Before visiting the Curonian Spit, I was aware that its scenery had the potential to shape minds and life views. A combination of travel book photographs and the knowledge that both Thomas Mann and Jean-Paul Sartre were awed by its dunes whetted my enthusiasm. Thus, I easily could have been let down. Instead, what I experienced in a morning’s walk in the country between Nida and the Lithuanian/Russian border was so extraordinary that words and photographs will in no way do justice to it. Just recalling it makes me very happy and if you enjoy reading this, and better yet, decide to visit yourself, it will make me more so.
Near Thomas Mann’s house, on the northern edge of Nida, I saw a break in the forest that indicated one of the many unmarked trails that crisscross the Spit. I’m not blessed with a good sense of direction, but I knew that, given the Spit’s narrowness and topography, it would be very difficult to get lost. My eventual goal was the border (to be fully accurate, the border of a nature preserve that serves as a buffer zone between NATO-member Lithuania and its erstwhile colonial ruler), and I knew that if I continued to walk south, I would reach it. I also hoped to see the Baltic shore and therefore moved west as well, which meant uphill.
The first forest I entered was deciduous, and once I left the sound of the highway that runs the length of the Spit behind, a very quiet one. After a few minutes, I heard no sound save a repetitive one, not the hum that forests often seem to have in summer, but something with more of a beat. I stopped, started again, and understood that literally the only sound to be heard was my own footsteps. Soon after, the trail petered out. I retraced my steps to another one, which led almost due west. The woods were noisier here, and I even met a pair of fellow walkers. Soon, a dull and growing roar began to mitigate these sounds and finally overcome them. I had heard the Baltic long before I saw it.
Though it was late June, the day was cool and windy. Once I reached the shore of the Baltic and saw the force of the waves hitting the Spit (in sharp contrast to the lapping of the Curonian Lagoon I’d seen perhaps half an hour earlier), I understood both how it had formed and why early Lithuanians had believed it was designed by the goddess Neringa to protect their country. Trudging back uphill once again (the center of the Spit often resembles a ridge of sorts), I came upon pine forests, and at its crest, a lighthouse. I found it striking that the lighthouse was located so far inland and was equally pleased to be able to see both the Curonian Lagoon and Baltic Sea from this vantage point.
I also saw what appeared to be a stream or waterfall in the distance and followed the hill toward it, surprised that no guidebook had mentioned it. On closer inspection, I found that it was a trail where the vegetation had been burned and cleared, leaving only the underlying sand. The efforts to preserve the Spit came into clearer focus for me then, with the understanding that everything upon it is literally built on sand and the life that has managed to accrete upon that sand over time to form soil and, ultimately, forests.
Soon afterwards it began to rain, but, save for a slight annoyance that I might not be able to photograph the land to do it sufficient justice, I was not terribly worried, even though I was soaked to the bone. The rain had come at a particularly inopportune moment, however, since I reached what was largely open country. By this point, I was moving almost due south and came upon a small collection of crosses, a traditional Lithuanian monument. I later traveled quite a way to see the well known Hill of the Crosses outside Siauliai and can say that I found this collection of sticks, in the midst of a desert-like landscape, just as evocative of the determination and faith of the country's people.
The very emptiness of this land, scoured by wind, which I would later remember was the Parnidis Dune, seemed lunar, and I thought, seeing another walker perhaps 500 yards away and waving, that being in this landscape might be how the first or last human on earth might feel. I pressed on amid a purple-red shrub of some kind that surrounded the path, toward the border that was marked out with police tape. As I neared it, I saw a huge flock of birds pass over it, leading me to think the inevitable about wildlife not being governed by international boundaries. Holding my jacket over my camera (as I had throughout the journey), I took the obligatory picture and turned back to the edge of Parnidis Dune.
I saw Nida in the rain and distance and wished I could climb straight down the dune to it, but I dutifully marched along the tape, set up to protect the sand from erosion, to the steps. Within what seemed like only a few moments, I was rather anticlimactically walking along a flat paved path, straight back to it.