Outside magazine, August 1996
Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast, by Daniel Duane (North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $21). Thoreau did it from the door of his cabin; Darwin, from the deck of the H.M.S. Beagle; Abbey, from a fire lookout tower. But Duane contemplates the natural world from a much more precarious perch: a surfboard. After quitting his job in the Bay Area, he heads for the surf city of Santa Cruz, "to see if the life by the water I'd always dreamed of was actually possible." It proves not only possible but transcendent. Finding an isolated cove known as the Point, he begins to make daily visits, studying both his craft and his surroundings with a Zenlike devotion. While riding the surf, he watches dolphins, whales and sea lions, hawks, herons and cormorants, rock fish, kelp bass and surf perch. He also comes into contact with some extraordinary humans, including Erik Larsen, a surfer who lost one-third of his blood in a shark attack and then calmly returned to the sport upon recovery, and Vince Collins, a Vietnam vet with a fierce addiction to the waves, who becomes Duane's surf guru. "It would have taken me a lifetime to learn on my own what I learned from Vince in a year," Duane writes, concluding that "surfing became for me a way of being in the world, a way of seeing not just the shapes and moods of waves but the very life of this magnificent place." Duane insists that the joy of surfing is so personal that trying to explain it is like saying, "I went out and masturbated today, and it felt great." That may be true--but thanks to Duane's keen eye, powerful prose and deft sense of humor, it feels great for the rest of us, too.
The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, $27.50). Contributing editor of the Atlantic and globe-trotting author of Balkan Ghosts and The Arabists, Kaplan argues that travel writers, "must confront the real world, slums and all, rather than escape into an airbrushed... past." And that's exactly what he does in this ambitious and compelling mix of political analysis and on-the-road reportage. His decidedly unsentimental journey--an attempt "to find a paradigm for understanding the world in the early decades of the twenty-first century--takes him from Sierra Leone, where armed gangs rule the countryside and police have no gas for their vehicles, to Iran, where the Islamic government rails against the West and Baywatch is the most popular TV show, to war-ravaged Central Asia, where young children pretend to be hijackers, to overcrowded Pakistan, where the average woman conceives nearly seven children, to Thailand, where Bangkok's sex bars advertise "Watch Lesbians Screw on Motorcycles," to Cambodia, where tourists take pictures of each other holding bones from the killing fields. Kaplan's conclusions-most notably, that such emerging global problems as "poverty, the collapse of cities...cultural and racial strife, [and] growing economic disparities" will increasingly be triggered by environmental rather than political factors--are sometimes controversial but always enthralling. The Ends of the Earth is an important and profoundly disturbing look at the road ahead.
Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle, by David Lamb (Times Books, $23). "You have as much chance of making it to California as you do getting to the moon," says one of the author's friends after he announces his plan to ride a bike from Alexandria, Virginia, to Los Angeles. And who could fault such skepticism? As the book opens, Lamb is a 54-year-old slouch whose "bicycling during the past 40 years had been limited to an occasional Sunday ride of no more than a few miles." Yet despite this fact--not to mention his refusal to give up cigarettes or Canadian whiskey on the road--he somehow manages to complete the 3,145-mile odyssey in two months with plenty of good humor to spare. But though we learn a lot about America--from the history of Bean Station, Tennessee, to the finances of Slapout, Oklahoma (population six)--we find out precious little about the author himself, a veteran journalist who admits to being uncomfortable as "the protagonist of my own little drama." Nonetheless, this flaw is largely overcome by Lamb's energy, both on the road and on the page, which proves that age need not stand in the way of a dream--even if that dream is, in Lamb's own words, "the most foolhardy adventure of my life."