March 4, 2013
Ecuador has done a tremendous job of preserving its wild places. More than 20 percent of the country is protected within more than 30 parks and reserves, some of them quite vast. In a nation as compact as Ecuador, what this translates into for travelers is beautiful national parks, one after another, like stepping stones through some of the world’s most astounding scenery.
In the Andes, many of the giant volcanoes have their own namesake national park, and from south to north one finds Sangay, Chimborazo, Llanganates, Iliniza, Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe-Coca, to name several. These protected areas essentially demarcate what is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, or Volcano Alley—and it’s this route that I followed on my final march northward, toward Quito and the finish line of the international airport.
Here, my adventure finally came alive. I had spent weeks floundering—either resting my injured Achilles tendon or, later, undergoing anti-rabies treatment at a hospital following an unpleasant dog encounter. During this time, I often lay in bed, read books, iced my heel and wished for the freedom of the hills. But I finally fell into the familiar rhythm of bicycle touring as I pedaled uphill from Puyo to Baños, a 3,500-foot climb that leads from the Amazon basin to one of the most esteemed tourist towns in Ecuador—and, even better, to the foot of Tungurahua, the three-mile-high mountain that has been spewing smoke and ash for several months. Like most of the peaks along Volcano Alley at this time of year, Tungurahua hid within a ceiling of clouds, and I only caught a glimpse of the triangular peak one night in the light of the half moon when I peeked out my tent.
Though the Panamerican Highway bisects the Avenue of the Volcanoes, contriving routes to avoid this congested, smoggy artery brings one, as a matter of course, into some of the finest hiking, cycling and adventuring country anywhere. The land is hilly and green, and in places rugged and dangerous. I spent one afternoon ascending from the town of Pillaro into Llanganates National Park, home to the 10,792-foot Cerro Hermoso and, at the end of the long and difficult road, Laguna Pisayambo. The asphalt turns to dirt as the road steepens near the park entrance. The wind wails here, across treeless slopes, and cyclists and backpackers will find a cozy surprise—a refuge free for public use at the park entrance, at nearly 13,000 feet. I arrived at dusk, and two employees welcomed me, fed me and offered me the use of the hot water, the stove and a bed. But I chose to camp outside, and as the cold night came on, the lights of the city of Ambato 4,000 feet below flickered and shined like a million stars. Hidden in the darkness across the valley was Chimborazo’s 20,564-foot summit—often advertised as “the closest point to the Sun”—but I couldn’t see it, and never did, for it remained buried in clouds.
The next day I crossed the Panamerican Highway and headed west, for the much-loved but little-known Quilotoa-Sigchos basin, where I would spend a week exploring what might be the best cycling region in Ecuador. Right out of the town of Latacunga, the road goes up. To non-cyclists, this may sound like the worst of possibilities, but for me and many of my fellow cyclists, climbing is the reason we own bicycles at all. It’s on those uphill grades that we feel the heat of our own blood and the pace of our hearts. Climbing, perhaps, reminds us we’re alive, while million-dollar views take shape behind us. The road out of Latacunga ascends to some 13,000 feet before leveling off on a broad plateau of Andean tundra, then descends into a beautiful valley peppered with farmhouses and tiny villages, and a camping site called Posada de La Tigua. Here, the owners may try and talk you into taking a room for $35. Just camp. It’s $3.50, and you can watch the stars of the southern sky.
Onward, and the dramatic ups and downs, the friendly people, and the green hills make smiling out here as natural as breathing. In Zumbahua, a pair of video-journalists with a Quito-based cycling club, BiciEcuador, interviewed me and asked how I liked this area.
“The best of Ecuador,” I said.
