Claustrophilia: Do wide-open lands bring us closer together?

A writer finds that Colorado small-town life and Mongolian mishaps strengthen her human connections.

I can see a spark of tired panic in Jo’s eyes as they meet mine. Our narrow Purgon — a Russian-made UAZ van that resembles a jacked-up VW bus — is bursting with people. The rigid seats, which face each other like those in a diner booth, are crammed with butts, and our knees interlock like a human zipper. In the back, where baggage and boxes of supplies serve as yet more seats, two weathered old men hunch below the ceiling. In the front passenger seat, a woman settles on the lap of the standby driver.

 

And yet here we are, picking up another passenger. She looks like she weighs maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, but where will she fit? There’s a slim gap between Jo and her neighbor; the newcomer clambers over and wedges in sideways. Finally, finally, after six hours of waiting, the driver decides that we’re full. He grinds into gear and we chug free of Murun, Mongolia — capital of the country’s northernmost province — toward the remote village of Tsagaan Nuur, near the Russian border.

After 30 minutes of paved road, we veer abruptly onto a dirt two-track winding into the hills. Jo’s husband, Sean, who finished a Peace Corps assignment here in 2007, grins knowingly at Jo and me. “Jiiinkheeene,” he comments wryly, drawing out the Mongolian word. Jinkhene translates roughly as authentic, or old-school. But it can best be defined by what follows.

The Purgon bounces and shudders: The passengers brace arms against seats and each other’s knees, occasionally knocking heads. The Purgon grows steadily chillier: The passengers produce a laptop and memory stick and put together a compilation of Mongolian power ballads that the driver plays on repeat for the next 12 hours. The Purgon bogs in the mud: The passengers tumble out and push, sprinting in all directions when it lurches free at high speed. Through it all, everyone smiles, everyone laughs. There’s something almost tender about the ease with which strangers drowse on each others’ shoulders through the night. Shepherd slumps against meaty policeman; meaty policeman slumps against Sean; Sean, wincing, flattens his 6-foot-4-inch frame against the Purgon wall and my feet, which I had propped up to keep my knees from cramping.

The Mongolians are better at this than us.

In my early 20s, I was in a similar situation on a Greyhound bus between Kansas City and Denver. When the sleeping teenage girl next to me began drooling on my shoulder, I felt not tenderness but silent, half-homicidal rage.

Now, though, watching these strangers touch each other as casually as friends, I feel differently. Beyond the smeared windows stretches one of the most sparsely populated landscapes in the world. There are no fences, and little interrupts the gentle roll of the steppe besides patches of dark trees and congregations of plump sheep, yaks and horses. Felt roundhouses called gers — the traditional homes of pastoral nomads — appear now and then like white buttons stitched haphazardly onto rumpled green fabric. Sean has told us about the nomads’ generosity, how they will offer even unexpected visitors salted yak-milk tea, food, a bed. And I’ve read of the blizzards and subzero cold that pummel people here each winter. Maybe, I think, in all this beautiful, brutal vastness, a tiny enclosure that brings the world to a human scale is to be shared, not defended. How else would anyone survive in such a place?

 

Horse tour guide Batdelger demonstrates how to befriend reindeer in the Mongolian taiga.
Sarah Gilman

When I left for the three-week summer trip to Mongolia, my friend Rob — who had been in the Peace Corps there with Sean — joked that I’d love it, since I basically already lived in Mongolia. He was referring to Paonia, Colorado, a town of 1,500 on the rural Western Slope of the Rockies, where I had spent the past six years. While Jo and other friends I grew up with in Boulder, Colorado, moved on to New York or L.A., Boston or Seattle, I had edged downward in town size and upward in acres of open space, from Walla Walla, Washington, to a series of small mountain towns back in our home state.

I was chasing a feeling I had one summer during college, when Jo and I took a day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. We pulled off the road above treeline and sprinted to an overlook, racing a thunderstorm. Staring across the tundra-velveted swaybacks of retreating peaks, I knew with uncharacteristic certainty that I wanted to settle in their midst. When a permanent job opened in Paonia a few years later, I saw my chance at last.

I imagined my new life would resemble the 1990s TV show Northern Exposure, about the quirky fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. Maybe I was Maggie, the hot-yet-rough-around-the-edges bush pilot, self-sufficient to a fault. True to my fantasy, I spent my free time exploring desert buttes, wandering solo through aspen groves and canyons with a heavy pack, picking my way up to the Continental Divide to peer into glacier-hewn drainages. Once, I looked up from washing dishes to see a moose wander past my kitchen window, smack in the middle of town, just like in the show’s opening credits. She was loose-jointed and gangly in that way moose have, and I followed her down the alley, ducking out of sight when her head swiveled my way.

