Journey to the Center of the Edge

In the annals of unsuccessful exploration, no mystery has remained more puzzling than the endless wrangling among historians and New York literary agents over the fate of the legendary lost expedition of Colonel Sir Edward Fallow Pike. In light of the tremendous excitement over the recent discovery of an authentic fragment of Pike's journal in an Argentine wax

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

The land is harsh when it is all around you. Can it be that this most Terrible of places, with its verdant salt-flats and the icy gale of the geysers, is the true objective of our long-awaited voyage? The men under my command are beyond exhaustion. Though we have never before glimpsed this tundra paradise, we feel we've been here all our lives. Perhaps it's the silent majesty of the great peak itself, standing watch like a Romanian sentry over the sun-bleached streetcars, the shrimp- fishing vessels, and the Alhambran gardens. When my dying breath escapes me, I shall think of this idyllic valley of gondolas and diamond mines, and I will whisper its name.

Of our expedition Plan, the less said the better. So many have condemned our goals in the general press—doubted us, harangued us, and in some cases actually withheld funding from us—that it is too dispiriting an endeavor to detail our famous mission yet again. Still, I am proud that even as monsoons plunged us into the near-madness of dehydration, not one of my men showed the slightest fear at the Cossack attacks or the screech of the wolfchildren—nor even at the cruel desolation of outer space.

Should this journal be found I want the facts recorded. Unlike explorers of other nations (whose names I shall not utter!), we have mistreated neither our Manchurian ponies nor the many slaves we captured along the way. Will we find the Great River upon which no human has ever set foot? Can men ever discover who created these cave-paintings of the Northwest Passage? And whether the light that shines down on them is particle or wave—or both? Alas. We set out from our homeland certain of only one thing: that some among us would perish along the route, and that those who did return would have a grand tale to tell. That sounds like two things, but it is actually one, bipartite thing.

Every journey offers a vision of hell. Four months into our expedition, the men under my command were emblems of sad-eyed humanity. Our last animals had died. We ate the dogs and smoked the camels. Also, we killed the parrots, which had been nothing but a nuisance the whole trip. This was it. We would have to uncrate our precious last 90 days' supply of food: the beef tenderloins, the escargots, even the risotto with those little asparagus tips.

Heartened by the scent of citrus groves, we portaged the kayaks to a caldera flanked by moors and iron-red scree. We rappelled down the canyon walls, believing we'd found an oasis of sorts. But it was here that young Major T. E. Randolph, my second-in-command, soon would be taken from us in the most Horrible manner.

Sometime between one dawn and another dawn, Major Randolph lost his footing and plunged into a crevasse between the Great Reef and an alpine meadow. We spent two hours of the morning (and nearly another hour after lunch) roping him out. It was a dreadful business: Judging from his difficulty breathing and doing the officers' laundry, the poor lad had broken his neck.

Randolph had always been a solitary fellow—strangely detached from whatever adventure we set out upon. I would often chide him with shouts of "Randolph, you must wake up!" or "Better get a move on, Randolph!" And he would pretend not to hear, even when I tried to warn him about the snakes with cries of "Randolph! Look out!"

Later, the men informed me that his name was Phipps, not "Randolph" as I'd always thought. This was quite possibly a clue as to his unresponsive temper. But those intimate few who knew him best—myself, Jerry with the Red Hair, and a fortyish man I believe is from Australia—are certain Randolph wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

As the poor devil lay gasping for air, we knew there was no turning back. It was the beginning of the end for Randolph, the end of the beginning for others—and for some, like me, it was three-quarters of the way through the middle part of the beginning.

Randolph never gave up hope until his final hour (though then he gave up hope loudly and with great enthusiasm!). Beneath the deep booming of the blizzard outside the stained-glass windows of our tent, we could hear his agonized coughing, along with the sad rantings of a man who has lost all reason. "I blame you, Pike," he raved, as we looked on uncomprehendingly. "Your incompetence caused my death!" and so on, etc., etc. At long last, he shuffled off this mortal coil, and also died. We removed his Mercury 7 medallion and folded his scuba gear into an origami Buddha, then buried him up in an old chestnut tree.

Of course, there is no loyalty without mutiny. Randolph's demise turned many of the weaker men against me. A few tortured souls seemed to have caught the dead man's rhetoric like a fever, shouting "Pike is unfit for command!" and whatnot. I was thus compelled to set 40 of them adrift in open boats. As fate would have it, the pond was quite small, so we all met up again later in the afternoon.

That night we huddled in the mist, gazing joylessly out at the stars and back toward the cloudy blue Earth. The bleakness was taking hold. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months—but luckily for us, turned back into days again.

