Introduction: An Unexpected Idea
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1 Introduction An Unexpected Idea Oddly enough the genesis of this book, and the journey that it recounts, was sparked while I was sitting in my apartment in the capital city Ulan Bator, after nearly a year of teaching at the National University of Mongolia. It had been an exciting, exhausting , and productive year. The courses that I had taught had gone well, and I had established positive connections with my colleagues and a number of students. Although I hadn’t mastered the Mongolian language, I’d made some inroads, and I had learned more than I ever would have imagined about the history and culture of central Asia. If you’re like me, you never can tell what’s kicking around in the back of your head until something reveals itself, unexpected, like a bolt out of the blue. And I was, somewhat improbably given my location, hit with an absolute compulsion to ride a bicycle around each of the Great Lakes. Perhaps it didn’t come completely from nowhere. Mongolia gets quite cold in the winter. Temperatures hover around minus ten degrees Fahrenheit for much of December, January, and February . At night it’s not unusual, given Mongolia’s very dry climate, for the temperature to drop to minus forty, the point at which Fahrenheit and Celsius temperatures are the same. As a result, I found means for temporary relief. Over my winter break, with the hope of getting some respite from the cold, I decided to bicycle from Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, to the beaches in the south. Winter is Thailand’s dry season, so the ride to Bangkok, through forests in the north and rice fields in the south, was warm and lovely, with spicy food, world-­ class archeological sites, and friendly people. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse as I was riding around Bangkok, as the bike that I had rented started Introduction Introduction 2 to disintegrate underneath me. So, in spite of the fact that I returned to Mongolia earlier than anticipated and I never actually saw a beach, I didn’t feel as though I had much to complain about. Back in the cold Mongolian sunshine, I hatched a plan to cycle the coast of Vietnam in the summer before returning home to upstate New York. I completed this trip in June and July 2009. But even as I was contemplating it, I was wondering whether all the international travel was diverting me from treasures that might exist in my own backyard. Years previously, I had attended a lecture by a well-­ known environmentalist who had just published a well-­ regarded book on ecological protection in the United States. The genesis of her idea, she said, grew from an experience that she had in Ethiopia, where she had been studying human impacts on the Wari River. One day, a local person, whom she had gotten to know reasonably well, asked her if there were polluted rivers where she had lived in United States. When she answered affirmatively, the man asked her why she had traveled all the way to Ethiopia when her own river needed attention and protection. The remark hit her so deeply that she returned to her home in Illinois and began to study the impacts of chemical contamination on the Illinois River, its wildlife, and the people that lived in its watershed. For a long time, especially when traveling abroad, I’ve had that story circulating somewhere in the back of my brain, and it was hitting me with particular force while sitting in my apartment in Mongolia on a cold, clear winter day. I have, of course, bicycled in the United States. But at some point, perhaps feeling it to be a little bit mundane and wanting to test my limits and maybe my courage, I started to explore more exotic places: Belize, Mexico, Iceland. Now it was occurring to me that I had been neglecting my own (metaphorical) river. While I have done some traveling and lived abroad, I am actually pretty firmly rooted. I grew up in western New York, where my family has lived for generations, and I’ve spent most of my adult life living in central New York. But living in a place doesn’t necessarily mean knowing a place, as in really knowing a place. Introduction 3 Until recently, for example, I knew virtually nothing about the geological substructures that define the physical features of the upstate New York region...