Manifesto for Travel

This morning I sat down to begin the long process of narrating the audio version of my new travel adventure book Out in the Cold. As I reread the preface (it has been a little while since I wrote it), I thought it stands alone as a pretty good manifesto for travel. So I thought I’d share:


I’m pretty sure the discovery of America started with a bar fight and I believe I can persuade you that it is so. The chain of events that brought Norse ships to Newfoundland began when a court in Norway found Thorvald Erickson guilty of murder and tossed him out of the country.

The Saga of Eirik the Red, Thorvald’s son, doesn’t say exactly what his old man got up to that night, just that he was exiled “because of some killings,” so Thorvald and the clan loaded up the truck and they moved to northwest Iceland.

Eirik grew up and married a local girl. When Thorvald died they moved south where before long the local sheriff found Eirik guilty of murder just like his old man, and Eirik was banished from Iceland. Thorvald’s bar fight led to Iceland, Greenland and the New World. We will visit the settlement his grandson built in Newfoundland.

But this is not about the Vikings, although they are here. This is a collection of northern tales from the frozen-tight Svalbard archipelago, 800 miles from the North Pole, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Atlantic-facing Canada.


A daiquiri on your cruise ship balcony may imply that you are on vacation, but it does not mean that you are traveling. Crowding people together on “fun ships” to share viruses for several days holds up as well as socks from Wal-Mart.

Once, in the Himalayas, in a place called Sikkim, whose very geography required vocational derringdo, a mad driver told me “Man didn’t evolve from apes to act like sheep.” He meant that you must engage.

Your free time is as surely an asset as your home or your car. I say, get out there and put some of it to good use. If the unexamined life isn’t worth living (Socrates), get to examining. Compare and contrast your experiences to those of others.

In these pages we will meet an artisan carver of narwhal bones in Greenland. We’ll cruise the streets of Reykjavik with an ebullient Icelandic author, hike with a part-time tour guide in Labrador who cannot imagine why you’d want to be anywhere other than on the tundra, and spend time with others whose lives, objectively, are nothing like your own.

We will shake hands with the President of Iceland and stand naked and alone on the side of the glacier Vatnajokull (separately from the president). We will drop in on the last French outpost in North America, talk shop with a diplomat and eat wind dried sheep in the Faroe Islands, dine with strangers alongside icebergs at a lighthouse north of Newfoundland, and find Greenland so beguiling, we will visit twice.


Who ever thinks they are finally and fully grown up? Not me, not in my 20s, or 30s or even 40s. I still think people who wear adult clothes and enjoy it, skirt and blazer, suit and tie, selling investments or copiers or conjuring income from intangibles like air time or web space – those people are grown up, or at least grown up in a way I’m not, in the western businessy way.

I will never be a winning jockey in the Great American Corporate Advancement Derby. I don’t enjoy yard work or the NBA and I don’t know anything about grown-up stuff like the American Automobile Association or why you should be a member. Or what those ads for active traders are talking about, when you be honest.

I don’t buy clothing with the logo of its manufacturer or shop on Black Friday. That others do, that’s real nice. I just don’t have their motivation. But I think I’ve got one thing on them: I’m pretty sure the flame burns brighter in my magic adventure lamp.

Let us all think of a place that sounds exciting, take ourselves there and see what happens, minding Nelson Mandela’s words: May our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears.


Imagine a range of actions: At one extreme, you never leave your house, and at the other you drive into Somalia honking your horn and waving an American flag. I like it just inside the go-too-far side of that tent, poking on the fabric with a dull knife, trying not quite hard enough to cut through.

Within reason, mind you. Cut through the fabric and you end up kidnapped in Niamey, blasted in two in Helmand or beheaded in the new Caliphate. So let us stick with adventure reasonably achievable. In this case, starting 800 miles shy of the North Pole, chasing a total eclipse.


Preface from the book Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. Buy it in paperback here. Read other excerpts here. Kindle version soon. The audiobook version, begun today, should hit in the fall.

