Photo: John M Cropper
Photo: John M Cropper

The First Person on Mars

Somewhere near Kazakhstan, the 1980s: At nighttime, surrounded by goats, a little girl lay on her back in a pasture and pointed a small telescope toward the stars. Of all the places in the sky, she focused on a steady, defined, crimson dot—easily identified as a hunk of rock among blinking stars. The planet Mars. She had one dream: to be the first person to walk on it.

So goes the premise of “Evghenia Is on Mars,” the Twitter account of a self-proclaimed female scientist who purports to communicate with Earth from the red planet. Revealed in short bursts of broken English, it’s an “account” in the best sense of the word: a plot-rich tale of an engaging character with a strong voice and a triumphant arc.

Growing up on her grandma’s goat farm, Evghenia gave her life to studying and training for a voyage to Mars. She was born under Soviet rule, followers can piece together, and came of age in the wake of the dissolved super-power that beat the United States to outer-space—forces that surely shaped her as she assembled a ramshackle rocket of car parts and salvaged pieces from a nuclear dump. (“Every year from age of six I ask grandmother for rocket fuel for my birthday,” she has tweeted.) Then, last year, around age 30, Evghenia loaded her space jalopy with protein bars and poetry books and launched herself into the heavens. Four months later, according to her story, she landed on Mars. Like a hungry emigrant in a galactic land rush, the farm-girl pioneer beat government space programs and billionaire space-travel investors to stake an entire planet.

That’s usually where the movie ends: the victorious arrival that would seem to conclude a journey. But Evghenia’s Twitter account begins there, already on Mars—from atop the proverbial mountain instead of at the bottom, from the achieved destination rather than from the humble start. Thus, her musings often convey not a gazing forward to some goal but a gazing back at her origins.

“Favourite childshood memory: lie in paddock of goats at night with telescopes,” she once tweeted of her childhood, “and look at Mars and think of how I will be on it first.” She was raised, she says, by a tough, loving sage of a grandma whom she misses dearly and after whom she has named Martian mountains and caves. “If you see my grandmother please for to tell her that I just did 103 pushup in a row,” Evghenia has tweeted. “I beated her record.”

 

Somewhere in Kansas, the 1980s: At nighttime, surrounded by cows, a little girl lay on her back in a pasture. She had no telescope but sharp vision. She watched the sky and imagined being lifted from earth—flying out her farmhouse bedroom window, zooming in flight across sparkling nighttime cityscapes she’d only seen in movies. She knew reaching them would mean going where no one from her family had gone before.

So went my life. It was my grandparents’ farm, and I first lived there when I was three, in the early 1980s. Through that icy winter, my dad hammered together a house for us a few dirt miles away during the day; at night, my young parents and I nuzzled together on a stained mattress. I relished sharing a bed there with them—a tactile memory that endures, perhaps, because touch between my young mother and me was rare, just as it might have been rare for my mother when Grandma Betty was the teenaged parent. That winter, Mom and Dad made their second and last child; it would be a boy, like the old ladies at Sunday Mass had thought I would be, Mom later remembered. I kicked low in the womb, near the pelvis, raring for a chance to tear free.

When my dad, Nick, finished building our house, which stood between a wheat field and a lake, we moved off my grandparents’ farm. My mom, Jeannie, was a beautiful heart but a young thing raised amid traumas more profound than mine. She was often cruel and unhappy in those years, my loving and hard-working dad frequently drunk. Mom felt trapped, it seemed, but not for long: she never lost the gypsy spirit she inherited growing up. Her biological dad was a dangerous figure who was in and out, but mostly out, and by the time Betty married a farmer and settled down when Jeannie was fifteen, the mother-daughter pair had changed addresses nearly fifty times. Just over a decade later, Mom and Dad split (I was nine and my brother, Matt, four), and all of us went on the move. I’d rack up twenty residences before I finished high school.

Throughout those moves, fortunately for me, the farm remained a constant: the 1910 house of concrete block painted white, the rows of hay bales full of snake holes, the metal shed containing rusty, sharp objects, the cats lapping blood from the cement floor of an outbuilding where we butchered cows and pigs. It wasn’t a safe place, necessarily, but a fun one, with wide spaces into which I often disappeared for long stretches, unmissed and happily feral.

