As I sat at a dinner table on the 23rd floor of a five-star hotel in Moscow listening to my new, globetrotting companions exchange adventure stories, I thought of how abruptly different this was from the life I had been living just 24 hours before. Then, this 27-year-old Floridian had spent 12 months in a soul-crushing cubicle and could say she’d left the country only once in the previous 10 years. Now I was 5,700 miles away from home.
A few weeks prior to my departure, I’d stood in a hospital parking lot on the phone with a Russian airline as Jessica, my 38-year-old sister, was being moved into hospice. She was embroiled in an honorable fight with cancer, and there was a chance that she would pass away soon. I knew I might never forgive myself if that were to happen while I was gone, but my life had become empty, constricted, and directionless, and I desperately needed a change.
On that one recent international trip—a photo expedition to Iceland—I’d listened to my guide talk excitedly about an upcoming expedition to Siberia: the idea had stuck in the back of my mind. It was so different than the 90-degree weather, palm trees, and flatness of Palm Beach island. To me, it was the perfect chance to really break away from everything that I knew. Jess would want me to seize this queer and fragile moment of courage. I told the airline, “Book it.”
There was an unexpected change in the tone of conversation around the table in Moscow—a shift toward excitement and trepidation. Someone had mentioned the reason we eight strangers were gathered in this corner of the world: In a few days, we’d travel another 3,000 miles east to Lake Baikal and embark on an ice-driving excursion across the world’s deepest non-oceanic body of water—simply for the thrill of it.
It was a six-hour flight to Irkutsk, Siberia, where we met our caravan. Immediately, I climbed into the front-left passenger side of the lead car, a 1986 Toyota Land Cruiser. The front position is a dangerous place to be, but toting all our luggage, the cruiser only had room for the head guide, Anton, and one additional passenger. The logic was that if this lead car were to hit a crevasse in the wrong way and fall through the ice, at least it would be carrying the fewest number of people.
In Siberia, things are softer than they are in Moscow. The landscape is beautiful and the expanses of land are endless. “This is the taiga,” Anton said, noticing the glow in my eyes as I took in the new-to-me biome. Each passing minute on the highway peeled away traces of anything but nature. It was pure; it was raw. Carving our way through the taiga, I realized that this was the farthest I’d ever been from home—and my comfort zone.
Suddenly, we came to a halt. The second car in our entourage—a large van with lifted suspension and off-road tires—popped a bolt from the rear axle. A frazzled passenger, who I later found out once hiked to Everest basecamp and trekked on camelback through the Moroccan desert, recounted the experience, “I heard a pop and suddenly we were swinging from side to side. My life flashed before my eyes!”
It was only the first day and we hadn’t even reached the ice, but already we were faced with a real threat of danger. Surprisingly, I was not concerned or as anxious as I would normally be. Completely out of my element, I found that my normal reactions didn’t feel appropriate anymore. I suspected they would never be quite the same again.
Soon enough, we got back on the road and didn’t slow down until we reached Buguldeyka. The apparent ghost town was where we would enter onto the 50-mile-wide, frozen Lake Baikal. We approached the shoreline, drawing closer and closer without slowing down. It feels unnatural to head straight toward a body of water in a car that shows no signs of stopping, and I blurted uneasily, “We’ll be okay, right?” Anton answered, “We’ll see.”
“In charge” or not, some things are simply out of a person’s control—even a person as capable as Anton.
From the moment our tires hit the ice, Anton was no longer the same. A man of few words before, he was now completely focused on the ice. His head performed a continuous swivel from left to right, scouting as far east, west, north, and south as his eyes could see. He searched for cracks in the ice that might be catastrophic. He told me to not wear my seatbelt, to unlock the door, and to always keep my shoes on—just in case.
Finally, we found a good place to stop and my comrades and I took our first steps on the ice. Some of us shuffled, some of us fell, but slowly our desire to explore drove us all to learn to trust the ice.
We continued this way for 10 days, driving and then stopping to stick our heads under icicles that hung off different landforms or to take pictures of the depths through the transparent three-foot layer that separated us from 5,000 feet of cold-enough-to-kill-you water.
This, we found out, was what many considered to be “The Real Russia,” far from Wi-Fi and opulent hotels. Not for a moment did any of us take what we were doing for granted. With each new step on the ice, our conversations grew quieter and our focus shifted to our own evolving relationships with the nature around us. There, in the whipping wind and negative temperatures, the limits that had confined my life seemed to melt away.
I remember the feeling I had when our rear tires departed from the ice for the last time. I could see the same one written over everyone’s faces. Familiarity was returning and the exhilaration of pushing past our boundaries—that brave process through which we unlock new pieces of ourselves—was slowly slipping from a real-time experience into memory.I thought to myself, How many more times will I feel this way? How many more inspiring places like this are left in this world?
Fine, fears, you’ll just have to come with me. Because I’m going no matter what. It’s time to see what’s possible.>>Next: The Surprising Story of Moscow’s Food Revolution