Lands of Lost Borders
The end of the road was always just out of sight. Cracked asphalt deepened to night beyond the reach of our headlamps, the thin beams swallowed by a blackness that receded before us no matter how fast we biked. Light was a kind of pavement thrown down in front of our wheels, and the road went on and on. If I ever reach the end, I remember thinking, I’ll fly off the rim of the world. I pedalled harder.
The evening before, Melissa and I had carefully duct-taped over the orange reflectors on our wheels. Just after midnight, we’d crawled out of our sleeping bags, dressed in black thermal long underwear, packed up camp, and mounted our bicycles. As we rode toward Kudi, a tiny outpost in western China, only our headlamps gave us away, two pale flares moving against the grain of stars. We clicked off the lights as we neared the town.
It was three a.m. and moonless. The night air was cool for July and laced with the sweet breath of poplars and willows that grew in slender wands beside the river. No clean divisions between earth and sky, light and dark, just a lush and total blackness. I couldn’t see the mountains but I could sense them around me, sharp curses of rock. The kind of country that consists entirely of edges.
Sometimes Mel and I drifted blindly into each other, our bulky panniers acting like bumpers. We navigated by the sound of our wheels, a hushed whirring indicating the pavement, a rasp of gravel the road shoulder and the need for a course correction. Travelling by bicycle is a life of simple things taken seriously: hunger, thirst, friendship, the weather, the stutter of the world beneath you. I was so focused on listening to the road that I didn’t notice the glint of metal until Mel did.
“That’s it,” she whispered. “The checkpoint.”
A guardrail scissored the road ahead, and somewhere beyond it, mythic and forbidden, was the Tibetan Plateau. Though Kudi isn’t technically in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR, as China has designated the formerly sovereign nation, the village hosts the first and most formidable military checkpoint on the only road into the western part of Tibet, a place foreigners require permits and guides to visit. Mel and I had neither. We didn’t want to subsidize the Chinese occupation of Tibet by paying to go there, and we lacked the money for permits anyway. Plus, we’d just graduated from university and felt young and free and rashly unassailable: never once had we met a barrier we couldn’t muscle past. So we took a deep breath, looked both ways, and biked directly under the raised guardrail.
Nothing happened. Somewhere to my left a river sounded like wind. The stars looked freshly soldered above the dark metal of the mountains, faintly visible now that our eyes had adjusted. Mel was a whim of shadow to my left but I could feel her giddiness, or maybe it was my own, adding a kind of shimmer to the air. The world seemed preternaturally honed and heightened, our vision and hearing sharper. I watched a star shoot to the horizon with an afterimage trailing behind it. “Did you see that?” I whispered. When that same star shot up again, we shoved our bikes into the ditch and ran.
The flashlight scanned the road, moving closer in clean yellow sweeps. Mel dove into the ditch a few metres from our bikes and I bolted senselessly toward the nearest building, where I flattened myself against a wall. I heard footsteps approach, the click of heels on concrete, and regret seared me. I would never be a Martian explorer now. Instead I’d spend the rest of my days in a Chinese prison, desperately wishing I had something to read. With my cheek pressed against concrete, I stared up. If the heavens aligned, I told myself, if a single constellation clicked into place—the Big Dipper, say, or Cassiopeia—we’d be saved. I scanned the night sky for some reassuring sign, any familiar map to orient myself by—ironic, I suppose, when the great goal of my life was getting lost. But the stars reeled and spun and refused all their usual patterns. The footsteps came closer and closer and stopped.
Then I spotted the Big Dipper pouring out the sky. The footsteps started again, moved closer, and faded away. I didn’t dare move or breathe or glance at Mel, who was still playing dead somewhere in the ditch. A few minutes or an eternity later a truck sputtered into gear and drove off the way we’d come. The night settled back into silence.
We grabbed our bikes and continued racing through Kudi, instantly unrepentant. Fear exhausted itself into euphoria, a sense of irrational hope. The man with the flashlight surely saw us, pathetic and full of prayers in the ditch and against the wall, a couple of dogs with our heads tucked under the couch, believing our whole bodies hidden. At the very least he must have spotted our bikes overturned in the ditch, their wheels spinning uselessly. Why he decided to move on was a mystery we didn’t question, in part because we were too winded to talk.
But even as Mel and I pedalled hard toward the Tibetan Plateau, I noted the bomb-like ticking of excess reflector duct tape against the front fork of my bike. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick, the sound went, a gentle yet ominous stutter. I should trim that, I thought to myself. That’s when a second checkpoint, the real checkpoint, loomed from the darkness like a bad dream. This time the guardrail was lowered, thigh-high, and secured with chains. Lighted concrete buildings edged the checkpoint on both sides, though we couldn’t see anyone in them.
“Um . . .” I stopped pedalling, letting my bike coast and slow.
“Yeah . . . ,” Mel acknowledged, but her voice came from somewhere ahead of me.
I hesitated for a beat and started pedalling again. If Mel wasn’t about to back down, neither was I. “Throw your heart over the fence,” our Pony Club instructors had always urged us, “and the rest of you will follow. Hopefully the horse and saddle too,” they’d add with a grin. The only way to test the truth of a border is to ride hard toward it and leap—or, if circumstances demand it, crawl. Exposed in the pale light leaking from the checkpoint buildings, Mel and I glanced at each other one last time. Then we scuttled on hands and knees beneath the guardrail, dragged our loaded bikes after us, and pedalled as fast as we could into forbidden territory.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
ANNIE DILLARD, THE WRITING LIFE
Marco Made Me Do It
Maybe all meaningful journeys begin with a mistake. Some kind of transgression or false turn or flawed idea that sets a certain irresistible odyssey in motion. Growing up in small-town Ontario, where the tallest summit was a haystack and the widest horizon a field of corn, my blunder seemed obvious, though it wasn’t exactly my fault: I was born centuries too late for the life I was meant to live.
Restlessness runs in my family, though with my parents it mostly found expression in real estate. For the first decade of my life we lived in Oakville, a suburb not far from Toronto. But after spending their own childhoods mucking horse stalls and tending vegetable gardens, my engineer father and artist mother wanted the same rustic upbringing for my younger brothers and me, so when I was ten we moved to a few acres of cedar forest and swamp north of Ballinafad. This no-stoplight hamlet is a quaint tourist trap today, with the general store dealing in embroidered saddle pads and overpriced potpourri, but when I was a kid it was the kind of place even the school bus sped through to get somewhere else. When I was fourteen we moved again, this time southeast of Ballinafad, to a horse farm with seventy acres of woods and pastures, two spring-fed ponds, a barn full of empty boxes and shafts of dusty light, a log cabin so tiny I could almost touch any two walls at once, and a crumbling structure that once served as a sheep shed—but no house.
Somehow three restless kids, two patient adults, a barely house-trained Labrador puppy, and an indoors-only Abyssinian cat with an escapist streak crammed into a twelve-foot trailer for our first six months there, which was long enough to renovate the rundown sheep shed into a human dwelling of sorts. I say “of sorts” because it had a composting toilet instead of a septic system, a mouse once hitched a ride to school in my brother’s backpack, and a snake slithered over my feet one spring when I was doing homework—details that mildly embarrassed my parents but delighted me, for they only enhanced the adventure of living there. “Race you to the sheep shed,” I’d challenge my brothers as we spilled from the station wagon after a grocery run to town. “The cottage,” my mom would correct me, insistent that the truth of a thing lay in its spirit, not the letter of its original design, but I was already off and running.
Compared to the trailer, the renovated sheep shed felt palatial at nine hundred square feet. I didn’t even mind sharing a bedroom for a few years with my brothers. In our previous home, where I’d had my own room, I would always hear Dave and James chatting and laughing through the wall, cracking jokes or doing impersonations of teachers we shared over the years, like Mrs. Dingwall, whose madcap name contrasted beautifully with her elegant British accent, or Miss Pillon, a physics teacher who threw chalk around the classroom to demonstrate the weak force of gravity, thereby establishing for her students a lifelong association between theoretical science and the instinct to duck. In the morning our parents would find me cocooned in a duvet on my brothers’ floor, unwilling to miss the fun for the sake of a soft mattress.
With few kids our age nearby, the three of us had to entertain each other. So we’d putter down to the pond on the lawn tractor, hauling sand in the trailer to build a beach, until Dave backed a little too close to the edge and the heavy load dragged the lawn tractor into the water. Or we’d pull backflips for hours on our trampoline, pretending we were on smaller planets, Pluto or Mars, whose gravities didn’t weigh us down as much. Then one winter James tried to clear the trampoline of ice for some off-season practice and accidentally hacked through it with a pickaxe. We still jumped on it for years, expertly avoiding the hole, until a visiting friend ripped through it and put an end to our experiments in soaring. After our grandmother informed us that we were related to William Clark, of Lewis and Clark, we set off on rusty bikes to pioneer a new route to the Pacific, stopping to resupply our expedition rations of red licorice at the Ballinafad general store.
But whatever direction we roamed, my brothers and I would inevitably hit a wall. Sometimes it would be a fence, which we could scramble over, but more often a highway or cookie-cutter housing complex, paved and implacable, would stop us dead. The older I got, the more our neighbourhood began to feel quaint and delimited, more rustic than rugged. Dave and James, three and five years younger than me, didn’t seem too bothered by this. They were just as happy indoors, where they would construct model Star Trek spaceships or compose songs on the synthesizer my dad built. But the tamer my surroundings, the more I began to crave the antithesis: deserts and polar tundra, mountains and glaciers. The windswept margins and the steepest verges. The kind of wildness that could wipe me out if I wasn’t equal parts bold and careful. In southwestern Ontario, I mostly found it in books.
My literary tastes, like my imaginative life, tended to the alien and extreme. Between homework and mucking horse stalls, on the school bus and at the dinner table—until my parents threatened to withhold dessert if I didn’t put the book down—I wandered the Empty Quarter with the Bedu, searched Cape Royds for a penguin’s egg, slogged east to west across Greenland on wooden skis, snapped photos of the dark side of the moon, answered the call of the wild in the Yukon, and trespassed across the Tibetan Plateau disguised as a Buddhist pilgrim. “I have a homesickness for a country that isn’t mine,” Alexandra David-Néel wrote about her stealth journey across Tibet, a country even more restricted to foreigners in 1924 than it is now. “The steppes, the solitude, the eternal snows and big skies up there haunt me.”
David-Néel’s book about that expedition, My Journey to Lhasa, was the closest I’d found to a portrait of the explorer as a young woman. Never mind that she was fifty-five when she donned her sheepskin cloak and trespassed boldly into Tibet (accompanied by her adopted Tibetan son, Yongden); age was less relevant to me than motivation. David-Néel wasn’t trying to “find herself” through travel. Nor was she jolted from a routine, domestic existence by some kind of emotional crisis, as though only grief or loss or a search for love could justify a woman seeking risk and adventure on the open road. Refreshingly, David-Néel knew herself just fine, and what she was searching for, if anything, was an outer world as wild as she felt within. She didn’t even have the luxury of a blank literary or geographic slate when it came to Tibet: dozens of Europeans had already been there, from diplomats to missionaries to soldiers. They’d drawn maps, written reports, even owned real estate in Lhasa. That none of this deterred the Frenchwoman was deeply consoling to me, a hint that exploration was possible despite precedent, that even artificial borders were by definition frontiers, and therefore worth breaching as a matter of principle. What propelled David-Néel onto the plateau was her wide-cast sense of wonder, exuberant wiliness, and fondness for travelling under the stars by night—in part to avoid being caught by day. In her era, Tibetan officials, not Chinese police, were the authorities to evade.
Tibet first cast a spell on me at an even younger age, maybe ten or eleven, when I found an illustrated, abridged edition of Marco Polo’s travels on the Silk Road, the ancient caravan route that for thousands of years ferried people, goods, creeds, and ideas between Europe and Asia. The book had been my mother’s as a child, and I loved seeing her maiden name elegantly inscribed on the inside cover, as if endorsing the adventures contained within. Its pages showed the seventeen-year-old Polo roaming far-flung lands with a camel caravan in tow, gazing at horizons that melted into fantastic mirages—turquoise-tiled domes and shifting deserts, labyrinthine bazaars and ice-mazed mountains. Polo looked bold and rugged and every bit the intrepid explorer. I decided to be just like him when I grew up.
Meanwhile I plotted his travels across the pages of an atlas, tracing the Silk Road, which actually consists of many roads, as it laced and frayed past Constantinople, Trabzon, Erzurum, Bukhara, Samarkand, Badakhshan, Kashgar, Khotan, Cathay, each name an invitation to elsewhere. But even more compelling, then and still, were the hinterlands between those trading hubs. Not only the Tibetan Plateau, that upheaval of rock and ice and sky, but also the Pamir Mountains, where herds of sheep with improbably huge horns dodged avalanches and snow leopards with an elegance close to flight. And the Taklamakan, a shifting sands desert dwarfed only by the Gobi and Sahara whose name, according to legend if not literal translation, means “he who goes in never comes out.”
