The man in black fled across the desert, and the backpacker followed.
His silhouette roosted on the ridge that separated the climb on the west side from the broken land below the South Rim. It is a dry, disturbed land, periodically remodeled by a god that couldn’t leave well enough alone, and then finally neglected. The silhouette shouldered its pack, and disappeared over the ridge.
It was a dry year in Texas. The landscape was the color of no-color. Even the dust had withered and died. The plants had become ghosts. The flop ears of prickly pears lay in crumbling heaps. Sotol stalks lay collapsed on the ground like failed hopes. Ocotillos still raised their strange arms skyward, but their waxy green flesh had faded, revealing a skeletal gray matrix beneath. Maybe the next rain would reanimate all their sorry carcasses. Maybe not. Maybe they would continue crumbling and new shoots would resume the cycle of life. Who knows? In the Big Bend the border between life and death is as illusory as the border between nations.
Up and up. I followed the dusty trail, noting tracks that I recognized. At the ridge I stopped, planted a foot firmly in the dirt, lifted. Aha—the same track. What did it mean? I shouldered my pack, and disappeared over the ridge.
The path switched back and down and east. Past the old corral. Past the junction of Smoky Creek. Past a skeleton line of fence posts. Through the mesquite and sandy washes. Through forests of sotols and snow banks of dry bunch grass. The path rolled on, a remnant of a communication link between ranches in the old days.
Black shirt, black pants, black pack—the man in black sat on his throne, surveying the next long fall of the land. Round glasses, thin shaggy goatee. He sat calmly, absorbing the waves of the land beyond.
I hailed him: “Nice boots.”
* * * * *
Every other aspect of the Big Bend Country—landscape, configuration, rocks, and vegetation—is weird and strange and of a type unfamiliar to the inhabitants of civilized lands. The surface is a peculiar combination of desert plain and volcanic hills and mountains, the proportions of which are increased by the vast distance which the vision here reaches through the crystalline atmosphere. There is no natural feature that can be described in familiar words.
—Robert T. Hill. “Running the Cañons of the Rio Grande.” 1901. Collected in God’s Country or Devil’s Playground: An Anthology of Nature Writing from the Big Bend of Texas.
* * * * *
I met the man in black again later that evening at the junction of the Dodson Trail and Fresno Canyon. His name was G—. He worked in lawn care in Maryland. In the slow winter season he would lay himself off for a few weeks, ignite the truck, and point it at the western deserts. Somewhere. Anywhere. This week it was Big Bend. Next week it was Anza Borrego.
G was fretting his water supply. So was I. You can walk for days and days out there—as long as you have water. The rangers recommend four liters (about a gallon) per day. I packed four liters total for three days. I had two liters remaining. The flow at Fresno Creek would be the difference between slinking back to the trailhead or climbing Elephant Tusk in the morning. Fortunately, even in a drought year, Fresno Creek pushes briefly above the surface, trickling and pooling, before disappearing back into the sand. I took one of G’s bottles, wandered down canyon to stock us both with water.
Before I left for the evening G asked where I was going the next day. To the top of the Tusk, I said. He said wasn’t sure that it was possible to get up there.
* * * * *
I had my own doubts in the morning. I could see Elephant Tusk looming, backlit in the southern sun. It did appear more vertical than I had imagined. In the golden glow of the South Rim, under the head of the Tortuga, I packed a dummy bag for the hike and started walking. Let possible work itself out.
The path first skirted and then dove into the canyon, weaving its way uncertainly toward the river. I wasn’t going that far. Elephant Tusk loomed mean and dark, a strange Triassic tooth emerging from a mound of its own debris. Except in the shadows of the narrowest canyon walls, the Tusk remained always in sight.
Just below the three cottonwoods of Elegant Spring, I left the trail and started up the base of the Tusk, weaving among the defensive desert plants. Allow me to save you some trouble and a pint of blood: do not touch the lechuguilla. Don’t even scrape it. The leaves look yellow and dry and impotent, like corn husks. This is a trick. A few times I walked too close and had to pause, remove their knife tips from my pants and the shin underneath. The last time I touched a lechuguilla I didn’t have to inspect the wound closely. I lifted my pant leg to remove the leaf tip from my calf muscle and a mess of blood plopped out onto the rocks. I accepted this diagnosis at face value, and resumed climbing.
I followed the ridgeline to where the slope met the wall. Which way to go up from here? Which fissure led to the top? It was obvious from the bottom, looking up, but here every fissure appeared to be the correct approach. Walk around the wall until the scene looked right. Piles and piles of rock plate talus had been spewed from the wall and now lay in a treacherous cascade at the steepest angle in which they could rest. Any steeper and down they go. Any extra force applied to the rocks and down they go. Two steps forward, three steps back.
I clambered up the main fissure, talus scraping and clinking a hollow echo as the walls drew together. The fissure funneled to the width of a thorn bush. A toll gate. Pay in blood. I put my shoulder into the bush, the bush put itself into my shoulder, and I heaved through. Into a wall.
I’m no climber, but I do what I have to do to get up. Up. Fifteen, twenty feet up the chute, up. Top out. Look. There was much more up remaining. There was no clear route to the top, just a mess of ill-fitted vertical terraces of rotten rock and gravel.
Squint up at what was surely a false summit hiding more up beyond. The wind was a low hush. The world cleaved neatly into two parts. There was up, and there was down. There was no audience. There was no winning and no losing. No medals. No badges. No achievements. No discovery. No journey into the unknown. Go up and come down, and then it’s just a memory, until you die, and then it’s not even a memory anymore. Stand there, steeping in self-doubt, wondering why a person is propelled out and up, and if it might not be better for all involved to go back now.
