Road cycle Russia
(Illustration by Matt Groller)

Friends forever

In the brave new world of Eastern Europe, a bond forged in adventure�then nearly forgotten�is reborn. Just in time.

Road cycle Russia

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IT’S ONE OF THE GREAT IRONIES OF TRAVEL: You meet someone on a journey, come to know them intimately in just a few hours, then never see them again. You promise to keep in touch, but it seldom happens. When you return home, your own life takes over, and so does theirs. Inevitably, the connection begins to fade.

Road cycle Russia

Road cycle Russia

This summer, while researching a family trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I happened upon a story in City Paper, a Baltic-states online ‘zine, about a new theme park in Lithuania called Stalin World. Surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, with a replica of a human cattle car and a collection of enormous Soviet-era statues, it was said to combine “the charms of Disneyland with the worst of the Soviet gulag prison camp.” I couldn’t imagine a more macabre, yet twistedly appropriate, post-20th-century tourist attraction. Reading the article, I flashed back to the five months I’d spent cycling across the USSR in 1989, and a man I’d met on that trip: Saulius Kunigenas.

I was 30, and part of a seven-person team—three Americans, four Russians (three women, four men). We rode from Vladivostok to Leningrad, sea to sea, 7,500 miles across the largest country on earth. It was the hardest journey of my life—not physically but spiritually.

Two months into the trip, I met Saulius on the shores of Lake Baikal. It was sleeting, and my team spotted a ribbon of smoke in the forest and wheeled off the road to a campfire, around which huddled six Lithuanian cyclists. We shook hands, and they shared their meager food and pushed our shivering bodies toward the warmth of the birch fire. We were kin, members of the fellowship of the wheel.

Saulius was the smallest of the Lithuanians, a sinewy, birdlike man with a hawk nose and burning, white-blue eyes. He and I had an immediate, inexplicable connection. It was as if our friendship were already there, like a set table, just waiting for us to come from the far corners of the world, sit down, and renew a conversation we’d been having for years.

We talked of the surreal Soviet planet we were experiencing: cities with monolithic concrete tenements, only a dirt road leading into and out of town. Bread lines, vegetable lines, vodka lines, but no telephone lines, no newspapers, no magazines. The countless hagiographic statues of Saint Lenin. The Big Brother billboards extolling the virtues of Communism. The KGB trailing us in black Ladas. People so oppressed that they’d lost their dignity.

That evening we all rode together for a stretch, and Saulius and I exchanged bicycles—me struggling along on his heavy, antique velocipede and him piloting my light, modern machine as if it were a glider. While I pounded to keep up with him, Saulius explained to me in broken English the real reason he had come to Siberia: to find the work camp where his wife, Palmira, had been interned as a child.

Deportations of Lithuanians began immediately after the Soviet Union occupied the country, in the summer of 1940. Between 1940 and 1953, Stalin sent some 350,000 Lithuanians to Siberia. Many never returned.

On May 22, 1948, the KGB set a one-day record in Lithuania, arresting 35,766 citizens—10,897 of them children—packing them into cattle cars, and shunting them off to work camps in Siberia. Palmira and her family were victims of this purge. Her grandfather was a successful farmer who owned potato fields, beehives, and a few head of cattle—thus a capitalist, a criminal. Palmira was three, her brother, Remigijus, two. Their father eluded capture, but Palmira and her mother, uncle, grandfather, and brother were deported to the shores of Lake Baikal.

Palmira’s father, living under an assumed name, managed to send them food, and they gardened on small plots. But they had to be careful. Were they found to be improving their lives above the lot of others, they would have been sent even deeper into Siberia.

Nine years later, on April 24, 1957, Palmira and her family were released and allowed to leave. Their stone farmhouse had been seized by the government and was now the residence of a Soviet oligarch, so they lived with friends in Kaunas, a small city in central Lithuania.

Riding beside me, Saulius relayed this story with quiet gravity. The next morning, we exchanged addresses, then he and the Lithuanians rode east along Lake Baikal and my team and I rode west.

It would take us three more months to reach Leningrad and become the first people to bicycle across the USSR. It was such a long journey it wasn’t a journey at all; it was just life. We rode and we ate and we slept, and then we got up and rode and ate and slept. Our bikes became our friends, and we gave them Russian names. Tom Freisem, the leader of the trip, named his Blagorodnaya Sobaka—”Noble Dog.” Torie Scott, the only American female, called hers Zavtra—”Tomorrow.” I named my bike Svabodny—”Free.”

By the time we dipped our front tires into the ice-blue Baltic, fall had come to Russia. It was snowing and we were so exhausted we could have slept for a year. Instead we threw a party, each of us inviting someone who had meant something special to us during our ride. I invited Saulius. We sang hard and drank hard and danced hard as if it were our last night on this earth. It was the end of 1989, and the Soviet Union was imploding.

In the melancholy hours of the morning I gave Saulius my bicycle, Svabodny.

