Friday, February 28, 2020

Gone Again

     Back to our exploration of deep, immersive travel, of what 
'going long' can reveal about a place and about ourselves. In the last post, quotes from a half dozen authors provided insight into what their adventures had taught them. We wrapped up with Cheryl Strayed's hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. This time we'll begin by swinging east to the Appalachian Trail to hit the ground running. 
     Speed ascents, fastest known times (FKT) and trail records aren't for everybody. In fact, many consider them a travesty. The thought: time outdoors is to slow down, take a deep breath and become one with nature. I get it, but I've also enjoyed trail running in the past, the way it focuses your attention on each footstep, on the slightest variation of slope. How aware you become of your lungs and heart rate, your hydration and energy reserves. There's just something 'animal graceful' about moving quickly thru a landscape under your own power. This from a guy who can just as easily spend hours at one trailside ledge studying rock, lichen, moss and fern. I'm good with both sides of the speed coin and I'm good with the next couple of 'epic' books.

Jennifer Pharr Davis - Web image

Scott Jurek - Web image

     I'm not sure how things are between Jennifer Pharr Davis and Scott Jurek but they will always be bonded by one thing: the Appalachian Trail, their record breaking thru hikes and the books they wrote about the experience: Called Again by Davis and North by Jurek. For the record: Davis is credited with doing the 2,181 mile trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes finishing on July 31, 2011 while Jurek finished his hike on July 12, 2015 in 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes with the trail distance listed as 2,189 miles (just to confuse things).

     Davis: "In the midst of this pain, the only thing I wanted
     to do was return to the trail. The trail provided me with a 
     purpose. It was a catharsis and it provided a way to move
     forward physically, even if my heart was held captive. And
     if miles were the best medicine, then I wanted to hike as
     far and as fast as possible."

     Jurek: "Maybe I'd convinced myself I wanted something
     I used to have. It's true that sometimes I felt washed up...
     Why not try to beat the AT speed record? It was perfect...
     I still loved to run and explore my surroundings on foot.
     I loved being out there.
     Because I'm forty and I need to feel what it's like to go
     to the edge again, and then go farther."

     Davis: "I love God and I felt called to the trail by him.
     I wanted to follow his voice and praise him with the talents
     and the gifts that he had given me.
     I also love the trail. Out of all the paths that I have traveled,
     the Appalachian Trail remains closest to my heart."

     Jurek: "The point of a thru-hike is different for everybody.
     Some people assume thru-hikers are running away from 
     something, trying to escape the real world. For me it was
     transformation. I wanted to find something I thought I'd
     lost, to test strengths I didn't think I had anymore, to
     rekindle the fire I'd thought was long extinguished. The
     journey was the tool I needed to pry myself open."



          If the intensity, suffering and soul-searching of the record setters seem a bit much maybe it's time to lighten up with Bill Bryson. A Walk in the Woods is his slower, funnier take on the Appalachian Trail. Here he's having second thoughts after having blithely committed to the hike:

     "Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story 
     involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking 
     the trail with high hopes and new boots and come
     stumbling back two days later with a bobcat attached
     to his head..."

     "The woods were full of peril...loony hillbillies destabilized
     by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations
     of profoundly unbiblical sex..."


     Is a swimsuit your outfit of choice for a long journey? It is for both Lynne Cox and Diana Nyad. They are two of the best known distance swimmers of our times and both have books chronicling their adventures. Cox's is called Swimming to Antarctica and in case your wondering, yes she did. Find A Way is Nyad's story of her obsession with a Cuba to Florida crossing.

Lynne Cox with ice water friend - Web image

Diana Nyad found a way - Web image

     Both women are amazing endurance athletes but I do have some problems with Nyad. She has a turbocharged ego that sometimes leads her astray. Writing of a 1975 swim around Manhattan Island she states " hadn't been done since 1927..." and "I was the first women to swim around Manhattan..." Sorry Diana but wrong and wrong. A woman did it in 1959 in a documented, well publicized event. I know this because around our house that woman is known as 'Mom'. Even back in 1959 when Diane Struble did the swim, she wasn't the first. There had been several before her. Within the long distance swimming community there seems to an uneasiness about some of Nyad's claims, something I haven't detected with Lynne Cox's almost unbelievable accomplishments. That said, here are some quotes from both author/athletes: 

     Lynne Cox - "And I swam as if I had learned to fly. I raced
     across the water. My strokes felt powerful, and I felt strong, 
     alive, as if awakened for the first time...I couldn't believe how 
     happy I was. It was like I had gone from a cage into limitless if I had found my place, finally, found my 
     niche in the universe."

