Into Thick Air


Most likely I heard about this book by way of Adventure Cycling Association, it was hard to bypass a story with the tagline Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents. The author, Jim Malusa, with a self diagnosis of “ants in the pants”, sets up the quest by recounting an expedition with his wife through high mountain passes of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the oasis of Turpan in China’s Takla Makan desert. This experience and a disinclination for cold leads him to an idea:

Why not visit the lowest points on the planet? The bellybutton of each continent. The scheme had two golden attributes: I wouldn’t need insulated underwear, and I could ride my bicycle.

It was a wonderful and unlikely scheme. Most everyone has such a plan tucked into his or her imagination, including the Turpan watermelon vendor who fancied himself emigrating to the United States and triumphantly returning five years later, quite wealthy yet still pious. The odds were not in his favor, but that really wasn’t the point. It was the plan that counted, the pleasure of possibility.

He then proceeds to recount his adventures to the world’s low places.
– Australia: Lake Eyre, -49 feet
– Asia: Dead Sea, -1350 feet
– Europe: Russian shore of the Caspian Sea, -92 feet
– South America: Salina Grande, in the Patagonian Desert of Argentina, -140 feet
– Africa: Lac Assal, Djibouti, -505 feet
– North America: Death Valley, -282 feet
Antartica’s lowest place was precluded from the list by being under ice.

It’s a fun read, both for his observations on the places and people he visits, as well as for his musings on the world and traveling. Especially for a society more focused on quests to highests, his perhaps anticlimactic journeys provoke curiosity and questions along the way.

As he was leaving his home in the American Southwest for the Asia journey, his views from the plane made him wonder if the Dead Sea desert would look similar, but he’d avoided looking at any pictures. “Travel without surprise was merely an agenda.” A good reminder in this modern world where we can look up so much on the internet.

While in South America, “There are many pretty rocks on this earth, but only the rare ones are known as precious. So nice, it is, to be at last in a place where water is precious.” Travel helps us see the value of things, or what is really valuable in life.

There were also fun little factoids, like the heat in Lake Havasu City, on the way to Death Valley leading to a discussion of air conditioning, which apparently was invented in 1902 for printing! Four color printing, specifically, which needs four perfectly aligned runs through the press. Changes in temperature and humidity between runs would cause the paper to shrink or swell and put the registration off. Hence an “Apparatus for Treating Air” to keep humidity low and constant.

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