THAT WAS THE LAST time I saw Saulius, but I wrote about him in a book about that trip, Off the Map. Now, remembering our friendship, I pulled it from the shelf and read the opening passage about Saulius:

“Sometimes you meet someone you know.

“You have spent nights together. You’ve camped together beneath the sky and sung songs together and drunk beer in each other’s homes. You have hugged and cried and laughed together. And you’ve never met.

“There are few such people in the world, but they are the ones you will always know and who will always know you. They are living in parts of the world where you haven’t been. They are living lives you cannot know. They have kitchens with bright windows you can’t imagine, where you had coffee. These are the people you meet, and know, before you speak.”

Sixteen years later, my words sounded presumptuous. How could I have felt that I really knew this man? We’d spent so little time together. Were we really that close, or was it just the circumstances?

I was leaving for St. Petersburg in two weeks, on a pianist exchange program for my two daughters. On the off chance they could help, I dialed the University of Wyoming’s international-students department and asked if they knew of anyone in Laramie who spoke Lithuanian. They did: Rimvyda Dreher, a Lithuanian-American who worked as a business manager at the school. Lithuanian was her native tongue.

I explained the task to Rimvyda. I had only his name: Saulius Kunigenas. I didn’t know where he was or even if he was alive. Amazingly, after multiple online searches and a half-dozen dead-end phone calls, Rim found Saulius.

The connection was so staticky she could barely hear him, but she managed to catch an e-mail address. Though it struck me as odd that e-mail didn’t exist when I first met Saulius, I wrote immediately and got a response from Laima Kunigenas, his daughter. I hadn’t even known he had a daughter. She was 24, spoke English, had worked in California, and had just finished her master’s in economics at Kaunas University of Technology. Laima wrote that of course her father remembered me.

“He says for you to come to Lithuania. Bring your bicycle. He will be waiting for you.”

A month later I was on the night train south from St. Petersburg to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, then west to Kaunas, Saulius’s hometown. As I rumbled through flat pine forests in a sleeper, watching the sun sink at midnight then bounce annoyingly back up at 2 a.m., the enterprise suddenly seemed mad.

Would we even recognize each other after so long? And if we did, what would it be like to see each other again? I remembered an agile, athletic man, but what is memory? Mostly what you want to remember, heedless of reality. I’d imagined that perhaps Saulius and I could bicycle across Lithuania, a country the size of West Virginia on the Baltic Sea. But was he even still cycling? So much happens in 16 years. Unnervingly, it occurred to me that I actually knew very little about Saulius. I never knew how old he was or what his profession was. We’d just clicked on an emotional level. Our shared landscape had been the brutal, irrational Soviet empire, but now the USSR was dead.

SAULIUS SPOTTED ME, and I him, the moment I stepped off the train. He ran to me, gripping my hand and hugging me at the same time. He looked just as he had a decade and a half ago—Roman nose, deeply tanned, the wiry body of a Tour de France rider. In the strength of his handshake, I knew that our friendship was still alive. We threw my collapsible bicycle into the backseat of his car and drove to his home.

The awkwardness I’d feared lasted only moments, then we were excitedly shooting questions back and forth, trying to catch up on each other’s lives. He was 55 now, had survived stomach cancer, and was still cycling hard, having logged more than 125,000 miles. He and Palmira had toured Australia, Brazil, Iceland, and most of Western Europe. He was delighted to learn that I too was still cycling, and surprised to discover that I was a journalist, had a wife and two daughters, and had traveled extensively.

“Everything!” Saulius said happily, practically shouting. “Everything different now.”

Even with the rise of computers and the Internet, even with 9/11, Afghanistan, and two Gulf wars, in the past two decades life for ordinary Americans has hardly changed at all, compared with life in Lithuania.

The solemn intensity Saulius had exhibited when I met him in Siberia had been transformed into the energy of hope. Pre-independence, he’d worked in a Russian construction firm as a poorly paid mechanical engineer. Post-independence, he went back to school, got an M.B.A., became a general contractor, and began building small, efficient custom homes in Kaunas. After five years he and Palmira had saved enough to leave their dismal Soviet block apartment and build their own house next to a forest on the outskirts of the city.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d kept Svabodny. Back in 1989, along with the bike, l’d given Saulius a crate of spare parts, so he could have kept it rolling indefinitely—but perhaps it didn’t mean to him what it had meant to me.

Yet there it was, hanging in the garage, perfectly maintained.

“No bike like this in all Lithuania before independence,” said Saulius, explaining that he used to ride Svabodny through Kaunas to show people what was happening beyond the Iron Curtain. After independence, Saulius rode right across the borders, touring through Finland and Germany and all the Baltic states. “I ride and ride. It’s a special bike—your gift to me.”

He reached for Svabodny, I assembled my folding Dahon bike, and we went for a ride. It felt natural to be on bikes together, cruising the streets of Kaunas.

That night, in a kitchen with bright windows, I met his wife, Palmira, a retired professor of textiles, and his daughter, Laima, a fledgling economist. Over after-dinner coffee, conversation inevitably fell to geopolitics.