     Diana Nyad - " is truly a vast, unfathomably powerful
     wilderness out there. This is a swimmer's Mount Everest,
     the great epic ocean endeavor of our blue planet. It's never
     been done...You can do this. You will do this."  

     Lynne Cox - "I would have been happy that I tried to reach
     my goal, but if I didn't succeed, I would want to go back and 
     figure out what I thought I needed to do to accomplish it,
     and then try again."

     Diana Nyad - "This feels like the magical ending to a 
     lifelong fairy tale. Are we really about to touch the seemingly 
     impossible, unreachable Other Shore?"

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          I can swim enough not to sink but that's about it. Mostly I like being in a canoe with some boat between me and the water. So a book about a long paddle trip that goes right thru our area...I'm on board with that. According to Peter Lourie, no one had ever canoed the Hudson River, source to sea. In River of Mountains he tells of doing just that.

     "When we finally pull out of the rapids to rest in the calm of
     an eddy, I feel raw elation. Joy bolts into my blood - an antidote
     to fear - and I realize I haven't felt so alive in years...Deciding
     to make this trip instantly stirred the muck of boredom and
     routine with a dangerous and physical task."

     "In my enthusiasm I said to Melissa, 'I'll hunt off the land.'
     She countered, 'You'll hunt hot dogs and canned peaches,
     you mean.' She was right...I'ld be a kind of foreign traveler in 
     a familiar land. To see the river for myself was the goal - 
     not through the eyes of the Hudson River school of painters,
     nor from the tourist boats to West Point, not even through
     the polemics if the environmentalists. Mine would be a
     paddler's view..."

Bill McKibben - Web image

     Perhaps no one on my list of travel writers is as exquisite a wordsmith as Bill McKibben. His small book Wandering Home tends to get lost in the author's large canon of work. But it's one of my favorites because it covers 200 miles of walking across a landscape I know well - Vermont and the Adirondacks - and does it in a thought provoking and perceptive way. Here are a few passages:

     "To me, this country on either side of Lake Champlain,
     though it has no name and appears on no map as a single
     unit, constitutes one of the world's few great regions, a
     place more complete, more full of future promise, than
     any other spot in the American atlas."

     "Today...a journey is at its end, and so of course beer is in
     order. A little Saranac pale ale from this side of the lake,
     and a little Otter Creek copper ale from Vermont - we mix
     them together and drink a toast to this whole territory..."

     "It's the glory of the land and the human making sense of each 
     other...I have the great good fortune to have found the place
     I was supposed to inhabit, a place in whose largeness I can
     sense the whole world but yet is small enough for me to

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     Let's finish with a long ride on horseback. A really long ride. Like 29,000 miles long. Many people in the area came to know and love Bernice Ende when she spent a winter layover in Fort Edward several years ago. She was on her way back west after riding from Montana to the Atlantic Ocean with her two Norwegian Fjords, Essie and Spirit. Lady Long Rider is Ende's chronicle of that ride as well as several others leading up to it. Bernice pleads "I'm a rider, not a writer," and she never really explains her 'Why'. I have a hunch she's not sure herself, but it's clear that long riding is how she defines who she is and that's good enough for me.

     "...I saw what I can only describe as a 'vision'...myself, grubby
     and haggard, packed and traveling across a desert, mounted 
     upon a horse..."

     "'Reentry,' as I refer to it, stands out as the hardest part of my
     journeys. Reentry comes at the end of a ride when I fold up
     my tent, put the horses in my corral, and return to the busy
     and social existence that most people would consider normal 
     living. I have felt stifled every time I've reached this part...
     It's the exposure to nature and the submersion in living
     I love, and I dislike ending these adventures even for 
     short periods."

Essie and Spirit in Fort Edward - "Let's hit the trail."


     There were a number of books/authors that I wanted to include but ran out of time. Here are short takes on their long trips:

     * The Worst Journey in the World is sometimes cited as the greatest adventure story of all time. Apsley Cherry-Garrard was a (surviving) member of Robert Scott's ill fated 1911 expedition to the South Pole. Cherry-Garrard's side trip thru dark and cold to see the Emperor penguins will chill you to the core. Read this and you'll never want to travel more than a few feet from your woodstove.

     * Craig Childs is at home in the hotter, drier climate of the desert southwest. Something of a next generation Ed Abbey, he writes lyrically of deep travel in arid lands. The Secret Knowledge of Water is one of his early offerings with several more books since.

