Hiking to Siberia: Curious Tales of Travel and Travelers
By Lawrence Millman. sunnyoutside, 2012, 126 pp.
Lawrence Millman is a refreshingly old-fashioned adventurer. In his travels he generally heads out to little-known, hard-to-reach, hard-to navigate places that require stamina and endurance: as he notes, "travel" and "travail" are etymologically related. Curiosity drives his journeys. "I'm trying to discover the few remaining places that have not lost their marrow," he says.
Hiking to Siberia is a slender book, but its 22 brief essays cover a great expanse of territory, from Svalbard to Micronesia, from Nova Scotia to the Lesser Antilles. As I observed in my review of his book Last Places: A Journey in the North, Millman loves stories—and he is an excellent storyteller, sufficiently talented to make a good story even out of failing to find the story he was looking for. He never does solve the enigma of Lillian Alling, the subject of the title essay, a woman who in 1927 left New York City to hike to Siberia and may or may not have made it. No matter. She piques our interest as she piqued his.
Two other characters of interest Millman profiles in these stories are Jules Verne, ("The Incidental Traveler"), who devoted his writings to exotic travels, but did not, it turns out, travel very far; and Christiane Ritter ("A Woman in the Polar Night"), who joined her husband in Svalbard and during her year there was transformed by the experience and wrote "an extraordinary book," which bears the title of the essay. Millman suggests that unlike the "luminaries of Arctic exploration," she had no interest in an "Arctic Grail"—"whether the Pole, the Northwest Passage, or just an Unknown Land"—and could thus undistractedly appreciate and thrive in the far north, giving "the lie to the notion that women do not belong at the ends of the earth."
The humorous self-deprecation characteristic of the best travel writing runs through these essays. Prone to committing gaffes, Millman claims, he describes a particularly gaffe-prone visit to Fais in Micronesia ("A Feast on Fais"), where he accidentally walks into the menstrual hut, is conned into eating the penis of a flying fox, and mentions to the high chief that it's hard to get used to all the "topless" women, appalling the man, who replies, "But all our women have heads."
Readers are treated to the author's capacity for endurance in "Marooned," where he is dropped off on an uninhabited island by a fisherman who fails to return to pick him up as scheduled. Panicked at first, he is by the sixth day surviving nicely on foraged wild greens and limpets and mussels. When the fisherman's nephew finally arrives, explaining that his uncle had had a stroke and had been in a coma, Millman almost regrets leaving. "For I was surrendering a rare privilege," he says, "one all too infrequently experienced by travelers nowadays—the privilege of travail."
The travail in this book is all Millman's, the entertainment, ours.