Reconfiguration

I’ve been fantasizing about a friend of mine. He’s clever and irreverent, and he has lips I’m dying to taste. All too often, I find myself distracted by the thought of coaxing him into bed. It’s irrational. But I need to feel the cadence of his breath against my ear.

I understand him well enough to know he’ll bite me and call me “baby.” But I wonder what book he might have with him, what book he’ll hold up beneath low lights and read aloud to me in bed. I think about interrupting him — limbs entangled, flesh warm and flushed — then settling back against the pillows while he fumbles again to find his page.

During our casual conversations, I’m inevitably tempted to ask him what books he has read lately. His quick answers and sometimes lengthy explanations do nothing to dispel my desire to feel his hands tight around my hips.

He fell asleep with his hands palm up before him like some dozing penitent. When he woke it was still dark. The fire had died to a few low flames seething over the coals.
— Cormac McCarthy, “The Crossing”

The night before my daughter was born, I awoke with aching hips and back. Nerves electric, I couldn’t return to sleep. Nothing offers such consistent comfort late at night as a book within reach. So, in darkness, I grabbed Cormac McCarthy’s “The Crossing” from the floor beside the bed and headed to the living room.

Hauling myself up from the couch an hour later, I retrieved a book of maps I’d re-stolen from a boyfriend who once dared claim it. It is tattered and taped together. Pages are ripped and tucked back in. Notes line the margins.

Spread out upon the floor, I followed McCarthy’s wolf’s crossing from Mexico into the United States, and Billy Parnham’s trek across New Mexico’s Boot Heel. I ended up that night on tangents and side trips, tracing my fingers along routes I’d previously traveled — and forgetting that I was about to embark on a journey that, for a while at least, would have little to do with dry washes.

When my water broke the next morning, and a friend drove me to the hospital, I packed “The Crossing” and stubbornly read it through labor. A crossing, to be sure.

The mountains had withdrawn somewhere beyond the horizon, and we rode in the midst of a great bowl of desert, rolling up at the edges to meet the furnace-blue of the Mexican sky. Now that I was out of the coach, a great silence, and a peace beyond anything I ever felt, wrapped me around. It is almost impossible to get objective about the desert; you sink into it—become a part of it.
— John Reed, “Insurgent Mexico”

Three nights after giving birth — love-struck, sore and full of milk — I lie in the bathtub. Avoiding helpful visitors and feebly clinging to my identity as a journalist, I was reading for review Doug Peacock’s book,

“Walking It Off: A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness.”

Page after page — turning the hot water tap with my foot, prolonging the bath for as long as possible — I followed Peacock’s attempts to integrate himself into his own new family. “The hideous solidarity of the dead was at these times probably more important than my marriage. I wanted to serve and love my children, yet this second calling could not be reconciled with what I called everyday life. After the messy chores of combat, you wanted to wash up a little bit before you played with the kids,” he wrote.

“Sometimes it took months of scouring isolation to cleanse the blood from your hands.”

I ended up crying in the bathtub that night. I didn’t cry for traumatized veterans or massacre victims at Mai Lai. No, these were selfish tears of self-pity. I had only just then realized how definitively my life had changed. I already missed wandering the desert, thinking of nothing more than warm red rocks and the taste of whiskey.

Despite the obvious differences between our circumstances, I understood blood and second callings.

The landscape is a trick to make us miss our lives.
— Charles Bowden, “Desierto”

Thirteen years ago, I stood alongside Route 666 near Towaoc, Colorado, staring up at a sky I’d never imagined real and waiting for the pound of thunder.

Much has changed since then. That road no longer bears the label of Devil’s Highway; there’s a giant casino and a palatial new gas station. And during those intervening years, I have moved and moved again (and again and again, always hauling boxes of books), changed careers, gotten pregnant, been married and divorced. And moved again.

And yet some things never change.

This spring, I drove away from a series of phone calls that left me boiling in a rage. I’d spent that rage in retribution, wreaking havoc before standing again near Towaoc, looking at that sky as though for the first time. Deciding to rest near Cortez, I pulled a sleeping bag, headlamp and book from the trunk of the car. When morning inevitably dawned, I could pause and breathe the scent of sage, then drive home in peace.

…When I pull solace from your pages to wipe my brow, I

admit I feel less like a freak, as if indulging in ink was

a form

of communion, one beetled brow knit unto another.

— Lisa Gill, “Poem V.” in “Red as a Lotus: Letters to a Dead Trappist”

It’s been this way for many years. While the cast of characters within my life has shifted and changed, I return again and again to certain landscapes. And books: They’ve always helped tether me when life’s meaning seemed at one moment or another to be slipping away.

