Bicycling to the World’s Lowest Places

April 25, 2016

Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents, by Jim Malusa (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008)

MalusaJim Malusa and his wife Sonya took a long honeymoon, “six months on bicycles with no particular destination.” Three years later they did another bike trip, “Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—the back door to China, over the mountains”—to a place in the Takla Makan desert called Turpan, five hundred feet below sea level.

During that journey, concluding that “down was better than up,” Jim developed 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.”

Easy enough to identify the six destinations. More difficult was developing the plan. What he did was make one trip a year for six years: first Lake Eyre in Australian, followed in succession by the Dead Sea in Asia, the Caspian Sea in Europe, Salina Grand (Patagonia) in South America, Lac Asssal in Africa, and concluding with a trip from his home in Tucson to Death Valley in North America.

A life-long desert dweller with a PhD in botany and an academic post at the University of Arizona, Malusa knew a lot about desert flora (and fauna). He was temperamentally inclined to travel alone and unprotected, depending upon his knowledge of the desert and his ability to get along with everyone he met. He was quick-witted and was confident that he could extricate himself from any awkward circumstance he might encounter.

Malusa writes with verve that conveys facts and feelings inseparably intertwined. “Evening is the sweetest time in a hot place…With dusk comes the promise of the night. The wind quits, the leaves relax, and I keep riding. With the road to myself I ride as the stars blink on and Venus becomes queen of the sky. Birds in the dark whistle laconically, and I ride, all alone, approaching the center of Australia.”

He meets amazing people. Passing a refugee camp outside of Djibouti Town in Africa: “In occasional clearings by the road, kids chase cans or balls. I expect them to yell and wave when I pass. Instead they sprint for me. Out of the swarm of a hundred, one rushes up and grabs my brake lever and nearly topples me. Most of the kids scream and laugh and back off, but the bolder ones snatch up rocks, and in an inatant I’m more target than tourist.”

Thankfully missing: mileage logs, technical data, efforts to report everything that happens, confessions of being unprepared.  Malusa refers to books he’s read in preparing for the trips, but there’s nothing didactic in his use of these materials.

In the final pages he summarizes information about his bicycle: hybrid style, with drop handlebars, 700 x 47 road tires, 21-speed with low gears, and racks for carrying loads on front and rear. He could carry up to two gallons of water along with food, clothes, repair equipment, and camping gear.

On the last of the trips—Tucson to Death Valley—Malusa spends his last night alone, as always, at the deepest point in the continent. At 8:00 pm, with the moon “just a grin on the western horizon,” he muses: “There goes the moon. The earth is spinning, and I’m pinned by gravity and good fortune. I think of the Seven Summits and the urge to leave Everest not long after you arrive—and how different this is, lying on a glazed sea of salt.”

He continues: “Everyone has a plan, something that may or may not happen—but that’s not the point. It’s the plan that counts, the pleasure of possibility. You might hope to sail alone to the palm islands in a boat of your own design. To please your spouse in a remarkably athletic way or marry the right person the next time around. Or to sell your house before the plumbing goes and move to a carefree condo at the clean edge of a golf course until God’s call.

“As for me, I wanted to pedal my bike to the lowest points on earth. To my everlasting surprise, I did.”

Not until page 314, at the conclusion of his acknowledgements, does this solitary cyclist reveal the source of his courage and strength: “My trips and my story would have been very different if I didn’t hold in my mind my true home. Wherever I was in the world, I knew my children were in good hands with my sister, Sue; the Black family next door; my tireless mother-in-law, Rosa; and my wife Sonya—the grand prize winner for my warmest thanks. The pits are pretty nice, but I know where my heart belongs.”




Wheeling Through Europe in 1898

April 9, 2016

Keith Watkins Historian

In the summer of 1898, Winfred Ernest Garrison was twenty-four years old, single, and the possessor of a newly minted PhD degree from the newly minted University of Chicago. In the fall he was to begin his teaching career at Butler University in Indianapolis. Rather than scramble to make a few dollars that summer or prepare for his classes, he and a friend bicycled through England, Scotland, and Wales, 3,018 miles in sixty-eight days. The next summer he took another bicycle vacation (his word), this time in central Europe, 3,132 miles which he describes as “a trip from Rotterdam to Berlin by way of Naples.”

