From Kabul to the North Pole: Solo Travelers, Their Narratives and Their Non-Human Companions and Me
Fiction, especially children’s fiction, is filled tales of lone young adventurers and their animal companions. Dorothy had the both the Cowardly Lion and Toto, as well as the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, to help her down the yellow brick road, while Mowgli had the black panther Bagheera, the brown bear Balloo, the giant python Kaa and a whole pack of wolves to help him with his jungle survival. In fact young people's literature is rife with these intrepid juveniles, who bolstered by their non-human companions, succeed in their dangerous quests which inevitably end in some sort of self-realization.
Similarly, although less frequently, adult narratives of solo travel carry a similar message. No one argues that extreme wilderness experience is one of the proven ways to transcend the mundane and come to know ourselves. Far from technology, in situations which combine intense physical activity and danger, we often move into the altered state of consciousness which native Americans sought in the vision quest, and Csikszentmihalyi refers to as "flow" , or the "flow experience, in which we become so engrossed in the experience we become one with it, and often emerge changed. Whether the experience is referred to as “flow”, mystical experience or "having no head", as one writer put it, it is the reason that many of us seek adventures in the wilderness or thrill vicariously to the narratives of those who do.
Such experience is difficult to achieve in a traditional expedition setting. Here our closest friends can begin to exhibit new and annoying personality traits that hadn't seemed to surface at home. Those of us familiar with high altitude experiences are aware that, as the altitude increases, so does irritation with the annoying habits of our companions. Like fiends out of Poe, we begin to dream of clever ways to eliminate the offenders, perhaps by walling them up in snow caves. Fortunately these feelings are seldom acted on and usually disappear by the time that we arrive home.
Part of the reason for this irritation may be a craving for solitary experience. Alone one can be absorbed in the moment, free to stare at a particular peak for hours at a time without being sneered at, having one’s sanity questioned, or being accused of threatening the success of the expedition by throwing the schedule off kilter. Away from the trappings of Western civilization and companions, they become “travelers, not tourists,” free to achieve their inner goals. Common sense and practicality, of course, mitigate against a great deal of solo activity in perilous places, but it is sometimes possible to reduce the peril and achieve the solo experience if one substitutes animal for human companions, the companionship of animals being less likely to interfere with one's interior experience.
Robyn Davidson, author of Tracks , succeeded in her solo expedition across the deserts of the Australian outback in large measure because of the help and companionship of her animals. Her idea was to capture some wild camels from the Australian bush, train them and traverse the wild desert Outback, alone except for her dog Diggity. "She wanted," she said, "to be alone, to test, to push, to unclog my brain of all its extraneous debris, not to be protected, to be stripped of all the social crutches, not to be hampered by any outside interference whatsoever (102)," an excellent description of the state in which many hope to experience in the wilderness.
In order to achieve this, she underwent incredible difficulties in the chauvinistic Outback where she learned not only to tame and handle camels, but also to love them. She describes them as incredibly intelligent, "affectionate, cheeky, witty, self-possessed, patient, hardworking and endlessly interesting and charming." Likening them to eight year old children, she notes that training them is difficult as they are "of an essentially undomestic turn of mind as well as extremely bright and perceptive." These traits, in turn, have led to the camels' reputations as dangerous and recalcitrant. In addition, they "are sensitive animals easily ruined by bad handlers." Ethnocentric they believe "they are god's chosen race. But they are also cowards and their aristocratic demeanor hides delicate hearts." (29)
Her peace made with the camels, she found herself short of money for the expedition. Finally, her financial situation became so desperate that she was faced with the alternative of taking money from National Geographic as a sponsor or giving up the expedition. Taking money meant that she was obligated to an agency outside herself, and would be forced to interrupt her solitude to allow Geographic photographer Rick Smolens to create photo sessions. Acceptance of the Geographic offer was a bitter pill, as she felt strongly that the purity of her endeavor had thus been besmirched, and she would became an unwilling celebrity, vampirized both by the media and the curious. These concerns were valid.
Even so, she was rewarded by long periods of solitude, and identification with the landscape where she learned to perceive the interconnectedness of all things. She learned not only to see but to know both the animals and their tracks, understanding them in the larger context of their setting, the environments teaching her, at it were, by osmosis. "It became, she said, "an animate thing of which I was a part. . . .What was once a thing that merely existed became something that everything else acted upon and had a relationship with and vice versa." Even rocks became part of what she saw as "a net." Finally when this way of thinking became normal for her, she "became lost in the net. . .the boundaries of myself stretched out forever" (195).
