If you're looking for high-altitude tales of frostbit bravery and perilous icefalls, keep looking. This is the story of what happens when a man goes down instead of up.
An Odd Character in the Bush
"One of the advantages of cycling is that it automatically prevents a journey from becoming an Expedition."
-Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India with a Bicycle, 1965
The closest I've come to an expedition was my honeymoon, six months on bicycles with no particular destination. Fate had dealt our little team two leaders and no followers. We survived because Sonya and I were linked not only by marriage but also, for better or worse, by physiology. We had ants in our pants. Like dogs sticking their heads out of car windows, we liked feeling the world go by. All we really needed was a map.
I'm a sucker for a pretty map, and a few years after the honeymoon I received as a gift The Times Atlas of the World. It was the size of an oven door, and with a little free time and just one beer it was easy to picture places where rain hardly ever falls or snow comes in August, where people love Jesus or bend toward Mecca. To my eyes, the best map of all was a colored topographic plate labeled "China, West."
I found it one evening while Sonya fiddled with her flute. Staring out from the center of the map was the yellow oval of the Takla Makan Desert, a thousand miles across and rimmed with ice-mountains colored frostbite gray. The towns were arranged like the pearls of a necklace, evenly spaced along the foot of the mountains. They were oases, and the one called Turpan sat within a deep green oval. That shade of green appeared nowhere else on the map, because no other place was like Turpan-it was sunk five hundred feet below sea level.
I urged Sonya, a geologist by training and disposition, to sit down and take a look at the great green dimple in the desert. What in the world, I mused, were those Turpanians doing down there?
Sonya, who fears nothing but sunburn, took a look. "It could be thrusting," she said with admirable if misplaced focus on the geologic situation at hand. "Or it could be a sunken block." I said that I meant the people, not the hole. "Who knows?" she said-and that was mystery enough. Three years had passed since our honeymoon, and we had the itch.
I picked an excessively scenic route via Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan-the back door to China, over the mountains. After one year and several hundred dollars in phone calls to secure the "invitation" each visa required, we flew from our Arizona home to the other side of the earth. With us in the plane were two boxes, and in the boxes were our bicycles and camping gear.
The pedaling made us happy, and the people saved our necks. The mountains were gorgeous and brutal. On our bikes, we were exposed to the winds, the wilds, the works, and this vulnerability pulled kindness from everyone. We lived on flatbread and woolly cheese lumps and fermented mare's milk proffered by Kyrgyz herders wearing coats that were little more than sheep turned inside out, with the original owners evicted.
Three weeks skinnier, we reached the 12,400-foot pass into China. The atlas was right: it was August and snowing. Back in Arizona, we'd imagined summer flurries to be refreshing. We hadn't counted on freezing.
Far below was the Takla Makan, a glowing pool of warmth. The tourist literature insisted that Takla Makan meant "Go in and you don't go out." I wanted in. People say terrible things about deserts; they give them frightening names like Hell Hole and Satan's Armpit. But to a man standing in a frozen mud rut, going down made perfect sense.
Turpan was a hot and cheerful oasis of not-too-serious Muslims. They placed their faith in fruit. Their grapes and melons were a kind of miracle, grown not with rain but with meltwater from glaciers 18,000 feet above the town. Water was carried from the foot of the mountains in a subterranean waterworks of man-high tunnels dating from glory days of the Silk Road.
This liquid catacomb beneath the driest place in China was meant to last forever. The tunnels didn't lose water to the desert sun; they were immune to sandstorms; gravity delivered the water to irrigation ditches running along the streets. At day's end, when the donkey carts loaded with raisins quit stirring up the dust, the locals hauled their beds from their mud houses and parked them beside the canals, for the cool of the indigo sky and a little water music.
The surrounding desert was nearly rainless yet vaguely aqueous, with nude mountains of paleo-lake sediments sliced by erosion until they looked like shark's teeth, and sand dunes as black as a swamp.
No signs announced our elevation. Perhaps it was just the thick air, but pedaling below the usual level of the sea gave me the juvenile but real pleasure of breaking rules. One day Sonya and I lunched on noodles at a cafe that was no more than a grape trellis and tables with a view of the Tien Shan Mountains. The name means heavenly, but when I looked up at the dirty glaciers I was thankful for our deliverance from those cold and windy cracks.
