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By Jack H. Smith
Three Forks Voice 

Column: February in Moscow


February 6, 2019

The past few days of below zero temperatures reminded me of growing up in what is known as the "high desert" of Wyoming. It is full of wide-open spaces and plenty of outdoor opportunities and also has some cold temperatures during the winter months. Even more so than the temperatures, I grew up with biting winds that could make even a fair day feel awful.

Over the past week I have seen multiple news reports of the crippling cold front that hit the Midwest with the force of a Mike Tyson punch and felt awful for everyone who had to deal with temperatures colder than Antarctica. While I certainly never dealt with that severe of a cold front growing up, there were plenty of days where nobody wanted to emerge from their house. On one occasion in junior high they didn't cancel school when the temperatures were well below zero and the wind chill was around -30, but only a handful of us actually made it school. We were all given "polar bear club" cards and at the time it was a cool thing to show the other students who stayed warm at home while we sat in the cavernous old and cold East Junior High School building.

That blistery day in Rock Springs, Wyoming was not the coldest weather I would ever encounter and the recent reports from Chicago and Minnesota made me think of a strangely timed vacation I took around 15 years ago.

While most people planned their vacations around the summer months and will hit a beach in Hawaii or take in the theme parks of California or Florida, I for some reason thought it would be a splendid idea to take a trip to Russia in the dead of winter.

I had several classes about Russia while a student at the University of Wyoming and was always very interested in their culture and history. One of my favorite memories as a child with my dad was watching Dr. Zhivago and watching intently about what was playing out at the time in the country. Sure, there was a love story, but I was in it for the history.

I had some vacation time saved and wanted to do something different and was also single at the time and was also mesmerized by the beauty of Russian women, so I started to look into a trip to Eastern Europe. I was by no means going to get a "mail order bride", but I wanted to take a selfish trip, meet some people, and explore a country I was always very interested in.

Whenever I had some spare time at work, I would look into different trips, make some new friends thousands of miles away and day dream of how awesome it would be to wonder the streets of Moscow.

One day I finally decided to go ahead and book at trip and rather than wait till the summer I had a flight going to Moscow in February.

So, on one morning I braved the horrible icy roads from Wyoming to Salt Lake City to begin my journey. I would fly into JFK Airport and then make the eight to nine-hour flight to Moscow.

I was young and stupid and looking back this was a horrible idea, but it was so exciting to get off the plane and realize I was actually in Russia. The fun did not last long. After checking into customs, I was taken to a windowless room where they dumped all of my belongings on a table and they went through them with a fine-tooth comb. I'm not sure why I was picked, but it was awful to see a burly woman looking through my underwear.

Once I made it through the chaos of customs, I went to look for my bag and it was like I had stepped back in time. People were smoking and drinking in the airport like it was the wild west.

Once I got my bag and walked outside it was a cold that I have never experienced in my life. I had a friend meet me at the airport and as we waited outside for a ride to my hotel, I thought I was going to collapse from a chill that went right to my bones. Wyoming had been cold growing up, but this was completely different. It was miserable.

I would spend five days in Moscow and I never wanted to leave the hotel. I just wanted to stay in the comforts of a really nice establishment that had several restaurants, a casino, a few bars, and a huge pool and jacuzzi.

Unfortunately, I knew the trip would not be worth it unless I explored the history of the country.

So, after a day of adjusting to the time change, I figured out how to use the subway system to get downtown and I was set for a day exploring the Kremlin and Red Square. I started out with some breakfast at the hotel and was really interested to see that beer was thought of in the same respects as orange juice and in the cafeteria style dining area there were multiple people having a "cold one" with breakfast. I thought to myself, "when in Rome" and grabbed a beer for breakfast and made it to the subway system.

I could probably write a huge column about the horrors of the subway system, but after getting lost, asked for my "papers" several times, and a few moments where I didn't understand what anyone was saying, I made it to Red Square.


This should have been the highlight of my trip, but it was so cold I was not enjoying anything. I have never had my face hurt so bad from the weather and I wanted to go back inside and hit the casino like normal people do on a vacation. Instead I walked around downtown and probably ended up with hypothermia.

I made sure every day to spend time exploring but would usually be back at the hotel by around 2 p.m. and would not leave again.

The day I was leaving I met a few people who spoke English while having breakfast, maybe with a beer, and they told me this was one of the worst cold fronts they have had in decades. I had picked a perfect time to visit.

When my plane finally made it to Salt Lake, I journeyed with my bags to go and find my car in long term parking and it was about 20 degrees. It felt like May and for the rest of the winter I never complained about the weather again.

Since that time, I have always made sure to take a vacation in the summer like a normal person.


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