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West on Books: Walking to Extremes in Iceland and New Mexico


Reviewed by Richard West

Howard McCord, a medievalist professor for 43 years, grew up walking the New Mexico badlands on his great-uncles’ ranches, and in “Walking to Extremes In Iceland and New Mexico,” still loves “the gentle stupor of walking.” He also can coax literary music from lava and stone, writing that outback Iceland is “a space on which a kind of eternity rests…where mountains ignore time…they grow like the sky changes.”

    McCord loves the desert landscape of his youth in El Paso and New Mexico and finds Iceland perfect. “To be alone in Iceland’s center is to be alone in a desert with ice.” It is indeed an interior without brush or trees (old joke: What to do if lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up), a young island built on vulcanism and accelerated plate techtonics as we’ve seen in recent months with the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that’s disrupted air travel across western Europe.

    Iceland’s worst volcanic outburst, and arguably the world’s worst, was in 1783 when the 20-mile-long row of craters known as Lakagigar blew forth ash and lava 14 times the bulk of Mt. Blanc, killing one-fifth of the island’s people and four/fifths of its livestock.


Howard McCord.

    McCord walked the length of the island, north-to-south, no small task, through vast, wide canyons, lunarly silent plains with no government boundaries, marshy ground near bubbling hot springs, new lava fields with flakes and spines of stones delicate as fish scales and sharp as razors, “a world uncorrupted by time.”

    Back in the U.S., McCord and an old friend tramped 90 miles through central New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto, journey of a dead man, also an old lava bed but this time one with snakes, cacti, coyotes and antelope, and heat.  But the biggest difference in this lava bed is lack of water. Instead of avoiding icy rivers, McCord must constantly hydrate to keep alive. It’s a huge empty space on a map, east of IH-25 and bordering on the White Sands Missile Base, a lonesome place he portrays beautifully. Walking to Extremes, Howard McCord, McPherson & Company, 144 pgs., $15).

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