See You in Six Months
Outside's Guide to the Ends of the Earth
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They’re still out there: the untrodden trail, the lost coast, the mountain vally from another century—some near, most far, all wide-open places waiting to expand your horizon and repair your fractured sense of time. Here’s our guide to 30 of the most amazing remote places on the planet. So clear your calendar, and drop us a line when you get back.
Author Ian Frazier explores what it means for something to be “far away.”
I LIKE TO think that people I talk to have no idea how far away I am. Yes, I seem to be standing next to them at the bus stop and taking part in a conversation about the new commuter train and how it will cause real-estate values in our New Jersey suburb to rise; actually, however, in my mind I’m in eastern Montana, in the blankest part of the map, miles from anywhere. Often I pick out one remote place and carry it around as a secret destination to repair to inwardly if I can’t stand the ordinariness of the day. In certain jammed-up city situations, the mere thought of Dawes County, Nebraska (say), is soothing to me. When I let people glimpse this thought, the effect is a weird kind of geographic name-dropping snobbery: In midconversation, with no preamble, I’ll blurt out, “Well, I’ll be going to Dawes County soon. You never heard of it? It’s in western Nebraska—a great place—about 36 hours of driving from here.”
FOR ME, REMOTENESS is everything. I usually want to get as far away as I can, no matter where I am. If I go to the mall, I park in the parking lot’s farthest corner, with no other cars for acres around. I sit in the back row of the balcony at lectures and I stand in the hardest-to-reach nook at cocktail parties. I love the back of the bus. I wish you were allowed to wait on the roof at airports, and could consult with the doctor not in his claustrophobic office but on the farthest edge of the hospital lawn. Once, in the editorial offices of a magazine in New York City, someone made a remark to me that I didn’t like, and instead of replying I left, picked up a travel bag at my apartment, took a subway to the George Washington Bridge, and began to hitchhike west. I was all the way to Ohio before I cooled down.
I understand that this is not the healthiest approach to life. Almost as soon as I actually go to the remote place I’ve been fantasizing about, of course I want to be somewhere else. It’s a crazy frame of mind, and not particularly fair to the places themselves. I’ve noticed, too, that the better-known remote places recognize my type, and protect themselves from the affliction we are. When in my early thirties I decided to move to Fiji (mainly because of its name, and how cool I thought “I’m moving to Fiji” sounded), I went to the Fijian consulate in Manhattan to make preliminary plans. A somber man in a dark suit took in my hippyish appearance, sat me down, and ran through a carefully practiced list of reasons why I should not go there. Clearly, discouraging destination-crazed people from visiting Fiji was a major part of his job; with me, he succeeded.
Every place is “far away” to somebody. When you come back from a broken-down country overseas, the average airport men’s room in America can look like an unreachable island of luxury and light. But thank the gods of geography for the idea of remoteness itself, and for places that are “far away” to almost everyone. The dark end of the subway platform, the last stop on the train, the town in the Alaskan bush with a population of 20, the research station you can only get to two months a year, the Outer Hebrides, Tierra del Fuego, Guam, finis terrae—they’re an insignificant part of the earth’s surface, and we may never go to them, and if we do we probably won’t stay long. But their very existence aerates the imagination, like pinholes in the lid of a collecting jar. Circumstances enclose us all our lives; remote places are the perpetual promise of getting out and away.
: Falling off the Edge
A day’s walk into the Moroccan Desert, Sebastian Junger confronts a dizzying temptation.
