In Pursuit of No Place

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… Nothing outside you can give you any place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”

― Flannery O’Connor

My Memorial Day weekend double feature explored two popular accounts of drifts to the edges of civilization on the road in the American West. First, I reread Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless, the young man who died in a remote Alaska van in the early 1990s and was immortalized by a Jon Krakauer book and a later film. Second, I finally got around to the most recent Best Picture winner at the Oscars, Nomadland, a loosely fictionalized version of an award-winning work of non-fiction on people dislocated by the Great Recession who took up a wandering van life. Their adventures tap into a very American thirst for the road, one I ruminated on while road tripping out west last year.

One could draw a sharp distinction between McCandless, a child of suburban privilege who rejected his well-off parents and his Emory degree to go look for something else, and Frances McDormand as Nomadland’s Fern, a woman who, penniless, has just lost both her husband and the employer that was her small town’s raison d’etre. But in each case, the wanderers are haunted by certain scars, and there is an obvious element of agency both in the decision to strike out in the first place and, more weightily, in the decision to stick with an itinerant life despite ample available off ramps. These people are destined to wander, either because they have rejected anything that used to hold them to a place or because whatever that thing was is no longer there.

To strike out like these late capitalist nomads takes a certain headstrong confidence and a rare dose of independence, plus a yearning desire for something that the familiar motions of life cannot offer. No more will they be chained to anything other than a short-term job, and they strip down their possessions to the essentials. Forget any pursuit of wealth; getting by is just fine. In place of a mortgage or rent, a van or even just a tent. Any family they have is ripped from them, and the most wrenching moments in these stories come from the perspective of those who love them: McCandless’s parents and especially his sister, or in Dave, the tender fellow wanderer who asks Fern to join him when he finally settles down. Sadly for their loved ones but grippingly for those of us drawn to their stories, the call for these nomads is too powerful for them to settle down.

There is plenty to admire in the life they choose. Both stories paint a laudatory portrait of the support networks that emerge along the edges of civilization, among the fellow travelers and the kindly souls who take in our vagabonds. Both McCandless and Fern find genuine companionship among fellow itinerants and simple folk who live in scattered outposts across the West. The stray jobs that our protagonists work, in greasy diners and for seasonal harvests and as campground hosts, while low-paying and each offering their own unique indignities, do not come off as hellish: they offer community and stray sources of amusement and sustain the wandering lifestyle. When Fern visits a well-off sister and endures the scorn of her husband and friends, the sister rises to her defense: Fern is taking her place in a long and noble American tradition, freed by her wanderlust to do as she chooses and make the best of a difficult situation. Who are we to judge?

Accounts like Into the Wild and Nomadland can glaze over the risks of a life on the road: robbery, rape, the mental instability that often comes in groups of those on the margins. Most people living some version of the itinerant life do not have fallbacks like Emory degrees or Dave with his well-off son, and some have children or ailing family members or other burdens that shed a different moral light on their wanderings. These stories run the risk of romanticizing an economy built on grueling manual labor for meager returns: Nomadland’s look into Amazon warehouses and farm work is one of light-touch neutrality, with only a vague sense of how backbreaking it can be and not a hint of the immigrants who make up a large chunk of these workforces. There is triumph in making the most of difficult situations, yes, but are we okay with what got us here in the first place?

And sometimes the wanderers wind up dead. McCandless’s story still courts controversy: is he a naïve idiot who wandered unprepared into the Alaskan backcountry, or a folk hero who had the boldness to do what he wanted to do? Krakauer, who had his own bout of youthful wanderlust, is sympathetic to his impulses, if not to all of his actions. For everything modernity has achieved, it has flattened the acceptable outlets for human self-expression and soul-searching, of any experience that goes beyond certain moral and rational bounds that control a society’s definition of a responsible life. This is especially burdensome for the idealists, and for whom a responsible life has given only suffering. Deadened by the world around them, Fern and McCandless look for a shock that goes to the edge and contemplates mortality, that adds urgency back and purpose back into a bourgeois life. Human connection feels rawer here, more meaningful, a chosen community of people who have all taken some version of the same leap. A society that allows for such informality and freedom of movement for those who choose it does not strike me as a bad one, even if the choice of that life can sometimes have grave consequences.

I write these words right before I start in on another summer with its share wandering with tents, of voluntary renunciation of creature comforts for a thin air mattress far from cell service or indoor plumbing. This all happens after a year of extensive nesting into a new home that I am very fond of; the wandering road is one I have now closed off for myself. Perhaps this is because the questions that motivated a McCandless have inserted themselves into my life in other ways and found different answers, or perhaps I am merely intrigued by stories of people who do things I would never be inclined to do.

But there’s still a hint of that tug, which is part of the allure to a northern Minnesota weekend warrior. There is peace in knowing that all that matters is making it to the next camp and then completing the mundane tasks of food and shelter before moving on and doing it all again. The endless to-do list and scheming of next moves is gone, or viewed from a comfortable distance and penned in a notebook. It is not unlike the life of some friends who now have small children: the needs are simple and straightforward, a semi-regular schedule of meeting basic desires and making the rest work from there. The tyranny of choice recedes, though knowledge of other paths may still loom. It is a return to an earlier state of fewer expectations and fewer burdens, disconnected from the hyperactive hive mind of modern work.