I would’ve gladly gone where none had before, with no promise of return, for even a whiff of insight into the basic perplexities of existence: Where did we come from and are we alone in the cosmos and what exactly—or even generally—does it all mean? Places like the Tibetan Plateau or the Taklamakan Desert seemed to promise not answers, exactly, but a way of life equal to the wildness of existing at all. Even more compelling than far-flung mountains and deserts were the stars above and beyond them, distant suns lighting who knows what other worlds. Only I couldn’t imagine how to reach them: the Voyager I and II spacecraft were long gone by the time I was born.
Launched by NASA in 1977 to study the most distant planets in the solar system and then cruise forever into interstellar space, the Voyager probes were the farthest human-made objects in the universe when I learned about them in my eighth-grade science class. I got chills thinking about those robotic emissaries speeding out past the heliopause—the outermost boundary of our solar system—into the largest possible story of what is. What would they see out there? Who would they meet? How could we stand to never know, given the difficulties of data transmission across galaxies?
I would’ve jumped at the chance to hitch a ride on either of the Voyagers, their lack of life support systems notwithstanding. Of course I would ache for family and friends, setting off for some faraway place with no escape route or ticket home. I’d miss my books and my brothers and even the sheep shed. But it was the truth I was after, the deepest wonder, nothing less. “The the,” wrote Wallace Stevens in a poem I read years later. I was grateful someone had finally managed to articulate it.
The word desire, at its root, means “of the stars,” which seemed self-evident by the time I reached high school. After studying all the atlases I could find, I’d concluded with a sense of panic that I was wilder than the world in all directions. My neighbourhood wasn’t the only place circumscribed by an expanding network of highways and subdivisions; most of the planet was similarly under siege. My family couldn’t afford to travel abroad, and I worried that by the time I’d saved enough money to see Tibet for myself, it would be as tame as Ballinafad. There seemed few outlets left for the restlessness that ached inside me, this mad longing for a world without maps. My only hope, I realized eventually, was to leave the Earth behind. So I wrote a letter urging a human mission to Mars and mailed it to twenty-two world leaders.
“I am a seventeen-year-old girl who has a dream,” I declared to Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Jean Chrétien, Jacques Chirac, and other influential heads of state in 1999. “That dream is for humanity to go to Mars.”
Why the red planet, given the plurality of possible worlds? Because human physiology is as fussy as Goldilocks, and most planets are too hot, too cold, too big, or too gaseous to be habitable. Mars, if not just right because of its poisonous, fatally thin atmosphere, is otherwise fairly close: a world roughly the consistency and size of our own, only with a day that lasts longer by twenty-nine minutes due to its slower planetary spin, and a weaker gravitational pull due to its smaller mass. The gift of time, a lighter step—what wasn’t there to love? With gorges five times deeper than the Grand Canyon, deserts many times drier than the Taklamakan, and a mountain triple the height of Everest, Mars is a world of geological superlatives—and exploratory firsts waiting to happen. And while the red planet might lack little green men, little green microbes are a genuine possibility, given that single-celled organisms can survive similarly cold, dry conditions on Earth. Mars is also pocked and scarred with features that hint at a warmer, wetter past, when conditions might’ve been more clement for life as we know it. That neighbouring world, in short, could well supply an answer to the age-old inquiry “Are we alone?”
In my manifesto, I rhapsodized to world leaders about how the urge to explore the unknown is ingrained in the human spirit. I reasoned that we had all the technology we needed to send humans to Mars, and all we lacked now was political will. I explained that the knowledge we could potentially gain there, such as proof of alien life, could have immeasurable benefits for people on Earth, such as making us feel less lonesome. I stressed that such a journey would ignite the passions of the world’s youth. “It is the inquiring minds of bold dreamers and explorers such as Magellan and Copernicus that help to extend the boundaries of knowledge, enabling the human race to understand more, to see further,” I wrote, noting that a human mission to Mars was the modern equivalent to these historic voyages—and an enterprise worthy of association with their good names.
In reply I received a few desultory form letters. But if my missive didn’t launch a new era of interplanetary exploration, it did win me the Hakluyt Prize, given by the Mars Society for the best student letter advocating the human exploration and settlement of Mars. My reward was an eight-inch Bushnell telescope through which, late one night on the lawn outside the sheep shed, my father helped me spot the rings of Saturn for the first time. I also won an all-expenses-paid trip to the International Mars Society Convention.
Most teenagers long for another world, but as far as I could tell in Ballinafad, I alone pined specifically for Mars. The convention, held that year in Boulder, Colorado, upended this feeling of isolation. I stood on a podium and shyly read my manifesto to an auditorium full of scientists, engineers, and other anachronistic explorer types who’d perhaps found themselves stranded, like me, on a depressingly fenced-in, paved-over planet. Academy Award–winning filmmaker James Cameron was among them, and Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. They gave me a standing ovation, just a sweet gesture of encouragement to a kid, but in that moment of being heard, I felt unlimited. These were my people, I exulted. Here was my tribe. I vowed to become a scientist and go to Mars.
Science had long been my favourite subject at school, and not just because of the red planet. Science fair projects were a grand excuse for several weekend sleepovers in a row with my best friend, Melissa, who lived nearly an hour away. Other than at Pony Club, which only met in the summer, I rarely got to see her outside of school. In the sixth grade the two of us tested whether human saliva was more bacterially diverse (read “disgusting”) than dog drool—an experiment that began as a ploy to embarrass our younger brothers, whom we duped into donating spit. We won a medal at the science fair, though not without a few raised eyebrows from the judges, and I marvel that I ever thought I had a future in microbiology.
Blame the microscope I got for Christmas when I was about thirteen. This gift from my parents was less a scientific instrument, I quickly realized, than a way of seeing everything as if for the first time. Ordinary, everyday things—the cuticle of my thumb, a drop of pond scum—looked alien upon closer scrutiny, with unmapped mountain ranges and nameless oceans swarming with life. My stomach would flip as I stared into the distances of a single-celled alga, whose long Latin name and twitchy, see-through form seemed proof that life was just as I’d suspected it all along: a mystery we can barely pronounce, never mind keep entirely in focus. In high school a few years later, Darwinian evolution put a whole new spin on existence for me, as though I’d been staring at a portrait of biology for years upon years, studying its eyes, ears, and nose, mapping the pores and wrinkles of its face, and in a flash suddenly grasped its expression. Learning about Darwin’s seven-year voyage on the Beagle—in which he sailed around South America, collected strange life forms, and began formulating the theory of evolution by natural selection—taught me another valuable lesson about science: you can hitch a ride on it to some truly far-out places. So when the Morehead-Cain Foundation offered me a full scholarship to study biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I accepted it over the phone without hesitation, despite never having seen the campus and knowing nothing of the American South. The scholarship came with summer travel grants, and that was all I needed to know. I was desperate to see the Tibetan Plateau or the Taklamakan Desert in more than pixels or words on a page.
Even before the travel grants kicked in, the scholarship paid for sturdy hiking boots and a twenty-eight-day Outward Bound course in Utah the summer before my freshman year. Until then I’d only car-camped on family vacations to Ontario provincial parks, and despite my voracious reading and Ballinafad-based adventures, serious expedition travel seemed daunting to me, requiring technical skills and equipment I didn’t have. Utah was a revelation: I learned how to slog up mountains and across deserts, carrying a fifty-pound backpack crammed with all I needed to survive—mainly oatmeal, a tarp and a sleeping bag, and a secret stash of books. I learned how to read where desert springs might be found in the contours of maps, and failing that, how to salvage drinking water from rain puddles afloat with dead frogs. I absorbed so much red dust into my pores that I began to resemble the red planet. On a daily basis the rough-hewn wonder of that place and experience brought me to my knees, in every possible sense. It was torture. It was sublime. It was basically everything I’d ever wanted.
I spent my next four summers slogging across similar immensities of stone and sky, toting along my weight in books. I stretched those scholarship travel grants as far as they would go, which, as it turned out, was pretty much anywhere short of Mars. Though funding wasn’t guaranteed even to scholarship students, if I mustered a good enough reason for exploring a place, and justified my reasons for going in a written proposal, I could practically issue my own ticket. And so I stalked Sumatran rhinos in the jungles of Borneo, tracked wild horses through the Gobi desert in Mongolia, and skied across the Juneau Icefield for a glaciology field course, which I enrolled in never having seen a glacier and finished wanting to see little else. That cold spill of ice, rock, and sky bordering Alaska and British Columbia sent me skidding with its splendour, or maybe that was my lack of skill on skis. Either way, my preferred method of procrastination back at university became Googling for cabins for sale in Atlin, the remote BC town in which the glaciology course finished. I also became obsessed with Antarctica, a continent I envisioned as the Juneau Icefield on steroids—but travelling there would cost far more than a scholarship grant could cover.
This was when I realized I could still issue my own ticket if I pitched the right idea to the right people at the right time, in language so compelling and persuasive they couldn’t possibly say no. And so I turned to writing during university less out of a love for words (though there was certainly that) than for where they might launch me, such as the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, where I went as a research assistant to a brilliant, generous scientist I politely lobbied for years. With a similar level of dedication, study, training, sacrifice, and more lobbying in the form of a written application, I also managed to launch myself to Mars—or at least to Hanksville, back in Utah, a place nearly as red and remote from human concerns. Once the desert hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, who shook off law enforcers in a maze of red canyons, Hanksville now hosts crews of spacesuit-clad scientists and engineers on two-week simulated Mars missions. Picture ATV tracks, clumps of sagebrush, and a white space capsule gleaming cinematically before a world gone to rust.
For a while it was fun, a grown-up game of make-believe. Yet as four crewmates and I trundled around Utah in canvas spacesuits, I found myself disconcerted by the fact that when I gazed at a mountain, I saw a veneer of Plexiglas. When I reached out to touch canyon walls the colour of embers, I felt the synthetic fabric of my glove instead of the smooth, sun-warmed sandstone. As all kinds of weather howled outside my spacesuit, I heard either radio static or my percussive panting amplified in the plastic helmet, like I was breathing down my own neck. The very technologies that would sustain me on Mars made me feel at a deep remove from the place, my interactions with it neutered and sterile and more than slightly absurd.
“Okay, crew,” ordered Commander Roger, a fifty-something engineer. “Fan out and find us some fresh rations!”
Having run out of food on the red planet, we patrolled the aisles of the local grocery store, wearing spacesuits to avoid fully “breaking sim,” the worst misdemeanour aspiring Martian colonists could commit. I headed for the vegetable aisle with Tiffany, a molecular biologist, while another engineer named Allan and a geologist named Shahar hustled toward freezers of hamburger meat. When I glanced over at Gernot, an astronomer, he was frozen in front of the beef jerky stand, his helmet fogging over the flavours he couldn’t find in his native Austria: honey-glazed, salt-and-pepper, teriyaki, chipotle, mesquite barbecue.
“Move along, Gernot,” scolded Roger. “I said fresh.”
After half an hour we regrouped at the checkout counter, our arms spilling with terrestrial bounty. The middle-aged cashier had seen our ilk before. “How’s space camp treating you?” Roger visibly bristled inside his slightly too-tight canvas spacesuit. “It’s not space camp,” he shouted through his helmet. “It’s a Mars simulation!”
“Easy, buddy,” soothed Allan, patting Roger on the back. Gernot, seeing his chance, slipped two bags of beef jerky onto the checkout counter. Tiffany flipped through a celebrity tabloid and pretended not to know us, as if she were just another tourist dressed like Sally Ride. An older lady shuffled into the store, saw us, and hastily shuffled back out.
“So,” the cashier said as she bagged the last of our rations, “I assume NASA will want a receipt for this?”
Maybe my own motives weren’t so different after all from Cassidy’s Wild Bunch: to escape a given reality, to flee to less mapped and lawful territories, to go rogue. Strangely, my crewmates didn’t seem to miss anything on Mars, not the lack of fresh air or birdsong, not the freedom to dictate our own days. Then again, the ideal Martian colonist doesn’t complain. In fact, the ideal Martian colonist must possess a deeply paradoxical blend of personality traits: They should be emotionally astute and empathetic in order to thrive in a small social group under stressful conditions, yet detached enough from life on Earth to leave it behind forever. They must be sufficiently daring and rebellious to edge into realms no one has risked before, but not so independent or dismissive of authority that they don’t obey orders once they get there. A gregarious recluse, in other words, a compliant adventurer. I used to think I was the perfect candidate.
But after two weeks of following orders, speaking in acronyms, and inhaling recycled air, I’d had my fill of living in a bubble, even the red-tinted variety. I never admitted it to the rest of the crew, but I was homesick for my native planet. So on the final night of the simulation, when everyone was asleep, I slipped out of the airlock without donning my plastic helmet or canvas spacesuit, without confirming my plans with Mission Control, without a radio to report back on my every sneeze. Crossing the equivalent threshold on Mars, I would’ve died in so many ways at once: poisoned, flash-frozen, depressurized. But here the Earth simply announced itself with a gust of wind spiked with sage, beneath a night sky tacked up with stars.