Remote File: AfricaContinent Size
12,026,000 square miles
66 people per square mile
Claim to Fame
World’s largest desert: the Sahara (5,400,000 square miles)
Most Remote Region
El Mreyyé, western Sahara
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The Forest People, Colin M. Turnbull
The Shadow of Kilimanjaro, Rick Ridgeway
No Mercy Redmond O’Hanlon
WHEN I WAS 19 YEARS OLD, I saw a Royal Air Maroc travel poster of nomads on camelback. They were coming off the desert in a group, and there was something about the dust and the sunlight and the expressions on their faces that grabbed me. I put the poster on the wall of my college dorm and after a year of looking at it, I bought a plane ticket to Morocco with my oldest friend, a woman named Sarah. She was considering a job in the Peace Corps there. We flew to Casablanca and then worked our way over the Atlas Mountains by bus. The weather was bitterly cold, and after a couple of weeks we decided to go as far south as the roads would take us—to a garrison town called Goulimine. Not only did it look like the edge of the world, but it was the jumping-off point for Moroccan troops heading south to fight the Polisario guerrillas in the Sahara. It was as far as I could imagine ever getting from anything I knew.
We arrived at dawn after an all-night bus ride. There were a lot of soldiers in the streets, and they stared at us as we walked by. Goulimine was not a tourist town. We walked down the dirt main street until we came to a cheap rooming house, and we ducked into the doorway and asked the owner how much it cost for the night. It was something like a dollar. While Sarah negotiated with the owner, I looked around the dark room and realized it was filled with men sitting on the floor, drinking tea and studying us. Something about it didn’t feel right. One of them caught my eye: a blond-haired kid in a djellaba who looked at me and slowly shook his head, a warning. He wasn’t Moroccan; he looked like a European expat who had gone completely native. I looked around the room one more time, grabbed Sarah by the arm, and pulled her out.
We left our bags at another rooming house and immediately decided to walk out into the desert. I don’t know why—the simple urge to keep going? The pull of 2,000 miles of emptiness to the south? We cleared the last mud houses and started out across the brush-covered hardpan that extended, almost featureless, to the horizon. We walked all afternoon like that, without talking, without direction. Nothing changed but the position of the sun, which slowly swung from east to west behind flat gray clouds. We were about to turn around, thinking we would get back to town just after dark, when we saw something in the distance: a tent, and camels. It took us a long time to reach it, and as we got close, two men stepped out and waved. We walked up cautiously and greeted them in the Islamic way, with our right hand at our chest. They had tea boiling over a twig fire and were talking in a language that was not Arabic. They wore blue cloth that stained their skin and wore knives on their belts and had a flintlock rifle leaning against the tent post. They were Tuareg. The only object of Western manufacture was a plastic jug used to carry water. They motioned for us to sit down, and Sarah and I glanced at each other and took a seat in the sand.
The tea was served with great ceremony, poured beautifully into cups out of a battered tin teapot. I spoke French and Sarah spoke a little Arabic, but our hosts didn’t seem to understand much of either. I pointed to Sarah and myself and said, “America.” They just shrugged, so I drew a map of North Africa in the sand and gestured where our country was. It meant nothing to them. One of them swept his hand to the south and clapped his chest. I nodded. They asked the word for Allah. “God,” I said, and the younger one—a piercingly handsome guy of about 35&3151;tried out a few prayers, using the word God instead of Allah, collapsing in laughter at the end.
By now it was almost dark, and Sarah and I faced a long walk back to town. They gestured that we were invited to stay for dinner and the night. The older man—more reserved than the other, possibly his servant—cooked a bowl of stew in a clay pot banked with embers. They served us food on tin plates. After dinner I gave them my Swiss Army knife, and they gave Sarah some handmade jewelry. We were about to go to sleep when the younger man indicated that he had something important to say. He and his companion had come north to sell their camels, he explained; then they would go back into the desert. Six months from now they would be back in this same spot. If we wanted to join them, he promised he would return us safely to Goulimine in mid-July. It was their invitation. It was our choice.
It was a staggering idea—almost too staggering to contemplate. We would be completely dependent on these people for the next six months. We would be living with nomads somewhere in the largest desert on earth; there would be no way to get help, no way to leave, no way to communicate with home. We had to trust these two men utterly. It was something I’d never done before.