Also published on Medium.

Look Inside Out in the Cold

After a title goes live on Amazon, as Out in the Cold did last week, it takes a few days for the “Look Inside” feature to appear. From this morning “Look Inside” is live on Amazon, giving you the chance to get a more extensive preview of what you’ll be buying. I am not sure whether “Look Inside” grabs more of a book’s text over time, but right now we have some of the beginning available and some of my reporting on Iceland. We’ll have to watch and find out. Still, I invite you to use the feature to see more of what’s inside Out in the Cold. Then, grab yourself a copy.

Photo Preview

My new book Out in the Cold should be live on Amazon next week so I thought I’d send us into the weekend with a photo from each of the countries in the book. All these are clickably linked to higher res, much larger and more enjoyable versions at

Meanwhile, between now and next week, here’s a little text from the book:

Saint-Pierre et Miquelon: France in North America
Svalbard by Snowmobile
Naked and Freezing in Iceland

The photos:

This is the tiny little idyllic town called Tjørnuvik, on the island of Streymoy, Faroe Islands.

Here is Iceland’s famous Gulfoss, looking good full of snowmelt in June.

Tasiilaq, the administrative hub of east Greenland.

The super friendly, perfectly-sized city of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

And the object of our quest to Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. A total solar eclipse.

Out in the Cold: Tundra Tales

outinthecoldcoverrightsideToday is a big day here on the farm. My third book, Out in the Cold (cover, left), is now in the publisher’s hands, and coming soon.

Out in the Cold reports to you from Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada – including a curious artifact – the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

In gathering stuff for the book we had the complete thrill of witnessing the total solar eclipse of March, 2015 in Svalbard, an archipelago about 800 miles from the North Pole. That’s where today’s excerpt comes from. We’re about to set out, a troop of strangers, on a snowmobile trip to the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg:


They suit us up and put 22 strangers through our paces on how to drive a snowmobile. It is only a five-minute lesson because there really isn’t much to learn. Push this to start the engine, pull that to go, wiggle your body with the curves. And supervision is close at hand.

This outfit is all about moving along, sportsters through and through. They run us through novice moves, herding us in a tentative straight line. We ease out along a coastal plain, the Isfjorden to our left, just a little ice bobbing in the water, shuttered and abandoned coal mines on our right, busy with the pylons of old coal-carrying cableways, stacked up along the hill that hems in Longyearbyen to the east. Just minutes, the buildings along the Longyearbyen waterfront still visible, a shakedown cruise, then we stop for final questions.

The propriety of handing unfamiliar go-fast machines to anybody who shows up, I’m not sure about that, but I’m glad. Over the course of the day I race up to 70 kph briefly and it is a pure thrill.

Now we are firing across capacious plains ringed by snow-laden hills. From here to Barentsberg we run for forty, fifty minutes between stops. We buckle in, adjust our balaclavas and goggles to cover our faces and plunge into an extended run the length of Adventdalen, the valley behind the ridge east of Longyearbyen.

Clean, dry and bitterly cold, the beauty of the route utterly unmediated by man save for snowmobile tracks. Beauty no one sees. Bits of moisture not quite snow, not hail or rain, evanescent, suspended, rise as often as they fall in the monochrome. The air is alive but the earth is stone still.

Somewhere along the way we come upon the most unexpected spectacle – the launch of a hot air balloon. A team from the Connecticut-based Slooh “community observatory” is practicing for their video coverage of the eclipse from the air. When the balloon disappears behind a fell, one snowmobile towing another sets out to follow it and pick up the crew wherever they land.

It tickles me, the grim military bearing the leaders wield like a club to bring all these unsteady novices to a stop. Up front Hans Peter leans forward and opens up a little space between him and the pack so that he can hop off his mount and guide us all in for a rest stop, forming up in rows four or five abreast. He moves to each spot and rotates his forearm down from the elbow with a stiff wrist flick and I imagine a scowl of doom behind his helmet.

