The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Media

BASE Jumpers Aren't (All) Crazy

Crazy Adrenaline Junkie. I heard this label a lot as a bomb technician returning from Iraq, and movies like The Hurt Locker only reinforce the stereotype. It is dangerous work, true, but the characterization is generally unfair, especially compared to the exploits in Matt Higgins’ new book, Bird Dream. Next to BASE jumping and wingsuit piloting, bomb defusing work can look as risky as knitting.

Bird Dream is about the techniques and history and tragedies of the sport, culminating with the 2012 race between Jeb Corliss, the famous American with a bevy of endorsements, and Gary Connery, the British out-of-work stuntman without two quid to rub together, to be the first man to land without a parachute. Recently Higgins and I spoke about what drives these men and women.

OUTSIDE: You take great pains to explain that BASE jumpers and wingsuit pilots are calculating and not crazy. The rest of the book provides a mountain of evidence that challenges this claim. Do you come down on one side?
HIGGINS
: I've made a conscious decision to give BASE jumpers and wingsuit pilots the benefit of the doubt, as far craziness is concerned. I talked to psychologists and read research from geneticists and neuroscientists, and determined that, no, people who take tremendous risks are not necessarily nuts. There’s a genetic component to risk-taking, so wingsuit pilots and BASE jumpers are likely born with a predisposition for dangerous thrills.

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But even with this genetic predisposition, the risk tolerance of the elite pilots really varies. Jeb calls Gary’s plan to land in a pile of boxes "crazy."
There's a big difference between "crazy" in the colloquial sense, and in the clinical sense of the word. When we see something spectacular, or that defies our understanding, we're liable to call it crazy.

So I don't believe Jeb thought Gary was crazy in a clinical sense, although he didn't know Gary personally, and it was always possible that Gary was one of those rare, slightly unhinged folks who doesn't care if he's injured or killed. Jeb was probably having a hard time wrapping his head around how Gary planned to do something that Jeb had devoted a lot of thought to, and dismissed for himself as too dangerous.

In the BASE jumping and wingsuit culture, how much does a sense of competition, or a need to be famous, factor in?
Certainly there's a kind of drive, but we're talking about more of an internal competition, to test one's capabilities and see how far one can go. There have been few opportunities for actual competition. Recently there have been some wingsuit races created, and these events appeal to a small segment of pilots, usually the elite. Yet Jeb, who is certainly one of the elite pilots, has no interest in traditional sports and avers that he's not competitive. Gary has a competitive temperament; he was a competitive downhill skier and he takes part in grueling distance runs.

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The culture of BASE jumping has always shunned fame to some extent, and those who seek it are still controversial. BASE jumpers were actually expelled from skydiving clubs into the 90s. One BASE pioneer explained that jumpers learned that they couldn't tell people what they were doing or they wouldn't be permitted to do it. So secrecy became ingrained in the culture. Some of that started to change with the creation of small POV cameras and YouTube. Suddenly you could clip a GoPro to your helmet and produce HD video of stunning flight lines along mountain terrain and put it out to the public online. But the footage is still a difficult thing to monetize. Even if you pull off some incredible wingsuit flight, there's usually no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, probably only a 15 minutes of fame scenario. Jeb is the rare person to have transcended his sport and sustained a career as an athlete without augmenting his income with some other job. He no doubt enjoys the attention, yet he also must continue to pull of feats that attract notice to satisfy sponsors. Even people who fly are governed by some of the same concerns as everybody else.

Gary was a paratrooper in the UK Army, where he learned to jump. Is the sport full of ex-military guys?
I know that many skydivers and BASE jumpers have come from the military, but it’s worth noting that Gary clashed with the prevailing culture and his superiors. It was a BASE jump that finally precipitated his leaving the paratroops. I assume that if you're so single-minded that you're willing to attempt a wingsuit landing without a parachute, chances are you're probably too individualistic to thrive in the military.