     * There is, well, a mountainous stack of mountaineering literature. The best of it delves into the 'why' of risk and hardship, of the rewards of pushing beyond the easy and familiar. I like Maurice Herzog's Annapurna and Arlene Blum's Annapurna - A Woman's Place, two individual takes on the same mountain. But for every iconic peak you can find shelves of books. As Herzog concludes, "There are other Annapurna's in the lives of men." And, I might add, in the lives of women.

     * One of those 'other Annapurna's' is Mount Everest with its own obsessive following. Perhaps the most eccentric of its followers is Goran Kropp. Starting at sea level in Sweden he biked 7000 miles to Kathmandu, Nepal towing all his supplies with him. Then he shouldered his 140 pound pack and trekked to basecamp before climbing to the summit. Solo and without oxygen. All that was left was to climb back down, walk out and bike 7000 miles home. Ultimate High is his book.

Goran Kropp, to the mountain biker - Web image


     Here are several footloose young writer/travelers and their offerings:

     * Leath Tonino and Sam Brakeley are Vermonters adventuring large in their small state. In The Animal One Thousand Miles Long Tonino shows how creativity can find new possibilities in a place that may seem explored-out. Brakeley, on skies and in canoes, weaves history into his trips as he traces the military routes of Benedict Arnold and Henry Knox.

     * Noe Alvarez, the son of Mexican immigrants, recounts both  physical and emotional challenges in Spirit Run. The memoir tells of his running 6000 miles thru indigenous communities from Canada to Central America in an event called the Peace and Dignity Journey. Look for Alvarez's story in bookstores and libraries this spring.

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     * Lands of Lost Borders is Kate Harris's tale of a 14 month long bike ride on the Silk Road.

          "Hope is the right word. Lands of Lost Borders is
     fundamentally optimistic and uplifting, and Harris is funny
     and generous. So many adventure memoirs detail seemingly
     superhuman feats of endurance that are off-limits to most
     mortals. Harris, instead, suggests that anyone can become
     an explorer simply by taking a long walk - or a bike ride -
     and paying close attention to the world as it passes by.
     Her enthusiasm is contagious."

- from a review by Eva Holland in Outside magazine


     If your urge to go is red hot but your bank account little more than a smoldering ember, there are options. Rather than heading for the back of beyond you could opt for some 'budget adventures' right here in the tame Northeast.

On the N-P -Web image

     * It's said that more people have walked on the moon than have through-hiked the Northville-Placid Trail in winter. While the moon walkers had a little help from NASA's billion dollar budgets, the N-P requires little money but lots of skill and effort. It's 138 miles of mostly low-level terrain in the south central Adirondacks and while it does cross roads there are some fairly remote sections. The winter difficulties come in the form of deep snow, frigid temperatures and water and wetness. There are many river, stream and wetland crossings making it hard to stay dry and being wet dangerously saps body heat. The N-P in winter requires a well equipped group with plenty of fitness and experience plus some luck. Don't buy Muck Boots and a cheap pack at Walmart thinking you'll knock the sucker off in a few days. Not unless you want to die with your Muck Boots on.

The Long Trail in Winter - Green Mountain Club image

     * Vermont's Long Trail - all 272 miles of it - end to end in winter? Be prepared to join a very small group, as in just two soldiers who had helicopter support! In January of 1990 Pat Moriarty and Tom Stone of the Vermont National Guard completed the impressive mission. Read their story here. Once again snow, cold and wetness are the hurdles but this being an up and down ridgeline hike you will also contend with icy climbs and descents and scouring above tree line winds. I remember summiting Camels Hump one winter when we literally crawled to the top on hands and knees to avoid being blown off. This is a challenge right up there with any on the planet. 

The High Peaks in winter - Web image

     * I'm reluctant to mention the Adirondack High Peaks because of severe overuse issues but do want to tell of a local guy who found all the adventure he could handle there earlier this winter. Mike Jaworski of Greenwich along with his friend Nick Glasser through-hiked all 46 High Peaks in early January. They finished in nine days and nine hours covering 199 miles with 63,000 feet of elevation gain. And yes, they are sort of thinking about the winter Long Trail next!

Nick and Mike go for a hike - Web image

     Epiphanies are in short supply. After all this vicarious travel about the only revelation is that every traveler is unique as is every place traveled to. Hardly a revelation at all but it does open the door to myriad fascinating interactions between people and place. Thus the rich trove of 'journey' literature with, no doubt, more to come. Including, perhaps, yours.

