"A man without friends is as small as a palm. A man with friends is as big as the steppe" (pg 20).
From the onset, I was thrilled with what this book would offer and the journey we would share. I love survival and personal journey stories, especially the type that rely upon the kindness and goodness of humanity, and the type that bring man to the bring of giving up, of questioning all that they are and have, yet, several months or weeks later, find themselves on the other side. Stories that echoed Tim sentiments. "I would be able to render myself my vulnerable, and therefore pledge a much greater trust int eh humanity of others. With no familiar companion or culture to lean on, I would be forced to appeal to the better side of human beings no matter who they were. Doing so would offer me the kind of immersion - in the landscape and in the lives of people - that I craved" (pg 23).
At the top of page 49 I have written, "Currently sitting on the Great Wall. The sun rises, spilling an orange haze all around. Beautiful." This, perhaps, marked a shift in my reading, and in the story. While in the calm and quiet of my own journey, a revelation had crept in over the mountains, and it began to affect my reading of this book. From that morning on, I no longer connected with Tim's journey, I struggled with it. Because it seemed so unrelentingly selfish.
"In truth, though, Ruslan's news that he could guide me for just two more days was a mutually convenient way of parting with our rapport intact. I was already tired of trying to understand the world as it was filtered through his eyes, and i was looking forward to a new chapter" (pg 110).
I think I understand what Tim means here, and have probably had similar lines of thought, but as I read these lines I found my heart and mind convicted, not sympathetic, because Tim's three and a half year journey is littered with thoughts of a similar strand. Namely, how people can help and bless him, but when they are of no longer any use, the parting becomes convenient.
The markings in my book were suddenly littered and reduced to "ass" because I could think of no other imagery to describe Tim's actions.
Actions such as refusing to leave his journey - his dream - when his pretty serious girlfriend was suddenly faced with a possible life-ending illness. They spoke on the phone, Tim acknowledges that she might not make it and could really use his company, but with his friends about to join him on his journey and with the thought that leaving might mean he'll never finish, he sacrifices her for his dream. A paragraph later, like his journey, she and her personal hell are forgotten because his friends have arrived and, apparently, life moves quickly on.
A dozen or so pages later, while isolated and in self-proclaimed "purgatory," Tim writes, "my situation was all the more tenuous. Additionally, unlike any other time on my journey, there would be no sympathetic ear from Kathrin - even if she were prepared to listen, she was in Italy and unreachable" (266). How quickly Tim needs help, which he often found in quick phone conversations and unexpected helping hands, yet he's unable to see that when others needed him, he was unavailable, because that would disrupt his dream.
Five pages later, Tim finds himself again in need of help, and yet again, he expects, and even demands, the help of another. While struggling to obtain a permit for travel into Russia, Tim writes, "Like every day, I was there starting at eight in the morning, on the fax and the phone. By lunchtime there was no permit and my frustration was boiling over. I refused to let Kosibek's secretary leave on her lunch break" (pg 270). Apparently, Tim's needs are more important than anyone else's.
After a few more stories like this, my opinion of Tim became very sour and critical. To the point that when he wrote about the Kalmyk people and their struggle for survival, I was no longer read his words and phrasings with anything other than criticism. Phrases like, "To survive, Kalmyks resorted to more frequent raids, sold their children as slaves, and even took up fishing" (pg 278). Why was the selling of children so easy to swallow and comprehend but taking up fishing so astonishing? Shouldn't it be the other way around? I might be nitpicking, but these subtle thoughts and ways of thinking saturate this story, and for me, became almost unbearable to read.
"If people know their history, their traditions, they understand the value of experience that our people have collected over thousands of years. When we know who we are, our place in the world, and why we exist, we are happy and have a purpose in life!" (pg 269).
- Okna Tsahan Zam
Most of the wisdom from this story comes from the mouths of Tim's friends whom he encounters along the way. They give of themselves, their resources, time, and even safety to help Tim fulfill his dream. In return, he seems content to give them the pleasure of his white-skinned company.
He thanks those who helped him, many times, and offers deep gratitude and indebtedness, yet, at the end of it all, what he seems to come away with is the beauty and harshness of the steppe, his dream of covering a vast and difficult land fulfilled, and several speaking and publishing contracts. He comes out on top, while his ex-girlfriend and everyone else he met along the way is left behind.
As I write, I know it sounds harsh, and perhaps it is, but coming on the tail of stories such as On the Road and Into the Wild, Tim Cope yet again encourages young men (and women) to set off on a life changing adventure where the one and only focus is self. On such a journey, personal experience is the ultimate goal, and everyone and everything are expendable to that cause.
I hate these stories, and I'm tired of them, because "A man without friends is as small as a palm. A man with friends is as big as the steppe."
If you are intrigued even a little by Tim's journey, here are a few short clips that should satisfy the pallet.