Birthdays and Backpacks

When you set off on an adventure, you never really know what lies ahead.

We throw down our packs, plop down on a bench, and admire the craggy Julian Alps framing the Planina Pre Jezeru hut, our home for the night. It’s a surprisingly warm September afternoon in Slovenia’s Triglav National Park, so we’re in no hurry to head inside to register with Olga, the hut keeper. She’s a very efficient lady with cropped blonde hair, a faded green t-shirt, jeans, and no time for chitchat. My first impression of Olga is that of a drill sergeant rather than a favorite aunt; proof positive that first impressions aren’t definitive.

We’ve gotten a late start, so before shouldering our packs, I call the hut to make sure there’s room for us. Reassured there are plenty of beds and assuming there’s phone reception, we hit the trail. Our plan is to make it to the hut, then call our daughter to wish her a happy birthday. The nine-hour time difference between Slovenia and Idaho means that when we’re downing our first beer at happy hour, she’s rolling out of bed. College students need their sleep, so we can’t call too early. We knock out the short, steep trek in a few hours and arrive at the hut with time to kill. When I finally pull out my phone to take care of the birthday business, I discover there’s no phone service. No Internet. No luck.

Normally, lack of connectivity would be delightful, but not today. On this day, in fact, it’s a big problem. Our daughter will think we’ve forgotten her 20th birthday. And worse yet, since she doesn’t know we’re hiking in Slovenia, she’ll worry about us if she tries to call and can’t connect.

I venture into the hut to ask Olga if there’s a phone I can use. “There’s no phone here,” she barks. Unconsciously, I cradle my face in my hands and sigh, “it’s my daughter’s birthday,” more to myself than anyone else.

“Just a minute,” Olga says gruffly, and turns to check in a group of hikers. I leave to use the toilet, and when I return, there’s a phone miraculously sitting on the table!

Elated, I dial Anna’s number. Her answering machine picks up, but I am thrilled to send birthday wishes and let her know we’re off the grid for a few days. Olga seems happy, too! When I hang up, she instructs her husband, Ivo, to pour two shots of Smrekovec, the local spruce tip liqueur, so we can celebrate with a birthday toast.

Minutes later, Olga returns clutching the phone. “Call your daughter,” she commands. “I just got a call from the US, and I think it was her. The caller hung up when I answered {in Slovenian}.” I call Anna back, and this time she answers. With giant grins plastered on our faces, we wish her a happy day and start to feel like good parents again. Ivo pours more shots and the celebration continues.

Olga warms up to us as the evening continues. When she finally leads us upstairs to show us our beds, she quietly asks, “Do you want your own room?” “Yes!” we emphatically reply. And just like that, we’re in a room with a dozen bunks…and we’ve got it all to ourselves! Her kindness continues through the night, with friendly banter, tasty strudel, and shots of Smrekovec. Ivo pulls his accordion off a shelf and serenades us.

When it’s time to settle the bill in thet morning, we notice there are neither shots nor international phone calls on our bill. When I ask Olga if she’s forgotten to charge us, she just smiles and quietly says, “I’ve got a daughter, too.”

As we say our goodbyes, Olga presents me with a pressed Edelweiss flower to take with me on our journey. It’s the perfect souvenir of a perfect stay. I carefully tuck the flower between the pages of my book, and we set off to our next hut in high spirits.

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