Thus the self in the desert is altered to become desertlike. "It becomes limitless with its roots more in the subconscious than the conscious - it gets stripped of non-meaningful habits and becomes more concerned with habits related to survival."(197).
Still, as she found, no matter how profound the experience, these moments are limited and leave one as open to self-deception as before they were experienced. Toward the end of the trip, filled with hubris, having overcome her fears, she felt invincible, untouchable, that there was no more the desert could teach her, but she was wrong. She had to learn that "Death is sudden and final and comes from nowhere" (223).
Low on food and euphoric, she neglected to muzzle Diggity in an area where ranchers had dropped strychnine from airplanes to kill native dogs. Poisoned, Diggity came to her for help, and all she could do was shoot her. Grief-stricken and numb, she said good-bye "to a creature that she had loved unconditionally, without question(225)." This essentially marked the end of the adventure. Without her, Robyn was susceptible once more to those swamping, irrational feelings of vulnerability and dread; her desire to hold Diggity close like a physical need (231).
Her camels Zelieka, Goliath, Bub and Dookie survived the trek to be rewarded with a happy retirement. Leaving them was agony. She spent hours saying farewell. "Tearing myself away from them caused actual physical pain, and I kept going back to sink my forehead into their woolly shoulders and tell them how wonderful and clever and faithful and true they were and how I would miss them" (253). Sustained by her animals, she had, by and large, achieved her goals, although not in the manner she had predicted.
Like Davidson, Geoffrey Moorhouse chose camels as his wilderness companions. He aimed to make the first camel crossing by a westerner of the Sahara from the Atlantic to the Nile. More interested in testing the limits of human endurance, particularly his own, than in setting a record, although he certainly would not have minded doing so, Moorhouse chose a meandering itinerary that would take him thirty-six hundred miles if he succeeded, landing him at the Nile by Christmas l973, a journey of almost ten months. He was seeking to find himself, to stop "spinning helplessly and hopelessly through a fearful void of the spirit"(40).
No animal lover, he saw camels as the means to an end. Threatened even by domestic dogs, he was irritated by animal lovers and saw camels as potential sources of danger, which, as Robyn was aware, they are if mishandled To his credit, he learned both to ride and to handle them, but they were never to become for him the sustaining presences that Robyn's camels and dog were to her.
Advisors soon convinced him not to attempt the crossing alone, telling him that one man couldn't cope physically with the hard work involved in an extended camel journey. Doubting his courage, he decided that not only was he unable to cope with the camels alone, but also he was experiencing "a deep, primeval fear of the void." Looking over the dunes, he compared himself to "a caterpillar wriggling hopefully across an eternal nothingness from which all life had been apparently extinguished" (118).
Although there were moments when he could see "the fruitfulness of the desert that mystics had found through the ages", moments which "calmed his soul", he felt that he could not receive them on this journey, "that one could never rest long enough to receive the vision of the small thing that might lighten the darkness" (197). This distancing of himself from the wilderness he traversed left him outside and isolated. He would never during the trek consciously feel warmth toward the camels he referred to mainly as the beasts, although he did come to respect them, and, at times, pity them. Eventually he would question why he had sacrificed those camels that had died on the trip, and would seem to genuinely regret the death of the brown bull, a gallant animal that had traveled an unconscionable distance to serve his purposes, although as he stated, he was unmoved by the deaths of the others.
Although he traveled almost 2,000 miles, no mean feat, he did not achieve his goal of the Nile and feared going home both because he felt defeated, and because, after his months in the desert, he was uncertain how he would react to urban life. He seldom achieved those moments of flow discussed by Robyn Davidson. On one of the last days, he wrote that, although he had finally discovered the beauty of the desert, all he could feel was "agony, suffering, pain, mindlessness, endlessness, futility." A mere automaton under the brutal sun, he felt "scarcely recognizable as a human being, with the responses that alone distinguish us from the animals. I wondered whether I had forfeited a little of my soul to the desert - maybe the greater part of it" (271). Perhaps had he traveled alone with his animals more open to their companionship, rather than depending on the duplicitous and endlessly irritating guides, the solitude might have saved him from finding a void both inside and outside.
He may have been nearer a breakthrough than he knew. Before he left Tamanrasset, the end of his journey, he visited the marketplace where he had left his camels to see how they were getting on. They were gone. He left, feeling empty, believing that he must return to his own people, because only with them could he replenish what had been poured out of him on his journey.
