Sunday, January 5, 2014

Writer Overcomes Roadblocks to Bike to the Lowest Places on Earth

Jim Malusa is only able to reach escape speeds with a Patagonian breeze at his back or on the last curve down to the Gulf of Aqaba. He presents an irresistible target as he pedals to the lowest points on six continents. His book, Into Thick Air, is equally hard to pass up.

People seem to lie in wait for Jim. An Afar man who teaches English in Djibouti, an Australian family that lives in a “dust bowl shack with whip snakes in the outhouse and a pedal radio for communications,” and a Russian wedding party filling the only cafĂ© in town, all ambush him and force their hospitality, food, water pipes, and drinks on him. The drinks often contain alcohol, which both delays him and slows his progress when he finally wobbles away. Jim faces many obstacles in his travels--missing his young family, battling headwinds, and struggling up hills--but only fails at one: resisting the temptation to stop and talk. And eat. And drink.
A Jordanian family welcomes the American bicyclist passing their house. They show him every photograph they own, feed him goat soup, dress him in local clothing, entertain him with card games, and give him breakfast after he spends the night. By then, they knew each other’s stories, because, “[g]uest and host knew that they would only have this day, so they had to tell everything about themselves that day.” Jim must have used each of his nine Arabic phrases more than once during the visit.

Other characters that catch the author’s eye and impede his progress include a “four-pound rat-dog with a fogged-over eye;” a Coptic priest who is a Mr. Natural look alike; a hyena, the “slouching prince of poor posture and worse dental hygiene,” that he imagines he hears from his sleeping bag at Wadi Rum; and a Russian musician who “follows the international dress code of accordion players and appears to be from a neighboring planet.”
If you’re looking for a book on bicycle maintenance, this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, there are useful tips: a good weld on the frame of your bike can hold from Moscow to the Caspian Sea (verified by Jim), and installing a second inner tube, and a second hole in the rim for the valve stem, will let you repair a flat without tools: just pump up the second tube (unverified).

If you want to know the best times to visit the most famous museums in the world, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re looking for a guide book to five star--no, four star-- no…OK, if you require any stars, or hot water, in your hotels, this isn’t the book for you.

If you’re looking for a fact-dense history of the areas Jim pedals through, this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, he does provide intriguing factoids that could bolster street cred in the right circles: Henry David Thoreau endorsed celibacy, Moscow was twice burned by invaders in the 16th century, and the Las Vegas, NV Yellow Pages devoted 92 of those pages to Entertainment, Adult the day he visited.

This is biologist Jim Malusa’s first book. Several of the journeys originally appeared on Discovery Channel Online. In his quotidian life, he hasn’t strayed far from home. Jim still lives in Tucson, where he grew up and studied writing with Ed Abbey. His story telling skills are no secret in his home town: he is one of Barbara Kingsolver’s favorite writers.

My only warning is to think twice about reading Into Thick Air if those close to you already question your grip on reality. Your chuckles, guffaws, and belly laughs will confirm their suspicions.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2013 Sugar Beet Harvest Was a Challenging One

Metal dinosaurs come to life each fall across southern Idaho. Joints flex and belts whir to life at rural crossroads from Blackfoot to Nampa. Convoys of trucks unload sugar beets into the clanking creatures through the short fall days and into headlight-filled nights.

The beet dragons arrange the roots into tidy piles that demonstrate betaine physics in their angle of repose.

Trucks shoulder past each other on the narrow roads between the “beet dumps” and the fleets of harvesters in the fields.

Each harvester is attended by a bevy of trucks waiting their turn for a high horsepower, high volume pas de deux across the corduroy soil. As one truck is filled and peels off, another smoothly cuts in to take its place.
When the beet fields are empty and the dumps are full, larger trucks carry the beets, which look like sturdy, white garden beets, to processing plants. The plants extract from the lumpily pyramid-shaped roots the granulated white sugar we use in cooking. Livestock eat the high fiber beet pulp that is left.

In 2013, Idaho sugar beet growers produced record high yields, but were hit by a double whammy of low sugar content in the beets and low prices for the crop. I wrote about the challenges of this year’s harvest in a recent issue of the Intermountain Farm & Ranch section of the Idaho Falls Post Register. Growers hope that new higher-sugar beet varieties and careful management will boost sugar contents, and profits, next season.