Zabljak (pronounced “job lock”), Montenegro
A tiny little alpine village with 1,500 people – the population triples in the summer. It’s at the base of Durmitor National Park (abbreviated NP Durmitor). I’d just like to say NP is a much better as an acronym for National Park than it is for “non-deterministic polynomial time” or even “no problem.” I had planned to drive the scenic route through NP Durmitor but alas the road was snowed in. The snow-capped mountains never ever melt all the way. It’s like the anti-LA. Instead of warmth everyday, there’s snow everyday.
Because of the main road closure, I get super excited when my host Vedran said they had just partially opened/cleared a road to one of the peaks, Veliki Štuoc, the day before.
Vedran was friendly but kept trying to upsell me to do different activities so I always felt a little on edge around him. Anytime I answered he would grab my shoulder hard and say “it’s ok.” His English was fine, and he skipped 100% of prepositions, which was surprisingly effective in getting a point across in fewer words.
So I start driving that direction and it doesn’t take long to find the newly plowed road. At first I almost miss the turn because there was a group of bikers blocking the turn and I thought it was a pedestrian lane. It was wide enough for a car, but falling snow chunks, cows, and potholes were problematic.
As I keep inclining the mountain, I go under a ski lift and get a view of NP Durmitor.
Then the sun-facing side of the road gets narrower and more precarious.
As I circumnavigate to the shady side of the mountain, the snow is now higher than the car and the path gets more and more narrow. It’s at this point where I decide to stop taking pictures to focus on, you know, not crashing into a snow bank.
I had been told that the road was cleared to the point where to you could turn off the road and go on a gravel path up to the mountain peak. I concentrate so intently on not hitting the walls that I miss the turn-off. That was a mistake. In hindsight, it was an understandable mistake since the path to the peak was not cleared and was simply another wall of snow, just with a slightly larger space where you could perform a three-point turn of disappointment to head back down.
So I keep driving the 2-wheel drive rental car down the path as the ground went from mostly clear to icy and snowy. So this is when I found out I had missed the turn and decided oh maybe I should turn around now.
I find a place where the road was a bit wider and there is a painted arrow on the ground pointing towards the side. Good enough for me so here goes nothing for the three-point turn. I only got one point.
I put the car into reverse, the wheels spin and spun and snow flies forward but the car remains there. So I turn the wheel and try again. This time the car starts rocking like an earthquake simulator going in all directions and this is scary right on the edge of the mountain. I drive forward out of my newly created divot and go full throttle reverse. Now I’m in a new divot. I’m stuck. Why did I do this again?
I step out of the vehicle and closely examine the tires and the terrain and tell myself that I actually know what I’m doing. Confidence is everything right? I decide, “Maybe if I could get rid of the ice behind the tire then maybe I don’t know.” That’s my actual thought process word for word. So I start kicking the ice with my running shoed feet. You can imagine that is effective. Since obviously my 60 seconds of kicking changes things I try again to no avail.
Now I’m thinking damage control. Well I could just walk down the mountain the way I came until I run into someone with a phone. I have money. But before that I see two cars parked conspicuously further down the road, I slippily walk over but no one’s in them.
Then I hear construction noises. I keep walking and see two giant construction vehicles – one excavator with the claw in front and a snowplow tractor in back. They must be the road-clearing workers. The machine in back is not moving so I approach and knock on the door. He probably was napping but opens the door and I go “English?” No response, that’s not a good sign if he doesn’t understand the word English.
I point to my car key, then I start simulating a wheel spinning indefinitely and make the sound “vroom” and then point to my phone and indicate it doesn’t work and then point to my head to indicate that I’m stupid. He understands perfectly I think and makes a “one moment” sign. Then he drives the tractor over, tows me out, and I’m on my way back. Or that’s how it could have happened…
He turns on the tractor engine and just drives away – the opposite way of the car. He just leaves. No, come back! I’m not going to approach a moving construction vehicle on the snow in running shoes. So I go back to the car. I have the obvious bright idea of trying to reverse again. Maybe this time I’ll have luck. Nope.
So I walk back down to the abandoned cars and watch the workers work. I just stand there not really sure what to do. I start walking towards them because I have nothing better to do. Then the guy steps out of the tractor and comes to me. A sliver of hope! I lead him around the corner to the car, which is now nestled against the snow bank after all of my feeble attempts. Once we get to the car, I’m like here’s the keys which didn’t go over well and he didn’t take them. He tells me to go in reverse, so I step on it and he starts pushing the car from the front and then rocking it out of the divot. That doesn’t work. We try it a couple of ways in a couple of directions and still can’t overcome frozen water.
At this point I go to the trunk and take out the snow chains and impress him with my preparedness. I know what snow chains are! He cuts open the packaging since the chains have never been used.
Since I guess you can’t put on snow chains when you’re already stuck (not that I’d know how to put them on anyway), he puts them behind the front tires to serve as traction. We do the same thing and I put the pedal to the metal and the wheels catch on the chains and I start moving. I get excited and remove my foot from the gas and the car falls back into the divot. He gets a little mad.
The next time it works and we slowly but surely turn the car back onto the road. But the road is still too steep and icy to simply reverse up the road – it needs to be turned around. We find a better place to three-point turn and he pushes the car super hard in whatever way I need to go. It probably takes about 15 tries to inch my way around, hitting snow banks on every try. When I finally clear it, I can’t stop the car to thank him or else I risk falling back down so I drive with the sliding symbol on the dashboard constantly lit up until I get to dry ground. I park and run back down to thank him but he’s already gone and is back in his machine. So instead I just take context pictures and call it a day.
When I reach the turn-off that I missed, I run into a nice group looking out at the viewpoint. I can’t pass them since our cars face each other so I get out. Two of the three speak English and I tell them about getting stuck and they take a picture of me. When we all get in our cars and I reverse until there’s a point where one of us can get out of the way. They honk their horn as a thank you but then start going down the road where I got stuck. I start honking to warn them and make them stop but they thought I was saying thank you or doing some happy car horn thing so they just drove away onto the icy road. I never heard from them again dum dum dum.
So the next day I joined a group who went rafting. No pictures since the so called “dry bag” didn’t have a seal and quite frankly there were medium rapids every so often so bringing a camera of phone would’ve been a bit dangerous. Our guide was telling us how this was his third time ever rafting, the first two times in the more gentle waters of summer with groups of infants and their parents. Didn’t really instill confidence. The other rafters were a group of 3 friends from London and a couple from the Czech Republic all in their late 20s.