Go Big

Cross a Desert, Bike to Work, Road-Trip with a Mission, & Go Out in Style

Jan 1, 2006
Outside Magazine
San Francisco

Bike to Work    Photo: PhotoDisc

Cross a desert.
Somewhere in eastern Algeria, where the rolling dunes stretch for hundreds of miles in every direction, you'll start to feel the magnitude of the world's largest desert. The caravan of 4x4s on Geographic Expeditions' monthlong Sahara transect, in late October, runs from Alexandria, Egypt, to the edge of the Sahara in Morocco. From $10,000; 800-777-8183, www.geoex.com

Bike to work.

Learn a new instrument and play it on a street corner until you've earned enough for dinner.

Road-trip with a mission.
Pick a theme, then hit the highway. For inspiration, check out Killing Yourself to Live (Scribner, $23), music journalist Chuck Klosterman's account of a cross-country journey to explore the haunts of dead rock stars, or Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation (Simon & Schuster, $21), a droll chronicle of her visits to landmarks in presidential-murder history. The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel (Lonely Planet, $18), by Rachel Antony and JoëHenry, is packed with other quirky ideas for travel with a twist.

Build a Tree House

Go Out in Style
By Bill Vaughn

Although I'm not planning to die anytime soon, you never know. So, without kids or a job to distract me, I found time to rehearse my funeral.

I started with some givens—that it should be entertaining and must be held in the open air at Dark Acres, our forested floodplain on Montana's Clark Fork River. Among the events I wanted to include was a scary reading to get everyone in a nice goose-bumpy mood. And then I wanted live dance music. After that I thought it would be fun for people to step forward and say things. Or they could fish.

Finally, I wanted incense and fireworks and a huge, consuming fire. There's nothing like a crackling blaze to stoke a crowd's appetite for the bison-chili feast I envisioned as the centerpiece of the drunken wake to follow.

Designing a funeral pyre isn't easy. You can't just pile up a bunch of brush and expect it to reduce a 180-pound man to six pounds of clinker. You need engineering. How big would the pyre have to be? And where do you stick the stiff? If on top, how do you make sure the smoldering corpse doesn't roll off and frighten people? I Googled the problem but couldn't find anything like Cremation for Dummies.

Then I remembered that the Hindus and the Buddhists like to torch their dead. I found some revealing photographs taken on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. These showed the whole process.

Finding wood wasn't a problem. For a cleansing inferno, there's nothing like the pine and water birch that are plentiful in my forest, trees killed by bark beetles and drought. I felled a big ponderosa and a smaller birch with my chainsaw and cut them into rounds two feet long. After lunch I split the rounds with a maul into flat slabs. Then I stacked these slabs, alternating their orientation from layer to layer to give the pyre stability.

When I was finished, the stack stood four feet high, eight feet long, and four feet wide. OK, it was a little bigger than the standard pyre, but I was going for theatrical.

But how to get the cadaver the quarter-mile from house to pyre? Because of swamps, the river side of Dark Acres is usually inaccessible by pickup. I considered asking my pallbearers to drive my carcass upstream to a put-in on the river, then float me down by boat. But that would involve carting me out of the house, into the truck, out of the truck, and into my canoe, then out of my canoe and onto the pyre, a spectacle that might alarm other recreationists, who might call the sheriff.

Finally, I saw that the solution was to have the pallbearers splay me across the back of Scarlett, my big palomino mare. Then Kitty, my wife, would lead her through the swamps with Rolex, our paint gelding. Although the drama of a final ride appealed to me, this turned out to be easier said than done. Scarlett's not a pack animal—she's trained to compete in rodeos. It's not that she's skittish so much as easily insulted when asked to do work she feels beneath her. However, after I heaved myself, sacklike, onto the saddle a few times, she got the point and allowed Kitty to lead her for a few feet before I slid to the ground.

"Tell me you're not serious about this," Kitty said.

"You want to blow $6,000 on a boring funeral?"

I don't object to burial for others—we buried a beloved horse and dog at Dark Acres. But as entertainment, I didn't think even a homemade, old-timey funeral in the woods would be dramatic enough for me.