One weekend night at the farmhouse in the late ’80s, my cousin Shelly and I sat next to an open single-pane window upstairs while grownups drank beer and Canadian whiskey in the kitchen. Outside the old metal screen, moths died trying to reach the light bulb above us. Even air had trouble coming through the screen—heavy and warm, no wind to move it—but still we breathed more easily there than in the loud cigarette-smoke cloud downstairs. We sat cross-legged, our ankles stuck to our sweaty thighs, on a twin bed that sat high off the wood floor on a creaking metal frame we’d bought at a garage sale. The wrinkled quilt was strewn with generic candy, Uno cards, and a Hoyle deck so soft from hundreds of hands of call-your-partner pitch that it felt like sand when I shuffled it into a bridge. When Shelly and I finished playing cards we opened a big hardback book called Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Shelly, four years older than I was, usually didn’t care about books. She liked this one, though, which made me happy, that we could share liking a book. In my parents’ quiet households, or at the elementary school in the small town where Dad unloaded wheat at the co-op on Main Street, books were my teachers and friends. This one had pictures of constellations and extraterrestrials, sea monsters and pyramids, circles seared into crops—recalling for me the time Dad called me outside to watch a mysterious light move back and forth in the night sky above our wheat fields. I read aloud from the book as though I were giving a report. Shelly and I pointed a flashlight out the window and aimed binoculars at the night sky as we consulted our revelatory text. Our eyes widened while we whispered whoaaaa about alien visitors and the paranormal myths of the 20th century.

“Aaaooooo!!” a drunken grownup let loose somewhere downstairs, followed by a big group laugh.

Shelly crawled over the candy and cards and turned off the light so we could see outside better. We let our eyes adjust.

Beneath our window was the swimming pool that, when I was a toddler, Grandpa Arnie had dug out with a tractor scoop, and for which my dad had poured the surrounding concrete. In the darkness, the water had the moon in it. Beyond the pool was a row of coniferous trees planted to block the brutal, year-round Kansas wind; we couldn’t see them in the dark, but we could hear them take the wind through their needles and exhale a long shhhhhhh. Beyond the trees, farther west, was the field where we helped Grandpa feed the cattle that congregated in fenced corners or at the edge of the pond, where lurked snapping turtles, black snakes, and spent rubber tractor tires. Half a mile beyond that, just across the blacktop that led north to Amish country or south to the fine red dirt of Oklahoma, was the tiny Catholic church we attended. During Mass, grownups in Wranglers and home-sewn dresses clutched rosaries and sang of praise, but in the low vibration of their voices I could hear what they truly felt: a heavy burden.

“LOOK—what is that?” Shelly whispered. We watched something—a light—move above the shadowed trees, more quickly than we could track. Like a sun-sized light bulb, it lit up the vista of drought and cow, tree and pool. Then it receded in a blink, and the sky went back to dark.

What are the odds that one would see a spaceship while reading about spaceships? Had our minds been so impressionable that together we conjured a reality from a book? Probably. But it was a reality all the same. An electric feeling ran through us. We joked about aliens—they came, they saw, they didn’t want to abduct our broke-ass family—and I laughed so hard I peed my shorts and ruined the playing cards under my sweaty legs.

 

I discovered the supposed space-feed about Evghenia last spring and was taken by the parallels between her story and mine. I’m hardly the first person on Mars, but I was the first person from my family to go to college. Grandpa Arnie quit school after sixth grade to work his dad’s wheat farm, Grandma Betty left after ninth, my mom got a G.E.D., my dad got a high school diploma. That I eventually would become a university professor amounted to something like interplanetary travel. Beyond such a metaphorical resonance, Ev and I share literal commonalities: long blonde hair (as she’s pictured in her Twitter profile), a love of science, wayfaring parents, a beloved grandmother for a caregiver, having been “borned in place of flat land and grasses,” a matriarchal working-class family in which men come and go and women name their daughters after themselves. And we both know a thing or two about striking out alone.

