I approached Vodnikov Dom through the narrow valley of the Mostnica. Within a wooded valley is a narrow gorge of roundly sculpted limestone where the water runs green and deep. Then further up the valley, past a refuge/restaurant where shiny cars were parked, hay fields, still used, mostly cut quite recently, and on that hot sunday morning a few small holders were busy on little tractors bringing in the hay or turning it one last time, often half hidden behind smudgy windscreens and full of the urgency and anxiety which affects farmers in the busy season during changeable weather and, used to walkers on a popular route, they didn’t greet me. The path leads on, rising only a little, through the narrow strip of hay fields with the forest rising up steeply on either side, until a bridge gives a choice of routes: stay on the west bank and follow the sign for Vodnikov Dom and Triglav, or cross to the other side and continue along the east bank to reach the waterfall – slap is the unforgettable word for waterfall in Slovenian – at the head of the valley, where according to the map another bridge should lead back to the path I needed to follow up through the forest. But I couldn’t find the bridge, which spoilt my enjoyment of the waterfall, and decided that the map had lied, and looked for another way, because I didn’t want to retrace my steps, I was looking forward to the forest, to its shade, since the temperature by then, around midday, was approaching 30 degrees, and I saw on the map a route which would take me in the sense of a big N, the diagonal line being the one I would now take up and back through the forest on the east side of the valley until I came to the settlement of Uskovnica, huts dotted around a pasture along the top of the ridge, shielings they would call them in Scotland, inhabited only in the summer when the cattle and sheep were taken up the mountain, and from there another path ran up roughly along the top of the ridge, through the forest again, and after describing a big loop around two high valleys rejoined the path I was now cut off from. On this little frequented path I saw no one, the forest was mostly deep and dark though with lush patches of grass and flowers, the path cleverly traversed, at times in zig zags, steep slopes which the spruce trees seemed to grip carelessly, and although I knew that I was going to return to human settlement, and that Uskovnica would have changed in the last twenty years, it was still a blow to arrive and see, among the undulating, pastoral patchwork of trees, meadow and small wooden buildings, even though I knew there was a stony track which led up there by a different route, the cars, off-road and four by four, reflective, glossy, not ostentatious but quietly powerful, clean, at rest, with nobody paying them any attention: no bonnets pulled up for oily handed inspections, no mechanical puzzles, no engines singing the wrong tune, no wheels being changed, no washing, tuning or polishing, cars entirely taken for granted yet dominating the scene. The only little car commotion turned out to be a problem with parking three vehicles at the same time outside one small wooden house. They don’t even smell of anything very much. I passed a house with a busy barbecue. Nobody said hello. I found my path and turned sharp left and climbed up into the forest again and saw no one else until I reached the refuge three or four hours later. Cars have become less demanding, more reliable and more powerful, not so much in the sense of engine capacity but powerful as iconic, incomprehensible objects . Men used to have relationships with them, they demanded understanding and attention, they were rusting and unreliable; you could study erosion in the frilly, slowly growing patches of rusty red beneath flaking paint, in the beginning of actual holes in what had been recently solid steel, and in shocking lacework on precarious wings. It’s odd to remember when you used to see feet sticking dangerously out into the road from underneath cars, or when you could actually push your fingers through fragile, lichenous rust, and when as you drove along the motorway you would often pass despondent families, broken down, awaiting rescue, exposed to all the mad noise and vibration of the traffic sweeping past, and you remembered that you could take nothing for granted, there but for the grace of god or a good mechanic… On cold winter mornings in nearly every street you could hear a rhythmic wheezing and straining as an engine tried to catch, sometimes eventually a victorious, smoky roar, sometimes a diminuendo and ralentando to nothing as the battery died, and then in solidarity passers by might gather for a push start, straining and coughing, their breath steaming in the frozen early morning air, until the engine caught or else if the driver let the clutch in and nothing happened you would just be pushing against hopeless, heavy metal. (And under the sink there was a jar of Swarfega, bright green and glutinous, you rubbed it into your hands and the oil dissolved into a glossy black-green gloop.) People don’t even wash cars in the street any more. Some are not even sure how to open the bonnet and even the mechanics plug vehicles into a computer to diagnose faults. You see cars driving along with a completely flat tire, because no one even changes a wheel any more, presumably on their way to the garage, where they will probably need not just a puncture repair but a whole new tire since it ruins them to drive on them when they’re flat. The last time I saw a broken down car, bonnet up, with a group of men bending over it, voicing their opinions, it was Joey’s, and that was the car which, soon after, killed him. He killed it too, I suppose.
I have often noticed how many car drivers look as if they are entitled, as if they have been granted a title, an honour, in exchange for money, like the peerages and knighthoods which politicians bestow on their wealthy supporters, which elevates them above the mass of the people, and they then come to believe that this title is theirs by right, part of their essential identity, rather than, and the term we use is telling, a decoration purchased and pinned on. I had a customer with a sticker on the back of his car which said: ‘I really do own the road’, and he didn’t mean it as a joke. The honour bestowed upon the driver is returned to the car, so that whereas many people are only concerned that their vehicles should not be damaged, the entitled driver will become enraged if someone else merely touches their machine. Just as a rare book can be damaged by the acidity of human skin, and we see television presenters put on plastic gloves before they handle holy texts, so some drivers are provoked to rage in, for example, a supermarket car park where all the spaces are so close together that there is a constant risk of disrespect, of defilement, and that metallic, shiny surface which is so powerful, in which the driver imagines himself to be safely cocooned, is also extremely fragile and easily damaged. (How often has the cowardly iconoclast imagined taking a key out of his pocket and running it in one crisp, easy stroke along the luminous body of a Range Rover or a BMW?) Walkers and climbers in the mountains don’t act as if entitled, they may be lucky or unlucky, hot or cold, exhausted, elated, in pain, rejuvenated, daring, frightened, overawed, thirsty, wet, lonely, liberated, but they take nothing for granted, it might have something to do with not sitting down, with physical effort, they do not behave like a ruler on a throne.
Leaving cars behind as you leave the roads you actually enter the mythical kingdom of the car as imagined in advertisements which show the car as a lonely creature longing for the mountains, free only when off road, almost flying across glaciers and deserts, climbing without effort, descending at crazy speeds yet safe as a swallow and, although almost always very clean and shiny and radiating light, sometimes, to demonstrate the hero’s courage and endurance, to show that it’s not all child’s play, he will show streaks of dirt, there will be dust or mud, but, like dirt on the face of a beautiful movie star riding a horse in the wild west, and this contamination consists of superficial, easy to clean streaks carefully applied on top of immaculate make up – skin deep would be much deeper; it reminds me of a classic Hollywood flaw, when the hopeless drunk or addict or hobo smiles, and however clever the make up, even when they’ve really tried to crack and wound and disfigure the features, the smile reveals perfect teeth, polished and bright, reflecting the light.