Readings

Here are some of my favourite bits from some of my favourite books written by writers whom I like to think of as travel writers, even though some of them would obviously object to that thought. I hope they tempt you to buy the book and read the whole thing.

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968)
Neil Ansell, Deep Country (2011)
Philip Connors, Fire Season (2011)
Robyn Davidson, Tracks (1980)
Catrina Davies, Homesick (2019)
Geoff Dyer, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2003)
Kevin Fedarko, The Emerald Mile (2013)
Charles Foster, Being a Beast (2016)
Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Fearful Void (1974)
Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala (1999)
Edward Abbey
Desert Solitaire (1968)

The mountains are almost bare of snow except for patches within the couloirs on the northern slopes. Consoling nevertheless, those shrunken snowfields, despite the fact that they’re twenty miles away by line of sight and six to seven thousand feet higher than where I sit. They comfort me with the promise that if the heat down here becomes less endurable I can escape for at least two days each week to the refuge of the mountains – those islands in the sky surrounded by a sea of desert. The knowledge that refuge is available, when and if needed, makes the silent inferno of the desert more easily bearable. Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.

A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.

♠     ♠     ♠     ♠     ♠

Hot and tired I stop in the shade of an overhanging ledge and take a drink from my canteen. Resting, I listen to the deep dead stillness of the canyon. No wind or breeze, no birds, no running water, no sound of any kind but the stir of my own breathing.

Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the ante-human, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse – its implacable indifference.

Neil Ansell
Deep Country (2011)

Imagine being given the opportunity to take time out of your life, for five whole years. Free of social obligations, free of work commitments. Think how well you would get to know yourself, all that time to consider your past and the choices you had made, to focus on your personal development, to know yourself through and through, to work out your goals in life, your true ambitions.

None of this happened, not to me. Perhaps for someone else it would have been different. Any insight I have gained has been the result of later reflection. Solitude did not breed introspection, quite the reverse. My days were spent outside, immersed in nature, watching. I saw as much as I did because of two things: the first, quite simply, was time, the long hours spent out in the field; the second was alertness, a state of heightened attentiveness. My attention was constantly focused away from myself and on to the natural world around me. And my nights were spent sitting in front of the log fire, aimlessly turning a log from time to time and staring at the flickering flames. I would not be thinking of the day just gone; the day was done. And I would not be planning tomorrow; tomorrow would take care of itself. The silence outside was reflected by a growing silence within. Any interior monologue quietened to a whisper, then faded away entirely. I have never practised meditation, but there is a goal in Buddhist practice of achieving a condition of no-mind, a state of being free of thought, and I seemed to have found my way there by accident. I certainly learned to be at ease with myself in the years I spent at Penlan, but it was not by knowing myself better – it was by forgetting I was there. I had become a part of the landscape, a stone.

Philip Connors
Fire Season (2011)

Being here alone I may not be my best self, in the social sense of the phrase, but I am perhaps my truest self: lazy, goofy, happiest when taking a nap or staring at the shapes of mountains. My friends back in town often want from me a report on the nature of solitude, on what it does to the mind to spend so much time alone. In these early days, I’d have little to tell them. A few quiet words from Gary Snyder’s ‘Lookout Journal’ guide my days –

fewer the artifacts, less the words
                              slowly the life of it
a knack for nonattachment

My own insights are fragmentary, fleeting. I write something in my notebook and forget it an hour later. I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will, the dramas of weather and wild creatures. I am most at peace not when I am thinking but when I am observing. There is so much to see, a pleasing diversity of landscapes, all of them always changing in new weather, new light, and all of them still and forever strange to a boy from the northern plains. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.

connors

‘You ever get lonely up here?’ Kameron, the younger of the two, asks as he looks around the cabin.

‘Nope. Not really.’

‘You ever get, you know, sad or anything like that?’

