If I’m lucky, tonight might be the coldest night of the year. Middle of January is usually about right for that and this is the cold front that most of the time drops temperatures to below zero for a few nights. This year I’m hoping to avoid that, nursing the house through a lesser cold snap with a little kerosene heater and some maintenance man tricks. So far that seems to work, but it’s a great night to tend the little fire and watch a few movies on Netflix.
Part of the reason I’m feeling warm and cozy and fortunate this evening is that I’ve been watching two stories about people in much worse situations. Both of them have to do with hiking, something I enjoy, and with winter survival — something I’m trained in. As much as I like foot travel, I don’t think I’d ever consider doing what the people in these two epic tales did. To think that these things actually happened and the real people who made these journeys and lived, were still alive until just recently, well, all I can say is Wow.
I’ve mentioned these stories before, in a post about gifts for backpackers, but I’ve known them as books rather than movies until today. Both movies get the stories right, something movies often fail to do, and present very believable versions of these two incredible journeys. There’s no need to embellish either of them.
As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me tells the story of a German POW sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in Siberia after WWII. Clemens Forell escaped from a labor camp located above the Arctic Circle, setting out with minimal gear and provisions in early winter. His three year journey, spent mostly on foot, took him through country so wild and barren of human life that one of his mentors told him to talk — to himself, to the trees, to anything — or risk losing the ability to speak. Like Papillon in South America, Forell met all sorts of people along the way, some who helped and others who only wanted the reward money offered for his capture. I will say no more, except that no matter how rough you’ve had it at times in your life, your situation surely pales if compared to his.
The second epic journey movie I watched today told a story I first read in the early 70’s and never forgot. Published as The Long Walk, the book described how Polish Cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz and five other conscripts escaped from a labor camp, in what seems like a fairly nice part of Siberia, compared to Forell’s starting point; and walked not just out of the Soviet Union but across Mongolia and Tibet, into India. Yes, that means they walked across the Himalayas, too. By then they weren’t even doubting they could make it. Not everybody lived, and part of what happened is the reason ever since the 70’s I’ve always thought of dying in the Mongolian desert when my feet swell up for any reason at all. The collection of characters in the movie version, The Way Back, resembles the group of adventurers you might assemble in an epic video game. There’s an engineer, a scout, a thief, a priest and several other familiar avatars in genuine human form. Like Forell, they find that survival depends upon others rather than self and skill alone.
Both of these stories brought tears to my eyes at the end, but I’ll not explain why because it will spoil some of the story. If you can keep a dry eye, maybe you haven’t lived long enough to get it yet. Some walks take decades, and in some ways we all take them.