Down was better than up, and it was only a matter of time before Turpan's burnt hills and friendly desolation gave me an idea: why not visit the lowest points on the planet? The bellybutton of each continent. The scheme had two golden attributes: I wouldn't need insulated underwear, and I could ride my bicycle.
It was a wonderful and unlikely scheme. But it seemed to me that most everyone has such a plan tucked into his or her imagination, including the Turpan watermelon vendor who fancied himself emigrating to the United States and triumphantly returning five years later, quite wealthy yet still pious. The odds were not in his favor, but that really wasn't the point. It was the plan that counted, the pleasure of possibility.
Which is why, upon our return to Arizona, I looked up the lowest place below sea level on each continent. It was easy: each pit was marked on the National Geographic Map of the World. Turpan isn't the nadir of Asia-that would be the Dead Sea, on the shaky Israel-Jordan border. The beach of the Dead Sea is 1,350 feet below sea level, the lowest you can go on earth without a submarine or a flashlight.
I discovered that a good bit of Australia drains not to the ocean but into a sump called Lake Eyre, just 49 feet below sea level. In Europe, the lowest you can go is minus 92 feet on the Russian shore of the Caspian Sea. Salina Grande is sunk 140 feet in the center of South America's Valdez Peninsula, in the Patagonian Desert of Argentina. North America's basement, Death Valley, goes deeper, 282 feet below sea level, and only 700 miles from my home in Tucson. And Africa bottoms out at minus 505 feet on the shore of Lac Assal, in the wee country of Djibouti.
I was alarmed that I'd never heard of Djibouti, but happy to see that Antarctica's depression is buried under 15,000 feet of ice. I scratched it from the list. I didn't mind a risk so long as it was a warm risk. Way down in the pits, closer to the core of things, I imagined therapeutic sunlight and oxygen galore. Yet nobody, so far as I knew, had ever reached all the world's depressions-or at least they weren't talking about it. The idea of climbing the Seven Summits, highest on each continent, inspired a race to the top of the world. The Six Sumps were forsaken, the opposite of success, and it was easy to understand why. Take your choice: climber or lowlife.
Because of my desire to go down rather than up, I didn't bother looking for money from the sort of sponsors that offer financial encouragement to people with more lofty aspirations, willing to hang from a cliff on an alloy claw the size of a cricket. For the next few years I kept taking freelance work as a journalist or botanist. My plan languished on a back burner, where it did not seem so absurd. I was not alone in this regard. "On my tenth birthday a bicycle and an atlas coincided as gifts," wrote the Irish cyclist Dervla Murphy in Full Tilt, "and a few days later I decided to cycle to India. . . . However, I was a cunning child so I kept my ambition to myself, thus avoiding the tolerant amusement it would have provoked among my elders."
But, unlike Murphy, I didn't grow up aiming for the bottom. As a boy I'd looked up-to big people, big machines, big mountains. I'd become a fairly regular guy, married to the opposite sex and settled in a brick house a mile from my high school. I lacked the usual excuses for wandering the globe.
"I decided that travel was flight and pursuit in equal parts," mused Paul Theroux while taking the choo-choo out of the "gray sodden city" of London, bound for The Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux fled bad weather, or the end of his marriage. The weather in Tucson was fine and my wife had not left me. I wasn't battling addiction, and my parents had failed to abuse me as a child. My exceedingly ordinary life might have depressed me if I suffered from depression, but I didn't. I just wasn't a quest kind of guy.
And then the phone rang with an unusual proposal. It was the year the Internet began gobbling up print magazines, much to my disgust. Yet I listened carefully when an editor I knew well from the Discovery Channel's computer venue, Discovery Online, tossed out her idea of a trip for an intrepid reporter.
"We'll equip you with a laptop, digital camera, and satellite phone, then send you far away, to some undisclosed destination that not even you know." The story would be in my efforts to find my way home over the course of a month. The electronics would allow me to transmit dispatches and pictures from the road for posting to their website. "We'll call it One-Way Ticket to Nowhere," she said with guarded enthusiasm. "Think about it."
