More often than not, the literate adventure traveler seeks a route beyond globalization's influence--a place that's still hard to get to, preferably in an extreme ecosystem and in the company of suitably wild natives. This often results in a book about a writer alone in a foreign country, with a native voice peppered in now and again to demonstrate his brave willingness to drink with the locals.
Other tourists, those taking the easy route, are mere children lined up quietly compared to this average adventurer-writer. He believes only in raw, unexpurgated and unregulated experience; those who just want to hang around a café, peruse a museum or see some interesting architecture are invariably scorned for their timidity.
Jim Malusa, a Tucson-based writer and botanist, appears at first blush to be another follower of this rather tired stance, made popular and done best by Bruce Chatwin, the late laconic Brit who wrote In Patagonia and The Songlines, two travel narratives which, along with American Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar, gave new life to the genre more than 30 years ago.
But once I reached the end of Malusa's charming book, Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents, out now in paperback from Sierra Club Books, I realized that his work sits several notches above today's typical adventure narrative.
His is the story of a kind of arbitrary obsession (Is there any other kind?) to ride his bike to the lowest point on each continent, save Antarctica--places he calls "anti-summits." He attempts throughout six years of journeys made in the late 1990s through 2001--many of them paid for by the Discovery Channel's online concern to which Malusa uploaded dispatches from the field--to figure out what it is that attracts him to the Earth's low points, but he doesn't quite get there until his last journey, from Tucson to Death Valley, the lowest point in North America.
"Everybody has a plan," he writes, "something that may or may not happen--but that's not really the point. It's the plan that counts, it's the pleasure of possibility."
Instead of trying to shoehorn some misbegotten ideas about authentic travel and true experience into what really amounts to a tale of a middle-age guy in great shape riding his bike around a few extreme environments and sleeping outside whenever he can, Malusa admits that he's just that guy--one who got it in his head to do something and then did it.
The title of the book, one assumes, is supposed to give a shock of consumer recognition to fans of John Krakauer's book Into Thin Air, about climbing Everest--the ultimate thin-air summit to Malusa's anti-summits, where the air is heavy with gravity's relentless pressure. What is most interesting is that while Everest, in Krakauer's account, has become a relatively crowded place, Malusa's dry-lake depressions and desiccated salt flats are nearly always deserted.
Thankfully, for himself as well as his readers, Malusa is the kind of man to whom loneliness comes easy: He doesn't appear to be haunted or insecure, and when he sits in one of his deep holes below sea level, usually with a beer and a bowl of ramen noodles cooked on a camp stove, he looks outward at the sky and the endless horizon, not inward. He looks at plants and rocks more than he looks at himself, and this makes his writing jaunty, fact-filled and entertaining. There are a few times when self-obsession rears up--like when he compares himself repeatedly, if obliquely, to the desert monks of Egypt with their extreme asceticism. It's a stretch. Malusa's tough, very tough, but he's certainly not above taking a ride when one is offered, and it seemed that he spent as many nights in hotels as he did under foreign skies.
But these are the reasons why his voice is so compelling: Again, he comes across more like a citizen who got caught up in an obsession rather than a professional observer gleefully reporting on the downfall of human civilization.
What many nonfiction writers forget, especially lonely adventure-loving travel writers, is that if the reader doesn't like the "I" in a first person narrative, there's no amount of skillful writing or geopolitical knowledge that can reverse that damage. Malusa likes himself; he likes his wife and his kids, and he likes other people--and they like him. I like him, and so will you. This is perhaps the simple secret to writing a good travel narrative, but one that many lesser adventurers disregard. Malusa gets it right, and I, for one, hope he keeps on going.