Garrison had an advantage over most twenty-something cyclists. His father was owner-publisher-editor of a weekly magazine that published news and opinion distributed to church-going people across the nation.

He also ran a book-publishing enterprise. Justly proud of his son’s budding literary talents, Dad (J.H.) Garrison…

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Angela Davis and Margaret Mead: At the Crossroads of Two Cultures

April 8, 2016

In 1970 when I was a young professor at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, I preached a sermon in the chapel entitled “Angela Davis and Margaret Mead: At the Crossroads of Two Cultures.” This week I came across a copy in the seminary archives and have prepared a lightly edited version to post online. Although many of the important issues have changed, people around the world are at an even more critical crossroads today. A sequel to the sermon preached forty-five years ago would describe the generational divisions of our time, outline the role of faith traditions in such a time, and suggest ways for all of us to move forward.   


I am the father of three daughters, each of whom has in her time been ten years old and a Girl Scout. That may be the reason I was moved nearly to tears by a picture in a recent news story showing a national celebrity with ribbons in her hair, smiling sweetly in her Girl Scout uniform back when she was ten years old.

She went on from those simple days to study at New York’s Elizabeth Irwin High School, Brandeis University, the Sorbonne, the Institute of Social Research at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfort, and the University of California at San Diego. There she began her doctoral dissertation on the topic of Kant’s analysis of violence in the French Revolution.

She was hired as an instructor in the department of philosophy at UCLA for two reasons: she was Black, and she was well schooled in the Continental European philosophical tradition of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and the existentialists, whereas the other members of that department were under the influence of British empirical philosophy.

Step by step this little Girl Scout and budding philosopher became identified with movements and efforts that were increasingly hostile to the established patterns of American society, especially those that affected Black people and other disinherited Americans. It is a long and complicated story that has led Angela Davis to be on the FBI’s list of the ten most wanted.

Of her, the Newsweek editors wrote recently: “For she has made her home at the crossroads of two cultures, and somehow she managed to inhabit both, declining the rewards that either would have bestowed on her if she had been willing to live within its rules alone” (10/26/70, p. 20).

My purpose in referring to Angela Davis is neither to explore her two worlds nor to praise her, although both tasks are well worth doing. Rather, it is to let the example of her life help us to see more clearly the condition experienced by the whole human family, for all of us are migrating from an old world into a new one.

My advance scout in this migration is Margaret Mead who has just published a slender volume in which she states her understanding of what is taking place. Her title is significant—Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap.

 Most of the time, Mead writes, the human community has depended upon the presence of three generations. Adults who are rearing their own family have at the same time continued to see their own parents who a few years earlier had reared them. In this old pattern of things, children become committed to the values and structures of the past.

There never is any question raised. The steady presence of the generations provides a continuing pathway for commitment. And what is most important: the old always teach the young.

To read more, click Angela Davis and Margaret Mead.


An Easter Prayer: Confessing What We Believe

March 27, 2016

Easter 1

One of the first principles of Christian worship is that prayers are the most important words of a service. They are spoken to God and therefore express the central reference point for everything that takes place during the ritual. They express the theological meaning of the actions and ceremonies that the worshipers perform.

Since Easter affirms the central claim of the Christian faith—“That God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19)—it is especially important that these words be chosen carefully. They need to affirm this meaning concisely. They need to do so in a way that transcends the confusion that often exists in church teaching and popular piety. The prayer below is how I expressed the core of the Easter faith in the church were I was one of the worship leaders on Easter 2016.

Life-giving God: On this holy and joy-filled day we gather with Christians around the world to proclaim that Jesus lives

  • In the testimonies of his friends and companions long ago;
  • In the sacraments of baptism and feast of joy that his followers have celebrated ever after;
  • In the secret recesses of our hearts as we open our lives in prayer;
  • In the courageous actions of people when they face the struggles of life in the world;
  • In the faith, hope, and love that sustain us and continue with us when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

On this day, when the world groans in travail waiting for its redemption, we dare to pray: Marnatha, Lord Jesus, come.

