What are we doing here?
Up at 7,800 feet? At the pinnacle of the world? Atop a strange and motionless summit that is brighter than a sunlit cloud? A shadowless wilderness of blinding light? We squint into its vast whiteness. Into a luminance that erases distance, that flattens space, that deceives the eyes.
We are in trouble. We are freezing.
Four days behind us sprawls Anatolia—the colossal thumb of Asia Minor that jabs westward to Europe, a Mediterranean universe of olives and pistachios, of sun-reddened earth pinstriped by the soft green of winter wheat, a cosmos of bustling Silk Road cities, of tidy villages, of steaming kebabs, of mosques, of calls to prayer. At Posof, on the Turkish border, we step—through a magic mirror, an invisible membrane of culture—into another world. Into the Republic of Georgia: grey and russet mountains dappled with snow, their vertical horizons razored as knapped flint, clawed by icy rivers whose beds are beaded with stones like blue eggs and spangled with the rusty leaves of sycamores. We teeter into another dimension, into one of the oldest sites of Christendom, where every barren hill is a tonsured Golgotha topped by tilted crosses. Past fallen castles. By hardscrabble towns populated with women and men whose faces are planed at sharp and gorgeous angles, like early Picassos. The women in gumboots. The men hunched under black porkpie hats. Cyrillic letters fade on peeling walls. Russian trucks clang and sputter alongside, honking. It is the beginning of the end of another history, another empire, another dream.
Vitali “Vito” Uplisashvili is our new walking guide.
He greets us at the border checkpoint in new hiking boots. He carries inside his pack his father’s old dagger and not one but two large bottles of chacha, the grape vodka of his country. (This clear liquid is so volatile we use it to light fires.) Vito asks this often: “How do you like Georgia?” He has never been outside of Georgia. He is 18 years old.
There are four of us. My Turkish guide Murat Yazar joins us. So does his friend Matthieu Chazal, from Bordeaux. We strike out east. Then south.
Spindly roads. Muddy goat trails. We inch up the Mt’k’vari River, both a door and a wall between Asia and Europe, crossing and re-crossing on derelict suspension bridges its icy black currents, one of the storied crossroads and bottlenecks of the world. For thousands of years, many armies and invading hordes have forded such rivers in Georgia: Alexander the Great, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Khazars, Mongols, Ottomans, Russians. (Indeed, the fossilized bones of the oldest nomads outside Africa have been found in Georgia: Homo erectus from 1.8 million years ago.) Now shepherds push flocks of sheep up and down the narrow river valley. They point knobbed fingers toward Tbilisi, the distant capital.
We plod on.
Two days later, the doctor at the warm medical clinic in Tbilisi is incredulous when I tell him that my bruised meniscus has pendulumed more than 4,000 miles from Ethiopia.
“We should be taking an X-ray of your skull instead,” he says, putting away the X-ray of my knee.
I will overwinter in Tbilisi. In the spring, I will return to the campfire where Murat torched his gloves. This is what we do: We toe through the ashes of our old hearths, looking for new directions, for deeper meanings. Then I will walk again.