Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


Mongolian Language Maze: Consonants We Don’t Have

One of the immediate difficulties of learning Mongolian – after tackling the unfamiliar Cyrillic characters – is the presence of a number of sounds that just don’t exist in English. For a beginner, it’s often difficult to hear and identify these sounds, much less reproduce them. A simple phrase like “Aнгли хэлний багш байгаа юу?” (Angli khelni bagsh baigaa you?, or Is there an English teacher here?) become unreasonably terrifying when you’re suddenly faced with an array of hissy, guttural sounds you don’t normally equate with speech. Once you actually learn to recognize these sounds, though, things get a lot easier.

Below, for your pronunciation practicing pleasure, is a list of some of the trickier sounds in the Mongolian language maze.

(Headings format: Cyrillic letter, /the most closely associated English phoneme/, [representation in the International Phonetic Alphabet], English transcription. Confused by the brackets? Linguists use square brackets to enclose speech sounds and slashes to enclose phonemes, or meaningful sounds. In this post, that means that “s” is written as [s] when I mean the sound and /s/ when I mean the letter or concept.)

Х, /h/, [x]; transcribed kh or h

I was familiar with this sound before attempting to learn Mongolian, having grown up hearing words like challahtuchus, and chutzpah (not to mention Chanukah),  but many English  speakers aren’t. It’s a velar fricative – a sound made at the back of your throat by allowing air through a channel so narrow it causes a lot of turbulence. (Examples: [f,s,z] are all fricatives; so are [ð] and [ө], the /th/ sounds.)  Most of us have come across this sound at some point (who hasn’t heard of Bach?), and it’s not particularly hard to make. In standard transcription, though, it’s rendered as kh to represent its difference from the English /h/, and this causes problems for innumerable tourists who insist on pronouncing the k.

When saying words like Darkhan, just throw in a little extra vibration at the back of your throat for the /h/; if you can’t manage that, just say it like a normal English /h/. You’ll sound a lot less silly than that tourist asking how to get to “Dar-con.”

Ц, /ts/, [ts]; transcribed ts

Alright, so this one’s sort of cheap, because we have the [ts] sound in English even if we don’t have a single letter for it: Pittsburgh. Cheats. Gutsy. Pizza – well, close enough. You get the idea. The problem is that English does not allow syllables, much less words, beginning with [ts], and Mongolian has plenty. As a result, English speakers will pronounce one sound but not the other when saying a word that starts with ц, rendering цамц as “tamts” and цагаан as “sagaan.”

(Цагаан is difficult to say even for those who can manage the word-initial [ts], as the Mongolian /г/ is realized in a number of unfamiliar ways to which I’ll devote a separate post.)

Р, /r/, [r]; transcribed r

It’s not a /p/, and it’s not the flat American /r/ either; that one’s represented as [ɹ] in most dialects. The Mongolian /r/ is trilled, like its Spanish or Italian counterparts. Since I speak neither of those languages, I hadn’t had a whole lot of practice trilling my /r/s  before I left for Mongolia. Needless to say, I’ve gotten a lot better in the past year and a half! I still can’t trill them without a vowel first, but luckily for me, most Mongolians have the same problem – that’s why the Mongolian word for Russia is Орос, or Oros.

Л, /l/, [ɬ]; transcribed l

Though л is always transcribed as l when using the Roman alphabet, the Mongolian /l/ sounds nothing like what we’d expect it it. It’s a hissy sound English-speaking friends have mistaken for /s/ or /t/, but that they never equate to /l/, and probably wouldn’t unless they spoke Welsh. The English [l] is a voiced lateral approximant; the Mongolian [ɬ] is an alveolar lateral fricative that Wikipedia says is technically voiced, though I’ve never heard it said that way and wouldn’t know how to voice it if I tried.

If the linguistic terms are meaningless to you, try this: put your tongue where you normally would to make the /l/ sound, between your front teeth and the alveolar ridge just behind them. Move the tip of your tongue behind that ridge, closer to your palate, and flare the sides outward a little. Blow air around the sides of your tongue without making your vocal cords vibrate. That’s the elusive Mongolian /l/.