This requires a thoughtful response. Sad is too small and mean a word for the feelings this place evokes in me, yet I’d be lying to say I live here in a state of perpetual ecstasy, like the blissed-out bodhisattva Kerouac dreamed of becoming. On the other hand I’m not about to tell two guys in leather chaps and cowboy hats about my very real and near-mystical hours of longing and nostalgia, alone in my little glass box, brooding over and exulting in my own mortality amid mountains silently magisterial in the late-day sun. Nor the hours of sitting and staring into the inscrutable heart of the desert, not thinking anything, not feeling anything – neither happy nor sad nor any quantifiable mixture thereof. Merely alive with a hungry retina and a taste for dry mountain country and a jones for the sight of that first twist of smoke.

‘The only time my heart sinks is when hikers show up. But it doesn’t happen often and they never stay long.’

They laugh and look at each other, wondering, perhaps, if I’m trying to tell them something. It’s no wonder our Forest Service brethren think of us lookouts as the freaks on the peaks. We have, in the words of our forebear Edward Abbey, ‘an indolent, melancholy nature’. Our walk home is always uphill. We live alone on the roof of the world, clinging to the rock like condors, fiercely territorial. We ply our trade inside a steel-and-glass room immaculately designed to attract lightning. Our purpose and our pleasure is to watch: study the horizon, ride out the storms, an eagle eye peeled for evidence of flame.

Kameron leans back and yawns, rubs his clean-shaven jaw. The clouds have begun to spit sleet, compact little crystals flying horizontally on the wind, even as the sun shines overhead. Though it’s just a little squall, unlikely to last long, it serves as their excuse to get moving down the trail. I stand in the meadow and watch them descend through the trees. Les turns, offers a wave of his hand, and then they are gone. If I’m lucky, they’ll be the last of my government colleagues to set foot on this mountain all year. From here on out the peak will be mine. The thought makes me smile, as does the knowledge that hidden in my boxes of books are three spare bottles of bourbon.

Robyn Davidson
Tracks (1980)

The self did not seem to be an entity living somewhere inside the skull, but a reaction between mind and stimulus. And when the stimulus was non-social, the self had a hard time defining its essence and realizing its dimensions. The self in a desert becomes more and more like the desert. It has to, to survive. It becomes limitless, with its roots more in the subconscious than the conscious – it gets stripped of non-meaningful habits and becomes more concerned with realities related to survival. But as is its nature, it desperately wants to assimilate and make sense of the information it receives, which in a desert is almost always going to be translated into the language of mysticism.

What I’m trying to say is, when you walk on, sleep on, stand on, defecate on, wallow in, get covered in, and eat the dirt around you, and when there is no one to remind you what society’s rules are, and nothing to keep you linked to that society, you had better be prepared for some startling changes. And just as Aborigines seem to be in perfect rapport with themselves and their country, so the embryonic beginnings of that rapport were happening to me. I loved it.

And my fear had a different quality now too. It was direct and useful. It did not incapacitate me or interfere with my competence. It was the natural, healthy fear one needs for survival.

Although I talked constantly to myself, or Diggity or the country around me, I was not lonely – on the contrary, had I suddenly stumbled across another human being, I would have either hidden, or treated it as if it were just another bush or rock or lizard.

davidson

To this day, I think one of the major breakthroughs I made on that trip was learning the gentle art of farting. I had never farted before. Well, maybe once or twice, but then only pathetic little pfffttts. God knows what happened to all that air. Must have seeped through the pores of my skin at night I suppose. Ah, but now, now I could blart with the best of them – good solid base thrums which spooked the camels and scared flocks of spinifex pigeons into the air. Diggity and I had competitions: she always won for poisonousness, I for sonorousness.

Catrina Davies
Homesick (2019)

Later, when I was alone, I stretched out in front of the fire like a cat, enjoying the warmth from the floorboards soaking into my bones. I went outside and watched the smoke curling out of the chimney – my chimney – then I went back inside and put more wood on the fire – my fire. I sat cross-legged in front of it, staring at the flames. I felt the heat burning the tension out of my body. The fire was still burning when I went to bed. I lay in bed, watching the flames from my own hearth flicker in the darkness.

But there is no fire without smoke, and a plume of smoke rising from a chimney says home like nothing else does. I had crossed an invisible line, had forgotten that even though it felt like home, more and more with every passing day, the shed was not a home. Even though I dwelt there, harming nobody, as far as I could tell, the shed was not a dwelling, and dwelling in it was not allowed.