The pride and joy of this region is Lake Quilotoa. There is an adjacent town of the same name—a little community of indigenous people fortunate enough to be located on the edge of a dramatic crater. Here, travelers find a vista that makes the jaw drop and clunk against the sternum. Lake Quilotoa lies almost 2,000 feet below, and from these heights one can see the wind ripping the jade-green surface. Hikers popularly walk around the crater’s rim and may follow a trail down to the water’s edge. Here, some people camp, and I saw tents pitched on a beach straight below me. The quiet, dusty village of Quilotoa will probably become either one of the hottest, or one of the most underrated, tourist destinations in Ecuador. But in February it is a strange place. It is the slow season, and there are more hostels than tourists. Nearly every building, in fact, is a hostel—perhaps 15 of them—and more are being built. The town is clearly still developing its tourist infrastructure, for among all the hostels, and even in the large visitor’s center, there is no internet—no WiFi, and no plug-in connections. Several other establishments in Quilotoa, meanwhile, sell artisanal crafts and woven items of alpaca wool. Chilly gusts of wind sweep through the quiet streets and remind one that the elevation here is almost 13,000 feet. A pair of locally made alpaca gloves for $5 are a worthy buy.
Travelers who continue north from Quilotoa will find a downhill run to the friendly little village of Chugchilan, set on the slope of a steep and forested canyon. I took note of several hostels here, then continued through the village and took a side road uphill, following signs to a nearby cheese factory about 2,000 feet straight up, on a foggy mountaintop. The sign at the gate advertises the fact that this little operation uses Swiss technology. What? Flavorless Andean queso fresco isn’t good enough? (I actually quite enjoy the local mountain cheese.) I took away a pound of mozzarella and continued on a scenic loop that would bring me back to the village. “Did you manage to find the cheese factory?” a rusty red-faced man with a wide smile and a huge machete asked me. I had never seen him before, but he knew why I was here. He spoke with a strange accent, for he was among many folks here whose native language is the indigenous Quechua.
The people in these mountains were some of the politest I’ve ever met. Turkish hospitality is famous but can be overwhelming with insistent offers of tea and food. In the Andes, it’s all smiles and hellos and respectful distances. The children, especially, are marvels of manners and courtesy. They almost never fail to call out a friendly greeting, and they have several times proven incredibly articulate and thoughtful in helping me find my way through a complicated road network to my destination.
“It is 40 kilometers to Isinlivi,” a boy said to me one afternoon on a dirt road circling through the high hills. “On a bicycle, that means you’ll be arriving after dark. You must find a place to camp before then.” He was no more than 8 years old.
I stayed in Chugchilan at the Cloud Forest Hostel (reviewed here by Globe Trotter). They offered dinner of fried plantains, chicken and rice, but I cooked quinoa and eggs in my room and studied my map, mesmerized by its language of dots, lines and triangles. There were so many route options, so many villages, so many valleys—so much to see. I was only 60 kilometers from Quito as the condor flies, but I saw that I could have spent weeks traveling the dirt roads that crisscrossed this tiny region. I had only a week left, however. Where would I go? Was there time?
Ecuador may seem little, but it’s bigger even than the imagination.
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January 3, 2013
For those who grow dreamy-eyed at thoughts of high mountains, vacant wilderness, quinoa on the camp stove and the ever-present chance of seeing a puma, Peru is gold country. The nation encompasses a substantial portion of the low-lying Amazon rainforest as well as a balmy coastline 1,400 miles long—the destinations of jungle explorers, bird watchers, river adventurers and surfers. But it’s the Andes that constitute the nation’s heart. This longest of the world’s mountain ranges runs thousands of miles north to south and largely defines the landscape and the spirit of Peru. In these high Peruvian elevations are sites like Machu Picchu and Cusco, almost endless wilderness, wild cats, guanacos (the wild relatives of alpacas and llamas) and a species of unusual bear and dozens of peaks higher than 18,000 feet. But—good news for travelers—these mountains are not inaccessible. Navigable roads crisscross the spine of the Andes, providing access to some of the planet’s most tremendous and inspiring scenery.
