Posted by: davepidgeon | October 28, 2008

Of “sock funk” and modern pirates

As October slowly recedes away, I have two must-reads to recommend.

Backpacker has a piece by Jim Gorman about Winton Porter, who runs the Mountain Crossings outfitter in Georgia. If you haven’t hiked the Appalachian Trail in some time and you’re craving a wage of nostalgia, pick up this story on Page 58 of the November 2008 issue:

That smell. Push open the door to Mountain Crossings at the height of thru-hiker season in early spring, and a peculiar aroma assaults the olfactory receptors. It’s a pungent blend of boot leather, toaster pizza, sweat, factory-fresh Cordura, sock funk, and sandalwood-scented massage oil, with undertones of history. It’s safe to say you won’t sniff anything like it anywhere else.


To label Mountain Crossings a mere gear store, though, is like calling the AT just another trail. In an era of 30,000-square-foot megastores, Mountain Crossings unapologetically and exclusively celebrates backpacking in all of its quirky and unsanitized glory … . The full extent of what Porter and his staff of seasoned thru-hikers provide includes a home for wayward souls, museum of backpacking, gear-testing skunkworks, roadside tourist attraction, coaching service, personal organizer consultancy, and circus sideshow.

As you can tell, Gorman has a penchant for lists, but he does it in a way that embraces the intricate nature of the place and the buzz of experience one must have walking through the door. Mountain Crossings doesn’t appear to be a monotonous place, and after reading it, if you aren’t fired up to grab Katz and head out for the AT, someone check your pulse.

The magazine doesn’t have the full story up on its Web site, yet, but here’s a link to an ultralight guide Porter helped put together.

My second must-read of the month is a piece from National Geographic that popped up in the 2008 Best American Travel Writing book. If you thought pirates and the times of Robert Louis Stevenson had passed us by, think again and head toward the Strait of Malacca. Peter Gwin’s compelling story about modern-day piracy in Southeast Asia is right out of the tradition borne by adventure series novels and swashbuckling movies:

At a nearby beach, they stole a fiberglass speedboat, painted it blue, and loaded it with gasoline, water and food, two cell phones, a GPS, and five freshly sharpened parangs. In addition, each man brought a ski mask, a change of clothes, some cash, and a passport. After midnight, they slipped into the strait. Meanwhile, the turncoat crew member was sending text messages from the tanker, updating the ship’s position, course, and speed. Most important, Ariffin said, “he told us when he would man the watch.”

A few hours later, the pirates, wearing ski masks and wielding parangs, commanded the Nepline Delima’s bridge. The tanker’s distress signal had been disabled, and 16 of its 17 crew lay bound and blindfolded in a locked cabin, some of them bleeding. The pirates set a new course for the Thai tanker on the open sea. By the next evening the gang would be on their way back to what Batam pirates call “happy happy,” a blur of hedonism, ranging from extravagant amounts of crystal meth and ecstasy to marathon sessions with prostitutes. Or, if Ariffin is to be believed, home to his family.


In fact, I’m thinking seriously about writing a script myself after reading it (starts on page 92). What makes this story attractive are its characters, from the prisoner Johan Ariffin to the ultimate modern-day pirate Jhonny Batam. And I applaud the mysterious ending Gwin places like an elipse at the article’s conclusion.


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