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Home in the Woods

by Tara

Yesterday, we left the Kungur Ice Cave and headed eastwards, driving until dusk. When we spied what looked like a tractor's path snaking into the hills nearby, we pulled off the main road with high hopes that we'd find a good place to call home for the night.

Road to Possible Free Camp

As we bounced along, dry grasses brushing the bottom of our car, a huge and brilliant half-moon rose up before us in the evening sky:

Russian Moonrise

When I wasn't preoccupied by the radiant lunar light, I peered out of our windows, continuously looking left and right, trying to find a place to settle in the approaching darkness.

Road to Possible Free Camp

Over the crest of a hill and down into a wooded valley, a full three kilometers from the road we'd left, Tyler pressed on until he found a clearing large enough for us to call home. Our isolated refuge even came "fully furnished" with a mammoth pile of birch branches, ready to be burned.

Tyler made a fire, expertly flinging molten metal into the dry kindling with our flint and steel:

Tyler Making Fire

…while I cooked our new favorite meal of dumplings:

Tara Cooking Dumplings

These freezer-section staples are available in all grocery stores, no matter how small, and I never know what will be inside of them. They usually turn out to be meat and onions. I boil them for a bit, then drain off the water and fry them in olive oil so they are brown and crispy on the outside.

Dumplings for Dinner

After dinner, Tyler and I cleaned the dishes, then pulled our walkstools towards the fire. Completely unaware of of the time, we stayed up talking late into the night, staring into the black and gold ripples of flame and cinder. Watching sparks drift up into the starry sky, we surprised one another for hours with childhood stories we'd never heard the other tell.

With idyllic wooded surroundings, and enough food and water to last us for a few more meals, we decide to stay for one more day. Our plan is to do nothing but read and write. Though we've only been here for a few hours, this place is beginning to feel like home to me.

I can already sense my roots beginning to unfurl, my heels starting to dig in – I could stay put, build a little cabin with Tyler, and be happy here.

This could be our driveway:

Russian Road through Field

…and this, the view just down the road:

Russian Field & Powerlines

Quiet and without another soul in sight, we are hidden from even the dirt road we arrived on. Yellow leaves drift down onto the mesh of our tent. The green leaves, still attached to peeling white birch branches, quiver in the wind against a sky of pure turquoise.

We spend precious hours in our sleeping bag, noses ever so slightly red and chilled in the suddenly fall air. It is one of those afternoons that seems to linger, unwilling to submit itself to the time-honored rule that "time flies when you're having fun". Today is a gift.

Following a truly relaxing afternoon of journaling, reading, and simply staring up at the sky through our mesh roof, watching clouds drift past, Tyler rouses yesterday's embers and lights the fire anew. I decide I want to be an equally competent fire-maker, so I tell him that next time around, I will make a fire, and he can cook dinner. Then, I help out by tromping around the forest finding firewood.

With ample wood at hand, I pull a stool up to the cozy blaze, and begin preparing dessert – it will be replacing dinner for the night. I have a bag full of crab apples that we bought from two women at a roadside stand a few days ago. Dressed in colorful headscarves, smiling with flashing gold teeth, these generous women gave us many more than we bargained for. I have to use the fruits before they go bad.

Crab Apple

One by one, I cut the apples, feeling quiet and meditative. With a flash of my pocket knife, I cleave two pieces into four, then remove the seedy middles with a curve of my wrist. After I fling the slick, almondy seeds into the forest, I begin again.

Tara Cutting Crab Apples Tara Cutting Crab Apples

Once the apples are cut, I cook them on our stove with sugar and cinnamon, the powdery brown poof of fragrant spice making me feel even more like fall is upon us. As I add a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice to the tart apple mixture, autumn memories flood my mind. I am practically intoxicated with the scents of wet leaf piles and musky skeins of sheep's wool, apple cider, charred marshmallows, and bonfire. If only we had some marshmallows now!

The promise of apple fritters helps me forget my marshmallow dreams. Meanwhile, Tyler is having memories of his own. He's sitting next to me, watching and smiling. As the apple mixture begins to simmer, he hovers over it hungrily saying, "That smells just like Christmas!"

I set about making a simple crust of butter, flour, and salt, working the mixture with my fingertips as swiftly as possible so as not to warm the butter with my body heat. The air is cool enough so the butter hasn't turned to mush, and when I add the water, I am pleased that it is cold as well; a flaky pie crust depends upon it.

I gather the dough into a ball, then break it into smaller sections, squishing each one out on a plate to make it flat. A spoonful of the apple filling goes on top, then I fold the dough over into white half-moons to match the one overhead. Water acts as glue as I seal the edges together. With the remaining butter, I fry the pastries until they are golden brown and cooked through. A sprinkle of sugar makes a crunchy, sweet crust, and a dusting of cinnamon finishes them off.

The whole process, though worth it, is a whole lot messier than I had intended (surprise surprise). Tyler helps me clean up while we wait for the fritters to cool, and then we both dig in to a quintessentially fall dessert.

Hours are spent once again, hypnotized by the fire, completely at peace in rural Russia. We are surrounded by trees and canopied by the sky. We are particularly taken by the wind – a deeply chilling, rustling current, an invigorating harbinger of darker days and bitterly cold, starry nights.

Tyush Starfield