Tracking the Soulful Traveler Like a Panther

Sometimes, in the month of November, a faint outline of Ukraine casts itself against the steel gray sky, appearing wordlessly in the soulful traveler’s rearview mirror. The faint, porous Ukrainian borders materialize long after the sun begins to wither. Only when the air is motionless, the sky, so crisp, that the teeth ache, and the corn stalks have disappeared under the plow does one detect the foreign vista behind. The film stills rolling across the plains are not part of this century. One does not see the effects of Chernobyl on the bruised land or drink the poisoned water. Most cannot picture the pinched faces of young girls with little to believe in but the familiar strains of pop music and the hands of their boyfriends between their thighs. The empty grocery store shelves and the derelict buildings of a once grand and fortuitous country do not cross the view.

One only sees an ancient Ukraine, instead.

In the mirror, a world where men once guided themselves across quiet prairie oceans by starlight like mariners transpires in the heavy sky. Under vast Ukrainian skies, bison and antelope, wild horses and prairie hawks still roam innocently across a geography that wars have divided through the centuries. The sharp smell of wood smoke filtering through the cracked car window reassigns the wanderer to a distant century of Baroque churches with Greek domes and mosaic Virgins pieced together from crimson, turquoise and emerald fragments. Ox-drawn carts stumble across muddy roads leading into dark forests. For a moment, there is braided kolach bread wreathed in candles on Christmas Eve and brightly colored pysanky Easter eggs in April. Sometimes, if the dreamer is looking, he or she can spy a fierce Cossack on the back of a horse with his boots dug deep in the stirrups, or is it a young boy, dressed in the pale green sweater and t-shirt, his cold hands gripping the cracked leather reins with cheeks pink like a pair of apples, that one sees?

Behind, wandering minstrels carrying banduras cross the path like shadows at dusk. The poet, Shevchenko, a man who once was a serf, argues angrily with Fate as a train carries him into a frozen exile, pencil and paper ripped from his hands. In the horizontal, moving picture, if one is quiet and patient, the traveler can sit at a wooden table next to those with the taste of borscht and resistance on their chapped lips arguing tearfully against the path of hunger and violence Fate will lay down for their country. Sadly, there are images of great famine and peasants scorching their own houses, burning the last sheaths of grain before the day’s arrests begin. This is an ancient Ukraine: a cold, sepia-toned landscape only occasionally marked by firelight, like the months of winter.

Today, when travelers go to Ukraine they will walk in an independent landscape listening to the echoes of the Orange Revolution in the streets and bear witness to the sights and sounds, smells and touch of this landscape, feeding the uneducated part of their souls. Many exiles never return to Ukraine, and when leaving their homeland for the last time, many hide a vial of water from the Dniper River and slip a lump of black soil from the soil into their pockets. While many may not see the shadow of Ukraine appearing like a specter each autumn, this foreign prairie secretly tracks the hopeful, silently reminding the dreamer it is time to come.