Spring in the mountains

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a
little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Benjamen Franklin

My dotcom was the last to die. Most fancy offices in the Silicon Valley had long been vacant; thousands of Indian programmers had migrated to warmer climates; even realty prices had gone down. But I still had to waste time in front of a computer. We probably would survive even longer, if our boss, who owned four more businesses, didn't give up on us.

I started looking for a new job six months earlier, but the situation looked desperate. The owner of a nearby gas station showed me an inch-thick stack of applications for attendant position: more than a hundred people, all with university degrees.

We lived in a relatively remote place, and it made the search even more difficult. Our new house was on a mountaintop with 180 degrees of ocean view, surrounded by oldgrowth redwood forest. It was a great location. But to get out of there, we had to navigate a narrow, winding road with lots of deer and other wildlife. It took us almost an hour to get to the Silicon Valley. So I could only look for jobs in our mountains or close by.

After a few weeks, I got a job in a local supermarket. I was put in charge of a coolbox with beer, soft drinks, and diary products, so I could honestly tell my mother that I was the supervisor of cryogenics department. It was surprisingly easy and pleasant work. The crew was great, and we always got paid on time. The coolbox was a huge refrigerator with shelves on one side and stacks of cardboard boxes on the other. It was my responsibility to make sure the shelves were always full: to move stuff from boxes to shelves, to order new boxes, and to oversee unloading of arriving trucks.

Laziness is the engine of progress. By the end of the first month, I organized everything so effectively that I could spend most of the day reading Scientific American from journals shelf and drinking slightly outdated chocolate milk. Of course, I still had to move stuff around, but it was nice to get some exercise after so many years of stupid computer work. I lost some weight, and was feeling much better. My boss almost never checked on me. As for the customers, I mostly saw them through the glass doors of the shelves. In a way, I was looking at the world from merchandise's point of view.

And it was pretty interesting. Try observing someone who stays in front of a supermarket shelf, trying to make a choice. What a depth of thought on his face, what a colossal intellectual effort in his eyes and dropped jaw! I soon found that an average customer needed three minutes to choose one of the six kinds of mineral water we had. (That average included people who were bying the same brand every evening). Our store wasn't big: we had only thirty kinds of beer. At any time of the day you could see a group of people standing in front of the beer shelf, their lips moving from intense thinking.

Some men completely delegated the authority over the choice to their wives. They were cruising the grounds with long lists of items to find, or with cell phones. Cellular reception was always a problem in our mountains. It was funny to watch one of those remote-controlled husbands as he would suddenly stop in his tracks, trying to restore the connection to his source of guidance. By the way, women trying to choose beer spent 50% more time than men did.

Many customers came with children. I could never understand why. I observed that if a kid took something from a shelf, nine times out of ten his parents made him put it back and take something else, even if the only difference was the color of the box. Apparently, my mother is not the only one who subconsciously believes that good-tasting food can't be healthy, and vise versa.

Soon I knew most of our visitors personally, and made another discovery. At least 80% of regular beer drinkers had unmistakable signs of mental degradation. In six months I spent working in the store, some made the entire journey from slight stupidity to total idiocy. This process noticeably picked up speed during the invasion of Iraq, when people were watching more TV and drinking more beer.

Winter was dry and sunny that year: we had only three major storms between October and March. A storm meant a week of rain, two days of strong wind, and a power outage. A week before the New Year, we lost power and telephone at the same time. So we had to use kerosene lamps and cook on the wood stove. The main problem was having no Internet access: the New Year is the most popular family holiday in Russia, and we couldn't contact our relatives back there.

On the New Year's eve we got too tired of darkness, and knocked on Oliver's door. Oliver, a former cowboy, was our landlord, friend, and the only close neighbor. He was a bit drunk, and very glad to see us. He decided it was the perfect time to show us his arsenal. We spent the next two hours trying out his shotguns and revolvers. Natasha and I were expecting to see a police helicopter any moment, but Oliver claimed the cops never dared enter our mountains on holidays. He was probably right. Nobody had ever locked their homes, but everybody had at least three guns, so there was no crime in the area (numerous meth labs and cannabis plots in the forest didn't count).

