Since my usual rambles have been limited lately by nerve pain from my damaged cervical spine—unfortunate genetics coupled with a literally rough-neck lifestyle—I’m going to revisit some highlights of my earlier travels. I’m working on a sequel to my novel The Ariadne Connection, set mostly in the Greek islands, and have been rereading my journal from a 4-month backpacking journey in Greece in the early 1980s. And I just unearthed from storage some old photo slides—not the best quality, and somehow missing many of the scenic shots I actually mention in the journal. Such is the life of this writer—too many moves throughout my life resulted in losing records. But as I’m sure other authors will confirm, our journals and photos, even if sketchy, can be precious resources when summoning the Muse to conjure up stories. (First photo above courtesy of West-Crete.com)
My hike through the Gorge of Samaria on Crete remains vivid in my memory, and figured in a crucial scene in The Ariadne Connection. Since girlhood, I had devoured Greek myths and history, and finally in my twenties, my adventure partner Jim Hawkins and I loaded our backpacks with our camping gear—and journal and camera—and set off to see for ourselves if the ancient magic is still real. (Hint: It is!)
Crete was the home to the 99 fabled cities of the ancient Minoans (or Keftiu), where King Minos built the labyrinth to contain the bull-headed Minotaur, the offspring of a sacred white bull and Minos’s wife. She had been compelled by Poseidon (some say Zeus), who was angry at Minos for not sacrificing the bull to him. Revenge was a big theme in those myths. Anyway, Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, knew the secrets of the labyrinth—Homer stated that it was Ariadne’s ceremonial dancing ground. So a metaphorical labyrinth became central to the development of my fictional, near-future Ariadne, who would need to trace the convoluted secrets of the ancients in order to heal a plague and more.
She remembers hearing an idiosyncratic version of the tale from her Uncle Dmitri when she was a girl:
Clear purple-blue swells, rocking Uncle Demetrios’s battered old trader. Little Ariadne stood stiffly gripping the rail as they headed for the Petrides’ sheltered cove, refusing the prick of curiosity, the wild lure of the rugged south coast of Crete. She knew it was all a plan of her uncle’s, to make her forget her mother’s death. But she’d never forget. Never.
“My little Kri-Kri!” His rough hand tousled her braids. “Meet Mistress Kriti. She’s a wild, glorious witch—the Big Island. You’ll see, she’ll enchant you, too.”
She turned to him, unsmiling and armored, looking up at those dancing dark eyes always teasing. She frowned, sticking out her chin. “You’re just making up stories again.”
He grinned and spread his arms to the sea and rocky mountains and endless sky. “Making up! When the stories here are bursting all over, blossoming like flowers out of the stones and spring rains? What about Homer and the fabulous ninety-nine cities of the Minoans? Those crazy girls and boys dancing with the sacred bulls. Even old Zeus was born up in those mountains!” He jabbed a hand.
“And your great-great-great-grandmother Ariadne. She was the priestess of the labyrinth her father built. There’s a lesson in that. Watch out for those scoundrel gods. Old Minos, now, he thought he could dodge them, outshine them. Hubris. Crafty Zeus, that philanderer, showed him up, came down as a giant bull in all his glory—charmed Minos’s wife right out of her skirts. When a god comes bearing gifts, now what’s a poor mortal to do but bow down and take it? And what a visitation that was, all the power of his magic rod!”
He shot Ariadne a look and sobered, stroking his long black mustache. “But those gifts of the gods—always a price, eh? She bore Minos a godgiven monster child. The minotaur, half man and half bull. So old Minos locked him at the heart of the labyrinth to guard the treasure. Only daughter Ariadne brave enough to hold the key to it. But then she had the power, the ancient serpent magic from the original matriarch Gaea herself….”
Crete is a surprisingly rugged island, and the Cretans take great pride in their toughness that reflects the terrain. Snowy mountains run east to west and fall steeply in the south to rocky shorelines cut by deep coves of crystal-clear blue water. The Gorge of Samaria is the second longest in Europe at 16 kilometers, a sometimes challenging hike from the mountain pass through narrow canyons that funnel icy mountain springs to eventually empty into the Mediterranean.
On a late April early morning, we took an aged bus from Chania on the north coast, through lovely valleys south toward the mountains. From my journal:
The road is very narrow, and every time we approach a turn, the driver blasts his horn. We pass through green, terraced fields, small villages with whitewashed houses with always blue-painted doors and shutters. Lots of vineyards and olive orchards, with yellow and blue flowers, pink cherry blossoms, and the glowing scarlet wild poppies.
