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  • The Road to Agadez

    This is a true story about the summer of 1969. To be precise, it concerns only three days in late June when I drove across the Sahara desert with 18 other high school graduates, two English teachers, and a Harvard philosopher. We navigated our way across a 600-mile no man's land that ended in the town of Agadez in Niger. It was the beginning of the rainy season-- when the track becomes impassable-- in the southern Sahara, and, because of a late start, we had trouble getting permission from the embassy in Algiers to leave. There was no road to speak of, only a piste, which consists of the odd track and piles of stones, the only sign of human civilization a one-hut military outpost located smack dab in the middle. The road to Agadez turned out to be a long one.

    The trip had begun in early June in London, where we picked up three new Land Rovers with special racks fitted for extra gas cans. After a couple of weeks driving through France and Spain, a dinner at heiress Barbara Hutton's palace in Tangiers (where one of my friends, Alfie, was sufficiently inebriated to entertain Ms. Hutton with an impromptu medley of Broadway show tunes), and a memorable meal of couscous on the cliffs overlooking Oran, we finally started on the road to Agadez. To our surprise, the desert was hauntingly beautiful and otherworldly. The huge sun pooled and melted into the horizon at sunset, the rocks were brightly colored (purple in one spot), and the stars at night were so crowded that it was hard work picking out the constellations.

    The first night we came across an abandoned fort, the French Foreign Legion kind, and made camp there. Dinner was the usual execrable diet of canned sardines, deviled ham, and some sort of potted beef. Canned fruit was highly prized.

    The next day we passed the halfway mark, a small hut inhabited by a handful of soldiers from Niger. One feature of this camp stood out. It was a large metal bathtub, full to the top, standing out from the surrounding terrain like a piece of space junk that had crash-landed on the moon. We took advantage of their hospitality, skinned off our clothes, and took turns sitting in a makeshift hot tub surrounded by a million acres of desert.

    The next evening we ran into trouble. (We did most of our driving very early and very late to avoid the heat.) I was driving the first truck and lost sight of the track. The headlights picked up a carcass, then two, then a half dozen, all bloated, stiff-legged, and scattered about a cistern. We were soon stumbling over mummified camels, youthful shadows flitting in and out of headlights. Lost and for the first time doubting the possibility of reaching our next birthdays, we camped amidst the corpses and waited until morning.

    At sunrise, our sober company circled and finally found the piste and headed south, but by noontime we hit a blinding sandstorm and turned the trucks downwind. One of them developed carburetor problems and had to be dismantled-- a two-hour process-- and rebuilt. It still ran poorly, the engine requiring constant gunning.

    Then we hit showers, and the road turned to mud every few miles. We winched the trucks through ruts so deep that the roofs of the Land Rovers were often below grade. We got stuck a dozen times, put our shoulders to the Rovers, and rocked them back and forth. It turned dark, the track was hard to follow, and we were down to a mere 11.2 liters of gas. Finally, we saw a few lights far in the distance. We had finally found Agadez and the end of our Sahara adventure.

    A few months ago, I came across a black-and-white photo of the Rovers in the Sahara. That small snapshot brought back the memory of an urgent need to travel, to move on through the desert, Central Africa, and then through Uganda to Kenya. We loved the trucks, the movement, the road ahead. We drove 10,000 miles that summer and didn't stop to wonder why some rocks are purple or who built the fort in the desert.

    Last weekend, the kids and I piled into my red 1981 Ford F-150 and headed up the back road to Sherman's Country Store. It is a short drive and, for my kids, the destination is a penny-candy land: Sour Watermelon Slices, Cow Tales, Sugar Daddies, Round Up Candy, Robin's Eggs, Ring Pops, and Atomic Fireballs. They wanted me to hurry, excited by what was to come. For my part, I drove slowly and gazed out the window at a fallen crabapple tree, an alfalfa field that was a brilliant carpet of green, and the small billboard advertising the Church of Christ that reads, "If You Are Looking for a Sign, This Is It!" As we pulled up to the store, my kids spilled out of the truck, happy to have arrived. I sat a bit, thinking about that long drive from London to Nairobi, wondering if the journey and the destination are really the same thing. After those hard miles traveled, I had finally found a way back home through the scuffle of children pushing through the screen door at Sherman's, happy about the future that lies ahead.

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