Interested in the language I’ve spent the past 15 months trying to wrap my tongue around? More posts to come on the subject, under the Language Notes category. Also, I’d love some feedback on the readability of this post – I’m trying to make it approachable to those unfamiliar to the field of linguistics without losing the specificity of technical language.

It occurs to me that I haven’t actually written about the Cyrillic alphabet yet. If you’re unfamiliar with it, check out Polly’s post on the Russian alphabet over at A Girl and Her Travels – that should tide you over until I can write something about Mongolian Cyrillic, which is only slightly different.

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I am Thankful

My yoga teacher ended today’s class with the following quotation: “Happiness comes when we stop complaining about the troubles we have and are thankful for the ones we don’t.” And so, rather than writing another post about the difficulties of readjusting to life in America, I’d like to take today’s post to give thanks for the good things about being back. Conclusion to the hiking story to come soon, I promise.

I am thankful to be home for this, my favorite major holiday, which I so hated missing last year. I am thankful to have been able to get here while the trees were still awash with color and the grass startlingly green. I’m thankful to once more be able to taste the full flavors of the season in all their glory, without endless searching for unsatisfying substitutes.

I am thankful to have spent the past weekend in the company of many old friends from all over the country, dancing until  ridiculous hours to some of the best musicians in the genre. I’m thankful to once more have this outlet for my energy and creativity, without which my sanity suffered greatly during my time in Mongolia.

I am thankful that I flew through LAX on Monday, and not during the shooting that took place there four days later. And I’m thankful that my friend’s brother-in-law, who was shot in the leg during that event, has since returned home from the hospital.

I am thankful for all the things I’ve learned not to take for granted in the past year and a half: paved roads, running water, stable currency, washing machines, the availability of exotic foods and a wide variety of spices. I’m thankful to live in a city that doesn’t poison the air with toxic smog, and that I no longer have to worry about heavy metals in my drinking water.

I am thankful that, for the first time since I before I went to Mongolia, my brother and I are both home for Thanksgiving, and that we’ll be flying him back from Japan again for Christmas. I’m thankful that he’s so far gotten through jump school without injury despite starting with a sprained ankle, and I’m especially thankful that we’ve started actually talking in the past few months.

My life right now is largely without direction, and that’s a difficult place to be. But I’m grateful for the friends and family who are supporting me while I work that out. I am grateful not just for the troubles I don’t have, but for the many blessings I do.


Yanaa, Yasaa, Yahtzee: The Three Яs of Life in Mongolia

Я, or ya: a letter not present in the Latin alphabet, but the beginning of several important phrases that I used regularly during my time in Mongolia.


A phrase that roughly translates to oh no. Spill your suutei tsai? Miss the bus? Drop a folder that sends a sheaf of papers flying every which way? Forced to pick up a ton of cards because you can’t beat them while playing huzur? Express your dismay with a sigh of, “oh, yanaa.”

While it’s generally regarded as a “girly” phrase, I’ve definitely heard men use it as well. Yanaa is one of the first phrases I learned in Mongolian – because, alas, I picked up on the useless filler that everyone uses constantly faster than, y’know, the vocabulary I actually needed for day-to-day life. But at least it made me feel more culturally integrated: Mongolian friends applauded my use of the phrase, and strangers expressed surprise and delight at hearing a Westerner use one of their words for such a universal sentiment.

My American friends and I even used it when talking to each other, so of course it’s carried over into my everyday speech even now that I’m back in America. So if you hear me sigh it, now you know what it means. Though chances are you’d figure it out without the explanation: context and inflection usually make this one pretty obvious.


Another  phrase I picked up before without actually learning its spelling or literal meaning. Yasaa is a shortened form of yasan be, and Mongolians use it as we would what’s up? or what happened? The full form, yasan be?  (“yah-sun bay”), is another easy one to figure out; when I asked it of a non-Mongolian-speaking friend after witnessing her start and squeak at something I couldn’t see, she replied that she had spilled something on herself without me needing to translate.