One of the very highest paved passes in the world is just 80 miles from Lima—Ticlio, or Anticona. Now, as I make final arrangements for a trip to Peru with my bicycle, the temptation to ride directly to Anticona is strong—but my brother Andrew, also on this trip, and I have thought better of the idea. The overall climb and the final altitude of almost 16,000 feet on day one just might kill us. Altitude sickness is a very real concern in places like Peru for people like us, who have spent our lives mostly at sea level. To treat this ailment we are packing pills. “Take 1 tablet orally 2 times a day starting 1 day before reaching high altitude, then continue for at least 3 days,” the bottle of Acetazolamide directs us. Yet the best cure may be preventative—becoming acclimated over time. For we would prefer not to subsist on a diverse diet of pills—we also have pills to treat our water, pills to fight stomach bugs, pills for typhoid, anti-inflammatory pills and malaria pills. By remaining high enough—5,000 feet up seems to be the magic number—we can avoid disease-bearing mosquitoes, but that brings us back to those altitude pills. We may just have to take our medicine.
Andrew returns to the States from Quito, Ecuador, three weeks from now, which gives us something of an objective—a 1,100-mile trip to this lofty city (altitude 9,350 feet), arriving by no later than January 19. En route, we’ll have many opportunities to climb two-mile-high passes—and we may try and grab a glance of Mount Huascarán. If we were climbers, this might be our target conquest. Huascarán is the highest mountain in Peru, the highest in the tropics and the fifth highest in all the Andes. It stands 22,205 feet (6,768 meters) above sea level and is preserved within a national park of the same name. The energy costs of cycling on loaded bikes across this sort of terrain may amount to about 4,000 calories per day (we will probably consume about 60 calories per mile of pedaling), which has us already thinking about food. Peru is tropical, and we anticipate a fantastic selection of fruits at outdoor markets. We hope to go especially heavy on cherimoyas, an Andean native that is too costly (often $6 per fruit or so) to buy more than a few times per year in the States. But food, especially fresh produce and the stuff of street vendors, must be treated with caution in Peru. It’s a tall order for travelers fighting a constant calorie deficit—but it is, in fact, our doctors’ orders. Anything with a thick peel should be safe, they have advised us, but raw vegetable salads will wait until we’re home again. We’re not to drink the water, either, and have been advised by experienced travelers to only drink purified water from sealed plastic bottles.
In Turkey about 15 months ago, I had the pleasure of a meeting a brown bear at midnight just outside my tent and then enjoyed a rousing slapstick time of ducking under the bullets of poachers who began firing at the animal. But bears are abundant in Eurasia, while in South American they are not. The spectacled bear lives in much of the northern Andes, but its population consists of just several thousand animals between Bolivia and Venezuela. The spectacled bear is the last living descendant of the enormous short-faced bear, which vanished from North America 12,500 years ago. The odds of seeing a wild bear in Peru are tiny, but the fact that it’s possible elevates this land into a realm of wildness that places like England, Holland, Kansas and Portugal lost long ago, sacrificed for agriculture and towns. Bears, like no other creatures, embody the spirit of wildness (never mind the trash-fat black bears of America’s suburbs and national parks). The world is a richer place just for having these big-muscled carnivores at large—even if we may never see them. Other Peruvian wildlife viewing possibilities include tapirs, anacondas, caimans, jaguars and an incredible wealth of river fishes—including the giant arapaima—in the Amazon basin. In the highlands live guanacos. Tiptoeing through the mountains are also pumas (same species as the cougar or mountain lion), and condors fly overhead. I once read somewhere that hikers in the Andes can be tipped off to the presence of a puma by the sudden appearance of one or more condors ascending into the sky—presumably chased off a half-eaten kill by the returning cat. I’ll be bird watching if it may help me see a cat.
We’ve kept our gear as basic as can be without unnecessarily sacrificing simple comforts. We are packing a bug-proof and waterproof two-person tent, powerful sunscreen, a camping stove, sleeping bags, books, basic bike repair gear and our decadent pill rations. We’re rolling on essentially flat-proof Armadillo tires—and I’ll be writing about our travels from cozy mountain campsites. I’m a Luddite in many ways, but 3G Internet access is a modern miracle I welcome, from the fringes of the civilized world.
