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Here's a radical idea for your next trip: Limit prep work to booking a hotel room for the first night and buying a decent map. Once you reach your destination, set off to meet the locals. They're the ones who will determine your itinerary.
The payoff for putting your plans in the hands of strangers? It leads to the kind of getaway where people are the adventure, personal relationships are the winding trails, and enlightenment is the summit.
Believe it or not, most people respond positively when I simply say, "I have come to your country to learn more about [insert subject here]. Can you help me?"
There are mullahs, professors, mayors, warlords, and nomads who await your earnest inquiries. That's how I got to hang out with a snake charmer in India, call sharks in the Solomon Islands, andmost memorablytour every square inch of Tingo María.
A motorcycle accident on the outskirts of that Peruvian drug center had left me encased in massive casts. My doctor let it be known that his patient was a writer who could tell the world about the town's tourism potential. Early the next morning, chatty Rotarians descended on my hospital room. Soon a wheelchair magically appearedthank you, Rotarians!
Each day, while my bones tried to knit, I was stuffed in a taxi and driven over potholed roads to see the splendors of the Huallaga Valley. Civic leaders took turns pushing me around town. For two weeks I was the biggest celebrity in Tingo María.
My approach, however, is not about generating good cocktail stories. It's about following the time-honored tradition of inquisitive travelersnot just journos and studentssetting off to learn more about the world. Here's how:
Avoid the unctuous touts who swarm hotel lobbies and tourist sites. Instead, visit the local offices of NGOs and other international organizations. They all have members who enjoy introducing visitors to their country. Inquire at the nearest university about hiring a student who would like to improve his or her English while acting as your guide. Chances are, you'll get to meet the family, go to market, maybe even attend a wedding.
Be polite, dress conservatively, and tell the truth. Try to pick up expenses and bring small gifts, which should be offered in a semiformal manner. I recommend chocolates or boxed candies for women, Maglite flashlights (with batteries) for men, and picture books for children.
Be prepared to listen, rather than talk. Skip over politics and religion initially. Instead, ask how many children your hosts have, how they spend their leisure time, and other details of daily life. Most people will find your openness heartwarming.
Get the full story in the March 2003 issue of Adventure.
You may never get to the tourist sitesjust like back home, locals rarely visit thembut you will come away with a deep understanding of your destination.
The Last Cairn: A Climber's Tragic Saga
Young men go into the mountains all the time to discover themselves and to propitiate the ghosts of their fathers, but it's the rare father who goes into the mountains to join the ghost of his son.
Guy Waterman died three years ago on a winter evening on a mountain ridge in New Hampshire. He was 67 years old, a climber, a homesteader, an author widely known in New England outdoors circles. He was also the father of three sons, and he believed in the peculiarly American myth that says there is something between fathers and sons that can be understood only in the context of wilderness.
Before he sat down in the snow and froze to death on a February night, he wrote some notes to friends, hoping to explain his decision to take his own life. One was to an old pal named Brad Snyder, who knew of the special kinship Guy felt with his middle son, John Mallon Waterman.
In December 1968, when Johnny was 16, Guy had set out with his son on a grand winter circuit in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. They planned to follow the string of boarded-up Appalachian Mountain Club huts along the entire length of the Presidential Range and then to traverse the ranges westsomething no one had ever done in winter.
They wore snowshoes and carried 80-pound [36-kilogram] packs. The temperature when they started was 12° below zero [-11°C]. They soon ran into a storm, and on top of Mount Jefferson got lost in an icy cloud.
Guy wrote about how they survived the bitter whiteout: "To guard against losing their waywhich could have been disastrousthe son would go out from the last identified cairn as far as he could and still see it. Then the father would go out from there as far as he could without losing sight of the son, and stand there waiting for some brief lapse in the wind to try to squint forward into the fury of the storm in a forlorn effort to find another cairn."
To keep their tent from exploding in the wind, they had to stay awake most of that night holding the aluminum poles. Their clothes got soaked; their down sleeping bags had no loft. They beat a dire retreat and hiked into a town, where they found a Laundromat and dried their gear.
Thenthe index of their zealthey started back in, walking up the Mount Washington Auto Road. They got to 5,500 feet [1,676 meters] when another storm hit. The temperature dropped to 26° below zero [-3°C]. The winds were shrieking at a hundred miles an hour [161 kilometers an hour].
Father and son spent four days holed up in one of the metal bivouac sheds that once provided emergency shelter for road crews: 6 1/2-Mile Box it was called. To fetch water, one of them had to get completely dressedboots, crampons, over-mitts, parka, face maskgo out into the storm, chop at an icy snow crest with an ax, hope the gales blew some of the chips into a stuff sack, then dive back inside the shed and melt the collection of ice chips.