“The only way to enslave a country,” said Palmira in German, “is to cut off the head. Stalin understood this; that’s why he deported the teachers, the engineers, the government officials, the officers, the successful farmers, the businessmen—all of us.”

More than 20 million people died in the gulag. The post-Stalin decades were less violent, but the intellectual foot-binding continued. In 1986, Gorbachev began the process of liberalization that quickly gave 18 Soviet states their freedom. The new constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, a parliamentary democracy, was ratified by referendum in 1992.

“But that is all past,” Palmira said, smiling at Laima, who will never be sent to Siberia. “Tomorrow you shall see Lithuania today.”

THE NEXT MORNING, just as I’d imagined, Saulius and I rode off on what he dubbed the Democratic Tour of Lithuania. We planned to pedal from Kaunas to the sea and back, a 400-mile loop, camping wherever we found ourselves at the end of the day and living off local markets. From the start, there was an ease to the trip that made me feel as though we’d been touring together since childhood.

That first morning we slid west along the Nemunas River, Saulius showing off the medieval castles and Gothic cathedrals that overlook the sleepy green waterway.

“Lithuania was independent country for 500 years,” he stated proudly from the top of one castle turret.

Under the reign of the Grand Duke Algirdas (1345–1377), the borders of Lithuania had extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. The geographical center of Europe lies in Lithuania, and it has always been a Western-leaning country. Unlike Russia, Lithuania fully embraced the Renaissance. The first book written in Lithuanian was published in 1547, and Vilnius University was founded in 1579.

That night we pitched our tent in a cow pasture. In the morning, we cycled along narrow, tree-lined roads, through brilliant yellow fields of rapeseed, all the way to the coast. A motorboat, owned by a father and son who had started a ferry business after independence, took us out to the Curonian Spit, a 61-mile arm of sand dotted with summer communities. We beach-camped on the Baltic, sand in our gears, the sound of the waves in our ears.

On day three we winged north along the spit from the seaside resort town of Nida (loaded with thick-calved Germans), through the port city of Klaipeda, and on to Palanga (loaded with mayonnaise-skinned Finns). Tourism appeared as buoyant as a beach ball.

In the years since independence, Lithuanians, industrious and entrepreneurial, have made their country the most successful former Soviet republic. Privatization of once nationalized companies is almost complete. Business is thriving, from bioengineering to banking; exports are robust; and in 2004 Lithuania was accepted into the European Union.

Our fourth day out, we circled back inland, visiting the farmhouse of family friends who had also been sent to Siberia in the late forties. When I asked Saulius if any of his family had been deported, he said, “No. My uncle was shot.”

After World War II, during the early years of Soviet control, an armed underground resistance formed in Lithuania. Eventually numbering 100,000 partisans, the movement fought a guerrilla war against Soviet occupation until 1953, when it was finally crushed. Saulius’s uncle had joined the resistance in 1948, at the age of 24, was caught by the KGB, and was later executed in the forest.

That afternoon, Saulius guided me to another remote farm he felt I must see: the gardens of sculptor Vilius Orvidas (1952–1992), a deeply religious, mystical man who devoted his life to opposing the occupation. His farm was a strange labyrinth of gargantuan logs and monumental religious and Communist sculptures, the antithesis of the Stalin World theme park. On one heavy slab of black granite, Orvidas had depicted the USSR as a giant spider, its hairy legs reaching into Europe, Asia, and Siberia. Across the top of the rock was inscribed communism is the sorrow of the world.

On the last day, looping back into Kaunas, we rode together without talking, mile after mile. We were in unison, and words were redundant. Just riding together again, after so many years, was enough.

Outside of Kaunas, Saulius took me by the castlelike home of a mafia boss, explaining that prostitution, corruption, and drug use have increased in Lithuania in the past decade.

“It is one small bad side of capitalism,” Saulius said exuberantly. “But at least we have independence!”

The night before I left Lithuania, Saulius and I stayed up talking. I invited him to the U.S., to my home in Wyoming. I told him about Yellowstone and Devils Tower, the mountains and the deserts.

“Finally,” Saulius said softly, “I can come.”

After we went to bed, I sneaked into Saulius’s garage and took down Svabodny. With yellow, green, and red paint—the colors of Lithuania’s flag—I painted a new name along the top tube: LAISVÉ… “Freedom” in Lithuanian.

I wish this story ended here.

The next morning, Saulius had a stroke. I found him in the garage lying on the concrete below Laisvé. I cradled him until the ambulance came. Palmira would not let me stay. I had a plane ticket back to the U.S., and she insisted I return home to my own family. Saulius is in rehab now, and it is uncertain whether he will bike again.

Even deep friendships are fragile. Someone you met on a journey years ago is out there. The friendship is not lost, only dormant, waiting for the spark of contact. Go. Find that person.

From Outside Magazine, Oct 2005
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Lead Photo: Illustration by Matt Groller

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