July 06, 2009

Deserts of the Heart

With the title "Deserts of the Heart", this essay I wrote is in the current issue of Open magazine. (Some of what's in it has been in this space before, though not this version).

Comments welcome.


There were times, trudging across Madagascar's Masoala peninsula, that my eyes would brim over.

My straps cut grooves in my shoulders; my thighs screamed for relief. Socks like sandpaper, they left my soles so raw that each step promised greater agony. Then the tears would flow, seemingly on their own. Tears of anger, frustration and pain. Without doubt, this was the hardest thing I had ever done. The tears mocked me and my romantic notions about this trip. And when I'd arrive at some tiny village at nightfall, I'd fall into an exhausted, dreamless sleep. Next day, pain again.

And yet, and yet ... when it was over, when I look back from years later, I know. Given the chance, I would leap to do it once more: sweating, hurting, weeping -- but trudging along just the same. Because I remember, too, what drove me. I remember the exhilaration.

I remember, like a precious gift.

I went to Masoala after several years feeling a vague and growing disquiet. Through school and university, I didn't do too badly, but not too well either: always, just enough to get by. At work, I was recognized for something one year; laid off the next; found another job, boom, just like that. Aimless that way, I muddled through five jobs in eight years. It just came easy.

Maybe too easy. Nothing in my life really pushed me; I wasn't pushing myself.

And that itself was getting me uneasy. Something inside murmured words I could ignore only so long: you're comfortable, but where's the passion? The excellence? The determination? Yes, where's the exhilaration?

I think that's why I found myself in Masoala: struggling 150 km across that remote peninsula on a demanding trek; alone like never before, loved ones at least oceans, and several days to the nearest telephone, away. Physically, emotionally, it was tougher than anything I had done in my life. But I craved this: find and surmount a challenge like none before; prove to myself that it didn't always have to be easy.

I had to exorcise, once and for all, that unease.

It really did take me several years to understand what my hike across Masoala had done for me. And it all came into focus when I read John Krakauer's Into the Wild. In it, Krakauer traces what happened to Chris McCandless, a young man who disappeared after he graduated from Emory University in 1990. In 1992, McCandless was found dead in Alaska's Denali National Park.

It's an utterly compelling book, most of all because of the parallels Krakauer sees, in his own life, to McCandless's tragedy. Seeking to escape from the comfortable existence that might easily have been his, Krakauer had deliberately sought out dangerous, difficult challenges through his life. And at one point in Into the Wild, he writes:

"As a young man, I was unlike McCandless in many important regards. I possessed neither his intellect nor his lofty ideals ... [But] I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of the soul."

I brooded over those words for a long time, conscious of the chords they struck in me, memories of my Masoala trek churning through my mind. Now I was unlike either McCandless or Krakauer in many other important regards. I never did have the intensity or the heedlessness; nor the intellect and ideals. Hard as I found that trek to complete, it wasn't remotely as difficult or dangerous as the experiences McCandless and Krakauer had had.

For these reasons, I don't want to overdo the comparisons.

But I couldn't help making them. Into The Wild set off echoes in my mind of my travels in Madagascar, enough that the book affected me more than I thought possible. For I think I know what Krakauer meant when he wrote of the "agitation of the soul." I think I felt some of it too, before Madagascar and Masoala.

Through the gut-wrenching loneliness, I answered a lot of questions. Maybe I even proved myself, to myself. Yet here's the funny thing: I never have rid myself of the unease. Through the tears, I learned that it cannot, but should not, be quelled or exorcised. I understood how it would fling me into a challenge, drive me till I overcame it. I came to welcome unease, to appreciate how it fuels so much.

The agitation, the restlessness of the soul. Like an old buddy murmuring those words to me. After Masoala, I'm a believer.


km said...


Loved the post, but I hope you will write a longer post about this "agitation of the soul".

K said...

Loved it.

I had liked The movie as well "Into the wild" directed by Sean penn.

If you get a chance listen to the title piece by Eddie Vedder.