I'VE GROWN TIRED of the Red Monkey Gang—bless their souls—and their slothful ways. On the morning of the sixth day, a pack of chipper, clean-cut tramps marches up to the pub, where we're seated on the front porch, and I quickly invite myself to join them. But saying good-bye to the boys is not easy. Sheriff Tom, I'm certain, has never had a more faithful sausage-eating mate.
"Why no more drink pivo with us?" he asks, gesticulating with his pilsner. "No like us?"
"Yes. Yes," I say. "I like you."
"No like our sausage?"
Well, now he's getting warmer. I mumble that my bum knee requires constant movement and move out. The new crew includes a couple of fresh-faced college students; a lanky young woman; a bony, English-speaking thirtysomething; and a hirsute middle-aged man. A hundred yards down the trail I look back—I shouldn't, but I do—and there is the Red Monkey Gang, waving a forlorn good-bye.
After a few minutes we stop, and the tramps introduce themselves. The two college kids are called Little Pid and Pad; it's never quite clear what "Pid" stands for, but "Pad" is Czech slang for "he who falls down a lot." Rita is Pad's girlfriend. The bilingual guy is the only one willing to give his real name: Pavel Bem, a talkative psychiatrist who's also the mayor of one of Prague's 15 boroughs. His nickname, Strevo, translates as "he who acts withextreme intentions." The leader, a six-foot-two bruiser with a thick beard, is simply Big Pid.
We grip thumbs, toast one another with the requisite shot of rum, and set off hiking down a potholed dirt road. Soon the road becomes a single rutted track in a green tunnel of clattering branches. It's late morning, but the farther we walk, the darker the woods get. The group plans to hike ten miles to Kytin, on the eastern slope of the Brdy Hills, and then head for Brdsky Kempy, "Valley of Brdy Camps," a narrow, heavily wooded canyon that isn't on any of my maps but, I'm reliably informed, was home to some of the earliest tramp camps, dating back to the 1920s.
Hiking with this new gang is like competing in a speed-walking contest. All five are former participants in the Czech scouting movement, and over the years they've spent a lot of time tramping in the Brdy Hills. Like most, they've perfected the art of traveling light. Each wears a small, threadbare green knapsack in which he or she carries a fluffy cotton sleeping bag, a cooking
pot, a spoon, and ingredients for a few meals.
The path meanders between woods and fallow fields where quail and grouse flutter. According to a historical map of the Brdy Hills, during the thirties and forties, the most famous group in these parts was the Beer Volunteer Workers, a pack of about 150 tramps who wandered around dressed like American cowboys, carrying genuine Colt .45s. Their badge was a Boy Scout fleur-de-lis with a glass of beer in the center. The gang dwindled during the fifties, though, due to Communist harassment.
Strevo himself suffered under the regime; he was once jailed for two days without being told why. "You can't understand unless you've lived under a totalitarian government," he says. "You begin to question what the truth is. I think that's why Czechs are very outdoor-oriented. The TVs and radios constantly played propaganda. We had to get away from it. At least out here in the woods you could find some truth."
After three hours of hiking we come upon a fire ring nestled beneath a 40-foot rock face and a twisting rivulet. It's one of the early tramp sites. The wet air drenches my socks and shirt, and giant ferns bow down in the mist. "We are here," Big Pid says, taking the pack off his back.
We set our things down and begin gathering logs for a fire. I help the group string a tarp between two trees in case of rain and then unsheath my nylon tent. I hardly have the first stake in the ground before Big Pid motions for me to stop. "There are no tents in tramping," he lectures, shaking his black beard. "You must see the stars." This didn't come up with the Red Monkeys, but then, I was never sober enough to try to put up a tent. I slide it back in its sleeve, but Big Pid isn't done yet. "And there are no gas stoves, fancy backpacks, and none of those PowerBars." He glares at my carbo stash. "We will show you real tramping food."
I thought I'd already seen real tramping food. Since we got to the campsite, we've been eating sausage and washing it down with rum. But sausage is just an appetizer for this crew. As Big Pid speaks, I watch him pull an entire roasted chicken out of his backpack, followed by an assortment of vegetables. He dismembers the bird and mixes up a stew over the open fire. The other tramps prepare meals in their own pots—everything from noodles to chicken casserole. Then, one at a time, each pot is set in the middle of the campsite. We stand in a circle and take turns bending down and spooning out a bite. For about an hour, the six of us share dinner and compliment the chefs. The evening's entertainment is a traditional tramping game: Standing nose to nose, we try to knock each other off balance. Big Pid, naturally, goes undefeated. Then we sprawl on the ground, light cigars, and pass a flask. As the fire dies down, a cuckoo fills the forest with its unmistakable call. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Five cuckoos. "Bad news," Strevo says. "According to the cuckoo bird you have only five years left to live."
That's not very heartening, I say.
"If it's any consolation," he replies cheerfully, "we only have five years, too."