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Post details: New Hradec

New Hradec

Pilgrimage is a very special kind of journey. We don't take it to photograph some stunning waterfalls, or study cocktail menus of Thai bartenders, we won't discover new Amazonian frogs while on it, and we certainly won't be able to collect seeds of rare alpine plants, we don't even make any business deals while traveling, there is simply no Earthly practical purpose to it. Pilgrimage is a ritual of sorts - a symbolic watering of our roots or an identity confirmation that will be chiseled deep into our character. It is a junket for higher purpose, whether that purpose is religious, cultural or personal. And upon completion, a silver fiber is ceremoniously drawn through our spine and stays there for ever.

Few years ago I stumbled upon a small town in Minnesota named New Prague. Naturally, such serendipity prompted a little Internet search trawling for other American towns whose name might betray a Czech origin. The crown jewel of that effort was discovery of New Hradec, a small community in North Dakota named after the capital of Eastern Bohemia, where most settlers in that region came from in the second half of the 19th century. Since that capital, Hradec Kralove, also happens to be my hometown, a trip to North Dakota became a looming pilgrimage of my life. It was several years in the making, but this Spring I finally mustered enough resolve to pull it off. I know that my ancestors watching me from their respective heavenly clouds would never forgive me if I didn't.

North Dakota is not usually on the top of the list of most desired vacation destinations. For the vast majority of people it probably ranks just slightly ahead of a weekend trip to an abandoned strip mine. But a true pilgrim is not dazed by such mundane considerations. There is that higher purpose, right? So one weekend this June, I packed up my small suitcase and landed at a quaint airport of Bismark, fully determined to reach New Hradec come hell, high water or prairie fire. I rented a small car there and the next day set out across the grasslands into the Dickinson area. The sky was brilliant, the Sun was shining, the surroundings were comfortingly green and the sense of adventure nearly intoxicating (fortunately for me the highway cops do not have a measuring device for that yet).

I think most people have a special soft spot for their hometown in their soul. Especially if they spent the first 18 years there. It's like the first love - nothing will ever take its place. For your regular average Joe the name Hradec means absolutely nothing (although for non-Czech speakers its rapid repetition might be a cool tongue twister). For me however it has a whole universe of meanings. It is a line in my birth certificate. It is the locale of my high school years. It is the chant we used to sing at the matches of my favorite soccer team. It is the sign on a railway station that I used to look for when returning from my studies in Prague. It is the egg from which I came. Those 6 letters are indelibly tattooed on my big toe.

That is why seeing them pop up in the middle of the North American prairie was an unusual and uplifting experience. The plane ticket from DC wasn't exactly cheap, but the jazzy dissonance of the familiar name and unfamiliar elements made this pilgrimage worth every penny. It was like flying across the whole Galaxy to some distant planet and finding Kentucky Fried Chicken there.

Imagine that.

cc

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