Then we start climbing. The White Mountains loom over us, very close and forbidding with their cold breath of lingering snow. Everything turns to bare rock—crags and piles of boulders, rough and jagged stones, with here and there a pasture cleared between fences made of these same rocks. The driver enjoys scaring his passengers as he grins and blasts the horn and swings the bus over to the very edge to manage the tight twists and turns, and we peer straight down for sickening drops to narrow gorges.
Halfway there, we pass through the village of Laki, clinging precariously to the foothills, the whitewashed houses stacked one above the other, the church overlooking them from a craggy bluff, its blue dome shining in the sun. A white dove floats up the valley, catching the light.
Departing from the bus at the end of the mountain road, we shouldered our backpacks and headed down the rocky trail in a ravine. Snowmelt springs tumbled down the cliffs past clinging pines and twisted small-leaf maples. Blue-tinted deep pools in the rocky gorge held crystal-clear, sweet water for drinking. As we hiked down the steep, beautifully wild gorge, we spotted a rare kri-kri, a native wild goat. After several kilometers, the trail leveled into a narrow valley containing the ruins of the settlement of Samaria, where we rested for lunch. Then it was down into the lower gorge, where the rocky walls narrowed in places almost allowing us to touch both walls with our outstretched arms.
In the afternoon, clouds lowered with a promise of rain, the walls closing into a gloomy dark tunnel. The stream swelled to fill the ravine, forcing us to make the first of several fordings through the icy, rushing water that almost knocked me over with my heavy backpack.
(Above is Jim at a shallower crossing.) In places, we were clinging to the rocky walls and trying not to slip into the torrent, which inspired another scene in The Ariadne Connection:
The first physical [earthquake] tremors started when they were halfway up the ravine. The dirt track had given way to a narrow trail climbing stony switchbacks above the village, then to a steeper goat path.
Following the surprisingly nimble, knotted old legs through an inward fold of the rising mountains, Ariadne looked down to the stream making its way past the broken rock foundations of a ruined settlement. High above it on a craggy bluff, the square tower and blank window slits of a centuries-abandoned Venetian fortress frowned down. On their side of the stream, above the precarious path ledge, natural caves honeycombed the limestone cliffside. Vanished hermit-monks had built plastered walls to seal their entrances, and outside one black-shadowed doorway a few bright scraps of laundry lay spread over the rock. When Ariadne paused to point at the cave—“Your home?”—the crone only nodded and prodded her on with the staff.
The pathway narrowed again as they climbed. They were forced to wade up the stream bed itself, slippery stones shifting under the foaming snowmelt from the peaks. The ravine sealed off all but a thin strip of blue far above, sheer cliffs closing in so tightly Ariadne could touch both sides with her outstretched fingers.
She could taste the urgency in the air. The shrill scream of blocked pressures ripped through her bones. Panting, she followed the midwife through the churning current, slipping over wet stones and nearly going under before she caught the staff the old woman stretched out to her from a steep bank.
Dripping, she climbed onto a narrow ledge. She didn’t need Cassandra’s guidance now to follow the source of the silent scream. Its eddies pulled at her, jagged waves of energy shivering up her spine from the laboring earth.
The stone path trembled in its throes. It rippled beneath her, and Ariadne nearly fell back into the roaring stream. Cassandra cried out, teetering on the brink. Ariadne caught her wrist and pulled her back against the rock face.
As daylight waned on our path, a cloudburst drove us to seek shelter under an overhanging boulder and ponder our options, as we’d planned to find flat ground near the seashore to camp, and there was only steep rock here. It was getting dark as we searched for a possible campsite, and then came upon a small, abandoned chapel in the dusk. Another cloudburst had us scurrying into the musty chapel, where we lit candles below some faded icons that had been painted on the whitewashed walls.
We were just unpacking the meager remains of our lunch—we’d planned to reach a taverna at the bottom of the trail for dinner—a drenched couple sprinted out of the gloom and into the chapel beside us. Olga and Georges were Belgians who spoke no English, but I dusted off my junior high school French, and we managed to communicate. They were day hikers and had no bedding, so we loaned them our sleeping pads and we shared our leftover bread and halvah, along with their tomato and mackerel salad. The shared laughter and comradery of strangers in the storm made it an ambrosial meal to remember.
This is a photo that Olga and Georges sent us later: Jim and me the next morning, as we waited for the stream to subside so we could finish the hike to the sea.
Waving goodbye to our new friends, who were hiking up to the mountain, we headed downstream past the abandoned caves of the hermit monks in the cliffside…
…and the ruins of a small Venetian fortress. What was left of the buildings was occupied by a couple of families with their chickens, donkeys, and goats. A crumbling castle with tower and crenelations presided over them, high up on the cliff and commanding a view both of sea and gorge. As we finally neared out destination, we passed the remains of an ancient stone “bridge to nowhere.” We had arrived.
Sara’s newest from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.