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come hell or high water

Tom Robbins wrote about the yearning to trade the busy city streets for a quiet moment alone with Mother Nature, the need to stop sucking asphalt and instead spend time babbling with a brook or two. In Tbilisi, D felt this urge with particular vehemence.

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Following the liberalization of car imports about a decade ago, the roadways of Georgia’s capital city became clogged with exhaust-spewing clunkers that significantly degraded the air quality. What’s more, so many Georgians smoke like chimneys that it is nearly impossible to find a smoke-free restaurant. Not used to the pollution or the cigarette smoke that hangs heavily in practically every establishment, D had to cough his lungs clear every morning. This made him appreciate all the more the opportunities to get out of the capital to commune with nature and breathe some fresh air. His first weekend in Georgia, he went hiking in Algeti National Park. The following Saturday, he got up well before dawn to explore the Lagodekhi Nature Reserve, a seldom-visited stretch of wilderness in the Greater Caucasus Mountains that abuts Russia.

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Though D is not fond of early mornings, the pre-dawn departure was unavoidable. Not only is Lagodekhi a two-hour drive from Tbilisi, but also Georgia was playing Russia in a European Championship rugby match that afternoon, and both D and his friend planned on going to the game. Pitch-black night still reigned supreme when D left the hotel. It never becomes less painful to forego sleep voluntarily, especially on a weekend and especially when one has a young child at home, but it’s also true that every outdoor adventure on which D has ever embarked before daybreak has always easily outweighed the lost sleep.

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Lagodekhi lies in the easternmost corner of central Georgia, its mountains extending into Russia to the north and Azerbaijan to the south-east. The road from Tbilisi traverses the Kakheti valley, Georgia’s wine region. It was a bit early in the year, and the vineyards that spread along the gently rolling hills on each side of the road were still largely barren. In the summertime, this route would make for an incredibly scenic drive past sleepy Georgian villages, across the mountains that ring Tbilisi, and down into the Kakheti valley. The sun rose just as the Greater Caucasus Mountains came into view. The rosy haze of early-morning light enveloped the snow-capped peaks. It was a magnificent sight.

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The hike D’s friend had in mind led to the Ninoskhevi waterfall. D’s friend had a Georgia outdoors book that claimed the trail could be hiked year-round, but whoever wrote it likely had not counted on many hikers attempting it quite so early in the season. The trail up to the waterfall follows a wide riverbed. The problem, it became apparent rather quickly, is that in mid-March the snowmelt swells the river to several times its usual level. With the Caucasus still buried in snow, which melted in prodigious quantities under the warm rays of the pleasant sun, the trail was significantly more difficult to navigate than it would be in a few months’ time. 

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Within minutes of starting the hike, D and his friend found themselves hopping from rock to partially submerged rock in a vain attempt to stay dry. After watching his friend slip on a thin log as he crossed a gurgling stream and end up ankle-deep in water, D took off his shoes and waded across barefoot. In retrospect, this proved a particularly futile effort at remaining dry and comfortable.

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There were no other hikers crazy enough to venture out into the wilderness that early in the season, but D and his friend did spot a couple of locals close to the trailhead. When the riverbed became impassible, one of them scaled a steep cliffside and fought his way through the scrub, clinging to the hillside like a mountain goat, to avoid the icy river water below. D and his friend followed suit, but that tactic only delayed the inevitable. The trail was clearly marked, and it led inexorably across the placid but engorged waterway before resuming on the other side.

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There was nothing left to do but shed the footwear, roll up the pant legs, and wade across. The water may not have been deep that far downstream, but it was so icy cold that it curled D’s toes and made his muscles seize up. The subsequent three hours showed the folly of making that crossing barefoot. Each time the trail seemed to find flat ground away from the riverbank, D and his friend would rejoice, only to find that the trail led back down to the water’s edge before continuing on the other side of a stream that grew wilder and more powerful the higher up into the mountains they ascended.

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What started as a shallow, placid waterway became a fast-flowing creek with white-water rapids and small waterfalls that ruled out the possibility of wading across. The prospect of being caught in an icy rip current sounded not just unpleasant, but also dangerous. There were four or five major crossings in all, some on slippery logs, others across rocks that barely protruded above the surface.

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At the next-to-last crossing, there was no immediately obvious way to get across, and D’s friend walked up and down the riverbank several times before divining a sketchy crossing we knew we would not be able to replicate on the return leg. And that was before one of the thin pieces of timber that served as the final stepping place drifted away, leaving D stranded on a giant rock in the middle of the stream. His friend had already completed the crossing, and stretched his arm out to help D reach the shore. D gathered as much momentum as he could and launched himself into the white water, getting his legs wet, but avoiding a swim in the frigid stream.

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At last, two hours and several miles of scrappy hiking and rock scrambling brought the two adventurers to the Ninoskhevi waterfall. It was not the most amazing waterfall D had ever seen, but he had worked hard for that view, which certainly made it one of the most rewarding and memorable.

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