‘In the Mountains of Heaven: True Tales of Adventure on Six Continents’
by Mike Tidwell
230 pp. The Lyons Press (2003)
Mike Tidwell’s “In the Mountains of Heaven” is a six part, nineteen story collection of essays that read – depending on the page – as travelogue, cultural critique, forlorn nostalgic rebuff, ethnographic narrative, or feel-good chicken soup. The result is a pleasing, easy to digest blend of travel writing based on the author’s personal experiences in some two dozen countries over more than twenty years of international and domestic travel.
These selections can be read in any order, but the essays are set in motion by the introduction, where Tidwell relates his first wanderlust foray as a nineteen-year old hitchhiking from Bozeman, Montana to Denver, Colorado to visit his ailing uncle Barry. Uncle Barry turns out to be the inspiration for the author’s later travels and Tidwell summons his memory throughout.
The six sections are anchored in the middle by three compelling stories based on the author’s time in post-soviet Kyrgyzstan where he spent over two years on personal travel and as foreign service husband to his wife Catherine, then a Peace Corps administrator in the newly independent republic. (Tidwell himself, as he recounts elsewhere in the volume, had been a Peace Corps volunteer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – then Zaire – where he almost died of a serious parasitic infection only to be saved by villagers and a cadre of Belgian nuns.)
The stories about Kyrgyzstan and the Tian Shan mountain region (the latter provides the book’s namesake) set the moral and philosophical compass of the collection. Going Manhole Crazy, Silk Road Shepherds, and Saving Ishen deftly weave together the themes of cross-cultural understanding, compassion and love that are also found throughout the other essays.
In Silk Road Shepherds, the reader is introduced to Ishen, a nomadic Kyrgyz shepherd who Tidwell describes as a “thirty-five year old, long-haired, self-styled mystic” who also claims the ability to transform himself into rocks, trees, clouds and other natural elements whereby he gains a more holistic perspective on the world and of “how things fit together.” Ishen serves as Tidwell’s guide on high-altitude treks along the Silk Road and across the remote snow-capped Tian Shan peaks. However romanticized (“His face has a brooding, almost Native American look, inviting yet inscrutable, with eyes implying something very deep”) Ishen becomes a metaphor for the weary, stubborn transition of Kyrgyzstan from isolated soviet outpost to free-market Central Asian republic. He also serves as a window into the fascinating rural Kyrgyz culture, largely unfamiliar to the Western audience.
Most importantly however, Ishen comes to represent the power of true intercultural friendship: a bond obtained only by those travelers willing to stay in one place long enough to intimately experience a new culture and genuinely get to know the locals and their customs.
In Saving Ishen, Tidwell, by this time returned to Washington D.C., receives news that his long-time friend, guide, and spiritual mentor is dying and in need of surgery due to a rare form of tuberculosis that he ostensibly contracted by drinking unpasteurized mare’s milk. By orchestrating the miraculous logistical feat of flying Ishen to the U.S. for a life-saving emergency operation (the coordination involved the former U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Peace Corps and State Department officials, and even wealthy Walmart heir Christy Walton), Tidwell repays a long overdue favor to his Kyrgyz shepherd friend who, years prior, had saved the author from an evil curse by recovering a lost horse whip on a precarious trek down a Tian Shan glacier. The conclusion, easily ascertained, is that Tidwell is repaying not only the recovered whip, but a lifetime of friendship.
The other essays in Mountains of Heaven are lighter and many are filled with hilarious travel anecdotes. In one essay titled Hanoi Haircut, Tidwell muses on the rich experience of getting a trim abroad, and touts the barber’s chair as “the most intimate contact you’re likely to have with the local culture [and] a chance to assume a part of the local culture on your own body.” In another welcome digression, he relates his first overseas haircut, which took place in a grass hut in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After the cut, the barber methodically picked up every last fallen hair and flushed each one down a nearby latrine in order to prevent local witch doctors from using the hair to work “bad juju” on him.
The experience of spending a U.S. holiday abroad is captured by Tidwell’s humble retelling of a Christmas holiday enjoyed in a far-flung inn nestled in the bucolic Colombian Andes. Amazing Grace in the Texas Desert should remind most Americans of the beauty, mystery, and intrigue present in our own national forests and in the stories of our history. Scattered socio-political themes also appear such as natural resource exploitation in the Ecuadoran Amazon (see Peccary Hunting in the Amazon) and a passing critique of ineffective economic development aid (Going Manhole Crazy in Kyrgyzstan). A fully nostalgic, yet charming piece longing for the return of a society similar to that of the Mbuti Pygmy tribe in the Congo provides a somewhat anticlimactic endnote to the otherwise solid collection. But then again political or social analyses are not the focus of the author’s effort.
Instead, Tidwell’s raison d’être is to tell stories, which he does naturally and effectively. The reader is left wanting to board a plane with a one-way ticket to Asia, Europe, the American southwest, South America, or anywhere for that matter, embarking on a mission to create his own stories and to forge deep friendships similar to those the author has encountered across the globe. But I’m also reminded of a line from Uncle Barry in Tidwell’s intro, which might be the most important message contained in Mountains: “Don’t you think – no matter what the trip – that the best part of the journey is coming back home? Don’t you think?”
The message? If you never return home, you may not find a captive audience ready to listen to your stories.
This book can be purchased through Amazon at In the Mountains of Heaven: True Tales of Adventure on Six Continents