We leave Gračac in the late afternoon, stopping at a restaurant about 2 miles down the road for one last chance to fill our bellies. We have to walk the highway for a few miles and then we turn off onto dirt and gravel roads. We’re mostly following a bike route into Knin, a fairly large town compared to where we’ve been lately. Today we surprise ourselves by knocking out 12 miles even though we got such a late start. I can tell I’m getting stronger. I’m walking faster and it’s getting easier to hike the big miles again. My trail legs are back! We stop hiking around 8 when we find a perfect grassy meadow to set up camp for the night.
We both sleep great and are up early. We plan to walk until we’re just a few miles outside of Knin and camp, then head into town the following morning. The day is all road walking, sometimes forest roads and sometimes highway. I’m happy when I discover I have some Ted Radio Hour podcasts downloaded on my phone. Sometimes I just need a distraction during the road walks, they can get so tedious. We stop for lunch in a shady spot on the side of the road in a tiny village. We’re looking forward to a leisurely, relaxing lunch when a sad scrawny cat with a gnarled infected ear walks over as soon as we pull out our food. It won’t leave us alone and we feel bad because it’s so pathetic, but there’s nothing we can do to help it. We become annoyed and disgusted (we don’t want any diseases from it!) and spend most of our now not relaxing lunch trying to shoo it away with our trekking poles.
After a long, hot afternoon of walking the road, we find the place we planned to camp outside Knin isn’t what we expected. It’s the dirty, rundown outskirts of town and not suitable for camping. It’s so hard to plan campsites. What we see on the map is often so different from what we envision. Even though we’re exhausted we have no choice but to walk a few more miles into town, making it a 27 mile day. Luckily we find a cheap room at one of the few hotels in town. The room is a closet, the bedsheets seem like they’re something disposable you’d find in a doctor’s office, and the advertised “flat-screen tv” is actually a 10-inch tv straight out of the 80’s. But there’s air conditioning and a shower and free continental breakfast in the morning so we’re happy. We buy snacks from the grocery store next door and fall asleep on the paper sheets, air conditioner blasting and some dumb American crime investigation show on the tv.
In the morning we hang out at an outside table of the hotel restaurant where a whole lamb, whole pig, and several chickens are rotating slowly over a wood-fired oven. We inhale the free breakfast—tea and cappuccino, a massive basket of homemade bread, jam, butter, cheese, and pate—while we download maps for the upcoming stages of the trail. After breakfast we run a few errands, the most important of which is new shoes for Express—her old ones are toast. Luckily we find a shoe store in town and she buys a pair of running shoes for around $20.
We’re packed up and walking out of town by mid-morning. Today the trail takes us off the roads and back into the mountains where we’ll summit Croatia’s highest peak, Dinara. The hike is beautiful, sprawling green meadows contrasted with the white karst mountains. We reach the Brezovac mountain hut around lunch time. The hut is closed but there’s a nice table outside under the trees where we can eat. We don’t stay long, we’re anxious to reach the peak while the weather’s clear. I make it to the top in about an hour and 45 minutes—the trail sign says it should take 2.5 hours, so I’m proud of myself! Express is of course ahead of me because she is a machine on the hill climbs! The views from the top aren’t actually that impressive, but it’s cool to know I’m at the highest point of the country. The views on the descent more than make up for the lackluster scenery at the top. It’s stunning and I feel like it’ll take me forever to hike down because I keep stopping to take photos. I finally reach the Martinova Košara shelter where Express is waiting for me. It’s an ancient looking stone structure in a meadow that’s an old shepherd’s community. We see a shepard at the hut, sitting peacefully on a rock while he watches his sheep grazing.
It’s beautiful there but really windy so we decide to continue down the mountain to camp at another shelter just a few miles away. The descent is super steep and rocky and kills my quads and knees, but luckily it’s short. As we near the shelter we pass a place called Glavaš. It’s the ruins of an old medieval fortress. The sunset turns the surrounding mountains pink as the nearly full moon rises. It’s all too beautiful to capture with my camera so I just stare and take it all in.
We finally reach the hut, making it over 20 miles of hiking for the day. We’re happy there’s a well with water and a perfect grassy spot to set up our tents. While eating dinner—PB&J’s again—a minivan pulls up right next to our tents. We didn’t realize where we’re camped is actually a parking area. A family gets out of the van and starts setting up camp, putzing around, cooking dinner. I’m immediately annoyed that they’re right next to us and making so much noise. I’m so exhausted and ready to sleep, so I crawl in my tent, get cozy under my quilt and put on some music to drown out the noise.