December 11, 2012
As polar bears watch their winter ice recede farther and farther from boggy Arctic shores each year, skiers may notice a similar trend occurring in the high mountain ranges that have long been their wintertime playgrounds. Here, in areas historically buried in many feet of snow each winter, climate change is beginning to unfurl visibly, and for those who dream of moguls and fresh powder, the predictions of climatologists are grim: By 2050, Sierra Nevada winter snowpack may have decreased by as much as 70 percent from average levels of today; in the Rockies, the elevation of full winter snow cover may increase from 7,300 feet today to 10,300 feet by the year 2100; in Aspen, the ski season could retreat at both ends by a total of almost two months; and throughout the Western United States, average snow depths could decline by anywhere between 25 and—yep—100 percent.
These, of course, are just visions of wintertime future produced by climatologists and their computers—an easy venue for climate change naysayers to assault. In fact, a recent report commissioned by Protect Our Winters, an environmental organization, and the Natural Resources Defense Council on declining snow levels also noted that annual snowpack depth has remained stable or even increased in parts of California’s Sierra Nevada. Another study, published in January in Environmental Research Letters, foresaw similar outcomes, predicting that global warming could trigger counterintuitive winter cooling in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere. But those findings seem tantamount to just the tip of the iceberg—which is undeniably melting. Because the thing is, global warming has already delivered serious wounds to the world’s ski industry. Europe, especially, has been hurting for years. Back in 2003, the United Nations Environmental Program reported that 15 percent of Swiss ski areas were losing business due to a lack of snow. A few years later, in 2007, one ski resort in the French Alps—Abondance—closed down entirely after a 40-year run. The closure came following a meeting of local officials, who reluctantly agreed that there simply wasn’t enough snow anymore to maintain the Abondance lodge as a ski operation. For several years, low snowfall had been attracting fewer and fewer tourists, and Abondance—once the recipient of millions of tourist Euros each year—began stagnating. The Abondance lodge and the nearby town of the same name lie at a little over 3,000 feet above sea level—low for a ski resort and, so it happens, right in the hot zone of 900 to 1,500 meters that climatologists warn is going to see the most dramatic changes in annual snowfall.
But more alarming than the Abondance shutdown is that which took place at almost six times the elevation, at Bolivia’s Chacaltaya Lodge, once famed as the highest ski resort in the world. Here, outdoorsmen came for decades to ski the Chacaltaya Glacier, which historically flowed out of a mountain valley at more than 17,000 feet. But that wasn’t high enough to escape rising temperatures. The glacier began retreating markedly several decades ago, and over a course of 20 years 80 percent of the icy river vanished. The lodge, which first opened in 1939 and was a training ground for Bolivia’s first Olympic ski team, closed in 2009.
Similar results of global warming can be expected in the American ski and snow sports industries. Already, as many as 27,000 people have lost their seasonal jobs in poor snow years in the past decade, with revenue losses as much as $1 billion, according to the recent study conducted for Protect Our Winters and NRDC. The study cites reduced snowfall and shorter winters as the culprits. In total, 212,000 people are employed in the American ski industry.
The irony of the ski industry’s impending troubles is the fact that ski resorts, equipment manufacturers and skiers themselves have played a role in fueling the fire that is melting the snows. The carbon footprint of the ski industry is a heavy one. Seventy million people visit the Alps alone each year to ski or otherwise play in the snow—and travel to and from the mountains is recognized as perhaps the most carbon-costly component of the industry. But excluding tourist travel, lodges and ski resorts are major users of energy and producers of trash. A 2003 book by Hal Clifford, Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment, details the many ecological and cultural problems associated with the skiing industry. Among these is clear-cutting to produce those dreamy treeless mountainsides that millions of downhillers long for on many a summer day. The ski resort Arizona Snowbowl, for one, was lambasted last year for plans to cut down 30,000 trees—a 74-acre grove of pines considered holy by indigenous nations. And just prior to the kickoff of the 2006 Turin Winter Games, in Italy, The Independent ran a story under the headline “Is it possible to ski without ruining the environment?” The article named “ski tourism-induced traffic pollution and increasing urban sprawl of hotels and holiday homes in former Alpine villages to the visually intrusive and habitat-wrecking ski lifts” as faults of the industry. The article continued, noting that with the “spectre of global warming … now stalking the Alps,” the ski industry of Europe “is waking up to its environmental responsibilities—just in the nick of time.”
