When crashing at my front door woke me, it was pitch dark and I was sandbagged into place. A big furry cat against each side reacted to the sound of my eyelids opening (I don’t know how they hear this -- the crash didn’t wake them up) by beginning to purr like buzzsaws. Then I realized that the crashing was only the newspaper arriving. I thought about what I had assigned myself this morning. Could I make sense of what seemed to be a . . . well, the first problem was what to call it. Robin on Here-and-Now, the YPR radio program, called it a “kafuffle.” I smelled greed. The kind of greed that loves scandal. Because scandal sells journalism. (Is this a silly and melodramatic paragraph? Yes. On purpose.)
Living on the high prairie east of the Rockies is not easy. People who drive through here in summer (only locals are fool enough to drive in winter) think it is the most boring highway they have ever traversed -- until they come to the mountains. They find mountains spiritual, inspiring, gorgeous, uplifting, uplifted, etc. etc. etc. For a decade or so bi-coastal writers flocked to Montana (well, the mountainous parts anyway) because it meant that everyone would associate themselves with those various mountains and the romantic history and all the wonderful soul-felt emotions and passions and the tiny details about how to survive -- and there might even be INDIANS. A small cadre of mountain climbers collected in Bozeman, where everyone has Olympic Quality Muscles, international connections, and a bag of carabiners -- and that’s the beginning of a book with the unlikely title of “Three Cups of Tea,” which might just as well have been entitled “Tie Your Camel Tight.” Or yak.
Then more recently these Montana folks (except for a few movie stars who had gone native) decided the fields were greener in Oregon. (They were.) And that’s where Mortenson’s co-author David Oliver Relin and former friend Jon Krakauer live. (It's a softer life than Montana.) If you’re an adventure writer in the spirit of “Outside Magazine” or even “Vanity Fair,” you need “platform.” It's part of your creds. Where you live counts. Montana= Africa. Oregon= Switzerland? California? Forget it.
Next you must be large, handsome, and exceptional -- it helps to be a little deranged. And male. And you need a faithful loving wife if you’re beyond a certain age, or people will wonder. Also, people these days require a certain amount of do-goodery, even from the military. Though if one sets out to simply do good, that’s pretty boring.
THE FIRST PARAGRAPH of the introduction to “Three Cups of Tea.” (You have to start in the middle of danger.)
“The little red light had been flashing for five minutes before Bhangoo paid it any attention. ‘The fuel gages [sic] on these old aircraft are notoriously unreliable,’ Brigadier General Bhangoo, one of Pakistan’s most experienced high-altitude helicopter pilots, said, tapping it. I wasn’t sure if that was meant to make me feel better.” What, who, where, no when or why yet. Classic journalism. First person. David Oliver Relin speaking -- NOT Greg Mortenson. The pretense of an exact quote from Bhangoo. Do people really say “notoriously unreliable?”
THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF THE FIRST CHAPTER of “Three Cups of Tea.”
“In Pakistan’s Karakoran, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s oldest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high-altitude wilderness. Other than snow leopard and ibex, so few living creatures have passed through this barren icescape that the presence of the world’s second highest mountain, K2, was little more than a rumor to the outside world until the turn of the twentieth century.”
So a little history, geology, biology all in two fine complex sentences. I don’t know whether I would have let myself say “witnessless” instead of “unwitnessed,” maybe because it suggests witlessness. But I do write like this. “The world’s oldest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty.” Very poetic. The third paragraph introduces “when” (September 2, 1993) and “who” (Greg Mortenson -- in the third person). Eighteen years pass before he becomes publicly controversial.
I’ve been reading this kind of stuff all my life. Not yet in high school I was reading Richard Halliburton’s, “The Royal Road to Romance.” My father shepherded us all to every National Geographic lecture. I feel sure we heard Edmund Hilary speak. My father was a Mazama who had climbed Hood, St. Helens, Rainier, Adams, Baker, and Three-fingered Jack. In high school I discovered H. Rider Haggard in the library stacks. A minister had me reading Ernie Gann’s flying adventures. In seminary I read Alexandra David-Neal who was in Tibet on a pony, wearing Victorian skirts and complaining about having to use her pony whip to break up fights among her porters. In Browning I knew people who . . . Well, why do you think I thought coming to Browning was a fine idea in the first place? Don’t you think it had something to do with the Rockies being so close? Isabella Bird, who shows up in the “Cups of Tea” book, was also here in Glacier Park.
As adventure stories go, “Three Cups of Tea” is okay. I prefer Peter Matthiessen, of course, and lately Langewiesche has caught my eye. Both are pretty careful about accuracy, but there’s something credulous and uncomprehending about people who resist flights of fancy and poesy. These are romances! These are campfire stories! The objectors are the people who are angry that James Willard Schultz made up stuff. Well, then, don’t read it. I do think the publishers who tout adventure writing as factual have their tongues in their cheeks.
The rest of this scandal is quite different. The "real" story may be about what happens to a well-meaning person who succeeds beyond expectations, beyond the capacity to assimilate and manage the good fortune. Tales abound about those who win big jackpots and how they end up broke, drunk and homeless. Mortenson isn’t in that much trouble. He was tipped off (possibly even by Krakauer) last January and hired a lawyer to do some sorting and accounting. But the words “a million dollars” are more scary than, well, a gas tank indicator on empty. Political antennae go up everywhere.
The American Institute of Philanthropy, which monitors NGO’s and foundations, gave the Central Asia Institute a guarded evaluation, but didn’t condemn them outright. Even the amounts of money don’t approach the amounts funneled into some animal welfare organizations, which are often major rackets. Montana’s attorney general is launching a probe. What did you think he would do? He probes all sorts of things -- not necessarily places that would identify, um, bad things happening where the sun don’t shine. As for the ineptitude of the location, design and equipping of the schools -- hey, was the BIA involved?