It was hard not to see these two works through a lens of another book I just read, Annalee Newitz’s Four Lost Cities, an account of how people in a few great cities of antiquity adapted even as natural and political disasters upended their worlds. The era of monumental construction and close quarters living may have been over, and emperors or local elites may have fallen, but the people mostly went on with life, reverting to earlier forms of subsistence and steadiness to get by. Whether through preparation or necessity, modern-day nomads learn a bevy of essential survival skills, and in the event of any coming ruin, would be among the better guides. A nomadic life is an insightful return to the past in more ways than one.

It is harder and harder to get off the grid now. Even in the early 90s, McCandless was within easy walking distance of civilization if he’d bothered to bring a map with him; his decision not to was both a manufactured act of rebellion and, ultimately, a death sentence. Now, one can trace his whole route meticulously on GoogleMaps, and in 2020, Alaskan authorities airlifted his old bus out to a museum in Fairbanks because too many clueless pilgrims were risking their lives visiting it. A mysterious monument that appeared in the Utah desert in the past year, its location kept intentionally secret, was located within days by enterprising satellite map explorers. We now have the ability to fill every last blank space on a map, to be surveilled every step of the way. But the actual taste of those worlds outside the confines of social expectation and economic perpetual motion, the rawness that can meet some deep animal need in both the ambitious and the bloodied: for those among us who need to look beyond to find ourselves, well, that is something no map can contain. The road beckons.

Climbing Everest: Into Thin Air Revisited

Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilized world.

—José Ortega y Gasset, in the epigraph to Into Thin Air

The first snowstorm of the year has engulfed Duluth, and I have rather fittingly spent my snow day re-reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a bestselling account of a 1996 disaster on Mount Everest.

Krakauer, a longtime outdoors writer with a thing for prepositional phrases (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven), was sent to Nepal by Outside magazine to do a piece on the increased commercialization of mountain climbing. It was also a chance for a longtime mountain climber to pursue a life goal, and while he had no Himalayan mountaineering experience prior to his trip, he was clearly one of the strongest client climbers on the mountain that year, being the first to summit on May 10, despite having to wait for and pass countless slower climbers along the way. His piece, however, took an entirely different turn when tragedy struck that day, leading to the deaths of eight mountain climbers.

Of course, Krakauer’s apparent prowess despite his lack of experience points to one of the key issues with the 1996 climbing season: many of the climbers on Everest that year had little business being there. His book centers around two private companies, Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, each comprising of three guides and eight client climbers. The clients had some experience, but only one was a real mountaineering champion; most were wealthy doctors with a climbing hobby. The Mountain Madness expedition included Sandy Hill Pittman, a New York socialite and journalist who had Sherpas haul luxuries into base camp and a satellite phone most of the way up the mountain. After the book came out, she was brutally caricatured and ridiculed, but it’s hard not to diagnose naïveté in a woman who set out on a journey known to pose great risks as if it were a sightseeing tour in the Appalachians.

And, all in all, those two firms were better than many of the others. The lead guides, Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants and Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness, were very experienced climbers who had made an art of helping inexperienced climbers up Everest. Many of their fellow expeditions could claim no such expertise. The Montenegrins who attempted to summit the day before were supposed to lay down rope on some of the highest reaches of the mountain, but wasted all their rope on relatively easy stretches. An incompetent Taiwanese leader shrugged off the death of a member of his party the day before and tried to soldier up the mountain on the same day as the two firms, adding to the bottleneck and later needing to be rescued by Sherpas from the Mountain Madness team. And then there was the South African expedition, led by a complete con man who tried to profit off of a post-Apartheid reconciliation scheme; he refused to loan out his satellite phone as people died on the mountain, and a member of his expedition died a few weeks later, on the day he successfully summited. On the Tibetan side of the mountain, a Japanese party climbing the subsequent day ignored three half-dead Indians, with one of their number claiming there was “no room for morality” at that elevation.

Mountain-climbing is frequently employed as a metaphor for many other things in life, and usually in a positive light. It involves the overcoming of obstacles, or even the attainment of grace, as in Martin Luther King’s final address, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop.” I’ve never climbed anything that requires any technical skill, but I can certainly identify with the thrill of racing up a large hill or mountain and standing astride its peak. It taps into some primal human instinct to conquer and lord over things, a drive that we never can get rid of, no matter how hard we may try.

