Kate Brown began thinking about visiting this high-rise ghost town in the mid-1990s, when she was researching a book about the region before it was evacuated after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Then she saw a website about a young woman's lone motorcycle rides through Chernobyl's exclusion zone. The site, www.kiddofspeed.com, attracted tens of millions of viewers and became the most-visited site on Angelfire.com, a Web page hosting service.
"I was intrigued," said Brown, an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland-Baltimore. She spoke while strolling along the vegetation-choked sidewalks and cracked roadways of Pripyat, about a mile from the nuclear power plant where the 1986 accident took place.
"Elena," whom several Internet sources identified as Lena Filatova of Kiev, has been described as "fearless," "heroic" and "seriously whacked" in the virtual chatter the website generated.
When asked by e-mail why the story of a raven-haired beauty roaring through a radioactive wasteland attracted so much attention, cyberpunk author and futurist Bruce Sterling responded: "It's a post-apocalyptic adventure story. Very 'Mad Max.' "
And it is, evidently, equally fictional.
"That story is not true! She did not ride a motorcycle alone in the zone! She came with her husband and a friend on a regular tour," insisted Rimma Kyselytsia, who was the group's official guide. She identified the woman in the images on the website as Filatova and has the documents to show that Filatova's tour was organized by a Kiev travel agency and that her party traveled in a car provided by Chernobylinterinform, the agency that ushers all visitors to the exclusion zone.
The visit took place March 16, about two weeks after the website appeared. Since then, the curious have made their way to Chernobyl inquiring about Elena's adventure -- among them two Norwegian biology teachers who arrived on bicycle hoping to retrace the journey. A guard turned them away.
"Whoever put this together was never actually here," said Kyselytsia, leafing through a printout of the images on the website. Although it has been updated several times, the site's original contents survive in duplicates elsewhere on the Internet, and on the computers of people who downloaded them.
The updated site does not appear to contain any authentic images of "Elena" or a motorcycle in any Chernobyl location. Four pictures on the updated site can be traced to a Ukrainian coffee table book published in 2000, some are aerial shots, and many are anachronisms. One photo is of chemical showers that have not existed for years. In another, the tall ventilation stack of the ruined reactor looms above some saplings. But those trees have since grown so high that only the tip of the stack is visible today.
After the March 16 trip, the website was updated with new pictures, including one of a motorcycle near a sign that reads "Chernobyl district" in Ukrainian. But that sign is several miles south of the barbed-wire fence and checkpoints surrounding the exclusion zone, which stretches almost 19 miles in all directions from the disaster site.
According to Kyselytsia and Mykola Slobodianiuk, who drove the group that day, Filatova's husband, Igor Filatov, told them that he had ridden his motorcycle to the Chernobyl checkpoint but was refused entry.
"The idea is absurd," Slobodianiuk said. "I have worked in the zone since 1986, and I have never seen anyone on a motorcycle."
Closed motor vehicles are the rule in the zone, where radiation levels are thousands of times normal in places. A moving vehicle stays ahead of the dust it raises. When it stops, it is enveloped in its own -- often radioactive -- wake.
After bumping for hours over the zone's crumbled, potholed and, in many places, barely existent roads, it is difficult to believe that anyone could ride a motorcycle on them.
The updated website depicts the lone rider in various zone locations, often with a motorcycle helmet in a bag slung across her shoulders.
"When I asked about the helmet, she just said her husband had some ideas," Kyselytsia recalled as she led Brown and a reporter into the Pripyat high-rise that the group had visited. "He took most of the pictures. He also staged some of them."
Kyselytsia pointed out the mailbox that the website claimed contained a hunting and fishing publication. It was empty, and Kyselytsia maintains that it was empty when she and the Filatovs entered the building.
"This one left me blinking," science fiction writer Neil Gaiman posted on his website after reading that "Elena's" story was not entirely true. "Not so much because it was a fraud, as why anyone would bother to create such a fraud."
Neither Lena nor Igor Filatov were available for comment. A woman who answered the door at their apartment said they had left town and could not be reached.
The Internet "Elena," however, is unapologetic. "I just wanted to show people Chernobyl," she wrote in an author's note after doubts about the story began to surface. "I did this for free, for no fame and I did this with love for my country."