We stop on a low rise called a pingo for a random geology lesson. Dome shaped mounds like mini-volcanoes, pingos form in permafrost when artesian groundwater forces its way up, freezes under the ground and rises under pressure from the water below. Pingos grow vanishingly slowly and take decades or longer to form, often at the base of fells (fell, “fjall” is the Old Norse word for mountain), as has the one on whose summit we sit frozen to our seats this morning, between two ridges.

Interesting in a textbook maybe, but you don’t read textbooks on a lump of frozen tundra that shows all the vitality of a mound scraped off the runway at Boston Logan. It is not unlike the landscape as far as the eye can see. With the temperature firmly, stubbornly below zero, I use Hans Peter’s lecture as an opportunity to dab ineffectually at my nose and balaclavas with my mittens, and readjust my goggles.

In short order I have run into the indelicate problem of a very runny nose under my double balaclavas. I have reassured myself since that I was not alone with deficient hygiene.

Your nose is meant to prep the outside air to meet your nice warm, moist lungs. Cold air is usually dry, so when you breathe in your nose is preauthorized to add moisture, and will automatically produce more fluid. Then when you exhale, the outside air can’t hold all the moisture in the nice warm air inside you, so it condenses right there on the tip of your nose. Cold air gets you coming and going.

There may be an avoidance technique the accomplished snowmobiler knows but I have no idea. In long stretches of snowmobiling there is no opportunity to clean your balaclava, so the problem … accumulates. At occasional stops, wearing mittens with only thumbs, it is a challenge to, ah, clean yourself up, especially in the midst of your 21 new best friends.  At least we are anonymous. I hope all those standard issue balaclavas they handed out in duplicate came from the island’s best laundry.


My fingers have formed to the shape of the handlebar grip, my shoulders are frozen high and tight to my neck. Blood sinking toward my center, I think. Careful. We thunder into Grøndalen, green valley, that leads to Grønfjorden, “Green Fjord,” a liquid icicle intruding perhaps fifteen kilometers inland from the larger Isfjorden. A track along its eastern shore provides our entrée to Barentsburg. The top of the ridge on the far side of Gronfjord provides visual drama, dipping in and out of cloud.

Driving conditions into Barentsburg village are good because late-in-the-season snow is compacted, not too fresh, and snowmobiles work best on compacted paths, where their tracks find and naturally slide into the grooves made by those who came before.

Opening the snowmobile up to modest speed for a sport snowmobiler feels secretly heroic for those of us with more timid ambition. Blazing along at seventy kilometers per hour I find myself grinning under all that headwear, holding on tight, very, very tight.



If, as Sylvain Tesson suggests, the art of civilization is combining the most delicate pleasures with the constant presence of danger, then Norway has not civilized the archipelago, but only the little settlement at Longyearbyen.

For outside of Longyearbyen, on the other side of those Beware of Polar Bears signs, there is only ice. None of the perpendiculars of carpentry, no angular form fashioned by man. Just snow, ice, a horizon that undulates, and sky. No sound but snowmobile engines and the wind in your helmet.

No evidence of life extends beyond us and the sound of our engines. No animals, no birds, no roads or road signs, no cables carrying power or pipes pumping water. An entirely inanimate place, or at least one whose only animation, the glacial movement of ice, evades our perception.


Stephen J. Pyne, who spent months as a member of a party of twelve near the center of Antarctica, writes “… the self can only exist — can only be felt and known — in contrast to an Other.”  In much of the polar regions there is no Other, only a constricted, inanimate, frozen world. And that is a challenge for mental hygiene.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd tried to spend an Antarctic winter alone in 1934. Byrd had parlayed a respected naval career into $150,000 in cash contributions (during the Great Depression!) for his expedition. Among other things Byrd’s team of 56 men meant to build a meteorological base where a team of three would record the weather conditions daily. (Also on this expedition was an American named Paul Siple, who developed the “wind chill factor.”)