We went to sleep that night rolled up in goatskins. Maybe I’d already made my decision, I don’t know, but the next morning I woke up before dawn and pulled on my boots and jacket and walked out onto the desert. I couldn’t decide which was more upsetting—the idea of vanishing into the desert, or the idea that I wasn’t the kind of person who could do that. Sarah had already told me that she wouldn’t go, but that if I decided to, she would reassure my parents that I was safe. I stood there in the wind watching the sunrise, and when the lower rim had left the horizon and I felt the full warmth of the sun on my face, I walked back to camp. I simply had my limits, I realized.
Just contemplating that choice had altered me forever. I had stood on the threshold of a completely alien world, and even though I’d lacked the courage to cross over, at least I knew it existed. That knowledge was strangely humbling. It was also strangely reassuring. It seemed like maybe the one sure refuge we all had in the face of whomever it was we were taught to become.
: She Left My Heart In Jarbidge
Joh Billman’s searches for matrimonial bliss in Nevada’s loneliest town.
Remote File: North AmericaContinent Size
9,789,600 square miles
49 people per square mile
Claim to Fame
World’s largest canyon: Grand Canyon (276 miles long; one mile deep)
Most Remote Region
Queen Elizabeth Islands, Canada
Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowat
Undaunted Courage, Stephen E. Ambrose
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
I COME FROM A FAMILY of elopers. My parents ran off to Deadwood, South Dakota, when Deadwood was the quintessential ghost town. Grocery clerk as a witness, then off to the Old No. 10 Saloon to dance and drink until my mom had to go out on Main Street and hurl. My half-brother, Coe, is a biker-blacksmith who has eloped a handful of times in a half-dozen Western states. No penguin suit. No white cake. No beer cans tied to the bumper, rice spraying your face like sleet. Eloping is the wedding and honeymoon all in a single rhinestone-spangled road trip.
I wanted to elope where the cartography gets fuzzy, and there are plenty of options within driving distance of my small Wyoming town. The wedding photos in my mind had a forty-niner daguerreotype quality to them, love prospectors in the hard country. My plan featured Nevada. The state smells like opportunity, I believed; driving through the basin-and-range country, UFO whack-jobs on late-night talk radio, it’s nearly possible to get ahead of yourself, like outdriving your own headlights. I imagined my beloved and me somewhere downwind of Reno and Vegas; no Elvis Chapel, no casino reception. Specifically, we aimed for Jarbidge, which bills itself as the Most Remote Town in the Lower 48. A hundred miles north of Elko, half of that on dirt and gravel the size of baby heads, infamous for the Shovel Brigade—conspiracy-theory anti-gubment types who banded together to reopen a Forest Service road closed to protect the endangered bull trout.
Jarbidge. Just saying the name had begun to taste like champagne.
We tossed our backpacks and a cooler in the truck and drove toward Elko. I was palms-sweating nervous. Hilary had the paperwork in her lap as we drove, dotting i’s, crossing t’s.
No air-conditioning, windows down, we rambled north through the sublime overgrazed bombing-range sagebrush steppe into the cool mountain range we’d been chasing on the horizon and turned off on a dirt road toward baby-please-don’t-quit-me. The little four-cylinder engine wound, wind scouring the west side of everything with sand.
In Jarbidge we pitched camp along Bear Creek, walking distance to downtown. The sound of the creek would be romantic, I figured, but it only succeeded in keeping us up most of the night. The eve of the nuptials we hiked to the Red Dog Saloon for Angel Creek Amber Ales. I asked the barmaid about churches, small talk, figuring I’d warm up to full-blown questions of marriage. “We’ve got Preacher Bob,” she said. “He holds services over there.” She pointed to an old board-and-batten whitewashed community hall straight out of Unforgiven; the last bona fide church had burned down years ago.
That night, Hilary dreamt she was walking around Jarbidge and none of the people had faces. She woke in a sour mood. I slipped away for a run up the canyon past abandoned gold mines and a lone rattlesnake and came back with endorphins enough to get married on. After bathing in icy Bear Creek, I put on my best snap-button Western shirt; Hilary in a sundress, we strolled to town. Jarbidge is one street running north-south splitting a steep canyon. As we walked hand in hand, Hilary noticed a historic marker informing visitors that “Jarbidge” is Shoshone for “bad or evil place.”