"Why can't you just get cremated like normal people?" Kitty asked. "I'll spread the ashes wherever you want."

"You're going to invite people over to look at an urn? That's like inviting them to see our new home theater and then showing Gigli."

Kitty sighed.

When it was time for the dry run, I picked a cool, moody afternoon. Then I arranged some lawn chairs at a distance from the pyre. Kitty sat down to watch. A couple days earlier I'd come across a whitetail doe killed with an arrow to the belly. She now lay upon the pyre, under a bedsheet festooned with incense and wildflowers. To get things off to a roaring start, I emptied two liters of my favorite vodka on the pyre. Then I torched the business end of a broom and began sweeping the base of the pyre with it. As the flames climbed through the stack and the smoke began to swirl, I backed away. Soon the pyre was roaring.

It takes three hours at a temperature of 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit for the ovens in a crematorium to fry an adult. The peak temperatures in my pyre would range from 1,200 to 1,500 degrees, toasty enough to do the job; it would just take a little longer, maybe even overnight. But that was all right—I had nothing but time.

There issued from the pyre a mélange of fragrances as complicated as an old wine: carnation, jasmine, alcohol, grilled venison, and the pungent reek of burning flesh. I opened my book and read out loud T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men."

Then I punched the boom box and we listened to a CD made by a jazz band, Cheap Cologne, that had played at our wedding. Although they are disbanded, I hoped Kitty could convince them to reprise their excellent nuptial performance at my funeral. As the final chord faded in a flurry of drums, I used my smoldering broom to touch off my fireworks. First there was a terrific volley of Screaming Busters. Whoosh! they went as they launched themselves out of their mortars, and a second later boom! as they exploded above the river in great spreading bouquets of green and blue. Then the echo rebounded off the Bitterroot Mountains. Next came a fusillade of Cracking Pistols, sticks that rapid-fire a dozen shots each, a relentless chucka! chucka! chucka! that sounded like midnight in Baghdad. Ten minutes later a vast silence fell over the floodplain, broken only by the remote howling of a dog. I made a note to triple the number of Screaming Busters.

Meanwhile, flames had completely engulfed the doe and vaporized the bedsheet. Her blackened skull and abdomen had ruptured, and her jaw had dropped away from her face, giving her an antic mile-wide rictus, as if the moment of death had been hilarious. Her brain was frying, her juices sizzling, her bones popping. Although this was a grisly sight, it had a certain morbid appeal, like something mutant in a bottle of formaldehyde that the eye registers but the mind resists. The images of my own denouement would be even more gruesome—people recoil from the human form on fire because it shows us how fragile is our flesh, how fleeting the physical life. As we shudder with revulsion, our thoughts race anxiously to witches, and Joan of Arc, and flaming monks in the streets of Saigon.

But the longer I watched the pyre, the more I felt at peace. Not only was this the kind of drama I was after in a funeral—a strong narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—it struck me that it was also a moving and emotional way to dispose of the dead. The flames would strip away my layers in the reverse order they were constructed, a poetic return to nothingness. Plus it even had some of the Catholic cosmology I grew up with, although I don't think Father Todd at St. Ann's would consider this a very Christian way to exit stage left.

Kitty put away her cell phone. She'd been talking to one of her sisters about horses. "Are you finished?"

"What do you think?"

"If this is what you want, I guess this is what you'll get."

"All right!"

"But no sati," she said, surprising me. Sati is the archaic Hindu custom in which the widow threw herself on her husband's funeral pyre in the belief that she would go directly to heaven.

"You've been doing your homework," I said.

It would soon be dark, and the steaming pyre was now only a foot high. I could see the doe's bones glowing in the dusk. By the next morning, which broke with the promise of a storm, the pyre was a low mound, inert and exhausted. A gust swept up the river, throwing around the branches of the trees. A moment later a whirlwind lifted the ashes into the air and dropped them on the water.

Contributing editor Bill Vaughn is the author of First, a Little Chee-Chee.