It’s Tuesday morning, 8 a.m., and I’m being driven up a mountain road in Crete with Kardashian-esque curves by Elena, a barefoot, chain-smoking grandma who’s ready to party. Her battered old Skoda vibrates as the Greek folk music she’s blaring reverberates across the Imbros Gorge, my destination for a morning hike. My window is broken and will only go down a crack, so I can taste Elena’s third cigarette of the 20-minute drive almost as well as she can. I thought hiking was supposed to be good for you.
“This road,” she says, in between puffs and hacking coughs. “Zig, zag, zig zag. I no like.”
“How long does it take to hike down the gorge?” I ask, before realizing the absurdity of my query. With Elena’s smoker’s cough, she’d be lucky to take a walk down the street, let alone embark on a long hike. I had planned to hike Crete’s famous Samaria Gorge, but as the mercury soared past 100, I reconsidered after hearing that the famous trail was nightmarishly crowded and lacking shade. But I had no solid information on Imbros and was now relying on Elena, who had no clue.
Crete is filled with gorges that are perfect for hikers, and while Samaria draws crowds, many of the other gorges are reputed to be just as beautiful. I picked Imbros for its proximity to my base in Plakias, a terrific, low-key beach town on Crete’s less developed south coast. The only brief I had on Imbros was a tip from a local travel agent in Plakias. She told me the round trip hike was “way too long” but advised that I could hire a car to take me to the trailhead and hike down the gorge in about three hours.
With the forecast calling for a high of 99 degrees on the day I planned to make the hike, I was out of my hotel by 6.30 a.m. in an effort to try to beat the heat. But the town’s only gas station wasn’t open yet and the distance between my gas gauge and E was thinner than a heroin addict on Atkins. The road leading west from Plakias to Komitades, the small town at the foot of the gorge, passed through postage stamp-sized villages and I had no idea if there would be any gas stations. Even before 7, it was already in the mid 80s with plenty of humidity—not a good day to run out of fuel, but I decided to be optimistic, and set off hoping to make it to Imbros.
The road twisted and turned up and down roughly along the coast and at each fork the signs presented two options, always advertising two microscopic villages rather than further destinations, causing me to have to pull over to consult my map seemingly around each bend. A half-hour outside of Plakias my gas gauge nudged a touch below the E mark and I stopped in a tiny village to ask a young man in a camouflage t-shirt and matching cargo shorts where the nearest gas station was.
“You go to Fragokastelo,” he said.
Fragokastelo looked to be another 15 minutes west and I reckoned I could make it if I slowed down a bit. Sure enough, Fragokastelo had a gas station, but alas it didn’t accept credit cards and I had but 40€ on me. I put 20€ worth of gas in the tank, which doesn’t buy much in Europe, and hoped I wouldn’t need to buy anything else since the ride to the gorge trailhead was supposed to cost 20€.