Things went sort of downhill after that. The Nez Percé and Shoshones believed a man-eating devil lived in this canyon and steered clear, never mind holding weddings here. Preacher Bob was nowhere to be found and Hilary announced that she refused to get married in a bad or evil place.
A midday window of sunlight from the slot in the clouds: high noon.
“Let’s go back to Wells,” I said. “We’ll get married in Wells.”
We drove a hundred-mile horseshoe out of Jarbidge Canyon and into southern Idaho, then Jackpot at the border and U.S. 93 south to Wells. I flipped through the Yellow Pages under “churches” and called them all. Every preacher in Wells was out—took it as a sign. Tying the knot in Nevada wasn’t meant to be. And buddy was it a quiet drive back to Wyoming, Buck Owens’s “Cryin’ Time” on the AM, Hilary as remote as Jarbidge.
Two months later we were married in Kemmerer, Wyoming, by a cowboy/hippy justice of the peace who peppered the ceremony with cheerful Shoshone legend. Hilary refuses to go anywhere near Nevada, but I’d like to go back and throw flies at the redband trout in Bear Creek, sit on the deck at the Red Dog, and sip a beer among the faceless residents. Pay homage to our first efforts at conjugation, punch the devil in the nose, and try the town again.
: High Lonesome
Finding deep solitude in the Himalaya’s busy Everest region, Ronald Kral discovers, is surprisingly easy.
Remote File: AsiaContinent Size
17,831,000 square miles
206 people per square mile
Claim to Fame
World’s highest point: Mount Everest (29,028 feet)
Most Remote Region Putorana Plateau, Siberia
Gobi, John Man
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
The Long Walk, Slavomir Rawicz
Off the Map, Mark Jenkins
TO: outsidemag.com // FROM: email@example.com // SUBJECT: A Himalayan New Year’s
SO THERE I WAS, CAMPED AT 18,000 FEET, up an unnamed peak way off the beaten base-camp paths here in the Himalayas. Was hoping to catch first light of the new year on Everest, which dominates the eastern skyline. Nice view: Everest in one direction, 26,750-foot Cho Oyu in the other. Shame about the blizzard.
Not that it was entirely unexpected. Yesterday morning I was sipping yak-butter tea at Gokyo Namaste Lodge, staring at the huge lenticular over Cho Oyu. “Don’t worry,” said the lodge owner. So out I set, backpack packed with tent, North Face expedition bag, Therm-a-Rest, food, med kit, etc., for a two-day trek to this perch: 360-degree views, unusually warm, skies afire, a high alpine lake—mostly frozen—all creaks and moans, air trapped under the ice.
During the night, snowstorm. Kept up for two days. Soon my tent was a snow cave, walls molded by my hands. Had to crawl in and out through a hole until the weather broke.
SUBJECT: How to disappear in the mountains
Oops. Sorry to leave you hanging. I’m writing from Kathmandu, an Internet cafe with power problems. Bear with.
Let me tell you about the trek: connecting moraines, scrambling, threading boulder-strewn hillsides. To my right, 700 feet straight down to the Ngozumba Glacier. To my left, landslides off the high ridgeline. I’m 200 miles from the nearest road. A trail not fit for goats; no one would even know where to start looking.
That’s the thing about this place. Step just days away from the Himalayan highways, both literal and figurative, and you disappear. Start walking like I did, and pretty soon you’re wrapped in the arms of pure solitude.
SUBJECT: What did you do today?
God, did I sleep well in my cozy little snow hole. No signs of AMS. Or frostbite. Finally, a sunrise; time to head down. Much snow, ice, I glissaded pell-mell to the shore of an alpine lake. Then up again over another ridge. Arduous, but not as bad as defrosting my shoelaces in the evening to get my boots off, then redefrosting them in the morning.
