Finding the Fantastic in District 13. Lviv Stories.

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«Fantastic. That was why we came here. So we can keep saying ‘fantastic.’« Four friends traveled to the ancient Carpathian mountain land of the Hutsul people. They battled rivers and sojourned on horseback with a soundtrack of roaring streams, flapping wings, and distant ringing-bells.

Note: As in all our Lviv Stories, the names are changed to give people a freedom to speak authentically.

By Joe Lindsley 

Near Verkhovyna – Three friends – Petro, Olha, Penny – and I were rafting on the Black Cheremos River in Ukraine’s Carpathian mountains. At first, I was looking down and fighting the current, but in our third or fourth round of rapids I fell into rhythm with the water. Amid grey rock cliffs and deep dark green trees, I looked with serenity to the forthcoming wall of white of waves: Ah, now, we were flying. 

The spray hit my face. I let out a holler, a sound of victory.

«Fantastychno»! said Petro, in Ukrainian (Фантастично, «fantastic.»).

Two days before, we had driven into these mountains. We’d all agreed we needed a full break, with minimal technology and lots of nature and conversation. As we left behind the rolling fields of Galicia in an Audi SUV, the smooth, modern road criss-crossed roaring streams and wound through green slopes – the «woolly mountains,» Petro said. 

As we climbed into the Carpathians, Olha’s randomized playlist conjured an instrumental version of Led Zeppelin’s «Stairway to Heaven.» Petro opened the sunroof and fresh mountain-smell air flowed in. Silent, we only listened and looked in all directions at wonder unfolding.

We were driving into the ancient mystery land of the Hutsuls, where the great director Serhii Parajanov filmed the fantastical Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. We left the sleek road for narrower uphill dirt forest tracks. Now and then in clearings villages appeared, denoted by Greek Catholic churches whose ubiquitous three domes of silver or gold are like masts of grand stationary ships.

«Fantastistic!» said Penny, climbing up on a seat to take pictures through the sunroof. 

We arrived at the sort of place you have to find for yourself. I won’t share the location, but in the Carpathians there are many such places for the finding. The voice of the water (голос води / holos vody), as locals call it, grew louder until we descended, now on foot, to a cabin in a verdant tucked-away glen surrounded by a symphony of rocks and water.

First we scrambled around amid the river rocks and then we drank wine–ah, that first drink of a vacation, when all is fresh and possible – on the chan-deck talking and singing against the soundtrack of the roaring stream. (A «chan» is a woodfired Carpathian herbal hot tub.) 

The great American songwriter Nanci Griffith had just died, so in a sentimental mode, I played her seven-singer ensemble version of «Desperados Waiting for a Train»: «our lives was like some old Western movie,» sang Guy Clark. A sad song, but not sad with friends in such a beautiful place. The water seemed to protect us from the noise and news of the world. That week, the latest disaster in Afghanistan was unfolding.

The next morning, cool and cloudy, we set out for horse-riding, a beautiful winding 90 minute drive. Our cigarette-smoking guide named Yura said I needed to be firm with my horse, Rita. The other three horses followed a straight line but Rita, her mane bedecked with red tassels, wished to wander and snack. This was great. Trot, trot. I could watch: We climbed higher to behold a fantastic view of Hoverla, Ukraine’s highest peak, hovering beyond a Escher-esque replicating spectacle of green glens and evergreens that seemed to sing. Much was on my mind, but here I could let go and live slow and free. 

Ahead I saw my friends, trotting side by side on the horizon like we were in an old Western movie. As I reached them, we dismounted, above a sweeping view of mountains and valleys in undulating shades of green punctuated with villages and those sailing-ship churches. 

«Fantastychno!» I said. «I have rarely seen such a view, maybe never.»

Walking up a steep slope we entered a small one-room cabin: the shop of Babusha, or Grandmother, Anna. Wearing my colorful Hutsul hat, a gift from a friend, I ordered some bottles of beer. One of our guides, who had met us by car, asked in Ukrainian if I wanted samohonka (самогонка), aka moonshine. 