I put my hands on the rock above, dug a toe into a crack, and stepped up. And stepped up. And stepped up. And on and on until there was no more up that wasn’t sky. I searched the summit for a why, but couldn’t find any. Maybe there is no why. Maybe the strange music leads to unexpected places for no reason at all.
Clouds floated in from the southwest. The afternoon unfurled like the land below, on and on, a long slope of wrinkled ground to the Río. But there was an end to the afternoon like there was an end to the land, and it was best to start moving. I’m no climber, but I do what I have to do to get down.
I sped into the parking lot, stopped the engine, and packed a backpack with jittery speed. 1:30pm. The show would commence sometime around 5pm.
Sleeping bag? Yes. Tent? No. Water? Yes. Dinner? No. The primary consideration was time. If an item would make climbing the hill slower, it was abandoned. A tent could be replaced with a tarp. Tonight’s dinner could be replaced by tomorrow’s lunch.
There was no time to pay the entrance fee or to acquire the backcountry permit. Mañana. The rangers at Guadalupe Mountains National Park would have to wait. The sun is a punctual traveler. I am not. I woke that morning in Portales to find my breath turned to frost on the inside of the tent. Hmm. So I stayed in the relative warmth of my bag until the sun rose and inspired the image of warmth, if not the actual temperature, outside. Then I left—late.
The half-packed pack was light. I walked quickly up the switchbacks on the shaded side of the reef. In the crevices above, and soon enough on the trail itself, remains of last week’s snowstorm clung to the slope. More than once I had to scramble off the trail to where the Guadalupean wind had thrown my hat.
This was my third visit to Guadalupe Peak, my first ascent in the daylight. I was on a mission to see the last sunset of 2011 and the first sunset of 2012 from the highest point in Texas, from the top of the old reef that stands dry and prominent and strange over the vanished Delaware Sea. Once the mission was conceived, it was indelible. It had to be done. If not now, when? Maybe never. After a 2011 of wonderful high peaks, terrible low valleys, and little land between the two, I needed some good magic, the kind of magic that one finds in desert mountain sunrises and sunsets.
The wind off the peak was brisk. The ice underfoot was vexatious, melted and boot-packed daily, frozen nightly. The Texas Madroños of the canyon floor gave way to the pines of the higher country, and the sotols and yuccas crossed elevations, binding bottom to top. I had no watch, only the shadow of Guadalupe Peak moving northward across Pine Canyon toward Hunter Peak. The trail wound upward. Returning hikers passed downward.
At the Guadalupe Peak campsite, about three trail miles above the trailhead and one mile below the summit, I set up camp. The tarp was folded over the sleeping bag, staked into the mud, and pinned by rocks to keep it from escaping while I was away. Grab the camera and a notebook, push three bottles of celebration into the snow for later, and go. Plenty of time and sun remaining.
Guadalupe Peak is as I left it. The sun glowed from a different angle and snow hid among the rocks, but it was the same mountain. Good ol’ Guadalupe Peak. If you can’t trust a good mountain, what can you trust?
Take a seat on the white limestone. The show begins. The sun sank tangerine orange somewhere in Mexico, pink and orange streamers radiating in its wake. The wind gathered itself in one final push before following the sun over the horizon. The ground faded. Indigo prevailed in all directions. 2011 faded to black.
* * * * *
Listen: an organism sitting on a rock watched a star disappear. This happens trillions of times a day—define “day” as you wish—in the universe.
* * * * *
I sat on Guadalupe Peak and watched the sun disappear. It is superstitious to apply meaning to this. Here is my advice: believe whatever superstition makes you strong.
I sat on the top of the bottom of the ancient sea. That sea is gone, gone, gone. Look to the southeast with the right eyes and a shoreline is visible, arcing away and away into the forever distance of the desert. (The perfect disguise above.) Thought becomes slower and slower, imitating the passing of geologic time that saw seas and salt flats and reefs and mountains rise and fall in the same place.
I gathered 2011 in my arms and heaved it over the cliff. Sic semper tyrannis. I suppose that it’s still there somewhere, another pile of debris broken away from the main.
Thousands of steps below, red and white lights coursed north and south. Whither? Whence? Perhaps the sociable people of West Texas were off to celebrate the new year in the company of friends. I envied them, but I would not have traded my position for theirs.
I slept the sleep of the cold and alone. It wasn’t refreshing, but it passed the time. I crunched through the snow in the campsite, trying not to wake the other couple camped there. Up. Past the mescal that had collapsed like a toll gate across the trail. The cost? Pay attention to what you see around you, you are far away from where you were and will be and you might not return and that notebook won’t capture the smell of juniper and that camera won’t capture anything your memory won’t remember more vividly.
2012 rose from the dust, inviting hope in even the coldest itinerant on the mountain.
The sun had set when I saw someone walking up the canyon along the remains of the old road to Panamint. It wasn’t dark enough for artificial light, but it was getting close. I was on the front porch, cooking dinner. I was not expecting visitors—not up there, no, not in that corner of the world.
(Charlie Manson’s last hideout, where he was captured in 1969, is in the mountains just a few miles south of Panamint. Helter Skelter, indeed.)
And what a visitor he was. He was red-faced, exerted, and his gaze was focused far beyond, past the old town site and up toward the ridge that marked the end of this canyon and the beginning of the next. It is a difficult hike—a filter for the uncommitted. He carried two backpacks, a large one on his back, and a smaller one on his front. He seemed strange—a viable candidate for the mayor of Panamint City, California.