Right: “Just in the nick of time.” That article came out almost seven years ago, and look where we are now. The earth, by most measures, is warmer than ever, and snow is declining. A study just published in Geophysical Research Letters reported that locations in Eurasia have set new records for lowest-ever spring snow cover each year since 2008. In North America, according to the same report, three of the last five years have seen record low snow cover in the spring. It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that commercial use of snow machines is on the rise. These draw up liquid water and blast out 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per minute as frosty white snow. It may take 75,000 gallons of water to lightly coat a 200- by 200-foot ski slope, and the energy-intensive machines have been blamed for their role in pollution and excessive water use. And while snow machines can serve as a crutch for limping ski resorts, the snow they produce is reportedly quite crummy in quality—and they’re anything but a cure for the greater problem.
Where do you like to ski? Have you seen more exposed rocks and muddy December slopes and snow machines at work? This article offers a summary of how several major ski regions in the world will feel the heat of global warming. Every mountain range around the world will feel the heat.
Will warmer winters mean richer skiers? In 2007, the mayor of the French Alps town of Abondance, Serge Cettour-Meunier, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Skiing is again becoming a sport for the rich,” explaining that soon only more expensive, high-elevation ski resorts would have enough snow for skiing.
November 28, 2012
What would you want to eat if you were starving on a dinghy lost at sea? In the 2001 novel Life of Pi, adapted as a movie now in theaters, the castaway protagonist, a 16-year-old Indian boy nicknamed Pi, spends the better part of a year on a lifeboat—and one day as he reaches a near-death pinnacle of hunger, suffering and delirium, he envisions a tree full of ripe figs. “‘The branches…are bent over, they are so weighed down with figs,’” Pi drones to himself in reverie. “‘There must be over three hundred figs in that tree.’” Readers are convinced: Perhaps nothing beats a fig for a starving man.
Life of Pi is fiction, but daydreaming of food is a real-life tradition as old as the saga of man against the elements. If we scour the pages of the many books about grueling expeditions across land and sea, we find an impassioned menu of sweet and savory delights to make the mouth water. In his 1986 memoir Adrift, author Steve Callahan—a sailor who was lost at sea for 76 days in 1982—sets a lavish table of dreams on page 108: “I spend an increasing amount of time thinking about food. Fantasies about an inn-restaurant [I dream of opening] become very detailed. I know how the chairs will be arranged and what the menu will offer. Steaming sherried crab overflows flaky pie shells bedded on rice pilaf and toasted almonds. Fresh muffins puff out of pans. Melted butter drools down the sides of warm, broken bread. The aroma of baking pies and brownies wafts through the air. Chilly mounds of ice cream stand firm in my mind’s eye. I try to make the visions melt away, but hunger keeps me awake for hours at night. I am angry with the pain of hunger, but even as I eat [the fish I caught] it will not stop.” (Film director Ang Lee consulted Callahan during the making of Life of Pi for accuracy in portraying the hardships of being lost at sea.)
Men Against the Sea, the historical fiction account of the sailors cast away on a lifeboat by the mutineers of HMS Bounty, is a novella steeped in stomach-scraping hunger. At one point, a man named Lawrence Lebogue exclaims after a failed skirmish with a huge sea turtle he had nearly pulled into the boat, “‘A monster…all of two hundredweight! … To think of the grub we’ve lost! Did ‘ee ever taste a bit of calipee?’” (Calipee is a main ingredient in turtle soup.) Moments later, Capt. William Bligh tells the crew’s botanist, David Nelson, of the feasts he sat in on in the West Indies. Bligh describes “‘their stuffing and swilling of wine. Sangaree and rum punch and Madeira till one marveled they could hold it all. And the food! Pepper pot, turtle soup, turtle steaks, grilled calipee; on my word, I’ve seen enough, at a dinner for six, to feed us from here to Timor!’”