Is it all a ghastly dream? I cannot know. We sailed nearly 25,000 miles to behold people that Time (and even Newsweek) forgot—a cryptic race that had never had the benefits of modern medicine. This backwardness was a great sorrow for them, as our crew were by this time carrying all manner of pestilence: cholera, trench mouth, and a perplexing "moodiness" I dare not describe. Having lost nine fingers and a thumb, I myself suffered from sheep rot, stigmata, and what our medic liked to call "Cupid's Itch." I also had that thing where your ear is plugged but won't quite pop, and when you try to make it pop the ear just gets worse, despite all your yawning and swallowing. But, triumphantly, I would abide. For my fellows and my Sovereign, with no access to a reliable ear doctor, I would abide.

Our amazing first brush with the Lost Colony came on a stark winter's afternoon. We lay moaning and half-starved (as we awaited High Tea) when one of them hobbled out of the bush. It was obvious we were outsiders: What native would be seen here without a trilby hat and shillelagh? Our startling new friend was four feet tall, with striking blue eyes, and ears that also apparently were on strike. In an exotic language fashioned from a wild waving-about of arms (and passable English), he indicated that his name was Pino, and that he was this glacier's preeminent tangelo peddler. He greeted us with the traditional military handshake, accompanied by that ululating sound I can never quite get a handle on.

Despite Pino's odd conventions, he was a good fellow. Had we been stronger, we would have enslaved him and shown him the wonders of the real world. He'd have been quite a curiosity back home. He was dressed, as per custom, in mukluks and poncho-draped lederhosen—in other words, the same dusty stereotype we have of these people, but standing in front of us, incarnate.

With a parched rasp of voice, I asked if we might see his village. Pino cheerily agreed (by yodeling, just like in the movies). We rode his ricksha far beyond the Mayan ruins and into the igloo sector of the heath, where natives with lip-plates waved sprigs of purple heather to bless us. Clearly, the tribe had never seen white men before, as the children kept touching our skin and snapping Polaroid photos of us. For some reason, many of them asked us for pens and Western candy. Among the tumbleweeds and eider ducks, we then watched an indigenous holy ritual: Hula-skirted younglings did a Basque clog-dance while we drank our flagons of mead.

One morning, during a midsummer squall, Pino strode into my chalet and decreed that I must meet the chief's eldest daughter. I'd been listening to the strains of balalaika music issuing from a nearby pueblo, and nodded my assent despite the fake neck-brace I had been obliged to wear, for the tribe was by its nature litigious. Pino sternly conducted me to a beachfront cabana owned by the delta's Lord Mayor. I would never be the same.

The girl was dark-eyed, platinum-haired, and cloaked in a lace chesterfield: the very prototype of a Gypsy trader. When first I laid eyes on her, she was skimming along—rather too fast, to my way of thinking—on one of those papyrus-reed catamarans you see in the Forbidden City. We locked eyes. Time stopped. Despite the solar winds, she strode fearlessly toward me across the veldt. I hardly knew what to say, and was groping for my few phrases of Portuguese, when she led me through a banana thicket to the village duomo. The air was so still you could hear nothing but the roar of macaws and the faint chugging of the steamboats.

Arm in arm, we strolled down to the creek and pretended we could see all the way to the opposite shore. I snatched up a coconut from the bluegrass and flung it as far toward Alcatraz as I could (it's farther than it looks!). For a moment, we felt as though the Parthenon itself was smiling down upon us—that all of antiquity was there, gazing with us out upon the bamboo-dotted vineyards, crouching alongside us beneath the jagged stalactites. She removed her matador hat. I kissed her. We lay down in the edelweiss and, hidden by the rainforest canopy, indulged in the Physical conduct of love.

Sixty days have passed since the crew and I began the arduous ocean voyage home. It is said of our country that the cherry trees are in bloom—and we long for the welcoming stillness of the siroccos, to say nothing of the taste of plain old sweetbreads. But it is possible we shall never enjoy those simple pleasures again. The men once more look gaunt and pale, though our supplies of windburn makeup and artificial beards are growing scarce.

We are hungry and I think dying. As a restorative, the crew has taken to swimming with exotic finned creatures that follow our craft. I am cheered by the sudden arrival of even larger fish—"greyfins," we fondly call them—that, judging from their immense size and lifeless, black eyes, will revive the men's spirits even more. This afternoon, the entire company shall dive in to frolic with them. I am confident the greyfins will not outpace us, as they tend to swim in furious circles.

It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. Should we perish on the journey, these rough words will have to tell the tale.

For God's sake, look after our people.

Also, my goldfish. Look after my goldfish.

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