Panamint is a derelict place, a ghost town. Of course it should attract derelict people. I was there. I was derelict, too.
Ken was going on a bit of a walk, a magical misery tour of Death Valley. Around Death Valley. No exaggeration. He was circumnavigating Death Valley by way of the surrounding mountain ranges . Six hundred miles, give or take. Just caching food and supplies would take him to corners of the park that are so rarely visited they may as well not be on the map. He was going through hell, and taking the difficult route to get there. Alone.
What a nut. What a madman. I liked him immediately. There are still some among us who haven’t fallen in line yet. Good for him. I understood his geography.
That was his first day, his first ten miles—about five thousand vertical feet and ten trail miles from Ballarat. Five hundred and ninety miles to go, give or take. In the morning he lay in bed in the back room of the cabin, staring at the ceiling. Stay? Go? Up over Telescope Peak to Mahogany Flat?
He went. I don’t know if he made it.
I first hiked Surprise Canyon six years ago. How much water has gone under the sand since then.
Panamint was my base camp for hiking to Sentinel Peak, a summit to the south of the city. I didn’t make it that far. The desert below was dry, but the mountains were still covered in snow. Surprise. This may seem obvious but I grew up in Illinois, where mountains are mythology and climate varying with elevation is an abstract idea. Snow. I followed the old mine road to upper Wyoming Mine, where I quit, red-faced, exerted, hands on knees after an hour or two of postholing through the snow, Sentinel Peak nowhere in sight.
I returned with more preparation and less snow. In the morning, I hiked the old mining road up and up to Wyoming Mine, perched a thousand feet above the town site. Wyoming Mine is a fantastic installation in the museum of Panamint, with derelict generators and pumps and carts and tramways arranged as they were abandoned.
There is no trail to Sentinel. The road peters out at Wyoming Mine—or it doesn’t.
I clambered up the edge of the graded road beside the mine. Paused. Walked forward to the corner of the ridge that pointed toward Panamint Valley and the Argus Range beyond. Calm. No reason to go anywhere. Not up. Certainly not down. In that moment the rest of the world was forgotten, gone, had never existed. I was the first and only.
I wasn’t the first. There were bits of broken green glass underfoot, piles of rusty cans to the right, and artificially stacked piles of rocks to the left. A path emerged from the gravel hill side, leading around the corner and into Marvel Canyon. Sentinel was the high point. I could go there at any time just by walking up until there was no more up. This path was immediate, insistent.
I won’t vouch for an exciting time around the corner. The trail became a little broader, more defined. There were more cans, more bottles, more low rock walls, more mine adits, more mine tailings. All of these unremarkable things were remarkable because they were unexpected. There was always one more piece of evidence to be found, one more prop for the imagination. The real show wasn’t on the mountain, but in my head. What was it like to be here when the action was happening? What was it like to work this far from the established world? What was it like to hope for a big strike? What was it like when the bubble burst and the speculation ended? What was it like?
(Later I saw the world from Sentinel Peak.)
The men left the mines years and years ago, but the burros stayed. At night, far away—but never far enough—in the canyon they bray like bellicose ghosts. HAW, EEHAW, EEHAW. In the distance the sound is chilling. When they wander into the foreground the sound explodes like a mortar.
HAW, EEHAW, EEHAW.
I do not like the burros.
I hiked up Sourdough Canyon on another morning, on another old mining road. The sides of the path were littered with the stratified debris of temporary human settlement. In the lower layers were the mining equipment and occasionally habited structures. In the upper layers, higher up the road, there was little more than rusty cans, weathered boards, maybe a few bedsprings. In between there were cots, stoves, disintegrating clothes, standing walls, and the ghosts you never believed in.
I walked, eyes on the ridge line that connected to the spine of the Panamints—morning meditation in the mountains. A snort/cough erupted from the hill to the left. I yelled. I danced on one foot. These are evolutionary responses that I do not claim as my own.
It was another burro. Of course. Territorial bastards. Standing rigidly, twenty or thirty yards away. Staring with solid black eyes. Can burros think? Do burros dream of feral sheep?
I tossed rocks into the ditch between us, just to let him know that I meant Business. I picked up a few more rocks and kept walking, up and up. Behind me, around a bend in the trees, I heard the clattering of rocks. Burro. I heaved the rocks in the direction of the sound. The sound resigned. Up and up.
The road banked out of Sourdough Canyon and climbed the ridge to the west. It was now a true road—graded by powerful tools but not degraded by time and weather like other relic roads. My mission: a square at the top of the road. I had seen the square, a neat little square, in satellite pictures. It was an absurd geometry in an otherwise random landscape. What was the square? Why was it there? Was it a cabin on the saddle between Surprise Canyon and Hall Canyon? Should I expect a shotgun salute upon approach? A buckshot bienvenue? Fine, fine—a fine way to go out, better than being bitten by a burro or stepping into a mine shaft.
Up and up. The cabin was nothing—and everything. The door remained. The windows did not. There was a barrel converted into a stove. There was a cot. Insulation had fallen from the walls. Graffiti took its place. There were empty shotgun shells and broken bottles—mementos of 4×4 trips past. It takes a certain type of person—and not a very interesting one, I suppose—to be excited by all of this. So be it.