Actually climbing the world’s tallest mountain, however, is an utterly miserable experience. Everest’s summit, at 29,000 feet, is at roughly the same cruising altitude as an airplane. Simply getting to base camp requires a trek at altitude that is enough to cause health problems for many. Nothing grows on the mountain, save a few patches of moss; it is a heap of rock and ice, with glaciers shifting and office tower-size chunks falling unpredictably. The mountain is littered with garbage such as spent oxygen cans, though people have tried to clean it up in recent years. It is also littered with feces: the lodges along the trek to the mountain are absolutely putrid, often causing sickness that has nothing to do with thin air. And then there is the climb, with threats of severe altitude sickness along the way. Many people can only go a few steps without resting once they near the top, and no one can think half as clearly as they can at a lower elevation, even with bottled oxygen. Rescue attempts by helicopter are very dangerous undertakings; there is barely enough air for a chopper’s rotors to generate any lift, and the rescue of two severely frostbitten climbers from 20,000 feet in 1996 was, at the time, the highest rescue ever staged. Temperatures far below zero and near-constant hurricane-force winds make a mockery of this Minnesota winter that’s driven me under a blanket with a cup of tea.

And yet the desire to climb Everest consumes people, even when they know the odds they face. Three of the four deaths in the Adventure Consultants party might be partly attributable to the drive of Doug Hansen, a man who had twice failed to summit Everest and would not stop, despite lagging severely due to several ailments. Hall, perhaps understanding that drive, ignored his own protocols and never tried to turn him around; junior guide Andy Harris, who was already dazed to the point of delirium after losing his oxygen supply, stayed high on the mountain to make an ill-advised rescue attempt. All three men perished when a storm pinned them to Everest’s highest ridges.

Krakauer is meticulous in detailing everything that went wrong on the mountain, as best as he could from the oxygen-starved memories of his fellow climbers. Though he tried not to assign too much fault, his account rankled many people, including the family of the deceased guide Scott Fischer, who thought no one deserved to be blamed. Krakauer makes note of Hall’s criticism of the way Fischer handled his Sherpas (one of whom died of injuries sustained in an avalanche lower on the mountain earlier in the expedition), and also presumes Fischer was responsible for asking his most powerful Sherpa to practically tow Pittman up part of the mountain. (If successful in her climb, Pittman’s celebrity would have been a boon to Fischer’s business.) The Sherpa in question would otherwise have been laying rope at the head of the column, which could have spared the climbers several bottlenecks and conceivably gotten most, if not all, back to Camp Four by the time the storm hit. To be fair, Krakauer also notes that his own presence might have spurred Hall to push his team farther than he should, and also talks of his guilt over failing to notice Harris’s troubles and twice being wrong about his whereabouts.

Perhaps the greatest controversy revolved around Anatoli Boukreev, a Kazakh guide for Mountain Madness who was arguably the most skilled climber on the upper reaches of the mountain that day. Boukreev, claims Krakauer, had a different concept of guiding from everyone else, summiting the mountain without oxygen and sparring with Fischer some over his relative inattention to clients. Still, Boukreev was strong enough to return to camp long before the others, and recharged before heading out on a rescue operation in which he saved two climbers’ lives. Fischer, who was probably very sick before the ascent, was the only person in the Mountain Madness party to die, whereas four Adventure Consultants team members died, and a fifth was left for dead before miraculously wandering back into camp.

The upshot of all of this was the fact that the 1996 climbing season was, in fact, less deadly than the average up to that point. (The average has improved since then due to much higher traffic on the mountain, though the raw number of deaths on the mountain still hovers around 5.4 per year, including ten in each of the past two years.) The trash and the feces are not the most glaring things left behind on the slopes of Everest. Those would be the human bodies frozen in place all along the route up the mountain, a graveyard that only grows as the years pass.

The easy conclusion here is that people who try to climb Everest are insane, and there is some truth to that. But insanity endures. The commercialization of Everest hasn’t slowed one bit since 1996, and with such a high demand, Nepal and China are unlikely to stop issuing as many permits as they can. For many local Sherpas, the mountain offers the only road out of poverty. In an age in which practically everything has been climbed, mountaineers have to contrive increasingly crazy ways to achieve fame: fastest ascents, ascents without oxygen, skiing down the mountain, or summiting at unusually old or young ages. (A 13-year-old made it to the top in 2010, though Nepal and China did crack down on age limits after the controversy surrounding that expedition.) Mountain climbers are creatures apart from the rest of us, perhaps, but they feed off a desire that transcends simple egotism. Anatoli Boukreev died in an avalanche on the world’s deadliest mountain, Annapurna, just one year after the Everest disaster. Here is his memorial at its base camp:

 

“Mountains are not stadiums where I practice my ambition to achieve. They are cathedrals where I practice my religion.” Lofty words, to be sure. But they also go to the root of that still-poorly-understood part of the human psyche that drives people to achieve great things; that part where our love for some thing or someone becomes a religious drive that gives life meaning. We need not all take it so literally, but we do need mountains to climb, and while we cannot remain at the top for long without running out of air, the moment of victory can last a lifetime.

In the meantime, though, excuse me as I pull the blinds on these gale-force winds and massive waves on Lake Superior, and crawl a bit further under my blanket. The next book I read is going to be about an adventure in the Amazon or the Sahara or something.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.