Day five. Provisions for four. I drank snowmelt, scavenged in my pack for ramen, seaweed, etc. Trashbags on my legs for warmth, repeatedly flexed my toes and fingers; it was way below zero. Reached a mantle high above the Ngozumba. A crack in the cliff, no end run possible. I had to make a leap of faith, edge to edge, a hundred feet of air beneath my feet—
Made it! (SORRY, damn outages.) More exposed scrambling. One slip up there and I’m paste. When I reached bare, flat ground at last, I knelt down and kissed it.
Day seven. Still had many ridges to cross; small, flat valleys. Food and fuel gone, but I hoped the lodge owner hadn’t organized a rescue; I was only supposed to be out for four days, max. Pitched camp in a cave, moon floating over Cho Oyu. Would have been more fun if it wasn’t minus 30. I burned almost everything—diary pages I started in Africa, two pairs of socks (they should have been burned!), a pair of pants. Next day, I came stumbling into the lodge, past gaping trekkers and a man on a cell phone saying, “Looks like he’s alive.”
I’m a fool, I know, but I love these solo Himalayan romps. Already logged more than 1,000 miles in Nepal, Pakistan, and India, mostly alone. Would I recommend it? Certainly, if you’re into prolonged self-punishment. For me, heaven on earth.
I’m only passing through Kathmandu. Already I feel the crush of humanity; can’t wait to get back out again. Maybe further north. I hear China’s beautiful this time of year.
: Maximum Dose
Roland Merullo fled to Micronesia in search of a new life. He found it – but it was not what he expected.
Remote File: Australia and OceaniaContinent Size
3,074,800 square miles
10 people per square mile
Claim to Fame
Longest reef: the Great Barrier Reef (1,247 miles)
Most Remote Region
The Great Sandy Desert, Australia
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
Sailing Alone Around the World, Joshua Slocum
WHEN THE PEACE Corps informed me that I was being sent to Micronesia, I went straight to my atlas. After much searching and squinting I found a sprinkling of dots just north of the equator and 2,000 miles east of the Philippines. Finally I located the Truk islands, my soon-to-be home: 11 small grains of pepper on the map’s wide blue middle.
Almost immediately I constructed an imaginary Micronesia—beautiful island women, succulent fruit, warm trade winds, translucent seas. I would spend my mornings helping desperately poor islanders, my afternoons snorkeling in wild, unpolluted waters, my nights reading in my thatched hut, or making love. At 25, I had already spent years dreaming of an Eden free of the rush, spoilage, and obsession with money that I felt surrounded me. Now I was sure I’d found it.
After a long flight across the Pacific and a few weeks of training on Guam, it was a two-day sail to my island, a speck of sand called Murilo, in the Hall group, eight degrees north latitude. Finally, on a brilliant September afternoon, I climbed down the ladder of the field-trip ship and into the skiff that would take me to the atoll. Above hung an enormous sky burned white by the tropical sun. Ahead was a Robinson Crusoelike crescent of land fringed with palms and pandanus trees. On all sides, as far as I could see, the green Pacific sparkled and rolled. For a minute or two I was struck full in the chest by the wonderful mercilessness of the nonhuman world, the immensity. Salt spray flying up against my sunglasses, I sat amid an embarrassment of luggage, bearing big dreams.
Murilo was home to 200 people. Its summit stood six feet above sea level; you could walk the entire shoreline in 15 minutes. During the day, the heat was so intense that the Murilans sought shade whenever they could. But as soon as the sun set, bathing the cumulus clouds stacked on the horizon in scarlet and lavender, a sweet breeze rose off the water and blew until dawn. Yet it quickly became apparent to me that my visions of paradise had been absurd. The humidity curled up the edges of my notebook paper and glued my envelopes closed. Tiny flies swarmed my face and arms. The single females were all under the age of eight. The food—fresh fish of a hundred varieties, breadfruit, taro, coconuts, bananas, pumpkin, lobster, pig, dog, snails—while as tasty as I’d imagined, carried bacteria that plagued even the locals.
