Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton was quite possibly the greatest vagabond in history. In his lifetime he lived diverse cultures, broke boundaries, and did most of it without much in the way of resources or travel money.
As I listen to the call to prayer outside my window, I can’t help reflecting on the amazing life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Quite possibly the greatest explorer and adventurer the world has ever known.
Burton was born on the 19th of March, 1821 in England and died at the age of 69 in Austria-Hungary on October 20, 1890. During his life Burton was a writer, explorer, anthropologist, ethnographer, soldier, spy, linguist, and poet.
He is said to have spoken twenty nine languages and was the first European man to go to many places in Asia, Africa,and even to the United States where he infiltrated and exposed the bizarre beliefs and customs of the Mormons in Salt Lake City.
Why does the call to prayer remind me of him? For one because he was the first European to make the hajj and disguised as an Arab he entered Mecca. For two because Burton was in fact, a Muslim. Third, Burton was the translator of The Thousand and One Nights which is probably the best known collection of stories concerned with Arab and Muslim cultures ever written.
In addition to these achievements he also translated the Kama Sutra and was the first European to see the source of the Nile River. His writings included studies of human behavior, ethnographies, travel writing, books about sexual practices, and more. He was a cofounder of the Anthropological Society of London before most people had any idea what anthropology was (although most still don’t).
To a certain extent, Burton was hated and persecuted for his honesty, his refusal to bend before the man, and the suspicion that rather than having masqueraded as a Muslim, he might have actually been one.
Burton always claimed to be a Muslim, but after his death, in an attempt to save her reputation, his wife Isabel published a biography that most believe to be false in which she claimed he was always a strong believer in Christ- like her. She also burned all of his unpublished writings so that her account was the only one which people could turn to. This went specifically against Burton’s wishes, but he probably didn’t care much since he was already dead.
To understand just how many books Burton wrote, how much ground he covered, and how incredible the man was you need only read his fascinating biography.
In 2009, when I returned back to the USA, my purpose was three-fold. 1) Get the necessary paperwork to work and get married in Morocco 2) Earn some money so that I could start a life in Morocco and pay for the marriage and bureaucracy in Morocco 3) Make sure that I hadn’t completely lost my mind by giving myself a little time away from the girl I had fallen in love with.
It seemed like as soon as I’d started on my way – things began to fall apart. Ultimately, I ended up connecting with old friends, having a huge falling out with my father, strengthening the relationships with my brother and my uncle, hustling enough to get things going in Morocco, and accomplishing all three of my goals.
Back in 2008, I left Hawaii and set out on an adventure that took me across the USA by Amtrak train, I called it the Amtrek. This week, for the Vagobond Travel Museum, I bring you the collected articles and videos from that trip. The trip began in Honolulu and then went to Portland, Oregon from where I crossed the country and ended in New York City with a one way flight to Barcelona – the truth is, the trip has never ended since I’ve never gone home.
Along the way, I couch-surfed and asked my hosts the same set of questions, those videos are below and worth watching. Keep in mind, this was before couch-surfing had gone mainstream.
Here are the ten lessons I learned on that trip:
The trains through the Rocky Mountains have the most incredible viewing cars for enjoying the magnificent landscape.
Sacramento is a lot cooler than I thought it would be and the train museum is a must see..
Utah is an incredibly rugged and scenic state filled with some very cool folks in Salt Lake City.
I want to travel by train to Austin, Texas and Detroit, Nashville, and New Orleans. I’ve still never been to those cities.
I love New York and Boston – taking a train to them was the way to go. People in these cities rock.
Philly and Chicago are both incredibly cold in winter, but the people I met in them were pretty great.
It’s better not to hurry, a 14 day rail pass was too short for a true American experience.
Too many museums in too short a time can’t be appreciated – so get a longer rail pass.
Libraries are havens of free wifi and peaceful places to work – trains should always have wifi and should have libraries for passengers.
Making the wrong friend can suck out part of your enjoyment of life and destroy a train trip – the right friends can make a boring stretch very exciting.
Story and Photos by Anthony Mathenia – Every Tuesday!
Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
Utah is Mormon country; that much is true. At each stop, we find racks of promotional cards for the Church of Latter Day Saints bearing compassionate paintings of Jesus Christ and photographs of happy, smiling Mormon families. Store counters hold stacks of complimentary copies of the Book of Mormon in a myriad of language. I’m also unable to find a decent drink. Fortunately, Utah has natural beauty in abundance. It’s not a gin and tonic, but it is soothing in its own way.
Our next stop as we work our way west to California, is Zion National Park, in southwest Utah. Like much of Utah, the park is religiously themed. The name “Zion”, meaning place of refuge, was bestowed upon the canyon by Mormon pioneers. Other park features like Mount Moroni, evoke the land’s Mormon heritage.
As we approach, the black asphalt winds around grey formations that are laced with fine lines that ebb and flow with ancient wind. They give the impression of great hornets nests rising up over patches of Utah juniper and pinyon pine trees. To get to the national park we pass through the Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel. At just over one mile in length it was once the longest tunnel in the United States. Windows cut into the tunnel give glimpses of sheer rock cliffs rising up over patches of trees.
At the park welcome center we luck out to find a parking space in the densely crowded lot. During peak visiting times, vehicle traffic within the park is prohibited. Instead visitors board shuttles that make regular stops throughout the park. Each stop offers visitors several hikes through the splendors of the national park. Zion is a thrill park for danger seekers. The Angels Landing trail takes hikers along a narrow rock fin over 5,700 feet in the air. For those who are not deterred by the dizzying drop offs on either side, Angels Landing offers splendid panoramic views of the rich landscape. Closer to the ground, the Zion Narrows trail plunges hikers into the Virgin River, weaving through a deep canyon gorge. Rushing water and slippery rock make this a chilly challenge to all but the fleet footed. Still recovering from our spirit breaking hike from bottom to top of Bryce Canyon, we opt for some of the lesser, handicapped accessible, trails at Zion. We follow the Narrows trail as far as the gently sloping paved path ends and the river disappears behind perpendicular canyon walls. There a frantic hiker returns to report to a park ranger, that one of his group has a twisted ankle miles up river in the back country. With evening approaching, it is doubtful a rescue can be mounted until morning. It will be a long painful night for the unfortunate hiker.
The Emerald Pools Trails offer a relatively easy going walk shaded by cottonwoods and boxelders leading to a tall alcove. Overhead waterfalls cascade into the namesake green pool below. The Weeping Rock trail is a bit steep, but short, at only a mile round trip. There, water drains through an overhead arch of Navajo sandstone sprinkling out in a gentle rain. For such a short walk, the view is spectacular. Through the weeping mist we look above a canopy of green at the Great White Throne and parts of Zion Canyon.
Zion has so much more to offer, but limited time urges us onward toward California. There my personal holy mecca awaits: Disneyland USA. I intend to return to Zion someday, but only after I’m physically fit enough for a vertigo inducing trek across Angels Landing or to ford the Virgin river in a descent into the Zion Narrows.
We make one last stop in Utah, an overnight at the Chalet Motel in St. George, just miles from the Nevada border. At only $45 a night it represents the best value we have enjoyed on our trip. The room is well furnished and immaculately maintained. While we relax, my daughter busies herself by reading the Book of Mormon that is placed in the drawer next to the standard Gideon King James. “Please do not remove, ask for your complimentary copy at the front desk,” encourages a sign placed in the drawer. “Can I get a copy?” asks my daughter.
The next morning I go to the front desk to ask. The elderly motel owner’s face lights up with joy at my request. She disappears into the back, while I busy myself looking at a large painting of Jesus and promotional pamphlets for area attractions. Shortly, she returns with a new copy in hand. “I just know this is the truth,” she says as she presents the book to us. She feeds on our assumed interest to point out various activities in town. There is a historical reenactment of Brigham Young, one of the founders of the Church of Latter Day Saints. “The actor really captures him”, she informs me with a smile. Or perhaps we would enjoy taking the tour of the local temple? She nicely explains that we won’t be able to get into the temple proper being heathens, but the grounds are beautifully attended to.
I thank her and bid her farewell. I have no interest in converting. I really don’t mind crazy conspiracies and weird theologies; but, I’ve got no love for any religion that practices shunning and breaks up families. That, and it would really be a sin to forgo the pleasures of a nice gin and tonic.