For companionship on Mars, Evghenia reports, she fashioned a quirky robot named “Goatbot”—sort of Pixar’s Wall-E in the form of livestock—that evokes the dominant animal of her Earth home. (I too have distinct goat memories, if less sentimental. One of ours stuck his head through an open pickup window and ate my dad’s construction paycheck off the dashboard; another time, he tried stomping my toddler self with his devil hooves.) When I started this story, I went into a dive bar along the Kansas River on a whim, and hanging on the wall was a piece of art for sale called “Goat.” The image involved a giant goat head against an outer space background—purple, Ev’s favorite color—including moons, planets, and a cartoonish rocket ship with hologram sparkles trailing behind it. I bought it, of course.

While following Evghenia’s reports and musings, I’ve often thought that she and I would be good friends. So one day, I replied to one of her tweets.

“What your favorit movies,” Evghenia wrote. “My is that one of a woman who fly to mars alone and is there on it first. Wait that my life.”

“Same,” I tweeted back. “You’re a genius.”

Having seen that I’m a journalist, apparently, she replied, “Dearest sarahs. if for want make it firstest interview with first person on mars email onmarsfirst@hotmail.com.”

Intrigued and amused, I followed up, and she replied in her Twitter persona (and has never wavered from it in weeks of correspondence): “Yes you are the person who can tell it my story for Earth humans because our story is very same in some ways. You is first to become famous and great writer of your town. I am first become first on mars of my town (and whole planets Earth).”

 

My grandparents’ Kansas farmhouse was far enough into the countryside, away from city lights, that on moonless summer nights the Milky Way glowed like a ghost ship heading my way. I wrote short stories about visitors from other planets; one, printed in my fifth-grade class’s annual magazine, involved setting off homemade bombs in an alley with my all-male pack of friends until a tiny alien, glowing red, accidentally flew up my nose. To me, the story wasn’t scary but hilarious, an adventure worth longing for.

It wasn’t that I disliked where I was or the people I was with. I just knew on some level I was meant to leave—a knowing rooted, perhaps, in the pain of never quite being understood.

My closest friend in elementary school lived a mile down our dirt road in an A-frame house, and we’d walk to meet each other in the dust and explore the tall cattails of water-filled ditches along fields. Once, I mentioned to her that I sometimes narrated my own actions in my head, in real time—thinking everyone did this. She gave me a confused look. Another time, I told a school friend that I sensed a different animal in everyone in our class; her laugh told me that this, too, was strange (she wanted to know her animal, though, and seemed disappointed when I offered that she was a bear). These reveries suggest the cliché of the antisocial “nerd,” but I was outgoing and friendly; I doubt my childhood pals would remember me as the strange thing I deep down felt myself to be. I wasn’t an outcast but something less revocable: a true outlier.

The chasm was in my own family as well. Once I asked my mom if she knew what I meant by feeling the very edge of a thought and needing to stay in the feeling to reach the thought. She considered this seriously and said, “No.” When I was in middle school and hadn’t yet learned how to hide my mind, I overheard my grandma at the bottom of the farmhouse stairs talking about me to a friend on our rotary phone: “Half the time I don’t understand what she’s saying.” That even she—the funny, kind, energetic forty-something who so often had taken me in, the person with whom I felt the most comfortable bond in my family—on some level didn’t “get” me was devastating, and I cried silently at the top of the steps. Then there were the substances—mostly booze and smokes, but much harder drugs beyond my immediate family—that sometimes carried them even farther away. I didn’t feel like I was so odd as if to be from Mars; rather, I often felt I was more grounded on Earth than anyone around me.

In sixth grade I moved altogether back to the farm, into the same bedroom where my parents and I had snuggled when I was small, the one with the chimney falling into the closet. Mom and Dad had other places and partners—often mean, sad ones, and when Grandma Betty asked if I’d like to move in with her and Grandpa, I said yes. Mom had custody of me and Matt then, and she said yes too. Matt stayed behind, and I joined them or my dad in Wichita most weekends and over summers, but throughout adolescence the farm was my permanent address. I turned into a woman in that farmhouse west of Wichita, my bedroom walls covered with posters and magazine covers of “The X-Files.”