There was no mail. The only way on or off Murilo was the field-trip ship, which stopped by with supplies every three months. Worst of all, however, was the fact that I was completely superfluous on Murilo. The people were content—more content, by a good measure, than those I’d left behind. The women sang as they made rope from coconut-husk fibers. The men passed cigarettes around a circle, two puffs apiece, and carried buckets of fish over to a neighbor’s house after a lucky afternoon at sea. My elaborately detailedPeace Corps job—writing up the island laws into a kind of constitution—took an hour a month.
I filled the broiling, empty days by teaching myself to fish with a snorkel, a spear, and a slingshotlike loop of surgical tubing the locals called a Hawaiian sling. The waters around Murilo were full of sharks, nurse and black-tipped reef sharks, mostly, but tigers and hammerheads too, so the speared fish had to be killed immediately—by crushing the skulls between my back teeth. Every morning I returned to the sea, losing myself in schools of angelfish, surgeonfish, and barracuda, diving down after my speared lunch—living, for a few hours at least, like a full citizen of the natural world.
Despite the thrill of spearfishing, I lasted only five months, climbing back onto the field-trip ship with my idealism bruised and my body host to battalions of infections. The Murilans, friendly and hospitable as they were, simply didn’t need me. Still, when I stepped out of Logan Airport, after the 30-hour flight from Truk, I was carrying a fishing spear wrapped up in cardboard and tape. I keep it in my workshop now, a rusty reminder of the most remote place I’ve ever been. And sometimes, swimming in the waters off Cape Cod, I take a breath and dive, running my chest along the sandy bottom, imagining a solitary surgeonfish there, just ahead, just out of range.
: White on White
In Antarctica, visitors fall from the sky, discovers Mary Roach,. What they find there comes from both heaven and hell.
Remote File: Polar RegionsContinent Size
5,283,600 square miles (Antarctica)
Less than one person per square mile
Claim to Fame
Lowest point on earth (-8,364 feet)
Most Remote Region
The Pole of Inaccessibility, Antarctica
Endurance, Alfred Lansing
Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez
THE INTERIOR OF ANTARCTICA is one of those rare places that look the same on a map as they do in real life: blank, vast, and entirely void of contours. These places attract me—polar ice sheets, Saharan wastes, the tundras of Greenland. Their beauty is somehow more forlorn and compelling for their utter unavailability to all but a persistent few. The fewer who’ve been there, the thinking goes, the greater the prize.
In the case of 76 degrees south, 156 degrees east, south-central Antarctica, the number couldn’t have been more than a dozen: the five members of The Antarctic Search for Meteorites team who spent a summer season there, the pilot who flew them in, and a handful of visitors, including myself. At first sighting, the place was just such a prize. “Meteorite City”—four canvas tents, seven Ski-Doos, and a sled packed with Top Ramen, salami, and prune-size shards of old shooting stars&3151;sat on a luminous pale-blue ice sheet whose surface dipped and rolled like a flash-frozen ocean. The wind had scoured away most of the snow, and carved the rest into sculptured banks of brilliant white, Styrofoam-hard sastrugi. Ribbons of snow-smoke woundpast my ankles. The ice was sequined with sun, and the sky was the kind of clear, deep, lit-up blue that you feel behind your eye sockets. It was the first day of my stay, and it felt like heaven.
Three days later, I wasn’t so sure. Heaven has a toilet and something good to eat. The uncomfortable realities of life in a tent at 30 below had begun to present themselves. Prime among them was a plastic bottle, labeled “P” for “pee”; it saved me from suiting up and crawling outside in the middle of the night. To keep its contents from freezing, I had to bring the bottle inside my sleeping bag, where it made friends with my contact-lens solution and the ten or 12 mini hand warmers with whom I also shared my bed. Otherwise I would have had a “P”opsicle, which could not be emptied out in the morning and which no one would want to thaw out over their camping stove for me.
Dinner was chicken patties with Tang sauce. Polarfleece became more familiar to me than my skin. Aside from Ski-Dooing back and forth on the ice searching for galactic rubble in 40-mph gales (constant, screaming wind is a necessary element of meteorite hunting because it exposes the elusive quarry) and reading in the 24-hour daylight, there was nothing to do.