Unlike my fantasy, though, I was desperately lonely. I worked late and came home to an empty house. The isolation of my cat, locked indoors to keep her from murdering birds, seemed a bleak metaphor for my own life. “Give it a year,” my parents said helpfully, when, curled in a ball on the porch swing, I called them one night. “Maybe it will get better.”

Better, I repeated to myself, hiking alone to the highest point on the rim of the Black Canyon southwest of town. Storms brewed over the piñon-studded horizon, unreachable across the canyon’s steep maw and its faint roar of whitewater. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t Northern Exposure’s Maggie. I was the show’s Dr. Fleischman — a citified know-it-all, bumbling through a working-class community and a landscape he didn’t understand. As thunder rumbled closer, I hurried toward lower ground. There was a crack, an explosion of stars, and I found myself sprawled in the trail, blinking stupidly up at a fat juniper branch. Lightning? No. With my head bent in thought, I had run straight into a tree. I gingerly touched my scalp; my fingers came back smeared with blood.

Anthropologists say Euro-Americans like me tend to expect more personal space than people from many other cultures. But far from crowded cities, lost in western Colorado’s wild jumble of mountains and mesas, I’d begun to want less personal space, not more. I wanted someone to share it with me.

 

Punsal collects milk for the day’s tea.
Sarah Gilman

Reindeer relax in the Dukha camp, deep in the taiga near Mongolia’s northern border.
Sarah Gilman

It’s veiled, white-lit dawn when Jo, Sean and I spill blinking from the Purgon in Tsagaan Nuur, where our hostess, Ulzii, greets us at her compound of tourist gers. Some other Peace Corps contacts told us she could arrange for us to travel even farther north, into some of Mongolia’s remotest country. We have our hearts set on the taiga, where an ethnically distinct people called the Dukha, also known as the Tsaatan, make their living herding reindeer and, increasingly, accommodating visitors like us. We wander blearily around Tsagaan Nuur’s scatter of buildings, buying food for the week from rickety log cabin groceries, securing the last of our permits from a military outpost. It takes a few hours and another cross-country Purgon ride for Ulzii to find the guide she has in mind.

He’s a wiry fellow named Batdelger, with steep cheekbones shaded under a ballcap. Ulzii says we’ll be able to stay with his aunt in the eastern taiga. But first, he has to wrap up the day with his sheep. An hour passes, then two. His children practice their English on us and demonstrate how to bottle-feed a spindly-legged foal. We ask Batdelger’s wife how we will make the long horseback ride to the Dukha camp before dark, and she gently ribs us about our impatience — tourists! — then pours more tea.

The horses that Batdelger finally rounds up are tiny and strong-headed, and Sean, atop a chestnut stallion, resembles a top-heavy centaur with a small and rebellious set of horse parts. My horse isn’t much more accommodating. For his clumsiness, I name him Mr. Umbles, after the symptoms of hypothermia you learn in wilderness medicine — mumbles, fumbles, tumbles. In revenge, Mr. Umbles drops suddenly to his front knees in a marsh, nearly pitching me headfirst into the mosquito-clouded shrubbery. I call him “Utaa” after that — “smoke” in Mongolian, for his dappled gray coloring — hoping this show of respect will dampen his urge to kill me.

Sometime around 9 p.m., Batdelger points out a low, doorless building where we can rest for the night. Sean asks in Mongolian if there’s shelter farther on. Batdelger says yes. We still feel good, and so continue up a valley shaggy with high grass and willow. Black stands of conifer climb its slopes to the noses and knuckles of mountaintops, which peek down like poorly concealed spies. The low sun paints Jo’s face gold as she turns in the saddle to smile at me.

We dismount on a spit where two streams meet. I glance around — there’s a well-used fire ring, but no structures. Before I left the States, I complained to Sean that I was having trouble finding room in my pack for camping equipment. He told me I could leave that gear behind: We would be staying with families in their homes. But that is not how things will work tonight. “Does he know we don’t have sleeping bags?” I ask Sean. Sean turns to Batdelger, and they speak briefly. Sean turns back to us. “This is it,” he says.