One night in 1996, just after school let out in May (the countdown to my August birthday—sweet 16—already underway on a Renaissance-angel wall calendar), I was wiping dust from my farm-sale dresser when a cool, damp breeze moved from one open window to the other. I felt every hair on my arms. I looked out the window at the night sky. That year, every home had a print of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” every tchotchke was celestial, every keychain represented a Zodiac sign. My drugstore perfume was called Sun Moon Stars, its bottle the color of night with a round gold cap. In coming months I’d tape to my dresser mirror a magazine ad for something I couldn’t afford, a new Chanel nail polish called Ciel du Nuit, a dark blue with flecks of silver glitter.

At that moment, as I was holding my dusting rag and smelling the air, a pop song unlike anything I’d ever heard came across my boombox radio. It was three chords over and over, like a country song, and it sounded like locusts and mud holes, a bass line and what I thought was a man’s voice talking to one another like bullfrogs. I hoped the DJ would give the singer’s name rather than roll right into another song. He did, and I was delighted to find that the deep-voiced singer was actually a woman. “Give me one reason to stay here,” she sang in what, to my ears, was a rhetorical tone. The song was timely, because my longing to fly away—to be seen, heard, understood, I hoped, in cities of opportunity—had become a fever, my books and movies about pioneering women striking out on adventures a conceptual map in my mind.

That summer, I’d leave home for the first time. My family wasn’t of a class that sent kids to camp; for us, summer meant harvesting wheat and peddling firecrackers from a roadside tent for extra cash. But I’d gotten a scholarship to attend an academic honors academy at the University of Kansas a few hours north. Grandma Betty bought me a battery-operated handheld fan to battle the humid summer, and I packed it alongside my journals and stuffed lion. The journeys for which I’d long prepared, if inadvertently, by reading books and hammering out stories on a yard-sale typewriter, were beginning.

The camp’s theme that year was astronomy. More impressive to me than my textbooks about the stars, though, was the setting in which I carried them. For a month I lived in a college dorm with teenagers whose families spoke languages perhaps never uttered in the small town where I went to high school. Our core course, “The Anthropology of the Nighttime Sky,” was held in the lecture hall of a grand, limestone structure on a hill, and taught by a Zen Buddhist who was emerging as the eminent Homer translator in the world—a different animal from any man I’d ever known. He and the other students used the language I’d stifled in classrooms back home—the language of books. I learned new words, like “epistemology.” A ruddy-faced girl with long, reddish hair stood up in the back of the lecture hall one class period and said, “I mean, what if we’re all living inside a giant chicken?”

But, for all my intellectual enthrall, even on a college campus I was a thing apart. Most of the city kids there, it turned out, smoked dope the way my country friends at home drank beer; in both places I had too much at stake to act my age and had never felt my age anyway. I gave myself not to dorm-room parties but to the academic tasks I organized in the camp-issue folder. Like our camp-issue T-shirts, it was midnight blue, printed with a gold-ink version of the Flammarion engraving—the famous image of a man kneeling at the edge of the cosmos, his head ripping through to a vaster dimension by way of knowledge.

Our professor took us to the university football field at night with flashlights, binoculars, star charts. We craned our heads and together found the same spot in the sky: From the North Star, look left. See that little cluster that looks like a triangle? See that square? A little right. A little left and down. While many students groaned I approached this and all assignments with fervor. Impressed, the professor took me and only me to the top of the unlighted football stadium to learn more constellations through a telescope.

I had to leave camp early for my next adventure, which took me thousands of miles away from Kansas: the national level of a communications contest that I’d qualified for by taking tests in a high-school organization called Future Business Leaders of America. The national competition that year was in New York City, a place my family had never been. Grandma Betty and Grandpa Arnie drove hours across Kansas to take me from the university campus where the camp was hosted to the Kansas City airport.

On the way to New York, my small band of teachers and students would fly first to Philadelphia, then take a bus to Washington, D.C. These, I felt, were places I was long overdue, huge places where huge things happened. Of all the things I sensed about the world that summer, I sensed nothing more strongly than the size of things and the space between them. They were big or small, close or far.