An hour before dawn we ran out of vine and ammo, so we found Oliver's bow for tried target practice. But our host was too drunk to be trusted with a weapon, so we went home. We decided to collect arrows in the morning. But we didn't get any sleep that night. As soon as we put out the candles, our resident coyote family started howling. Oscar ran out of his house in his underwear, and joined the chorus. Their joint performance continued until sunrise.

Next week the phone came back on, then the utility company started fixing downed power lines one by one. By that time some residents had already had enough: a guy got arrested for holding the crew on gunpoint, demanding that his house got power first. For the next two months, people kept close watch on weather forecasts, and would run to our store for candles and batteries every time there was an atmospheric front moving in.

The spring was late, cold, and rainy, but wonderful. The forest was full of blooming cherry and apple trees. Lekking hummingbirds were dancing above the swimming pool. They were brave enough to try chasing us and deer away from feeders. Bird nests were everywhere.

We were not very happy that spring. We were making barely enough money to pay rent and other everyday expenses, and couldn't put any aside for emergencies or travel. In six months we haven't been anywhere except nearby Mexico. I desperately tried to get some side income, selling photos, editing books, translating papers, teaching and writing. But it didn't help much. To maintain my qualification as zoologist, I volunteered in various places. Natasha and I had a lot of fun catching ducks for botulism treatment or kayaking through salt marshes to count chicks in seagull colonies.

Then suddenly everything changed.

Many years ago, when I'd just graduated from school, I met Michael, a zoologist studying Siberian tigers. At the time there were no radiocollars or other high-tech methods, so the main research technique was winter trekking. It was very difficult work: tigers walked for up to fifty miles a day through deep snow, endless hills, frozen rivers, and dense forest. During one of his long hikes, Michael accidentally crossed a watershed. Walking out of the forest took him more days than expected, he got a really bad frostbite, and lost his toes. So he had to switch from tigers to mice, and became one of the best experts on hemorrhagic fever and other rodent-born diseases.

I was lucky to be a regular guest in his log cabin at the edge of Ussuri Nature Reserve, a few hundred miles from Vladivostok. It was a magic place. The tiny hamlet could be reached by a nine-hour walk through tallgrass meadows - seas of giant irises and tiger lilies. The house was hidden at the edge of the forest full of wildlife, from snow deer and Himalayan bears to celestial beetles and firebelly toads. There were bottomless pits with black water under the rotten floor, families of pit vipers living inside the front porch, nests of azure-winged magpies in the trees above. At night, street lights were surrounded by clouds of giant moths chased by owls and bats.

Later, Michael moved to the States and got a job at the CDC (Center for Disease Control). Since my first day in the US, I'd been bugging him with questions about possible job openings. And it worked. In April he told me about a vacancy - not in the CDC, but in a University in Colorado. I sent in my resume, and got hired for the summer to study plague in prairie-dogs and other rodents.

So, we have to move to a small, cute city at the edge of the Great Plains. The sharp contrast between the Rocky Mountains on one side and the flat prairies on the other makes it look almost like a seaside town. I know it would be a perfect base for exploring the Rockies and the Midwest, for tornado chasing, horseback riding, and other interesting things. But I also know I will always miss California, its wonderful diversity, its ocean, its rainy winters, and our little house on a mountaintop.

We are done packing and loading all the stuff in a truck. Tomorrow at dawn we'll drive east. As I type the last lines of this book, I look in the window, thinking about my six years in California. A lot has happened. The country has changed, mostly to the worse. I've got US citizenship, but it's becoming less and less useful, as incompetent leadership is rapidly making America the most hated country in the world. Freedom is being sacrificed for isolation, knowledge for belief, nature for profit.

But the view from the window makes me forget about bad things. Waves of redwood-covered hills run down to the ocean, flocks of migratory birds make their way through the undergrowth, deer fawns walk in oak shadows. A narrow, winding stripe of asphalt - our connection to the endless road network of the continent - starts just outside the door.

So, my fellow Americans elected an evil retard for president, they allow every moment of their lives to be controlled, they make everybody else hate them. It's not the end of the world, not yet. Presidents come and go; I'll never become a true American; and I'll always be able to get away from the Big Brother and from terrorists of any kind. The most important freedom is freedom of mind. I'll have it no matter what.

Tomorrow we'll dive into the web of freeways and highways. Something new will be waiting behind every turn of the road. There will be prairie mornings and mountain sunsets, jungle nights and quiet arctic days. There will always be interesting things to write about.

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