Yasaa‘s a little harder to figure out, though. For one thing, the two sounds lost in the truncation are the grammatical markers a low-level speaker is most likely to recognize: the past tense suffix -сан (-san), and the question particle бэ (be). Even without contextual clues to help, it’s obvious to anyone who knows even the rudiments of Mongolian language structure that ясан бэ? is a question about something that happened in the past. Without the -сан and the бэ, though, all you’re left with is an unfamiliar syllable that could mean anything.

For another, it’s used more broadly than the English what happened?. English speakers ask this question as a response to an obvious indication that something has just happened, and often we use it interchangeably with what’s wrong?. We don’t typically answer the telephone by asking “what happened?” But Mongolians, when picking up their cell phones, often skip over Байна уу? (baina uu; are you there?) and just open with “yassa?”


This one’s exactly what you think it is. I’d never played Yahtzee before I went to Mongolia; while I like board games, this one just didn’t sound interesting. But when the Internet is too slow for streaming and downloads can take an entire day, or the only available screen is too small for eight people to watch a movie on it, or electricity is unreliable, you spend a lot of time on pastimes my generation has largely foregone, and you don’t quibble about which ones sound boring. Board and card games are not relegated to “game nights” that are considered a throwback-type rejection of electric amusement; they’re standard group activities. Between the eight Americans in Erdenet, we had Apples to Apples, Scrabble, Phase 10, Set, Yahtzee, and Cards Against Humanity (in addition to innumerable decks of standard playing cards). Since it was A) not limited to  certain number of players, B) playable even by those with limited English, and C) conducive to continued conversation, we played a lot of Yahtzee.

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Accent Challenge

My thanks to Polly for posting a challenge that both interested me and gave me an extra few days to write the conclusion to my hiking fiasco story! I find language endlessly interesting; I like to know how words are used, where they came from, what influences our word choices… the list goes on. So of course I wanted to join this examination of language variety. The challenge is posted below the video, along with a few additions of my own.

My own accent background, since I neglected to address it in the video: I’ve spent most of my life in the Chicago suburbs, and while I don’t think I sound like a stereotypical Chicagoan, my friends in Ohio have told me that there are times when I do. I went to college in southeastern Ohio, which had very little influence on my speaking, though it did teach me that it was impolite to flinch when people said things like, “the dishes need washed” or, “the floor needs swept.” Apparently it’s a valid construction in Ohio English. I also spent three months in Ireland in college, which definitely instilled a few Britishisms in my speech.

(Yes, I used ‘yoink’ as a verb. At least to me, it’s of onomatopoeic origin: it’s the sound my friends and I use when snagging something that belongs to someone else. And then the sound effect became a verb.)

The Challenge:

  • Pronounce the following words:
    • Aunt
    • Roof
    • Route
    • Theatre (theater, if it shows movies)
    • Iron
    • Salmon
    • Caramel
    • Fire
    • Water
    • New Orleans
    • Pecan
    • Both
    • Again
    • Probably
    • Alabama
    • Lawyer
    • Coupon
    • Mayonnaise
    • Pyjamas (pajamas!)
    • Caught
    • Naturally
    • Aluminium (aluminum!)
    • Doorknob
    • Envelope
    • Nucleus
    • Washing
    • Tomato
    • Where
    • Often
    • Greasy
    • Columbus
    • Minnesota
    • Police
    • Ask
    • Pen
    • Bag
    • Marry, merry, Mary
  • Answer the following questions:
    • What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
    • What is a bubbly carbonated drink called?
    • What do you call gym shoes?
    • What do you call your grandparents?
    • What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
    • What is the thing you change the TV channel with?
    • What do you call a large open metal container for water?
    • To carry groceries home, you put them in a ….
    • What do you call window coverings on rollers?
    • What do you call the glowing insects that kids catch and put in jars?
    • When waiting to check out your groceries, you stand __ line.
    • If your living room is messy, before company comes you…
    • If you’re talking to a group of friends, what do you call them?
    • It’s a quarter ___ five.
    • When the little girl started drowning, the lifeguard ______ into the pool.
    • What do you call the contraption that you drink water from?
    • Do you think you have an accent?

So, dear readers, please feel free to take up this challenge yourselves! I’d love to hear all your lovely accents.