The places that called to me were the big and far ones, even as the night sky reminded me that I was small, smaller than the man-made satellites that eventually fall like rocks into our oceans. I’d spent my childhood pretending to touch faraway things, skipping rocks across our pasture pond, where the night’s sky was reflected. Now, instead of reflections in library books or movies or cattle-watering holes, I wanted real, tangible things. That meant traveling where no woman from my family had walked: a graduation stage, a college campus, a sober life, an exit from childhood without a baby of my own.

When the summer ended, my junior year in high school nigh, my grandparents picked me up at the airport. I could see how much they’d missed me. I’d missed them too. They, my parents, and my little brother had mailed cards and letters; we’d only talked a few times all summer, across land lines between the farm and a dorm lobby. But what did we speak of during the long, cigarette-smoke-filled drive back to the farm? Not Homer. Not the celestial origins of ancient myth. Not Broadway. Not epistemology. The amorphous strangeness I’d lived with my whole life now had discernible shape, the distance between me and my family not larger but more perceptible. We didn’t talk about where I was going, but we all knew that I would go.

 

Unusual destinations require unusual routes, and an unusual route is by definition an unpopulous one. Big or unorthodox goals therefore require a trade-off: the closer you get to them, the farther you are from other people—if not in terms of geography, then in terms of understanding. With whom could Neil Armstrong, first person on the moon, share memories of walking in lunar dust? Just eleven other men, ultimately—but only he can ever be first. The more exceptional the achievement, the more supreme the trade-off. With whom might Oprah, who journeyed from poor, rural Mississippi to historic heights of media influence, specifically relate? Only one person—Oprah—who I’d wager has grappled with loneliness in spite of a career built, paradoxically, on her relatability.

The people lonely at the top by way of its sparse population were probably lonely at the bottom for different reasons. One who takes a strange road likely was strange to her home. Her disconnect from her tribe—by intellect, interests, spirit, or something else—is what propelled her into the journey, perhaps, and her ability to tolerate the discomfort of loneliness is precisely what qualified her to get where few can go. To be emotionally apart, somehow, from one’s family or hometown is to live in constant awareness of contrast between one’s self and the very group in which one most naturally might belong. For all the love in the world, that belonging can never be fully achieved. But in the space where it might have been, something rarer has a chance to grow: a deep, indelible knowing of one’s individual power. If you can survive a gulf with the very womb that brought you, you can survive the gulf between the comfort of the familiar and the terror of any unknown, between where you came from and where you’re going.

People ask me about my socioeconomic border-crossings, Weren’t you afraid to do that? Frankly, no. Alcoholism, verbal abuse, and intermittent neglect—symptoms of poverty’s profound stresses—among the people I love most? That was scary. Repeating those cycles was so unthinkable to me that I only considered alternatives. My ambitions were so strong that I had no choice but to let them steer me.

Along the way, my family neither encouraged nor discouraged me but rather just let me be—a rare gift, I learned, compared to many more “successful” families who smothered their children with expectations. Often I didn’t share what I was up to at school, for lack of common ground, but when awards ceremonies came around my parents and grandparents showed up with cards and hugs. They took pictures with pride.

While my goals and destinations didn’t scare me, space debris often threatened me in reaching them. First, there was my own ignorance and a lackadaisical high-school counselor. En route to college, I knew only to keep straight As and tally a list of leadership roles; before the Internet era’s accessible information troves, I applied to one school—the state university where I’d attended the honors academy, the most reputable school whose registrar was within reach. Once I got to college, I still didn’t know what “graduate school” meant by my senior year, but I was encouraged by professors to apply.

Other people’s ignorance was perhaps harder to get past. In an Ivy League classroom, a peer made fun of my cultural references; at a television network where I was an intern, a producer suggested that my “daddy” had gotten me the gig. Still, there wasn’t room to sit around pondering feelings of insecurity or frustration. There was only room for another step forward—steps that eventually landed me gigs as a successful journalist, a tenured English professor, a homeowner, a mentally and physically healthy, happy person. As Evghenia once tweeted to Earth, quoting Kansas’s favorite daughter: “Amelia Earhart: ‘The most effective way to do it is to do it.’ Evghenia: ‘I flew to Mars in a rocketship I build it myself and on it first.’”