I can remember when letters clicked into words, words into sentences upon the page. It was late summer, and my older brother and I shared the third-to-last step of our parent’s back porch. (“Dick and Jane.” It was the 1970s.) Ever since that moment, at the age of four, books have been a source of wonder, knowledge and inspiration. I spent a childhood dreaming of escape from small-town existence; books were the handiest way to imagine other lives in different places.

It’s no wonder the life I’ve since carved out for myself is one that revolves around words.

And not, by the way, those words upon a computer screen, though it’s easiest to form and reform them there. With all its temptations and conveniences, the Internet weakens my wonder at the written word. My favorite writers are the ones who end up in bed with me; books propped up against the pillow, I devour their words until entirely too late at night.

That’s not to say I don’t abuse and depend upon the Internet. But I’d rather life — and reading — remain a tactile experience. Books have a heft and scent; words can be underlined and repeated over and over again. Magazine pages wrinkle and fold; pictures to save can be ripped out with a satisfying tear.

My affinity for print is akin, perhaps, to my wonder at the ways in which bodies fit against one another. Streaming videos and endless Internet eye candy be damned: I demand more time reading, less time typing; less time facing off alone against a screen and more time licking fingers and kissing napes. I’m greedy, after all: I want the flesh-and-blood man who, in bed, will read me something very good.

Laura Paskus is a writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

High at Low

Why the highest summits are at low latitudes

By M. Michael BradyAmerican and European mountaineers have long known that, if you want altitude, go south. After Alaska became a State in 1959, Americans could add “or north” to that rule, as the elevation of the summit of Denali (Mount McKinley) is more than a vertical mile above any peak in the traditional continental 48 States. But the old rule still holds, as the summit elevation of Anconcagua in Argentina is the highest outside Asia and nearly half a vertical mile higher than that of Denali. Likewise, French mountaineers proudly point out that the summit of Mount Blanc is the highest point in Europe. But far south from there, the summit of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is two-thirds of a vertical mile higher. Moreover, no summit elevations in the Americas, Europe or Africa can match those of the world’s hundred highest peaks in the Himalaya and Karakoram of southern Asia.

Scientists have long reasoned that the greater number of high mountains at low latitudes is more than just a coincidence. Save for volcanoes, three effects are known to effect mountain height: the extent of tectonic uplift, the strength of the Earth’s crust at that point and the nature of subsequent erosion. For years, schoolchildren have learned about the third of the three effects. Americans know that erosion wore the ancient Appalachians down to elevations lower than the newer Rockies, and Norwegians know that glaciation left their mountains lower than the Alps.

Yet the interplay between uplift and erosion is not straightforward, because feedback between the two may be involved and there may be a link to climate. Moreover, the strength of the Earth’s crust has effects not yet completely understood, although it’s thought to be decisive in limiting the elevations of large high plateaus, such as those in Tibet and in the central Andes. Many theories of the underlying mechanisms have been advanced, and earth scientists have been debating them for decades. But now research conducted by scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark has provided a unifying explanation.

David Egholm and colleagues at the University’s Department of Earth Sciences processed satellite images of all large mountain ranges at latitudes from 60° North to 60° South to extract accurate data on the land surfaces and elevations, as well as the average elevation of the snowline in each range. Glacial erosion was estimated by computer modeling. These data were then indexed to the latitude
of the range.

They found that the warmer climates of low latitudes drive snowlines up, which in turn leads to higher mountains. Erosion was found to be more significant above the snowline, where glaciation can limit summit height. The summit of a mountain is seldom more than five thousand feet above its snowline. So mountains with higher snowlines tend to have loftier summits.

Surprising as it may seem, this research came out of a small, pool-table-flat, low-level country. Denmark’s area is about a sixth that of the State of Colorado; much of it is near sea level, and its highest point is at an elevation of 551 feet. But in the sphere that counts in such matters, scientific competence, Denmark towers. Natural scientists cannot escape Oerseted of the 19th century in magnetics or Bohr of the 20th in quantum mechanics. And no philosopher can escape Kierkegaard. The University of Copenhagen celebrated its tenth anniversary before Columbus sailed to discover the New World. Academic rigor is the rule rather than the exception in Denmark.

Moreover, many of the notable contributions to mountaineering have been made by lowlanders. Edward Whymper, famed for his first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, was born and spent most of his life in London, at an elevation of 79 feet. Likewise, Edmund Hillary, famed for his first ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953, was born and spent most of his life in and near Auckland, New Zealand at elevations seldom more than 650 feet. Arguably, lowland location may be a prerequisite to understanding heights. But that connection has yet to be studied.

M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. His Dateline: Europe column appears monthly in the Gazette.