The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places by William Atkins

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

When I saw him introduce The Immeasurable World as part of the Faber Spring Party, William Atkins characterised it as being in “the old-fashioned travel writing tradition”. What he meant by that, I think, is twofold: one, that he travelled to his locations personally and spent significant time in each (a total of three years), by turns alone and in company; and two, that he is always conscious that he is treading in the footsteps of earlier adventurers. He has no illusions about being a pioneer here; rather, he eagerly picks up the thematic threads others have spun out of desert experience and runs with them – things like solitude, asceticism, punishment for wrongdoing and environmental degradation.

The book is composed of seven long chapters, each set in a different desert. In “The Empty Quarter” of Oman he muses on the desert fathers and the birth of monotheism. In the Great Victoria Desert of South Australia he learns that a British nuclear testing site has had lasting effects on the Aboriginal people and their land. China’s Gobi and Taklamakan are considered no man’s lands where criminals and other troublemakers are sent. Atkins also visits deserts in Kazakhstan and Egypt, and two in the United States. He notes the routes of and quotes from the works of Wilfred Thesiger (Arabia), Mildred Cable (China), and numerous other late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century explorers.

In my favourite chapter, the author rents a cabin in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona for $100 a week. It’s a forbidding place, seemingly best suited to lizards and insects and overlooked by a blood moon. He opens the book with a short prologue set here, as he adjusts to the solitude and finds ways of coping with the heat and the wildlife:

I lift each of the bed’s feet and slip containers of water under them – tin mugs, a wooden saucer, a saucepan – to keep cone-nose kissing-bugs or scorpions from joining me. … Within this lit perimeter I sleep more easily than I have for months, which is not to say deeply. Waking in the night to the buzzing of cicadas or the yapping of coyotes, I experience a weight of tranquillity that has the quality of a quilt. It might be the peace of the dying.

Most afternoons, … the warmth first intensifies like an oven preheating, then levels off at a temperature that permits nothing but sitting in the cabin’s shadow cowled in a wet scarf.

Whilst staying in the Sonoran he joined in weekly meetings of No More Deaths, an organisation that tends to migrants who have attempted to cross the border from Mexico – a dangerous and sometimes fatal undertaking. Since the 1990s the official U.S. policy on border crossings has been “prevention through deterrence,” which sounds about as effective as it is compassionate. Atkins also witnesses a Border Patrol trial at Tucson’s federal courthouse. Compare this to his experience of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada a month later, when he largely looks on in bewilderment at the excesses of the Burning Man Festival.

In this follow-up to The Moor (2015), Atkins has produced an appealing blend of vivid travel anecdotes, historical background and philosophical musings. My interest waxed and waned from chapter to chapter, but readers of travelogues should find plenty to enjoy. Disparate as his chosen sites are, they have things in common: heat and sand, of course; camels in more than one location. But these desert places also foster a certain self-effacement in response to grandeur. Atkins describes the desert as “the axis where the absolute coexists with the infinite” and theorizes that a traditional traveller’s duty is “to pitch yourself into oblivion” and “to grind away at yourself until nothing was left. It was to aspire to the condition of sand.” Few of us would have the physical or emotional fortitude to repeat Atkins’s journeys, but we get the joy of being armchair travellers instead.

Rebecca Foster loves Santa Fe, but wouldn’t want to get any closer to a desert than that. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and regularly reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. An American transplant to England, she is a freelance proofreader and also blogs at Bookish Beck.

William Atkins, The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places (Faber & Faber: London, 2018). 978-0571319725, 416 pp., hardback.

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