Indiana Jones and the Temple of Green Moss
The trail wasn't marked. Then again, some of life's best destinations don't have signs.
Outside of the United States, “national park” often means something very different than what it does back in America. And in a country as poor as Armenia, it can simply mean nothing more than “some woods with some trails.”
Back in 2019, Michael and I, and our nomad friends Gillian and Casey, hired a driver to take us from where we were living in Tbilisi, Georgia, on a three-day road trip around neighboring Armenia. We spent one night in the mountain town of Dilijan, next to Dilijan National Park. A brief online search told me the park included something called the Trail of Medieval Monasteries — five ancient monasteries along a single trail.
But hold on. The interior of one of these monasteries, Matosavank, which dated from the 12th century, looked especially interesting. Was that moss on the walls — and some kind of oculus in the ceiling?
“We totally have to go here,” I said to Michael, Casey, and Gillian, showing them the picture. “It looks like something out of Indiana Jones.”
But finding the trailhead was easier said than done. Our driver had never been there, and we soon lost all phone coverage.
And then the road, not great to begin with, turned to dirt.
Following it was like going back in time. First, we passed under a massive railway viaduct, weathered but still in operation.
Then we came to a large, Soviet-era factory that had long since fallen into ruin — a vast concrete monolith with broken windows. Streams of rust stained the concrete walls, running down from the metal frames, as if the windows themselves cried bloody tears. Like most of Eastern Europe, Armenia has seen some very hard times since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Next we passed by several abandoned houses made of stones that looked to predate the arrival of the Soviets by decades, if not centuries. Untended orchards stood nearby, ratty trees in desperate need of pruning.
Except maybe they weren’t abandoned: a wizened old man with a long white beard sat outside one of the houses, staring at us balefully. He looked as untended as the orchards.
In a few more kilometers, the car lurched to a sudden stop. “We are here,” our driver said.
But where was here? There wasn't even a parking lot, just a slightly widened road with one other car parked off to one side.
We climbed out of the car and tried to make sense of a reader-board that seemed to give information about the national park. But it was badly faded and written in Armenian anyway.
There wasn't even a trailhead, just a couple of different trail-ish things heading off into the forest.
“The trail isn’t marked?” Michael asked.
“No, but I’m sure it’s this one,” I said, pointing to one particular trail, not at all sure I was right.
Michael looked back at our driver, who had decided to stay with his car, but he just shrugged.
But how dangerous could this be? After all, this was a national park — of sorts.
The four of us set off into the forest. It was a gorgeous fall day, and a blue sky peeked through the treetops, sunlight dappling the forest floor. Crisp yellow and red leaves crunched under our feet.
But the atmosphere soon changed. Now rather than going back in time, it felt like we were moving out of time. Unlike the factory and orchards, these woods felt eternal and timeless. People and empires might come and go, but this land and its forest would stand forever.
For the first part of the hike, we all chatted, bright and lively. But as we walked on into that timeless afternoon, we soon fell silent, spreading out a bit, each of us lost in our thoughts. It felt as if the forest’s serene, eternal spirit somehow seeped into us.
We reached a fork in the trail. One way continued up the steep hillside, the other took a more level route around the rise. The forest was thicker in that direction — and darker — the trail less traveled.
Naturally, there were still no signs.
No! I thought. I need to see this ruin! It really did look like something out of Indiana Jones.
Right then, a young couple appeared, coming down from atop the hill. They were the only people we’d seen since starting out.
"Oh, hello!" Gillian called. "How far is the first monastery?"
The woman wiped the sweat from her forehead. "We never found any of them."
"How much farther did you go?" I asked.
"About five kilometers."
Huh, I thought. Maybe we did take the wrong trail.
After they'd walked on, Casey said, "So which way do we go?"
I looked back and forth between the two routes. "Well, you'd think a monastery would be on the top of a hill. Plus, the trail is much better that way. On the other hand, if those two didn't see it, doesn't that mean it's that way?" I pointed toward the sparser trail that headed into the dark forest.
Everyone nodded like this made sense, and we set off again.
And, sure enough, the dark, thick forest was an illusion. Within a hundred meters, the trees fell away again, and an ancient stone structure rose from the side of the hill like a shaggy beast waking from a nap. The walls were crumbling, and grass and even trees grew from the roof.
"I think this is it,” I said.
But honestly, on the outside, it didn't look like much.
We found the door, covered by some loose chain-link fencing, and went inside.
And it really was right out of Indiana Jones!
To our left stood a stone altar with crosses engraved in panels on the walls. To our right was a dark chamber with strange square openings in the walls that must have once contained offerings or artwork but now held only the stubs of burned candles.
We pushed onward and found an annex with a massive hole in the far wall. Had it collapsed? Part of the hole had been filled back in, loosely and haphazardly, with the broken stones. But the rest of the rubble sat on the floor as if someone had grown tired of the task or been stopped before they could finish it. I couldn't help but wonder what the story was.
The young priest hurried to fix the hole in the wall, desperately grabbing one stone after another. He could hear the horde approaching! Just a few more rocks back in place, and maybe he and the others would be safe. But no, it was too late, the warriors were upon them!
Parts of the floor were long flat rectangles, broken and cracked, and Casey said, "I think we might be walking on graves."
We all stepped back, careful not to trip on the broken stone or maybe not wanting to invoke some ancient curse.
We passed an archway into yet another chamber topped with a massive dome rising up to — yes! — an oculus at the very top. Golden light poured down in rays, lighting up the green lichen on the walls around us.
I stepped forward into the light of the oculus. "We came at exactly the right time of day," I said, thinking of the map room in the ancient city of Tanis in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.
"I don't know," Michael said. "I think it was built so it always shines like this, as long as the sun is up. It would have been pretty damn impressive to people with no electricity. Hell, it's pretty damn impressive now."
Michael may have been right, but I preferred the idea that we'd happened to come upon this place at exactly the right moment in time.
We took pictures of Michael and me sharing a kiss, and both of us posing with exaggerated praying hands.
"I feel a little sacrilegious acting like this," I said.
"The praying or the kissing?" Michael said with a smile.
"Hey," Casey said, "if God exists, I'm sure She's a fan of both love and laughter."
We all smiled, but the truth is, I couldn't have agreed more.
Before long, Gillian sighed. "I suppose we should go. Our poor driver is waiting for us."
As much as I wanted to keep on walking, to try to find the rest of the abandoned monasteries, I knew she was right. Besides, I’d seen what I’d come to see.
As we walked back to the car, I felt the tranquility of the forest again, but without the urgency I’d felt before. Maybe I hadn’t found the Lost Ark, or the Holy Grail, or any of the other things Indiana Jones searched for. But I already had something far better: a man I love more than I used to think was even possible, and incredible friends with whom I get to explore and share the entire world.
I knew that in a few days, I’d be back at work on some project, or connecting again on social media, and I’d probably be frustrated by something, or maybe even outraged or depressed.
But today, in this place and time, I was the luckiest son of bitch the world has ever known.