The group that I was embedded with mostly came from civilian backgrounds. What bound them was that they all had achieved a high level of performance in another extreme or adventure sport. Jeb is an accomplished scuba diver. There were several skiers, racers, and backcountry specialists. One wingsuit pilot was a motocross racer. Joby Ogwyn is a high-altitude climber, and was the youngest to reach the world's Seven Summits. Roberta Mancino is a blackbelt in kickboxing and a champion skydiver. There were several experienced surfers. They all brought skills and a mindset honed in these other disciplines to bear as BASE jumpers and wingsuit pilots. 

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BASE jumping’s motto is "The only way to not die BASE jumping is to not BASE jump." This reminds me of our motto in the bomb squad, "Initial Success or Total Failure," but even more fatalistic. 
The motto remains. There are no guarantees, and unless you're prepared for the possibility of giving your life, don't do it. I heard that over and over again. Fatalities still occur regularly. There are more than 200 recorded deaths on the BASE Fatality List, which is not even a comprehensive accounting. In 2013, there were a record 22 confirmed wingsuit pilots killed -- that's BASE and skydiving. And so far this year I can think of four more wingsuit deaths, and these men were among the most experienced and talented fliers in the world.

Since the first and only successful landing, the wingsuit landing craze has generally faded. In the future, will we look back at this little era and wonder what people were thinking?
My editor suggested that there's something about the zeitgeist -- a possible combination of economic prosperity, a rise of technology, and maybe anxiety about the outcome of world affairs -- that will help explain the era in the book to future generations. I think of the 1960s counterculture, and having grown up with skateboarding, BMX freestyle, and snowboarding, I saw the X Games as my generation getting its Woodstock. BASE jumping and wingsuit flying just takes it to a further extreme. 

Brian Castner is the author of “The Long Walk.” Follow him on Twitter at @brian_castner.

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Maximize Your Vacation Happiness

You’ve likely got a vacation coming up soon. Whether you’re headed abroad for a week or simply to a cabin in the woods over Labor Day, start planning now. That's the number-one piece of advice from the folks over at Happify, who worked with scientists to determine the best tips and strategies for a happier vacation. 

Here’s what else you need to know:

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CrossFit, Your Insecurity Is Showing

You do not cross CrossFit. As many in the media have learned, the company behind the fitness craze is not afraid to retaliate—through its enforcers in "informational weaponry," Russell Greene and Russell Berger; its massive social-media following; or, if all else fails, the courts. I knew because I'd read about it and had seen their work on Outside's Facebook wall. But it wasn't real to me. It is now.

Outside has been a focus of CrossFit's wrath since we began reporting on the injured-participant-led backlash in 2013. But I first became Greene's target when I reported on a story about CrossFit's new rival, the NPFL (now known as the NPGL). In the story, NPGL founder Tony Budding said he wanted to create an event that was more spectator-friendly than CrossFit's flagship competition, the CrossFit Games.

Greene took offense to that line. "Tony's statement that the CrossFit Games aren't a spectator-friendly sport is completely false, and deserves critical analysis," Greene wrote. Fair enough. We'd pointed out that "some would argue that the CrossFit Games have been a huge success, selling out tickets, drawing a half-million viewers on ESPN, and winning title sponsorship from Reebok." The story wasn't about taking sides, but about informing readers of the NPGL's existence and what it planned to do.

I suppose I should've remembered that encounter when I applied for a press pass to this year's CrossFit Games. Held annually since 2007, the Games are what makes CrossFit a sport rather than a training regimen. To get to the finals at the StubHub arena in Carson, California, individual CrossFit athletes and teams must make it past open and regional competitions. About 100 men and 100 women face off in a three-day strongman-style competition (think: overhead squats, burpees, and rowing), where CrossFit dubs the winners "Fittest on Earth" and hands them a check for $275,000.

I'd spent the past two-and-a-half years reporting on obstacle racing, a sport whose meteoric growth was greatly fueled by CrossFitters looking for a place to test their strength. I wanted to see what a straight-up CrossFit competition was like. Instead, my press pass was denied.

"Outside Online has published headlines and articles about CrossFit and the CrossFit Games that lead us to question Outside Magazine and Outside Online's editorial intentions," said the email from CrossFit Press, which arrived after we reached out to Greene. The email listed four Outside articles to which CrossFit had taken offense: a report on a Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study that suggested CrossFit has a 16 percent injury rate, a report on the subsequent lawsuit between CrossFit and the journal (published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association), the NPFL story, and another story digging deeper into injury statistics.

