Don’t know about you, but I’m getting a lot of reading done these days. I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird, which I still can’t believe I made it through school without reading. On my nightstand are The Overstory by Richard Powers and Edge of the Map by Johanna Garton. Coventry by Rachel Cusk calls to me to finish it with a reminder of how lucid close observation can be. There’s a Stephen King open on my Kindle app…which one? Ah, yes, The Institute. Oh, and Joni just finished a loaner copy of Michelle Obama’s Becoming and I get it next.
Sometimes, though, you want to lose yourself in a classic adventure tale, where a human sets a goal and then launches on a quest to accomplish that goal. Can they climb this? Can they paddle this faster than anyone? Can they survive a plane crash in the Sahara? These five are some of my faves (four in photo because Emerald Mile is out on loan). I’ve read them all more than once, and each time I discover new delights within.
The Emerald Mile
In 1983, the Colorado River was in flood. The winter had seen the biggest El Niño on record, and the mountains of the Southwest were fat with snow. Late May, the temperature shot into the 80s and the snowpack melted almost all at once. Engineers at Glen Canyon Dam released massive amounts of water downstream, and into this maelstrom paddled river guide Kenton Grua and two of his friends, piloting the wooden dory that gives Kevin Fedarko’s book its name.
Grua was obsessed with the Grand Canyon—he was the first person to hike the length of it—and he had a purist’s connection to wooden boats, which had been used on the Colorado since John Wesley Powell’s first descent in the 1800s, and in particular to the Emerald Mile, which Grua patched and repaired after a horrific encounter with a rock nearly destroyed the boat. Grua had long wanted to beat the canyon speed record of 48 hours, and with the high water that May, and ignoring the admonishments of authorities to stay off the river, he thought he could.
Fedarko’s masterful narrative is a page-turner, even when you know the outcome (I’ve read it three times). He sets the story in motion and then slides from one current to another with the nuance stroke of an oar. There’s the strangely compelling study of hydrodynamics and dam construction, the romance and lore of wooden boats, and the deep passion of one man so unconcerned with fame that it was years before his canyon thru-hike was well-known beyond the flickering light of Colorado River campfires. The Emerald Mile as layered as the canyon walls themselves and as fast-moving as a river in flood. Put it on your list.
Andy Kirkpatrick is a brilliant thinker and bold alpinist who happens to be severely dyslexic. In school years, this left him adrift with his struggles, and not until he found climbing and art did life start to come into registration for him. His first alpine climbs were way beyond his abilities or experience, but he somehow survived. Compelled to share what he found in the mountains, and how he continued when partners blanched, he wrestled for two years to his first effort into words. Two years. That’s more time than many people spend writing books, let alone one story, but Kirkpatrick is nothing if not dogged. From the U.K., he faxed it off to Climbing magazine, where it was accepted by legendary editor Michael Kennedy, and from that day on Andy was a writer.
This winner of the 2008 Boardman-Tasker prize is half memoir, half account of his 12-day solo climb of El Cap’s Reticent Wall in Yosemite. The chapters alternate between glimpses of his past (gritty childhood, hardscrabble adolescence) and time on the wall, which is refreshingly candid and human. Example: “What was I doing? This was insane. I’d wasted most of the day just hauling my bag up one pitch. How on earth would I ever make it to the top? … Soloing is all about self-confidence, and right then I had zero.”
In the early chapters, as the neophyte alpinist takes risk after risk, I found myself biting my knuckle, saying No, Andy, no… He strings long runouts with zero chance of protection, commits to pitches where there’s no turning back, gets hit by sloughs and has his boot shorn from his foot. Yet somehow he survives, and this hard man with a soft heart returns to spin his yarns with brutal honesty and unflinching introspection, at his most poignant when he struggles with the conflicting pulls of his climbing obsession and his commitment to family.
Wind, Sand and Stars
You know Antoine de Saint-Exupery as the author of The Little Prince and perhaps as the wordsmith who wrote, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” He was also a pioneering aviator who carried mail across the Mediterranean from Europe to Africa and flew mail routes in South America. Wind, Sand and Stars is the tidy, taut tale of those early years of commercial aviation—the 1920s and 1930s—when airplanes seemed little more than wind-up toys and crashes and strandings were frequent. Yet, in Saint-Exupery’s words, the experience of being a human in places where no human belongs is timeless. Consider this passage, from being caught in a storm over Chile:
“There I was safe out of the clouds; but I was still blinded by the thick whirling snow and I had to hang on to my lake if I wasn’t to crash into one of the sides of the funnel. So down I went, and I flew round and round the lake, about a hundred and fifty feet above it, until I ran out of fuel. After two hours of this, I set the ship down on the snow—and over on the nose she went.
“When I dragged myself clear of her I stood up. The wind knocked me down. I stood up again. Over I went a second time. So I crawled under the cockpit and dug me out a shelter in the snow. I pulled a lot of mail sacks round me, and there I lay for two days and two nights.”
In 1962, single mothers of four generally didn’t wade into the Pacific Ocean and swim into the unknown with no hope of turning back, but Audrey Sutherland wasn’t like most single mothers. From the time she was a little girl in Southern California until she passed away at age 94, Sutherland lived emphatically by the mantra she expressed at every turn: go simple, go solo, go now. And so she jumped in the waters off Molokai, towed a raft with supplies, camped on empty beaches at night, and swam the north coast by herself.
At age 59, this school counselor determined to paddle the colder waters of Alaska. She ordered a nine-foot inflatable kayak and heaps of maps and for the next 20 summers she traveled north to kayak from island to island. These trips form the backbone of Paddling North, Sutherland’s ode to self-sufficiency, stitched together with recipes and tips and nuggets of advice. Sutherland was a tough woman, and her prose is often as direct as a cold wave across the bow, but her personal imperatives hang in the air like challenges”: “I didn’t need to get ‘away.’ I needed to get ‘to.’ To simplicity. I wanted to be lean and hard and sunbrowned and kind. Instead, I felt fat and soft and white and mean.”
At just 160-some pages, Paddling North can be consumed in one long sitting, but that would be the equivalent of motoring the Northwest Passage. Better to take the leisurely pace of a blow-up kayak, subject to the push and pull of Sutherland’s tidal adventures, as lingering and memorable as a sunset in the far north, seen from a deserted beach on an uninhabited island.
Lands of Lost Borders
Some books you read for the story, some books you read for the writing, and some books you read to witness in amazement a talent truly blessed. Such a talent is Kate Harris, whose story of a Silk Road bicycling journey we featured in AJ quarterly (if I could have excepted the entire book, I would have). Harris packs a universe into every paragraph of Lands of Lost Borders and weaves prose-poetry in nearly every line. Consider the opening of the book:
“The end of the world was always just out of reach. Cracked asphalt deepened to night beyond the reach of our headlamps, the thin beams swallowed by blackness that receded before us now matter how fast we biked. Light was a kind of pavement thrown down in front of our wheels, and the road went on and on. If I ever reach the end, I remember thinking, I’ll fly off the end of the world. I pedaled harder.”
At the outset of her ride, launching from Istanbul, she and longtime friend Mel Yule first miss their ferry stop across the Bosporus, then at their first turn, one goes right and one goes left. Rather than being inauspicious, it’s a profoundly symbolic reminder that it isn’t so much which way you go, but that you do go, and you pay attention to what you find along the way. Audrey Sutherland would have been proud.