I thought about it. I thought that if I were on the road for a month, I'd rather be freewheeling with my bicycle than hoping for the good will of whatever tribe Discovery decided to drop me into. There would still be dangers, including the chronic threat to a bicycle traveler of being mistaken for a Mormon missionary, but I came up with a counteroffer: I'd gladly go to an obscure locale, so long as I chose it. How about Lake Eyre, the lowest point in Australia? I'd ride my bicycle, which guaranteed that I'd meet the locals-I'd just be able to escape if necessary. If all works out to everyone's pleasure, I added hopefully, I'll take a pit trip every year, one to each continent.
She bought it-not the whole menu, just Australia for a start. Success there, she hastened to point out, may or may not lead to the other depressions; six years was a very long time in the publishing business. I agreed: I would travel in my archaic mode, and the computer would relentlessly connect me to my editor. The burden of technology was lamentable but bearable. I'd written for years on a computer and I thought it merely an ambitious typewriter, probably radioactive. I'd risked the Internet at the public library, diligently checking on the claims of rampant pornography. And I guessed I wouldn't need to lug a satellite phone-surely there were phones everywhere in Australia.
Or were there? My notions of Australia were a grab bag of hard fact and harebrained rumor. So far as I knew, it was a gigantic and lonesome island that long ago had wandered far away from the other continents. Fate had dragged it to the Southern Hemisphere, where everything is backward-sun in the north, constellations upended, New Year's in the dead heat of summer.
I was reasonably sure that two sorts of people lived there: sunburned Brits, guzzling immense cans of Foster's beer, and grub-eating aborigines playing classical tunes on a kind of bassoon. The British had taken over the places most like Britain and the natives got the good parts, where they hunted with boomerangs the Tasmanian Devils and wallabies and other creatures pouched and hopping weird. There were crocodiles too, I recalled, long and quiet, like canoes with teeth and hunger.
Most of Australia, however, wasn't right for crocodiles. It was a desert, a bloody red desert with a huge rock stuck in the middle.
I may have had a few details wrong, but that was my Australia. It was an image based solidly if not proudly on National Geographic specials and Saturday morning cartoons, a memory buttressed by National Lampoon satires and the World Book Encyclopedia. Such visions were tough to dislodge by truth alone.
Yet even the most elementary research revealed that there would be no oasis of grapes and canals at the bottom of Australia. The World Book described Lake Eyre as a "strange lake," roughly in mid-continent, that had recently covered 6,000 square miles, but because it was in "an extremely hot region" it was currently "just a vast salt pan." Nobody lived there.
If Lake Eyre was dry and lonely, it seemed proper to start my ride at a place that was wet and busy. That would be the city of Darwin, on the tropical northern coast. I guessed it was sweating with jungles and swimming with crocodiles, and although this sounded awful I wanted to see for myself. From Darwin to Lake Eyre it was a straight shot south into the arid heart of Australia. Heading south was no small bonus: the sun would be at my back, not in my face.
It was around fifteen hundred miles from the wetlands to the salt pan, the last two hundred miles along a dirt road with its own name, the Oodnadatta Track. This was likely too far to cover in the thirty days Discovery had given me, but I figured I could hitch if needed-if anyone ever came along.
Seeking fresh information on my route, I wrote to a Margaret Day of the Bicycle Federation of Australia. Within a month I'd received Ms. Day's kind reply, in an envelope plastered with kangaroo and pygmy possum stamps. "Water supplies are essential as you already know. Small towns/petrol station outlets are about 100-120 kilometers apart along the road so supplies are not too much of a problem if you can eat basic food. Flies could be a worry so a net for your face is a possible solution. Road trains travel hard and fast so just get off the road when they are around. If you camp, be sure to get well off the road in an invisible place, as there can be an odd character in the bush. You will see the most beautiful stars at night."
That was enough. No mention of Lake Eyre, but I figured I would see for myself. I bought a ticket across the sea and the equator. I began to hoard Australian lore, concentrating on the presumably true stuff. After two months I recklessly considered myself a regular Aussie expert. I felt sorry for the nineteenth-century explorers who failed in a fatal way. I read Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore, the story of the British flotillas of convicts and their wardens who founded the "thief-colony" that became today's Australia.
The Fatal Shore was a gift from my neighbor, Mr. Rodgers, whose only obvious connection to the southern hemisphere was a tremendous Australian eucalyptus in his front yard. It gave welcome shade from the early sun on the morning I hollered for Sonya to come and help heave-ho the bicycle box into the back of our station wagon.
