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.