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:

OUT IN THE COLD
PREFACE

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.

More Vintage Moscow: Fun with Soviet Signs

The early Gorbachev era brought the Soviet Union, still alive and flailing, from the era of the dead men, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, into Glasnost and Perestroika. Maybe you had to be there.

I was actually, a wee little bit. I visited in 1986. The latter days of Soviet atrophy, like the early days of the Russian rebirth, were barren and painful for the consumer. That trip in 1986 they handed me a menu at a pizzeria right downtown in the capital. As I remember, it had a dozen choices. The wait staff eased me through all the nyets until finally they only had this one pizza.

I came back proclaiming to anybody who would listen, this is what we’ve been afraid of!?

I’ve found these photos from that trip. First, the elevator regulations from the state owned Moscow Hotel opposite Red Square, now renovated as the Four Seasons.

Here is advice to Soviet Man in GUM the department Store. How to tie a tie.

There were no commercial billboards in 1986. This translates, if I’ve got it right, as something like, “USSR, pillar of peace.”

Dining with Darlene

Quirpon Island, between Newfoundland and Labrador:

Wind rattling the windows, we sit before the locally famous Jiggs dinner: Roast beef and carrots with potatoes, puréed turnips and dressing, each served from ice cream scoops, and gravy from a gravy boat for every two people.

I believe it may be served every night. Learn one thing, learn it well.

The kitchen crew of Marilyn, Mariah and Madonna prepare breakfast, dinner in two seatings, and keep the kettle on for visitors. They serve tonight’s meal, repair to the back and we dine, strangers at the common table.

Stooped and graying Reiner and his wife Ellen from Kitchener. Two German girls, one pregnant. A young woman and her consort, neither terribly fetching, whose names are never revealed because they never say a single word except “hi.” Nor do they make eye contact. Ever.

Showing an easy disfluency with politesse, Darlene, a formidable woman who gives her chair disquiet, regales us with tales of her extensive travels to Myanmar, Sossusvlei and Maccu Pichu. She makes sure we know of her extreme devotion to photography and shares a blow by blow of her fall getting into the boat earlier today.

Rapacious with our little group’s time, she lectures with apodictic certainty on the state of Canadian politics while the table prefers a much more politically vegetarian conversation. Ellen stares at her scoop of turnip.

Sometimes klatches of strangers provoke stimulating conversation, but often there is a Darlene. I’d like to advise her that if one is convinced she is the smartest person in the room, she will find greater mental challenge by changing rooms. Alas, here there is a shortage of rooms.

So I take my own advice and find an early opportunity to track down the boys in the back. Angus and Ed and Brian are downing beers, TV on, sound down. This is a small house, this inn, once the lighthouse keeper’s residence alone, and the boys sit atop one another, furniture and belongings in a jumble, a rumpled, strewn-about place far more lived in than the anodyne common space.

Time worn jokes about needing to get around to some remodeling. You have to close the door to the hallway to open the door to the toilet, which is full of toothbrushes.

These men provide all the brawn on Quirpon Island, the laboring face of Ed’s lighthouse business. Ed, the leader, lanky and craggy with long teeth and a formidable Newfie accent, folds himself into his chair. Brian, the quiet one, is charged with running the ATV up and back across the island, not an inconsiderable task.

Angus, the great outdoorsman, says they dress to be out all day every morning, because they never know quite what chore will have to be gotten up to, and the wind is blistering and he guesses maybe 250 icebergs arrive each year, having sailed the 1,600-odd kilometers fromGreenland (The Titanic’s fateful berg drifted in this same way down the Labrador current from Baffin Bay south of here). And after another day out amid the wet and the wind and the icebergs, Angus is simply and openly baffled why we would ever want to go back to St. John’s.

I want to hear stories, but they are in their home space and I don’t begrudge them their private time.

So: Squeeze down the hallway to the kitchen, gaze at the gale through the window, then look around this tiny kitchen in this modest building. Consider the even more modest one in which we stay. These two buildings, when full, hold 22 max. I must surmise that Marilyn, Mariah and Madonna spend an indoor life constrained. We make the short walk back to the building where we’ve been given a bed.

•••••

Another tiny excerpt from my new book. Go grab it, it’s good stuff. And sign up for a free audiobook version of Common Sense and Whiskey by clicking the box on the right. Drawings every Friday.

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.

Achieving Greenland and Searching for Robert

First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.

The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.

He does not know Robert.

Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”

You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk Airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.

We insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.

A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze-dried food and powdered milk. Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik Island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.

Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty-minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow-capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.

It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.

We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and goodwill, that Christian is here on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.

•••••

A tiny excerpt from my new book. Go grab it, it’s good stuff. And sign up for a free audiobook version of Common Sense and Whiskey by clicking the box on the right. Drawings every Friday.

Over Under

On the occasion of publishing my new book about the Arctic and far north Atlantic (Out in the Cold, cover, left), here’s equal time for the southern hemisphere, a few favorite shots from Australia, each of which you can enlarge by clicking on the photo. Many more in the Australia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

 

A detail of the Sydney Opera House.

The Katherine Gorge, south of Darwin.

Sydney.

Sunset on Cable Beach, Broome.

Watson’s Bay, New South Wales