 

One needn’t attend astronomy camp to know Mars is the planet we’ve long associated with would-be alien life forms. In the 1960s, at the height of our social investment in and cultural preoccupation with space, “Martian” was synonymous with “alien.” We still use the planet to represent strangeness or lack of relatability. He looked at me like I was from Mars. Earth is home—blue as the blood in our veins appears. It’s an anagram for “heart,” nearly all of the word “hearth.” Mars, meanwhile, is the color of blood spilled, its landscape potentially harboring life yet perilous for a human being.

An astrologer once told me I had in my natal chart the rare planetary aspects of “starseed”—New-Age speak for souls fresh to Earth, maybe after lifetimes on other worlds, while most spirits have been recycling as energy on this watery planet for millennia. While I don’t believe or disbelieve the details of this or any other story about unknowable things, the general theme felt so right that it sent a jolt through my body. Yes! the goosebumps on my neck shouted. I’m an alien on earth! Indeed, I realized recently, you can’t spell my last name without “mars” in the middle.

But my name, “Smarsh,” couldn’t be more humbly rooted in this planet. It means “mushroom,” for the mushroom pickers that were my ancestors in East-Central Europe—Prussian stretches of a Germanic region a couple thousand miles west of where Evghenia grew up.

I am, of course, a human being, but one who has long sensed that we’re all less-containable things, too. Walking on earth with that particular sense—an all-encompassing awareness that can’t be measured, as can smell or sight—is at once wondrous and difficult. Growing up, I was so sensitive that I could hear in my friends’ voices fears, desires, cruelties, and joys they didn’t know they had. I enjoyed a robust popularity that entailed student government and homecoming ceremonies, but I often chose to be alone rather than stand next to the unconscious, perilous storm that is many human psyches. A psychologist once told me—saying, perhaps, the same thing as the astrologer but with a Ph.D.—“You came in at a different frequency.”

Emitting that strange frequency, I’ve learned how far a signal might have to travel before it’s heard. I spent most of my childhood literally feeling like there was a lump in my throat; our German Catholic farm-scape tamped emotional expression and often shamed aspirations in a place where it’s safer not to dream. It’s no surprise, then, that I relieved my throat by becoming a writer—a one-woman transmitter of the stories of my people, like an explorer on a dusty planet with a microbe-detector made of tinfoil.

So, too, is Evghenia an overt hustler of her own story. Soon after landing on Mars in August of 2014, she hosted a 20-minute Twitter “press conference” attended by a few early account followers but, well, no press. She is a hustler of the most direct, admirable order, forever tweeting at, say, National Geographic to do a write-up on her accomplishments. Whoever is behind the Evghenia account and its Russian syntax—a potentially offensive shtick in less underdog-cheering hands, with a less tongue-in-cheek wit—has rendered the character impeccably on this point. A more privileged tweeter seeking a bit of press might email a friend who knows a connected friend, and might view public horn-tooting as gauche. But Evghenia, a woman from the margins of society, has no choice but to blast her space-horn in case anyone might be listening.

What better representative than she for Earth, a planet at the margins of the universe? We’ve been sending our signal into space for decades, through international space programs and less intentionally through earthly radio transmissions. To public knowledge, at least, no one elsewhere in the universe has yet said, I hear you. This longing is particular to our species—messages in bottles sent to sea and posts to social media we hope will be liked, amid divisions of our own construction: gender, ethnicity, class, nationality, race.

Is there life here? each of us is asking. Is it like me?

Yes, and here’s one way I know.

Every time I push past the discomfort of sharing what we were taught not to share—the dreams and horrors of our childhoods, our adult longing, our most vulnerable selves—some reader hears my voice and sends a message back. “Me too!” the reader says, “me too!”—relieving the most persistent, harrowing illusion of space and time: that she and I were ever separate things.

 

In memory of Jeannie Getz, March 27, 1962 — September 24, 2015

 

Related post: I am Evghenia, First on Mars: An Interview

 

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