By GEORGE SIPOS
When is a bicycle not a bicycle?
When Orville and Wilbur Wright, two bicycle mechanics, first flew their transmogrified machine at Kitty Hawk, you might say a bicycle turned into a bird.
When two young Canadian women set off from Istanbul in 2011 on a year-long cycle trip along the Silk Road via Central Asia to China, their bicycles became in part time machines into history, in part spacecraft launched to explore the unknown, and in part metaphors for wonder and deep reflection on the meaning of being human on the surface of the earth.
One of the two women, Kate Harris, has spent the five years since their return writing a book, Lands of Lost Borders, about their remarkable journey. Harris will be on Salt Spring on Sunday, March 18 as a guest of the Salt Spring Forum and the Salt Spring Public Library starting at 7:30 p.m. in the ArtSpring gallery.
I have just finished reading the book, and I find it simply extraordinary. At its most obvious level, the book takes us along on an epic cycle journey with all the tangible details of weather and mechanical mishaps, saddle sores and bad food, the desolation and beauty of lands traversed.
But along the way we also travel broader and deeper journeys — with Darwin into the meaning and limits of natural science, with Carl Sagan into visions of extraterrestrial life, with Fanny Bulloch Workman into the connections between glaciers and women’s suffrage. And throughout, in random encounters with strangers along the way, with the contours of human kindness, absurdity and endurance.
I’m certainly not the only one who finds this book profoundly engaging. Pico Iyer, one of the foremost travel writers of our time, has this to say: “Kate Harris packs more exuberant spirit, intrepid charm, wit, poetry and beauty into her every paragraph than most of us can manage in a lifetime.”
And Barry Lopez: “Kate Harris arrives among us like a meteor — a hurtling intelligence, inquiring into the nature of political borders and the meaning of crossing over.”
That’s a lot of praise, and, in my opinion, not a whit overstated.
And what crowns it all for me is the sheer perfection of Harris’ language. Listen to this:
“Just before dawn on the Ustyurt Plateau the horizon glowed and shimmered like something about to happen. As the sun rose it tugged gold out of the ground and tossed it everywhere, letting the land’s innate wealth loose from a disguise of dust. The air smelled of baked dirt spiced with dew and sage.”
What poet wouldn’t kill to have written that?
The forum event offers Salt Springers a chance to have a conversation with this extraordinary young writer and traveller on Sunday evening.
George Sipos is a Salt Spring writer/poet.