Pointing North

Icebergs Off West Coast of Greenland

Today was a strange day. Around 5 PM, there was a sharp (Richter 3.4) but brief temblor centered in El Segundo. It seems that our part of Southern California is continuing its inexorable millenias-long journey northward. As an odd punctuation to the quake, I noticed two large military helicopters at low altitude heading toward the ocean minutes later.

But my main Northern contribution today was completing Chauncey C. Loomis’s Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, Explorer. Chauncey was my favorite English professor at Dartmouth. He, without a doubt, the coolest member of that distinguished faculty. What I did not know at the time was that he was such an adventurous traveler. His bailiwick went far beyond the Eighteenth Century English Novel, to places like Peru and the Arctic.

Chauncey C. Loomis (1930-2009)

Why, despite my admiration for the man, did I wait more than twenty years to seek out and read his book? I knew Chauncey when he was in his thirties (long before the above photo), a young English prof sitting in his office with a hunting dog curcled around his feet. Terminally cool!

I love the conclusion to his book after he discovered that the body of Arctic Explorer Charles Francis Hall was poisoned with arsenic:

Anyway, I didn’t write the book as a murder mystery. In fact, the idea of going to northern Greenland and performing an autopsy occurred to me only late in my research, after I read the transcript of the [Naval] Board of Inquiry’s interrogations. What first had my interest was the Arctic itself (the actual Arctic and the Arctic in the nineteenth-century imagination), the whole saga of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration, and Hall as a characteristic nineteenth-century American of a particular type. The book was intended to be more of a period piece than a murder mystery. Mostly it was meant to be a study of the Arctic conceived as a “challenge” by nineteenth-century western man, a challenge that aroused both the noble and the reprehensible in him: pety and pugnacity, visionary idealism and gross ambition, genuine heroism and macho posturing, self-sacrifice and self-aggrandizement…. I cannot make up my own mind as to whether these nineteenth-century explorers, including Hall, was heroes or fools. My waffling, I suspect, indicates humankind’s general ambivalence about heroism; we yearn for heroes, but we mock them when we have them, and then, having mocked them, we yearn for them again. We know that our world is complex, but heroes often at least seem outwardly simple: they cut through the Gordian knot of complexity with apparent abandon.

Women of Adventure

Dame Freya Madeline Stark (1893-1993)

Some of the world’s most intrepid travelers were women. I am thinking particularly of Freya Stark, who tromped all through the Middle East and Afghanistan, in the processing writing a couple dozen excellent books, and died at the ripe age of 100. In her book Baghdad Sketches (1937), she wrote:

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage – everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.

In her book Valleys of the Assassins (1934), she added:

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage – everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.

This woman makes Ernest Hemingway look like a wussy boy in short pants.

And Freya Stark is not the only woman traveler who dared to go solo into the uncharted areas of the earth. There was also Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904), who traveled extensively in Asia, and Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), whose destination was West Africa. In fact, Wikipedia compiled a list of female explorers which sets one to thinking. You can find it here.