The first sign of doubt is a renewed fanaticism. Back at university I studied harder than ever in hopes of becoming an astronaut, despite questioning, deep down, whether I wanted to permanently emigrate to Mars if it meant a lifetime of containment. I spent my spare time presiding over a space club and volunteering in a marine microbiology lab, where my job was to tease long, invisible threads of DNA from the basaltic crust of the Pacific Ocean. Though I didn’t have the opportunity to retrieve those sea-floor samples in a submarine, the lab was located in a windowless basement, which offered a similar experience of sensory deprivation only without any of the adventure. Whenever I walked outside, pale and blinking, I felt as if I’d been submerged for months. Books kept me going like bubbles of oxygen. One afternoon, shielding my face against the sun after the dim fluorescent flicker of the lab, I settled onto the grass on campus with my old friend Marco Polo, hoping to let my eyes re-adjust to wider horizons with the help of a childhood hero—this time in his full, unabridged glory.
But as I read The Description of the World, I was shocked to encounter a stranger in the Venetian explorer, someone who didn’t relish slogging across lands that left me dizzy with longing. Instead, this Polo skirted the Taklamakan’s wandering dunes as widely as possible, meekly plugging his ears against the spirit voices he feared would lure him into the trackless sands. He may never have seen a big-horned sheep alive in the Pamir, just their horns carved into bowls or stacked as fences, though this species, Ovis ammon polii, was eventually named after him: the Marco Polo sheep. And when he visited the Tibetan Plateau, he dismissed it as a blighted wasteland. “You ride for twenty days without finding any inhabited spot,” he complained, “so that travellers are obliged to carry all their provisions with them, and are constantly falling in with those wild beasts which are so numerous and so dangerous.” Again and again the so-called explorer dashed around mountains and deserts as quickly as possible, cursing wilderness as a mere obstacle to swift progress and profit.
I couldn’t exactly blame him, for the Silk Road was a thirteenth-century superhighway for trade, after all, and Polo a merchant. After following his businessmen uncles to Cathay, where Kublai Khan took a shining to the Venetian teenager, Polo was tasked with assessing the value and variety of goods throughout the Mongolian empire, which at the time spanned Asia to the edge of Europe. Polo took this duty seriously, and as a result his travelogue reads more like a catalogue. The book details the precious commodities available along the Silk Road: silver in Armenia, rubies in Badakhshan, black magic charms in Kashgar, ivory in India. With regard to lands less obviously exploitable, such as Tibet, the text is far terser.
I was gutted. Like so many explorers falsely portrayed as noble trailblazers in my high school history textbooks—from Christopher Columbus to Sir John Franklin—Polo turned out to care mostly about fortune and fame. Did no one but Alexandra David-Néel set off for the pure sake of setting off, propelled by a basic need to see around the bend, without the ulterior motives of wealth and conquest? Sitting in the quad, feeling bereaved, I resolved to see the Silk Road for myself, on a pilgrimage to the precise wildernesses Marco Polo most feared and shirked. I briefly considered travelling on horseback, but the lack of water in the Taklamakan was concerning. Camels were better suited to such arid environments, but the terrain would be bumpy enough as it was. A bicycle struck me as the perfect substitute: self-propelled and unlikely to spit.
That night I called my parents and outlined my preposterous plan. There was a long silence on the line. Then my mother said, “Please go with a friend?”
So I asked Mel if she wanted to join me on a bike ride. Just the Chinese section of the Silk Road for starters, I reassured her; it boasted the greatest concentration of places Polo most dreaded. After a warm-up trip across the continental United States that summer, we graduated from university the following year and hit the Silk Road. And that’s how we found ourselves dodging landslides in the Pamir Mountains, gritting teeth through sandstorms in the Taklamakan Desert, and slinking toward Tibet while the stars looked the other way.
Roof of the World
Salvaging the art of exploration, however, wasn’t so simple. When Mel crawled beneath the checkpoint guardrail in China, she prudently left ample clearance between her back and the metal rod. In my haste and terror, I didn’t scurry quite low enough. I’m not sure whether my backpack or my helmet snagged against the metal guardrail, rattling the chains that secured it, but either way I might as well have sounded a gong. Dogs barked, lights blazed, a voice shouted into the night—but we were already gone, racing into a tar-like darkness. We were mired in it, we couldn’t pedal fast enough, we couldn’t see anything but stars. I nearly lost control of my bike when I rode blindly into a pothole, and soon after a pylon. At the first hint of pursuing headlights I was ready to abandon my bike and flee up a mountain or into the river. But after minutes, and then hours, none appeared.
I felt the relief first in my fingers, unclenching from the handlebars, and next in my legs, which turned to slush. Technically the TAR was more than a hundred miles and several high passes away, but Kudi was the biggest bureaucratic hurdle on the way there. Because the checkpoint was in a narrow valley next to a roiling river, the Chinese authorities tended to assume people couldn’t sneak around it, which meant Mel and I could breathe a little easier on this side: if anyone saw us they’d assume we had permission to be there. Unless they happened to be police from the checkpoint, chasing us down.
Eventually dawn lit the land around us, revealing mountains as rough as gnawed-down fingernails. The ragged peaks stretched on as far as I could see, a fury of forms. Rock turned to rust in the low-angled light and faded to umber and grey as the sun rose higher. A flock of dusty birds I couldn’t name swooped above the river, whose turbid surge was distilled at this higher altitude to a clear stream, its water no longer the colour and texture of chocolate milk. I felt thin and insubstantial as a shadow, but the day had barely begun. Around every bend in the road I braced myself for a police convoy, a glimpse of the plateau, a woolly mammoth. Nothing would’ve surprised me, for the world seemed less unknown than unknowable, wavering around me like a half-formed thought. Then I realized I was dizzy with thirst.
I reached down for my water bottles, but the first was empty and I couldn’t find the second—probably lost in the turmoil at the checkpoint. I told Mel to continue on while I stopped to fill my bottle in a roadside stream. Because of the steady drawl of the water I didn’t hear the car pull over. I turned around and there it was, puttering with menace, some sort of government emblem on the door. When a chubby Chinese man in a crisp navy blue uniform got out I knew it was over, for the third time that morning.
Without saying a word, the Chinese cop kicked my bike’s tires and tried to lift its frame. The heavy bike hardly budged. Shaking his head, he returned to the car and fumbled in the trunk. For an arrest warrant, I was sure, possibly handcuffs. Instead he returned with three crisp cucumbers.
“Hello!” he grunted as he handed me the vegetables.
“Oh,” I said, stunned. “Thank you!”
Without another word he got into the vehicle and drove off.
I caught up with Mel, who had been oblivious to my plight, and gave her a cucumber. She looked surprised, but a cyclist is never one to turn down a snack. We continued biking, munching as we pedalled, and by midday reached the bottom of a ten thousand–foot pass, the first step on the hypoxic staircase of passes climbing onto and across the Tibetan Plateau, where the average ground elevation is nearly as high as Mont Blanc. Lacking the energy and nerves to tackle the pass that day, we found a gully deep and wide enough to camp in and lounged there all afternoon, trying to ignore the imminent prospect of discovery by the Chinese police. Cucumber Cop had probably told his colleagues there was no need to rush, convinced we couldn’t get far on such heavy bikes.
Instead, that afternoon, we were discovered by our new friends. I’d met Ben the previous summer at a hostel in San Francisco. After learning he was a bike mechanic, I casually invited him to join Mel and me on a cycling trip in China the following summer, and to our surprise, he did. We’d met Florian and Mattias, two German cyclists, in a hotel in Kashgar, and we’d biked as a peloton until a few days earlier, when Mel and I hit the road early and took an impromptu nap in the shade. We assumed the boys would catch up, see us dozing on the side of the road, and serve as our alarm clock. Instead, we woke at dusk not knowing if they were ahead or behind.
After the checkpoint, we never expected to see them again. In fact, they’d almost ridden past our hiding spot when Ben spotted a curl of Mel’s red hair among the rocks. Confusing the ruddy flash for a camel, he stopped for a closer look and found us instead. Once we were reunited, Mel and I told them about our crossing—the truck driver! The shouts! The blind and desperate breakaway! Then we listened to their version.
“We scoped out the checkpoint from a distance during the day,” said Ben. “Like you, we’d planned to go through at night, but then we saw these rabid-looking guard dogs!”
“Me, I don’t like dogs,” declared Mattias, a thick Bavarian accent making his every pronouncement sound profound.
“So in broad daylight we biked right up to the checkpoint—” said Ben.
“Showed our passports to the guards—” added Florian.
“And they waved us across,” finished Ben with a smirk. “No questions asked.”
The higher we climbed onto the Tibetan Plateau, the better I could breathe. I felt a strange lightness in my legs, an elation of sorts. Each revolution of the pedals took me closer to the stars than I’d ever propelled myself, not that I could see them by day, when the sky was blue and changeless but for a late-morning drift of clouds. The shadows they cast dappled the slopes of mountains like the bottom of a clear stream, so that climbing the pass felt like swimming up toward the surface of something, a threshold or change of state. Earth to sky, China to Tibet.
My tires scrabbled for traction on the loose knuckles of gravel paving National Highway 219, the only road leading into and across western Tibet. After just two switchbacks we were high above our last camp, and I could see Ben and the Germans milling around below, dawdling as usual. Mel and I preferred waking and biking early, when the land came alive in the slanted light of morning and it seemed we had time enough to get anywhere by nightfall, Lhasa or the moon. Florian, Mattias, and Ben preferred to sleep late, boil enormous pots of sweet milky rice for breakfast, and amble onto the road at midday. We usually crossed paths again in the late afternoon, when they either caught up with us or found our camp.
Mel and I biked up the pass side by side, barely speaking, sent into parallel solitudes by the effort of the climb. I’m not sure where I go when I spin wheels for hours on end like that, except into the rapture of doing nothing deeply—although “nothing,” in this case, involves a tantrum of pedal strokes on a burdened bicycle along a euphemism for a highway through the Himalaya. But in the singular focus of that task, the almost tantric simplicity of it—breathe, pedal, breathe—I took in everything at once: the dust settling on my skin, the ache and strain and release of my quads, the river glittering far below like an artery of light, a shining silver vein, surely not the same sludge-like flow we’d camped next to a few days ago. Ride far enough and the world becomes strange and unknown to you. Ride a little farther and you become strange and unknown to yourself, not to mention your travelling companion.
“Nice face mask, bud,” Mel managed between pedal strokes. “Wearing enough sunscreen?”
I grinned through a thick mask of sweat and grit and sunscreen, which I never rubbed in upon application, convinced it worked better as an opaque, unabsorbed gloss.
“You’re one to talk!” I told Mel. “Your hair is growing its own hump.”
I can’t remember exactly how we became friends, but I believe it had something to do with volleyball. When my family moved north of Ballinafad, at the age of ten, I was the bookish new kid in a school where Mel was universally adored for her unconstellated freckles and the red hair she hated, for her sidelong sense of humour and winning habit of throwing her head back when she laughed. We had little in common until gym class, where the two of us were among the few kids who dove to stop every spike, no matter how futile the reach, how unforgiving the floor tiles. Our team went on to lose every match for the next three years of elementary school—not just every game, but every set. I didn’t mind, and neither did Mel. The point of life, by our mutual measure, was to give it all we had. The only way we knew how to go was too far.
Hence Tibet. An hour into the climb the sun glared directly above us in the narrow gap of sky not shuttered by mountains, so we stopped to reapply sunscreen. I smeared more on my face and Mel daubed some on her lower back, not so much to block it from UV radiation, for it was already shielded by her shirt, but to moisturize her skin, which was flaking away in bright red bits. The day before sneaking across the checkpoint, while bending over to sort and pack gear, Mel’s T-shirt had slipped up and exposed her lower back to the high-altitude glare, which fried the skin a few shades angrier than scarlet. She didn’t complain—Mel rarely did except to exalt her suffering in satire, a form of stoicism I admired and occasionally found insufferable—but I could tell she’d been riding stiffly to avoid twisting her seared torso. No easy task on a road paved in potholes.
After moisturizing, Mel sighed in the quietly determined way that meant she was ready to get back on the road. I wasn’t. “Do you hear that? Is it a bird? Or maybe the boys?” I ventured, hoping to distract her into resting a little longer. A large part of why I love biking is how blissful it is to stop. “Hey, are you hungry?”
Of course she was; we always were. Though we’d packed all the basic provisions we’d need for the next month, from oatmeal to instant noodles, our appetites far exceeded the carrying capacity of our panniers. The day before, we’d even contemplated eating the goat handed to Florian by a passing Chinese motorcyclist, who probably thought we all looked undernourished. Cradling the bendy creature in his arms, Florian, a gentle mathematician incapable of slaying more than differential equations, had gazed at the rest of us questioningly. Mattias licked his chapped lips. Ben nodded in a kind of drooling trance. The goat, in a shrewd move, levelled its sweet cudgel face and Elvis Presley bangs at Mel and mewled adorably.