Before leaving Panamint, I borrowed a handsaw from the main cabin and collected a bag of empty propane bottles, beer bottles, and liquor bottles. The trash man comes infrequently to Panamint. The day was clear, blue, warm. I followed the old road, downward ever so much faster than the grinding walk up. The handsaw I employed to clear the tunnel through the vegetation in the canyon. In the willow and tamarisk jungle, up and down were equally difficult, frustrating. Ten years since the last vehicle passed that way, and the trees and grapevines are getting thick. So be it. I left the handsaw on the trail register with a note: saw your way back up.
At Novak Camp I put the rental car in gear and rolled slowly, slowly, slowly down the road, not willing to risk an oil pan or tire or gold-plated tow out of the valley. At the bottom, at the junction of Indian Ranch Road and Surprise Canyon Road, on the edge of the dry lake, I stopped, stepped out barefoot in the gravel. I turned to see where I had come from. Other humans, whether Timbisha thousands of years ago or single blanket jackass prospectors a hundred and fifty years ago, looked at those awful mountains and said to themselves, “Let’s go there.” And some people insist that we are the intelligent species. Madness.
I blazed down the gravel road, and then down the paved road, and then up the intermittently paved and unpaved road to Wildrose. Balls to the oil pan. I could, with the right amount of foot pressure, make it to Aguereberry Point before sunset and see Death Valley at its sultry, beautiful best. Rattlesnake Gulch, White Sage Wash, A Canyon, Wood Canyon—zoom down the asphalt. Lean into the turns. Down the barrel of Emigrant Pass. Harrisburg, Eureka Mine—six miles and a cloud of dust, no need for any real traction on the corners.
I barged around the final turn to Aguereberry Point, spitting rocks. The sun was a memory of pink clouds in the west. There were no people anywhere—maybe they had never existed, maybe they were just another mirage in this desiccated, brutal, awful place, just a few more ghosts in there or out there or wherever.
I had the speed, I had the momentum, and I knew what had to be done. I pressed down with both feet, pulling on the steering wheel with both hands for leverage. The car leaped from the edge, soared over Blackwater Wash, exploded like a cheap firecracker in the twilight, fell in a tinkling rain of debris on the rubble below. If you stand at the bottom, at Furnace Creek, and look in the right place at the right time in the westbound morning sunlight, you can see the glass and metal shards light up like stars—a constellation on the hillside. Look with the right eyes and you can make out the shape of the constellation:
- Panamint Range, Last Chance Range, Grapevine Mountains, Funeral Mountains, Amargosa Range, Black Mountains, Owlshead Mountains, Panamint Range. [back to text]
- All of my photos from Panamint City on Flickr: Panamint City, September 2011; Panamint City, March 2005.
- Recommended reading: Richard Lingenfelter, Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion.
A few astute observers noted: hey, wasn’t I supposed to return next week? Indeed. The plan was changed a little, and I’m already home. Let me tell you a story.
7 March. Bus Stand, Jalgaon, Maharashtra–a junction town in west-central India. I was no longer rushing. It was too late–the bird had flown. I had just finished a four-hour bus ride from Aurangabad. I had a rail ticket in my wallet for the 12627 Karnataka Express, a train that was leaving to Delhi from Burhanpur in two-and-a-half hours. Four days prior I had come from Burhanpur to Jalgaon. It took three-and-a-half hours to make the trip.
I had a plan. I grabbed an auto from the bus stand to the railway station, crossed up and over the tracks to the third platform, and went to the Deputy Station Manager’s office. He ignored me. I went to the Station Manager’s office. He wasn’t there. I went back to the Dy. Station Manager’s office. He gave me an annoyed look that had clearly been honed over time.
I told him my story, that I had a ticket from Burhanpur to Delhi.
He said, “It is too far. What can you do?” and bent down to his papers again.
Yes, yes, I knew that. I informed him that the the same train stopped at Jalgaon before proceeding to Burhanpur. Could I board the train there in Jalgaon?
Ah. A chink in the official’s armor: the enquirer knew something. With near-comic exasperation, the manager made a phone call, said a few things in Marathi, hung up. I had a 2AC (two-tiered, air-conditioned) berth. He said there were no available seats in that class.
Of course. But, sir, couldn’t I buy an unreserved ticket, ride the 180 km from Jalgaon to Burhanpur in general seating, and then switch to 2AC?
After a very well executed eyeroll and sigh, he made another phone call, then reported back to me. He said that this train had a minimum distance requirement. Tickets could only be bought for a 600 km or greater segment. He said, “It is impossible.”
Nothing is impossible in India. Nothing.
I crossed back over the tracks to the ticket office and bought the impossible ticket with no problems. When the train arrived–late, of course–I took a deep breath, grabbed the bar beside the door, placed my foot at the threshold, and charged.
Let’s pause for a moment to explain something. Unreserved or general class train cars are mobile madness. Every inch of space was occupied–I mean, every inch of volume was occupied. The two tiers of benches were filled with people. People were lying in the overhead luggage rack. People were sitting on the floor. Some industrious person had rigged a hammock over the corridor to the toilet. Bags were dangling from all places that could hold them. The aisle was packed from front to pack with people, people, people. Cattle don’t like to be packed this tightly. Claustrophobes are kindly requested to avoid general class.
You have to push to get beyond the door, and then push to get beyond the first corridor, and then push until you find a place to stop. When you stop being the pusher you become the pushed. Until the train leaves there will be more people boarding.
Ten minutes down the line I noticed something was… off. I touched my front left pocket. There was my mobile phone. I my front right pocket. It was empty. I touched my back right pocket. It was empty. No wallet.
