On the way to an ancient town in the highest reaches of the Himalayas, horses scramble up a nearly vertical mountainside path, terrified riders clinging to their manes. In remotest Siberia, a fishing trip turns into an encounter with Russian gangsters in the caviar trade, men as dangerous as the area's plentiful grizzly bears. In the Caribbean in the 1970s, Bob Shacochis writes, "you flew Cessnyca and its nine-passenger, twin-engined Beechcraft, apparently maintained by obeah priests. ... On my inaugural flight during December's stormy weather, the f------ pilot knelt on the tarmac, crossed himself, and prayed before boarding the plane in front of me."
Few of us will ever get to travel the way Shacochis has, but his new book, Kingdoms in the Air: Dispatches From the Far Away, gives readers a vicarious sidecar seat for a life for which "adventure travel" is far too mild, and simple, a term.
Shacochis, a longtime member of the faculty of the creative writing program at Florida State University, is best known for his fiction. His first story collection, Easy in the Islands, won a National Book Award; his most recent novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, won the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
He began his career, though, as a journalist. He has been a contributing editor to Outside and Harper's, and he has written for the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Kingdoms in the Air collects 13 nonfiction pieces written over four decades that can be loosely described as travel writing. Do not think for a moment, though, that these are shiny descriptions of smooth-edged tourist meccas with tips on charming little gift shops.
Shacochis is interested in the places that are not easy, and in how it changes us to visit them — and how we change them in return. His vision in these pieces is always of a "place endangered, ultimately, by your desires."
He melds his personal experiences of some of the globe's wildest places with incisive analyses of history, culture, politics and more, crashing the postcolonial hangover into future shock to see what sparks it sets off.
The book's title piece, "Kingdoms in the Air," is by far its longest at 149 pages, and the most thorough exploration of its themes. It's also a rip-snorting adventure yarn about traveling to the mind-boggling elevations of the Himalayas. At one point he describes climbing a hill to get a view of the peaks and being disappointed that they're cloud-bound. Then he realizes he is looking far too low, that, unbelievably, he must crane his head toward a horizon in the sky to take them in.
The narrative revolves around his long friendship with writer-photographer Tom Laird, the first foreigner ever to live in Nepal's remote kingdom of Mustang. Their trip there together, Shacochis' first and Laird's return, frames a penetrating look at how a kingdom that as recently as 1947 was "the largest inhabited country on earth yet to be explored by Europeans" has been indelibly changed, and yet in other ways remains unconquered. Shacochis takes us to a place where timeless spirituality meets contemporary capitalism and political violence, in a natural setting that is as implacably dangerous as it is stunningly beautiful.
Some of the book's shorter pieces are fascinating, deeply researched journalism, like "In Deepest Gringolandia." Once the West explored and ruled empires, he writes. "Now, where the Kiplings and Conrads once poked around, hundreds of millions of white people spend billions of dollars each year for the exotic tickle of the five-day, four-night excursion into the mythological but much diluted, faraway but perfectly scrubbed heart of darkness." His example is Mexico's system of seaside resorts, created by that country's government with as much calculation and intrigue as any theme park — and as many unintended consequences.
Other essays are personal. Some are quick hits, like the laugh-out-loud "Huevos Fritos." Others dive deep, like "What I Did With the Gold," in which Shacochis recounts his poignant return to the Caribbean island of Providencia after several decades. The stories in Easy in the Islands were based on his youthful experiences there, and he goes back to see which of his many ghosts are still walking around.
Shacochis' accounts sometimes boom with macho swagger, but it's balanced by wry self-awareness, a tender heart and a brilliant, analytical intellect. His writing is simply splendid; I often found myself re-reading paragraphs two or three times not because they were difficult but because the language was so startlingly lovely.
Odds are the places in Kingdoms in the Air are trips you haven't taken, and you couldn't ask for a better tour guide.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.