by Jennifer B-C Seaver (Iran 1966–68)
This essay was first published December 6, 2005 on the blog of PeaceCorpsWriters.org
DURING THE TWO YEARS THAT I SERVED in Iran as an English teacher in the 1960s, travel was strenuous, most routes, unpaved, and communications, almost impossible. People often showed up — or didn’t, even when they had written ahead to say they were coming. So, in September 1966, when Tom Dawson and David Osterberg failed to arrive in Rasht, Gilan, as planned, I was not particularly concerned. Tom had written that they planned to spend a night in Ardabil, then catch another bus down the scenic Astara road, which drops thousands of feet to the shores of the Caspian Sea and, if all went well, they’d arrive in Rasht by nightfall. The next day, we’d go on to our workshop in Isfahan.
I had traveled that road earlier in the summer and knew firsthand about the barbed-wire fences and sentry towers along the steppes of Russia. However, in the fishing village of Astara, where the two men had to change buses, only the shallow Aral River defines the border between Iran and the USSR.
When David finally reached Isfahan, he was shaken up and under strict orders not to reveal Tom’s whereabouts. As we learned later, Russian soldiers had apprehended his friend outside Astara en route to Rasht. After Tom was arrested, Russian authorities transported him to Baku, (in what was then Russian Azarbaijan) and held him for three weeks. Although the government imposed a news blackout in Iran, this Cold War incident made front-page news in the New York Times.
After three long weeks, the American Ambassador in Moscow successfully negotiated Tom’s release. My friend walked freely across the border, only to learn that the Iranian government had declared him persona non grata.
Needless to say, when I found myself lost in the mountains of Wyoming last summer, I credited my safe return to Peace Corps training where we had been taught to keep cool in unpredictable circumstances.
Three years ago, I journeyed back to Iran with a group of fellow RPCVs. On this trip, we rode in comfortable air-conditioned buses on smooth highways and our tour guide used his cell phone to confirm hotel reservations. But just like the earlier days when I was still fumbling in Farsi, communications sometimes were lacking. One night, for example, a member of our group got locked out of her hotel room (part of a suite.) Although she had a key to the inner door, she couldn’t get past the outer door. She asked me to call down to the front desk for her. I did so in sorely lacking Farsi. The man replied in English: “I will … the bell man and he will … the door for you.” Happily, someone came upstairs a few minutes later to let her into her room.
I had been thinking about Iran when my husband and I started out at the Christina Lake trailhead in the Wind Rivers mountain range of Wyoming last summer. We are experienced hikers and Paul was carrying a topographical map as well as a trail description. As usual, I had my compass. We ate an early lunch at the wilderness boundary where 2 trails lead up the mountain – one to Christina Lake and the other to Silas Lake. So far, so good. I stopped at Upper Silas Lake to rest while he climbed further into the canyon. It was about 1:30 p.m. and he promised to be back by 4 since it was only a few miles more up to the end of the trail.
Sometime after 4 p.m., I decided to start down. I’d already done a couple of puzzles, eaten my apple, and changed to a more comfortable spot in plain sight. I’d also gazed at the blue sky, identified the trees around me, listened to birdcalls, and watched a rushing stream below my outcropping. I finally wrote him a note, which I left in the middle of the trail pinned down by rocks so anyone could find it.
On the way down, I met a backpacker who reported, “Paul says he’ll meet you at the car.” That was reassuring because it meant he was ahead of me. But twice I got off the main trail. I had to cross a roaring stream on some precarious logs. A swift jog back up the steep grade took most of my drinking water. Then I made yet another wrong turn. Now I had only ¼ of a liter left for the long hike out. However, I saw a lake ahead. Was this Christina Lake? If so, I’d get my bearings. In spite of traveling its full length, I found no trail that headed up to the point where we had eaten lunch. Once again, I’d have to retrace my steps back up the mountain. When I finally caught sight of the sign at the wilderness boundary, I wanted to hug it!
Then I saw the double-blazed blue trail and the red cross-country ski symbols we had followed earlier in the day. Once again, as the two trails diverged. I chose the blue trail. That led me to a large marshy meadow. This was not the right route! I finally reached a campground where a young girl sat at a picnic table. “Is there a driver around who can take me back to the trailhead?” I asked her. By now, my husband was waiting for me just as I had once awaited Tom Dawson and David Osterberg in Rasht, Iran.
Two fellow hikers were there as well. One had already searched the campground; the other was ready to hike up to a high point to use his cell phone and call for help if the need arose.Like Peace Corps volunteers, hikers are always ready to help.
Some day I hope to go back to Iran. But this time, my husband will be at my side.
In 2004, Jennifer published Journeys: A Novel of Iran.