The bookmobile was my introduction to a wider world. Regularly it parked at the end of our rural road on the outskirts of Victoria, and I and my parents stepped up into the travelling library. My father’s choices were always travel books, and so, after I had read all my children’s adventure books, I read my way through all his books too. They were an introduction to lands and peoples, and they have shaped the direction of my life.
Later in university, where I studied anthropology and geography, it was the memory of travellers’ tales that flashed the light of human emotion over the scientific facts. To know the mechanics of monsoon rains, for example, and how they influenced human societies, was one thing; to have experienced those rains through the words of a hundred writers added another vital layer of understanding.
One of those books, Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, has continued to influence my life. It combined all my favourite elements: the grand adventure of building a raft and sailing to Polynesia, mysterious ancient societies, trade winds, coral reefs and the great ocean itself. Here was the stuff of real life. Here, too, were attitudes towards living that I absorbed unconsciously. The crew of the raft had recently emerged from active duty in World War II. Faced with the blank void of peace, they leapt at the chance to put to use their hard-won skills and camaraderie. Here were people who didn’t just dream of travel, they carefully built a structure under their dream and sailed away.
For years the pull of that book was so strong that eventually my wife, daughter and I sailed our own wooden schooner dream boat down through Polynesia. On the month-long three thousand mile passage from Mexico, we experienced our own chapter-by-chapter opening to the ocean. Like Heyerdahl’s crew, we felt the apprehension of leaving land far behind and struggled to adjust to a solitary life in an alien world. As the massive squall clouds enveloped us, as the wind and waves became our more familiar companions, we slowly became at home in the seascape. The cycles of the moon became our timepiece during our long night watches, and in the dark before moonrise we felt ourselves to be skimming along in space, suspended between the bright stars above and the flashes of phosphorescence in the dark sea below us. As if teetering on a cliff edge, we felt we might fall into the universe. Then the wind on our cheek and the snort of dolphins racing beside us caught us back to a safer image of our ship sliding over the curved shoulder of a watery world, eased on by the breath of a warm wind in our gaff sails. In the wake of one seminal book we now experienced in our own life what we had only read about before.
Eventually the southeast trade winds blew us down to the Tuamotu Islands. New landfalls are always exciting, but this was a special place, because here was where Heyerdahl and his crew had come to the sudden end of their raft voyage. I scrambled up the ratlines on the foremast to guide us through a narrow, turbulent passage into the atoll’s calm lagoon where we spent a week at anchor in the lee of a palm-covered coral island, swimming among the reefs and walking on the motu we had dubbed ‘Kon-Tiki Island". We relaxed for the first time in months out of the roll of the Pacific swells. When we walked on the ocean side of our little island, and saw the surf where the flat coral reef dropped suddenly away, I recalled the final moments of the Kon-Tiki raft voyage as they drifted helplessly and smashed again and again on the steep cliff of coral. The mast collapsed, men clung to ropes amid the breakers, and finally the big balsa logs were bunted up on to the reef. I imagined them as they faced this dramatic voyage’s end with a quick evaluation of the situation, a plan, and an organized sequence of actions that brought them safely through the surf and to the island on the reef. They salvaged what they could, set up camp, painstaking dried out and repaired their short-wave radio and sent a message home to say they were safe. In my mind’s eye I watched them very carefully. There were such essential lessons to learn here for our own life. When fate dealt us a tough card, we too would need these same attitudes and skills to win through to more life and more adventures.
At anchor beside us in the lagoon was another Canadian family yacht. We rowed across to trade some of the books we had read during the voyage. We passed our package of books up to our friends and climbed aboard. Soon we were deep in our swapping discussions.
"You haven’t read Harry Potter?" exclaimed the little girls on the boat. "Oh, that’s terrible! But it’s only a lend, this time - don’t forget. We want them back!"
It was such a long way, and yet not far at all, from that life-changing bookmobile of my childhood.