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“Once I ran out of dry underwear I started hitchhiking, which is something you can do easily on a bike,” says author Jim Malusa. “A bike evokes a certain amount of sympathy. And everyone knows that psycho killers don’t pedal.”

On Monday, June 30, Malusa will appear at REI in Kearny Mesa to present a slideshow and reading from his book, Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents, an account spanning six years during which Malusa traveled by bicycle to the lowest elevation points on every continent but Antarctica.

While hitchhiking on his way to Australia’s Lake Eyre (52 feet below sea level), Malusa was picked up by two men in a jeep. As he took his seat in the back of the vehicle, Malusa was horrified to see a blood-soaked bag.

“It was quickly revealed to me that it was actually a kangaroo they’d run over recently,” he says. According to Malusa, the “road gourmands” he encountered “have a firm belief in eating whatever they run over,” and they had recently crossed paths with a kangaroo the size of a large dog. “And then it was teatime,” he recalls. “They showed me how to prepare a nice ’roo-tail lunch. It tasted like meat with a lot of tendons.”

Another run-in with strange food came when Malusa was cycling through South America’s Patagonia to Laguna del Carbón (344 feet below sea level). There he encountered a small group of men who “stopped our conversation to chase down an armadillo to catch it and slice its throat for dinner.”

Malusa hesitates to call himself a bicycle enthusiast. “I don’t even have any bicycle clothes,” he says. Still, Malusa’s preferred method of travel is by bike because he believes it intensifies the experience. “When I’m sweating bullets in the tropics of northern Australia and watching a storm build on the horizon for hours and the sky changes color and the clouds form tendrils of mist that come down, I’m not just merely observing the storm — I’m going to be in it. There’s no ‘inside’ in which to retreat, which is both terrifying and breathtaking.”

Each low point is accessible by road. For each of his six escapades he was dropped “about a month’s ride away” from the deep destination. In Africa, this was 512 feet below sea level, at Lake Assal in Djibouti, a location Malusa says was the most mentally challenging.

“As I was leaving the capital city of Djibouti, I passed a refugee camp and was rather effectively stoned by children, and I had to flee. I only got hit once in the leg, but it instilled a certain degree of terror.”

Malusa tried to research the small country he describes as “unhappily sandwiched between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, which are constantly quarreling.” But in 2000, the year he was there, only a scarce amount of information was available.

“There were books about Djibouti that had names like Hellhole of Creation. Authors would remind you frequently that the local people would castrate their enemies and wear their testicles as ornaments.”

Malusa had this in mind when, near the beginning of his journey to Lake Assal, he paused to rest at an Ethiopian truck stop and crossed paths with a goat herd and a member of the Danakil tribe. The man wore a skirt, flip-flops, and a Nike T-shirt. When the tribesman learned of the cyclist’s destination, he astonished Malusa by pantomiming the area’s geological history.

“He pantomimed how the volcano between Lake Assal and the Indian Ocean had erupted. Then he put his hands together and identified one hand as the horn of Africa by saying ‘Kenya’ and ‘Somalia,’ and he [referred to] the other hand as ‘sizemo’ [as in “seismic”], and he slowly separated his hands. He was absolutely right — this was part of the Great Rift Valley, which goes from the Dead Sea to Lake Tanganyika. The plate tectonics are pulling apart Africa there. I was flabbergasted and happy. The ‘savage’ ended up being a self-taught geologist.”

Malusa points out that every one of the lowest elevation points in the world is located in a desert. The lowest point on the North American continent is 350 miles northeast of San Diego in Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level.

Including the days he has spent as a botanist mapping vegetation, Malusa estimates he has spent over 1000 nights sleeping outside without a tent. “And never has anything annoyed me. I had a tarantula walk across a book I was reading — things go by — but they will not bother you. Not on purpose.”

— Barbarella

Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents
Reading, Signing, and Slide Show with author Jim Malusa
REI
Monday, June 30
7 p.m.
5556 Copley Drive
Kearny Mesa
Info: 858-279-4400
Warwick’s Bookstore
Tuesday, July 1
7:30 p.m.
7812 Girard Avenue
La Jolla
Info: 858-454-0347

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