     Finally, writing of these cold winter treks leaves me longing for some warm weather fun. In honor of Lynne Cox, Diana Nyad and Mom here's a link to Louden Wainwright's The Swimming Song. 
Summer's right around the corner.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Long Gone

     Towards the end of Pulp Fiction there's a conversation about career change:

     Vincent: "So, what are you going to do?"
     Jules:      "Basically, I'm just going to walk the Earth."
     Vincent: (disparagingly) "What do you mean 'Walk the Earth'?"
     Jules:      "You know, walk from place to place, meet people, 
                    get into adventures."
     Vincent: "So, you're going to be a bum?"

     A few minutes later and without having taken a step, Jules is deep into his first adventure. And soon enough Vincent will find reason to believe that 'Walking the Earth' may not have been such a bad choice. 

Vincent and Jules talking the walk - Web Image

     What struck me about the scene is how deeply embedded the idea of 'Walking the Earth' is in the human psyche. This concept of moving thru the world, open to experience and adventure, to insight and revelation. Think of the epic journeys in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Of Jesus's forty days in the desert as told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Of Tolkien's The Hobbit and Ring Trilogy. Of Conrad's Heart of Darkness

     "Not all who wander are lost."
                                   - J.R.R. Tolkien

Web Image

     Native Americans have their 'vision quest' while Australian Aborigines do a 'walkabout' and seekers of all faiths go on pilgrimage. In modern America our capitalist/puritan  based system has little use for such treks. Corporate profits require conforming nine to fivers who keep production humming along, while also being diligent consumers, always focused on accumulating more and more stuff and seemingly OK with the life they sacrifice to get it. Vacations and retirement are little more than carrots held out to keep the duty bound trudging forward, as well as being another corporate profit opportunity. A stuff your face around the clock cruise? A gated community where your horde of possessions are safe?
     Not for everyone and thank God for that. There are still many who aspire to long, immersive travels. And to writing about their trips. Indeed, 'My Epic' type books are so ubiquitous that you might wonder who's left at home to watch the kids. If you read every  offering about someones journey of discovery there wouldn't be any time left for your own short hikes.
     Still, there are classics in the genre whose insights into what their authors found, both out in the world and within themselves are well worth our time. In this post I've tried to pull a quote or two from a small sampling of 'journey' books. I was looking for bits that touched on motivation (Why) and/or revelation (What). These are exceedingly small sips when you consider that some of these adventures unfolded over many years and filled large volumes in the telling. Hopefully they will whet your appetite and perhaps even inspire a little wander of your own. Herewith, a few words from people who have walked ( and biked, climbed, flown , rode and swam ) the Earth.

    Wind, Sand and Stars soars as an ode to the adventurous life. 
Antoine De Saint-Exupery recalls the early days of aviation, of flying the mails for the French Aeropostale. That was when the Spanish mountains, the sea, the deserts of North Africa were always waiting for that one malfunction, that one mistake...

     "...that Lecrivain not only had not landed in Casablanca
     but would never again land anywhere."

Indeed, the Mediterranean finally claimed the author during a 1944 flight. I had a hard time finding quotes from the book. Saint-Exupery, like all good writers shows us his meaning by slowly building images rather than simply telling. Take this portrait of a gruff senior pilot:

     " broad-shouldered messmate seemed to me strangely
     noble; beneath his rough hide I could discern the angel who
     had vanquished the dragon."

Or this thought towards the end:

     "To come to man's estate it is not necessary to get oneself  
     killed round Madrid, or to fly mail planes...
     But too many men are left unawakened."

     Saint-Exupery is passionate about living intensely, accepting risk and danger as the inevitable cost of being fully alive. As I read the other books on my list I got the sense that many had Wind, Sand and Stars as their inspiration, and not without good reason. 

The Spray

     Before there were airplanes there were boats. In 1895 Captain Joshua Slocum set off from the New England coast in a 41' sloop named the Spray (built in the year 1 according to some wags). It would be three years before he and his little craft returned, becoming the first person to sail solo around the world. Slocum was a no nonsense Yankee seafarer so you might not expect wordy eloquence. Still, Sailing Alone Around the World is a fun read. Here are a few of quotes:

     "...the wonderful sea charmed me from the first. At the age 
     of eight I had already been afloat along with other boys on
     the bay, with chances greatly in favor of being drowned."

     "...what was there for an old sailor to do? I was born in the
     breezes, and I had studied the sea as perhaps few men have 
     studied it, neglecting all else."

     "Was the crew well? Was I not? I had profited in many ways by the voyage...As for aging, why, the dial of my life was turned back till my friends all said, 'Slocum is young again.'"

