By Sandy Compton
Travel is always good. Almost. Crammed elbow to elbow, knee to spine in an Aeroflot jet over Siberia was a bit challenging, but still, the rewards of arrival were worth the pain. That was a long time ago, before Mr. Putin got a grip on Mother Russia and started squeezing the newly-found freedom out of her. Before 9-11 changed the way we board and exit aircraft.
There are moments gathered on that great adventure that stand out still. Sitting spellbound in the third row of the Bolshoi Theater while the Ballet performed. Eating the best bowl of soup—borscht—I’ve ever had in a basement restaurant called Number One Red Square. Exploring Moscow and the Metro with my friend Julia the translator. Exploring oil town Surgut in a red Gerry parka, a purple hat and yellow snowboard mittens; a happy American clown among somber brown and black clad Russians.
Visiting the indigenous Khanti museum in middle-of-nowhere Rusisinsk, and recognizing the village as a former gulag, small in comparison to some, but still a place where prisoners of the Soviet lived, suffered and died. Their descendants still occupy the place, isolated by geography, economy and love of the Far North.
Driving hundreds of klicks across the taiga in the middle of the night on roads glistening with glare ice in a Zhuguli piloted by a Baptist pastor who looked like Oliver Hardy and drove like Evel Knievel.
That’s travel at its best.
When I travel “locally,” ie. on this continent west of the 100th Meridian (where Wallace Stegner asserts the West begins), it’s good to start by taking a leap like that taken when boarding an Aeroflot jet bound for Siberia. Wake up in one world. Go to bed in another, even if you have to drive all night to get there.
So it was for five of us with our backcountry gear and a bunch of extra just-in-case stuff crammed—and I do mean crammed—into a Toyota van Thanksgiving week. We made the leap across time and space to Canyonlands National Park in about 24 hours, with time for a nap in Pokie and dinner at famous burger joint Milt’s in Moab before bedding down for a 19° F night in politically incorrect Squaw Flats campground. Next morning, we had to confess to Mr. Ranger Sir that we had not paid our fees after arriving in the dark, but he was very patient and didn’t even take our pickinick basket.
Over the next few days, we got extra cold (15 ° second night), pretty hot (packing way too much stuff across way too much vertical), a little bit lost (missed our second night campground by a mile or so), somewhat confounded (our back country trip mutated five times for ice, water, ice water, blisters [mine], bruised shoulders [mine], a lost multi-tool [mine] and myriad other details [not all mine]).
We did, however, achieve our main goals: Lots of miles hiked on wondrous trails in country completely foreign to us (to hell with the blisters). Eight days of life at its best, taken as it comes, with the spice of the unknown and unexpected flavoring it all. Thanksgiving dinner on a table rock cooked with backpacking stoves—turkey and green beans with bacon, dressing and gravy, mashed potatoes with butter and cheddar cheese, cranberries and apple pie (a total cheat, but gobbled appreciatively, nonetheless). Camaraderie built of stories, songs, shared food, shared travail and howling in concert at the fullest of moons. It was glorious. Even if we could see the parking lot sometimes.
Travel at its best.