Batdelger looks exasperated. Had he known we were so poorly provisioned, he could have brought a tent, he explains calmly. Or pots to cook our dehydrated food. But somehow those details got lost in Ulzii’s negotiations, or in the gap between Sean’s days as a fluent speaker and the considerable amount of Mongolian words that have come back to him since his return. We settle down for a poor meal around a handful of blazing twigs. The bread we bought turns out to be rancid, but with enough Nutella on it, you almost can’t tell. We pass around peas, spooning directly from the can. I collect our plastic bottles and fill them in the stream, then pull out our SteriPEN to purify the water. It feels awfully light. I test the button. Nothing. Then I check the … I smile meekly at my friends. “No batteries,” I say, holding up the empty chamber.

As the last light fades, Batdelger stalks off with his short saddle pad to find a place to sleep. We collect our own pads in tense silence, then poke through the trees until we settle on a lumpy but soft deposit of needles. Even wrapped in every piece of clothing we have, it is a cold and miserable night. Jo is the smallest, so we sandwich her in the middle. She attaches to my back like a hungry lamprey, and Sean to hers. When we turn over, we do so in unison, unwilling to give up each others’ heat. My feet grow numb, and I flex my stiff hands. I imagine Utaa, hobbled in the meadow below, laughing. Who’s Mr. Umbles now, he would say in Mongolian.

 

Dukha children offer a wood chip that bears striking resemblance to a cracker.
Sarah Gilman

How do we come to belong anywhere? One answer is that we find each other.

In stressful alpine environments, plants grow and reproduce better near other plants. Some animals, when threatened by predators, clump together in larger groups. Humans are among the most spectacularly social species on the planet, perhaps in part because the more cooperative among our ancestors were more likely to thrive in a difficult and dangerous world. Life is “not just a struggle for survival,” as mathematician and biologist Martin Nowak recently put it. “It is also, one might say, a snuggle for survival.”

And in Paonia, I began to piece together a sort of tribe — at work, at pickup ultimate Frisbee games. A new roommate quickly became a dear friend. An intern waded with me to an islanded bridge in the town’s flooded river to see the stars. A man asked me to dance at a bar, kept ahold of me the whole night, then surprised me with a kiss when I moved to leave.

My folks were right: These small accumulations of welcome can and do happen wherever we land, if given time. But with time, I also learned how different they can feel in a small town. In that ocean of open country, Paonia came to seem a sort of life raft — sharpening and clarifying the connections I had, and forging new ones I would never have had otherwise. The passengers aboard were who they were; I could not silo in only with people my age, my interests, my background. I still wandered in the hills, but my sense of hopeless drift stopped. These were the shoulders I could sleep on, the knees I could brace against. And I would not have chosen different ones.

The curly-haired clerk at the hardware store, a man in his 60s, let me split his firewood, more for the company than out of necessity. He made me lasagna in return, told me trails where I could see more moose, and showed me how to use a chainsaw so I could help him buck rounds from blown-down aspens on the mesa north of town. I fell in love with the rogue kisser from the bar — a talented carpenter who was as broken-hearted as he was dear. He took me swimming in the river, tattooed one of my drawings on his skin, invited me to hard-drinking parties with local kids who opened their doors to me as if I weren’t an outsider. One day, he showed up unannounced at my office, covered head to toe in concrete dust, and gave me a flower he’d twisted out of baling wire on his break.

There was the friend who hadn’t learned to read until he was a teenager, and yet could make his own biodiesel and fix anything, who never charged you what his labor was worth and always had wine and chocolate in his truck in case you wanted to watch a movie. The former large-animal vet who tenderly handled your pets and never charged enough, either. The volunteers who ran the ambulance service, ferrying wheezing old ladies 30 miles down the two-lane highway to the nearest hospital. The friends who hunted and shared their bounty. The single moms who watched each others’ kids. The head of the local environmental group who seemed to take on everyone else’s wounds — including mine, when my carpenter’s broken heart broke my own.

There was darkness in that bright place, too — alcoholism, drugs, deep political divides, crippling poverty, unacknowledged racism. People died or were terribly injured in drunk-driving accidents. During one quarrel, a man threatened his inebriated friend with a shotgun, accidentally firing it into his belly. An ugly divorce ended in a violent murder on the train tracks, just blocks from my house.

The night before that happened, the not-yet-murderer had bought drinks for some of my friends at the local brewery — a tiny former church that filled to standing-room-only on cold winter nights. It was a macabre twist on Paonia’s stewpot closeness: With so few places to gather, everyone went to the same places, the same potlucks, the same Thursday-night dance parties and concerts in the park.