Rory Stewart’s experience was far different. In January 2002 soon after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, he walked from Herat to Kabul, immortalizing his trek in The Places in Between, a narrative as remarkable as Davidson’s Tracks. Stewart, a Scotsman who had been a British diplomat had set himself to walk across Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Afghanistan. “There was,” he said, “a magic in leaving a line of footprints stretching behind me across Asia. (25)” The Afghani portion of the trip had been left for last due to the war. His goal was adventure, his route in Afghanistan a difficult one through the central mountains away from the major areas of conflict.
At the first tribal hill village after he left Herat where he was at last to able to shake the companions with whom he had been saddled for the previous days, Stewart was offered an ancient, almost toothless dog, the size of a small pony whose ears and tail had been chopped off to make him a better fighter. Although he initially doubted that the dog could make it the 750 kilometers to Kabul, he was drawn to him, named him Babur, after the Afghan hero, and decided to take him back to Scotland (127 – 121). Loving Babur almost immediately, Rory described him as “beautiful, wise and friendly” while Afghans who see dogs as unclean animals described him as “big, strong, useless, tired or decrepit (133)”
As soon as Babur enters the narrative, it shifts from first person singular to first person plural. Rory and Babur are clearly companions. Babur’s picture is include several times in the illustrations (upaginated); most indicative of the author’s feelings about him is one labeled “Babur and the author’s footsteps crossing the frozen Band-e-Amir.”
At various times villagers attempted to take Babur, or to get Rory to let him fight which, of course, he refused.
As the walk progressed, Rory became increasingly proud of Babur who, old as he was, had gamely managed to walk “twelve hours without a break, crossing a ten-thousand foot pass through snow four feet deep (181).” He was proud also of Babur’s heritage. “He was a type of mastiff, bred to fight and guard against wolves, dogs, and humans.” These dogs are found on early Egyptian wall paintings and Assyrian wall friezes. After they reached Daulatyar, people referred to him an Aimaq dog, a special mastiff that was chronicled in the 11th century as “a remarkably fine breed of dogs in Ghor so powerful that in frame and strength every one of them is a match for a lion.” Further, they were such an important part of Islamic culture, that one scholar wrote, “Avicenna could not fight with a dog from Ghor (182).”
At the half-way point when Babur got ill, Rory refused to leave him until he staggered to his feet and proceeded. In some of the villages that they passed through Babur was treated with reasonable kindness; in others he was tormented but the two remained steadfast although “although children in every village threw stones and called their dogs down on Babur. (207).”
At one point, Rory sick and exhausted lay down in the center of a frozen lake. Feeling warm and at ease, he settled down to die. “I closed my eyes and smiled. I had done enough. It occurred to me that no one could criticize me for staying here (231).” Babur would have none of it, however, and nudged and at barked him until he got up and continued on. “His matter-of-factness made me feel that I was being melodramatic. If he was going to continue, so was I (232).”
Finally near the journey’s end, Rory feared that Babur would not be strong enough to walk the last four days to Kabul from where he planned to take him home to Scotland. Finding Babur a ride, he tied him to a post and walked out (263).
Babur made it to Kabul where he was well treated and seemed happy. Having made plans to fly him to Scotland, Rory scratched him for less time than he wanted to avoid worrying him. Babur, however, never made the plane. Someone gave him a rack of lamb and the bone splinters killed him.
Rory finished, “I don’t imagine Babur would have been very impressed to see me crying now, trying to bring back five weeks walking alone together with my hand on a grizzled golden head, which is Babur beside me and alive.( 297)”
Unlike those of Robyn, Geoff, and Rory, Helen Thayer's goals were clearly athletic. At age fifty, she wanted to be the first woman to solo ski and walk to the North Pole. Not suffering a spiritual crisis, at least not one that she shared with her readers, she was interested in setting a record and proving her athletic prowess. She didn’t have Robyn's lust for solitude, but had both trained and sacrificed to meet this challenge. Like Stewart, she was well aware of the difficulties of a solo expedition, particularly one on foot. "There is no one else to hold the other end of the tent so it doesn't blow away. No one to share camp chores. No one to talk to about fears. No one to help make decisions, and, above all, no one to help watch for bears" (63).
While her desire to set a record was greater than that of Moorhouse, her reliance on her animal companion was as great as that of Robyn Davidson and perhaps greater than that of Rory Stewart. Although an animal lover, Helen had not initially planned to take a dog, wanting to rely solely on herself. Inuit hunters, however, convinced her that she should take an Inuit dog to protect her from Polar bears, as Inuit dogs and polar bears are natural enemies. Thus she set out on her journey, accompanied by a black Inuit husky that she had known only three days.
