently broke on a mostly indifferent Yerevan. On the one previous occasion when I’d been in Armenia on this day, in 2006, my father and I had traveled to Aparan, the site of the decisive Bash-Abaran battle of 1918. Then we drove to Vanadzor, the location of the Gharakilisa front of the battle. We had celebrated Independence Day with now departed friends Stepan and Chakhal, eating and drinking at the ruins of Bardzrakash St. Grigor monastery in the forests of Dsegh. Today, our road to Harsnakar would take us to Aparan again, where the people will never forget the glory of the hard-fought victory.

Still somewhat envious of the Mt. Dimats group, I boarded the van for Harsnakar, my only consolation the fact that we’d be accompanied not only by Tigran, but also by Roman, Hrachuhi, and Nanor whom I’d met during my previous ArmGeo hikes. A reunion and a sending off, all in one.

We arrived in Aparan decked out in the red, blue, and orange of the Armenian tricolor, and heaving with revelers dressed in the same colors. It seemed that everyone also wanted to eat and drink at the Gntuniq food court before the festivities began, so we had to wait longer than usual for our morning coffee and pastries. On the road again and past the road blocks erected to divert traffic around the heart of Aparan, I turned my gaze toward Mt. Aragats, in full view once the town buildings receded from sight. An appeal of the hike today was the view of the northern peak of Aragats that we’d be treated to throughout the trek.

We began the hike on the outskirts of the village of Lernapar, at the junction of the Aragatsotn, Shirak, and Lori regions. Our path would in fact parallel the sinuous Shirak-Lori border, heading subtly north of west for 9 km to the summit of Harsnakar, barely visible behind the rolling hills of Shirak. The road ended just beyond the village, and the faint tracks in the grass we followed disappeared after a short distance. We walked up and down hills where the yellow of buttercups often overwhelmed the green grass. The white puffs of alyssum and the blues and purples of forget-me-nots were a great splash of color upon the palette of the landscape. It was the first time I was seeing this flower, called shushanatsaghik in Armenian, which came to symbolize the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

We crested a hill far from the village which had been tilled for planting and were rewarded with our first full glimpse of the crest of Harsnakar. Now, forget-me-nots outnumbered the buttercups for the first time, shifting the spectrum of the hills toward the cooler wavelengths of light… Blue above, blue and green below.

A second tilled hillside was all that remained between us and the foot of Harsnakar. This time, the carved plow-troughs ran transverse to our path, and I felt as if I was in a boat going up and down successive waves while climbing up and down. The final ascent, straight up the proud visage of Harsnakar, took us along moss- and lichen-covered rocks strewn below the peak, their jagged edges providing oft-needed handholds on the steep incline. Wild fennel grew between the boulders, and once trampled, added a sweet licorice scent to the wind whipping about, and lifting a kettle of hawks to greater and greater heights.

We arrived at the twin-pronged summit and settled beside a large metal cross and a khatchkar. Apparently, the peak was a pilgrimage destination from villages near and far. I found the unadorned and slightly higher summit more appealing, both for the afforded views and for the juxtaposition of miniature succulents hiding between the crags piling up to form the second summit.

One more carefully chosen and carefully removed succulent made it into my bag. Now I wished I had collected one from each hike and each summit, something I’d never do in the U.S. But, this wasn’t the wilderness of the Sierra, or the backcountry of a national park where we must leave only footprints and take only photographs. It is common to harvest wild herbs and flowers during trips outside the cities and villages in Armenia. The specimens I did remove were not remarkable or endangered. One of the hikers in our group would later pick a large bag full of wild thyme, ourdz, which makes an excellent tea. He wasn’t the only one returning from the hike with such a harvest.

Returning to the group, I finally struck up a conversation with Tigran. When I’d purchased his book, The Mountainous Island, back in January, I was surprised to see that it was dedicated to Stepan Nalbandian. I asked Tigran about the connection and learned that Tigran had met Stepan as a youngster in the Land and Culture program, and that Stepan had encouraged him to begin the project that became Armenian Geographic. How I wish Stepan was still with us, how I wish he was still inspiring youth to cherish and care for their homeland as he’d done for decades…

Till now, the distant summits of Mt. Aragats had been hidden behind clouds and haze, but as we began our descent, the tallest mountain in present day Armenia became more distinct and began to dominate the view to the south. Taking a southeasterly path from the summit brought us to the first of two ancient cemeteries atop a round hill. Aside from a beautiful khatchkar that lay prone and broken upon the grass, all writing and adornments had been erased from the stones that once marked grave sites but were strewn about too randomly for that to be the case now. Every rock, whether it had been a gravestone or not, was covered in splotches of green lichen merging together to resemble an intricate crochet doily pattern. Some of the older gravestones had an underlayer of red lichen upon which the green and gray patterns lay. Another cemetery, older still, could be seen downslope and atop the next hill. Reaching there, we stopped again to walk among the ancient stones. Here the overwhelming color was red, spread unbroken by nature’s paintbrush over all the gravestones, a shock of ochre upon the green landscape. The gravestones here were much more ornate, and several were covered by beautiful scrollwork.

Past the cemeteries, we skirted a large pond, split neatly in two by a narrow land bridge. Whatever act of nature or, more likely, that of the villagers nearby, that had filled the pond seemed to have surprised the tall grasses and reeds growing along the shores and within. Many were still flattened by the action of moving water. The stillness of the water as we walked by, reflecting the clouds above, was in stark contrast to the sense of motion conveyed by the reeds. Past the pond, we once again entered a sea of wildflowers, more prominent now as the drier ground supported large grassless patches.

Our first and only official break came when we were more than halfway back to the van. We sat around in a circle near several large pits lined with short, crude walls of stone, evoking excavated basements of structures fallen into ruin long ago. Nettles and yellow-flowered footsteps-of-spring grew among the rocks. Mt. Aragats, its northern and western peaks fully revealed, welcomed our attention. Herds of cows grazed lazily atop the hills to my right and left, slowly moving downslope. In the changing light of the afternoon sun, with clouds racing across the sky and shadows chasing across the hills, other herds were being driven across the plain back toward the village. It was a kaleidoscopic, ever-changing landscape of village life which I found difficult to tear my gaze from. I did not sit down for long. My restless feet already knew what my mind was refusing to acknowledge: I was taking the last steps, approaching the end of the last hike. I dreamt of future plans, and I spoke of climbing Mt. Ararat next year, but the truth of the matter hung unspoken, that the future is always nebulous, and the reality of today is what truly hits home.

Back at the van, I felt an urge to make one last act of gratitude. In anticipation of this moment, I’d packed a copy of my book, Ode to the Eastern Sierra, in my bag. I now gifted this volume to Tigran to thank him for all the experiences that his team at ArmGeo had made possible. We would not be stopping anywhere on the way back, and, aside from hasty goodbyes at Saryan Park, this would be my last chance of expressing how much I appreciated the professionalism of the guides and the organization of the trips that I’d embarked on. The rapid return to Yerevan and the tight schedule I had for catching my flight meant that I wouldn’t yet face the deluge of feelings that would rush over me much later, when I sat alone on the flight out of Yerevan.

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