Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Middle of Nowhere Does Not Exist

Early in the summer of 1990 I took a needed break from the intense months-long "zone" I'd lived in writing my dissertation.  As I weighed the relative advantages of the Catskills and northeastern Vermont, a little African -American girl sitting on the floor with her older sister in the New Haven Public Library made my decision for me.  Her ejaculative "Mr. Moose!" decided me on the spot, and led me to find a Vermont guide book to hiking trails--an old Vermont guide book, as it turned out.  

Hiking a trail from its pages, and ignoring the overgrown grass at the trailhead, after several hours of complete human solitude I discovered bear scat on the way down.  The probable source of said scat emerged charging loudly through seriously tangled underbrush a few minutes later, on a course that in 40 yards or so would have landed it squarely on me.  This adult black bear, 400'ish lbs., possessed a beauty I did not comprehend until it stopped, smelled the air, saw me with nostrils widened in shock, and turned to run from me in a tight circle, muscles rippling under black-brown fur, approximately as afraid of me as I of it.  

When I asked back at my lodgings how commonly one saw bears in the area, the owner asked where I'd seen the bear.  To my answer, he incredulously responded:  "What the hell were you were doing there?  Nobody's maintained that trail for years."  Only then did I check the date on my fourteen year-old guide book, the first thing one does with a scholarly resource.  I'd made a mistake unthinkable on my dissertation, but in circumstances that, had things gone badly enough, could have cost me my life, something my dissertation would unlikely ever do.  Fortunately my instincts--to stand stock still and silent, though a dragged heel may have caught the bear's attention in the first place, and possibly just as well--corresponded precisely to the appropriate response.  

That afternoon I went biking, at the advice of locals, at a remote lake known for its population of moose, but the bear had spooked me.  I had visions of a bull moose charging me, and turned back a couple of miles down the access road, itself absent of human contact.  My long-cherished hope of seeing a moose would have to wait.  

Later that same trip, and far less frighteningly, I drove up to the southern tip of Lake Memphremagog (Magog, for short), and decided to ride my bike into Canada, Quebec for the sake of precision.  There I experienced a phenomenon I had noticed before, that borders sometimes make a difference.  Kathleen Norris writes about the absolute trasnparency of the border between South and North Dakota, which she can see looking north from her yard in Lemmon, SD.  Many of the borders out west result from surveyors, both American and British, simply extending a line along a parallel of latitude.  

In the eastern U.S. and Canada, though, those lines seem far less arbitrary.  When I crossed the international border at Beebe Plain, having dealt with an incredibly nice customs agent who agreed I had the perfect day for a bike ride, the landscape changed immediately.  Within a mile the heavily forested Vermont landscape--I hadn't seen a farm in miles, though I'd ridden past a couple the day before--opened up into a rolling farmland cleared for miles in either direction.  The distant White Mountains and disappeared.  I had crossed not just just a border but a boundary.  

The French Riviera to the Italian; far northeastern Italy (past Udine) into Austria; Poland into Slovakia; the Romanian provinces of Maru Mures into Moldova/Bukovina through the Carpathians.  All these offer recognizable, if sometimes subtle, transitions.  For all these, though, one can think of transitions without any clear marker:  Tuscany to Umbria, Tuscany to Lombardy (until one has penetrated well inside either region), Connecticut to Massachusetts.  Often borders yield their secrets, as in a couple of the examples given, only after one has passed them for some time.

Now, traveling near the borders of countries with which we have no diplomatic relations lends one a different responsibility than that of a casual tourist or business traveler in a car or on a train.  Either of those will more than likely take you to a customs station, unless the car traveler specifically wants to dodge customs on obscure roads, at which point they bear clear responsibility for whatever happens.

Al Gore's journalists, and the free-lancers now presumably in Iranian detention, appear to have made a mistake more like mine when I used a badly out-of-date map.  I don't know that a good up-to-date map exists for northeastern Iraqi Kurdistan.  A careful journalist probably would have wanted to leave a margin for error, or a bigger one.  Journalism, however, at its roots stems from curiosity.  Foreign correspondents in war zones take risks before they've brushed their teeth in the morning that most of us will never take in our lives, forget about what they've done by dinnertime.  Free-lancers have less backup than those working full-time for major news organizations, but even the latter take risks that would make most of our hair stand on end.

We won't know the full story until and unless the journalists and their companion in the Kurdistan case gain release, if they do.  Bill Clinton received a welcome in N. Korea--in fact gain entrance at all--because he has dealt with them before, and has their respect.  He and the Obama administration probably made the release of Al Gore's employees from detention a precondition of his trip.  To whom can we turn with such credentials to deal with the Iranians?

But these questions beg the more important one.  If borders can offer such blurred distinctions, or none at all, as in the cases of the Kurdish-Iranian and Chinese-North Korean borders, why do countries invest such charged stakes in them?  Central Americans in southern Texas clearly do not want to stay there.  Kurdistan, however, seems to offer a rather remote, difficult, long, and ultimately very vulnerable route into Iran.  Two journalists operating openly with camera crews on the Chinese-N. Korean border hardly seem to have acted with the subtlety one associates with espionage.  These two countries, Iran and North Korea, have one thing in common beyond their nuclear ambitions:  fear.  Our power frightens them, dwarfing theirs.  Our culture frightens them, threatening their discipline.   More than anything, though, contact frightens them, even in the case of a young Arabic speaker who does not know Farsi.

Borders matter to both countries; they have in many places a semi-sacred quality.  Since the Iranians consider the Kurds apostate, perhaps one can say sacred without exaggerating.  An unmarried couple traveling together offends and frightens the Iranians; westernized Chinese-Americans signal a way of life banned in North Korea, despite Kim Jong Il's fascination with it.  Both countries fear any sign of American espionage at a very fragile moment.  What look to us like attractive young professional women and some slightly disoriented if not foolish young free-lancers and their traveling companion, look to the North Koreans and the Iranians as frightening as the bear and I looked to each other that noontime in the woods overlooking Lake Willoughby.  

1 comment:

  1. I love the image of you facing the bear. I love that he was just as scared as you were. So often, we feel we must prepare for the worst. Clang the pots to heaven as they instruct or just meet adversity head on.

    In self-help literature, we read about the road less traveled and the Robert Frost inspired path not taken. Often, this advice is hollow as both the author and the reader will never heed the advice.

    You did. You stopped in the middle of your dissertation to get perspective like so few of us would ever consider. We just plod along and feel sorry for ourselves.

    It is crucial to heed borders and to figure out how to cross them. You did both and are an example to all who read you.