Perhaps, while compulsively checking my ticket at the platform, I had slipped it into my back pocket instead of my front pocket. Or someone could have taken it from my front pocket, given all of the jostling as I boarded. No matter. The wallet was gone. I wasn’t angry. I was amused. I was an easy target. I glanced around and met the eyes of several passengers. There was no way to tell who was the culprit. It could have been anyone. The setting sun shone through the port side window bars, turning all that brown skin a potent orange. It was almost beautiful.
First stop: Bhusaval Junction. Second stop: Burhanpur. I pushed through the crowd toward the door a little less gracefully than my entrance. Burhanpur is nowhere. It is a one-minute station stop. My car (bogey, if you’d like to use the local term) was eighteen cars down the train–200 or more meters away. Backpack strapped, camera bag in one hand, ravanhatta in the other hand (another story later to explain what this is), I leaned forward and ran down the platform. Breathing raggedly, I closed in on my destination. The whistle blew and the train started to move toward me. I grabbed the bar, swung on board. 1200 km later I was in New Delhi.
I doubt I lost more than $20 in cash in that wallet. I regret that, but not as much as losing my ATM card, which was my access to future cash for things like eating and sleeping. So I moved my return tickets forward. Forty-eight hours after running the Chandigarh Marathon I was already in the sky, facing westward.
I maintain, even after the loss, that I’m some kind of logistical savant–the bus from Aurangabad to Jalgaon, then the impromptu second-class ride and run to fulfill my reserved seat. I could pass clear across that country with nothing more than an idea. Next time, though, I’ll be a bit more careful.
So. I’m back. A few people asked: am I going to write a wrap-up post from the trip? No. Maybe I’ll make a wrap-up map that shows where I went. Also, I’m posting photos. The generous gypsies from the musician’s colony in Jaisalmer and the rotten shopkeepers from Udaipur and six days of boulder-scrambling in Hampi–these are all full stories, not just paragraphs. India is a big, strange place that doesn’t wrap up neatly in a little box. That would be impossible. Stay tuned.
[P.S.: I’m searching for meaningful work now that I’m back. In the meantime, I’m available for a variety of temporary work: web sites, various IT and database things, digital archival, outdoor work, whatever. If you’ve got a lead, give me a shout.]
One of the going away activities from my 2005 X PRIZE internship in the Mojave Desert, California, was a chance to eat lunch with Burt Rutan, Mike Melvill, and a few of the other rocket men of the Scaled Composities SpaceShipOne team. Midway through lunch, a gray-bearded man came in. He had been cycling across the desert, at midday in May, and wanted to show Burt his invention, a remarkable thermal material that could help the boys in Kuwait. (“Or Iraq,” Burt corrected.) It was aluminum foil. He also had an older invention: Braille candy. (“You can taste the colors.”)
Anyway, the point is that people cycling across the desert in the middle of the day are carrying more than a week’s supply of The Crazy.
While I was in Jaisalmer I rented a bicycle from Narayan Cycles for a midday ride west out of the city, into the Thar Desert. Suriya suggested it would be a nice ride to see the Jain temples at Amar Sagar and the cenotaphs (“umbrellas”) at Bara Bagh. Hell yes: adventure. (More on Suriya and family to come in a later episode. He’s a good friend of mine in Jaisalmer.)
Before going, I glanced at a guidebook so I’d have a rough idea where I was going and what road to take to get there. All I had to do was to take the highway west from Hanuman Circle, near where I was staying. Amar Sagar would be 5 km to the west. A place called Mool Sagar would be 2 km beyond that. Perfect–a path and a distance.
Here bicycles are simple machines: one speed, crunchy bedspring seats, U-shaped handlebars set to the plane of the street. Jaisalmer has the simplest traffic I’ve seen yet in India, but it is still a challenging to dodge pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, autorickshaws, cars, jeeps, and cows. (And cowpatties.) Jaisalmer is a small city. Once you’ve passed Hanuman Circle you’ve passed everything but the military guards at the “Thundering 27” base, the guards with the red Japanese fans on their heads.
Then: nothing. The Thar Desert is not a scenic desert–at least not the small bit of it that I experienced. Granted, I’m prejudiced towards the Mojave Desert of California, the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas, the Canyonlands of Utah. These are legendary places to me, wonderlands of mountains and arches and canyons. The Thar Desert along MDR 53 wasn’t even that scrubby. On one side of the road there was a landscape of smashed sandstone, perhaps being quarried for building projects in Jaisalmer and beyond. On both sides were sparsely distributed plants with large rubbery leaves.
The children were friendly. From the sides of the road, from the dilapidated buildings set back in the dust, and from places I could hear but not see, children waved and yelled, “Hello!” Women filling water jugs at a leaking irrigation pipe giggle and said, “[Something something] gora” among themselves. Men passing on tractors slowly rotated their heads to follow my passing. Exchange the turbans for feedcaps and it was just like Central Illinois.
At Mool Sagar there was nothing. Nothing. I went an extra kilometer down the road to be certain. Nothing. Kuch nahin. There were a few miserable houses and rock-bounded plots with no houses at all–much like California City, California. How do people survive on the fringes? Why do people survive on the fringes? I turned back, left them there. Maybe it’s better on the fringes, on the outside. At Mool Sagar I had an omelette and a chai with a few stone cutters before returning to the east, to Jaisalmer, capital of the fringes.
Later, in the guidebook, I would read more closely about Mool Sagar: “…Mool Sagar, a run-down oasis with a Shiva Temple.” Ah.
