Varlam Shalamov

Trampling the Snow

How do you trample a road through virgin snow? One man walks ahead, sweating and cursing, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, getting stuck every minute in the deep, porous snow. This man goes a long way ahead, leaving a trail of uneven black holes. He gets tired, lies down in the snow, lights a cigarette, and the tobacco smoke forms a blue cloud over the brilliant white snow. Even when he has moved on, the smoke cloud still hovers over his resting place. The air is almost motionless. Roads are always made on calm days, so that human labor is not swept away by wind. A man makes his own landmarks in this unbounded snowy waste: a rock, a tall tree. He steers his body through the snow like a helmsman steering a boat along a river, from one bend to the next.

The narrow, uncertain footprints he leaves are followed by five or six men walking shoulder to shoulder. They step around the footprints, not in them. When they reach a point agreed on in advance, they turn around and walk back so as to trample down this virgin snow where no human foot has trodden. And so a trail is blazed. People, convoys of sleds, tractors can use it. If they had walked in single file, there would have been a barely passable narrow trail, a path, not a road: a series of holes that would be harder to walk over than virgin snow. The first man has the hardest job, and when he is completely exhausted, another man from this pioneer group of five steps forward. Of all the men following the trailblazer, even the smallest, the weakest must not just follow someone else’s footprints but must walk a stretch of virgin snow himself. As for riding tractors or horses, that is the privilege of the bosses, not the underlings.

translated by Donald Rayfield