  • Come again to confound the forces of evil, especially in those places where innocent people suffer grievously.
  • Come again to renew faith, rekindle hope, and model the steadfast love that binds the world together.
  • Come again to free us from guilt and all that separates us from God’s love.
  • Come again to bring comfort as we mourn the death of the people we love.
  • Come again to proclaim the coming of the world of peace, joy, and life abundant that has been God’s will since the beginning of creation long ago.

All this we dare to pray, eternal God, through Jesus Christ, who embodied your presence with us, who willingly, because of his great love, gave himself up to death in order to reunite us with you, and whom who raised to take his place with you in everlasting glory. Amen.


A cyclist’s antidote to the winter blues

March 23, 2016


A Winter’s Ride in the Southern Arizona Grasslands

 I love my homeland in the Pacific Northwest, including the mild winter rains, evergreen forests, and rich agricultural valleys. As winter lingers into February, however, I long for warm sunshine and open roads. For eight years I have been satisfying that desire by taking my bicycle to southern Arizona. A week of hard riding through the “Sky Islands” of the high desert grasslands southeast of Tucson seems just right as antidote to the winter blues.

Vigorous cycling with congenial friends renews a sense of physical wellbeing, and traveling slowly through this distinctive environment stimulates ever wider contemplations upon life in our time.

My 2016 ride combined two features. The cycling itself was the Historic Hotels Tour offered by PAC Tour, the touring company operated by Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo who have been noted long-distance cyclists for more than 30 years. We traveled from Tucson to Sonoita, Tombstone, Bisbee, Douglas, the Kartchner Caverns, Benson, and back to Tucson.

My contemplations were shaped by one of the most hopeful books I’ve read for some time—Stitching the West Back Together, edited by a team of experts on the challenges facing the Desert Southwest. I’ve written a 6,800-word essay outlining the tour and my contemplations prompted by the book and the things I saw.

One of my goals in the essay is to explain why open road cyclists enjoy long, challenging rides like these.

Another purpose is to describe two watershed-wide ventures in the high grasslands southeast of Tucson and another venture that is responding creatively to the tendencies toward urban sprawl around the city itself. All three illustrate the principle of working from the radical center that is a theme of the book I’ve been reading.

Friends who have read the essay say that it is interesting. My roommate for the week says that it reads like an essay from The New Yorker—maybe too strong a commendation, but I’ll take it, anyway.

To read the essay, click Winter’s Ride 2


A Prayer for Palm Sunday

March 21, 2016

Jesus’ New Kind of Politics

On Palm Sunday I led Vespers at Terwilliger Plaza, a retirement community near the center of Portland, Oregon. In my homily I described the vision of a new world that Jesus embodied. I also outlined the new kind of politics that he demonstrated.

  • He set aside all of the marks of success, power, and military might.
  • He spoke boldly to people in power, calling attention to their duplicity and slyly ridiculing them.
  • He used his energies and insights into human behavior to help people in practical ways, helping them find food and healing them from their ailments.
  • He continually talked about a new world that was coming, a world in which all things worked the way God and the prophets had said that they were supposed to.
  • He drew upon spiritual strength that enabled him to keep going even when he could tell that if he persisted he was likely to be tortured and executed.
  • At every point he depended upon persuasion rather than upon physical force.
  • He refused to back down.

The sharp contrast between the new kind of politics that Jesus represents and the old form of politics that dominates American life today was much in my mind as I prepared the prayer that followed the homily.

A Prayer for Palm Sunday 2016

Eternal God, on this Palm Sunday we join with people through the ages who have rejoiced in Jesus Christ who came to live among us. By his words and actions, he proclaimed a vision of the world in which all things work the way that you intend. In this world the seasons move through their annual cycles. Rains fall in timely fashion watering the earth, and all things living find the nourishment they need. People everywhere are bound into communities of love and mutual support.

We remember the patterns of leadership that Jesus used which differ so much from those that governments of this world choose: self-giving instead of self-serving; focused on ordinary people and their needs rather than upon the already privileged and powerful; and based on hope and love rather than on fear and greed.

Forgive us when we forget the politics of Jesus and turn to the politics of this world. Help us remain faithful to the example that Jesus set which he kept steadfastly even in the face of torture and death.