Construction of the weather hut began too late in the fall, on 22 March, amid appalling conditions in temperatures as low as -60F. Water condensed and froze in the fuel lines of the tractors. The dog sled teams pulled out after three days and the tractors after three more. After just six days of camp construction, Admiral Byrd remained alone inside the 9×13, eight-foot-tall prefabricated building. When the last tractor left the hut was already buried, with only the radio antennae and the instrument shelter visible.

The sun set for the winter on 19 April. Byrd maintained regular weather and aurora observations and a three-times-a-week schedule of radio communications until he fell ill on 31 May. His erratic manner on the radio eventually prompted a rescue – after two failed attempts – as three men reached Byrd’s hut by tractor on 10 August. Byrd was too ill to leave the hut until finally spring weather allowed a flight in on 12 October.

The conventional explanation for Byrd’s illness is carbon monoxide poisoning caused by poor ventilation in the hut. Water froze in the ventilator and stove pipes and the exhaust pipe of the engine that drove the generator.

Stephen Pyne has a different theory: “The truer answer might be the folly of trying to simplify existence amid what was already so simple as to belong on a moon of Saturn.”

Pyne isn’t surprised things went awry for Admiral Byrd.

“Freedom is relative: it requires coercion of various sorts in order to have meaning,” he says. But in his stay in Antarctica “there was nothing to rebel against. You could do whatever you wished. The catch was, there was almost nothing to do …. There is not enough on site to generate the contrasts that allow ideas to arc between them.”

The pilot and author Ernest K. Gann got round to the same idea in a different way. In the context of flying through cloud, he put it like this: “It would be better if there were something to relate to something else and so provide a focus for the mind.”


To the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, adventure was just bad planning, but to the poor lady in our improbable little Arctic tribe who inexplicably just suddenly drives off alone, so deep into uncompacted snow that her snowmobile finally judders to a halt in a bank she tosses up higher than she, snowmobiling is no adventure.

There is no reason why. It just happens. Our convoy pulls up to wait while they fish our errant snowmobiler out of the snowbank just below Barentsburg town. She is shaken and insists on riding pillion from now on. They tow her snowmobile.

While we wait the sun bursts through the clouds onto the opposite shore, just so gorgeous, so pristine, all the Earth silent but for our snowmobiles. We are thirty five miles of coastline toward the Greenland Sea from Longyearbyen and we might as well be alone in the world.


Two previous excerpts: Here from the Faroe Islands, and this one, naked and freezing, from Iceland.

Click the photo for a larger version on Out in the Cold will be ready for purchase this spring. My previous books are Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home, and Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide.

Out in the Cold: New Book Almost Ready

outinthecoldcoverrightside I’m excited to tell you that at long last I have the product of a couple years of really enjoyable work just about ready to share. It’s my new book, called Out in the Cold (cover, left), and over the next few weeks I’ll share some photos and excerpts here on the blog. Out in the Cold is an exploration of points north: Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada, including a curious artifact, the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

Over the course of the book we have the opportunity to meet some real characters, and to explore a little history, including Viking exploration and colonization, how faraway wars affected the people of the North Atlantic, and matters relating to how the outposts got along with their colonial masters Norway and Denmark.

The book opens with the 2015 total solar eclipse in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago about 800 miles from the North Pole. To start us off, here’s a look at Main Street in the only town up there, Longyearbyen:


As usual, you can always click the photos for larger versions on Out in the Cold will be ready for purchase this spring. Between now and publication I’ll have either a photo or an excerpt from the book once or twice a week here on CS&W. Out in the Cold is my third book, alongside the previous Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home, and Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide.

Far and Wide

Places perpendicularly opposed: As we leave for the equator this week, with posts from Kenya to follow, I’m working to put to bed my new book, Out in the Cold, about adventure travels in and around the Arctic. Hope to have it published in February, only four or five months late. Not bad for an author. I’ll run a few excerpts here next month. Here’s the cover: