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Immersed in the Mud of Life
By Don George
I’ve finally decided to unpack my hiking shoes. About a month ago I returned from a week-long immersion in rural northern Cambodia. My mission had been to stay with a family in a stilt house in a village of unpaved paths, and to explore the ruins that waited in the surrounding jungle gloom. Because of time and travel constraints, I was visiting during the rainy season, but that didn’t deter my explorations. Over the course of that week, I and my hiking shoes leapt over (and sometimes into) sudden streams, sloshed through ankle-deep puddles, glopped through ten-foot-long stretches of sole-sucking mud, crashed through clutching vines, stepped over furry millipedes, and stumbled on mossy picture-puzzle-pieces of massive rock carvings scattered on the jungle floor.
By the end of this adventure, my shoes looked like they’d been dipped in milk chocolate, and as I sat in my fan-cooled cottage in Siem Reap on the last night of my adventure, packing for the twenty-hour journey home, I briefly considered leaving my shoes behind. They had served me well, I reasoned, but they would not be serving me anymore.
Then I realized that doing so would be like leaving a quintessential part of my adventurea part of mebehind. So I wrapped each shoe in three plastic bags and stuffed them into the corners of my carry-on case. When I got home and unpacked, I placed the shoes, still securely shrouded in plastic, in my bedroom closet, thinking that I would figure out what to do with them later, at a time that would make itself known.
For the past two hours I’ve been sitting in my study, entranced by the stories in this anthology, and now, pieces have clicked into place inside me, and I’ve realized that the time has come to unveil the chocolate-covered shoes. I retrieve them from the closet and then, back in my study, heft one plastic-wrapped package and gingerly extricate the bags inside. Particles of mudmini-mementoes of Cambodian dirt and rainwaterfall onto my hardwood floor. I reach into the innermost bag and grab a heel, grainy and grimy, and as dirt sprays around me, pull the left shoe out. Soon the right shoe is resurrected as well.
I set the shoes like trophies on their plastic bags. They are spattered, splattered, scarred, and copiously caked in mud, and as I gaze at them, the jungle comes back to meor rather, I go back to the jungle. I feel the heavy humidity, the sweat pouring like an open spigot down my face and back, hear the mosquitoes whining in my ear, slap at them ineffectually, take my camera in sweaty hands to photograph an intricate carving of a voluptuous Khmer dancer on a twofoot by three-foot by two-foot stone block, partly hidden among lush ferns.
I’m again parting branches and vines, laboriously liberating myself from persistent stickers, wiping the sweat from my eyes, stopping for a precious swig of waterthe mosquitoes whining, dancing on my neck and handsstepping over tumbled pieces of rock, slipping and sliding, grabbing at branches to stop my fall, clambering over a half-intact wall to see a bas relief story unfold before me, warriors and musicians and fish alive in stone. I slip again, and narrowly avoid planting my palm atop a millipede. The hairy, feety nightmares are everywhere and I recall what my guide said when I asked if they could harm me: “Oh yes, if you touch one, you will die.”
Through a screen of green I discern a wall, a doorway, a crumbling tower, a stony facelips, nose, eyesat the top of the tilting stone. I fumble with my camera as rain starts to fall, first a pitter-patter on the forest canopy and then an insistent downpour that penetrates the branches and leaves, and soaks me from the red bandana on my head to the invisible rubber soles of my shoes.
Suddenly I’m back in my study in a San Francisco suburb. The sun is shining, hummingbirds are flitting in the dappled branches beyond my window. The whine of a distant lawn mower dances, stingless, in the air.
And then the pieces snap together: hiking shoestravel stories. Both take us places we never expected to go. The book you hold in your hands offers a spectacular collection of hiking shoes. Among them, Jill Robinson transports us to an illuminating rest stop standoff with a black mamba snake in Namibia, and Lisa Alpine takes us deep into the everyday wonders of an Amazon backwater. Tania Amochaev leads us on a rigorous journey to a remote Russian village in search of roots and relatives; through Jeff Greenwald, we discover the vividly ventricled heart of a natural landmark in Arizona. Lavinia Spalding guides us on a bittersweet birthday celebration through Cuba, Erin Byrne and Marcia DeSanctis excavate the layers of poignant pasts in Paris, Michael Shapiro searches for the soul of Dylan Thomas in Wales, and Amy Gigi Alexander maps the life-saving marvels that travel can sometimes confer.
Like my shoes, all the stories herein are battered, spattered, scarred. They’re immersed in the mud of life. And like my shoes, they’ve absorbed once inconceivable and now immeasurably enriching journeys.
So, I invite you to step into these stories, to embark on the magical, muddy adventures they hold. I can guarantee that you’ll go places you’ve never imaginedand unwrap lessons you’ll never forget.
* * *
Don George is the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing and the forthcoming The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George. Don has been a pioneering travel writer and editor for 40 years. He was the travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, founder and editor of Salon’s “Wanderlust” travel site, and global travel editor for Lonely Planet. He is currently an editor at large and columnist for National Geographic Traveler and the editor of BBC Travel’s “Words and Wanderlust” section. Don is the cofounder and chairman of the renowned Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. He has visited 90 countries and has published hundreds of articles in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites worldwide. He has also edited ten award-winning literary travel anthologies. He speaks and teaches regularly at conferences and on campuses around the world, and he is frequently interviewed on TV, radio, and online as a travel expert.
Table of ContentsPublisher’s Preface
Friends Who Don’t Bite
Jill K. Robinson
The Vanishing Art of Losing Your Way
Sarah Colleen Coury
The Marco Chronicles: To Rome, Without Love
What Is that Thing?
Inside the Tower
Notes into Lines
Into the Hills
Show Me, Shouyu
Fish Trader Ray
My First Trip to the Homeland
The Tea in Me
Stephanie Elizondo Griest
The Crap Between the Love and Us
Neil and I
From the Ashes
James Michael Dorsey
Ohio House Tour
I Have a Problem with the Blood of a Woman
Surfing the Millennia
In Search of Dylan Thomas
The Bloom of Cancer
Amy Gigi Alexander
The Lapham Longshot
NEW YORK CITY
Into the Cold
About the Editors