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The Legend of the Seven Gods

I talked about constellations with some of my more advanced students this summer, and we looked at the legends about Cassiopeia and Orion. It’s hard to explain to them the extent to which classical culture underpins the western world, since Mongolia’s history is so very different. But they were more familiar with the Greek gods than I had expected – some of them referenced “Hercules” (the Disney version), while others mentioned Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Not exactly authoritative sources on Greek mythology, but still better than nothing.

I picked the topic of stars because I like their universality. We all look up at the night sky and connect the dots to draw pictures – sometimes the same pictures, and sometimes different ones. The stories behind the constellations have lost a lot of their importance to Western culture (I say, though it clearly isn’t monolithic as I’m implying it to be), but we know they’re there, even if most of us couldn’t explain why Scorpio chases Orion around the night sky, without ever sharing it with him.

Naturally, I ended this class with one of my favorite activities: Now You Tell Me. I like giving my students a chance to be the teachers, as it gives me a chance to learn about Mongolian culture while they practice their English. I wasn’t sure how much overlap to expect when I asked if any of the Mongolian constellations are the same as ours, but it exists. The Big Dipper appears to be a pretty universal constellation: they picked it out straight off, though it’s apparently called “the seven gods” in Mongolian. Here, in their own words, is the legend that accompanies it.

Ones upon a time there were orphan eight boys lived. The monster stole the king’s queen. Then king was sad. King called the eight boys then “If one of you can rescue my queen, I will give my golden arrow”. The boys together rescue the queen. They fought with the monster for 2 days and 3 nights. Finally they could kill the monster. The boys sent king’s queen. King couldn’t cut the golden arrow so he shot to the sky then he told “who is first one of you he will the own of the golden arrow”. The youngest boy took the golden arrow he changed to north star. The brothers changed to 7 gods.


Not the most poetic or detailed retelling of a myth I’ve ever heard, but fascinating nonetheless. Apparently the monster was some sort of bird, though that seems not to have made it into their typed draft. Were they native speakers, we’d be having some discussions about the known-new contact, among other grammatical issues, but as they’re Mongolian teenagers, we’ll grant them some slack.

So if you currently reside in or are of a culture that a) recognizes the Big Dipper/the Plough/Ursa Major (yes, that’s slightly different, but we’ll count it) and b) calls it a name other than those previously listed, please share: what’s the story behind these stars and how they came to be there?


And I thought Wisconsin was obsessed with dairy!

If I had only ten words with which to describe Mongolia and its people, the second word to make it onto that list (after hospitable) would be resourceful. Whether they are fixing things, staying warm, finding entertainment, or just feeding themselves off of the little their land gives them, Mongolians excel at making do with very little.

Take milk, for instance. Mongolians, historically, are herders, and their animals offer them sustenance in two forms: meat and milk. Traditionally, these two food groups were divided between the seasons; meat was eaten primarily in the winter, when it keeps better and when its nutritional value (and fat) is most needed. The summer diet centered around milk products – and not just the ones you’d expect, either.

Mongolians make hundreds of different kinds of dairy products. I’ve asked colleagues, friends and students for an approximate number but have yet to receive one; ubiquitously, they tilt their heads in consideration, then shrug their shoulders and offer one word in response: many. Here is a long, but far from exhaustive, list of what are collectively known as цагаан идээ, or white foods [1].

