creative nonfiction

This Metaphoric Ride

Bob Kunzinger is the author of nine collections of essays, and has published in such diverse places as Foreign Lit, the Washington Post, World War Two History, and more, and several of his essays have been noted by Best American Essays. His forthcoming book (Madville Press, July 2022) is his memoir The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia.

For quite some time now, my rarely-tapped-into conservative side has suggested it is time to talk to my son about what’s next in his life, career-wise I mean, time-to-think-of-the-future wise. All parents go through this with their children, I suppose. It’s not so necessary to discuss their plans if something about their lives indicates forward motion. “I’m going to college” works well, even if one lacks a certain effort. “I’ve started my own computer business and am working on selling it to Google,” is another preferred response. And because we are spending the summer riding a metaphor—truly, nothing symbolizes forward motion more than a train barreling across two continents—I have decided to interrupt our focus on the present to discuss the future. Somewhere along the line it shouldn’t be difficult to digress into something like, “Hey, what are your plans?” I knew before we left that this would happen, that horrific but predictable conversation all fathers have with their sons about security and ambition. I just never anticipated it would happen in some remote segment of Siberia.

My own father asked me once over brunch during my senior year of high school. I told him I wasn’t ready to go to college. I timed my response so his mouth was full and couldn’t answer right away to give me a chance to make my case. I suppose he already knew what I really wanted to do was travel, figure out how to pay for that instead of following some forgettable path. But his generation had a completely different set of parameters than mine. His was World War Two; his was college for the privileged only; his was the Andrew Sisters and Boys Town; it was a time when dressing down meant loosening the tie.

My generation is the Beatles, the Stones, Run DMC; my generation is Vietnam and Masters’ degrees; flip flops and adventure travel. And ironically enough, my generation has somehow culturally bled into my son’s generation—the same adventurous ambitions, the same music and foods, the same clothes even. Maybe that’s why both of us adjusted to the railway quickly, feeling comfortable far from home, ordering drinks and shelving responsibility. He quickly took to this lifestyle; I can’t imagine why.

Michael spends much of this time with his camera, shooting photographs of the trees in a wilderness so vast that even crossing it by train seems an impossibility. I watch him at the windows watching nature—both untamed. We sit in the dining car and I write in my journals, but my mind is elsewhere. At one point he turns to me and says, “Throw Mama from the Train.” Just like our attempts to trump each other by naming train-songs, we have been trying to name all the movies we can which include great train rides. We came up with some good ones too: Dr Zhivago, Murder on the Orient Express, The General, The Ghost Train, North by Northwest, the Polar Express, The Taking of Pelham 123, and a few horror flicks, including Trans Siberian. We have long talked about the artistry involved in filmmaking—the need for narrative, the entirely separate artform of a cinematographer’s eye, and the music so essential for tone. I make a note in my journal that it was probably while first watching Murder on the Orient Express that I believed I would take a long train ride someday. My father’s daily treks by train to and from Wall Street did nothing to inspire me to follow him into a broker’s career in the city, but the sound of the train leaving so early instilled in me some sense of adventure.

My own father never dreamed of Russia—the Soviet Union; his generation defended liberty against the Nazis and the Japanese, returned from World War Two to settle down and make sure their children did better than they did. He set us an example of the American work ethic, built us a house in the suburbs, insured us a college education, and watched us build lives and families of our own in the tradition of the Great American Dream. But when I was young, for Christmas every year he bought me those books I read again and again and then passed them on to Michael: Bound for Glory, The Boy Who Sailed around the World Alone, and A Walk Across America. So at brunch that morning in high school when he swallowed his food and had a chance to answer, I could tell he already knew what I was going to say. As a father, he out-dads me ten to one.