About 5 km from Jaisalmer there is a junction. Ten kilometers to the north of the junction is Lodurva, the home, I’m told, of a collection of Jain temples. I hadn’t found Amar Sagar yet, so what the hell? Why not go to Lodurva?
There at the crossroads was a boy in a light blue ninth-standard school uniform. I prepared my best Amar Sagar kahan hai? (Where is Amar Sagar?) Before I could ask, he pointed at the back of my bike. I returned a quizzical look. He motioned again, and mimed that he wanted to sit on the rack. Oh, you want a ride? Yes, I’m going to Jaisalmer city. Let’s do it. Hop on.
Off we went down the desert highway, a gora and his boy–or was it the other way around? We puttered along for 3 km, exchanging simple Hinglish questions and answers.
About 1.5 km from Jaisalmer, as we passed Indira Indoor Stadium and entered Defence Land, the boy on the back said something I didn’t quite hear. “[Something] five [something] rupees.” Ah, how cute. No, young man. I come as an informal emissary of the United States of America. I am here to do Good Work. I will not charge you for this strange ride across the desert. Go forth. Uncle Sam loves you.
“Money. From you to me.”
“500 rupees? I am poor boy.”
And so on. The treacherous little bastard continued to ask for money. It’s one thing to ask foreigners for money. It’s another thing–and certainly not a problem–to ask for a free ride. But it takes a real deviant to cop a ride and then ask for money from the driver as he pedals through the noontime grit.
After another half kilometer of being hounded for cash, I stopped. “Get down.” I rode the last stretch alone, free of one white man’s burden.
The 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival is over. Walking past the jampacked final panel–the standing easily outnumbering the seated 3-to-1–with Vikram Seth, under the colored banners, and through the gate of Diggi Palace a final time, I was a little melancholic. What next?
On Day 4 I opened with the “Mumbai Narratives” session with Sonia Falerio and Gyan Prakash because–what the hell–I had just been to Mumbai and I’ll be back and I wanted to hear some stories. Now I have another book to find and read when I return home: Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash. Like a fair number of authors at the event I had never heard of Gyan Prakash, but I was taken in as much by his motivations for his work as what he read. In Mumbai Fables Prakash says he was not looking for the stories themselves, but inquiring into the nature of how they were created–peering behind the curtain of the mythology, trying not only to understand what something is but how and why it got that way. That’s important: as in engineering, always check your assumptions.
Anthony Sattin’s session on the unlikely coincidence of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, from his book A Winter on the Nile, was one of the top panels of the week. Imagine this: two young people go on a trip (independently–they never meet) because they are frustrated with their progress at home, then return to do major work which history has not forgotten. Yes. Familiar. Sattin’s enthusiasm for the two main characters, the arcs of their lives, and the places in Egypt (and France and England) was exciting.
On Day 5, Priya Sarukkai Chhabria and Arunava Sinha spoke about “Translating the Classics.” I have an enormous amount of respect for translators (and, more broadly, polyglots). To be able to decode works in a language different from one’s native tongue–that seems like having keys to a level of the castle that few will ever see. The chief concern of the panels was with which version of the final language to use. When translating a classic, should one use an archaic English to create a sense of temporal distance? Should one use a contemporary voice? And what does one do with words and ideas that exist in the base language but not the final language? Of course the answers were: it depends.
I’ll admit here: I harbor this pointless desire to be able to translate something myself–to be able to open the locked door with my own hand. That’s why I attended one more session with Katherine Russell Rich, the “Dreaming in Sanskrit” panel with Lee Siegel. I envy and admire the focus she exhibited to spend a year learning Hindi in Udaipur, then writing about it in Dreaming in Hindi. Hooray for the doers of the world, in whatever form they appear.
To end the day and the festival, Irvine Welsh read from his upcoming book, Reheated Cabbage. I’ve never read any Irvine Welsh, and his session was up against Indian literature titan Vikram Seth. I’ve not read anything by Vikram Seth yet either, but I’m aware of him and his books are on my list, so I decided to give Irvine Welsh a try, a final attempt at broadening my experience. Maybe it was the Scottish accent, or the unhesitating use of street language, or the straightforward stride through some putrid subject matter–anyway, the point is that Irvine Welsh ended the festival, for me, on a sustained high note.
I enjoyed the 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival–I’m happy that it was suggested to me and that I modified my trip to Jaipur to attend. There is the immediate question, “What next?” that applies to my remaining 57 days in India. But the value of the festival to me was listening to accomplished people on stage and conversing with members of the audience and how it all gave me the confidence to consider the greater “What next?” that will exist when I go home.
Day 2 of the Jaipur Literature Festival was slammed. Packed. Jammed. If you wanted to get your Indian experience of moving in colossal crowds, well, there you were. I’m not sure what made Day 2 so much more dense. People coming for the party that the festival is? Loads of schoolkids? I don’t know. The days of hosting the festival at Diggi Palace are numbered. All four speaking venues were overflowing.
In the morning of Day 2, I watched the “A Time Apart” panel with J.P. Das and Rita Chowdhury. Ms. Chowdhury gave a presentation on her book about Chinese-Indians living in Assam who were, after border conflicts with China, all arrested, moved to concentration camps, and then deported to China even though they had been living in India for generations. I don’t recall the name of the book, though I remember it was Hindi only. I liked her description of it, though. I’ll find it later–perhaps a good place to focus myself on reading Hindi better.