“That’s it, boys, give him back!” she said in a way that hinted she’d eat Ben and Mattias before allowing the goat to come to harm. A vegetarian who melted for anything four-legged and fuzzy, Mel had recently squandered half an hour of precious videotape filming baby goats frolicking at a gas station. Florian looked visibly relieved at Mel’s suggestion and carefully handed the goat back to the Chinese motorcyclist, who stuffed it in a burlap saddlebag and rode away. So now we sat on the shoulder of Highway 219 and ate stale cookies instead.
“Typical,” Mel muttered after taking a bite.
“Not a single chocolate chip.”
Mel was frowning at her half-eaten cookie, whose glossy packaging had promised a dense cosmos of chocolate chips. I’d scarfed my own cookies so fast I’d barely noticed the lack. This wasn’t the first time we’d been duped by misleading advertisements in China. In the two months we’d biked through Xinjiang before steering for Tibet, Mel and I had purchased popsicles that claimed to be strawberry, watermelon, fruit punch, and chocolate in flavour, only to discover they all contained, without exception, the same tasteless puck of brown ice flecked with red beans. Beans! Who puts legumes in popsicles? And why on earth did we keep buying them?
Perhaps out of the same reckless optimism that saw us sneak illegally into a land almost as oxygen-starved as Mars. Or the stubborn faith of pilgrims who repeat the same mantra, convinced it will eventually take them to a different place. Back on the bike, I pretended that the wheels didn’t travel the world’s surface so much as unspool it, and if I stopped pedalling for even a second it would all fade away. The mineral glitter of the mountains and the cloud-shot indigo sky and this road like a parade of detours was all a dream sustained only in motion.
Three hours and as many false summits later, I knew we’d reached the top when Mel, ahead on the road, threw her bike down and started turning cartwheels. I was so light-headed and giddy I seemed to be cartwheeling while standing still. It was one of those rare moments in life when you measurably accelerate into a new version of yourself, become who you are by leaps and bounds. That I’d pedalled to an altitude I’d only previously visited in airplanes, and that I could still breathe, was a revelation, like discovering an extra lung or the ability to see in ultraviolet. I’d always hoped we’d make it to the Tibetan Plateau, still technically a few passes away, each higher than the last, but now, for the first time, I believed it.
Mel and I celebrated over hot chocolate as we waited for Ben, Mattias, and Florian to catch up. The drink was a product of China, meaning its cocoa content was limited to the design on the packaging, but context alone provided ample flavour: anything tastes delicious when you’re high in the Himalaya with your best friend, utterly wiped but eager for more—more wending road, rough peaks, deep and indivisible sky. More of anything that goes on and on.
The descent rather achingly met that definition. As we sped down the pass, every little bump and divot and pebble on the road blurred together into a pavement of pure concussion. Such is the price you pay to reach forbidden Tibet: pain in the legs, in the butt, and in the brain, which can’t conceive a coherent thought because all it knows is the jackhammer jolting of the body and bike to which it is connected. I’d known that climbing the pass would be tough, but I’d never guessed that coasting down it would be tougher. By the time we pitched the tent in the glacial rubble of a valley I had a throbbing headache. Bolts of pain arched between my brows. I collapsed in my sleeping bag, sure I couldn’t go on.
Yet the next day I woke up eager to meet the oncoming rush of road. Maybe it was the resuscitating power of instant oatmeal mixed with peanut butter. Maybe it was the Nescafé 3 in 1 with which Mel and I washed down that glutinous mash. Either way, I set off each morning feeling strangely convinced that I was on the verge of some grand discovery, despite travelling a bygone trading route on the world’s most populous continent. This was hardly terra incognita, but it sure felt that way, especially when Mel and I biked up a seventeen thousand–foot pass a week later, the highest and least oxygenated stretch of our Silk Road yet, and barely came down on the far side.
Suddenly the land was spread wide as wings, sloping here and there into mountains. No trees, no greenery, no colour anywhere, really, except for turquoise salt lakes glimmering in the distance like puddles of sky. The horizon was more hesitation than a hard edge, and every so often it spat out a dust tornado that would skim across the road in eerie silence just a few metres ahead of us, the flue curved into a question mark missing its point. Where on this spinning world was I?
A place where mountaineers find fossil seashells on summits, where the flattest plains are higher than the tallest peaks in the contiguous United States, where the wind carries the tang of salt and every horizon has a distinctly oceanic fetch. Welcome to the Tibetan Plateau, the loftiest sweep of land on the planet, a kind of perfect compromise between heaven and earth.
Mel and I happened to visit the plateau during a lull in its anguished modern history. It was the summer of 2006, a few years before the violent crackdowns against Tibetans in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, before the forced resettlement of nomads into bleak subdivisions, before self-immolations by monks and nuns became regular news. The Chinese authorities simply couldn’t be bothered with a bunch of wild-haired cyclists, though Mel and I knew this could change at any moment, which is why we were spooked when a military truck roared up behind us and dispatched a pair of soldiers.
The men wore tinted sunglasses, black boots, and jungle-green army fatigues, which seemed odd camouflage in a landscape the opposite of lush. When they grabbed our bikes we feared the worst, but they only wanted to ride them. The soldiers took turns wobbling down the road, snapping photos of each other with their cellphones, breathing like they were blowing out birthday candles. After a few laps they gave us back the bikes and waved goodbye, apparently not caring that we were about to trespass onto the Aksai Chin.
This particular stretch of salt and wind, nearly uninhabited and widely dismissed as a wasteland, is one of the most contested territories in Asia. Tibetan by cultural heritage, Indian by treaty claim, and Chinese by possession, the Aksai Chin is caught in this territorial tug-of-war owing to its strategic location between nations. It all began when China furtively built a road across it in 1957, the very dirt track we were on, roping like a slow-burning fuse for more than a thousand miles over the emptiest edge of the plateau. India only clued in to Highway 219’s existence half a decade later, and their discovery detonated a war over the borderland. Hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers died by grenades, machine gun, and mortar fire to claim a place Jawaharlal Nehru, then the prime minister of India, described as so barren “not a blade of grass grows.” Even today most of the Himalayan frontier between India and China falls in disputed territory, with big chunks of the border still a blur, as though someone had smudged the ink on the map before the labels and lines had a chance to dry.
Not that the Chinese road atlas Mel and I carried revealed any of this, its pages greasy and almost see-through from being handled by sunscreened fingers. What the maps made clear, though, with a lasso of bold strokes, was that the Tibetan Plateau was unambiguously Chinese. This ownership contradicted the map the Germans carried, which diplomatically marked the Aksai Chin with dotted lines.
We’re so used to thinking of nations as self-evident, maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure. In places like Tibet, though, the land itself gives those lines the slip. Borders might go bump in the night because they’re reinforced by guardrails, but also because they exist in only the most suggestive, ghost-like ways. At least that’s how I sensed them on the Aksai Chin—as a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by wind. What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanence on the fact of flux?
A sand tornado spun past me, trailing its skirts of dust. I inhaled the country and kept pedalling. Then I realized the vortex came from the Chinese military convoy speeding up behind us. We scooted over to let the vehicles pass, dozens and dozens of black jeeps in a long litany of exhaust. But even as I felt unnerved by the sight of soldiers patrolling the Aksai Chin, what chilled me even more was how I suddenly saw myself in them. “Longing on a large scale,” says novelist Don DeLillo, “is what makes history.” And longing on a smaller scale is what sends explorers into the unknown, where the first thing they do, typically, is draw a map.
Admittedly, I’d spend more time musing about borders and explorers once back home and better able to breathe. For the time being I was preoccupied with staying upright on my bike. Some days the road was barely there, a faint scar in the sand or a spill of rocks indistinguishable from the rest of a mountain’s rubble. At one point it disappeared entirely beneath a stream. Glacial meltwater sluiced between my toes as I dragged my bike through it, and I couldn’t feel my feet for hours. Also reliably freezing were the headwinds, bitter and constant, as if hidden deep in the Himalaya was the world’s core of wind, sculpting the planet as it streamed off glacial ice.
It didn’t help that our loaded bikes were effectively bulky sails, heaped as they were with tents, sleeping bags, spare parts, tools, and food—all the instant noodles, peanut butter, and misleadingly packaged snacks we needed to survive, barely. Even if grocery stores and restaurants had been commonplace in western Tibet, Mel and I had no cash left to buy fresh rations, at least none accessible. We’d stashed our last hundred-dollar bill in the hollow metal tubing of my handlebar, making a piggy bank of my bike, but after months on the road the money was stuck inside, effectively welded to the aluminum.
Caloric relief occasionally arrived in the form of meals shared with us by Tibetans. One moment we’d be alone on the plateau, and the next we’d be surrounded by nomads who materialized from the mountains. A waft of smoke and sheep’s wool on the wind and there they were, men and women and children with burnished copper faces and chapped red cheeks and thick ropes of licorice hair. The men wore fancy if tattered dinner jackets and jaunty felt hats. The women’s necks were slung with bright chunks of amber and turquoise and coral. When we were lucky, they invited us back to their tents for tsampa, a gruel of roasted barley, and yak butter tea, a brew that congealed as we sipped it.
“Tastes like . . . animal?” mused Mattias, his upper lip shiny with lard. He slurped again at the thickening slurry and nodded. “Tastes like yak.”
The canvas tent breathed in and out. An elderly man beamed at us as he absently rubbed a string of wooden beads, his calluses like dark coins in his palms. We sat on hard wooden benches and sipped our tea, our eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness and sting of dung smoke. It was a simple home with a thousand gleaming surfaces: porcelain-looking cups and bowls, tins whose Chinese labels I couldn’t decipher, pots and kettles, a clock that didn’t work, its thin hands unsteady in the wind that shook the fabric walls. I had no idea how the family moved all of this from camp to camp, or how often they moved camps in general, or a million other details I longed to learn but lacked the words to ask about, so I just smiled dumbly and scooped buttery clumps of tsampa into my mouth with my fingers.
Across the tent, tacked to its supportive beams, a glossy poster caught my eye. It featured juicy-looking burgers, golden french fries, bowls of cherries and oranges and ice cream, and foamy milkshakes all spread on a red-and-white picnic blanket in a lush forest next to a waterfall. We’d seen similar posters all across western China, whether in Han restaurants in Kashgar, Muslim mud-brick huts in Xinjiang, or Buddhist camps in Tibet. They fascinated me not just for the torturously improbable feast they portrayed—food that was the stuff of fantasy, unavailable for thousands of miles—but for the odd familiarity of the scene. For all I could tell, the posters showcased woodsy rural Ontario, where my own bedroom walls had been tacked with posters of mountains and deserts, of horizons picked clean by wind. We were longing right past each other.
After the meal, Mattias brought out his German edition of Seven Years in Tibet, which is about an Austrian mountaineer’s escape into Tibet from a prisoner of war camp in India. He flipped to the middle of the book and showed our hosts a black-and-white photograph of the young, grinning, bare-armed Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent opposition to China’s occupation of Tibet. The Tibetans craned close to catch a glimpse of him.
Under Chinese rule, it was illegal to possess a photo of the exiled spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet—a place more accurately named “Bod,” as Tibetans have referred to their homeland throughout recorded history. From the seventh to ninth centuries, the glory days of the Tibetan Empire, Bod stretched into parts of modern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. Roughly six centuries later, when Marco Polo followed the Silk Road onto the plateau, he arrived in the much smaller territory of what he called “Thebeth”—less the name of a coherent nation-state, as the modern concept goes, and more a geographic description from an old Turkic word for “heights.” By then Tibet was under Mongolian rule, though Polo reported that the inhabitants of that “desolated country” refused to use Kublai Khan’s paper money, preferring instead their usual currency of salt.
Over the next few centuries, Tibet was variously administered by dynastic China, under attack by the British Empire, or enjoying a rare lull of peace and self-rule. The latter ended in 1950, when the People’s Republic of China invaded the Buddhist country and eventually forced the Dalai Lama to sign over Tibet’s sovereignty. Eight years later, when the Chinese violently suppressed an uprising in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama fled for his life into India and tens of thousands of Tibetans followed him. Many hundreds of thousands more have fled since, for the country they once knew was “liberated” by the Chinese in 1959, meaning the former government of Tibet was declared illegal and the once-independent nation was forcibly downgraded to the not-so-autonomous region of Xizang, which in Mandarin means, rather tellingly, “west treasure vault.” Ever since, the plateau’s vast reserves of copper, lithium, gold, and silver have funded China’s economic growth, and Tibet’s borders-turned-regional-boundaries have hosted checkpoints that restrict mobility—not of foreigners, as we experienced firsthand, but of locals. No wonder Tibetans are reputed to be such students of impermanence. As empires flourished and fell at their feet, as their own frontiers expanded and shrank and turned hard against them, daily life on the plateau had proved the illusoriness of any firm place to stand.
Mattias ripped the photograph out of the book and offered it to the old man, who touched it to his forehead and then folded it into his cloak for safekeeping, taking care not to crease His Holiness’ face. We thanked the family and got up to leave, wiping our buttery hands on our bike shorts. Back on the road, the tent looked so small when I glanced behind me, a tiny white envelope stamped with prayer flags. Yellow, green, red, white, and blue, with each colour signifying an element and state of mind, and each flag inscribed with sutras on desire and suffering, compassion and flux—the kind of writing that goes further the more it fades away.
