The week before any trip to Mongolia, I start to exist in a liminal space, in which time and outlook are skewed, a bubble that encompasses the place where anticipation, nostalgia, and panic crash into each other with unrepentant ferocity. I love Mongolia, I love my research, I love adventure, but there is a significant inertia that drags at me with the demands of having to reorganize my cultural mind, my primary language orientation, my living arrangements, and my entire social life. During this liminal week, I develop a subdued sort of hedonism that is entirely absent from my life at any other time. I voraciously eat fruits and vegetables; I soak in the bathtub for hours, reading The New Yorker; I dress in my fanciest clothes just to run to the grocery store; and I sleep, as intentionally as one can do anything while unconscious, luxuriating in a comfortable mattress, real pillows, and soft bedding. Baths, bedding, fruits and vegetables, and dress-up opportunities being substantially absent through most of Mongolia, I guess that these small indulgences are reasonable, but in the 48 hours before leaving, they assume a disproportionate importance, as if I cannot possibly bear to leave them.
Then, somewhere in line at the airport, usually after I’ve cleared security, the switch flips and the liminal space retreats into the distance and I’m fully engaged in whatever adventure I’m embarking on.
This morning at 4:30, reality hit in the Bozeman airport when I stumbled through the door and saw my fellow Mongolian Wolverine Ski Expedition team members hauling a mountain of bright red dry bags, ski bags, and backpacks towards a check-in counter manned by a woman who was trying to look stoic about the impending task of sorting through all this luggage. Suddenly I was elbow deep in energy bars and dehydrated food, sorting and rearranging weight, shifting heavy items to my carry-on bag, and desperately wishing for some caffeine. On the ride to the airport, I’d stared out at the lights of town and thought, “I cannot believe that we are really doing this. What the hell possessed me, to think that skiing 400 miles across northern Mongolia in spring was a good idea?” By the time the plane took off and my fellow team members – wolverine biologist Jason Wilmot, adventure geographer Forrest McCarthy, and Gregg Treinish, director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation – pulled out maps of the Darhad, we were so elated about the prospect of the trip that bleary-eyed passengers requested that we tone it down, 6:00 a.m. being apparently too early for proximity to unfettered enthusiasm. Still, the switch had been flipped, from backward-looking to forward-looking, from anxiety to excitement.