Holy One, during this election season we pray for our nation. Purge our leaders of their desire for prestige and love of power. Help all of us—the people and the politicians—to find ways of working together so that liberty and justice will flourish over all of the world.

We pray for people around the who suffer and especially for refugees who struggle to survive in camps with no place to go and no way to relieve their anguish. Strengthen aid workers and public officials as they seek to solve the ever deepening turmoil of our time and find ways to redeem the people who are suffering so deeply.

In the name of Jesus, Prince of Peace who wept over the people of Jerusalem, we offer this prayer. Amen.

Pope Francis meets ranchers in the West

February 24, 2016

Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes, edited by Susan Charnley, Thomas E. Sheridan, and Gary P. Nabhan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)

Stitching the WestTwo recent events in Oregon highlight one of the most complex aspects of public affairs in the American West: the use of public lands so that the people and communities that are most closely related and the land itself will be healthy and productive now and into the distant future.

The occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by a self-declared militia headed by sons of Cliven Bundy is the more widely publicized of these events. At the center of this debate is the struggle between ranchers who demand unlimited control of grazing rights and a governmental agency that sets limits on how the land is used and charges fees for that use.

Legal action by Linn County Oregon against the State of Oregon is the second event. The county claims that the state has mismanaged Oregon Forest Trust Land and as a result has failed to live up to contracts that provide funds to support basic services such as schools. At issue is whether the state must allow logging to go on forever or if it also has “a duty to protect clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and other values held closely by Oregonians” (Kristena Hansen).

As an urban dwell in the Pacific Northwest, I have always been inclined favorably toward parks and wilderness areas controlled by governmental and environmental agencies and against the Bundys, logging companies, and other extractive users of the West. I have rarely given much thought to the complex issues involved.

That is why Stitching the West Back Together is such an important book. It can help people on all sides of these issues develop new and equitable ways of resolving the struggles over land use. The book itself is a collaborative project: Thirty-seven contributors including academics, ranchers, and environmentalists have contributed fourteen chapters, with extensive documentation, resulting in 343 pages of readable narrative. Among its major points, these stand out.

  1. It focuses attention on developing economically viable and environmentally responsible ways of using the natural resources of the West.
  2. It cuts across many of the traditional assumptions and practices and proposes effective ways for people and organizations that usually have fought one another to create new, collaborative ways of achieving their purposes.
  3. It provides a necessary foundation in theory, but consists primarily of case studies from all over the West where new ways of cooperating are now operational.
  4. It offers a vision of a new West in which “working landscapes,” wilderness areas, Native American reservations, and governmental agencies are interrelated in ways that can be continued indefinitely into the future.

One of the central ideas in this book carries the title “the radical center.” It was coined in the mid-1990s by Bill McDonald, a New Mexico rancher, “to describe an emerging consensus-based approach to land management challenges in the U.S. West.” Conflict had “balkanized the West and led to gridlock. Very little progress was made on projects that would provide long-term environmental or social benefits to the region. . . .The radical center movement challenged various orthodoxies of the mid-1990s, including the belief that conservation and ranching were part of a zero-sum game where one’s gains equaled another’s losses” (p. 83).

Earlier this season I read and reviewed Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home.” He offers a cogent critique of ways that humankind has abused the earth and are causing its decay and desolation. The Pope implores people to repent and change their ways so that nature can thrive once more and human communities can prosper.

Even readers who are convinced that the Pope is right still face the daunting task of figuring out what to do. As I work my way through Stitching the West Back Together, I have come to realize that this book is the logical sequel to the Encyclical, at least for people in the American West.

Stitching is not theological and it is largely non-ideological and apolitical. It focuses on goals similar to those that Pope Francis espouses: a healthy and happy natural world that supports healthy and happy human communities everywhere. Stitching proposes a methodology for actually achieving those goals.

The central term in the Encyclical is “integral ecology,” which is a vision that is capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis and clearly respects all of the human and social dimensions along with the health and fullness of every aspect of the world’s natural life.

It may be too late to use the methods of the vital center to solve the Malheur Refuge and Linn County conflicts, but maybe the ideas they contain can help us avoid similar conflicts in the future.


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