  • Сүү (suu) – Milk. It holds immense symbolic importance in addition to its many practical uses and is used in a number of ceremonies. That I don’t like milk seemed to strike most of the Mongolians I talked to as blasphemy, or at least baffling. It’s not just cow’s milk, either; Mongolians milk a wide variety of animals. People in the northern parts of the country milk yaks; in the south, camels. The Tsaatan, a minority group living in the taiga near Khuvsgul lake, milk their reindeer. Herders everywhere milk their horses, too, though horse milk is only used to make very specific products. I’ve never heard of Mongolians milking their sheep or goats, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Gobi-dwelling people too poor to afford camels milked their goats.
  • Сүүтэй цай (suutei tsai) – Literally tea with milk, it’s probably the most ubiquitous of the milk-based foods, even more so than milk itself. Most Mongolian households seem to have a thermos full of hot milk tea on hand at all times, and the host will pour you a bowl of it the moment you’ve stepped inside. It’s more milk than tea – just enough green tea to darken it a shade or two. Most Mongolians will also add salt – a lot in the colder aimags, and none at all in some others. They may also add butter or some other fatty milk product in the winter, since whole milk obviously isn’t fatty enough.
    • Variations: In my visit to Bayan-Ulgii, which is primarily populated by Kazakh people, I learned that I much prefer Kazakh milk tea to Mongolian. It’s unsalted and more tea-y.
  • Уураг (uurag) – Colostrum, or the first milk of the year, which I’m told is so heavy with protein that it’s more gel-like than liquid in consistency.
  • Тараг (tarag) – Yogurt, though of a thinner consistency than most of what we’re accustomed to in the States. Kefir might be a more fitting equivalent. It is typically unflavored and unsweetened, and it can be purchased from food stores or made at home. As with milk and airag, most city-dwelling Mongolians seem to prefer the homemade kind, which they purchase from countryside people selling it on the street.

    A typical Mongolian breakfast. Image courtesy of Dr. Jimmy Tan via mycitycuisine.org

  • Зөөхий (zuukhii) – Cream.
  • Өрөм (urum) – Clotted cream, essentially. When fresh milk is boiled for a while and then left to cool overnight, it separates. The fat rises to the top and hardens as it cools, creating a layer solid enough to be peeled off the surface of the remaining milk but soft enough to be spread with a spoon. It’s often spread on bread in lieu of butter and then sprinkled with sugar for a typical Mongolian breakfast.
  • Хусам (khusam) – The denser, more highly-cooked parts of the pot used to make өрөм, which settle to the bottom. Mongolians will eat this straight out of the pot. According to one of my former coworkers, it’s delicious but makes you gain weight like crazy.
  • Хайлмаг. Image source: “United Nations of Food”

    Хайлмаг (khailmag) – A dish made by frying urum with flour and sugar until the oil separates. It’s often served with raisins. Mongolians regard it as a real treat, and a lot of Americans like it as well, but I didn’t find the cheesy sweetness particularly palatable. Then again, I don’t like cheesecake either.

  • Ааруул (aaruul) – Dried milk curds, which many Mongolians treat both as candy and as their snack food of choice. After draining the whey, nomadic families squeeze out as much liquid as they can and work the remaining curd into a wide variety of shapes, which they set on pans atop their gers to dry in the sun. Some varieties are sweetened, others not. I have yet to find a kind of aaruul that I truly enjoy, but there are an awful lot to choose from: brittle, semi-soft spirals, sweetened disks pressed into the shape of a flower, long and short tubes, dark, jaw-cracking slabs called ээзгий (eezgii). Those too hard to gnaw on are often dipped in milk or soaked in hot water, which is then drunk.
  • Шар тос, цагаан тос (shar tos, tsagaan tos) – Yellow and white oil, respectively. Despite being called ‘oil,’ these fats solidify after they are rendered from other milk products. Tsagaan tos is white because milk curds have been added to the fat. These fats can be eaten, cooked with, or used in ceremonial candles.
  • Нэрмэл архи/монгол архи (nermel arkhi, or Mongol arkhi) – Often called Mongolian vodka in English. This liquor is made by distilling yogurt, something I hadn’t realized was possible. I’ve never seen it sold in stores – just in the repurposed plastic two-liter bottles used by herder families. It’s much gentler than vodka, only about 10-15% alcohol, but the soured milk flavor is intense.
  • Аарц (aarts) – The boiled yogurt used to make nermel arkhi, which is then itself eaten hot as a special treat. I’ve never tried it, since I find the mere odor nauseating, but Mongolians love it. We always had to be careful when purchasing white cake or ice cream to make sure they weren’t aarts-flavored!
  • Айраг (airag) – Fermented mare’s milk. This one’s worthy of its own blog post, so I’ll get cracking on that. No Mongolian celebration is complete without it, and it’s drunk in large quantities at Naadam and Tsagaan Sar, the two major holidays. When I first arrived in Mongolia, I found it distasteful, but not nearly so much as I’d expected; by the time I left, I was actually starting to like it. It’s sour, but not in a milk-gone-bad sort of way. Just… sour. With the color and texture of milk.
  • Хоормог (khoormog) – Similar to airag, but made from camel milk. The khoormog I tried in the Gobi was thicker than airag and cheesier in both taste and texture – like a very thin, sour ricotta. I was not a particular fan.