The letter arrived on Tuesday.

♠     ♠     ♠     ♠     ♠

I didn’t travel very far, because I didn’t have money for diesel, but I had plenty of books, and what I lost in range, I gained in depth. I saw things that winter I’d never seen before, even though I had lived on the peninsula for most of my life. The world seemed to get smaller and bigger at the same time. On the one hand, there was the mundane repetition of the things I had to do to survive, and, on the other hand, there was the vast ocean and the empty cliffs and the great tent of a sky that filled up with stars on clear nights. The fact that the stars existed many hundreds of millions of light years away put the usual strain on my imagination. I struggled to hold both realities in my head at the same time: the reality of my daily life, and the reality of the vast and unknowable universe that was the backdrop to it. I stopped worrying about the reason for my existence. The longer I lived in such close proximity to the mysterious earth and the restless ocean and the storms that tore across the peninsula at night and tried to blow my house down, the more I felt that existence itself was significant, and the more I wanted to suck all the marrow out of it, as Thoreau wrote in Walden, and not, when I came to die, feel that I hadn’t lived.

Geoff Dyer
Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (2003)

‘The view, strictly speaking, is the product of a separation of leisure and labour,’ I said. I had no idea if what I was saying was accurate – I was making it up as I went along – but I carried on regardless. ‘Not surprisingly, then, this view is improved by – in fact, almost demands – the sight of people toiling in its midst, actively engaged in its creation and preservation. It’s like that bit in Jean de Florette or Manon des Sources when Gérard Depardieu asks a peasant if he likes the view. The peasant doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You have to be a stranger to the landscape to regard it as a view. This idea of the view – or prospect – was once the preserve of a small ruling elite, then it became a bourgeois right; now that travel has been democratized, the view is available for everyone – except the people who are employed to maintain it.’

‘In keeping with this,’ said Circle, ‘the place from which you are enjoying the view often blights the view of the people whom you are viewing.’

We sat back and enjoyed the view. In a manner of speaking. It would be more accurate to say what I said to Circle after a few minutes of sitting and looking.

‘I see the view,’ I said. ‘I view the view, but I can’t participate in the act of seeing it.’

‘That’s the covenant of the rice paddy,’ said Circle. ‘Separation is the price you pay for not having to work in them.’

‘I feel it in other kinds of landscape, too,’ I said. ‘At the vista points of the Grand Canyon, for example.’

‘Perhaps the separation is more fundamental,’ said Circle. ‘The alienation of urban man – or you at any rate – from the natural world.’

‘It’s only when I’m stoned,’ I said, ‘that I feel a part of the landscape, when I can see the landscape as a bird or tree might see it, that I can enjoy the view – and it is, of course, at that exact moment that the view is no longer a view.’

Kevin Fedarko
The Emerald Mile (2013)

emerald mile.jpg

If you were at the helm of a motor rig or behind the oars of a rubber raft, you knew that regardless of what the river might try to do, you were probably going to muddle through one way or another, even if things got messy. But in a dory, you had to be on your toes every single second. If you failed for any reason to anticipate, to react, to assemble the proper sequence of moves – pivoting and squaring up in perfect sync with the waves and, above all and always, reading the current and going with the flow – you’d find yourself upside down in the blink of an eye. As Grua never tired of pointing out, it took something extra to get a small wooden boat through, which not only called forth excellence but also injected an additional charge: a frisson of energy stemming from the awareness you were piloting an eggshell that could break into pieces.

For Grua, however, even that didn’t fully capture the essence of the dories’ magic, which lay in something he called touch. The dories simply felt different, and it wasn’t just a matter of their exquisite sensitivity, the alacrity of their responses to the shifting dynamics of the water. It was the feelings they transmitted to you, the subtle vibrations they were constantly broadcasting up through their hulls and their chines and the shafts of their oars. They were sort of like floating mandolins, delicate little instruments that vibrated in tune with the harmonics of the river at a frequency that was impossible for the ear to discern, but which you could sense in your forearms and your wrists and, most especially, in the palms of your hands. If you attuned closely enough and with your whole body, you realized that the boats were singing to you, and that the music they made wasn’t a by-product of white water alone. You could sense their music in the flat water as you slid back and forth across the laced and undulating patterns of light and shadow that shifted with a mysterious cadency known only to the river. You could even hear the music when you were asleep, rocking gently in the eddies at night.