I watch Michael at the window take pictures of small graveyards in the forest, practicing his art in a land whose history has most often been underscored by artists like Tolstoy, Eisenstein, and Pushkin. My son is an artist as well; I can tell by the way he doesn’t point and shoot but rather frames what he sees, waits for the sun, or waits for the clouds depending upon the mood, the character, the narrative. His predecessors include Alexey Trofimov, whose current collection includes award-winning, minimalist work to make the most citified folks find reason to ride to Siberia. Most famously, though, is the work of V.L. Metenkov, whose house is now a museum celebrated by National Geographic. As for the Russian landscape painters, Alexei Savrasov might be the most celebrated, even if the volume of his work was criticized by his colleagues for not having enough social commentary. Russia is most certainly a land of artists and social realism was so alive during the Stalin era, it’s not surprising such sentiment leaked through. The people I have met in this country are so much more intensely aware of what’s going on around them than in the States, that social commentary is always just around the next conversation. Throw some artists into the mix, a group which already dips its brush in commentary, and you’ve unearthed the Russian art community.

If Michael’s work has any commentary at all, it is to speak of the world as virgin despite its history, tranquil despite its wars, accessible despite its isolation. Some planning was involved to come to a place where I find myself having a drink in a rolling pub while my son stares at the green hills and white trees, interrupted by the occasional graveyard or dilapidated gulag, but in the end it was as simple as pointing ourselves in the right direction.

I want to tell him to defy his desire to wander and instead figure it out on the way to a degree. I need to insist he go to college, secure a job. And I am painfully aware there is no way for me to breach this subject without sounding hypocritical. I certainly don’t want to tell him the truth: that if I were his age again and had it to do over, I would wander longer, avoid the main current my friends followed and cut my own course. I’d not be in a hurry. I’d not sit around. Still, as a father I want my son to be secure, to be stable in an unstable world. So I know the only way to have this conversation, the only way for it to be truly honest and open, is to talk in the dining car over vodka. If we are going to talk about his future, one of us has to be drinking.

So after a while we settle down together in a booth and listen to balalaika music the tender puts on and I decide it is time to talk. It also occurs to me that this conversation should be a celebration, not a lecture. I order a beer and a shot of vodka and at my suggestion Michael does the same. I tell him we never had a proper “kicking off” celebration since boarding the train in St. Petersburg. We are on a roll east toward an eventual six thousand miles. Whenever someone asks where we are going, and we say Vladivostok, they react with surprise and admiration, as if it is a city only heard about in mariner’s tales or old, Russian folk tunes, and I suppose to most of them it must be. There is something enticing about traveling farther across their homeland than most of these men probably ever will. But here we are, and it seems as good a time as any to both celebrate and talk. The only other passengers are four men eating dinner. The dining car attendant is a robust woman with traditional clothes and apron who sits at her own booth going over paperwork and drinking coffee.

She brings us our drinks and asks if we want anything else, so I open the menu and I ask for a tray of cucumbers and tomato slices and then some caviar with bread. She smiles wide, nods at our shots and beers, and puts her hand up to stop me from ordering more; apparently, she catches on and makes her own suggestions. She points to the Borsch and I nod and put up two fingers, and then she suggests the smoked salmon strips. Michael and I relax and listen to music and toast our good fortune to be in Siberia, and we toast the unknown which brought us here to begin with, that finds us—father and son—barreling along the tracks into wherever’s next.

The food comes out and we drop a dollop of sour cream in the soup and toast again with another vodka, compliments of Irina the attendant, and she smiles and laughs and says, “Na Zdorovie!” She puts on different Russian folk music with accordions and a chorus, and the four men toast our celebration, and the entire car becomes ours, and we make that essential step from observers to participants in this foreign and all-absorbing culture, so that it seems somewhere east of Yekaterinburg already nearly seven thousand miles from home, we begin our journey.

Michael is quiet for some time, and when the food is gone we order tea and he looks out the window at the darkness save some random houses and non-stop stations, all illuminated by the light pouring out of the train cars. This is the time to talk, I decide. We are here now.

I am thinking of the right words. It isn’t that I have trouble talking to him about anything; I don’t. It’s just that I want to balance the need to ask his thoughts about his plans to move forward in life—his philosophy of sorts, his game plan—but I don’t want to break this spell we are under as travelers, companions. We are both artists, attempting to express ourselves through our own mediums, and here I sit speechless trying to say something fatherly.