The glaring omission from this list is cheese. Mongolians do make a sort of cheese, which they call бяслаг (byaslag), but it has little in common with Western-style cheese. It’s curdled with milk acid rather than cultured, which means it’s basically just pressed milk curd. That’s what it tastes like, too – congealed milk. Mongolians don’t have a tradition of hard or aged cheeses the way Europe does. You can buy cheese in the larger grocery stores, but most of it’s imported from Russia, and it’s expensive: a kilo of gouda was between 15 and 20 thousand tugriks when I left – 2.5 to 3 times the price of beef!

My (utterly speculative and un-researched) theory on this absence is that cheese has two main advantages: it stores longer, and it has less lactose, which makes it easier to digest for those who lack the gene for lactase persistence, or the ability to digest milk beyond childhood. (Contrary to common Western perception, lactase persistence, globally speaking, is the rule rather than the exception.) But since milk is historically such a staple in Mongolia, lactase persistence is necessary here, which renders one of those advantages obsolete. And with so many other ways to store milk, not to mention an entire country that turns itself into a freezer for five months of the year, the Mongols never needed to invent cheese.

Which is a shame, because cheese is delicious. And as much as I admired the Mongolians for their many inventive and resourceful uses of milk, I never learned to like most of the things they made with it.


  1. While цагаан идээ are usually referred to as “white foods” in English, that phrase comes out as цагаан хоол when translated back into Mongolian – and it means “vegetarian food,” not “dairy products.” Цагаан идээ = dairy, цагаан хоол = meatless.
  2. Most of this is information is common knowledge in Mongolia and was explained to me by various Mongolians. Obviously not a very scientific method of research, with much room for error and competing methods/definitions. When memory failed, or when I’d never learned the specifics, I supplemented my hearsay research with Mongolia Today: Science, Environment, and Development
  3. As always, the Latin-alphabet names are a transliteration, not a pronunciation guide. Хайлмаг/khailmag, for instance, is pronounced more like “chalmag,” with a very clipped /g/ and the Hebrew /ch/ sound in chutzpah or challah. And a totally alien /l/. But Mongolian phonics are another subject altogether.



“How does it feel to be home?” It feels like I’m sixteen again.

Reverse culture shock has thus far manifested as a newfound appreciation of things I used to take for granted, and a newfound love of driving has claimed a spot at the forefront. Very ‘Murican of me, I’m sure. Generally, I’m a proponent of environmentally conscious options like biking, walking, and mass transit. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a little in love with being behind the wheel.

On Saturday, for instance, I drove downtown to visit a friend. Due to an accident on the Kennedy, the GPS told me to get off the highway MUCH earlier than I otherwise would have, and I found myself dealing with city traffic and stop lights. It took me at least an hour longer than it should have to reach my friend’s apartment; the trip probably took longer than it would have if I’d just toughed out the highway traffic. I sat in almost-unmoving traffic for several blocks and over five minutes to get through one light that needed, but did not have, a protected left turn.

And yet the experience was, overwhelmingly, a positive one. I had my own seat, rather than sharing it with at least one other person. I had control over the radio, and I could understand the things being said on it. No one tried to sneak through too-small spaces or make illegal, illogical turns that turned the intersection into an innavigable mess of cars pointed every which way. No one took out their frustration at being stuck by blaring their horns at the cars in front of them, perhaps realizing that they were not sheep who would scatter, but fellow drivers who were just as stuck and just as frustrated.

It was lovely.