One of the reasons I attended the previous panel was to get an early seat for the following presentation, “One amazing thing” with Chitra Devakurni Banerjee. At the end of the previous panel, people started packing the back of the tent. At the end of the panel they poured in, occupying every stool and divan so densely that it created its own gravity field. They packed in deep in the back. They crawled in from under the edges of the tent. It was intense. Even the festival organizer had to come to the microphone and ask for help getting the authors into the tent so they could speak.
But it wasn’t Ms. Banerjee. It was two other guys and, to my undertrained ears, incomprehensible. It was in Hindi. And I was trapped there in the Kingfisher Baithak tent, not looking forward to squeezing my way out. For thirty minutes I sat there, trying to at least get the essence of what was going on, but to no avail. I finally left when I felt awkward not getting the jokes. As I crawled out under the tent myself, I saw an army of people outside the tent, listening, ravenous to get inside. If anyone knows who that was at 12pm, and again for a repeat performance at 1:30 on the Front Lawns, please inform me. I’m curious what could make a crowd of Indians go absolutely bonkers like that.
Ah… madness… what else, what else?
Rory Stewart talked about his book, The Spaces in Between, and how his skepticism of how useful the big cash and big armies approach to “fixing” Afghanistan led him to walk across the country for eighteen months.
There was a panel on travel writing, “On the Road,” with Anthony Sattin, Katie Hickman, Rory Stewart, Pallavi Aiyar, and William Fiennes. The notable portion of that was Katie Hickman reading from her book about traveling with a circus in Mexico. She read from her own favorite part of the book, which happened after she stopped following the circus and visited a migratory home for Monarch butterflies. What struck me was that I expected a short description of the place and sight, but she turned it into a fantastic world in which you were immersed in the Monarchs themselves. I didn’t catch the name of the book. There is so much that I missed.
Day 2 ended with Katie Hickman and Muzaffar Ali in the panel “From Courtesans East and West” in which they described and compared, yes, courtesans from Lucknow and London. Mr. Ali’s descriptions tried to place the courtesans of Lucknow in a finer, more elegant, more learned place. (This relates to a movie of his, I think. I don’t know the title. Can someone fill me in?) Ms. Hickman focused a bit more in her book on the humorous aspects of their place in society–not bawdy descriptions, no, but a history of the tangled web of mistresses and courtesans and society men and women that existed in London. It wasn’t something that I expected from what I had assumed was totally straight-laced 1800s England.
Day 3… I missed most of this for the Jaipur Half Marathon. Stay tuned for notes on that, etc.
The one full panel I saw was “Migritude” with Abha Dawesar, Shailaja Patel, and Pauline Melville. It was hit and miss. What I appreciated most was Ms. Melville’s incisive comments and answers. For example, the other two opened with poems and stories from their books, but Ms. Melville opened by pointing at the list of sponsors in the back and accusing them of forcing many migrations with their actions of opening and closing facilities around the world, displacing and replacing thousands of people. An unexpected zing–I think I’ll check her out again on Day 4.
Day 1 of the Jaipur Literature Festival (http://www.jaipurliteraturefestival.org) is over. It was my first ever day at the festival, and I had an enormously good time. Thanks to Supriya for suggesting it.
I used the word “enormous” intentionally. The place is packed. There are four main stages, plus assorted vendor stalls, cafés, common areas, etc. Sometimes it seems too enormous for Diggi Palace, but it’s like going to see a concert where the energy of the performance is complemented by the energy of the crowd moving in and around itself–a kind of static electricity from all of the rubbing shoulders.
My favorite panel of the day was the Emperor of Maladies panel with Siddhartha Mukherjee and Katherine Russell Rich. The title of the panel comes from Mr. Mukherjee’s book, The Emperor of Maladies, a history–a biography, even–of cancer. And Ms. Rich was there talking about her 1999 book, The Red Devil, a story of her own history with cancer.
So, yes, my favorite panel was on the topic of cancer–a dismal-sounding subject indeed. But the focus wasn’t that dismal. It wasn’t what I would call entertaining, though. It was engaging. Ms. Rich has never gotten rid of cancer. Eighteen years later she still deals with its recurrence, and she makes her way slowly through the crowd during the day. For good or for ill, that’s the most compelling part of the story. That’s what makes her, in my opinion, a good role model. On one hand you have a Lance Armstrong, who recovers to become King of the World. On the other hand you have someone who survives but still has to live with the day-to-day problems. That seems more real, or at least more applicable. Suresh S., a Jaipur native, said to me after the panel that he is going to recommend the book to a family member dealing with cancer.
Mr. Mukherjee’s presentation was also good–I’m more likely even to go read The Emperor of Maladies than The Red Devil–but I’ll focus on Ms. Rich. I saw her for the first time in Boston in 2008, when she was on tour for her latest book, Dreaming in Hindi, which I assumed she was in India to present. Obviously she wasn’t. I found her later and asked a few questions about it. Listen: I don’t like bothering authors or musicians or performing people of whatever kind after the show. My baseline assumption is that they’re getting hassled enough as it is, so maybe I should give them a break. Besides, they’re not going to be very congenial or thoughtful when harried anyway.
She was warm nonetheless–me and my preoccupations, etc. I asked her if Nand, a wise character and mentor (I referred to him as a sort of “Yoda,” because I’m a dork) in the memoir, had read Dreaming in Hindi yet. She said that he had, and developed a greater respect for her because of it. He’s not just anybody. He’s an eminent Rajasthani poet. His deeper respect was a valuable thing to earn. I enjoyed the book also, so I was pleased for her. We talked a bit also about her break to come to India–she spent a year in Udaipur learning Hindi–and my own. I did a fabulously timid job talking about writing on running in India–see previous paragraph about baseline hassle–so I’ll try to explain more passionately about what all I’m doing. I’m here in India because I think I can write. I’m here on the front edge, on the precipice of doing the thing, so maybe it’s time to own up to it. I am, after all, at a literature festival surrounded by authors who stopped thinking they had an idea and actually crafted the idea into something real. She also asked what I was going to become when I returned home. I didn’t have an answer for that. Like so many other experiences here: something to think about.
