In his first travelogue, Into Thick Air: Biking to the Belly of Six Continents, Jim Malusa, a writer and botanist, brings the reader with him on a journey to the lowest point in each of six of the seven continents.
Instead of hiking to the tallest points, Malusa chooses to bicycle down each continents' deepest depression. His quest to reach the "anti-summits" of each continent (less Antarctica as no point below sea level is exposed) takes place over six years; each expedition lasts about 30 days and is funded by Discovery Channel Online.
In return, Malusa carries with him a satellite phone and submits dispatches and photos of his expeditions. This book is not only the culmination of his experiences on these six excursions, but also is a discussion of his family life throughout the duration.
The book is divided into six sections for each of the continents he visits: Australia, Asia, Europe, South America, Africa and North America. Planning each trip in advance for approval from Discovery Channel Online, Malusa includes maps of all his bike routes at the beginning of each section.
Malusa demonstrates a profound knowledge of the history and geography of the areas he visits. He vividly describes the landscapes and the people he meets while on each trek. His complete vulnerability to the elements and wildlife does not prevent him from completing his mission. Along the way, he encounters many different characters that help him on his mostly isolated course.
His destinations include Lake Eyre in Australia, the Dead Sea in Asia, the Caspian Sea in Europe, Salina Grande in Argentine Patagonia in South America, Lac Assal in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and finally Death Valley in California for North America. His education as a botanist lends itself easily to his infinitely discerning eye.
Malusa brings descriptive life to the vistas of six very different landscapes within these pages. Spending the vast majority of his time outside, Malusa intimately understands how the natural world can be both comforting and sometimes dangerous. He braves conditions as varied as the arid heat and alligators of Australia to the encroaching winter in Moscow.
Malusa's travels bring him to some of the more remote places in our world. Whether cycling through Aboriginal lands in Australia or following Moses' path on his way to the Dead Sea, he views all levels of the human condition and finds deep humanity in people.
Though he is a complete stranger getting odd looks from some people, many others invite him into their homes, and even their wedding parties, offering food and shelter. He experiences each culture on a level not generally afforded to tourist travelers. The authenticity of his encounters is unparalleled. As a reader, one is lucky to gain insight from his words.
Malusa demonstrates how the history of each culture is embedded in the people and their land. Whether discussing the French poet Arthur Rimbaud's profound effect on the area that was to become Djibouti or the downturn of the Russian ruble just before his trip to Russia, Malusa deciphers all with adeptness and ease.
His deep comprehension and prior research of each of his destinations never feels textbookish. The historical context is such a necessary part of this narrative that the reader must understand how these cultures have been shaped. One would miss out on a great wealth of cultural knowledge without the balance of experience and history that Malusa displays.
Into Thick Air is a highly enjoyable, witty travelogue. While there are many who might wish to reach the highest points in the world, Malusa takes a unique approach in his quest to reach the lowest ones. As he writes, "The idea of climbing the Seven Summits...inspired a race to the top of the world. The Six Sumps were forsaken, the opposite of success."
Any reader with an interest in culture, travel or just looking for a satisfying outlet will be glad he decided went with the forsaken journey.
Theresa Studnicky has a Masters in English and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book reviews will appear regularly in the News Enterprise.