No mention was made, however, of the stories we've published trumpeting CrossFit's stars like four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning, pointing readers to the regimen's best boxes, or even promoting CrossFit-inspired training plans. Outside has covered all aspects of the fitness trend since it began.

With that in mind, we asked CrossFit to reevaluate its decision. CrossFit is important to us and to many of our readers. We were eager to cover the games. Again, we were rejected. This time, our email didn't even elicit a response.

Denying our press pass is like the NFL writing, "Dear ESPN, We can't let you cover the Super Bowl, because you covered the traumatic-brain-injury concerns of NFL players." By CrossFit's logic, every major media outlet in the United States should be blackballed, from the New York Times to USA Today, because we've all covered CrossFit injuries. Deadspin must certainly be on CrossFit's s*** list after publishing this gem about the NSCA debacle:

It exposes the fitness company far more effectively than the NSCA study ever did. In the lawsuit, all of CrossFit's neuroses emerge, as does its inner asshole.

The press-pass rejection not only made CrossFit look thin-skinned, it also made it look like the company has something to hide. And barring journalists from something is about the best way to ensure they'll pursue a story. On Thursday evening, I bought a $50 pass to Friday's CrossFit Games and went to see the competition for myself.

StubHub Center, where the event is held, is composed of several venues. There are soccer, tennis, and track stadiums, as well as a tent village where vendors like Badass WOD Wear and nonprofits like Barbells for Boobs hawk their goods.

When spectators walked into the soccer stadium on Friday morning, their eyes lit up. They actually said, "Wow!" The place had been transformed into the world's biggest box, with THE 2014 REEBOK CROSSFIT GAMES printed across end zones and 15 metal trusses cutting the field in half.

I took photos of at least 10 people against that backdrop. They came from all over—Pittsburgh, Florida, Atlanta, Minnesota, Mexico. Most of them seemed to follow a dress code. Booty shorts for the ladies, nylon board shorts for the men, T-shirts repping their respective boxes, and minimalist Reebok CrossFit shoes. The stadium floor was empty, although the Jumbotrons showed a competition taking place: a relay run with competitors tethered together.

Perhaps Greene feared we'd find the games weren’t spectator-friendly. That's because they aren't. Not even to avid CrossFitters. Friday's first two events—the relay run and an erg-jump rope-run combo—were held in the driveway outside the soccer stadium, where few people could tell what was going on.

Some spectators even considered climbing the palm trees lining the road to improve their vantage point over the thousands of others trying to get a glimpse of their friends and favorite athletes. "I'm a huge Rich Froning fan," a 28-year-old CrossFitter from San Diego told me when I asked why he came to the games. "He said this might be his last year as an individual" competitor. It was tough to catch a glimpse of his hero, though, behind two solid rows of standing people.  

"Why didn't they do it in the stadium where people can actually see? I paid $200 to see nothing!" said an athlete from Utah as she stood on an empty Pelican case used to house the camera filming the event. She wasn't mad about it, though; she came for the experience and to support friends who were competing. In that way, she was like everybody else there.

{%{"quote":The rabid attacks on media outlets and researchers suggest that CrossFit is insecure with itself."}%}

{%{"quote":"The rabid attacks on media outlets and researchers suggest that CrossFit is insecure with itself."}%}

The CrossFit Games are like a religious gathering cum high-school track meet, where everyone in the stands (or on the street) is either a zealot or knows a competitor. "This is like a Mecca for CrossFitters," a Canadian CrossFitter told me.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with being at a religious gathering/high-school track meet. In fact, that's what makes the CrossFit Games—and CrossFit itself—special. It brings people of diverse backgrounds together to celebrate health and fitness. I met three generations of people at the games who might as well have been wearing kettlebell halos; they were the nicest sports spectators I've ever encountered, happy to talk about the event and the people close to them who were competing. Just like my mom at my high-school swim meets.

