Theroux talks about nature and makes me think . . .

So tonight I went to a talk by Paul Theroux (of travel writing fame.) Since it was sponsored by a local open space group, he talked mostly about the importance of nature and wilderness, and nature writing by other writers like Thoreau, Stegner, Darwin, Basho, etc. In fact the title of his talk was “Madly Singing in the Mountains: Traveling in Natural World” which is taken from a poem by 白居易 (Po Chu I or Bai Juyi).

This talk made me think:

1) Theroux read a quote from a ‘blog’ about the earthquake in Concepcion, Chile . . . and it was from Charles Darwin’s journals from his voyage on the Beagle, over a hundred years ago. People really had better writing skills in those days. It was so well written, it’s hard to imagine it was something Darwin scribbled in his journal. If it was me, I’d have to labor over it, and edit a few times. This blog is my journal of sorts, but no one is going to read this in a hundred years and quote it as good writing. I really just dash things off here.

2) I really should go and read all these good-but-old-timey writers Theroux waxed on about. I go to the library pretty often, but I just usually browse the new section, and rarely find anything worthwhile. There’s a universe of literary classics for me to read now that I didn’t while in college. I should read Thoreau, instead of reading about him. (I knew of Thoreau and how his ‘reclusive’ lifestyle at Walden was not actually so hermitic; his mom did his laundry for him regularly. Come to think of it, I learned this titbit from one of Theroux’s books!) Part of my not having read these books earlier is that I have a hard time and little patience with reading Victorian writing; the style was rather convoluted, with flourishes of phrasing and literary arabesques. It takes a lot of attention and effort to read, and sometimes reread ‘to get it’. Unlike straight-forward contemporary prose that I can just gallop through.

3) Theroux talked about being a boy scout and going camping and how it was a formative experience in his life, and led to an appreciation of nature. That resonated with me: I go camping every year with some college friends and their kids: it’s become an annual ritual. For myself, it’s to ensure I don’t forget how to camp, to sleep outdoors, and ‘rough it’ a little. For us all, it’s a reunion that’s a constant, because we hardly see each other otherwise. For the kids, I think it’s a good and happy thing for them to experience, because camping is one my of favorite childhood memories, a yearly event I anticipated more than Christmas.

People are often surprised that I know how to build a campfire, without lighter fluid! Will gets the credit. It was in depths of his parents’ backyard (bottom of a petit canyon) where we slept ten cousins in a tent and built campfires . . . . to toast marshmallows and heat up take-out dim sum. Will being almost twice as old as we were (OK, 15 years to our 10) was the de facto camp counselor. Since he was a very responsible eldest-brother-type, he taught us practical skills like how to build a camp fire, ensure it was put out properly, and how to pitch the tent, invaluable skills to this day. Since he was also intellectually precocious, he tried to teach us how to play chess in the tent. That was not so successful; we ended up mostly playing card games! I’m very grateful though, that Will taught us how to camp.

4) I forgot to bring my copies of Theroux’s books to get autographed. Part of it is shyness, or a sense of not wanting to be cheesy and going up to a celebrity to say “I’m a big fan of yours.” Also, both copies I have are mass paperbacks, used and quite dog-eared from constant re-reading. It would have been embarrassing.

The two volumes do have quite a lot of sentimental value for me. “Riding the Iron Rooster,” while mostly about the trains in China, starts off from Europe on the Trans-Siberia. A bunch of us cousins (who used to camp together in Santa Rosa) rode together on the same one-week train ride from Beijing to Moscow. We ate haw flakes and saltines with peanut butter, played cards, and read and passed Theroux’s book around amongst ourselves. Fortunately no one got duffiled, although one of our new Russian friends on the train had her camera stolen (with all her pictures of her trip to Beijing!)

My other Theroux book is “The Great Railway Bazaar”. It’s the book which put him on the map, so to speak, and is a definitive work on traveling in the 70’s on the overland trail from London to the Far East. (“Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” is where he retraces his steps 30 years later on that same corridor.) Very aptly, I was given the book by a fellow traveler named Max at the pension I was staying at in Cairo, on my first ‘solo’ backpacking trip. I don’t know how Kindle will change things, but back then on the backpacker circuit, it was a perk to swap books, because English books were a treat. They were expensive and/or hard to find. Most people who like to travel also like to read.

Max’s destination after Cairo was Istanbul, specifically “Room XXX at the Pera Palas Hotel.”
“What’s so special about that particular room?” I asked. “The view?”
“I was conceived in it.”
It turns out twenty years ago, his parents were traveling the hippie overland trail; had split up for part of the trip but made plans to meet up in Istanbul at a certain point. And then, an unplanned consequence from that happy reunion. Presumably Max’s mom and dad had paid little attention to the view of the Golden Horn.

Max also taught me a good strategy for budget traveling, if you can afford it. Stay in the cheap two-cockroach hotels for most nights to save money. But once in a while, splurge and check into a five star hotel to enjoy the mod-cons of air-conditioning, hot showers, cable TV and ordering ice-cream sundaes from room service. You’ll really appreciate it, and it’ll keep you sane on the road.


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