Maybe Pangong Tso, a lake that spills across Tibet into northern India, represents the most honest kind of borderland: a frontier defined seasonally by changes of state, solid to liquid to air. The water was so vast and turquoise it looked tropical, like a remnant of the ancient Tethys Ocean, whose warm blue waters were swallowed beneath the Indian subcontinent when it slammed into Eurasia fifty million years ago, crumpling the sea floor into the Tibetan Plateau. At nearly fourteen thousand feet in elevation, the lake’s inviting appearance belied a more frigid reality, but we hadn’t bathed in weeks.
Mel, the Germans, and I had ditched our bikes and immediately dove in the water. I bobbed on my back, the brisk water soothing my saddle sores. Luckily they weren’t as gory as when Mel and I pedalled across America, only to learn, thousands of miles too late, that wearing underwear beneath padded bike shorts is a major faux pas. Here the water gently made off with all my weight, the pull of earth and sky precisely equal and opposite. I tried to make out Ladakh, the region in northern India known as “Little Tibet,” but the lake was too long to see the far side. What I could see was Ben, still lingering anxiously on the shore. Finally he waded in, frowned at the water around his legs, and stormed out again, claiming he saw an oily film on its surface.
“Ben, it’s you,” we tried to reason with him. “It’s your filth, your sunscreen.”
But he was already towelling off in a fury. An old collarbone injury of his had flared up again on Tibet’s terrible potholes, and his mood wasn’t improved by the fact that this should’ve been the easiest stretch of the trip—roughly a hundred miles of gentle, flowing downhill, according to the map, but what the topographical contour lines failed to convey was the road’s sandy, half-sunken texture. Adding insult to injury for Ben were the large piles of gravel deposited every few feet along Highway 219, hinting that any day now a maintenance crew would firm up the sand, fill the potholes, and smooth the washboard ruts. But as the weeks went by, so did the road maintenance trucks, one, two, sometimes three a day, crammed full of Chinese workers in yellow safety vests. “Do your job!” Ben raged as they passed. “Fix the road!” But the Chinese workers, confusing his yelling and flailing for a friendly greeting, smiled and waved merrily as they sped off to repair some other stretch of road.
The plateau, Ben told us in not so many words, was hardly his idea of Shangri-La. This was another label Tibet had unwittingly earned over the years, mostly thanks to James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Hilton’s book and the blockbuster film based on it depicted a lush, paradisiacal Himalayan aerie hidden in Tibet, falsely fixing the place in popular imagination as a kind of pre-lapsarian refuge, a place of mystical innocence and immortality. The real Tibetan Plateau, or at least the western corner we’d biked so far, was, by contrast, “beyond doubt among the world’s bleakest stretches.” At least that’s how Nehru described the Aksai Chin, that so-called wasteland for which he nevertheless waged war.
Truth be told, the western plateau’s bleakness was so otherworldly, so breathtaking, that I could understand why everyone wanted to claim it for themselves. Tibet is often romantically evoked as the roof of the world, as if the plateau served as some kind of elaborate shelter, but it was raw exposure that I craved and found there. What the plateau truly presents is not refuge, but a new frame of reference: from those dizzying heights, you can glimpse the real roof of our world, that faint swaddling of oxygen and nitrogen that holds us back from the heavens, or the heavens back from us. A thin blue rim, barely sixty miles thick that buffers all life on Earth from the bottomless void of space.
Sixty miles was also the kind of distance I could bike in a day, if only I could bike straight up into the sky, but pedalling across Tibet was gruelling enough. Which was part of the plateau’s charm to everyone but Ben, who wore headphones much of the time now and biked for hours with the music blaring, wilfully deaf to wind and the clatter of wheels on that gorgeous, gut-shaking road. Mattias had generously loaned Ben his iPod featuring a limited selection of music on repeat, including the Baywatch theme song and Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8ter Boi.” I could imagine few things more punitive than such a soundtrack, but judging by the distant, blissed-out look in Ben’s eyes, the music succeeded in sweeping him away, elsewhere, home, the late 1990s, anywhere but there and then in Tibet, the only place in the universe I wanted to be.
A month after crossing the checkpoint in Kudi, the four of us reached the small city of Ali, a relative metropolis for western Tibet and the end of Ben’s Silk Road. He was tired of being perpetually tired, and tired, no doubt, of the fact that the rest of us were loving every torturous minute. With only a week or two left on his Chinese visa anyway, he hitched a transport truck from Ali to Lhasa, boarded a plane to Beijing, and flew home to Manitoba. Mel and I gave him a package of dehydrated yak penis as a departure gift, which Canadian customs, we were sad to learn, immediately confiscated.
According to other cyclists who’d snuck across western Tibet, it was possible to turn yourself in to the police in Ali and be granted temporary legal status, which would make it easier to navigate the greater density of checkpoints on the way to Lhasa. So Mel and I took deep breaths and surrendered our documents at the police station. After filling out a bunch of forms we couldn’t read and looking suitably repentant, the officers grudgingly returned our passports, now containing slim vouchers titled “Aliens’ Travel Permits.” “Congrats, Kate,” Mel said as we exited the station. “Legally recognized as a Martian at last!”
I did feel strangely at home on the Tibetan Plateau, a sense of deep arrival that was almost disordering. I don’t mean to claim a cheap affiliation with a culture or complicated history that, at the time, I barely knew, and still am only learning. Instead what I felt was an affinity for the land itself, the stark contours and harsh tectonics of the plateau, this territory of uplift and change. As Mel and I biked out of Ali, I couldn’t stop thinking about the “pale blue dot” photograph taken by Voyager I before the spacecraft sped out of the solar system forever. The image revealed our home as a tiny speck of blue in the darkness of deep space, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” in the words of astronomer Carl Sagan. Although the Voyager’s instruments dutifully recorded the size of particles in Saturn’s rings, among other tasks on their strictly scientific mission, that casual snapshot offered something far more rare and significant than reams of data: a fundamental change in perspective. Wasn’t that the most meaningful outcome of any kind of exploration? To reveal the old world—and ourselves—anew?
The Tibetan Plateau offered a similarly cosmic reality check. There I was, little more than a mote of dust myself after a month without showering, biking slowly among summits that had once been sea floor. It was like being on the moon or Mars, only better: I could breathe, laugh out loud, feel the wind on my face. I didn’t have to report to Mission Control or speak through radio static. The only time I felt briefly nostalgic for the protective buffer of a spacesuit was when my bike flatted a tire as I was speeding down a hill, throwing me off balance and into the dirt.
“Nice air, Kato!” Mel said after she made sure I wasn’t hurt. I picked bits of gravel from my bare palms, regretting the fact that I hadn’t been wearing gloves. After absorbing sweat, dust, and sunscreen for months on end they were effectively casts, so I’d opted to go without them despite the high-altitude chill of August. Mel helped me patch the inner tube, already a quilt of other patches, and she steadied the wheel while I inflated the tire with a portable bicycle pump that squeaked with dust. Not until I was back on my bike did I notice collateral damage from the crash: I’d sliced open my down jacket on a rock and now tiny white feathers wafted off me, as though I were moulting.
Clouds slid down the slopes of the valley, now ambered in a slow, tilting light. The air was cold and spiceless, and the wind moved like something alive. Despite the duct tape I slapped over the tear in my jacket the odd bit of plumage still escaped, but I didn’t mind. The plateau could have my feathers and sweat and even the skin off my palms—whatever it took to be here, to earn this intimacy with immensity. If to be an explorer I must draw a map, I remember thinking, let it be this: How the sky shifted and darkened over the plateau that night, and the sun gave a last golden glance through the clouds. How the mountains shone like bits of fallen moon all around me, glowed for a moment and were gone.
England and New England
A few weeks later Mel and I flew back to Canada, dust sewn in our sleeves like the jewels Polo reportedly smuggled home in the seams of his clothes. I watched China shrink in scale and tucked into a microwaved airline meal, food only marginally more flavourful than instant noodles. After biking four thousand kilometres in four months, it was almost a relief to sit still for a while, to speed along without pushing pedals. That didn’t last long. Approximately one in-flight movie later I felt restless again, and so did Mel. Before the plane touched down in Toronto, we vowed to someday ride the rest of the Silk Road, namely the rather prodigious gap between Europe and Asia.
I didn’t bother unpacking my bike before checking it onto another plane to England, to begin graduate school at Oxford, where some new friends and I kickstarted our studies with a cycling trip. We figured we had just enough time before classes began to ride to Stratford, the birthplace of Shakespeare, where Patrick Stewart, otherwise known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek, was starring as Prospero in The Tempest.
I kept expecting to see the Tibetan Plateau when I woke up in my ragged sleeping bag and zipped open the tent, only to behold rolling green England instead, terrain more like the pastoral posters I’d seen in China. For two days, Dominique, Kim, Jamie, and I biked past thatched medieval villages and castle-like estates with long prim lawns that doubled as runways, which we knew for certain because we saw a plane land on one of them. We foraged so many blackberries from hedges that our lips and tongues were stained a royal purple by the time we arrived in Stratford, only to learn the play was sold out. In hopes of getting rush tickets the next morning, we pitched our tents at the front of the line on the terrace of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, using the weight of our bikes instead of tent pegs to pull the structures taut. The crucial flourish for our campsite was a hand-scribbled cardboard sign that read “Patrick Stewart’s Biggest Fans.”
In truth, none of us were hardcore Trekkies. I’d enjoyed reruns of The Next Generation from time to time, but my brothers and I had preferred the Voyager series, in which Captain Kathryn Janeway not only boldly went where none had gone before but found herself stranded there for decades. Shakespeare was the main draw for Dom, a free-spirited literature major from Quebec, and the bike trip itself rather than its destination appealed to Jamie, a lawyer with flaming hair who’d been brought up in Yukon bush camps. As for Kim, an aspiring family doctor from Ontario with a bedside genius for comedy, she was game for anything that made a good story. We’d all won a Rhodes scholarship, and flew to London on the same red-eye flight. When Kim, Dom, and Jamie were game to begin grad school with a bike trip, despite their jet lag, I knew we’d all get along.
At dawn we woke up to discover three nervy people standing ahead of our tents in line. Fortunately there were enough rush tickets to go around. After brushing our teeth and washing our faces in the theatre bathroom, we found our seats for the matinee performance. The lights dimmed, an eerie soundtrack struck up, and Shakespeare’s words transformed the theatre into a bleak Arctic island where it never stopped snowing, where sanity and madness were just a thin pane of ice apart, and where Jamie and I held hands in the darkness of the polar night.
“O brave new world!” exulted Miranda. “That has such people in’t!”
“Tis new to thee,” her father, Prospero, wryly clarified.
A mutual acquaintance had put Jamie and me in touch over email when he realized we were both heading to Oxford in the fall. As I was cycling the Silk Road and sneaking into Tibet, Jamie was studying Arabic in Egypt and motorcycling into Syria. I read his travel blog in the smoky Chinese Internet cafés where I posted my own missives from the road, which Jamie read in turn, and we recognized in each other a common longing and lament—for the faraway and wild, for the loss of both from the world. “It is like having, as Pascal said, a God-shaped hole in your heart, but the hole is filled by empty space, silence, and nothingness,” he wrote from Egypt, articulating the nameless longing that I knew so well, and that only mountains and deserts seemed to satisfy.
That September we each travelled to Ottawa for Sailing Weekend, when the latest batch of Canadian Rhodes scholars gathers to be wined and dined and toured around Parliament before launching across the Atlantic, though sadly no longer by boat. I feared I wouldn’t be going to England at all. Between returning from the Silk Road and heading to Ottawa, I’d barely had time to mail off my passport, which meant my student visa hadn’t been processed yet. Fortunately Arthur Kroeger, a kindly old Rhodes scholar and legend in the Canadian civil service, reassured me he’d sort things out through his connections at the British embassy. He mentioned that another scholar was in the same situation.
Of course it was Jamie, just back from Egypt. His face was extremely pale, his red hair a lit torch. He spoke with a deep-keeled intensity and also a sense of his own smoothness, just the type you’d peg to win the World Universities Debating Championship—except for what he did afterwards. The tournament was in Malaysia that year, and as the debating began a tsunami struck southern Thailand. Instead of flying back to Canada to finish his law degree after his win, Jamie travelled to the devastated Thai coast and spent a month helping to clean up the wreckage. He was fascinated by wreckage; he had an anthropological obsession with it. We kissed the first night we met.
That was in Ottawa, not long after we received our student visas. When a bus delivered us a few days later among Oxford’s dreaming spires, I remember marvelling over how a space cadet from small-town Ontario had ended up in this fairy tale. Not just the budding romance with Jamie, but the scholarship itself. Surely it was a mistake, some confusion on the part of the selection committee, but I planned to run with it as far and wide as I could. Though I’d originally intended to study science at Oxford—part of my overarching mission to become an astronaut and launch to Mars—I switched at the last minute into a master’s degree on the history of science. I’d be doing science for the rest of my life, I reasoned; why squander two years at Oxford in a laboratory? Especially when all laboratories are exactly alike: sterile, impersonal, replicable by necessity. The Bodleian Library, by contrast, has no parallel.