It was not that these things were good, though they often were. It was that we craved their energy, craved other people: The emptiness around us pushed us into each other’s arms. Once there, I discovered just how many different kinds of people I could love — both for their weaknesses and their strengths.

 

Dukha nomads in a traditional teepee. Also known as the Tsaatan, the Dukha tend reindeer herds that provide food, clothing and transportation in northern Mongolia.
Art wolfe / Art Wolfe Stock
Jo and Sean visit the neighbors for bread and talk.
Sarah Gilman

Eventually, the light returns, first blue, then the same honeyed hue that lit Jo’s face the previous evening, turning each glossy willow leaf into a candle flame. Sean creaks up from our row of saddle pads and starts a new campfire at the edge of the forest. I follow its smoke down the hill past where Batdelger tends the horses, and fill the same plastic bottles from the same stream. We smile and nod our heads in greeting, and he follows me back to the others. There is the same rancid bread and Nutella, the same dried fruit and nuts. But things have shifted somehow. Today, we have the empty pea can, and I fill it with water and place it in the coals to boil, then brew black tea in my thermos. As the sun climbs, we pass it from hand to hand, each cradling it for a moment to warm our fingers, our faces. Then a long sip, and on to the next person. Outside our tiny circle of warmth, the taiga spreads away, gorgeous and aloof; inside, the long night’s chill melts from our bones.

The Dukha village, when we finally arrive, is like something from a dream. The lichen grows spongy and ankle deep. Canvas teepees called urts spread across the basin, and reindeer the color of snow and earth meander past errant satellite dishes, their tendons clicking over their anklebones like those of their caribou cousins. When it rains, people watch Korean soap operas. When it doesn’t, the kids stand in a circle outside listening to “Moves Like Jagger and other pop music while punting a volleyball, or ride out on reindeer to herd the rest of the reindeer back to camp. The women milk the animals multiple times a day, using pails of the thick, white liquid for cheese and tea. They roll out their own noodles, make bread in the coals of their fires. The men throw guns on their backs and ride off for days. Their resourcefulness, their practical use of both tradition and tech, is both utterly foreign and strangely familiar.

Punsal, Batdelger’s wizened aunt, cackles over our shyness, our wide-eyed appraisal of the place, and, with the three of us sharing her extra bed, her own joking speculation about which of us women is the real wife. We carry water and cook for her, and she chain-smokes cigarettes rolled on pages torn from a book that Sean surmises is a Mongolian play. My birthday falls in that week, and after Jo and I have returned from a hike, Punsal taps me on the shoulder with a wide, toothless grin, and produces a bouquet of tiny orange poppies from behind her back. She gestures at the paperback I’m reading, then helps me spread each bloom between its pages with her shaking, deeply lined hands.

A couple of days later, Batdelger collects our horses at dawn to avoid another frigid campout. As we begin to ascend the steep pass that marks the beginning of our journey in reverse, I’m startled to find myself weeping. The taiga mountains, rolling away in broken waves toward Russia, bear a heartbreaking resemblance to the peaks that first called me into Colorado’s rural backwaters. This trip marks the end of my time there: In my last years in Paonia, I had realized that I was still on my way someplace else, though I wasn’t sure where. Once home in the U.S., I will try life in a big city, in a different state. The choice feels right, but the knowledge of what I will lose has suddenly cut through me like a knife.

Late that evening, as we pile into the Land Rover that will take us back to Murun, we are mostly quiet. Too exhausted and saddle-sore to contend with another night in an overfull van, we’ve paid the drivers enough to ensure that we have it to ourselves. Jo and Sean take one bench seat, I take another, and we toast each other with Tiger Beer, a weak, American-style lager that seems to fit this final surrender to our weak, Euro-American constitutions. I use mine to wash down a Dramamine tablet, and we retreat into our separate cubbies and ourselves.

As I float in a druggy stupor, I smile through the rear window at the long line of peaks, which cradle the sunset sky in their jagged fingers. But something still isn’t right, and at a petrol stop, we fix it. It takes only a few minutes to fold the back seats flat. Then, we curl up beside each other with Jo in the middle, and go to sleep at last.

A tourist ger complex in the western Mongolian province of Arkhangai.
Sarah Gilman

Sarah Gilman has plenty of awkward Dr. Fleischman moments in her new city of Portland, Oregon, where she is an HCN contributing editor and freelance writer. She was the magazine’s associate editor in Paonia, Colorado, for more than six years.