But it’s not just my new-found appreciation of first-world conveniences like paved roads and required driver’s ed that makes me enjoy driving. It’s that if I want to go somewhere beyond walking distance, I can just hop in the car and go. I don’t have to pore over over hard-to-read maps to figure out which buses go that way, if buses and maps exist at all, or argue with mikr drivers about when I want to leave and whether I get my own seat, or ask five different people whether mikrs even go to my intended destination and where they stop. I don’t need to look up and write down all the words I might need to use for the encounter, or fend off insistent drivers eager to fleece an unsuspecting tourist. I can just go.

In fact, I think I will.


Hiking Fiasco, Part II: Survival

“Look,” I said, “we’ve got maybe half an hour of daylight left, and we’re not going to make it to the city in that time. We’re going to have to sleep out here tonight.”

Alisa protested. “But you guys don’t have enough layers! We won’t be warm enough! And we can see the city – we should keep going.”

Valerie shook her head. “It’ll be more dangerous to keep walking after dark. The ground’s too uneven – even with flashlights, someone will break an ankle.”

“Can’t we call someone?” Alisa asked. “I’ve got phone service.”

But the rest of us shook our heads. Yes, we could – and should – call people to let them know we wouldn’t be back tonight. But “in the mountains south of the city” is an awfully vague location, and we’d no way to narrow it down. No one was coming to get us tonight; we were on our own.

(Apologies for the absurdly long wait after the last cliffhanger in this story.  If the segment above wasn’t enough to remind you what happened in Part I of the Hiking Fiasco, I don’t blame you; feel free to click back and reread. I’ll wait.)

As dark began to fall in earnest, we took stock of our resources. I had a plastic bag containing one box of wind- and waterproof matches, about eight feet of ultra-lightweight rope, a pocket knife, and one of our two flashlights. We all had cell phones, most of which even had service. Valerie had her iPhone, which had served as our compass all day and was now running low on batteries. We had a little water left, and some food. All of us had rain jackets, but only about half of us had other layers to put on. Several of us were still in short sleeves, myself included, and my rain jacket’s sleeves were not insulated.

The day had been hot, but the temperature was already dropping, and it would fall even further once night set in. Those of us who wouldn’t sweat right through them put on our jackets in order to conserve what heat we had, but even so, we knew we were in for a miserable night. We had no tents, no sleeping bags. Fire, then, was to be our first priority.

Alisa fretted aloud about our predicament, our unpreparedness, whether we’d get hypothermia, and how much trouble we’d be in, her voice growing more panicky and high-pitched with every sentence. “Firewood,” I said, looking her in the eye. “You’re in charge of the big sticks. Nothing alive or rotting. Go.”

She drew a deep breath, nodded, and went.

We chose a largish, flat expanse near but not directly under a tree and piled our bags together, moving flashlights and other important items to our pockets so they wouldn’t get lost in the dark. I set the other girls to collecting wood as well, while I sat down to sort it according to size. I grinned when they returned with a thick piece of birch and again when I was presented with a branch thick with the tiny pieces of pine deadwood we call “itsy bitsies” at camp.

“More of these,” I said, gesturing to both. “Birchbark is campfire gold, and the little pine twigs make the best kindling.” The light had dwindled so far that they couldn’t clearly see what I was asking them to get, so I held up the pine for them to feel its distinctive scaly texture. Once they knew what they were looking for, I was piled with armloads of the stuff.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing so well with the fire. I’d started with the classic log cabin fire but failed twice to get it lit. Wind- and waterproof these matches might be, but they were horrifically difficult to light, and once I did get them lit, their weatherproof coating burned down much faster than an ordinary match. I couldn’t reach into the log cabin structure and light enough tinder for the twigs to catch without singing my fingers. At this rate, I would run us out of matches before I got anything lit, and we’d be at serious risk of hypothermia.

In frustration bordering on desperation, I resorted to the most basic fire-making technique of them all: bunch up some toilet paper, light it, drop a few handfuls of kindling on it, and blow. I heaved a sigh of relief when the twigs caught, or would have if my lungs weren’t already busy supplying our fledgling fire with oxygen. One of the other girls handed me sticks of increasingly larger sizes as the tongues of flame increased in size and brightness, and slowly we built the blaze into a more stable size and shape.

