Malena Mokhovikova (+Video)
A young woman escaping the overwhelming pressure of her life finds herself on the verge of freezing to death. This adventure gone wrong renews her determination to live.
The Yukon in late December was dark, eerily silent, and freezing. I lay alone in my tent, the ceiling covered in frost. My flashlight swayed from side to side. My thighs couldn’t stop shaking. I didn’t know how long my body would last before inevitably giving out, but I was getting there.
The Yukon felt like home. There was no grand history, architecture, or fond memories of St. Petersburg, but the snowy hills and simple lifestyle still reminded me of Russia.
Responsible for my family’s shiny image, I was overwhelmed with school, work, depression, and quitting basketball. The sport was all I had. It helped me make a name for myself, beyond the refugee status and trauma points. Rejecting my scholarship and years of athletic achievements, I began a new chapter. Camping in Whitehorse was my first step.
I was the model minority, the trophy catch for campaigns and fundraisers. But it was time to choose my own path, exciting and unknown. As I shivered in my tent, I realized my family didn’t flee racism, mafia, and prosecution for me to die of hypothermia in the middle of nowhere. Once I fell asleep in -40°, I wouldn’t wake up.
Fuck it. Swallowing my pride, I rose and put on my hiking boots. They were black, with ankle support and a thick, stiff sole. Heavy but durable. I wrapped gaiters around them to keep out the snow and packed my tent. In the ice-kissed air outside came wintry feathers of pure white. My breaths rose in frosty clouds.
Around nine at night, I began the long trudge back through knee-deep snow, following my footprints back to the highway. The only other signs of life were animal tracks: birds, coyotes, and bears. I carried my wet corpse of a backpack, tracking poles and my dead phone. In pitch-black silence, the only light came from my headlamp illuminating a halo in front of me. An animal could be watching me, and I’d have no idea. I pushed the thought aside.
My laboured breathing and the creaking of snow under my boots drowned the silence as I trudged along the side of the highway. I thought of home. Surrounded by stars, I had nowhere to run. The fantasy world I’d created at seven was alive in the snowy mountains. Left alone with my thoughts, I longed for a home that didn’t exist. During my earliest, most vulnerable years, I survived beatings, shootings, rape, and loss. Loss of childhood innocence, home, family, and identity. Change was the only constant. I felt the most alive when grieving or fleeing.
I felt the fear seeping into my bones, giving my legs the strength to keep walking. Adrenaline made up for the lack of food and sleep, carrying me forward for the next couple of hours. Then, I saw it.
A light in the distance pierced through the darkness, slowly coming around the mountain. It was a car, the first one in hours! I was a mile away, but my body moved before my brain could. I ran, waving my flashlight back and forth, clinging to the promise of safety. There was no way the driver could see me from this distance, but I’d survived everything I thought I wouldn’t, and my guardian angels were known for working overtime.
As the car stopped, tears were streaming down my face, I looked up at the endless sky. Life is so full of loss. Everything I was and everything I had I’ll lose. And yet, despite the vast nothingness behind and ahead of me, I was a defiant something in a universe filled with nothing. A miracle unable to appreciate itself. Tired, starving, and freezing, I cherished every breath. Alive. I was alive.
Malena Mokhovikova came to Vancouver as a refugee from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2012 with her family as a result of racism and discrimination. She studies Psychology at the University of Victoria and loves to write, draw and hike in her free time. Malena is a member of the Youth Advisory Group for the Government of Canada, a writer for Stories from Newcomers to Canada, as well as an advocate for mental health destigmatization.