CrossFit should embrace its special community. The rabid attacks on media outlets and researchers suggest that CrossFit is insecure with itself. New competition like the NPGL should energize CrossFit rather than scare the organization into harassing reporters who introduce its rivals. As for that NSCA lawsuit, CrossFit should take a page out of its own book and relearn the art of the spin.

Back in 2005, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman knew how to handle a press that questioned his methods. Just before Christmas, the New York Times published an article about CrossFit's propensity to induce injuries, including rhabdomyolysis, a serious condition that can lead to kidney damage. Glassman’s response: Embrace the danger.

CrossFit had already rolled out a mascot named Uncle Rhabdo, a clown "whose kidneys have spilled onto the floor presumably due to rhabdomyolysis," the Times reported. Glassman also wrote an article titled "CrossFit-Induced Rhabdo," in which he "soberly explained the circumstances of the six CrossFit-related cases he knew about, outlined ways affiliates could lower the likelihood of injury, and announced he would add a rhabdomyolysis discussion to his weekend seminars and to the website," Inc. reported. PR crisis met head-on. Crisis averted.

Sometime over the past nine years, CrossFit, the sport of strength, got weak.

The tiniest amount of criticism sets its enforcers off on a rampage, and it's affecting CrossFit's most devout adherents. You've got a great thing going, CrossFit, with amazing people in your ranks. Bring back the old CrossFit that faced controversy with honesty and humor. Even better: Heed one of your own favorite sayings and HTFU.

Outside's CrossFit Coverage (The Good and Bad)

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How Water Makes Us Healthier, Happier, and More Successful

This month, California biologist and former Outside cover subject Wallace J. Nichols publishes his first book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown, $27).

Billed as a “Big Idea” book that will change the way you think, Nichols’s debut effort combines everything from neuroscience to real estate pricing. (A full review is available in the August issue.) Abe Streep caught up with Nichols to discuss the book and how water can impact human happiness.

OUTSIDE: In the book you’re breaking down very complex science. You’re also combining anecdotal reporting throughout the world, real estate prices, and how-to journalism, suggesting ways in which people can improve their lives. What was the process of putting it together like?
NICHOLS: I read a book somewhere that said that writing a book is like creating a sculpture. This felt like creating a sculpture from water. As you mention, it’s writing a book about the brain, which is the most complex thing we know in the universe, and water, which produces life in the universe, and combining those two things—well, it’s a broad topic to say the least. I wrote the title as a placeholder and its subtitle as an outline. Then it was just about going out and finding the best researchers and some great protagonists. And making sure that they were not all surfers. Although, of course, there are several. 

In the book you constantly refer to the ocean as a great healer for many societal ills. How? 
The big conversation is the “red mind” vs. “blue mind” comparison. We live our indoor lives and our workspace lives and our family lives often in what I call a “red-mind” mode. We’re overstimulated, we’re captivated, we’re connected, we’re stressed. We’re behind. We’re trying to catch up. We’re out of money. We’re at deadlines. And we’re surrounded by screams.

Stress isn’t new, but this kind of chronic, constant stress is. Every medical doctor knows that stress is connected to disease. Diseases are exacerbated or caused by stress. So reducing that stress in some way is useful. There are a lot of conversations going around about different kinds of meditation. Sometimes the word meditation isn’t used—different relaxation techniques.

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Athletes use them all the time to reach peak performance. And I’d just add that being by water meditates you. It puts you in that relaxed state. You don’t need to study or practice meditation. You just need to pay attention to the water around you. You can do it in the bathtub, the hot tub, the swimming pool, the creek, the lake, the river, the ocean.

When you unplug and let go, disconnect from a clock altogether, you do what neuroscientists call mind wandering. Rather than data crunching, you’re letting things come and connect. You’re letting innovation happen. We see over and over, people say, ‘This is where I get my best ideas—when I let my brain do that.’ And a lot of times there’s water involved.

You run an annual Blue Mind conference, in which you bring together conservationists, water advocates, and neuroscientists to discuss the ocean’s effect on the brain. How is it working? Do you meet skepticism among the scientific community?
Social neuroscience continues to expand. Neuromarketing is now happening. Executives at Google are having neuroscientists come in and teach them how to be innovative. The greatest source of happiness, of relaxation, [and] of mental stimulation is the outdoors. And we’re still behind. There are people looking into it, through brain-on-nature questions.