Charles Foster
Being a Beast (2016)

The more respectably dressed you are, the harder it is to be a fox. No one has ever accused me of being respectably dressed, but even so I soon realised that I should be even more shabbily shambolic than usual. Someone in unstained trousers and an unripped jumper looks criminal if he’s raking through a herniated bin bag, but if you’re dirty, tired and slumped, no one minds. You’re translucent. People look through you. The grubbier you are, the more translucent you are. If you’re on all fours, sniffing at a sack, you’re invisible. Except to the authorities. And even there, sleeping is more offensive than doing.

I was shaken awake under the rhododendrons.

‘Afternoon, sir.’

‘Good afternoon.’

‘Can I help, at all, sir?’

‘No thanks. All’s fine.’

‘Can I ask what you’re doing, sir?’

‘Just having a little sleep, officer.’

‘I’m afraid you can’t sleep here, sir. You sure you’re OK, sir?’

‘Fine, thank you. And what’s the problem with sleeping here?’

‘It’s forbidden, as I’m sure you know. Trespassing. The owners can’t have people just sleeping.’

(Just sleeping?)

‘I can’t see that I’m interfering materially with the enjoyment of its title of a property management company registered in Panama.’

‘Are you trying to be clever, sir?’

I could think of no palatable answer to this. The policeman didn’t press me for one. He moved to another topic.

‘Why do you have to sleep here, may I ask?’

‘You may indeed ask, but I don’t suppose you’ll like the answer. I’m trying to be a fox, and’ – I rushed on, trying to avert my eyes from the torrential haemorrhage of the officer’s residual goodwill – ‘I want to know what it’s like to listen all day to traffic and to look at ankles and calves rather than at whole people.’

This last observation was a bad, bad mistake. I knew it as soon as it was out. For him, calves, ankles and concealment in an evergreen shrub meant perversion so deep that it should be measured in years inside. But I could see him struggling to identify the right pigeonhole for my depravity, and imagining the paperwork. Uncertainty and workload trumped his instincts, and he told me to ‘bugger off home, sir’ – the italics were powerful on his lips – ‘and get a life.’

‘That,’ I said, ‘is exactly what I’m trying to do.’

He looked paternalistically at me as I brushed the leaves off my jersey and walked home.

After that I cravenly slept under a groundsheet in my backyard.

Geoffrey Moorhouse
The Fearful Void (1974)

I sat for hours against the wall of the store, somewhere between a dazed lethargy and the old tension of wanting to be on my way before I lost the momentum of progress. A truck was being loaded ready to start the journey across the Tanezrouft into Algeria. Three young French students were waiting to go with it. They expected to be in Marseilles in four days, home in Paris within six. I much wanted to travel with them, but I knew that I wouldn’t. I had to go back into the desert on a camel, or my journey would have been a waste of everything I had so far done.

I now knew precisely what the most fearful thing consisted of; I had measured it, I had touched it, I had almost been destroyed by it. I had to go out to meet it anew, at once, or I would never dare look upon it again. If I turned my back upon it now, I would be pursued by it to the end of my life, always running away from the subject of my fear. And this would not be fear of death by thirst and dehydration, or fear of being lost in a wilderness of sand. It would be fear of encounter. Nothing more. Fear of encounter with a person, with a task, with anything at all intimidating that might cross my path. If I could go into the desert again to face another encounter with what I knew to be there, as exactly and clearly as if I had fashioned it myself, I could walk forwards for the rest of my life into all the deserts of my mind. And this, with love, would be the most precious gift in the world.

moorhouse

We walked through the trees and suddenly, as if some magician had waved his wand, I found myself leading two camels and a companion in torn and dusty desert clothes down a surfaced street. It was lined with trees, whitewashed halfway up their trunks. Inside the lines of trees were pavements. There were tables set out at intervals along these pavements and people were sitting at them, drinking coffee. They stared at me open-mouthed, as though I were a strange animal they had never seen before. I walked on, not daring to speak to any of them, not at all sure where I was going or what I was seeking. Towards the end of the street, I noticed a long low building with a courtyard and a crude sign which called it an hotel. In a reflex from a world apart from the one I had just crossed, I stopped and couched the camels. It was not the ending I had wished.