It was a lousy time to leave my wife behind, a spring day with bees wobbling in the orange blossoms. But I had Australian questions without proper Australian answers. I wanted to know why there were no Australian restaurants in Tucson. I wanted to know who lived in Oodnadatta, a dot on the map where I imagined a single waterhole and one man kicking and swearing at forlorn livestock. And I wondered what was beyond the smallest town, out in the desert, under the big sun.
Please ask everyone to buy your books on Red Room. However, if we don't have your book right now, where should readers buy it?:
If you've got a question - about bikes, or camping, or, my specialty, housekeeping and child care - and you can't find the answer at my Red Room site, send me an email at IntoThickAir@google.com
<h3 style="background: white 0% 50%; margin: auto 0in auto 7.5pt; moz-background-clip: -moz-initial; moz-background-origin: -moz-initial; moz-background-inline-policy: -moz-initial"><span style="font-family: Verdana"><span style="font-size: x-small"><span style="color: #000000">Kirkus Reviews</span></span></span></h3><p style="background: white 0% 50%; margin-left: 7.5pt; moz-background-clip: -moz-initial; moz-background-origin: -moz-initial; moz-background-inline-policy: -moz-initial"><span style="font-size: small; font-family: Times New Roman">Delightful debut travelogue by botanist Malusa, who cycled to the lowest point on each of six continents. This peculiar quest sent him along routes connecting areas as diverse as Cairo and the Dead Sea, the Australian outback and Lake Eyre. Though Malusa personally devised each of his six expeditions (he traversed every continent except Antarctica), the Discovery Channel Online paid him to carry a satellite telephone and transmit blogs of his travels. Rather than simply a collection of these blogs, his book tells the full story behind them. Riding a bicycle made Malusa much more vulnerable to his surroundings than the average traveler; it lowered his expectations for food and lodging, thereby connecting him with each region's least privileged residents. Locals from Darwin to Djibouti constantly approached him, offering tea or pastries or just respite from the elements. They were probably responding to the same likable quality that comes across in Malusa's text. Whether describing a visit with a Bedouin family in the Egyptian desert, a hitchhiking journey with road-kill gourmands in the remotest parts of Australia or a chat with gauchos while trying to escape the brutal Patagonian wind, he always seems well-informed and outgoing. Russia's icy autumn sent him scurrying into lofty but empty old hotels along the route from Moscow to the Caspian Sea, a remarkably untouristed region in which he marveled at the vestiges of communism and joined two lively wedding parties. Malusa wears his expertise as a botanist lightly here, mentioning flora and fauna but detailing the full panoply of his impressions. This dense yet desultory account moves quickly, never lingering on any encounter for more than a few sentences, no matter how juicy. It's not as informative as the works of Bill Bryson, but easily as funny. Steeped in sarcasm and alive to the irony of any situation, observant and wry, omnivorous in the scope of its details and utterly subjective. </span></p>
Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents
I consider it a privilege -- although it came as a big surprise to me to learn about it -- that I have written one of the very few novels that exist about the Irish in San Francisco.
There had been an earthquake a few weeks earlier, almost fifty years to the day after the famous one of 1906, in the morning while the children were in school. It was Sister Justine's first, who had arrived some months before from Ireland. The children, accustomed to the earth when it quivered, had had to calm the poor nun down. Gripping her desk as the floor spasmed beneath her, she believed that this was The Day of Judgment, and shouted it out. The children knew better, and succeeded in making her understand after a while that this was just a little one, Sister. Really! Just a little earthquake. We have lots of them, Sister.
The Irish still matter in San Francisco. This book of stories deals with the contemporary relationship of the Irish-Irish and the Irish-Americans in that city. Usually humorous, sometimes painful, other times a combination of the two, that relationship remains an important and extremely soulful one. "I read every word of these stories, not through professional obligation but through genuine enjoyment, engagement, admiration for mastery of the craft... I was literally moved to tears by some of the stories, transported by all of them into a world of Irish nuns, immigrants, mad poets, white-collar workers, errant priests, lawyers with, of all things, a heart..." -Malcolm Margolin
Please ask everyone to buy your books on Red Room. However, if we don't have your book right now, where should readers buy it?:
As he faces the frozen behemoth of a giant iceberg, environmental activist Ben Maki sees Earth’s future. Clean drinking water for millions of people, waiting to be tapped from the polar ice.
