I'm just about done reading Jim Malusa's book "Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continenents" and I'm actually a bit unsure how I feel about the book. There's no doubt his two-wheeled journeys in Australia, Russia, Djiboutti, Argentina, Jordan, and the United States were the things only a man with big dreams and tremendous confidence would undertake, but there was always something under the surface that rubbed me the wrong way about this book. It could be that Malusa's overuse of the passive tense slowly grated on me or maybe it was the simple fact that the stories he told weren't as interesting as I had hoped. Maybe I just wished I was reading another book by Willie Weir?
It didn't help that the book started off with Malusa's journey across the heartland of Australia. Aside from a few colorful locals and an approaching tropical storm, there didn't seem to be much that interested him. I'm sure the landscape didn't offer much for him to wax poetic about, but considering how many miles he rode and the remoteness of his trip, it was quite dull. His frequent complaining about trying to get set up with a modem to provide online updates to the Discovery Channel didn't help matters. The story lacked the adventure I, and perhaps the author, expected and as a result if wasn't rather enjoyable.
The book certainly picks up a bit after that initial foray across Australia. His second jaunt took him Egypt and into Jordan to pedal to the Dead Sea. This was an interesting tale, mostly for the people he met along the way and the polical hurdles he had to jump in being allowed into Egypt with a satellite phone. Still, it's odd that so much time would be spent discussing his techno-gear required by the Discovery Channel, but next to no discussion of cycling gear. Not that I care what brand of bicycle he was riding, or what gearing he was using, but would-be bicycle tourers are always interested in hearing an experienced cyclist's tips for bike transport and security. In fairness, Weir's book "Spokesongs" offered precious little info about this either so maybe I'm in the minority for wanting it.
Malusa does seem to grow both as a traveler and a writer during his journeys and the quality of the storytelling was much improved by the time his trips through Russia and the Patagonia region of South America came about. I especially appreciated his ability to work so much local history into the text. And his ability to describe the Patagonian beauty -- and semi-miserable weather -- definitely made me that much more excited about our own upcoming trip to that same area of the world.
In fairness, the book actually spans nearly a decade in Malusa's life, the birth of two children, and thousands of miles of pedaling. Is it not permissable to allow him to grow from chapter to chapter? In hindsight, my initial reaction to the book was certainly different than my final opinion. It took far longer than I expected, but I was eventually looking forward to crawling into bed just so I can read some more about his travels in Djiboutti and then finally, to Death Valley -- along a stretch of road that I remember vividly from my own trip to that fabulous hole in 2002.
It takes a while to hit its stride, but if you're interested in world travel , particularly by bicycle, then I suggest you pick it up. If for no other reason than to get another piece of evidence in support of the kindness of strangers and the erroneous nature of so many of the perceived dangers in travel off the beaten path.
Buy the book here.