Andrew X. Pham
Catfish and Mandala (1999)

In eight months of biking, I drink two or three cans of Coke a day, enough to carbonate my blood for the rest of my life. The caffeine picks me up and keeps me from succumbing to the midday low. The sugar gives me just enough energy to boost the heavy bike over the big hills. The carbonation burns the road grit off the back of my throat. The familiar flavor keeps me anchored in strange locales. The wavy red-and-white logo tells me America has been here.

Coke banners have displaced the Vietnamese flag. You can buy a Coke every five miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. It’s everywhere, sold by the case in markets as well as by the can in shacks with a six-pack inventory. At sixty cents a can, it is as dear as a third of a laborer’s daily wage. Coke – or Koh-ka as Vietnamese pronounce it – is a special refreshment, reserved for special events such as first dates and wedding banquets.

Somewhere along an arid, scrubby stretch of land, I spot a thatched hut with a faded Pepsi flag out front, and a case of Cokes displayed on the windowsill. The noon sun has licked me dry. My mouth is a dusty crack. I pull over, lean my bike against a post, and waddle into the hut.

On a packed-earth floor, three soldiers in olive uniforms with red stripes are crouching on footstools around a coffee table. Their conversation breaks and they look up at me with liquor-shot eyes, their chopsticks hovering above plates of boiled gizzards curly like cashews, pig hearts sliced like truffles, intestines chopped up like rigatoni. The centerpiece is a basket of herbs sided by a pile of ivory garlic cloves. One man who is eating from a bowl of raw, coagulated blood pudding glares at me, the blood dribbling from his scruffy mustache. The still tobacco air pulsates with the sweet bite of raw spices, boiled innards, and home-brewed rice wine the men have burped up over hours of drinking. Hands braced on the table, they sit with their knees up near their ribs, three hyenas tearing into the ruptured belly of a deer.

Instinctively I nod, showing respect for their uniforms. A man growls something unintelligible into his cup.

In the far corner, a woman squats on her haunches, slicing boiled cow tongue on a wooden plank. She stops, alert at the abrupt silence, and, seeing me, tenses. ‘What do you want?’ she asks by way of greeting.

‘Hello, Older Sister. How are you?’

‘Well. What do you want?’

‘May I have a cold Coca-Cola?’

‘We don’t have cold ones. I can give you ice.’

I couldn’t drink their ice. ‘Could you put a can in the ice cooler for me? I’ll rest a bit first, then I’ll drink it.’

She looks me over, pauses, then nods without a word. Relieved that she didn’t take my request as an insult, I beat a hasty retreat to a seat outside. One of the men mumbles that the fucker at the door is a Viet-kieu. Can’t drink our ice, says another, too dirty for him. I groan inwardly, wondering if this pit stop is such a good idea after all. They begin to grouse about Viet-kieu in general. Dread settles in my stomach as I remember the mob that nearly lynched me in Ham Tan.

While I debate with my thirst whether to leave, a dust devil kicks up across the street and scares a skinny dog. It whimpers and scoots inside the hut. A drinker flings it a piece of organ meat. The mutt noses the morsel then curls up at the other end of the room, leaving the scrap uneaten. A revelatory silence washes the hut. A humiliating moment. They see me witnessing their shame. The woman hurriedly resumes her chopping, contriving a screen for us all.

‘Goddamn dog!’ the man with the bloody mustache hisses at the dog, but looks at me.

Another man puts down his chopsticks and leans back away from the food, trying to hide his embarrassment. Glances shoot back and forth. Colors deepen on their faces. Having invaded their world and witnessed their disgrace, I avert my eyes as casually as I can. But, too late, I almost hear their minds shifting gear.

‘Three cans of Coca-Cola,’ Bloody-Mustache shouts to the woman. I feel sick. It has come down to this.