By week’s end, it was okay to be leaving this beautiful place that I had dreamed of, staring at the white on the map and thinking, “I’m going to a place where no one ever goes.” Because now I knew why.
: In the Mountains of My Youth
Risk comes with the territory when trekking in Bolivia’s backcountry. But go with a posse of teenagers, as Joe Kane did, and the stakes get even higher.
Remote File: South AmericaContinent Size
7,127,600 square miles
48 people per square mile
Claim to Fame
World’s driest region: Atacama Desert, Chile
Most Remote Region
The Amazon Basin, Brazil
One River, Wade Davis
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
Alive, Piers Paul Read
FOR QUALITY TROUBLE, give me South America. Whole countries get lost down there. (Ask ten people where Suriname is; only one will even know the continent.) Yes, you can get yourself in a good jam right here in El Norte, but there’s almost always a safety net. Cell phone, sat phone, GPS, radio: Help is an uplink away. Expensive help, but they take credit cards. Go remote down south, though, and six seconds of inattention will land your ass in a serious sling. Then what? Call the park rangers? The army? Sure. Quizás, tal vez, de repente, as they say in Peru&3151;maybe, perhaps, we’ll get right on it. Mañana posible.
I’ve visited the South American backcountry often enough to screw up with the sort of depth and regularity that is inconceivable without an expense account. In Yasuní National Park, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I found myself thrashing through bush so thick I didn’t see the sky for three days. No maps. No food. No sense of direction. I was traveling with Huaorani Indians, whose jungle navigation skills are perhaps the finest in the Amazon—and they were lost. By the time we stumbled out, I was close to starvation.
Or rafting the Apurímac canyon, in the Peruvian Andes. The Apurímac is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon; our maps, made by the Instituto Geográfico Militar, had big white spaces where the river was supposed to be. We certainly hadn’t expected to encounter Maoist guerrillas down there. But there they were, firing at us at dawn one morning. Cerebral edema at the source of the Amazon in the Andes? The medevac, if you’re lucky enough to have one, eats grass and wears a saddle.
After several close calls in South America, I did what any rational man would do: I went back with nine teenagers. I volunteer in a program that sends high school kids to Bolivia for six weeks every summer. Some are rich, some poor, some beamed in from Mars. One year, in one of those decisions that seems logical at the time but insane in retrospect, we took them on a backpacking trip way off the grid, from the Andean crest on an old Inca highway, then down into the Amazon basin. I worked sweep behind the only two girls. The trail was solid stone and slick as an ice rink. One girl wore Birkenstocks; at 16,000 feet she blew out an ankle. I emptied her pack into mine. The other girl got blisters and hurt her back. I took most of her stuff, too. My load now totaled about a hundred pounds. I kissed my knees good-bye.
We got blasted by snow, hail, rain, and wind until, late that first afternoon, we lost the rest of our group. Suddenly, characteristically, the Andes went from barren to so thickly forested you couldn’t step off the trail without a machete. The sun set. It got darker and colder. Only then did it occur to me that we had no food, water, or shelter and that if we did not reach our campsite we would spend the night standing up on the steep, narrow trail, alone, in the blackness and rain, hypothermic and hungry. We’d made mistakes; the bill had come due. But the girls soldiered on. They didn’t complain; they didn’t say a word.
Somehow we stumbled our way into camp, a barnyard I’d call fit for pigs except that I’ve met pigs who had it better. Two days later, when we reached an inn, I walked by the girls’ room and noticed that the stuff I’d been hauling included hardback books, jars of cosmetics, a copy of Clueless on videocassette. I stifled a scream.
Because by then we’d had a conversation. “It’s like there’s this whole other world out here,” said one. “I can go home, but nothing will ever look the same again.” Trite, perhaps, but for a 17-year-old girl who totes mud mask into the Bolivian backcountry, poignant. I knew what she was saying; I experienced the same feeling—like the rust was blasted off my soul—the first time I went south. Fifteen years later, I still do.