Falling in love with him at first sight, she named him Charley, a first for him, as, like Afghani dogs, Inuit dogs have no names. Charlie had been trained to warn villagers about approaching polar bears, and was not used to kindness. Inuit dogs lead a harsh life, living without shelter in even the harshest weather, being hurled a piece of frozen seal meat three or four times a week and chewing ice for water, while living tied to a four foot chain.
The first day out proved her wisdom in taking him when he scared polar bears away on three separate occasions. Without him, she probably would either have been attacked or fled. At the end of the first day, in temperatures of minus 41 degrees, she had made only three miles and was frankly frightened. Uncertain whether or not to continue, she debated with herself until she came to the conclusion that she would continue, keeping Charley on his chain, releasing him only at the last moment if necessary to attack a bear, and that she would shoot only as a last resort.
After making the decision, she gave Charlie a big hug and burst into tears of relief, a bad idea as her eyelids froze shut, leaving her helpless until she managed to thaw them with saliva. By the second day, her hands were blistered with the cold and she and Charlie were fast friends. By the seventh day, Charlie was no longer keeping watch outside the tent, but had moved inside where he immediately made a bid for the sleeping bag.
By day eleven, they were on thin ice, perhaps the most harrowing experience of the trip. Charlie was at a loss here, and she realized that she was responsible for his safety, something which struck her particularly as she had taught this animal who trusted no human being to trust her. Realizing how much she loved him, she was devastated by the thought of any harm coming to him, and wrote: "It was a precious gift to be trusted and loved by a dog that had never learned trust and had never known human kindness" (138).
By now, they were sharing peanut butter cups and Helen called him solid, loving and dependable, noting that their mutual understanding had grown each day. By day fourteen, Charlie had chased more polar bears away, and Helen was sharing more of her rations with him, a mark of his growing equality. By day seventeen, Charlie was no longer sleeping in the vestibule of the tent but curled by Helen's side.
By day twenty-two she had made it to the Pole, but her food had been blown away in a storm that had also damaged her sight. Charlie was again a wonderful companion. She invited him into the tent so that they would be together if anything went wrong with the ice on which they were camped, or if a bear happened by. Charlie now shared her pillow, his snore reassuring her throughout the night.
At one point, she considered eating some of Charlie's food (he was now on half rations), but decided against it, as Charlie was her companion and, like Rory, she felt his survival to be just as important as hers. On the twenty-seventh day, dehydrated and starving, she and Charlie completed the journey, and Charlie went home with her, their bonds of loyalty, friendship and trust unshakable.
Helen doesn't discuss the flow experience as such, but her triumph at her achievement and her plans to return to the pole on foot with her husband Bill and, of course, Charlie make it clear that she was experiencing something of the sort, perhaps not recorded in her journal because of the savage cold, vicious storms and difficulty in working her bleeding hands. Still near the end of her book, she writes of the twenty-seven day, three-hundred and sixty-four mile journey: "I realized that I had the inner strength to make it all the way to the pole. I realized I had coexisted in harmony with nature which sometimes can be unforgiving"(245). Of Charlie, whom she had unabashedly come to love, she said, "I had much to be grateful to him for." Never did he question her decisions, teaching her "patience and trust," while she looked forward to teaching him about her world that they were about to enter (246).
This writer’s fascination with wilderness companions may have been born from her reading, but the certainty that what they give is more than human comes from eight years of wandering the Red Rock trails in Nevada, watched over by Raksha, her beautiful wolf, and best friend, who died after a lime disease vaccination turned her immune system against her. Fiercely ill, she fought death until she was given permission to go.
So this is for Raksha, Diggity, Charley, Babur and all the wilderness companions who enrich our lives with what may be only unconditional acceptance and love we will ever experience. Like Robyn after Diggity's death, I became "susceptible to all those swamping feelings, irrational feelings of vulnerability and dread (231)." Like Rory, I wept. Like Helen, I have a new companion, Gudrun, a coyote mix, who in her scattered way is trying very hard to fill Raksha's paw prints. While there is little chance of that, in time she'll find a way to make her own mark. Even though there is a severe shortage of polar bears in the Nevada desert, she sees the wild burros that are everywhere here an equal challenge.
Felicia Florine Campbell is professor of English at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She writes from Blue Diamond, Nevada, astride the breathtaking Red Rock Canyon.