Bligh and the loyal men of the Bounty lived like princes compared with those of the Essex, the Nantucket whaling ship rammed and sunk by an angry bull sperm whale in 1820. In Owen Chase’s autobiographical account of the ordeal, part of the book The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, the first mate holds a mostly dry and colorless course: He tells of how the 20 men journeyed for weeks in their small open boats, racing time, dehydration and starvation. They attempt in vain to kill sharks and porpoises, they land on an island and quickly exhaust its thin resources of bird eggs, and they continue across the open Pacific, hoping always to see a sail while growing ever weaker and emaciated. Through it all, the New Englanders essentially never eat or drink. Finally, Chase pauses in his chronology of dates and coordinates to tell of a moment in which he dozed off: “I dreamt of being placed near a splendid and rich repast, where there was every thing that the most dainty appetite could desire; and of contemplating the moment in which we were to commence to eat with enraptured feelings of delight; and just as I was about to partake of it, I suddenly awoke….” Chase leaves us with our eager forks aloft—and we never learn just what it was that he hoped to eat. Turtle soup, likely. In the following days as the anguished men expired one by one, Chase and his companions resorted to cannibalism. Just eight of the lot were rescued.
While stranded for the austral winter of 1916 on the barren Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, after escaping from Antarctica in three tiny lifeboats, the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition passed the time reading through a Penny Cookbook that one of the men had kept dry through many months of dire tribulations. And how that book made them dream! The men had been living for months on seal (and sled dog) meat, and Thomas Ordes-Lee, the expedition’s ski expert and storekeeper, wrote in his journal, “[W]e want to be overfed, grossly overfed, yes, very grossly overfed on nothing but porridge and sugar, black currant and apple pudding and cream, cake, milk, eggs, jam, honey and bread and butter till we burst, and we’ll shoot the man who offers us meat. We don’t want to see or hear of any more meat as long as we live.” Their carb cravings were more apparent when one man—the surgeon James McIlroy—conducted a poll to see what each sailor would have to eat if he could choose anything. Their answers included apple pudding, Devonshire dumpling, porridge, Christmas dumpling, dough and syrup and a fruit tart—with most of these dolloped with cream. Just two men wished for meat (pork was their choice), while one with a bleaker imagination said he just wanted bread and butter. For three more months until their rescue, they ate seal and rehydrated milk.
Author Jon Krakauer tells us in his 1990 Eiger Dreams of the time 15 years before that he and a climber friend named Nate Zinsser were holed up during a storm while ascending a new route up the 10,335-foot peak Moose’s Tooth, in Alaska. Dreaming of food, Zinsser said, “If we had some ham, we could make ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.” In The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an expedition member on Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic voyage of 1901-1903 on the Discovery, recalls one frigid winter’s day, saying, “And I wanted peaches and syrup—badly.” And Felicity Aston, a modern explorer from Britain whom I interviewed last January about her solo ski trip across Antarctica, recalled as a highlight of her journey receiving a gift of a nectarine and an apple upon reaching the South Pole research station.
There was no food shortage on the Norwegian research vessel Fram, which Fridtjof Nansen captained into the Arctic Ocean in 1893. His sturdy boat was built with a fortified hull under the plan that she would become frozen in the sea ice and thereby allow Nansen to track the drift of the ice layer by watching the stars—classic, rock solid science in the golden age of discovery. It was a planned “disaster” voyage—and the men went prepared. Nansen, who finally stumbled home again in 1896 caked in campfire soot and seal grease, wrote in his 1897 memoir Farthest North that the expedition carried at the outset several years’ worth of canned and dried foods of numerous sorts. Only during foot or skiff expeditions away from the boat—such as Nansen’s long hike home—did the team members experience great monotony of diet. On one outing, they forgot butter to slab on their biscuits and so named the nearest land “Cape Butterless.” They lived during longer forays on seal, walrus and polar bear—pinniped and bear for breakfast, lunch and dinner; so much pinniped and bear that the reader feels an itch to floss his teeth and scrub down with dish detergent. Meanwhile, Nansen stops to take depth soundings, sketch fossils, study rock strata and express interest in every piece of possible data—and though the pragmatic scientist never does slip into a shameless food fantasy, we know he had them.