Palpably exciting. A scientific thriller about a looming global crisis far more critical than oil. Karen Dionne is the new Michael Crichton.”—David Morrell
“Freezing Point combines a strong narrative voice, sympathetic characters, and some really cool science into a compelling read!”—John Lescroart
“Fascinating and action-packed, Freezing Point by Karen Dionne is a riveting tale of cutting-edge science, board-room greed, and the triumph of those who respect nature. Dionne’s voice is authentic and fresh. Watch out, Michael Crichton!”—Gayle Lynds
“Karen Dionne’s Freezing Point has everything. Exciting to read, highly original in plot, provocative in subject matter, and peopled with engaging characters. What a very promising debut!”—John Case
"What a ripper of a story! I loved every page." -- Douglas Preston
"Heartbreaking and compelling…Richmond gracefully weaves in fascinating background material on the coffee culture and the field of mathematics as she thoughtfully explores family dynamics,
When I found him at last, I had long ago given up the search. It was late at night, and I was dining alone in a small cafe in Diriomo, Nicaragua. It was a place I had come to cherish during my annual visits to the village, the kind of establishment where one could order a plate of beans and a cup of coffee any time of the day or night.
I had spent the evening wandering the dark, empty streets. July days in Diriomo were scorching; come nightfall, the buildings seemed to radiate heat, so that the air possessed a baked, dusty scent. Eventually I came to the familiar intersection. Going left would lead to my hotel, with its hard bed and uncooperative ceiling fan. Straight ahead was a baseball diamond where I had once seen a local kid beat a rat to death with an old wooden bat. To the right was a wide road giving way to a crooked alleyway, at the end of which the cafe beckoned.
Some time past midnight, I stood on the doorstep, ringing the little copper bell. Maria appeared, dressed in a long blue skirt, white blouse, and no shoes, looking as though she'd been expecting me.
"Did I wake you?"
"No," she said. "Welcome."
It was a ritual greeting between us. I had no way of knowing whether Maria was actually asleep on those nights, or whether she was sitting patiently in her kitchen, waiting for customers.
"What are you serving tonight?" I asked. This was also ritual, for we both knew that the menu never changed, no matter the time or season.
"Nacatamal," she said. "Esta usted sola?"
"S’, se–ora, I am alone." My answer, like the menu, had remained unaltered for years. And yet she asked it, each time, with a kind of naked hope, as if she believed that one day my luck might change.
The cafe was empty and dark, somehow cool despite the heat outside. She pointed to a small table where a candle burned in a jar. I thanked her and sat down. I could hear her preparing coffee in the kitchen, which was separated from the dining area by a narrow doorway in which hung a curtain of red fabric. I watched the patterns made by the candlelight on the far wall. The images seemed too lovely and symmetrical to be random—a bird, a sailboat, a star, followed by a series of rectangular bars of light. It was a feeling I often had in that town, and one of the reasons I kept returning when my work as a coffee buyer brought me to Nicaragua—a feeling that even the simplest natural acts were somehow ordered, as if some unnamed discipline reigned over both the animate and inanimate. I rarely felt this way at home in San Francisco. It was no wonder the locals referred to Diriomo as pueblo brujo—bewitched village.
Maria had just set my plate on the table when the bell clanged outside. Together we looked toward the door, as if something miraculous might materialize. In all the times I had taken a midnight meal among the porcelain dolls and carnivorous plants in Maria's cafe, I'd rarely met another customer.
Maria went to the door and opened it a crack. For a moment my table was flooded with moonlight.
"Buenas noches, Maria," a man's voice said.
The door closed, plunging the room once again into near darkness.
The man passed by my table. His face was turned away, but in the pale light from the kitchen I observed that he carried himself in the way very tall men often do, shoulders slumped in a sort of apology for taking up so much space. He wore a baseball cap pulled low on the forehead. A hardback book was tucked under one arm. He went to a table in the corner, the one farthest from my own. When he sat down, his back to me, the wooden chair creaked so violently I thought it might break.
Maria took a match out of her apron pocket, struck it against the wall, and dipped the flame into a crimson