Sometimes you get exactly what you need even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time. That is one of Nikola Horvat-Tesla’s core narratives. Nikola ‘Tesla’ is a long distance or thru-hiking veteran. He creates films and videos telling stories that describe and advocate for thru-hiking in the US and Croatia. In his award-winning, lyrical short film Why (Do I Hike) Nikola documents his experiences and that of fellow hikers on the Colorado Trail and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail/PCT. Nikola was the first Croatian to finish the 2,650 mile/4265 kilometer PCT which he completed in 163 days. This hike coincided with a personal crises told in Baring Epitaph: Surviving Divorce on the Pacific Crest Trail, and in Pacific Crest Trail: Tesla – Year of the Beginning which he filmed, wrote, edited and produced. Since hiking the PCT in 2016 Nikola has created a comprehensive on-line presence.
Nikola is an intrepid hiker, artist, filmmaker and philosopher. His work brings freshness and authenticity to the genre of hiking memoir. Emotionally cracking on the trail—no problem.
In 2019 Nikola established the Croatian Long Distance National Scenic Trail/CLDT by hiking/bushwhacking/trail-blazing with friend and fellow PCT hiker Matt Bisenius and others. The CLDT circumambulates Croatia’s 1,310 mile/2,109 kilometer perimeter. It is divided into 3 sections crossing diverse terrain and ecosystems. Inspired by Nikola’s PCT hike, the inaugural CLDT hike was funded by family, friends, and the Croatian Long Distance Trail Association. Nikola and collaborator, the videographer Tin Borovčak used Go-Pro, DSLR cameras and a drone to create a breath-taking documentary that allows viewers to be immersed in ground level and bird’s eye views of earth and sky. Accompanied by plaintive, twangy music, the tracks reflect Nikola’s often furrowed brow while underscoring the grueling, sublime work hiking is.
In The Old Ways, A Journey On Foot James MacFarlane echoes Nikola’s messages about re-connecting our bodies and spirits with ‘strong landscapes.’ MacFarlane has ‘long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscapes…’ He encourages his readers to ask these questions— ’What do I know in this place that I can know nowhere else?’ and ‘What does this place know of me that I can’t know of myself?’
Nikola often meditates on individual and collective loss. He portrays hiking as an antidote and cure for the damage we have caused to the earth and to ourselves. Hiking in Montenegro and Serbia he hints at what happens when wild places become tourist destinations. As climate emergencies accelerate these messages are poignant and powerful. Hiker Maxim Poselov’s video of his 6-day Tour Du Mont Blanc solo hike parallels Nikola’s story and style, but signs off with a grim reminder about coronavirus.
Thru-hiking is a lifestyle. Hikers give up jobs, possessions and sometimes relationships. Two of Nikola’s mantras are ‘he lives to move’ with the intention ‘to inspire others to do the same.’ While pointing out that thru-hiker’s careers are short lived, several of his hiking companions (including Matt Bisenius and Granny Baddass Motherfucker) are not young. Their presence is a testimony to how hiking communities embrace difference. A moment in the CLDT film sees Nikola with head hanging down as he expresses concern about Matt’s physical and mental well-being on a difficult trail. In Why (Do I Hike) testimonies add to a substantial body of research which prescribes hiking as an antidote to depression. The field of ecopsychology would support Nikola’s observations about what happens to a person persevering on long, strenuous hikes—struggles on the trail lead to self-discovery.
….nature is not someting that is separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.’
~Andy Goldsworthy English scupltor, environmentalist and land artist contributed to Slama International Land Art Festival 2012, held in Slavonia. (Section A of the CLDT)
Planning and preparation are crucial for safe thru hiking. Nikola shares lessons learned the hard way about hiking in how-to videos full of useful information for novice hikers and adventure filmmakers. His hikes are not supported by the Big Agnes tents or Adidas Terrex gear he endorses—his Patreon and GoFundMe pages successfully help fund thru-hikes which cost between $4,000 and $8,000. (Adidas Terrex sponsors films) Recently thru hiking is being promoted as a type of low trace, green tourism. In a country with spectacular trails such as the Via Adriatica the consequence of this promotion will likely lead to profound changes for hikers and to places visited. Plogging or pliking—picking up litter while on trails mitigates some of the negative impacts on wilderness areas.
In Pacific Crest Trail: Tesla – Year of the Beginning, documentary Nikola describes falling in love with thru-hiking in Croatia on a 500km hike in 2003. Nikola’s hiking films in Croatia weave together his love of nature and his biological family. This year he filmed his solo hike of the Camino Krk, a winter hike in Istria with his brother, and a summer adventure with his son Ruđer.
Nikola and Ruđer slog through drenching rain on Dinara. With his wet face poking out from under a blue poncho Nikola lightens up the situation with a quote from the film Forrest Gump. How many people have Gump as their trail name? Trail names are part of thru-hiking culture. Hikers either adopt or are given trail names by hiking companions. These names help to express what Nikola calls ‘the elixir of experience.’ PCT Trail Angels are members of the thru hiking community. For hikers, trail angels are magical—they appear seemingly out of nowhere with water, hot chocolate and shelter. Croatian Trail Angels are organizing. They can be contracted through their Facebook page
Howling winds and thunderclaps serenade Nikola and Ruđer as they huddle inside a tent during rough weather. Instead of being alarming, this nighttime storm in the Dinaric Alps shows how nature exposes vulnerability—a hallmark of Nikola’s stories. How does our modern obsession with safety and security keep us from fully relating to life on earth? Why(Do I Hike) responds—‘we are nature.’