But we’re late to the game. There’s a conference I attend every year on neuroscience and music. It’s the eighth year of that conference. There’s Blue Mind, but there’s not an equivalent gathering of neuroscientists and people who are interested in the future of wild places. I still don’t get the buy-in from the ocean community. I think part of it is neuroscience is just a big, hairy difficult, intellectually challenging field. And some people just don’t like to say ‘I don’t understand.’ Instead of saying, ‘I don’t understand,’ they just kind of roll their eyes.

You’re organizing a conference, publishing a book. You have to talk to people like me. How do you create the time to meander in your own life?
I’m certainly not the guru on the rock on the top of the mountain saying, ‘Here’s how you do it, I’ve got this nailed.’ I’m living the red-mind, blue-mind roller coaster right along with the people who will read this book. I benefit greatly from being by the ocean and living next to a creek. It’s called Mill Creek. I hear it every morning, and I go to sleep to its sound every night. What I’ve learned is to pay attention to that. It’s a creek, it’s beautiful. You see the fish come up the creek after a rain. You know that in a few hours the creek is emptying into the Pacific Ocean. All those things you pay attention to. 

Did one anecdote from your reporting surprise you particularly?
I can hang it all on one story. This guy named Bobby Lane, who served in the Gulf, had three different traumatic brain injury episodes. He came back to Texas with his world upside down. He was not speaking clearly, suffering from post-traumatic stress, being overmedicated, becoming addicted to those medications. He lost the desire to live. He tried to commit suicide through what he called “death by cop.” Which is essentially when you do something that gets the cop to come and kill you. Because as a warrior, he said he couldn’t do it himself.

So he tried that, and they shot him with rubber bullets, which really pissed him off, and really hurt, and really messed him up. He ended up going and doing something called Operation Surf, an experimental fringe program for people like him [in Santa Cruz]. He came to Santa Cruz and he had an experience: three tries and he was standing up on his board. Then he saw his life ahead. After having the experience he decided that he wanted to stay around and to live. 

What’s next for Blue Mind?
The goal is to increase perceived value of healthy oceans and waterways. If realtors were to knowledgeably and consciously sell the cognitive and emotional benefits of water, they would become the front line communicators for healthy water.

If health practitioners are saying, ‘I’m prescribing a walk on the beach and a surf session and half the dose of those pills,’ they’re sharing the blue-mind message. That’s the idea. What the environmental movement typically does is say, ‘Here’s something you’re doing that you shouldn’t do. I’m going to tell you why and probably make you feel bad.’ That’s not always the best place to start a conversation. We’re [saying], ‘Here’s something about you that you should know that you don’t know.’

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The Land No Man Would Claim

"No man’s land" is a term that, to the modern ear, can sound like stepping onto a battlefield. In fact, the phrase refers back to the idea of unclaimed land (recorded as "namesmaneslande" in the Domesday survey of England of 1086) and still carries an echo of perennial hopes for free land, for places beyond the control of others. Ordinary places become extraordinary in no man’s land.

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Such in-between places remind us how dependent we are on borders—that our sense of order and certainty draws deeply from the knowledge that we are in governed territory. No man’s lands may be vast stretches of unclaimed land or tiny scraps left over from the planning of cities, though the uncertainty of the no man’s land is especially keenly felt in places that the outside world refuses to recognize or that appear to be between borders.

The notion that places might slip down between borders led me on a geographical quest. I went looking for the farthest possible distance between the border posts of two contiguous nations, to see how far they could be stretched apart.

Most border posts face each other. A change of signage, a different flag, a line on the road, all combine to signal that no sooner have you stepped out of one country than you have arrived in another. But what happens if you keep on opening up that space?A few years ago, with the help of hours spent blinking at the tiny fonts favored on travelers’ Internet chat forums, I found what I was looking for. Along a road between Senegal and Guinea in West Africa the distance between border posts is 27 kilometers.