They played poker for lunch snacks with a handmade deck of cards. To his chagrin, Guy discovered that Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground was no help in passing the time, whereas Johnny's trashy detective novels were riveting.
How long those hours were! And, in retrospect, how short.
Six months after the winter outing in the White Mountains, Guy let Snyder take Johnny to Alaska on a climbing expedition to Mount McKinley. The teenager became the third youngest person to stand on the highest point in North America.
The ascent was the first of Johnny's many formidable achievements in Alaska and a moment of crowning pride for his father. Then, in 1978, Johnny produced his masterpiecea 145-day solo expedition on 14,573-foot [4,442 meter] Mount Hunter, the third highest peak in the Alaska Range.
Of that feat, American climber Jeff Lowe once wrote, "There is nothing else in the history of mountaineering with which to compare it." Three years later, Johnny vanished while soloing on McKinley. The grief that seized Guy never really let him go.
Saying good-bye to his old friend Snyder, Waterman wrote: "Sorry to be leaving like this, but I've tried to explain my thinking about old age prospects and other shortcomings, for me, of this life. . . . It isn't a question of going or stayingjust when and how to go. Above tree line in the wind seems appropriateI'll be joining Johnny, to whom I was always closer akin than anyone realized."
Here was the saddest sort of faithfaith not that a father and son would be reunited in the next world, but that they would always be paired in this one by the likeness of their deaths.
Get the full story in the March 2003 issue of Adventure.
Forum: Lessons From the Wild
Can time spent in the wilderness shape a person's character?
Wild Heart of the West: The Four Corners Region
LAKE POWELL, UTAH/ARIZONA
The idea of paddling Lake Powell might strike some as a guilty pleasure at best. The completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963 was perhaps the environmental movement's most dramatic defeatone that drove Edward Abbey to heights of literary fury.
But veteran river guide Les Hibbert says that he abandoned the Colorado River's free-flowing stretches to set up a kayak-touring operation here without regrets. "Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is far more of a wilderness," he says. "Especially during the off-season, when you can paddle for days without seeing even a fishing boat."
Powell's tentacles slip into 94 side canyons, where sea kayakers can navigate a silent world of red sandstone cliffs framing gorges too narrow for powerboats.
Hibbert's company, Hidden Canyon Kayak, operates trips that include side canyon hikes. "When you get out of your boat," Hibbert says, "you're basically in Glen Canyon before the dam."
CASTLETON TOWER, UTAH
Of all the mighty monoliths on the Colorado Plateau, the climbers' favorite is Castleton Tower, which combines great rock, challenging routes, and a stunning position atop a 1,200-foot [367-meter] cone of scree.
First scaled by the legendary Layton Kor in 1961, a feat immortalized in Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, Castleton now sees hundreds of ascents each year.
Renowned climbers Greg Child, Jay Smith, and Kitty Calhoun have set up shop here and are spearheading an initiative to protect 221 acres [89 hectares] at the tower's base from development.
Fortunately for nonexpert climbers, two of the best climbs are also relatively moderate: the four-pitch North Chimney and Kor-Ingalls routes, both 5.9.
COLORADO TRAIL, COLORADO
This Denver-to-Durango route is something of a trans-Rockies grail for mountain bikers: 470 miles [756 kilometers] of high-elevation single- and doubletrack, replete with enough technical twists and grueling climbs to challenge the most committed riders.
The final leg of the Colorado Trail, though, distills the essence of the whole into a thrilling 20-mile [32-kilometer] pedal that competent mortals can complete in a single day. It starts at the crest of the La Plata Mountains at Kennebec Pass [11,750 feet/3,581 meters] and drops nearly 4,000 feet [1,219 meters] into the mountain biking hotbed of Durango.
This one's about feeling the pull of gravity and mastering the art of tight turns on world-class singletrack. Get an early start to beat the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm.
PUEBLO BONITO, NEW MEXICO
"Not easily interpreted" is how guide G.B. Cornucopia describes Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
An extraordinary architectural masterwork of the ancient Pueblo Indians (A.D. 850 to 1250), this four-story "great house" has at least 600 rooms spread over four acres [1.6 hectares], and it is linked by roads and ramps to structures throughout the valleyand miles beyond.
Yet there is scant evidence that people actually lived here. "It might have been religious, it might have been economic," says Cornucopia. So come to relish the mystery. You can explore dozens of chambers within Bonito itself, then fan out on side hikes.
Get all 21 Four Corners travel guides in the March 2003 issue of Adventure,