Before landing at Boryspil International Airport outside of Kyiv, Ukraine, I'd previously landed in London, Dublin, Budapest, St. Thomas, Frankfurt, Casablanca, Paris, Tunis, Havana, and Amsterdam.
I'd driven from Buffalo, New York to Toronto, Ontario. I'd even walked from San Ysidro, California to Tijuana, Mexico (and back).
But there's been nothing that quite compares to crossing into the Exclusion Zone of the Chernobyl disaster site.
Technically, it's not just one zone, but two—the 10-km "core" and the 30-km buffer zone that surrounds it.
Transitioning from the Ukrainian countryside of folk villages to the "Zone of Alienation" is like crossing over into some purgatory...
...where life is similar to that which you've known in the not-too-distant past, but the electricity is out and the water is poison.
Although Chernobyl is not entirely devoid of people—there are the hoteliers and restauranteurs and the scientists studying the effects of radioactivity—the town is somewhat of a time capsule of Communist-era Ukraine as it was in 1986, under Soviet rule.
The dogs there are the descendants of the original pets that Moscow ordered the evacuated townspeople to leave behind—at least, the ones that managed to escape their government-ordered eradication. Most of them bear an identification tag on one ear to identify them if they happen to wander out of the Zone.
There are some newborns, however, who've managed to avoid capture and haven't yet been tagged. Considering how much I cuddled one puppy in particular, I'm hoping it hasn't had much chance to pick up much radioactive material, too.
My heart was just breaking at every turn in the entire Exclusion Zone—but especially Chernobyl.
"I have too much empathy," I told one of my fellow travelers. Our visit was hitting me hard. I was at a loss for any other words to describe the impact that just being there—in person—was having on me. The weight of it was almost too much to bear.
With all the memorials erected in memory of those who were lost in the accident or immediately following it—including one from 2006, immediately in front of the "contained" Reactor Number 4—there was a funerary solemnness to the monumental pilgrimage we were making.
We needed to see those dogs, just like we needed to see the fox in Pripyat—not only as a welcome injection of joy but also as a reminder of the life that thrives in the face of tragedy. And we needed to pet them, too, radiation be damned.
Of course, we weren't supposed to touch anything in the 10-km zone, closest to the site of the blast—we even signed a form saying that we wouldn't. But being deprived of our sense of touch had a way of making it seem like we were floating through the town, like souls trapped between this world and the next.
And that's actually not far from what actually happens once you're in the Exclusion Zone, since it does take some effort to get back out. The checkpoints shut down at 7 p.m. (which also happens to be the earliest you can get any alcohol to drink in town).
One of the hotels locks its doors at 9 p.m. so nobody gets in, and nobody gets out. The other hotel doesn't enforce a lockdown, but visitors are discouraged from walking the streets after dark—and, without streetlights, those streets get really dark.
So, if you want to make an after-hours visit to the "Star Wormwood" statue to contemplate the blowing of the third trumpet of the end times, you've got to do it without a flashlight. Even the locals and local workers have got to be tucked inside their homes by 10 p.m.
On the one night we stayed in Chernobyl, a group of us attempted to walk silently in the dark, past curfew, to hang out at the statue of Lenin. It's a bit of an oddity, since Communist monuments were outlawed in 2015 and officials have claimed that all the Lenin statues have been removed—at least in the western region of the country—as part of an anti-Soviet movement to "de-communize" Ukraine.
Starting in 1990, Ukrainian nationalists have found ways to topple Lenin (or knock his head off his block) in a phenomenon that became known as "Leninfall" (Ленінопад). Yet this guy still stands—despite reports to the contrary by The Independent, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other reputable media outlets that unfortunately just parroted the Ukrainian president's statement of them all being gone, without independently verifying it.
But we only got to see this phantom Lenin—a Lenin that isn't supposed to exist—during daylight, as we were quickly spotted by police on patrol and practically escorted back to our hotel under the pitch black veil of this weird parallel universe, where we felt like the lone survivors in a world that perhaps had already ended.
Of course, the world did end for the people who lived in those 40 towns that, after being evacuated, just... ceased to exist. There were so many more than just Chernobyl and Pripyat.
Some people even came back—either to illegally live off the grid (the so-called "self-settlers") or to provide services in support of the burgeoning tourism in the area.
The remote location and the abject poverty that's arisen after getting out from under Russia's fascist thumb don't make living there easy, of course. But It's quiet there. It's a simple life.
And, to them, it's home—and they've got it all to themselves.
I've never experienced such anxiety while on vacation before, not even while traveling to other countries where I didn't speak the language. Throughout my time in Ukraine—especially in the Exclusion Zone—I was a bundle of nerves, and all those nerves were frayed.
I was in a constant state of threat assessment.
It was foreign and fearsome—and, quite frankly, while I was there, I couldn't wait to get home. I couldn't figure out why I'd gone in the first place.
But as soon as I got out of that little isolated island community of the post-apocalypse, I had a sinking feeling, one that's only gotten stronger the longer it's been and the farther I've gotten away from it: I have to go back.
Maybe I was never supposed to leave.
Photo Essay: Nuclear Reactions On the Periphery of Disaster
Meet Simon, The Red Fox of the Radioactive Red Forest
Stepping Around Graves
Aren't We All LOST?