He looks out the window and says this reminds him of the train scene in the movie Out of Africa, where Meryl Streep is crossing the vast wilderness toward a new life. I look at my son, and while I don’t doubt my father’s pride for me, it couldn’t possibly match mine for Michael at this moment. I’ve never seen a person so aware, so completely in the moment, as Michael looking out the window. What’s next? I think. Isn’t that what we are going to talk about? He leans forward so I can hear him over the music and says, “That movie has my favorite line in it. Near the end just before he leaves for that last flight, Redford says to Streep, “I don’t want to wake up one day at the end of someone else’s life.”

He glances back outside, nodding to himself and I remain quiet a moment. Talk over. I never said a word; just like my Dad. We invite the others in the dining car to join us and the attendant brings six bottles of Baltika and we play chess and laugh and come to life in the dead of night a thousand miles from nowhere crossing one of the planet’s most barren and wild lands.

While Michael plays the businessman, I realize I can’t look at this land without my mind spiraling into the world of art and artists—writers, painters, musicians, photographers, dancers. Artists all. I’ve traveled with many people to Russia, but always to St. Petersburg and Moscow and always as a professor, never like this, as a father and a writer without the comfort of the flood of western influence in those cities, and I never before ventured this far east. But some years ago, an artist friend of mine, James Cole Young, insisted I bring him to Russia. He was a landscape artist heavily influenced by Casper Friedrich and Isaak Levitan, whose sweeping style in his pastoral paintings inform Cole’s paintings of clouds.

“Kunzinger! Bring me to Russia!” he said in his signature I-already-have-my-passport style of planning.

“Okay. Where?”

“All of it, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Siberia, anywhere I can paint without being bothered!”

We talked it out for a while, but he wasn’t feeling especially well, and his health deteriorated until eventually he died of lung cancer before we had a chance to fulfil that dream of his. That would have been the end of it, but like many artists, often their strongest influence comes after death. A few years later, Cole’s widow, Sharon, called and said she wanted to bring Cole to Russia and that I had to be the one to bring her there.

So we went. It turns out carrying human remains on an airplane doesn’t violate any TSA regulations, so Sharon poured some of Cole into a sandwich baggie and put him in her purse behind her sunglasses. A few days later, we stood near the gift shop in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, ready to place part of the late artist among some of his legendary influences. “Well, we made it,” Sharon said, as I studied a map of the galleries looking for German artists.

“Not yet,” I said. “Security at the airport has nothing on these hounds watching the paintings.” I looked closer at the map. “Ah, found him. Let’s go.”

Cole Young’s paintings of the sky, of landscapes, blur the line between reality and representation. Stare long enough and you become part of the cloud, part of nature. One autumn day on his western New York farm, we had been talking about traveling to Russia when he said, “They have a painting there I must see which is one of the works which inspired me to paint—Casper Friedrich’s ‘Memories of the Riesengebirge.’” I know the work. This landscape he loved has details and depth like many of Cole’s own early landscapes, and in several reviews my friend was compared to the German artist.

“We’ll do the whole art thing, Kunzinger! You write and I’ll paint! All artists should go to Russia at some point! I don’t think people paint the Russian landscape anymore.” We talked about it most of that night and for weeks after, but he fell ill. Sharon knew what she wanted to do, and we stood outside the gift shop, me with the map, Sharon with the baggie of Cole.

We wound our way through the maze of rooms to the hall of German artists. A few friends joined us to distract the guard in her chair at the entrance to the otherwise completely empty gallery.

“Here it is,” I said, and we stood before Friedrich’s work. One of our friends conveniently asked the guard directions to some difficult to find gallery while another friend and I stood between Sharon and the guard, blocking the view. Sharon carefully poured some of Cole in her hand and dusted the inner frame and canvas with ashes. It was part timeless and part creepy.

Then she took my palm and poured Cole into my hand. I laughed. “He hated when people touched him,” I said, and Sharon laughed hard. “Oh my God, that’s right!”

But I stood gripping Cole, looking at the landscape, losing myself for a moment in the depth of the countryside. I thought of my college days, sitting in the studio until four a.m. listening to John Lennon and talking to Cole about life and death and watching him scrape off some tree in his painting which had to move for better depth. We were so young, but we talked endlessly about art and about nature, and how a canvas can capture the beauty of time and keep it there, permanent, untouched by age or fading memories, and how good writing can do the same.

