We got lost because we refused to turn around and go back the way we came. As the sky let out a heavy sigh and began to pour my friend turned to me and said, “At least we’ll have a story to tell.” The clouds had drifted over the fields without us noticing. We had stolen some apricots off a low hanging tree so that hunger wouldn’t call us home and took off into the village streets on our bicycles.
I have often thought of my grandmother’s town as a village because it had been the smallest and quietest place I had lived in. It was only years later, when I exhausted my curiosity on the cobbled streets of the next hamlet over, that I realized her little community was really a solid township. Lokhvytsya’s maze of roads and trails have always beckoned to me.
Growing up I spent many summers playing in the streets of my grandmother’s sleepy town. I use to imagine grand quests that would take me onto the pathways between the houses, climbing onto the rusted wrecks of old tractors as though conquering mountains. My friend, whose friendship came down to me like an heirloom on my mother’s side, had been my summer companion for as long as I could remember. Together we had explored all the nooks and crannies in our neighbourhood that could fit the curiosity of a child. Once we learned how to manage the large awkward frames of adult bicycles the borders of our world became little more than faded chalk lines on the pavement.
I feel like half my childhood went by on bicycles. When I was young my mother used to sit me side-saddle onto the rear carrier of the bike and I would hold onto her seat as we swayed into momentum. She always told me not to swing my feet or they would get caught in the wheel and I learned this lesson the way all children do, the hard way. After one unfortunate incident that added new bruises to my already motley legs I learned to sit still.
I don’t remember the tricycle era although it undoubtedly happened. Switching over to my grandmother’s old bike was a challenging lesson in getting on and off a seat which left my feet dangling high over the ground. Biking became an extension of my imagination — it could take me away from familiar grounds.
My friend and I mapped the town by bicycle. There wasn’t a road we didn’t try, whether paved or cobbled or simply dirt tracks running through the grass. We careened carelessly down hills that veered sharply around rivers, ducking under low hanging willow branches. I had once flown straight through a curve in the path and into a tree, its thick trunk saving me from diving head first into the water. Our trips often took us through the pine forest behind the city center, where the tall trees crowded together awkwardly like lost children huddling for comfort. These were all familiar places, revisited each summer, reaffirmed in our memory.
We knew the main street with the tiny shops and dodgy bars that never emptied of its denizens, the muted trails in the woods that came out to the river where women flocked their geese, our neighbourhood roads with the colourful fences and faces of onlookers, even the trails behind the old cemetery were no mystery to us. Finally, one day we decided to try something new entirely, taking an old battered road out of town, past the stomping grounds of our childhood.
Our adventure did not have the most auspicious beginning. When we turned onto the street that traces the outer contour of Lokhvytsya a small brown mutt came running at our bikes. He barked and snapped at the wheels. Panicking we pumped our legs as fast we could, bringing our feet up off the pedals when the dog got too close with his teeth. After two blocks he stopped chasing us and just stood smugly in the middle of the street as we biked away.
These sorts of encounters aren’t all that rare in Ukraine. Dogs in small towns are not usually kept as family pets but rather as guard dogs. If you see one running loose on the street you had better hope it belongs to someone and isn’t a stray. Guard dogs may not be friendly but mostly they just bark viciously for posterity as you pass by their territory. Strays are unpredictable — they chase all manner of moving objects, even trucks, and occasionally they fall into packs, roaming the streets like wild dogs. We weren’t strangers to overzealous dogs but it’s hard not to panic a little when one comes running at you snarling.
As we left civilization behind us the spaced out houses eventually gave way to fields of oats and barley. During the Soviet era Ukraine had been known as the breadbasket of the USSR and looking onto the vibrancy of the countryside it was easy to see why. Trees lined parts of the road and the overhanging branches formed tunnels of green. These short stretches of shade never lasted long and we biked mostly under the heat of the mid-noon sun. When we crested our first hill we could see the tin rooftops of Lokhvytsya shining in the distance.
The road we were on went behind the fields that we had already grown familiar with from another street leading out of town. We thought that this road would eventually loop back around onto familiar territory. Unfortunately this baseless assumption was the extent of our plan. We biked further and further but with the exception of the occasional dirt tracks into pastures no side roads appeared. Just as we started to realize that we were in the middle of nowhere, going nowhere, we felt raindrops on our shoulders.
Within seconds it began to pour. When you’re lost on a road with an unbroken horizon and life decides to do you one better and brings down rain, there is only one thing you can do. My friend and I burst out laughing. We got off the bikes, took off our shoes and walked on the hot pavement as rain washed away the dust from the road. A few cars passed us by, people returning from the fields after a hard day’s work, and one stopped to ask us if we needed help. They drove off with a confused backwards glance when we told them we were just fine.
We must have been an odd sight, walking our bicycles barefoot through the rain, kilometers from the closest town. As the rain lessened to a drizzle we turned around to go home. There is a word called “petrichor” which means “the scent of dry earth after rain” and everywhere around us the land was saturated with it. We never did find out where the road led but the experience has remained untouched in my memory, preserved like a flower in a book. Now whenever it rains on a hot day I am reminded of warm pavement under my soles and the smell of hay.