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The Outer Limits

THE HARD WAY: Stories of Danger, Survival, and the Soul of Adventure, By Mark Jenkins, Simon & Shuster: 224 pp., $22

October 06, 2002|ROBIN U. RUSSIN | Robin U. Russin is the coauthor of "Screenplay: Writing the Picture" and an assistant professor of screenwriting at UC Riverside.

In the wind-swept Wyoming countryside east of Laramie, on each side of Interstate 80, are two remarkable phenomena. To the north is Vedauwoo, a park of gigantic granite boulders piled into fantastic hill formations. Native Americans long held the area sacred; its name is Arapaho for "earthborn." Nowadays it's a magnet for picnickers and rock climbers. A few miles south rises the Ames Monument, a 60-foot pyramid built in 1882 to honor two brothers who helped complete the transcontinental railroad. Set at the line's highest elevation, once the site of a vanished rail town, it was designed by the great H.H. Richardson, with portrait reliefs by renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It now sits eerily alone above a desolate high plain.

These two monuments, one shaped by the elements, the other by ambition, are appropriately in the backyard and background of Laramie native Mark Jenkins. An accomplished mountaineer and professional wanderer, Jenkins is also the son of a math professor and is a student of philosophy; he prefaces his new book, "The Hard Way," with a quote from the controversial existentialist Martin Heidegger. And flowing just beneath the surface of Jenkins' beautifully crafted stories one can sense Heidegger's obsession with achieving a consciousness of self without alienation from the world.

Heidegger thought the anxiety of facing mortal danger was clarifying, that stripping away the inauthentic created a means to a joyfully active life. Jenkins makes himself no stranger to peril in his search for the authentic. He traverses the most remote and literally forbidden parts of the globe, at the risk--and cost--of illness, injury and frequent incarceration. But the lure is irresistible: "Anxiety is building now. The footloose jubilation of setting out on a new adventure masking the anguish of saying goodbye to my wife and two daughters. This is the conundrum of my life: I do not want to leave, but I am yearning, madly, to go. The plane is waiting. Shoulder on the pack, kiss Sue and the girls, I'm gone."

Jenkins' previous two books, "Off the Map" and "To Timbuktu," were in-depth accounts of single adventures: bicycling across Siberia and following the Niger River from its source to the ocean. Each represented a prolonged vision-quest into deeply mysterious territory, geographical and metaphysical. "The Hard Way" is a selection of articles, mostly from Outside magazine, for which he is adventure columnist. Each recounts a smaller, simpler exploit, each providing its own more particular epiphany. But here, grouped by theme--"Crossings," "Iconoclasts," "Mountains," "Kin"--each acquires a deeper resonance.

Brought to life by a poetic and muscular style, Jenkins' writing is a brew of history, philosophy and raw emotion. His journeys are as intellectual and spiritual as they are physical, and we are by his side, in his head. Cresting a mountain ridge in Ethiopia: "In a nanosecond the eyes gauge the fantastic drop, the mind imagines the plummet to death, instinct secretes a warning into the blood and the body recoils." Nearly freezing in Canada: "Something was happening to us. It was what we'd come for. We were being immersed back into the physical life. It was almost as if all the rain, the frigid river, the wilderness itself were an acid dissolving the shell of urban existence." Upon hearing a night chorus of nearly extinct African wolves: "The faint call and response and refrain, like a faraway psalmody in some ancient language, had cheered me immensely. Somehow, through everything, they were still alive. They were out there, even if we never saw them."

Despite his passion for nature, at heart the book is about the human connections he finds everywhere--partners, family, strangers he meets along the way: "Nov. 7, somewhere in Tibet--Expected a Wilderness. Instead, am riding through an empty landscape of people. The mountains are incidental." Of course people, like nature, are inextricably wonderful and terrible. An expedition through the Dardanelles elicits a meditation on the World War I horrors of Gallipoli. A boating trip in Louisiana provokes an indictment of a ravaged ecology. Attacked by thieves in the Balkans: "I am not feeling the blows not the first boot to the side of my head not the kicks or the punches or the blood because my hands are desperately scrambling for my knife in the blackness over the tent floor...."

But Jenkins remains an optimist. Come what may, to travel is "to throw yourself into the world like a boy leaps into a lake." And homecoming, too, is sweet, although it usually involves a jaunt to Vedauwoo to teach his girls how to climb, or to marvel at the man-made mountain, now all but forgotten, built to celebrate a conquered continent. In "The Hard Way," he takes us on a wild ride to the realization that, whether sipping yak-butter tea with a Tibetan monk high in the Himalayas, breaking into the underworld in northern Greece or simply hitching across Colorado to see a friend, the world outside our doors remains a constant source of surprise and awe.

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