Loosely supervising my studies was Professor Pietro Corsi, an operatic Italian in his late fifties who got all flushed and passionate about Darwin’s seven-year obsession with barnacles. Corsi’s specialty was the history of evolutionary theory, and his lecturing style was quaintly non-linear. “I had dinner last night with a very senior biochemist, eighty-four years of age, who talked about the history of science like he was a positivist living in the 1870s!” Corsi exclaimed, shaking his head ruefully. I exchanged baffled looks with the other grad students. “You see,” he continued, waving his tweed-clad arms, “a belief in logic, in rational progress toward truth, is a seductive thing for a scientist. I mean, I have no doubt at all that he is wrong, poor man, but you cannot kill him!” Then he levelled a dark, knowing look around the room. “This Oxford is a curious place. Everything here is forbidden, and that is why everything is possible . . .”
Most aspects of Oxford—from the twisting cobbled streets to Corsi’s lectures—encouraged digression, which is, after all, just a sideways method for stumbling on connection. Such as between the philosophy of science and poetry, if one were to go by Emily Dickinson’s definition of the latter as whatever makes you feel as if the top of your head has been physically taken off. I tucked into bed one evening intending to put myself to sleep by skimming a few chapters of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which our class was discussing the next day. Instead I stayed up all night reading with demented avidity to the final page, my empirical understanding of the world undone by Kuhn’s argument that scientific theories are in essence evolutionarily selected stories, that is fictions that best fit the available facts—until the discovery of new facts forces a paradigm shift to a different and better fiction. More than that, he argues that scientists who embrace a new paradigm at an early stage—before sufficient evidence has been amassed to trigger a scientific revolution—do so not out of a sober consideration of the available facts, or at least not only that, but also with a subjective, irrational, from-the-gut leap of faith. Reading Kuhn and various other philosophers of science was like peering into the skull of a scientist, one of those Spock-like arbiters of imperishable truths, only to discover a raving mystic inside. I was rather partial to mystics, especially the writer Annie Dillard, but I never dreamed their motives and methods didn’t differ drastically from those of scientists, though in retrospect Dillard’s books should’ve prepared me for this. “What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab?” she asks in one of them. “Are they not both saying: Hello?” At dawn I put Kuhn’s book down and tapped the top of my head to make sure it was still there.
Another class at Oxford revealed the connections, more depressingly, between war and science, the two ends of Galileo Galilei’s telescope. The Italian professor of mathematics was awarded tenure at the University of Padua for his vast improvements to the design of a spyglass for military purposes. Of course Galileo himself used the device to more peaceably spy on the heavens and in the process observed craters marring the moon, spots blemishing the sun, other moons orbiting Jupiter, and the fact that Venus has phases—observations that collectively threw the static universe into motion. All I saw, squinting through an exact replica of Galileo’s spyglass while standing on Broad Street at noon, wearing the clammy purple lab gloves our professor had provided to protect the gold-flecked leather tube from fingerprints, was the sign for the popular King’s Arms pub, its letters blurred and distorted by the glass—not so different, really, than how they looked to students exiting the pub.
But the best part about studying the history of science? I suddenly had to do for homework what I normally did for fun: read expedition journals, such as Charles Darwin’s from his voyage on the Beagle.
Though I’d known about Darwin since high school, I’d never read his diaries. They revealed that when he set sail for South America, at twenty-two, Darwin was little more than the ne’er-do-well son in a well-to-do British family. After failing to finish medical school (he couldn’t stomach the sight of blood) and failing to become a countryside parson (he was more concerned with collecting beetles than saving souls), Darwin begged his exasperated father to let him join the Beagle expedition—not as a naturalist, but as a gentleman companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy, who feared going mad if deprived of dignified society for years on end. Darwin even had to fund his own way, though he was subsidized by his affluent family.
Once the Beagle set sail, Darwin was in his element—except for his chronic seasickness. Judging from his diaries, the young naturalist seemed driven by the same restless, rangy impulses I recognized as my core. He exulted in the “strife of the unloosed elements” and the “inexpressible charm” of living in the open air. Wending along the coast of South America, and spending long stints on shore, Darwin was so staggered by what he saw—oceans blushing with chameleon octopi in Cape Verde, skies snowing butterflies in Patagonia—that he confessed at times he was scarcely able to walk. In the closing lines of his journals, Darwin urged aspiring young explorers to take all chances and start on a long voyage—by land if possible, he recommended generously, hoping others might avoid the queasiness he was never able to shake.
I fell in love with this wide-eyed, seasick wanderer through his diaries, but upon further reading fell out again. After six years abroad, Darwin returned to England and in short order secured himself a wife, settled in a country cottage, and never travelled anywhere again. To be fair, it was during this transition from restless to rooted that Darwin elaborated the theory of evolution by natural selection. Fathering ten children, including one who died prematurely, and mysteriously poor health eventually anchored him in England. But what crushed me about Darwin was not that his long voyage ended. From reading Henry David Thoreau I knew you could travel widely from a cabin in Concord, and I hoped to someday do the same from a cabin in Atlin. Far more disturbing than Darwin staying home was his withdrawal from wonder.
In his frank, confiding autobiography, Darwin describes how he turned into “a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” As he honed his taxonomic identification skills studying barnacles, pigeons, and other specimens from the Beagle, Darwin noticed himself becoming increasingly numb to music, poetry, and nature. “I retain some taste for fine scenery,” he confessed, “but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.” Science became the elder Darwin’s exclusive passion, but that term usually connotes some measure of enjoyment, and what he seemed gripped with instead was a cold mania for sorting facts into theoretical frameworks. Meanwhile he lamented the withering of his more whimsical, imaginative sensibilities as a “loss of happiness.”
I couldn’t believe the younger and older Darwins comprised the same person. His transmutation from madcap wanderer to morose scientist gave me chills, but I never imagined it could happen to me. Hadn’t I felt like Ralph Waldo Emerson all my life, crossing a nondescript field on a cloudy day, “glad to the brink of fear”? That’s how I felt walking out of my dorm at Hertford’s graduate residence, crossing a bridge over the River Thames, meandering along paths shaded with towering oaks in Christ Church Meadow, and then down a narrow cobbled street and up a creaking flight of stairs to where Jamie lived.
Though we were fairly inseparable that first term, Jamie still wrote me letters, beautiful handwritten meditations I’d find in my pigeon hole, or “pidge,” as mailboxes in the porter’s lodge of Oxford colleges are called. “Real life is mental life, spiritual life,” he wrote in one such missive. “Wagering your soul is a real wager. As Benedict Allen said of travel and exploration”—we’d recently gone to a campus lecture by the British adventurer—“it’s not about making your mark on a place, but about letting it make its mark on you.”
It wasn’t hard to imagine such missives being delivered by birds, the duck and swerve of words among Oxford’s mist-sleeved towers and leering gargoyles. Everything was forbidden, therefore everything was possible. “Keep off the Grass” read the signs posted on prim green lawns in the imposing stone quadrangles across campus, but manicured terrain held little appeal anyway. Instead I climbed over the stone-and-metal gate at Magdalen College into the deer park where C. S. Lewis used to stroll while dreaming up Narnia. Or I went running along the Thames, arriving back at my dorm with just enough time to shower and put on the only dress I owned: an elegant black gown studded with faint stars, its synthetic fabric so immune to wrinkles I could stuff it in a backpack, forget about it for days, then wear it to a formal ball. In Oxford, it seemed, they took place every other week.
As Jamie and I walked home from one such event, the streets at midnight were full of students in fancy dress trying not to trip on cobblestones, and the champagne glow of the sodium lamplights was just dim enough to let some stars through. What I felt then came to define the radiant, widening two years I’d spend at Oxford: the delicious sensation of getting away with something, like I’d given real life the slip.
* * *
One weekend in early winter, when the English rain was relentless, Jamie swept me off to Cinque Terre, Italy, a destination he chose because it was sunny, abundant in cheap red wine and pesto, and also where Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned. We swam in the spit-warm turquoise waters of the Mediterranean and then read the doomed poet’s words to each other as we sunned dry on rocks. Jamie was somewhat obsessed with Shelley, the renegade Romantic poet who was expelled from Oxford for his atheism, only to later be apotheosized in a larger-than-life marble nude in one of the colleges. Many of Oxford’s most famous alumni never actually completed their degrees, from Shelley to former US president Bill Clinton, and Jamie openly aspired to follow in their footsteps. A lawyer turned Development Studies student, he skipped class often, wrote letters to me instead of term papers, and airily proclaimed that he “didn’t believe in development.” For his thesis he planned to write an aesthetic refutation of the whole enterprise, fairly certain it would rile his supervisors and get him ousted from the establishment.
While I didn’t plan to fail out if I could help it, I knew that nothing I did at Oxford really mattered in the scope of my extraplanetary ambitions: a Ph.D. admissions committee at MIT, where I hoped to study microbiology in extreme environments, wouldn’t care about my results in a humanities degree. I’d made my way to England by being good at school, hence the scholarship to Oxford, but once I got there I almost learned not to care about it, or rather to care for the right reasons: not as a means to a Martian end, or success as sanctioned by others, but as an opportunity to think, dream, stray out of bounds. A venue, in other words, for exploration.
What would you study if there was no such thing as making the grade? In my case, I obsessed over the reports of early Himalayan explorers and scrutinized centuries-old survey charts in the Bodleian Library, trying to glean the logic behind the lines Mel and I had seen (and snuck across) on the Tibetan Plateau. On every map I examined, a huge bleed of white to the west of the Aksai Chin caught my eye, in part because it reminded me of the Juneau Icefield. This particular enormity of slow-flowing ice, I learned, was the Siachen Glacier, one of the last unexplored gaps on the map until the early twentieth century, when the redoubtable Mrs. Fanny Bullock Workman hitched up her tweed petticoat and hiked onto its base.
In her mittened hand she gripped a sign declaring—not asking, thank you very much—“Votes for Women.” Plodding breathlessly a few steps behind her was Dr. Hunter Workman, and behind him were a dozen porters hired to ferry their gear. The Workmans were wealthy amateur naturalists from America, a husband-and-wife team. After a doctor prescribed fresh air and foreign travel as a cure for Hunter’s chronic lassitude, the two of them launched on cycling journeys through Spain, India, Burma, Ceylon, Java, and parts of Africa. When they ran out of roads, they began trekking in what was then Baltistan in British India, which centuries before was a part of Tibet, and today is contested Kashmir. From there they crossed the Karakoram Pass and followed a southern route of the Silk Road into terra incognita: the Silver Throne plateau of the Siachen Glacier, where Hunter snapped an iconic photo of Fanny in a tweed dress and ribboned hat, championing suffrage at 21,000 feet.
Siachen roughly translates from Balti as “the place of wild roses” and is named for the hardy flowers that take root in its glacial till. According to Fanny’s 1917 book, Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of Eastern Karakoram, she preferred to call the glacier “the Rose,” pleased by the incongruity of this dainty label applied to a violence of rock and ice. Fanny claimed she wanted to go there for strictly scientific reasons, to survey the glacier and triangulate all its important peaks, but this smacked to me of logic appended to pure longing, and I would know. All I’d really wanted to do on the Juneau Icefield was wander around, see the world from a different point of view, though if anyone asked, I’d come to study the geophysics of glacial flow. I was smitten with wildness, and only incidentally with science, and I suspected the same was true for Fanny.
Not that she wasn’t a capable and dedicated scientist: she became the first to study the full sweep of Siachen, which meant cataloguing the glacier’s biological and geological diversity, naming its unreckoned peaks, and measuring its contours—work that revealed it as the world’s longest known glacier beyond the polar regions. And yet she gained greater renown for suffragette stunts on mountaintops than these scholarly contributions—less a reflection of the quality of her science, perhaps, than of the fact of her being female in an era when explorers weren’t. Whatever the case, her ideas were overlooked in contemporary geographic literature, her mapping criticized as inaccurate, and her surveying nomenclature almost entirely discarded. Even modern historians have uncharitably dismissed Fanny as “farcical,” “amateurish,” and “responsible for introducing a slight note of comedy into the awe-inspiring world of the high peaks.”
As I read these criticisms in the Bodleian Library, or the “Bod,” as students called it, I thought back to sneaking into Tibet, where a chubby Chinese policeman had handed me not a stiff fine, or even stiffer handcuffs, but cucumbers. Cucumbers! Only people who’d never actually travelled to the Himalaya could claim humour has no place there. Compared to the preening self-importance of most early Himalayan explorers, Fanny brought a refreshing dose of flair and whimsy to the highest altitudes. I admired her unlimited verve and refusal to be demure. Calling Siachen “the Rose” was, perhaps, a bit much, but a glacier is still a glacier by any other name. Just as the Tibetan Plateau, whether you call it Bod or Xizang, heaven or hell, is still a sky-raking tumult of rock and ice and turquoise water—the kind of landscape that, as even Fanny confessed, “was ever tightening its grip on my soul.”
