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.

Titanic History

Object of Rearrangement:
Deck Chair from the Titanic, from the
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

105 years ago tonight the Titanic met its fate. Short excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold:

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.

Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either….

Book Excerpt from Out in the Cold

Here is a bit of weekend reading for you from my new book, Out in the Cold. In this excerpt we visit the easternmost point in North America, closer to Galway, Ireland than to St. Louis. Welcome to St. John’s, in the province of Newfoundland, Canada.

ONLY ONE SUNNY DAY, NO EXCEPTIONS

Everybody has come out to bask on that first, sunshiny day.

The crusty, balding stalwarts of the Royal Canadian Legion fill the town from across the country to debate by-laws and elect officers, to show the wife a good time and test out that new hip replacement all in one go. Banners and berets, sashes with ribbons and medals fill the streets, even a marching band with someone still hardy enough to march inside a tuba.

They spill out of George Street, the locally famous concentration of debauchery, restaurants and bars, where touts invite you to get “Screeched In,” a transaction by which they’ll call you an honorary Newfie if you gulp their booze, then kiss a fish.

Traffic stands down in good-natured deference for the old guys. We fall in with two men in berets who have peeled off from their wives for a pint of locally-brewed Iceberg lager down at the Celtic Hearth pub. Men have come not just from across the land, they say, but from Germany and even New Zealand and one man from Australia.

They comport themselves with earned honor. One old soldier gives me a Prince Edward Island lapel pin he has a pocket full of and says it is the friendliest province in Canada. I’d like to believe it, I say, but it would be hard to top the hospitality right here in St. John’s. Just come and give us a try, he says.

These two old war horses must have just come from a remembrance, for, eyes misty and each embellishing the other’s words, they relive for our benefit the bloody battle and desperate fight for survival at Blaumont-Hamel on the first day of the battle of the Somme, its centennial imminent on July 1, when 801 Canadians of the Newfoundland Regiment went in and only 68 came out alive.

Older Newfoundlanders tend toward considering themselves Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second. It was just in 1949 that a referendum bound Newfoundland to Canada, prior to which it had been a British colony after a brief period as an independent British dominion. At the height of the war some 100,000 Americans lived and worked in Newfoundland and many hoped the colony would become part of America.

And then, uh oh, the vets realize how long they’ve been away. Wide eyed, making haste, they flee to find the old ladies.

•••••

Fun while it lasts, the warmth and sunshine, but the next afternoon down at a used bookstore called Afterwords, the heater rumbles right here in mid-June and wet coats reinforce the natural musk of old books. Rain overfills the gutters, slaps against the pavement and slings itself at the plate glass.

The proprietor, upturned nose above a popped collar in some Victorian conceit, says he reads from the very poetry book Mirja buys for six dollars, prompting us to ask if he’d rather keep it. No, he’d rather sell it, he mumbles. How riveting could his marble-mouthed readings be?

Heaters chug inside restaurants up and down Duckworth and George Streets. Newfoundland cuisine is cod, cod, cod a hundred ways. Cod baked, battered, broiled and fried, cod en papillote, confit of cod, cod roasted and poached. Lapland does this with its reindeer.

A recent law, a thunderclap of sensible governance, will give cadres of regulatory officials in Ottawa palpitations. Restauranteurs may now buy what food they wish from whomever they want – meaning right off the boat. Your lobster claws may still be twitching.

Then there is fried bologna, “Newfie steak.” The local paper says that if the rest of Canada shared Newfoundlanders’ bologna fervor the country would consume 141.1 million kilograms of the stuff each year.

Poutine, dastardly poutine. “Shed Party,” made from Lamb’s spiced rum, bologna gravy, caramelized onions, pork sausage and green peas. You may plead for poutine as comfort food here in the cold and the fog and the wind, but you may not claim it promotes good health. Still, in a pub on the 13th of June, heater ablaze and rain pounding the roof, you can make a fine case for poutine’s home food attraction.

On the street in St. John’s, Newfoundland

SOME QUALITY TIME IN THE RAIN

“St. Johner” can’t be right. St. Johnsian? St. Johnite? What do you call a St. John’s resident? A Townie, it turns out. It means either native-born, or someone who has come from a Newfoundland village to the main town. In Rock-think, there is no one beyond the island.

Bullets of rain sling themselves into the door of the Ship Pub, away from the determined fun purveyors on George Street, entrance to the side, across the street from the Fog Off clothing store. The storm rumbles outside while we hear about the life of Beth Twillingate, not born a Townie. She started life as a fisherman’s daughter. St. John’s is a big city to her and a fine and comfortable home, she says as she serves up Iceberg beers.

She answers a cell phone on the bar.

“No. No, I’m a bartender. In. St. John’s.

In Newfoundland.”

A woman she’d never seen before was in here not twenty minutes ago and left the phone. We wonder if she has just caused a divorce. The chill makes that humor wry, not sardonic.

She plays music from the Halifax band Hillsburn, a song with the refrain, “I killed Billy but Billy wouldn’t die.” On the relative culinary merits of the local wildlife, caribou, says she, is more gamey than moose. And Newfie steak is just fine.

A retired railroadman in a red jacket, a regular named Melvin, recalls the good old days when he worked the stretch of line from Argentia to St. John’s. He remembers the days when the trains would leave Port aux Basques with five locomotives to carry 140 rail cars up the grades in the interior, but now there is no rail line in the province, and toward the end of his working days he helped to pull up the narrow gauge rail he worked all his life. They sold it to Chile for their coal mines.

If you visit St. John’s, chances are it will rain.

Rain pounds the pavement when the door opens. Here is Martin, a philosophy doctoral candidate, who helps us all handicap the prospects of the coming end of Western civilization, beginning with the then-imminent Brexit and followed by the elections of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and then the collapse of the EU. It sounds just possible.

The whales ought to be here in ten days, two weeks, and they will bring tourist dollars. Things are looking up. Hard to imagine how they couldn’t be after the howling wind and spitting showers of the night before. We won’t be here, but by Saturday they’re looking for nineteen degrees, proper basking weather again. Trouble is, it’s only Tuesday.

•••••

If you enjoy this excerpt from Out in the Cold, please go and get yourself a copy of the whole book. Here are a few other excerpty bits:

France in North America, Svalbard by Snowmobile, Naked and Freezing on Vatnajokull

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.