I got to see Junot Díaz in action. I made sure to say that like I’m really familiar with him. I’m not. I am aware of him as a name only–he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. He teaches at MIT, so I’m discovering, in India, a notable writer who essentially lives down the street from me at home. Yeah. Pay attention, etc. So I can’t tell you about his work. And I’m typing this damned thing by mobile phone, so I’m not going to look it up either. I can tell you that he was terribly funny and entertaining, but also lapsed into extended moments of earnestness where he explained his approach and experience with the art of literature.
“We read books as individuals, but understand them as a collective. […] Reading a novel is an invitation to form a community.”
“America’s entire relationship with art is like… ‘Wait, you’re still here?’ “
And so on. Junot Díaz just jumped onto my to-read list and clawed his way toward the top.
I stepped into Alex Bellos’ presentation, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, quite arbitrarily. I didn’t have a program yet. I wanted to get out of the sun. I stepped in and discovered it was a book and presentation about math. Well, what the hell? I guess that’s a nice way for an engineer like me to get acquainted with the festival.
It was entertaining. It was way better than just a time pass. There were videos of chimpanzees demonstrating not only their trained understanding of the cardinality and ordinality of numbers–amount and order, I learned, are the two qualities that make numbers numbers–but that they could recognize and remember them faster than humans. There were pictures of Japanese schoolkids using abacuses (abaci?) both to compute and compete. Mr. Bellos mentioned that there is no research that shows using an abacus improves mathematical cognition. None. But, as he shows, the abacus makes it fun, and the students excel at it. That made me think. Math is a slog for me–no fun at all. I took calculus, etc., because I needed the credits to get into and pass out of engineering. I’m now curious what it would be like to learn math or learn about the history of math as someone who wants to learn it, not someone who has to learn it.
And on and on. It is, like so many other occurrences in India, an awful lot to deal with at once. It is simultaneously fun and informative–a heady combo indeed.
Monuments are the highlight of tourism. Like an entire sporting match condensed to a series of big plays for television shows, monuments draw the casual viewer’s eyes to the most striking sights.
Before we get too far: I’m not going to attempt irony here. I like monuments and distilled tourism myself. It gives the wandering ignorant (me) something to grasp. Here in Kolkata I need all the help I can get grasping anything. Even I have visited the Victoria Memorial, one of the city’s chief monuments, twice now; my first was 2006. It is an impressive play and I am not above taking cues from the guidebook. (Beware anyone who says “real India.”)
I like to walk–not out of a perverse sense of cheapness, but just because I like to walk. I walk at home and I walk here. I like to see and feel–and, for good or ill, smell and breathe–the scene from the ground. Walking shows the connective tissue between monuments. Walking gives dimension to the place that would otherwise be glossed over.
In Kolkata one of those dimensions is honking–cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, even ting-a-linging bicycles. They honk when passing or turning to say, “I am here! I am here!” They erupt in a tremendous peal of honking when the traffic light changes from red to green. They honk in that good old fashioned American way to inform an offending driver what will be performed on his mother tonight.
The sum of all this honking and vrooming, of all of this exhaust inhalation and harrowing street crossing, is a stressful experience. I enjoy it, in a way, because it is culturally strange and thus a Valuable Experience, but I am sure this noise will be the soundtrack in my cubicle in hell.
One day, quite by accident, I discovered the Maidan. Everybody breathe in; hold it. Now breathe out; say, “Ah.” You’ve just shared my experience of the Maidan.
The Maidan is a huge open green area stretching several kilometers between the city center and the Hooghly River. It is a wonderful and literal breath of fresh air that I was lucky to find. After grabbing another kati roll for lunch I was trying to find the Park Street metro station, but I got sidetracked and lost crossing Jawaharlal Nehru Road. (I will explain later: the Sikhs distracted me.)
Instead of the metro station, I found a park and a game of cricket–a fair substitute, if a bit short on transportation opportunities. I am fascinated by the sport, not because I find it terribly exciting–it’s like baseball, except the guy who throws the ball is an athlete–but because I’ve lived so long without encountering a sport that a third of the world plays. In this little bit of heaven–the northern tip of the Maidan is even called Eden Gardens–the traffic noise was somewhat filtered by the trees and the members of the tourist support industry (read: beggars, vendors, and drivers) were no nowhere to be found. And there, with no monuments bigger than the wickets, I spent a good hour watching a game.
The next day I walked across JN Road, purposefully this time, with another kati roll–single egg double chicken, excellent, excellent–and watched the cricket players, this time performing drills, batting practice, sprints, fielding, etc. Walking south down the Maidan, toward the Victoria Memorial looming through the hazy sun, I found more of the same: cricket as far as I could see, ranging in skill and professionalism from the games with spectators on the north side to kids with tennis balls in overlapping fields on the south side.
I watched there on the north end, which also had the benefit of shade trees, before wandering down the Maidan, past the cricket matches, ponies, kites, goats, and snack vendors, until I made it to Queen’s Way, the street in front of the Victoria Memorial, where the world again lapsed into monumental sights and cacophony.
[Photos, of course are forthcoming.]