Heavy with the harvest season, a full moon bright as a bare light bulb lit up the conical peak jutting up from the vast plain that lay before us. “Do you really think he landed on that snow capped mountain?” I asked my new found friend as we perched from a cliff at the opposite edge of the empty plain.
“That might be a stretch; anyway, it’s just a legend,” replied my traveling companion.
“But it had to get started somehow,” I came back at him, “It was probably an eccentric ole geezer living on the fringes that happened to attract lots of wild animals and made it his thing.” Enthused by the idea, I continued excitedly, “he probably lived in a swamp type area, then he saved a bunch of his nature pals in a homemade boat, or maybe he had a whole barn that floated off.”
Feeding on the theory, the Englishman reiterated, “He probably was some backwoods character that attracted lots of animals, and maybe he built his wild pets a floating shed for refuge. That could be how the story got started.”
“ Well, maybe it’s not a legend,” I clarified, “ I saw really good photos in Life magazine, you could see the shape of Noah’s big boat outlined in the rock, all petrified and lodged way up high on that mountain right over there.”
To arrive at this spot adjacent to Mt. Ararat, the Brit named John with his land rover and I with my backpack had followed the tireless road past the limits of daylight and into the night. The hypnotic churning of engine and wheels took us past the last inhabited dwellings, some with lighted windows peering out like yellow eyes, but most dark and asleep, and onto the empty plateau. An icon on the map indicated an obscure ruin site just off the road that we followed. If we could find it, we could camp there.
It happened to be Halloween, and the ghosts of Tamerlane and his Asian hordes rode the moon beams that lighted our way into the ruins. Geared down, the land rover groaned up a rough and rocky spur road until the lumpy boulders transformed into the man made forms that the map had promised. On the steep hillside buffering the great plain, we became surrounded by beacons of minarets and citadel walls with gates, all resplendent with scroll works and mysteriously illuminated in the white light of the full moon. The edifices perched on sliding hillsides were composed of the same chinks of stone, only the natural rubble was wildly scattered while the lonely ruins clung to a semblance of orderly construction. Surely the vestiges of Tamerlane and the haunts of his armies hovered over this hollow shell of a once prominent fortress, since he was the Mongol conqueror who defeated the Ottoman Turks in the 14th century and overran this very site.
While contemplating the iconic mountain in the distance and the haunting ruins of this magical night, I nestled my hands into the deep leathery pockets of the thick sheepskin coat that blocked the evening chill of autumn. Black angora goat hair shimmered around the coat’s perimeter, rustling with every movement, and emblazoned gold stars bumped out from the embroidery that contrasted with the tan sheepskin. With this coat I had a statement piece in tune with the legions of backpacking youth out for adventure.
A month earlier, the seed was planted at the Pudding Shop, an impromptu gathering spot anointed by youthful adventurers at a crossroad of exotic lands; “Where are you going, where have you been? What did you see?” Hot topics were the alluring and fabled landmarks of Samarkand, Tashkent, and the Valley of the Bamiyan. The hip attire that designated a seasoned adventure traveler was the ubiquitous sheepskin coat, and I wanted one. The seed grew as I meandered into the Grand Bazaar.
Sheep and goats are the life blood for the herders of the Anatolian Plateau, which are subject to constant currents of icy winds. To combat this opposing force, the sheep layer on thick wool and shepherds donn felt capes that are a full one half inch thickness of compressed wool, and substantial enough to become a stand up mini tent lest the herder needs to hunker down from the icy fury. Hence, the Grand Bazaar was a mecca of sheep skins and woolen goods.
A street urchin named Kazim had led me through the warrens of his proud city of ancient crossroads and into the hidden recesses of the bazaar, where I found many leather workers crafting a multitude of cloaks and vests of all lengths and styles.
The typical sheepskins worn by hardcore hippie backpackers were natural white, usually tattered and soiled after the long trek back from India or Afghanistan. After browsing through the vast selections of wools and designs, I jumped at the chance for a more customized version and concocted the perfect coat. A friendly and helpful designer measured and explained the options, and I selected a white wool lining with a tan exterior, all from one sheepskin, along with all the aforementioned trimmings of gold stars and black angora goat hair. Though my artist career was faraway in the hazy and unknown future, I had an early affinity for creative design and thoroughly enjoyed orchestrating this project.
Back at the mountain fortress on Halloween night and hundreds of miles beyond the grand bazaar, my traveling partner and I continued clambering amongst the citadel and its surrounding walls. While absorbing the uncanny night, we marveled over the day’s events. The offbeat, rough roads had taken us around enormous Lake Van in the direction of Syria, until we were blocked by part of the Tigris- Euphrates river system. Wide and muddy, the only hope of crossing was a village ferry used mainly for the local sheep and camels. The ferry was a decrepit box of a raft, and as we observed preliminary to our attempted crossing, would half sink with a load of livestock by the time it reached the opposite shore a quarter mile downstream. It seemed the entire village turned out to watch as we got the land rover stuck in the riverside mud and finally churned our way on board. After a harrowing crossing and many thanks, we navigated on our way.
After that night in the shadow of Mt. Ararat, we parted ways in Tehran, John on his way to India and I to the Persian Gulf, and were never in contact again, except… When composing this story, I recently searched google earth for the site of that mysterious Halloween night, and close to that spot was an icon with the entry “1969, On the road to India, Mt. Ararat.”
And that prized sheepskin coat? A few years later, while I was gyrating about on a night club dance floor near Mexico City, it was lifted off of the back of my chair and never seen again.
Where on Earth?! Anatolian Plain of Turkey, and the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, 1969.