Fire lit and compatriots notified, it was time to get what sleep we could. Four of us bedded down a flat stretch of moss a few feet from the fire, chain-spooning to conserve heat, while the fifth sat the first fire watch. We’d evenly divided the approximate hours until dawn and allotted an hour and a half to each person, during which they were to keep an eye on fire and firewood alike to keep the fire from either dying out or spreading to the downed and very dead pine only a few feet away. Given my difficulties in starting the first fire, none of us wanted to wake shivering in the dead of night to stir desperately at a pile of ashes that refused to reignite.

The first fire watch was really a formality; I don’t think any of us actually got any sleep as the night grew darker and the thunder louder and more persistent over the next hour. I think the others were plagued with the same worries that ran though my head, their frequency increasing with the thunder. Our raincoats could keep us only so dry; we had no way to protect the fire. Visions of sodden huddles, chattering teeth, and genuine hypothermia danced before my open eyes.

When the first few droplets fell, we all leaped to our feet in unison. If it really was going to rain, we needed shelter, and we needed it fast. We cannibalized our woodpile  for the biggest sticks, wishing we hadn’t broken so many when we gathered wood earlier. Then we broke into groups to gather more materials.

Alisa watched me as I lay long branches between a log and a stump and then used them to support smaller ones, creating a framework about two feet off the ground. “How are you making this?” she asked, and I explained that we needed the frame to be dense enough to support pine boughs that would shed at least some of the rain. “Oh!” she said. “Like a sukkah!”

I grinned. “Exactly.”

Given her greater experience in the field of sukkahs, I left Alisa in charge of the construction while I joined the pine-collection effort. The local pines sported dense collections of needles at the tips of their branches, but only there; the rest of the branch was bare. It took an awful lot of branch tips to cover even a small section our 5’x3.5′ framework. Thank goodness for the moss. Even if it just absorbed the rain rather than repelling it, it was still a roof of some kind. With a little care in peeling and carrying, we were able to detach two-inch-deep sections of nearly a square foot. I felt a little guilty about killing so much moss and cutting off so many live pine branches, but not enough to stop.

Our finished shelter wasn’t about to win any contests for beauty or comfort: the roof was patchy and small, leaving most of our legs exposed, and too low for us even to sit up underneath it. But it was more shelter than we’d had before, and building it had given us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It had also kept us moving enough to accumulate some more body heat, which we knew we’d need. We crawled back in, curled up together, and tried once more to sleep.


Oh, moss, how we love and hate thee.

It was a long, cold night. Even with my arms pulled into the body of my jacket, I wasn’t dressed to withstand temperatures in the low forties (single digits, for the Celcius-minded), and no one was much better off. The moss beneath us made a soft bed, but also a damp one that refused to warm. Even packed together like sardines we were cold. One by one, we left the shelter for spots closer to the fire. Alisa remained curled up in the shelter for nearly half an hour after the rest of us had abandoned it, but eventually she too awoke at the loss of shared heat.

Fire watch turned out to be unnecessary: even curled up as near to as we dared, none of us slept soundly, and there were always a couple of us awake. The shelter, too, proved superfluous; despite its loud and frequent threats, the promised rain never fell. On us, that is. We learned later that the city had gotten drenched, while our area remained miraculously dry. Perhaps the shelter wasn’t so superfluous – if we hadn’t built it, it probably would have poured in our part of the mountains too. Murphy’s law is not to be tested, especially when it teams up with mother nature.

At long last, the sky began to grey, and then to brighten, and though the trees and mountains blocked direct light as well as any view of the sunrise, we were all awake by dawn. We ate the last of our food and sipped at our precious water reserves, wishing desperately for coffee or hot chocolate, something to banish the chill from our bones.

As we extinguished the last of our fire with yet another chunk of moss, I smiled wryly at the other girls. “Well, I hadn’t expected to teach Wilderness Survival Merit Badge on this hike,” I said, eyeing our shelter through the final wisps of smoke, “but congratulations. You all pass.” They chuckled and finished got to their feet, donning their packs.

We weren’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively, but we’d made it through the night. Now we had to get home.