It is not the world’s only attenuated border area. The Sani Pass, which runs up to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho from South Africa, is the most famous. It’s a rough road, although much visited by tourists in 4x4s seeking out the highest pub in Africa, which sits near the top of the pass. The drama of the trip is heightened by the thrill that comes from learning that this is no man’s land. The South Africa border control, complete with "Welcome to South Africa" signs, is 5.6 kilometers away from the Lesotho border office.

Another specimen is to be found in the mountainous zone between border posts on the Torugart Pass that connects China and Kyrgyzstan. Central America also has a nice example in Paso Canoas, a town that can appear to be between Panama and Costa Rica. It is habitually described as no man’s land because, having left through one border post, you can go into the town without passing through immigration to enter the other country. Some visitors relish the impression that the town around them is beyond borders. Partly as a result, Paso Canoas has developed a darkly carnival atmosphere, as if it were some kind of escaped or twilight place.

What these gaps reflect back at us is our own desires, especially the wish to step outside, if only for a short time, the claustrophobic grid of nations. We probably already suspect that it’s an illusion. Shuffling forward in a queue and making it past the passport officer does not mean you are, at that exact moment, leaving or entering a country. Such points of control exist to verify that you are allowed to enter or leave. Their proximity to the borderline is a legal irrelevance.

Yet this legal interpretation fails to grasp either the symbolic importance of the border point or the pent-up urge to enter ungoverned territory.The fact that Paso Canoas is split by the Panama– Costa Rica border rather than actually being between borders doesn’t stop people from describing it as an "escaped zone."Similarly, the steep valley up the Sani Pass is nearly all in South Africa, and the road down from Senegal into Guinea is always in one nation or another, but that isn’t how travelers experience it or even what they want.

{%{"quote":""There is a primal attraction to entering somewhere real, a place that can be walked on, gotten lost in, even built on, and that appears to be utterly unclaimed.""}%}

The attraction of these in-between spaces has a lot to do with the fact that they are on land. Going through passport control at an airport provides no comparable thrill, even though international airspace is far more like a genuine no man’s land than any number of dusty miles on the ground. It seems that escaping the nation-state isn’t all that is going on here. There is a primal attraction to entering somewhere real, a place that can be walked on, gotten lost in, even built on, and that appears to be utterly unclaimed.

Some of the overland tourist trips that occasionally rumble along the Senegal–Guinea highway offer camping in the no man’s land as part of the package. Like other examples, it’s a zone that provokes people to muse on allegiance and belonging. In his essay Life Between Two Nations, the American travel writer Matt Brown describes encounters with villagers along the Senegal–Guinea road that provoke speculation on the nature of national identity:

I stopped my bike to chat with the woman pounding leaves. I asked in French (my Pular only goes so far), "Is this Guinea?" "Yes," she answered. Surprised that she even understood French, I posed a follow-up question. "Is this Senegal?" I asked. "Yes," came the reply.

A little later Brown sits on "a nationless rock" and imagines these villagers as freed from the "archaic, nonsensical national borders drawn up by greedy European leaders at the Conference of Berlin over 100 years ago." Stretching out border posts does seem to break the seal on the national unit. The resultant gap may not be of much legal import, but for travelers on the ground it creates a sense of openness and possibility.

Yet while travelers may relish this expansiveness, the consequences for those who have to live and work in such places can be less positive, such as heightened insecurity and a sense of abandonment. This is one of the reasons why African states have been trying to close the gap in such anomalous spaces. The African Development Fund, which supports economic infrastructure projects across the continent, has made "establishing juxtaposed checkpoints at the borders" of its member states a priority, including at the Guinea–Senegal border.

What most concerns the fund’s members is the impact that these distant border posts have on the flow of trade. Along the Guinea–Senegal route there are nightmare tales of vehicles being sent back and forth by officials who keep asking for new documentation or demanding new bribes. In-between land can easily turn into a place of bureaucratic limbo where both travelers and locals are uniquely vulnerable to tiresome and corrupt officialdom. Patches of ground "between" nations are places that can be thought of as free, but they are also places where we are reminded why people willingly give up freedoms for the order and security of being behind a border. 

Excerpt from Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. Copyright © 2014 by Alastair Bonnett. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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