The Last Camp

Oct 25th, 2018

There is cleaning to be done. The bags have to be emptied out and packed anew, breaking set habits; calls need to be made and arrangements confirmed. Trash will be consolidated and fuel shuttled off, and all things will be separated and divorced from their expedition-spun meanings. Carbon rasped from stove legs will stain fingers, and once-abandoned living spaces will sprout drying lines and sundered stacks of 18-gallon blue plastic bins, ready to absorb the detritus of endeavor. Lists and receipts and maps and journals will clutter a table beside cans of beer. Reactionary maintenance will be forgotten. In the rage of small necessaries, the march of tasks will weave through the great thing just accomplished but barely talked about. The goal needs to be put to bed, silenced, zip-tied to shattering conclusion.

But that is tomorrow. Tonight those thoughts flutter, but forwards is balanced with backwards, and the reel of recognition has begun to play. What might not have seemed real that morning, or the many mornings before, has come to pass. The trip is over, you did it, you’re finished. A short descent is all that’s left. All the structures and efforts up to this point break down tomorrow as their meaning fades. Tonight — the last camp — is what stands in the place of transition from peaks painted with snow reflecting sunlight to unwanted complexity over the threshold.

For ours, we find a field in a place more telling of physical transition than temporal. The last sloping spurs of the Tien Shan diminish here and fade into union with the grass ocean of the Kazakh steppe. Satisfied with our progress, we stop for the night. It is singularly planar in geometric contrast to the low mountains behind. Horsemen wander the periphery of our tired vision, so recently alert, and now going out of focus as nylon sprouts mirror shapes one final time. The riders wander to unseen homes as habits take hold. As the day considers ending, a solar haze paints the steppe in mirage, a bizarre fata morgana unusual in the chill of March. The haze melts into alpenglow as dinner comes ready, telling of the shifting geography and season. As water boils, flocks flow around scrub knolls told not by sight but by the laziness of massed sheep, and ingrained systems click forward in their ordained and rehearsed steps. It’s a symphony of piles, stacks, grease, grit, and noodles.

Last camps are places of rushed preparation and excitement for re-entry into that more harsh environment, but also of last quiet, last meal (if you planned right), and last untroubled laughter.

The subtle temperature fluctuation that in a few days’ time you just won’t notice anymore. The empty food bag and the empty fuel bottle; the full memory card. The last camp is the pivot on which the experience turns, from internal to external; you will lose yourself tomorrow so today look at the peaks around you, at the river current folding gently around the bend, at the tanned cheeks and dirty hair of those who lifted you to this point.

We barely noticed Kordai. The pass did not shout with snow or tug on faded clothes with switchbacks or tunnels. It rose unobtrusively, populated by a blended mélange of goats and sheep and the occasional lonely fir. At the tipping point, we paused for water and handfuls of Iranian crackers and candied almonds that had somehow survived from Tashkent. Behind us stretched the assembled ranges of Asia, building south to the Himalayas, and west to our genesis in Istanbul. We moved east through Turkey, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, focused less on this cold season than on altitude and biome. In Bukhara it was 60 degrees and sunny, while the Black Sea coast saw rain, Georgia snow, and Kyrgyzstan avalanche and blizzard. The Trans-Ili Alatau foothills here seem a diagram of mountains and tell of winter in wind-loaded cornices desiccated by a snap of longed-for spring. The blur of habitual travel has blended the days or weeks into a rhythm of experience that has rolled forward into boiling tea, clearing hitches from cord, and storm-proofing wet, packed-out boot socks without any apparent input of energy or thought. The utterly reliant machine we’ve built is simple and beautiful, but it has served its purpose and in the morning will begin its last efforts. Tonight it has found this lonely spot where simplicity finds its last substantiation.

Accessing the next pass has been habit and assumption. We’ve been programmed for this step, and the next, and the next. But there are no more passes, only a downhill fade as we drop trying to remember flight times and jotted paths through urban mazes. In its place is a sugar rush of excitement and bad sleep, of staying up too late because it doesn’t matter anymore. The trained guilt evaporates. It is a time of not changing socks or scrubbing the pot with the attention it yesterday required, of not shepherding battery life or the last bit of cheese or oil or chocolate.

An empty pot usually signals the retreat of the off-duty cook to softer, warmer spaces. Tonight, elbow resting on upturned bike, we linger and stare. The light is magnificent, our muscles tired. Two months before, we rolled across the Galata Bridge and pulled up in the square between the Yeni Cami and the ferry dock. Asia lay just across the water, and through the lens of the Bosporus we could barely discern the great landmass before us. Now, in ending, we move plastic backgammon pieces in practiced rhythm about the inked triangles of a sewn cloth board and consider the thing just ahead. It would be a shame to make a mistake now or to break the silence.

Ahead there is a vague guilt around our deep desire for copious hot water, or the stupid roadside joy of having someone else cook our food for us and owing them nothing but money.

We want to call our moms and check our email. But somewhere there is the harsh realization, not quite sunk in, that the day after tomorrow will be just another day. Someone will inevitably look forward and remark on a return to normality, to the “real world,” as if the depth of connection possible in a small team working hard in adverse conditions in the out-of-doors is fake, or meaning removed for its rarity. This is what we did for 400,000 years.

The electric light on the horizon, the imagined urbanity of congested land, and the staccato sounds of gathering engine brakes on a distant highway all begin the process of waking us up to the unreal world. There is an unhappy cognizance around the realization of a future memory. We recline and consider our urbane future selves considering this final moment of simple comfort. A warm puffy jacket, simple food, a good friend, a sunset outlining peaks, and an evening with no agenda, no needs but scrap paper and pen, a book, and a sleeping bag. And still, between future shocks, the sun sinks on the last camp and makes beautiful the weary, happy, knowing smiles of the stubbled and tanned.

We pedal into Almaty at dusk after 11 hours in the saddle and 160 kilometers on the road — our biggest day. With that, we finished what we had set out to do: cycle from Istanbul to Kazakhstan, a shade less than 4,000 kilometers, in two months. Through geographies sensible (snow-bound mountain ranges, ancient rivers, and inland seas) and not (jigsaw borders and boundaries fortified in bureaucracy), we moved east from the edge of Europe to the center of Asia. We relied on the generosity of peoples of steppe, desert, and mountain, as well as scattered expats and the high-tide traces of the great Russian and Soviet empires. We beat the streets of Almaty, “Fatherland of Apples,” for bike boxes and the biggest bucket of plov we could find.

The day would be a march of fools, racing for a drab spot of asphalt in an unknown city with cheap airfares. Finding closure in a hotel parking lot is difficult. Joy overwhelms thoughts of sensible endings, and like so many trips before, I look back to the night before, to our real ending.

We revere last camps each time they come, and so we set up just upstream, just up valley, just out of town, half-afraid of this finality, of what it will bring to us and our team. These points come in succession and mark our real ending in golden light. 

This story originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

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