Our lives were saturated by innocence. The pastoral landscape of southwestern New York made artists of us all. Cole painted, and we played guitars or sat on his porch where he would often hold court to complain about useless, wasted time or people’s poor taste in art. Years later he said to me, “Those were great days back then, weren’t they?” They were.

I stared at my palm. My friends urged me to hurry as the guard was growing suspicious, but I stood wondering which part of Cole I held. I imagined I held his hand, so long and tender, yet strong. His taut muscles held tight to brushes his entire life, painted masterpieces which hang all over the world. I decided I held that hand in mine, and I moved it slowly toward “Memories,” and blew gently enough to watch the ashes land in the crevices of the canvas, dusting the mountains, easing some onto the frame.

“They’ll clean this up,” I said, “but some will remain.”

Sharon smiled. “I suppose. But for now he’s here among artists,” she said. I watched some ash settle to the floor and thought how a part of anyone who travels to Russia is always left behind. On the way out, I stopped in a restroom to wash my hands and thought how Cole will forever be part of the landscape. How long, I wondered, before this water washes into the river, moving further into nature.

Now, I look at Michael who sits and smiles, trying his best to talk to our friends sitting around trying their best to talk to us, passing the time as we pass small royal-blue shacks and yellow stations through the night. Others enter the car, and a small boy about eight is at the next booth sitting next to his father who is reading a book. The boy is toying with his fries and staring at his dad. Every once in a while, he reaches up with a fry and without looking his father bites it, smiles down at him, and continues reading. They seem content and used to the routine. I don’t think the father is hungry as his plate still has food, but his son seems satisfied every time the man bites a bit of a fry.

Most of these passengers are engaged in their ongoing lives, as this seems routine to them. But for newbies like Michael and me, and perhaps this young boy, we absorb the landscape both inside and out with every sense we have. I realize that in our daily lives we often stare down at the ground. We look at our shoes, or at the sidewalk cracks or the leaves near the curb, or at the wrappers and trash left on the lawn. Maybe we don’t look up and around too much because it is too much to take in. We are too focused on the trivial, which alone can be overwhelming. Apparently, it is the same in Russia. The young boy, like us, is engaged in life around him, while the regulars read a book. I wonder how much of this trip he will remember, which makes me curious about how much my own son will recall as he ages. And me? What will I look back at and conjure up with perfect clarity, and which moments have already escaped between cars, left behind as we move forward? Moments, perhaps, for which I will require a photograph or a painting to recall the details; perhaps some descriptive paragraph to again appreciate the Siberian soul.

Sometimes when we are traveling in a strange land, after the initial wonder wears away, our minds return to their natural state and we find comfort in some routine from home, like reading, or perhaps simply looking around but not noticing so much as our thoughts are seven thousand miles away. It can be exhausting to maintain the enthusiasm and staggering newness of some foreign soil, but I’m determined to take it all in, so I sit here in the dining car and realize that Cole was right, as was writer Bob Shacochis: all artists should go to Siberia at some point in their lives.

Eventually, I thank the woman who works at the bar for all of her help. She wipes the counter and smiles, and when I offer her a tip for all she did, she refuses a few times before accepting. We return to the cabin and write in our journals and talk quietly about what a great day it has been: we made good friends and celebrated with them and we hardly had to speak a word the entire time. We laughed a lot, we used hand signals, and when we could we spoke in bad Russian. Little was lost in translation. It was a string of pure moments, of white birches against a dark-green forest, of the soft rumbling of the train, of the slightly anxious apprehension we both felt when a drunk man first approached about playing chess, and the gathering of men and the fields of Siberia saturated with wildflowers, green and yellow and red, and the buildings painted royal blue. We were far from home. We were as far from home, in fact, as one can get before heading back. GPS is worthless here. Maps are of little value.

This is why we came. This is why we are here. To end up in Vladivostok, to end up at each station along the way, to find perspective and discover the symmetry in our own world, and, along the way, not find ourselves on anyone else’s journey but our own.

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