A few days ago, I discovered that Štôla is within the boundaries of Tatra National Park and has trails leading into the mountains. I have hiked every day since, a habit I plan to keep despite the wintry season. Even though school picks up again tomorrow, I want to continue and explore as much as time allows. How can I not when the peaks gaze at me through the kitchen window as I eat breakfast every morning?

For me, there is no better way to hike than alone. Not to sound too reclusive, but people only draw your attention away from your surroundings and their speech silences nature’s song. Fortunately for me, there is no better time or place to hike in solitude than between small Tatra villages in the month of January, when the hills are deep with snow and every path covered in solid ice.

The following are photos from my first solo trip upwards. I began in Štôla and followed my street northwards to the edge of the village. There, three paths diverge. One leading to Nová Polianka, another to Vyšné Hágy, and the third (as of yet unexplored) ultimately leads to Štrbské Pleso, quite a long walk. I took the first and would return down the second after a tram ride between the two towns.

Many villages and a few small towns dot the lower reaches of the High Tatras. Though, they are all in fact part of one large city: Vysoké Tatry (literally just “High Tatras”). The city is home to less than 5,000 people, yet in square miles it rivals much larger cities. It is—technically—Slovakia’s largest “urban” area, though calling it such is far too generous. The vast majority of the city’s land is national park and its population density is a mere 34 people per square mile.

Neither Nová Polianka nor Vyšné Hágy are very large or, honestly, have much to do. They are mostly residential areas and, surprisingly, not high end ones. I would think more people would want to live among the Tatras. Despite their emptiness, I committed to exploring every street that I could, with the purpose of discovering even the smallest details.

In Nová Polianka, a foreboding building gazes from its mountain perch. It is fairly ill-kept and the grounds seemed unattended. If my host father is to be believed, it is an abandoned hospital. Yet, to me it seemed suspiciously not abandoned. Regardless of its use or disuse, it certainly once cared the sick and injured. I’m positive many a wounded mountaineer visited its halls. Yet, in contrast to the hope and healing hospitals provide, a forlorn statue stands centered behind the structure. I wonder what the story of this piece is, sitting unnamed, unexplained, and weather-worn behind an abandoned hospital in a small alpine village?

Vyšné Hágy is larger than Nová Polianka and contains a greater number of functional buildings. I found the town to be exceedingly cute. Something about its layout seems quintessentially European, even if the homes and businesses are really not that old. As I toured Vyšné Hágy, I wandered off into the woods a bit and discovered an alter to the Virgin Mary amid a field of shin-deep snow. Benches faced the glass-encased icon and the plaques of thanks that surrounded her.

The weasel’s fairy-tale home. I believe the species to be the least weasel, however I cannot be certain for I was only able to study his appearance a few moments

There I sat, needing a rest and a snack. To my good fortune, I had just glanced up from my food as a weasel lanced from a bush and darted across the snow. The little creature dove into the stones decorating the base of a wooden cross. There was no chance of my camera being prepared to capture his sprint, but I wanted a shot of him. And I wanted it badly. I wanted to witness his little rodent head peaking out from the burrow which, adorned in flowers, seems to me a picture-perfect fairy-tale home for a critter like the ones children’s books describe. Alas, he would not reemerge for the near forty-five minutes I waited and I conceded that it simply was not be. I will, however, remember the wonderful shot that escaped every time I look at this picture.

All in all, it was an amazing trip. The beautiful nature and unexplored streets were worth more than every moment I devoted to them. There is something in walking which improves travel. Several times already I have passed both towns and their trails and not thought twice about it. Each of those times I rode the tram, which, as useful as it is, encourages us to focus solely on that day’s destination instead of all that might be witnessed on the way. If I had held any concern for time or kept to some itinerary I made online, I would not have seen even half of the wonderful things that I did.