Travel Tales: Travel as turning point

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(HOST)This week VPR commentators are telling some of their favorite travel tales. As an American teen living in Moscow, commentator Caleb Daniloff traveled into the Russian countryside on summer weekends to camp with his friends. Today, Caleb recalls what he left – and found – there.

(DANILOFF) We lugged our camping gear down the platform at Moscow’s Kievskii station. We were long-haired metal kids, dressed in tight jeans and spiked bracelets. Not your typical campers. Our cargo consisted of guitars, pots of marinated lamb, bags of potatoes, a boom box, cases of beer, tents, blankets and bottles of vodka. This was our last trip of the summer. It was 1986. I was sixteen.

For about forty cents each, we boarded the morning elektrichka, a rickety train tethered to miles of electric cable that pulled us into the Russian countryside. From the greasy window, I watched apartment compounds and bus yards give way to tawny fields and stretches of birch forest.

Because our gear was so awkward and heavy, we could only trek a couple kilometers into the forest from the station. But it didn’t matter. Among the trees, there were no listening devices, no militiamen, no conscription boards and no Lubertsi a gang of ideological body-builders who beat up Soviet kids seen wearing western garb. In Cold War Moscow, hanging with an American carried risks for my friends.

For me, the absence of those things meant less space between us. With my Russian ancestry, Soviet school education and street vernacular, I was proud to be accepted as equal. I once let myself get mugged rather than flash my American passport.

Kot, Kolya and I sat around the fire playing music and turning skewers of lamb over the flames. We slept in our clothes, awakened every few hours by the sound of train brakes screeching on the rails.

On our final night, we went skinny-dipping in the canal near the station. I swam out a ways, then floated on my back, staring up at the stars. After a few minutes, I heard muffled shouts from the shore. I turned to see a set of lights rising above me. A massive barge was bearing down. I kicked and flailed in what now felt like molasses, chopping blindly toward the opposite bank, not daring to look.

I staggered out of the water and collapsed on the grass, staring after the industrial behemoth quietly plowing the darkness. I was too shaken to swim back and decided to climb the embankment, cross the empty bridge and hike down the other side. It was late and the place was quiet.

Or so I thought. Just as I started across the dimly-lighted span, a train pulled in and passengers streamed onto the bridge. People spotted me and started shouting. A man carrying bags of vegetables gave chase, kicking at my bare backside. I sprinted and slid down the embankment to the howls and laughter of my friends. Cut-up and dirty, I pulled on my clothes, and watched the lights on the barge disappear around a bend.

I didn’t realize it that night but new realities would soon begin bearing down on all of us: my journalist father would be jailed two weeks later on bogus espionage charges and our family deported; a year later Kot and Kolya would enter the brutal culture of the Soviet army; four years after that the Soviet Union would collapse; meanwhile America seemed as alien to me as Russia once was.

It’s been twenty years since that camping trip and a lot has changed. But I like to think that the three of us have simply surfaced in different parts of the canal, and that we’re still swimming toward each other, back to those Russian woods, back where we were free.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter, book reviewer and freelance journalist.

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