The plateau felt even closer when His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to town. I weaved through crowds to find my seat in the Sheldonian Theatre, where hundreds of students and professors leaned forward to glimpse the smiling monk in the middle of the room. Here was someone worshipped as a god since childhood, someone forced to flee a homeland so transformed by the Chinese that if he ever made it back to Lhasa (unlikely, given the Chinese government deems him a terrorist), he probably wouldn’t recognize the Potala Palace, where a four-lane paved road has replaced the front lawn where pilgrims used to gather. And yet the Dalai Lama sat in the theatre beaming through thick-rimmed glasses, giggling at his own jokes. The frivolity of his laughter against the hard facts of his life made him seem a living koan, a riddle in the Zen Buddhist tradition that demonstrates the inadequacy of logic and provokes enlightenment—or, in my case, giggling in turn. I didn’t think the Dalai Lama would mind.
He introduced himself as “just a simple monk” and gave a short talk on kindness. Afterwards a bunch of scholars, in typical Oxford fashion, asked questions that weren’t really questions but statements designed to reveal the asker’s own erudition. Jamie had sometimes fallen into this, for he could argue any issue from any angle so persuasively that you couldn’t tell how he felt about anything. Perhaps he himself didn’t know. “You don’t believe in the basic rights of people to food, water, education, jobs?” my friend had grilled him over dinner one night. I knew his dismissal of development wasn’t as glib as it sounded, that in questioning “progress”—our collective striving to make life easier and more comfortable for everyone—he was passionately interested in the relationship between suffering and the sublime. He hoped to get at the heart of why a drop of water in a desert tastes so sweet. But instead of opening up about any of this, Jamie had dodged my friend’s questions with detached, scholarly feints of logic, which was easier for him. Frustratingly easy, from my perspective, but then I’d never figured out how to be anything but earnest.
The Dalai Lama had little patience for semantics. At one point a philosophy professor stood up and held forth on the distinction between “compassion” and “kindness.” Noting that His Holiness had used the latter term throughout his talk, this professor praised the Dalai Lama for such a clever verbal strategy, given kindness was a more accessible concept for the masses than compassion, which had connotations of divinity, of excessive and unattainable virtuousness, and therefore seemed less authentic.
“Oh no!” The Dalai Lama giggled. “It is my English that is not authentic! Kindness, compassion, they are same. No strategy, ha ha! These are simple things, hmmm? Simple to say, harder to live.”
I left the Sheldonian craving a thousand years to think over the Dalai Lama’s words. Instead I settled for a long run through Port Meadow, a thousand-year-old commons where Buddha-bellied cows and sheep graze still. The tragedy that so famously afflicts the commons can be averted through mutual respect and restraint, or the sort of kindness the Dalai Lama was talking about: a basic empathy for others, the recognition that your desires matter no more and no less than anyone else’s. By contrast, greed and ego—both on the individual and national scale—were the driving forces of exploration, with everyone gunning to claim all they could of the world before somebody beat them to it. Every week at Oxford I seemed to banish yet another exploratory idol from my pantheon, most recently Richard Hakluyt, the namesake for the Mars Society letter-writing prize I won as a teenager. Though Hakluyt wasn’t technically an explorer himself, he was a loud evangelist for the European colonization of the “New World,” which didn’t turn out so well for the people already living there, a legacy now being repeated by the Chinese in Tibet. But almost as disturbing as such overt exploitation was the kind of exploration that had been initiated in total innocence and integrity—and led to disaster nonetheless.
A half-century after Fanny’s expedition, for example, Siachen lost the honour of being the world’s longest glacier (one in Tajikistan proved even longer) but it eventually gained the more dubious distinction of being the world’s highest-altitude battlefield. After the Line of Control was drawn through contested Kashmir in 1972, dividing the territory between the newly designated nations of India and Pakistan, the boundary was terminated at survey point NJ9842, in the foothills south of Siachen, and from there vaguely extrapolated “thence north to the glaciers.” Neither country much cared about Siachen, a place dismissed as a wasteland, and therefore exiled beyond the bounds of territorial ambition.
This situation began to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as mountaineers from Japan, England, and America requested permission from Pakistan—not India—to attempt peaks on the glacier, simply because it was easier to access Siachen from that country. The climbers didn’t mean to choose sides, but even so their passport stamps implied Pakistan controlled all that ice. What further riled India were foreign maps hinting that Siachen belonged to Pakistan. The original cartographic error can be traced to the United States Department of Defense’s 1967 Tactical Pilotage Charts for Kashmir, which showed a dotted Line of Control angling “thence north to the glaciers” in such a way that Siachen was suggestively contained within Pakistan. Instead of jagging and twisting along the natural if squiggly ridges of the mountains, like the rest of Kashmir’s Line of Control, the DOD line ran straight as a gunshot from NJ9842 to Karakoram Pass, once part of the ancient Silk Road. I’ve often wondered who made the fatal decision to draw that dotted line, and whether the decision was made innocently, for purely navigational purposes (perhaps the Karakoram Pass made an ideal piloting landmark?) or out of a more surreptitious fidelity to Pakistan, a country long allied with the US military. In any case, the DOD lines were not official boundaries, yet other maps reproduced them without this crucial caveat, including the reputable world atlases of Rand McNally, the Oxford Encyclopedia, and National Geographic. When a colonel in the Indian army happened to meet some Germans who planned to raft the Indus River, he was shocked to see that their American-made map showed Siachen as effectively belonging to Pakistan. India invaded the glacier in 1984 to prevent those paper-based borders from becoming a reality, Pakistan responded by sending its own troops to Siachen, and so began an escalating altitude race to the staggering heights of human absurdity.
Ever since, soldiers from both armies have lived year-round at elevations where few mountaineers dare linger. A ceasefire has been in effect since the early 1990s, but most casualties in the Siachen conflict result from natural hazards like avalanches and altitude sickness rather than enemy fire, meaning the death toll hasn’t diminished much. Millions of dollars are spent daily to maintain troops on the glacier, and because it’s too expensive to fly trash down the mountain, human waste and other refuse gets dumped in crevasses. After three decades of military occupation, the Siachen Glacier, a place one early explorer raved about as “indescribably grand, its unrelieved and elemental savagery producing in an unusual degree a feeling of exaltation and intense remoteness from humanity,” has been reduced to what Indian army officials call “the world’s highest and biggest garbage dump.”
Why so much costly fuss over a far-flung chunk of ice? Because what the glacier lacks in strategic worth it makes up for in symbolic value, and neither country wants to lose face by losing Siachen, even as the standoff destroys the commons both wish to claim. In this respect the conflict over the glacier seemed itself a koan, and as I ran back to Oxford, which looked from Port Meadow like an alpine cluster of spires and towers, I wondered what kind of enlightenment a war-torn wilderness could possibly provoke.
Maybe reading about the Himalaya brought out my usual migratory instincts. Maybe Jamie wasn’t goofy enough, or I didn’t bring out his lighter side just as he didn’t bring out mine, and so our relationship existed purely on the deep, searching plane where I spent too much time as it was, and therefore felt to me unsustainably intense. “Maybe we love each other best in words,” I mused to Kim as we set the table at Holywell Ford, a quaint graduate residence at Magdalen College that looked roughly how I pictured Darwin’s countryside retreat, with vine-tangled stone walls and a bucolic forest setting. Fortunately this cottage was filled with far more music, poetry, and laughter thanks to the irreverent crew from South Africa, Australia, Mexico, America, and Canada who gathered there weekly to cook dinner, drink wine out of jars (the shared kitchen lacked glasses), and debate serious academic questions like “If the field of global public health was a celebrity, who would it be?”
What united us “Jar Kids” across countries and academic disciplines was our mutual appreciation for the absurd. Jamie operated on a different wavelength entirely, and it was probably telling that he didn’t join us often at Holywell Ford, that I spent more and more time on my bike, or reading and writing in the Bod, or executing pranks with the Jar Kids, such as filching our friend’s snow globe of the Virgin Fatima and taking “selfies” of the sparkly Catholic saint around campus, which Fatima posted to her very own Facebook profile. Between dinner parties at Holywell Ford I subsisted on cheap muesli from Tesco, free coffee and cake from Rhodes House, and expired Clif Bars that I bought in bulk off eBay to save money for discount flights to Morocco and Norway, and later India, Chile, and Nepal. Graduate seminars in the history of science at Oxford met once a week, leaving the rest of my days free for adventure as long as I brought along my books, which were just as easily studied in a tent as in a library. Life had never seemed so open and reeling with possibility—except when I was with Jamie, which was less his fault and more a function of my chronic restlessness. Why hang out with the same person week after week when the world is calling? In any case, not long after he suggested we move in together, I decided I wanted out entirely.
After we broke up I went hiking in Wales for a weekend, craving a landscape large enough for my despair—over the fact that I would never find another letter in my pidge from Jamie, among other reasons I’d genuinely miss him in my life. Was I making a huge mistake? But I was wrong, if only about the letter. When I returned to Oxford, on the brink of getting back together with Jamie, he said he’d written something for me, but I could only read it on two conditions: that I remember he was very upset when he wrote it, and that I give him a copy because it belonged in the archives of his life. Then he handed me not the usual thin envelope I was used to finding in my pidge, but a subpoena-like stack of white sheets.
I brought the sixteen-page, hand-scrawled missive to Kim’s room because I needed to not be alone when I read it. It took me two hours. The letter was a dramatic exegesis of our relationship, how we were meant for each other, how I’d messed it all up with my heart of stone, “which even a lawyer couldn’t crack.” On that point he was right, but where logic had failed, some levity might’ve helped. I returned the letter to Jamie without making a copy. The original, for his archives.
The next day he called and said he wanted to talk. I didn’t answer the phone or return his call, but I ran into him a few days later on Catte Street. “Wait,” he pleaded. “I’ll be right back.” He returned with a poster of Mount Everest that he’d gotten signed by a renowned alpinist at a lecture in London, an event we were supposed to attend together. “A peace offering,” he explained, his face paler than ever. Mine probably looked the same. I stared at the poster with a mountain-shaped hole in my heart and longed to be anywhere in that wildness, that slant of light so intense you could lean into it and be held.
Reading about the Himalaya was the next best thing. I decided to write my master’s thesis on the Siachen Glacier, detailing the soap-opera saga of exploration and geopolitics that had played out on its ice, but also exploring the possibility of scientific collaboration as a potential solution to the conflict. If scientific expeditions and their subsequent maps had led the way into war on Siachen, however inadvertently, could science, that supposedly neutral, non-nationalistic pursuit of truth, also lead the way out?
A dear friend tipped me off to the idea of “scientific peacekeeping” as a potential way to resolve the Siachen conflict, namely by rendering the icy battlefield into a demilitarized buffer zone dedicated exclusively to scientific research. It was a dreamy notion, but people had done it before: in Antarctica, for example, where countries with competing territorial claims formally agreed to disagree about who owned the continent and collectively set it aside for science. If such a treaty could happen for a cold, remote, uninhabited continent coveted by dozens of countries, why not for a cold, remote, uninhabited glacier few people outside of India and Pakistan had even heard of? Not that obscurity or isolation is an antidote to desire; sometimes those very qualities amplify longing, as the bleak yet coveted Aksai Chin attests. Even so, a science-focused treaty on Siachen seemed reasonable, a way to defuse a senseless military standoff and return the glacier to its original unowned state.
The history of exploration, as I’d learned at Oxford, was basically synonymous with imperial expansion and indigenous repression—a rather cringe-worthy legacy for an endeavour I once deemed so essentially wondrous and searching. Science and exploration as a force for peace in contested frontiers seemed to offer a kind of redemption. I was so compelled by the work—and the Himalaya—that I seriously entertained the idea of staying at Oxford for a doctorate. After all, the Rhodes offered me another year of funding, and the laboratory at MIT wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a historian of science, exactly; what I craved was the life of reading, wandering, and writing that studying history at Oxford made possible.
Knowing I needed a “distinction” result in my master’s degree to qualify for the doctorate program, I worked harder on my thesis than I’d ever worked before. Strangely, it didn’t feel draining the way laboratory science and problem sets always had. Reading and writing mysteriously gave me more energy than I put into them. I would ride my bike around Oxford for hours each morning, then work all day and late into the night on my thesis, furiously awake and full of questions.
“Well done, a fascinating piece of work,” Corsi raved after reading an early draft in my second year at Oxford. We talked about Fanny, the Aksai Chin, the way maps confuse possession for control. We discussed the Outer Space Treaty, which was one of my case studies for Siachen, and the seductive delusion of a “final” frontier. I was just working up the courage to ask if he’d be willing to supervise my doctoral studies, in which I hoped to widen and deepen this work on contested borderlands, when Corsi’s tone changed. “But Kate, I must say,” he began in a manner ominously less operatic. “I worry your thesis may not qualify as the history of science. So much of it concerns the present, the future, no?”
