Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Devil Drives

I've just finished a marvelous book, A Voyage for Madmen. Steve sent it to me—I'd never heard of it. It came out in 2002 when I was far from home.

Other fans of nutty explorer literature—a genre I am more than a little familiar with—probably know this book well. I guess I was too busy imitating nutty explorers at the time to pay much attention to the latest books. That was when I was going around the world by surface transport and then moved to Australia.

The book is an account of a 1968 solo non-stop race around the world, starring seven lunatics and two actual sailors. The writer asks of each man the question "Why the hell would he do that?" He deals well with each one's circumstance, dissecting what would push these men to seek out acclaim and challenge.

Why, then? Well, who knows. These things are unquantifiable. Some like a nice challenge. Some want to be famous. The top contestants are genuine sailors who are at home on the sea. But two of the odder men in the race were ones I could understand too-well. One is in so deep that he cannot find a way out—he starts telling little fibs that turn into big ones. He backs himself into a corner. Another becomes an almost-ran—this is the one whose situation gave me butterflies at the end. He struggles to go back to normal life after living the life of a grand adventurer. I've been there and believe I know exactly how he felt, know exactly what solutions he considered before choosing the direction he chose (no spoilers here). In the words of a certain wacky songwriter: I'm learning to cope with the emotionless mediocrity of day-to-day living.

The author's point that the voyage was undertaken in a time before cell phones and GPS made a point to me too. In 2001, I took my last great trip without electronics. Nothing I've done since and presumably nothing I'll ever do again will be without gadgets. I never go anywhere now without a phone, a digital camera, or my laptop. In 2001, wi-fi was in its infancy. Drivers were needed to move images off a camera and onto a computer, and files all had to be teensy to get them up onto the Internet. Gadgets were deadweight.

I'll never need a GPS—I don't exactly drive alone into the jungle or desert and my inner compass is hard to fool. But I'm in so deep on the digital front that I can't even imagine leaving town without my laptop. I certainly wouldn't go off into the jungle without my phone. Nor have I. Since sometime in 2002, I've had a phone and laptop practically glued to me.

Sigh. I can hear some of you sneering. Cut that out. I've more than earned my ability to choose my tools.

Anyway, A Voyage for Madmen quotes explorer Sir Richard Burton early on.

"The Devil drives," he said by way of explanation for his endeavors.

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