If you’d been in Nansen’s boots, what would you have piled on your plate?
July 27, 2012
So many places to go, and so many books to read—and so we continue last week’s list with more suggestions of great books to read, and the best places to read them.
Cameroon, The Innocent Anthropologist. When a pragmatic English scientist meets the superstitions and seeming simplicity of a rural people in Cameroon, multicultural comedy unfurls. So it goes for Nigel Barley as he struggles to interpret the ways of the gregarious, beer-brewing Dowayo tribe, whose friendliness both hinders and helps Barley as he conducts his doctoral research. The story is told from the grad student’s discerning but patient point of view—and the reader who takes this book onto a crowded subway train may fall into helpless fits of giggling as one set of cultural norms runs head-on into the other. No matter; keep reading. Watch for the episode in which Barley, after being informed of yet another setback in a long string of bureaucratic hassles over visas and research funding, glumly takes a seat on a fence post to ponder his uncertain future in academia. Promptly, a local man rushes over with sincere concern to tell Barley that he mustn’t sit on a fence, which will draw vitamins from a body and cause illness. Barley, who had for months displayed an admirable show of patience for the Dowayos’ superstitions, blows his lid, ranting and ridiculing their beliefs. But if we’re to ever learn anything from the science of anthropology, it’s that the watched may also be the watcher—and to the Dowayo, this English white man scribbling in notebooks, eating chicken eggs, sitting on fence posts and having causeless tantrums is probably as inexplicable as they are to Barley. For further reading about Central Africa, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 bestseller, takes us to the Belgian Congo in 1959, where a determined Baptist missionary named Nathan Price has brought his wife and four daughters. As in The Mosquito Coast, the Americans’ life in the steamy jungle dissolves and is bound for tragedy, while Price’s mind deteriorates.
Alaska, Into the Wild. Beyond the cruise ship and tour bus routes, nearly every traveler in Alaska has come there, in part, to face-off with extreme adventure and virgin wilderness—to be in a place whose rugged beauty goes hand in hand with unforgiving danger. And so went Chris McCandless almost 20 years ago to Alaska, after months spent adventuring in the lower 48 and Mexico, as he sought to break the social contract and connect with nature and with himself. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, tells the famous story of McCandless’ abandonment of society, his adoption of the pseudonym Alex Supertramp and his grand finale in America’s greatest, or most terrible, wilderness. Here, McCandless runs out of food on the wrong side of a high-running river. Though he subsists by shooting small game and picking berries, he slowly loses weight—and eventually McCandless dies in the harsh world he had pursued as a sort of Eden. For further reading, To the Top of Denali describes the most terrifying and disastrous attempts to climb North America’s tallest mountain—a four-mile-high peak that may dazzle its admirers from afar but could claim their lives if they attempted to hike to its summit.
The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, Biography of a Grizzly. Published in 1899, Ernest Seton Thompson’s illustrated novella, The Biography of a Grizzly, was one of the first expressions of compassion for what was at the time among the most hated beasts of the Wild West. The book details the life of Wahb, a grizzly born in Wyoming in the late 1800s, when Euro-Americans were at work conquering the West and driving the grizzly bear toward regional extinction. We are introduced to Wahb as a 1-year-old cub, when he and his siblings are still learning the ways of the wilderness—such as how to catch giant buffalo fish in streams and make a meal of an anthill. Then, as the bears pass a warm afternoon in a grassy meadow, bullets begin to fly. All the bears are downed by the distant sharpshooter—except for Wahb, who scurries into the woods, his family dead and he wounded in both flesh and spirit. Embittered with a hatred of people and distrust of the world, Wahb survives—and in spite of bullying by coyotes and black bears, he grows up. He quickly outsizes all his enemies, and he becomes the biggest, kingliest grizzly in the mountains. He can smash logs to pieces with one swipe of his giant paw, and can pull steel-jawed bear traps off his paws like clothespins. The story easily evokes the beauty of the Grand Tetons and the high plains of Yellowstone, but the reader senses a dark future, and the Biography of a Grizzly ultimately calls for a box of tissue paper. For time, and the encroach of mankind, will be Wahb’s doom.
