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The Ténéré Desert—13 Ways of Looking at a Void
By Michael Finkel

The Sahara's Ténéré is a chunk of the planet gone dead, 154,000 square miles [398,860 square kilometers] of nothing—except for faith, war, salt, beer, speed … and an urgent sense of what it is to be alive.

"Hell," says Mousaka. He raises a forefinger and circles it in the air, to indicate that he is referring to the whole of the void. I am sitting on Mousaka's lap. Mousaka is sitting on Osiman's lap. Osiman is sitting on someone else's lap. And so on—everyone sitting on another's lap. We are on a truck, crossing the void.

The truck looks like a dump truck, though it doesn't dump. It is 20 feet [6 meters] long and 6 feet [1.8 meters] wide, diesel powered, painted white.

One hundred and ninety passengers are aboard, tossed atop one another like a pile of laundry. People are on the roof of the cab, and straddling the rail of the bed, and pressed into the bed itself. There is no room for carry-on bags; water jugs and other belongings must be tied to the truck's rail and hung over the sides. Fistfights have broken out over half an inch of contested space.

Beyond the truck, the void encompasses 154,440 square miles [398,860 square kilometers], at last count, and is virtually uninhabited.

…Also on the truck are Tuareg and Songhai and Zerma and Fulani and Kanuri and Wodaabe [people]. Everyone is headed to Libya, where the drought that has gripped much of North Africa has been less severe and there are still crops to pick. … To get to [there] from the south, though, one must first cross the void.

The void is the giant sand sea at the center of the Sahara. It covers half of Niger and some of Algeria and a little of Libya and a corner of Chad. On maps of the Sahara, it is labeled, in large, spaced letters, "Ténéré"—a term taken from the Tuareg language that means "nothing" or "emptiness" or "void."

The Ténéré is Earth at its least hospitable, a chunk of the planet gone dead. Even the word itself, "Ténéré," looks vaguely ominous, barbed as it is with accents. In the heart of the void there is not a scrap of shade nor a bead of water nor a blade of grass. Most parts, even bacteria can't survive.

The void is freezing by night and scorching by day and wind-scoured always. Its center is as flat and featureless as the head of a drum. There is not so much as a large rock. Mousaka has been crossing the void for four days; he has at least a week to go. Except for prayer breaks, the truck does not stop. Since entering the void, Mousaka has hardly slept, or eaten, or drunk. He has no shoes, no sunglasses, no blanket. His ears are plugged with sand. His clothing is tattered. His feet are swollen.

This morning, I asked him what comes to mind when he thinks about the void. For two weeks now, as I've been crossing the Sahara myself, using all manner of transportation, I have asked this question to almost every person I've met. When the truck rides over a bump and everybody is jounced, elbows colliding with sternums, heads hammering heads, Mousaka leans forward and tells me his answer again. "The desert is disgusting," he says, in French. "The desert is hell." Then he spits over the side of the truck, and spits again, trying to rid himself of the sand that has collected in his mouth.

Get the full story—and 12 others ways of Looking at a Void—in the September/October 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

Adventure Online Extra
Life on Assignment: Sahara Crossing
Writer Michael Finkel shares field tales from his Adventure assignment in the Ténéré. Plus, online-only photos >>

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  The Everest Mess
By David Roberts

Five years after Into Thin Air, crowds, chaos, and egotism are making the death zone more dangerous than ever

At 1:30 in the morning on May 23, 2001, Chris Warner left Camp VI, at 27,200 feet [8,290 meters], and started toward the summit of Mount Everest. Heading up with him were 15 climbers from a team called Himalayan Experience. …

* * *

Warner summitted at a little after 10 a.m. On top, he would later report, he found "a summit jammed with damned people," many of whom had come up the opposite, south side of the mountain, each performing his or her own little victory ceremony. Someone was passing a phone around, asking, "Want to call your wife?"

Warner wrote, "On the summit, everyone does a presentation, like a high school talent contest with banners and flags." One climber from New England buried a Boston Red Sox cap that a Buddhist lama had blessed. Later, at Base Camp, he doused a New York Yankees cap with kerosene and burned it—his plea to the mountain goddess Chomolungma to end the Curse of the Bambino.

The celebrants whom Warner stood watching atop Everest were, in fact, merely a sampling of the climbers crowding the flanks of the mountain that week. More than 500 climbers from 49 expeditions attempted the summit this past season, virtually all on the two main routes—the South Col and Southeast Ridge line, by which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent, in 1953, and the more challenging North Face and Northeast Ridge, where George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine disappeared, in 1924. Elizabeth Hawley, who has been compiling Everest statistics from her home in Kathmandu since 1963, reports that 89 people reached the summit on May 23, a record.

After spending 15 minutes on the summit, Warner started down into a scene even more chaotic than the ascent's. "I found myself managing a lunatic asylum," he would later write of his efforts to maneuver his team through the bottlenecks of exhausted and "zoned out" climbers. …

* * *

Over the days of May 23 and 24, an interlocking series of follies, bad breaks, and altitude-related illnesses came very close to sparking a catastrophe that might have rivaled the 1996 debacle chronicled in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. In 1996, a surfeit of marginally qualified clients, the decisions of climbers to ignore their own turnaround deadlines, and a sudden storm created chaos on Everest, resulting in 12 deaths, including those of the immensely experienced guides Scott Fischer and Rob Hall.

