One good book

Lands of Lost Borders – Kate Harris

One of the most scenic towns in Canada has to be Atlin, B.C. perched close to the border of the B.C. – Yukon Territory.  I visited Atlin in 1981 and have always thought it might be a good place to call home, if the prairies didn’t beckon.  Atlin happens to be home to Kate Harris, a Rhodes Scholar and writer who lives off-grid in a log cabin.  It seems a good choice for a wanderer.

After studies at Oxford and MIT, Harris tells her story of deciding to bike the famed Silk Road, the highway made famous by Marco Polo in the 13th century. 

Harris  wonderfully describes the beauty and harshness of this landscape, and the rigor demanded of such a journey.  Along the way she muses on subjects like science, religion, and language.  As one reviewer puts it, she is part philosopher, part  swashbuckler, and part explorer!

As they bike through Turkey’s Kars Plateau, 5470 feet above sea level, she records the words of Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard who wrote, ‘Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.’ 

In Kazakstan, she muses on knowledge:  ‘At Oxford I learned there is danger in viewing science and other forms of exploration as essentially noble enterprises.’  As examples she points out that the Wright brothers sold their aviation know-how to the highest bidder, the American military.  And scientist and map-maker Fanny Bullock Workman’s careful surveys of Stachen helped pave the way to war over the glacial border she was traversing.  Of course the prime exhibit is the parched looking landscape that used to be the Aral Sea. 

Once the world’s fourth largest lake, it is now a social and ecological wasteland.  The lake has withered away because of industrial-scale irrigation of the two rivers that fed it.  The disaster began in the 1960s as a Soviet project to grow cotton, one of the world’s thirstiest crops, in a desert.  Thirty years later, the rivers no longer reach the lake, which has lost 90% of its volume and quadrupled in salinity.  That led in turn to the complete collapse of fish stocks and the Uzbek communities that used to harvest them.

‘The highest goal humans can achieve,’ said Goethe, ‘is amazement.’   For those of you who love to travel but now can do so only from your Lazy-Boy, here is the perfect travel narrative to inform, delight, and perhaps, amaze you.  Bon voyage!


[Thanks to Monica Dalke for the recommendation]