The Mountain of the Gods crawled with tourists, but for once I didn’t care because, in my opinion, they were the best kind of tourists: the kind with trekking poles and messy hair, smelling vaguely of BO and rain, eyes aimed at the heavens. Perhaps only a few of them came with the purpose of visiting Zeus and Athena and the other Greek gods in their impregnable home, but certainly all of them came to commune with the mountain, to soak up some all-natural nature.
Mount Olympus, highest and most sacred peak in Greece, was a great place to do just that. Off the main path it was easy to find peace and solitude. During our ascent, my two hiking partners and I diverged from the well-trodden trail followed faded red paint blazes through a fairytale forest of ancient pines and wraithlike mist.
We stopped beneath the twisted limbs of an immense pine; its trunk was several meters in circumference. After a few minutes staring up at it in awe I was overcome with the urge to hug this grandfather tree. I wrapped my arms around a fraction of its trunk, and rested my cheek against the deeply ridged bark. Out of all the trees I’ve hugged in my life—and there have been a lot—this is the first one that seemed to hug me back. I stepped back in surprise. Brooke tried next, and then Sarie, and they were just as surprised by the sensation as I was. Surely this mountain was a sacred place, I thought.
Up we climbed to a mountain refuge on the Plateau of Muses, an expansive alpine meadow near the summit of Olympus. All that remained above us was an awesome tower of solid rock, the Throne of Zeus itself. It loomed over the plateau, arrogant, daring us to climb its vertical sides. Away to the east we could see the Aegean Sea disappearing into the distance, and unending, slightly wrinkled sheet of blue draped over the curve of the earth.
As the sun sank lower the sky, the three of us climbed to a nearby saddle and gazed into the abyss on the other side. Ridges of gray rock plummeted into a canyon so deep and shadowed we couldn’t see the bottom. It was in those depths that the gods resided, excepting Zeus, who threw his deadly lightning bolts from the chimney of rock above us.
Hunger finally tore us away from the view. Back at the refuge we tucked into bowls of pasta and plates of fresh Greek salad, dipping hunks of bread into the excess olive oil. A Greek man came inside to announce the rising of the full moon. We stepped outside to watch it climb out of the sea, spotlight bright and orange as a pumpkin in the blue-black night sky.
We stayed up late, chatting with a remarkably diverse group of hikers: three Americans, one Kiwi, two Israelis and three Greeks. The conversation roamed far and wide as we asked each other probing questions: How do you explain the conflict between Israel and Palestine? What is the standard of education in Greece? How is life in America?
Despite the heavy subjects there was a lot of laughter. At one point, Sarie, without thinking, started a sentence with, “We met an amazing tree today…” Our new friends looked at her like she was crazy, but Brooke and I just laughed because it was true.
Early the next morning six of us ventured out to tackle the ultimate summit: Mytikas, where for thousands of years the Pantheon of gods met to determine the fate of mortals. Would they permit us to climb the lofty spire? We would soon know.
Up we climbed, slowly and steadily. The gully we ascended was steep like a ladder, several hundred feet of rock ledges that brought us ever higher. Around us the notorious mists of Olympus swirled, chasing us up the mountain. The sea became obscured, and then the base of the gully, and eventually the sky itself. It felt like we were climbing the clouds themselves.
At last we topped out the peak. Mytikas, home of the gods! Up there among the gauzy fog and forbidding rocks the myths seemed tangible, as real as the mountain beneath our feet. Certainly the gods had been real for Richard Halliburton. He, his friend Roderick, and a 13-year-old shepherd boy named Lazarus had summited the peak in 1925, the fourth party of mortals ever to do so. But they had become trapped by fog, unable to safely descend.
Forced to spend the night on the rocky summit, the group endured a violent storm. Zeus threw everything he had at the unprepared climbers, and they shivered the night away in fear and cold. Near dawn Richard had a brilliant idea—a sacrifice! Something to appease the gods, to call off the fury! All they sorry crew had was a handful of goat cheese and a flask of vile Greek liquor. Into the abyss they went. Fifteen minutes later the storm abated and the sky cleared. The gods had approved.
Eager to seek the gods’ favor—I have a long way yet to go in my travels—I pulled a small bottle of Greek liquor from my backpack. I almost grabbed a slice of cheese, as well, but came across something better—chocolate. Seated on an airy spur of rock I called into the fog-filled chasm, “Zeus!” The mist swallowed my words. “All the mighty gods of Olympus! If it pleases you, grace me with your favors and allow me to complete my adventures safely!” Over the edge went a stream of alcohol, followed swiftly by a chunk of dark chocolate.
Silence. Had they heard? Would there be a sign?
Suddenly the fog lifted and the sun shone through, bathing our laughing faces in a golden glow. The sacrifice had worked!
We slowly climbed down from the rocky peak, and then spent hours descending the endless switchbacks, down, down, down into the green forests that blanket the flanks of Olympus. Sunlight stayed with us the entire day, a rare occurrence on that fickle mountain. It dappled through leafy canopies and played light games on the surface of icy blue pools.
At the trailhead the six of us crammed into a single car and continued the descent, dancing and fist-pumping to Greek rock that blared from the radio, all the way down to sparkling Aegean Sea. From the shore of the sea I gazed back up at Olympus. It towered above everything, majestic as ever. Had I really been on that summit just hours earlier?
Surely I’m one of the mortals the gods favor.