The High Arctic, Never Cry Wolf. It is 1948, and a decline in the caribou population of the Canadian Arctic has spurred government action, and a young biologist named Farley Mowat is assigned to study the region’s wolves, verify that they have played a role in obliterating the great migrating herds and effectively give the Canadian Department of the Interior the green light to cull their numbers. But Mowat, who will become one of North America’s most prominent nature writers, makes a surprising discovery: The wolves are mostly eating mice. Uncertain he can convince his superiors and his critics of such a conclusion without strong evidence, Mowat undertakes to do the same—to subsist, at least for a time, on heaping helpings of one-ounce rodents. Never Cry Wolf is Mowat’s memoir describing his months spent camping on the Arctic tundra, developing a unique friendship with a local wolf community and refining methods and recipes for cooking mice, which infest his tent cabin. The 1983 film version of Mowat’s book brings great comedy to his story but ends with a crushing scene of sport hunters packing wolf pelts into a seaplane as Mowat, played by Charles Martin Smith, looks sullenly on. The plane flies away in a blast of noise and wind, and Mowat is left alone, the wolves he knew dead and gone, and his efforts to exonerate them of wanton caribou-killing seemingly for naught. Critics have questioned Mowat’s integrity as a scientist and as a reliable conveyor of facts—but he tells a good story.
England, Notes From a Small Island. “If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order’…” So writes Bill Bryson in Chapter 1 of Notes From a Small Island, and though Britons, as he describes them, seem to have no understanding of road-tripping and make a muddy mess of driving directions, the author manages to find his way. And so Bryson tours England, marveling at its ridiculously designed suburbs, its appalling food and the unintentional charm of its people. Bryson proves as he always does in his books: that it’s possible to double over laughing at the cultures and customs of a familiar Western nation. For further reading, Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There is his good-natured laugh-attack of mainland Europe; in In a Sunburned Country, Bryson takes on Australia; and in The Lost Continent, he discovers the absurdities of America.
Other suggestions, briefly:
Italy, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. Journalist Joe McGinnis takes readers into the mountains of Abruzzo, where a small-town soccer team, through what seems a miracle, ascends into the higher standings of the national soccer leagues—but the great Italian dream crashes amid sour smells of the mafia, cheaters and rats.
Spain, Driving Over Lemons. Author Chris Stewart recounts leaving his life in suburban England for a new one in Andalucia, in southern Spain, where he soaks up the idiosyncrasies and comedy of the region’s friendly but rugged village culture.
California wine country, The Silverado Squatters. In this fast-reading memoir, Robert Louis Stevenson describes his nine weeks of residence in the Napa Valley in the 1880s . The land—wealthy tourist country today—was still frontier country then, and though the wine was still young, it was Stevenson who famously said with foresight “…and the wine is bottled poetry.”
The American Southwest, Desert Solitaire. To bring the desert to life on your next Southwest getaway, pack along a paperback copy of Desert Solitaire—Edward Abbey’s classic eulogy to the canyon lands and mesa country of Utah. Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, by W.L. Rusho, may have the same effect. The book tells the famous story of the artist and desert wanderer from Southern California who spent several years developing a fast relationship with some of the wildest country in America before vanishing without a trace in Utah in 1934, when he was only 20.
Greece, The Odyssey. Homer’s most celebrated story brings to life the lands and seas of Greece, depicted then much as they still look and feel today. Whether you’re cycling through Greece’s wild mountains or kayaking along its ragged, rocky coast, you’ll be reminded by a few pages each night of The Odyssey (pick your translation) of the nation’s deep history, and you may never want to quit your travels in this most classic of the world’s landscapes.
Which books did I miss? Name them in the comment box below.