Salt of the earth 

Navigating the shifting landscapes of Tom Cahill

A conditional adjective, when applied to those in artistic fields, often carries with it the kind of stigma accorded to Roger Maris, the un-charismatic New York Yankee whose 61 home runs in 1961 was marred in the record books by an asterisk for having occurred in a season eight games longer than the one in which the beloved Babe Ruth had set the single-season mark of 60.

Labeling Tim Cahill a “travel writer” is tantamount to ascribing an asterisk to his achievements as an author. Sure, his work is constructed around the framework of exterior landscapes—as opposed to the largely internal landscapes common to classic Western literature—and those landscapes often belong to far-flung locales inaccessible to all but those afflicted with the most severe cases of wanderlust.

But when Cahill is in top form—and, as demonstrated in his new book, Hold the Enlightenment, Cahill is rarely in anything but top form these days—his work reaches far beyond the mere illumination of unknown places and cultures. While it may sound cheesy and grandiose to say that Cahill reveals nuggets of the universal human condition through his tales of grand adventure, he does, in fact, do just that.

The clearest indication of Cahill’s maturing artistry is his increasing ability to frame his tales in a manner that allows the reader to acknowledge his agenda without feeling resentful at the intrusion. In “The Terrible Land,” for instance, Cahill begins with a brief historical synopsis of the series of massive floods, caused by the draining of Lake Missoula, that formed what is now known as the Columbia River Basin.

The germ of the piece is a float trip along the Columbia’s Hanford Reach. The Reach, ironically, is the most pristine stretch left on the mighty river due to its closure for the last 50-plus years by the U.S. Department of Energy, which manufactured the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb at the Hanford Site. Cahill juxtaposes thoughts of the bomb’s victims (“Others shivered and collapsed into ashes before the nuclear termination wind”) against suppositions of early human reactions to the floods (“In the manner of humans confronted by deadly forces beyond their comprehension or control, they must have regarded flood-scarred land as both terrible and sacred”). He melds both themes with a wonder-struck account of the newly discovered species of flora and fauna along the Reach.

Cahill concludes the essay with a sighting of a new plant species, the bladderpod: “We found several of the rare plants growing at the very tops of the White Bluffs, where they spread out and hunkered down low against the termination winds. I glanced back down the river toward the reactors, which lay along the path of the cataclysmic ice-age floods. There were forces here beyond human comprehension, and I regarded the land below as both terrible and sacred.” Not a light-handed narrative construct by any means, but Cahill pulls it off through an unerring combination of extrapolation and introspection.

Cahill’s knack for creating meaning in relatively conventional locales, however, does not come at the expense of the wide-eyed wonder quotient his work is rightly known for. That wonder is no more apparent than in “The Caravan of White Gold,” at 27 pages the longest of the book’s essays. Spurred by an Italian friend and fellow adventurer, Cahill took on as a quest finding the fabled Taoudenni salt mines in the West African country of Mali.

“Caravan” is, quite simply, one of the most engaging history lessons you’ll ever come upon. Around A.D. 1100, Arabs had begun to bring Taoudenni salt, via camel train, into Timbuktu to trade. Salt, as Cahill tells us, “was then a rare spice, as much in demand in certain circles as cocaine is today, and equally as expensive. It was traded weight for weight with gold in the Middle Ages, and for centuries the camel train bringing salt south to Timbuktu was called the Caravan of White Gold.”

Highly protected for their value, the salt mines retained their mysterious aura when the Malian government turned them into a political prison in the 1960s—a prison, according to lore, that meant certain death for all prisoners. When Mali shut down the prison as it began moving towards a multiparty democracy in the ’90s, Cahill and his cohorts saw a perfect opportunity to pierce the veil of secrecy that had shrouded the salt mines for a millennium.

In typical Cahill fashion, nothing comes easy. “An adventure is never an adventure when it’s happening,” he writes in another of the book’s essays. “Challenging experiences need time to ferment, and an adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.” Their party must negotiate the notorious Tuareg bandits—in a stroke of genius, they hire high-level Tuareg rebels to guide them—and the shifting sands that continually bog down their Toyota Land Rovers.

Along the way, they endure the temporary loss of a party member (for whom they very nearly paid a ransom), the challenge of performing bowel movements in a windstorm, and the gazelle-chasing antics of their guides. The locating of the mines themselves, while finely rendered and wholly satisfying from the reader’s perspective, is almost an afterthought, pleasantly lost in the whirling chaos of the trip.

And so goes the charmed life of Tim Cahill, delineated here in the 31 essays comprising Hold the Enlightenment. Whether he’s contemplating the ultimate demise of the trophy vacation homes springing up like noxious weeds near his home town of Livingston, or salving his writer’s pride with a self-prescribed dose of Jorge Luis Borges and the violent behavior of Argentinean sea lions, Cahill’s back is broad enough to carry us all along for the ride. The only asterisk around Cahill’s name should appear in the phrase, “a *&!#* good writer!”

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