We would meet people on the roads.
We met an old woman with a wispy mustache and thick gray muttonchops. She showed us her wicker basket, full of mushrooms, and grinned her sun-burnt cheeks.
“This year, dear ones—this is a mushroom year.”
Up in the mountains I was learning things.
Hiking through summer pastures, in the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, I was remembering things too. We were a couple of kilometers above sea level, and I learned the Turkic words for peaks in the distance and how to tell currants from sweet, poisonous berries. During the day I remembered how the packed weight of your room and board settles comfortably on your hips, and at night I remembered the tart joy of tea, steeped from early, green apples and mint.
There were herds of sheep and cattle wandering those hilltops with us, and through the night we could hear the cowbells ringing occasionally and distantly. In the mornings the animals would come investigate the smells of our kasha and we would laugh at them and shoo them away. Then we would straighten up and peer down at the day’s hike into the next valley, where a thin, silver river seemed to snake motionlessly. Over and away, always to our south, atop the sheer black rock of the main Caucasus range, massive glaciers glistened in the sun. Everything was beautiful up there. Sometimes I would tell Yuri, the Russian who I was traveling with, how spectacularly beautiful I thought it all was. With a nod, he’d agree.
Yuri had planned our route. We were traveling west to east, parallel to the main ridge, which runs latitudinally from the Black to Caspian Seas. From those five thousand meter peaks, glacial rivers have cut valleys north towards central Russia. The ridges of these valleys rise one after another like a giant’s washboard, and we could count eight or nine of them separating us from the twin summits of the highest peak in Europe, Mount Elbrus. The first night we camped near the massive dome of an old Soviet telescope. Among the wooden huts of the Karachay shepherds, the dome’s glistening apex is a reminder of that ancient, hulking empire that has struggled to lay claim to this mountain wilderness for over two centuries.
Each day we would descend into one of those valleys and take our lunch by a river, glacial and turbid from the eroded moraine. We would eat crackers and cheese and bathe naked in the empty valleys and then lie on the shady banks, sipping tea we had steeped in the morning and carried in thermoses the long way down. In the valleys there are small dirt roads that run along the rivers and we would walk along them looking for a way up the other side. It was hot down in the valleys during the day, but we had the cold river running there beside us and the pleasant shade of poplar or birch trees.
We would meet people on the roads. We met an old woman with a wispy mustache and thick gray muttonchops. She showed us her wicker basket, full of mushrooms, and grinned her sun-burnt cheeks: “This year, dear ones—this is a mushroom year.” We agreed and told her we’d seen many mushrooms and that was even before last night’s rain.
Further along that road, three men were quarrying rock out of a narrow gorge and tossing the big chunks of shale onto their truck bed. It was hot and the work seemed dangerous, and the men took their time talking to us and looking at our map.
Later, we hitched a ride from some folk who were removing scree with dynamite in the cliffs along the river. When we came upon them, they were all scattering and telling us to stand back, and then the rock face blew up. After that, they took us, in the wooden bed of their truck, to a place where the ascent was less severe.
We met herdsmen, too. They spend summers in those alpine pastures following their herds with dogs and horses. Their faces are deep red from the sun and the altitude, and they all wear rubber galoshes. The first morning of our hike, after breakfast, when the herd had moved on and we were breaking camp, a rider approached. He was short, wore brown corduroys tucked into his galoshes, and had a plaid unbuttoned shirt which hung loosely from his shoulders. His exposed chest was dark hair and golden skin. He gave the impression of controlled strength, and he rode superbly.
“I’ll take you anywhere you want to go,” he greeted us. “Caves, you want to see caves? I’ll show you the best vistas. I’ll show you how beautiful our mountains are. All for free. You can ride my horse if you like. Come to my place and I’ll feed you—all for free.” His name was Azamat, and he was insistent that we pass some time with him. He asked us where we were from. “I’m from Stavropol and he’s American,” Yuri answered. The man shone his eyes at me.
“From the U.S.A.?” he asked. “I have a brother who lives there. Name some cities,” he demanded.
“Boston…. New York, maybe,” I hesitated.
“Oh! New Jersey, the state of New Jersey,” he cried. He began speaking quickly. “Yolki-palki! I forget. State—New Jersey, not far from New York, name some cities.” He spoke Russian with a heavy mountain accent.
“Newark,” I began again.
“No! Not New York; the state is New Jersey.” He was crouching on his hams, lost to his surroundings and staring at the ground. “Name some more cities.”
“No, no,” he muttered. “Yolki-palki!” Now standing and agitated, he paced in his galoshes through the mountain grasses up near the top of the world.
“It’s no problem. New Jersey’s small—if he’s not far from New York I basically know where he lives. How do you have a brother there?” For a while there was no answer; Azamat was deep in thought. Then, suddenly:
“Not my brother, my cousin—my cousin came and visited me for a month. Bleen!”
“How long has he lived there?”
“No, he was born there—he’s a distant cousin: ancestors—his ancestors moved there,” he said distractedly. “Blyat!” He was swearing now and crouched again. “Blyat! He stayed here a whole month, came all the way from America, just a couple of years ago, and I don’t even remember the city’s damn name! What are some New Jersey cities?” he demanded from Yuri.
“I’d never even heard of the place,” Yuri shrugged.
“Atlantic City!” I cried.
“No! No, bleen.” Azamat was up and pacing.
“Don’t worry—it’ll come back to you.” It was getting late in the morning and we had a long way to hike. It was silent while we broke camp. Azamat was still pacing. Then we were ready to leave and we told Azamat. He stopped and shook his head. “Yolki-palki—a relative comes all the way over here to visit and I don’t remember the name of his hometown.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I know more or less where he’s from.”
“It’ll come back to you” Yuri assured him.
Azamat seemed to remember himself. “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go. Look up there at that summit: down here we’re just a chick, and up there’s a full-grown hen. You can see everything from up there. I’ll take you—all for free.”
“We don’t have time; we’re trying to make it to Teberda by Saturday” Yuri said and showed him our map. While he studied it, Yuri and I took turns riding his chestnut mare.
“You’re trying for Teberda? Teberda is very far. You won’t make it in three days. Better to stay a few days up here. I’ll feed you, take care of you.”
But the day was getting on, and Teberda was very far. Shaking his head, Azamat mounted his horse. We began our steep descent off that beautiful mountain pasture, and he trotted after the herds that had gradually rounded the next hill. Ahead of us two-headed Elbrus rose white and solitary; behind Azamat the dome of the observatory caught the glint of the early sun. We had a long way to hike that day, but we were certain to find apples and mint down in the valley.