Hesitation, it turns out, is the hardest frontier to cross. I was so shaken by Corsi’s words that I lost all faith in my project, the idea of staying on at Oxford for a doctorate in the history of science. I debated finishing the Silk Road immediately, biking contested borderlands from Turkey back to Tibet and on to Siachen—a way of finishing what I’d started and ground-truthing what I’d studied. I didn’t need academia as my excuse to read, wander, and write. But Mel was busy with her own master’s degree in community development, and I was too good at school, in every doomed sense. After being on an achievement bender most of my life, the prospect of withdrawal, of doing anything without external approval, or better yet acclamation, kept me obediently between lines I couldn’t even recognize as lines. Isn’t that the final, most forceful triumph of borders? The way they make us accept as real and substantial what we can’t actually see?
In any case, I went back to my room and applied to MIT.
That spring I submitted my seemingly hopeless thesis on Siachen. A month or so later I wrote my final exams, a surreal, uniquely Oxonian experience in which students must wear a mortarboard or soft cap, a black academic gown known as a “sub fusc,” and a flower pinned to the gown where a breast pocket would be. But not just any flower: you must wear a white carnation for your first examination and a pink one for all but your last, when you wear a red carnation, which signals to the mob waiting outside Exam Schools that you’re ready to be stormed with champagne, whipped cream, and glitter. An oddly satisfying if dizzying end to a master’s degree, itself an experience not unlike being shaken in a snow globe until the glass breaks and releases you into the bright air, drenched and sparkling, where you celebrate by drinking wine out of jars with your friends.
Shortly before I left Oxford, Jamie invited me over for dinner for old times’ sake. Over Greek salad and wine the two of us talked our way back to the Silk Road, Egypt, a remote Arctic island long ago in a galaxy far away, or was it Stratford? In a strange congruence, we realized we’d both studied dumps for our master’s theses: on the Siachen Glacier in my case, and in Cairo in his, among the Zabbaleen, which means “garbage people” in Arabic. Though we’d each written critiques against a certain kind of progress, or at least against the natural and spiritual wreckage that so often accompanies it, Jamie observed that we’d used opposite methods: he’d embedded himself in civilization’s deepest, most degenerate core and projected into the future, while I’d withdrawn to civilization’s outer, mostly untouched edge in the Himalaya and projected into the past (if not far enough, according to Corsi, but I kept this to myself). I stared at Jamie, stunned, for I suddenly guessed why our fascination with each other was mutual, sincere, and finally incommensurable: we looked at the world through the different ends of a telescope.
By tradition you don’t enrol at Oxford, you “come up,” and graduating is called “going down.” Not since biking onto and off the Tibetan Plateau had this terminology been so existentially apt. In a blur I packed my bags and my bike and caught a flight to Ontario. My brother Dave drove me to Massachusetts, where a middle school teacher named Sara welcomed me into the house I would share with her and two others, including a pale, furtive woman who rarely emerged from her room and then only mincingly, on tiptoe. As we passed her closed door Sara whispered, as if by way of explanation, “She also goes to MIT.” Then she directed me to my room, a crawlspace that would just barely fit my futon mattress if I bent it like a hot dog bun. “Oh yeah,” Sara said as she left me to unpack. “Some mail came for you.”
What does it mean when you build your own walls? You have no one to blame but yourself for inhabiting them. My hands shook as I tore open the thin white envelope from Oxford, which I knew contained my degree results. I reminded myself that it didn’t matter, that the history of science was just a detour, a side trip, a delirium of work that felt, confusingly, like deep play.
I read the slip of paper. Read it again. Several worlds slid past me at different speeds.
MIT started promisingly enough, despite the gutting regret brought on by the unexpected “distinction” on my master’s degree from Oxford. I’d barely unpacked my bags when my Ph.D. adviser, Dr. Tanja Bosak, sent me with her other students to Yellowstone National Park for fieldwork. Born in Croatia and trained at Caltech, Tanja was a brilliant scholar, a kind and encouraging mentor, and the sort of scientist who mostly preferred studying the natural world from within the walls of a laboratory, a preference I realized belatedly. In what should’ve been a warning sign, she didn’t seem especially heartbroken about missing a week of fieldwork in the Wyoming backcountry. “Don’t forget the bear spray,” she reminded us, her eyes bright with the barely suppressed cheer of someone relieved at being left behind.
Every day the other students and I hiked around Yellowstone’s hot springs in search of samples, collecting slimy blobs of microbial mats from boiling puddles. Every night we ate dinner around a bonfire beneath the stars, watching geysers spill into the sky like the source of the Milky Way. I could get used to this, I remember thinking as I tucked into my tent each night. But the next time I went camping in the name of science was in my office at MIT.
When the alarm blared at 6:00 a.m. I sat up in my sleeping bag and bashed my forehead against the desk above me. I’d stayed late working on a problem set that, among other things, asked me to calculate the flux of marine snow to the ocean floor. “What’s marine snow?” I’d furtively questioned a fellow student when the professor handed out the assignment. I pictured polar blizzards, Shackleton’s ship crushed in the Southern Ocean, Nansen drifting in the Northwest Passage at the pace of pack ice.
“Planktonic fecal pellets,” my classmate clarified.
By now the bait-and-switch was nearly complete. After returning from Wyoming, Tanja had called me into her office to explain that she had enough students working on the Yellowstone samples. Rather than studying life in extreme environments, how about I focus my Ph.D. on laboratory studies of molecular biomarkers instead? When microbes die, she explained, pieces of them survive as fossils under certain geologic conditions. Fat in particular is as difficult to get rid of in death as in life, and microbial lipids, such as polycyclic triterpenoids, can stick around in sedimentary rocks for billions of years. By comparing these molecular fossils to the lipids of modern micro-organisms, such as Rhodospirillum rubrum, we can piece together the history and evolution of life on Earth. Billions of years ago our home planet was by all measures an alien world, with different contortions of continents and a dearth of oxygen. “Using similar techniques,” Tanja added, “it might be possible to search for traces of life on Mars.”
She won me over, if reluctantly, at the mention of the red planet, and I moved into the lab for the long haul.
Why Mars still exerted such an obsessive pull on me I can’t really explain. I was caught in its gravity, I suppose, though any MIT physics student would dismiss that possibility, given the red planet has less mass than the Earth, making its pull a third weaker. Then again, literature grapples with forces science can’t detect or express. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” wrote Joan Didion, and years later, reading those words, I recognized that voyaging to Mars was precisely that for me: a survival narrative I’d cleaved to in a world that seemed mapped and tamed. A fiction awaiting its paradigm shift—to another fiction, perhaps, but a better or at least wilder one.
But even more than a story, if I’m being honest, Mars was almost a god to me, the galvanizing force of my life, and in that sense MIT was a firm step closer to the divine: after all, the university has graduated more astronauts than any other in the world. The problem was that I wasn’t sure anymore if I wanted to go. Especially if the statistically remote possibility of being selected as a Martian colonist required, in the intervening decades, that I wear clammy purple nitrile gloves and squint down a modified spyglass—not at the moons of Jupiter or even the King’s Arms pub, but at mindless battalions of microbes in a petri dish.
Which isn’t to say wildness and mystery can’t be found on all scales, from bacteria to black holes. The poet Blake saw the universe in a grain of sand. A vantage tinier than my pinky fingertip yielded to Galileo an infinite vista, pinpricks of light that shattered the godlike perfection and glasslike immutability of the heavens. And so I talked myself into staying in the lab even as I suffered the elder Darwin’s data-driven loss of happiness, and the words of the younger Darwin rang in my ears, urging me “to take all chances and to start on travels by land if possible, if otherwise on a long voyage.” Instead I spent my days parsing apart the microbial equivalent of cholesterol, and my nights solving problem sets on the flux of excrement to the ocean floor. Was it any wonder I began to question the meaning of life?
“Kate, Kate, Kate,” Tanja would cluck in her lilting Croatian accent. “That’s not a scientific question.” She encouraged me to pose more experimentally tractable queries, such as what kinds of polycyclic triterpenoids are produced by Rhodospirillum rubrum when incubated with varying concentrations of sulphur and oxygen?
I had to admit I didn’t know.
“Well, then,” she would say, beaming, “there’s a whole laboratory behind that door in which you can seek the answer!”
A year came and went in a numbing blur of problem sets and experiments. Other than a two-week summer holiday in India, during which I tried and failed to see the Siachen Glacier, my sleeping bag lived in my office and saw a lot of use. I adored Tanja and didn’t want to let her down, so I tried not to think too much about Oxford, about detours versus destinations. I dated around out of the most flailing loneliness I’d ever felt, hoping the right relationship could remedy the wrong life. I even second-guessed breaking up with Jamie, though in England, where I was happy, I’d rarely doubted the decision. “One word of praise for my writing from you,” he’d written to me, “means more to me than my Oxford degree.” But he hadn’t failed out after all and was completing his doctorate in Development Studies. Most of the Jar Kids had stayed on at Oxford to do the same. The fairy tale continued without me.
Life only made sense now when I rode my bicycle. I’d taken up cyclocross and mountain bike racing at MIT with my usual reckless avidity, which worried Tanja because the university’s cycling team members often took twice as long to finish their Ph.D.’s. In truth, I suspect racing was the main thing keeping us going: a regular dose of endorphins that made the daily pressure and tedium of lab experiments and problem sets bearable. In the total focus required to stay upright on the rutted, twisting trails of the race courses, I could almost forget the fact of grad school. I went on to medal in the national collegiate mountain biking and cyclocross championships, but competition for me was less about beating others than defying the tyranny of my ruling, rational self: when my mind screamed stop, some more ancient and cardiac instinct urged go.
So I went, around and around, pretending the race course was a tightly spooled Silk Road. How many laps back to Lhasa? How many pedal strokes to where Siachen noses coldly into the Nubra Valley? It was a relief to give anything my all again, to strain toward something as neat and tangible as a finish line. Was that Fanny Bullock Workman in tweed on my left? And Alexandra David-Néel just ahead, prayer beads rattling on her bike frame? I accelerated to catch them but they always disappeared after a few laps, though I couldn’t see any turnoffs, any alternate paths or escape routes, and the faceless crowd roared. Eventually the world would go mute and I’d be alone again, the elder Darwin mechanically pacing his cottage, or an astronaut looping endlessly in low Earth orbit, digging my own tracks a little deeper each time around.
What finally sent me spinning back to the Silk Road was a meeting with Dr. Maria Zuber, then the chair of the Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences department at MIT. Slim, resolute, and formidably smart, Zuber always looked to me as if she were leaning into a brisk wind. A geophysicist by training, she’d led or been involved with several NASA missions to map various asteroids and planets, including the red one. This was my motivation for meeting with her, to see about doing a different research project on Mars. That planet had once made me want to be a scientist, after all, and I desperately hoped it would do so again.
“So,” she began sharply as I settled into her office in Building 54. Most buildings at MIT are known by numbers, not names, a quirk that struck me as charming when I first arrived and chilling when I left. “What do you plan to do with your life?”
“I’ve always wanted to be an explorer,” I confessed, and instantly regretted it. Such an aspiration sounds whimsical from a seventeen-year-old high schooler with a dream, but worrying from a twenty-seven-year-old Ph.D. student with a graduation deadline.
To my surprise, Zuber responded with enthusiasm. “Wonderful! You’ve picked a great time to be alive,” she exulted, as if I’d had a choice in the matter. “It’s the Age of Discovery, whatever the history books say.” She tidied a minor avalanche of papers on her desk. “I mean, how amazing is it that we can sit at a desk, right here in an office, and explore Mars from a computer screen?”
I winced and hoped it didn’t show.
“Just imagine,” she continued devastatingly. “Magellan had to sail in rough seas for months, even years on end. Risking scurvy, cannibals, strange diseases, who knows! But today we can wander another world with our feet up on a desk and a Diet Coke in hand. There’s never been a better time to be an explorer.”
On her desk was indeed a soda can, slightly dented in the middle, as though it had been clenched tight in a spasm of late-night frustration. Zuber’s feet were firmly planted on the floor and it was hard to imagine them anywhere but. I thought about the NASA space probe named after the Portuguese explorer she’d mentioned: Magellan was launched in 1989 to map the surface of Venus using radar to penetrate the planet’s obscuring clouds, allowing scientists—among them Zuber—to study its volcanism and tectonics. After five years in orbit, roughly the time it takes to finish a doctorate, NASA deliberately incinerated the probe in Venus’s dense atmosphere, a series of events that suddenly struck me as a parable.
I forced my attention back to Zuber, who was discussing other matters now, plans and logistics for the next semester, research methodologies. I listened and nodded, eyeing a framed map of Mars on the wall. It was slightly crooked and covered in names. Near it a few plants wilted on a windowsill.
“. . . and then we munch cucumbers,” Zuber finished.
“Excuse me?” I said, startled.
“And then we crunch the numbers,” she repeated. “Simple as that.”
I politely thanked Zuber for meeting with me and walked out of her office. And then I left the laboratory and launched on a long voyage.