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.”