Of course, I said. 

Babusha Anna called me behind the counter and gave me a shot, paid for by the guide. I felt a new life and stepped out into the bright sun. We sat on the hillside to look at the watercolor view.

On the way down, I did something I had never done before: I sang, outside, in public, enjoying the afternoon of trotting, not a care. 

The next day, a chilly grey August one, we drove to go rafting on the river Cheremos. Penny had been opposed to this project, though she came along. Two Saudi Arabians, whose countrymen lately have been visiting Ukraine in droves, joined our raft, along with a guide, Andrii.



On the way down, I did something I had never done before: I sang, outside, in public, enjoying the afternoon of trotting, not a care. 

The next day, a chilly grey August one, we drove to go rafting on the river Cheremos. Penny had been opposed to this project, though she came along. Two Saudi Arabians, whose countrymen lately have been visiting Ukraine in droves, joined our raft, along with a guide, Andrii.

As Andrii shouted commands, Petro and I, in the front, swiftly paddled as we bounced through the rapid river. During a lull, we passed a girl and a German shepherd on the riverbank. Andrii cried out the casual local way of saying hello:

«Slava Isusu Khrystu» («Glory to Jesus Christ»)

The girl responded: «Slava Na viky» («glory forever»). 

What a poetic way to speak, I began to dream – then Bang! Andrii shouted, «right side» – that was me» – go go go, go quickly» – and we were back in the rapids. I paddled like hell, then «right side, go back, go back!»–and then I strained against the tough current and – we were flying. 

That night, the last one, back at the cabin in the glen, in the ubiquitous Ukrainian enclosed octagonal dining hut, we all looked at our self-prepared feast of steak and mushrooms surrounding the fire pit in the middle of the table. We were unusually silent, a little last-night sadness. Petro raised his glass:

«To the four happiest people in Ukraine,» he said. «And: We must remember never to be fake.»

Soon storytelling and laughter competed with the voice of the water winding around us. Olha noted that the day before, singing on my horse, I had «looked like a Looney Tunes character, just happily plodding along and singing,» like one of those characters with birds circling about the head.

«Because I found inspiration,» I said. «It was all … I wish I had another word besides ‘fantastic’ to say, but–»

«But that is why we came here,» Petro said. «So we can keep saying ‘fantastic.’«

The next day, sunny and warm, the villagers in District 13, where we had been residing, ambled about in the traditional vyshyvanka embroidery for the Feast of the Transfiguration. We were embarking on one more adventure.

We returned to the same horses, up the mountain to that watercolor view. I returned to Babusha Anna’s, this time saying «Slava Isusu Khrystu and those buying fruit and veg within, wearing their vyshyvanka, smiled and replied, «Slava na viky.» I tasted more of that sweet samohonka. 

The bells rang out from the nearby church, a gold domed hill-sailing ship. Little figures, people, moved toward it. 

The four of us sat or stood listening to the bells, looking at paths disappearing into the horizon, at the wall of deep dark evergreens, at the little villages and big forests and peaks all the way to Romania. Amid the fresh silence, a flock of birds flew high above us. I heard the flap of the wings, I think, for the first time.

«Listen!» I whispered.

«Fantastychno,» Petro said.

Those birds were not pigeons, but as we left in the car for the scenic drive home, John Prine’s «Clay Pigeons» came on Penny’s playlist. I sang along: 

«I’ll start talking again when I know what to say.»

Driving back to Lviv, through the grand wide rolling Ukrainian Galician fields we sang songs as we faced the sunset in the west, like characters in an old western movie. 

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Previous columns from Joe Lindsley:

In Uzhhorod, «coffee is a power that hold us»

«Why do people start wars?». Lviv stories

United in blues: how music heals. Lviv stories

«People need to be scared of being fake.» Lviv stories

A Carpathian idyll on the river resistance

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