“‘You don’t even have to understand the desert: all you have to do is contemplate a simple grain of sand, and you will see in it all the marvels of creation.’”-the alchemist to Santiago, in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (1993)
Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist was the book that packed for last week’s Utah trip. In my tent at Arches National Park (and then in various sites near Moab), I bundled up at night in my down sleeping bag, flicked on my headlamp, and flipped pages with gloved hands. I haven’t read a more simply beautiful book in a long time. The Alchemist is a little story about a shepherd boy named Santiago who sells his flock to pursue his Personal Legend. That pursuit takes him on a journey from his home in Spain to Egypt, where he hopes to find a treasure buried near the Pyramids. Along the way, he encounters a man who claims to be a king, a Gypsy woman, a merchant, an Englishman, and—finally—the alchemist. These people each share lessons with Santiago that enable him to fulfill his quest. Love, danger, and suspense keep readers wrapped up in Santiago’s story until its unexpected end. I am not surprised that this book has been translated into fifty-six languages and sold over twenty million copies. It contains truths about love and about life that resonate with us: the living. In a way, this little story becomes the big story of us all. Some of this book’s gems:
“It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them.” “…when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward.” “When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it.” “The closer one gets to realizing his Personal Legend, the more that Personal Legend becomes his true reason for being.” “‘You must understand that love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend.’” “…our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.” “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”
“Where do we find the strength not to be pulled apart by our passions? How do we inhabit the canyons inside a divided heart?”
-Terry Tempest Williams, in Desert Quartet
Happy Holidays from “Down and Out.” Hope you’re out there eating turkey, enjoying time with family and friends. Woke up to snow here in Moab, Utah this morning after a Thanksgiving bonfire last eve. More (real) writing to come. But for now…a little love from the road.
Greetings. Project One Last Road Trip is underway. Cruised out of Boulder in the van at about 4:00 this afternoon. Staying eve in Breckenridge. After a week of personal meltdowns and two months of vehicle breakdowns, I don’t have much more to say than it’s good to be on the road. The destinations: Moab, Utah. Arches National Park. Indian Creek.
Get out there, folks. I can’t believe that there is a city in this country without at least a little space for play. Even NYC has Central Park (click here for “Down and Out” on Central Park). I feel lucky here in Boulder with a backyard that bumps up against the hills, but I know that all it takes is a little exploration to find some wide-open space—even in urban areas.
On a recent trip to visit my folks in Louisville, Kentucky, I found myself itching to escape the suburbs. It only took me one visit to the indoor climbing gym before I met some climbers who were headed out to Red River Gorge for the weekend (photo: top right). Red, yellow, and gold leaves were dropping from the sky as we hiked in along the trail.
Back in Boulder, the flatirons are visible from downtown, always a reminder that there may be more exciting things to do than sit in the library. Actually, if I ran away from the library right now (imagine me making the break), I could reach the Chautauqua Park trailhead in 15 minutes:
Exploring the backyard is advantageous for many reasons. I’d say that these would include the obvious health benefits, but there’s also a peace that comes with having a connection to a local place. Knowing what’s in your backyard is like going grocery shopping and knowing what’s shelved on every aisle.
And cities are so much more beautiful from a distance.
(final photo is of Boulder, taken on descent from a late-afternoon climb of the third flatiron)
“…his primary motive for leaving the court [of Kublai Kahn] and all its intrigues was his insatiable desire to see more of the world than anyone before him.”
–of Marco Polo, from Laurence Bergreen’s Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu (Knopf, October 2007)
Before reading Laurence Bergreen’s newly-released Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, I associated the book’s subject with little more than that the childhood game I’d play with pals in the swimming pool (Marco?…Polo!). Okay, so maybe I knew that Marco Polo was known for his travels in Asia and that he had something to do with the Silk Road, but Bergreen’s book did more for me than fill in the historical gaps.
Begreen reconstructs Marco Polo’s history in a way that would inspire even the most adventurous of travelers. The author draws from Marco Polo’s Travels, as recorded by Rustichello of Pisa while the renowned writer was stuck with Polo in a Genoese jail (the two were prisoners of war). Bergreen’s travels along Polo’s route in Mongolia and China also color his account, along with other original sources. Bergreen follows Marco Polo from Venice, where in 1271—at age seventeen—he begins his overland journey to the court of Kublai Kahn. Marco Polo remains for nearly twenty years in service of the Mongol leader before returning to Italy via India. Throughout the story, Bergreen adds relevant details about the history of falconry, opium, silk production, and life in the court of Kublai Kahn. These deviations enrich the story, but Marco Polo remains its focus and most intriguing character.
