Ottawa Writers Festival: The road goes ever on for Kate Harris

Kate Harris. Photo: Piia Korsalo

The Silk Road stretches from China to Europe. It is a fabled route taken by caravans and Mongol hordes and now Kate Harris.

The adventures of this resident of tiny Atlan, B.C. (population 400 hardy souls) have become a story known around the world through her book The Lands of Lost Borders. Her memoir of two journeys by bicycle on these difficult roads has been reviewed by the likes of Pico Iyer and Barry Lopez. It’s being translated into German, Dutch and French.

These days Harris lives off the grid in northern B.C. but occasionally she gets out for a book tour or some writing job. She was in Vancouver when she described how she lives.

“You can live very cheaply in Atlan,” says the Rhodes scholar and Morehead-Cain scholar. “Expenses aren’t very high. There are a lot of retirees in the town. It’s spectacularly beautiful but there’s not much of a local economy.”

She manages to eke out a life as a freelance writer for magazines such as Canadian Geographic and The Walrus and environmental reports for NGOs. The book has given that income stream a real shot in the arm. It has also pushed her past the $30,000 a year mark for the first time meaning she has to handle the paperwork to claim and submit GST. She doesn’t like that much.

She has also been dubbed one of Canada’s top modern day adventurers, a word she much prefers to explorer.

“I wouldn’t call myself one. I call myself a writer. I’m most comfortable with that because it encompasses just about anything. Adventurer feels a bit more honest. I’m not discovering anything new in the travels I do in the geographic sense.”

She also doesn’t like the imperialist connotations that the word explorer carries when it involves white people travelling the world.

“I just wrote a manifesto for The Walrus on the future of exploration and my argument was that we have to think of it not as an exercise in nostalgia or worse, the process of extracting resources from a place. We have to think of it as an art. We need to fall in love with the world again.”

Her journeys have taught her that many lives are playing out on this planet in very different ways with different priorities. That, she says, is a beautiful thing to encounter.

“The appeal of the Silk Road for me grew out of disenchantment with who I thought explorers were and who they actually were.”

One of those is the 14th century Venetian merchant Marco Polo who travelled to China and wrote about what he encountered.

“I grew up reading those early accounts and I was attracted to that spirit of exploration … the curiosity, the wonder, the sense of our smallness in the scheme of things. But if you dig a little deeper you find out these guys weren’t romantic figures. Marco Polo was a merchant. He was all about money and commodities. The worth of a place to him was what could be taken out of it and sold.”

Polo disdained the wild places. Not surprisingly the wilderness between the trading posts is what interested Harris on the Silk Road.

The book details two journeys. The first was a wild ‘Let’s just do it’ trip into Tibet ducking under unmanned border crossings and dodging Chinese soldiers. For a sedentary middle-aged reader, it was a bit of a jaw-dropper.

Not Kate Harris. “Tibet has this grand history of people sneaking in to see it. That was appealing on the romantic level but we also just wanted to see what was going on there. We wanted to see what they didn’t want us to see.”

On this trip she encountered things that made her question assumptions about the world. And these questions filtered into the work she was to put in at Oxford on her Rhodes Scholarship.

“I wanted to dive into border issues for my Masters thesis and that fuelled a desire to finish cycling the Silk Road.”

The Silk Road is no fable. It’s a thriving trade route that might become even more important if Chinese President Xi Jingping gets his way.

She was physically prepared for this second journey because she had become a cross-country mountain biker and a cycle-cross rider.

“I wasn’t cyclist at all until I went the first time. Afterwards I just wanted to keep doing it. Racing is a compressed adventure. You can learn as much in a hour as you can in weeks on the road.”

It seems that Kate Harris just has to test herself.

“A lot of it stems out of curiosity about seeing what is possible. I have this hunger for experience. We are only here for a limited time so I want experience as much as possible. There were stories of me on the move as a kid. I was walking at nine months and climbing over everything.”

She has a questing spirit that has her wondering about the mysteries of the universe. This avid reader also loves the places language can take you.

The second Silk Road journey was different. She was more aware of the world she was passing through. She was also carrying questions about borders and “how they make or break the world.”

She rode through places of environmental degradation and cultural oppression. But despite their poverty Harris was moved by the incredible decency of the people and their warmth and hospitality even in the poorest places, such as in the Pamir Mountains on the Afghanistan border.

She also stopped in Samarkand that place of legend.

“I was blown away by Samarkand. I’d seen photos of the Registan and the blue tiles on the mosques and the madrasses. To see it and walk around this mind-blowingly beautiful work” was special.

She hopes to go to other out of the way places such as Bhutan, and Greenland and Canada’s High Arctic. But right now her focus is on Atlan and  “living off the grid and trying to learn how to garden. I came up there without any of these skills. Now I love learning about neighbourhood and challenge of living on less being more.”

She is thinking this Thoreau-like existence might be what she writes next … that and taking flying lessons.

“Flight is a theme running through the book. I have wanted to fly since I was tiny, but I could never could afford it. When the book sold in the U.S. it felt like I was getting free money.” So she signed up.  I wrote it for Canada.

“Working as a bush pilot would be an incredible way to make a living in Atlan.” That’s a ways off, she says, but after meeting Kate Harris, you just know she’ll do it.

In town: Kate Harris will be at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Saturday at noon. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.