The below story is written by Dakota Arkin Cafourek. A published writer and editor who is dedicated to a love of travel, storytelling, and the arts. The Outdoor Journal, will be publishing 3 of Dakota’s stories, and you can find links to each one at the bottom of this page.
Embraced in the unusual warmth of an autumn night, we stand four backpackers ready for a voyage, easily recognizable with oversized Ospreys saddled on our backs. I’m the sole female among our friends, but I can sip whiskey and pontificate hypothetical questions about killing my evil clone with the best of them.
We’re at Büyük Otogar, the Grand Bus Terminal in Istanbul waiting for our 10 hour chariot to Cappadocia. The depot enormous, lined with buses destined across Asia and Europe in a “make your own rules” kind of chaos. Come morning, we will disembark amongst an entirely new terrain; a semi-arid wonderland penetrated by volcanic peaks.
Red-eyed on arrival in central Anatolia, locals invite us to tea and breakfast in their homes; a muslim custom set in the understanding that the prophet Muhammad was a traveler and anyone might carry his sacred spirit. It is a practice outside of our experience.
In a desert valley fringed by rugged cliffs shaded in golds and reds, the earth looks blindingly bright against clear blue skies. The village of Göreme is a pleasing string of artisans, restaurants and nargile bars. It’s no longer off the beaten path—a popular destination for trekkers and world travelers—but it feels like we are out of reach from the clasp of ordinary life.
Our rooms at the ShoeString Cave House Hostel are carved from stone and volcanic rock, edging a courtyard draped in greenery with flowers still in bloom. In the night, sitting on the terraced roof by the swimming pool closed for the winter, the four of us made sense of the world and choreographed the adventure that beckoned us in the sea of wild caves on the horizon.
The following days we would hike the Rose, Red and Devrent valleys; and when our legs trembled, we returned to draw in flavored smoke and play jenga at a local lounge.
Tonight, we are finally swapping our beds for sleeping bags and a ceiling of stars. The plan: set up camp among the 3,500 year-old cave dwellings that had been uninhabited since the early Christians of the Byzantine Empire. Built into the region’s unusual, tall and phallic-looking sediment pillars—volcanic deposits affectionately called fairy chimneys—were camouflaged cities, churches, and importantly, wine cellars.
We select our site before dusk with little food and liquid warmth in tow, a small climb from the trails to a stone enclosure with three walls to stifle the winds. I keep an eye on the lone cow and goat that seem to be joining us.
As the sun sinks in the west, so does the temperature. In the pitch black night, we crawl into our sleeping bags. Piercing moos and wails of animals whistle past in an eerie breeze, followed by silence. It was the first time it occurred to me that no one really knew where I was; a foolish risk or self-ruling determination that would be confirmed by morning. I looked at my three male comrades in deep slumber and let my own mind doze off.
Strange hums and dragon-like snores echoed through our stonewalled cave, crescendoing and cajoling us alert. Shivering, my bones stiff from the cold inside of my sleeping bag, I maneuver myself upright. This was no strange dream nor a fabulous monster. The shining sun lay bare the mysteries of the night.
Outside our cave, we follow a narrow trail to a plateau to witness the sky fill with hot air balloons. Giant flames indeed breathed forth, swelling mammoth balloons into harvest moons you felt you could reach out and touch. Patched in hundreds of colors and patterns, they soared, becoming specks on the horizon. We stare out at the spectacle in wonder.
Our belongings packed and strapped to our backs, we leave the cave to sit empty once more. Perhaps another two millennia will pass before it’s used as a shelter again. On our return trek to the village center, a mysterious red stream flowed downhill. It was blood and the streets turned crimson. What happened in the night, we wondered? What happened in the world we’d left behind for a mere evening? And there beside a cobblestone curb, I spotted my answer: the glistening white skin of a sacrificed cow. It will be divided into three parts for the Feast of the Sacrifice, an Islamic holiday where one third of the sacrificed animal is given to the poor or those in need; one third is given to relatives, friends and neighbors; and the remaining third is kept by the family. Men, women and children sit together to divvy up the meat. Indeed the globe had been spun and I stood where my finger had landed.