     "To young men contemplating a voyage I would say go."

     Like Saint-Exupery, the life Captain Slocum loved eventually claimed him. He was lost at sea in 1909 but not before leaving us a great tale of adventure.

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     Not all journeys are about a search for adventure. Some are simply about survival. Slavomir Rawicz's The Long Walk - The True Story of a Trek to Freedom is the archetype of the genre. From a Siberian prison camp 'Slav' and several desperate companions use the cover of a blizzard to crawl thru moats and beneath barbed wire before heading south across Russia, Mongolia, the Gobi and the Himalaya. Thousands of miles of the harshest terrain on Earth proved too much for some but it remains a great story of the unconquerable human spirit.

     "Nevertheless, the old reindeer man left me with one thought
     I was to cherish later: men did attempt to escape."

     "What is most important is the deeply felt conviction that
     freedom is like oxygen, and I hope The Long Walk is a 
     reminder that when lost, freedom is difficult to regain."

From Jenkins website

     Got an unclimbed mountain in your sights? A river that's never been run. Better get to it before Mark Jenkins does it first. For many years Jenkins penned 'The Hard Way' column for Outside magazine. Month after month he told stories of death defying trips in every dark, unexplored corner of the world. Thoughtful essays that went beyond mere adrenaline red lining, deep into the soul of far flung geography, mysterious cultures and the 'why' of wanderlust. Some of his writing has been collected in a book entitled The Hard Way but before that he had two volumes of travel adventure: Off the Map and To Timbuktu. Here are a few lines from the later: 

     "Go even if you can't possibly go. Even if it will take a 

     Conversation with his wife:
     "Where are you going?"
     "We don't know yet."
     "What are you doing?"
     "We're not sure."
     She leaned across the kitchen table and kissed my neck.
     "Let's hope you have a clue before you leave." 

     He's regaling new found African friends with tales around
     the campfire:
     There's lunging crocodiles, charging hippos and being swept
     over a waterfall. Jenkins has them all spellbound. All except 
     one little toddler.
     "He has just learned to walk and the world has become his.
     He keeps squirming out of his mother's grasp...
     Then someone shouts. The baby is gone. We all spring to
     our feet and spin away from the fire and look out into the
     There he is, screaming with laughter, waddling as fast as
     he can straight into the dark, straight into the unknown." 

     "To head toward a star - this only."
- Martin Heidegger

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     Looking for real danger? Try writing about adventure travel without including women. I'm not that foolish, so it's time to head to the west Australian Outback. Time to join Robyn Davidson's amazing 1,700 mile camel trek chronicled in Tracks. Reading Tracks feels like sitting at a bar having a beer with Davidson. Like she's your best friend sharing intimacies. She tells such good stories, paints such vivid portraits of people and places. And she seems unflinchingly honest about her experience, herself. For the 'why' of going out there, this is the book.

     "I had also been vaguely bored with my life and its repetitions -
     the half-finished, half-hearted attempts at different jobs and 
     various studies; had been sick of carrying around the self-
     indulgent negativity which was so much the malaise of my
     generation, my sex and my class.
     So I had made a decision which carried with it things that I
     could not articulate at the time. I had made the choice 
     instinctively, and only later had given it meaning."

     "'Why?' A more pertinent question might be, why is it that  
     more people don't attempt to escape the limitations imposed
     upon them?"

     "I wanted to shed burdens. To pare away what was
     unnecessary. A process that was literal, in the sense of
     constantly leaving behind anything extraneous to my needs,
     and metaphorical, or perhaps metaphysical, in the sense of
     ridding myself of mental baggage."

"Camel trips do not begin or end, they merely change form."  - Web image

     Robyn Davidson and Cheryl Strayed seem like soul sisters accidentally separated by an ocean and a generation. Strayed is the author of the 2012 bestseller Wild. In it she tells of finding herself on a long hike (no camels involved). Both 'journey' books go deep into their author's inner lives and both were made into movies.

     "A world I thought would both make me into the woman
     I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd 
     once been. A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663
     miles long.
     A world called the Pacific Crest Trail."

     "I had arrived. I'd done it. It seemed like such a small thing 
     and such a tremendous thing at once, like a secret I'd always
     tell myself, though I didn't know the meaning of it just yet." 

     This whirlwind of travel is enough to tucker out an old blogger. I'm only about half way thru my list of 'going long' books so I think I'll take a break, catch my breath and finish up in the next post. In the meantime take a listen to Steve Winwood. He went so far that he sings I Can't Find My Way HomeHere's a link to the song.