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Low Rider and Long Tripper
Date of Review: 
Kisha Ferguson
The Globe and Mail, Toronto

Low rider and long tripper
by Kisha Ferguson
August 9, 2008

Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents
By Jim Malusa
Sierra Club, 321 pages, $18.50

A Journey Around the Planet Without Leaving the Surface
By Tony Robinson-Smith
Goose Lane, 310 pages, $19.95

At any given moment, a host of modern adventurers are making their way around the continents in a growing catalogue of novel ways. Some are doing it in the name of a cause, others as a way to fund their adventures, or simply to stamp their unique mark on the tradition.

There's Karl Bushby, who continues his 14-year, 57,000-kilometre quest to forge the largest unbroken footpath around the world. And there's Jason Lewis, who recently completed the first true circumnavigation of the globe without using wind or motors - only the power of his soft human machine. Despite the belief that our planet and all its cultures have been discovered, human beings will constantly seek new ways to rediscover its mysteries, by finding new ways to travel across it.

Whether noble, grandiose or foolhardy, in the name of a righteous cause, to garner bragging rights or simply to escape the tyranny of living on the home front, I believe most of us have a plan ... a dream, entirely unrelated to the reality of who we are and the circumstances in which we find ourselves living. Like not knowing what a G chord is and still playing on stage with the Rolling Stones, or dreaming up a way to travel through time from the cubicle of a telemarketing job.

When it comes to travel, today anything is possible. All you need is a plane ticket, some time and, if you're lucky, a book deal before you go. But when it comes to travel literature, you need a hook.

So when I first picked up Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents, by Jim Malusa, and Back in 6 Years: A Journey Around the Planet Without Leaving the Surface, by Tony Robinson-Smith, I found both premises slightly gimmicky.

Malusa's book records his six biking trips to the world's lowest depressions on all six continents; Robinson-Smith's book sees him travel across the Earth's surface, in a circle starting in Sapcote, England, north of Birmingham, and ending in nearby Newcastle upon Tyne six years later - without ever leaving the Earth's surface via airplane.

I wanted to see some higher purpose at the heart of these two books. Karl Bushby, whose trip is driven by a need to prove his mettle to those who thought him incapable of meeting the rigours of British army training, is pure in his motive, as is Lewis, who provides us with a fascinating study on the unlimited abilities the human body possesses. To me, these expeditions heralded a new kind of adventurer, one with a higher purpose other than just going on a trip for the hell of it. They were beating new paths across the Earth, driven not by book deals, or personal glory, but by something within them that somehow imbued their quests with the kind of adventurous nobility of a Wilfred Thesiger making the first crossing of Arabia's Empty Quarter or John Hanning Speke's discovery of the source of the Nile.

In Back in 6 Years, Robinson-Smith's dizzying display of perseverance sees him travel through 55 countries, beginning with a 400-kilometre journey across North Africa that "felt like crossing an asteroid belt in a garbage can," and later hitchhiking, busing, walking and sailing through a myriad of countries that all became a blur when compacted into 300 pages.
Bribed and assaulted, welcomed and loathed, Tony makes friends, loses them, and meets Nadya, whom he marries. An interesting road technique is his use of other travel books: After buying a volume on how to crew a boat, he contrives to become a seasoned seaman, and lands a series of rough jobs on the way.

For Jim Malusa, a Sputnik baby, avid cyclist and professional biologist, geological depressions became his destiny. His plan, initially backed by the Discovery Channel, was to do six trips in six years, biking to the lowest depressions on all six of the Earth's continents. And after telling his ever-supportive wife not to get pregnant until he comes home, he sets off from Darwin, Australia, to discover the world's "anti-summits."

Malusa's bike carries him to places nobody's noticed, at least not by car. And along the way he, too, meets a myriad cast of characters who, regardless of country of origin, seem plucked from an unmade Sam Peckinpah movie.

He's a botanist and I would have loved to hear more about the flora and fauna he saw from his dirt bike. His most compelling trip was to Djibouti, a city he describes as looking as if it were constructed by 10-year olds, and where he felt "like a king and a pig." Stoned by refugee kids and poisoned by fruit drinks, and haunted by the lonely poetry of faces, Malusa eventually reaches every destination. Although it really was the journey, not the destination, the reader will remember. Most of the world's depressions are not marked by shrines, or hordes of tourists posing next to them. They're about as memorable as a Holiday Inn room, although we do find out the air "down there" is noticeably thick.

Taking the low road means he often sits atop a high horse when it comes to comparing his journey to climbing Everest. "On Everest it's the frozen gasp of altitude that drives humans back down; on the shore of Assal, the opposite sends me up. As usual, the unseen atoms of oxygen and nitrogen are bumping into each other and creating heat. Squeezing the air with the pressure of five hundred feet below sea level is like taking a roller rink and making it half the size - a lot more collision and sweat."

In the end, Malusa doesn't scale the highest anything: It's unlikely that biking to the lowest places on Earth will earn him a mention in history books. But he is a great storyteller. As he points out: "Everybody has a plan, something that may or may not happen - but that's really not the point. It's the plan that counts, the pleasure of possibility. As for me, I wanted to pedal to the lowest points on earth. To my everlasting surprise, I did."

Like Malusa, Tony Robinson-Smith travels alone, but rarely is. After five years of Japan, he had enough constant bowing, and, after teaching English at an airline company, watching planes take off through his classroom window, he decides to set off on a trip around the world without ever leaving the ground.

He's inspired by a phrase in the only travel book he'd ever read, Jupiter's Travels, by Ted Simon: "It is no trick to go round the world these days. You can fly round it non-stop in less than forty-eight hours, but to know it, to smell it and feel it between your toes, you have to crawl."

Unlike Malusa, Robinson-Smith uses any and all modes of surface transport; he hitchhikes, motorbikes, walks and sails his way around the world, never leaving the surface. He pays his bribes, dodges death a few times, finds myriad ways to talk about his bowels and laments others who go "the easy way" - forgetting most folks don't have six years to spend on the road.
The reader will applaud his tenacity. I would have given up and bought a ticket home. At the same time, I sometimes felt like giving up on his book, too, after experiencing detail fatigue. The pace never lets up. It's the same relentlessness you find in crowded bazaars in India, a million things coming at you at once, that it becomes process.

With the realization that, "Eventually, everywhere becomes nowhere when you wish to be elsewhere," he literally ran the last few miles home to his parents' door.

Robinson-Smith's was a grand adventure, to say the least; albeit one that ended a decade ago. He is a great chronicler of details, but unlike Malusa, he isn't a great storyteller, and his account sometimes reads like an online diary.

"I had seen a lot, but the truth is you really see only a little, and that little is more than enough. I remembered Ted Simon's words: 'The best you can do is trace your long, infinitesimally thin line through the dust and extrapolate.' "

In the end, Tony realizes he is someone more. "Somehow, this garden variety English teacher was larger than when he left home."

Both men return home to mild fanfare. Although each took six years to accomplish his goal, neither achieved a historic first. But both achieved what they set out to do. They had a dream, hatched a plan, hit the road and accomplished it.

Kisha Ferguson is a senior writer at CBC Newsworld, and the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Outpost Magazine. Her travel plans are on hold until she gets her knee fixed.