In May 2001, only the genuine heroism of several climbers, combined with an abundance of good luck, prevented a similar outcome. Yet the scenario gave credence to the observation of one disenchanted veteran of the '96 campaign: "It's the fifth anniversary of the Everest disaster, and they haven't learned a f---ing thing."

Adventure Online Extra
Forum: Everest—Mountain of Trouble?
Has the spirit of Everest been lost? Sound off in our forum >>

Read the full story in the September/October 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

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  The Gila Test
By Gretchen Reynolds

The barbarous backcountry of southern New Mexico and Arizona has some of the West's wildest hiking, biking, and riding. Are you up to the challenge?

"What'd I do?" [my husband] Russell asks. "Is it the bike? I thought you said it would be OK to bring it."

Lamar shakes his head. "Nah. The bike's fine. It's just that there's so many folks around this mornin'. And you two are dressed so … colorful."

I look down at my jersey, which does have a certain mad, Chagall-ish verve. It had seemed fine—subdued, even, by cycling standards—when we'd set out this morning from our campsite south of here, near Trout Creek. It had been less gaudy, certainly, than the wildflowers clustered along Bill Lee Mesa. But now, at the turnoff to Bishop Canyon, our clothing feels … well, showy. …

* * *

The Gila region, where my uncle Lamar lives and punches cows, has long harbored successions of the cussed, the hermetic, the fibrous, the eccentric, the outcast, the hopeful, and the lost.

This 4-million-acre [1.6-million-hectare] stretch of barbarous New Mexico and Arizona backcountry, much of it within the borders of the Gila National Forest, is where Geronimo was born and Billy the Kid learned to shoot. Apache chief Mangas Coloradas once dangled his enemies over a fire pit near the Gila River until their brains boiled, and Butch Cassidy outmaneuvered a posse or two in the jagged, rocky canyons of the Mogollon Mountains. …

And now I have returned, with Russell, on one of my first extended visits as an adult. This, though, is not the landscape of my memory. Hikers now bound along tracks once used only by pronghorn antelope. Environmentalists, an alien species until a decade or two ago, have settled in. Increased federal restrictions on mining, ranching, and logging—the industries that have traditionally composed the region's economic base—have some locals feeling as though they are being edged out. Ugly incivility has flared. Three years ago, 11 Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced into the Gila's Blue Range Primitive Area over cattle ranchers' objections. Six were summarily shot.

But as Lamar, Russell, and I head deeper between razored cliffs and peaks, little of this seems to be affecting the land in easily visible ways. As always, it remains imperious, remote. …

Lamar reins in the bay horse. "You reckon you really can get them bicycles back into the far side of the canyon?" he calls back. "It's mighty rough."

From here, the canyon begins to narrow, the craggy walls growing closer, the roadless ground rockier. It's a good 2 miles [1.2 kilometers] to where the cows are. But we nod. We've come to help herd, and that's what we'll do. Lamar sighs. His jowled, septuagenarian face falls over itself in folds, like a child's bedsheet cave. "All right, then, I could use the assistance. The cows are spread all over this ridge." He glances at us again and rubs his cheek. "But…I don't know. This is all mighty strange." He kicks gently at the bay, and the two of them disappear into the canyon's chiaroscuro of sunlight and the spiky shadows of ponderosa pine.

Adventure Online Extra
Forum: The New Face of the West
Public land for what purpose? Sound off in our forum >>

Read the full story and an Adventure Guide to the Gila region in the September/October 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

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  Midwest Cycling: Riders of the Corn
By Robert Earle Howells

A cycling pilgrimage along Twain's mighty river

After five days of riding, our informal [roadkill] tally had pancaked possums in the lead, with plump coons quickly catching up; squirrels were a distant third, followed by birds and house cats. Barry decided to document our obsession, and it's a good thing he did. We would never have learned the sad story of Norma Jean, a local celebrity, if he hadn't.

As Barry drew a photographic bead on a big dead coon, a farmer named Fred Dixon pulled up in a vintage Ford pickup, plucked a pitchfork out of the truck bed, marched over to our deceased model, skewered it, and tossed it into a fenceside ditch. "No creature on Earth I hate more than these things. Carry rabies, you know. Where you headed?" South was the answer; it meant we absolutely had to visit the signature attraction in Oquawka [Illinois]—and Dixon etched the route with a key in the rust of his pickup hood.

A few miles later we stood beneath the town's water tower at a shrine to Norma Jean, a 6,500-pound [2,430-kilogram] circus elephant resting in peace exactly beneath the spot where lightning struck and killed her in 1972.

Norma Jean's saddened trainer, one Possum Red, buried her, and the townsfolk later erected a fitting memorial. A sign points the way: "Visit the Grave of Norma Jean." A second sign below adds a parenthetical clarification: "Elephant."

Read the full story, and get an Adventure Guide to Midwest cycling in the September/October 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

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October 2001 issue of Adventure.
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