Of the dangers that Marco Polo and his two traveling companions faced en route to Asia, Bergreen lists: “…A drought; a sandstorm, a debilitating disease; a renegade squad of murderous thieves; jealous rivals; predators alerted by the approaching travelers’ scent; poor directions; a poisonous spring; the lethal bite of a snake, insect, or scorpion; a parasite lurking in food or underfoot; a sudden snowstorm or bolt of lightning—any of these common occurrences could have brought the expedition to a sudden end.” Just to drive home the point, Bergreen adds: “no rescue party would have come looking for them, and few in Venice would have mourned their passing.” Sure, there are still many untouched places on our planet. But Bergreen’s story of Marco Polo is a reminder of how wild our world once was.
Hey. You. You’re invited to attend a reading at the Boulder Book Store this THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 8 at 7:30pm from the new book Antarctica: Life on the Ice (Travelers’ Tales, 2007). I will be reading from one of my essays included in the book titled “We Ate No Turkey: A Holiday on Ice.” The book’s editor, Susan Fox Rogers, and Beth Bartel, another Boulder writer, will also be there to read and sign.
Here’s a blurb, so if you can’t come to the reading, perhaps you’d like to read the book for yourself:
Antarctica’s legend as a fascinating, forbidding place is confirmed and expanded in the insider articles collected by Susan Fox Rogers in Antarctica: Life on the Ice. These author-adventurers, which include award-winning travel writers such as Bill Fox and Lucy Bledsoe, cover everything from “Happy Camper School” to washing dishes to what it’s like to fall in love in a place where the sun never goes down (or never comes up).
Boulder Book Store
Reading: THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 8 at 7:30pm
1107 Pearl Street
Antarctica: Life on the Ice
Edited by Susan Fox Rogers
Susan’s superstar adventure blog is here!
Read more or purchase the book here from Travelers’ Tales.
This will be the last of the desert posts. For now. But I’m working on “Project One Last Road Trip,” which is what I’ve been calling my idea to take one more trip to Utah’s Indian Creek before the passes in Summit County, Colorado keep me (and my crap cars) snowed in. Of course, I’m still working on getting the van road-worthy, and if that happens, I’ll brave the passes with the Old Lady, my 1970 VW bus. Otherwise, the Toyota will have to do.
Just in case anyone out there is wondering why I keep feeling compelled to return to the Utah desert, I’m posting these photographs as a visual reminder. The nighttime, especially, has a mysterious allure. Imagine watching the sun go down over these monolithic red peaks. They turn yellow and orange before they turn into black silhouettes against a smoky sky. Like this:
Yellow, then orange, from Indian Creek’s “Way Rambo” wall:
Somewhere in-between day and night (with hovering crescent moon):
The Bridger Jack towers, silhouetted against a smoky sky:
And then, once it’s dark and cold, you curl up in your down sleeping bag, anticipating the coyote songs that will startle you from a magical desert sleep.
“Men can change things as no other animal can. But by way of compensation, he can change himself much less.” -Joseph Wood Krutch, in The Voice of the Desert
If you’re on your way to Utah’s desert for the first time, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968) is required reading. But if you’ve become what Abbey calls a “desert rat,” then you can probably already quote entire sections of that book in your sleep (as you should). Perfect. This just means that you’re ready for Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Voice of the Desert: A Naturalist’s Interpretation (1954). Yes. This book’s first publication was in 1954, and if you’re having trouble finding it, simply stop by Moab’s Grand County Public Library for a little couch time, and snag a copy of Krutch’s book from the shelf.
The Voice of the Desert must represent the kind of natural history that got written before natural history became hip or entertaining or cool. Krutch devotes entire chapters to topics such as how Pronuba moths pollinate the yucca, why kangaroo rats don’t need to drink much water, and what methods cacti have adopted to survive in the desert. This stuff can get dry (pun intended), but I read Krutch’s book wishing that more people would write like this these days (or that more people could get published for writing like this these days). After offering descriptions of several experiments he tries on desert seeds, Krutch says: “All these, I recognize, will seem very mild amusements to some.” Instead of apologizing, he continues: “But there is no accounting for tastes and I greatly prefer them to many of the others which most of my fellows choose.” What Krutch says about his fascination with desert seeds could apply to literature as well. Why we prefer a certain book may depend more upon individual taste than upon that book’s ability to meet some mass-market standard of excellence.
Krutch approaches his subject matter with a microscope, but he doesn’t miss out on how the details he offers help form a larger portrait of a place. And he doesn’t get so lost in discussions of plants and animals that he forgets about people in the process. Every once in a while, just to make sure you’re still with him—as I’m going to do here—he’ll insert something that deserves a deep thought. One of those moments:
“It has been argued, to take the most extravagant case, that if a hundred apes were to bang away at a hundred typewriters for a long enough time, then, sooner or later, one of them would have to compose accidentally ‘Paradise Lost,’ complete and exact to the last comma. But do we believe that he ever would?”