>Running After Antelope

“Neither the animals nor I believe in the city. There is no boundary that wilderness does not cross.”

As with many great traveling writers, Scott Carrier is frustrated with how society is so far removed from nature and complicates his attempts to live primitively. But it’s this very angst that pushes Scott out the door & propels him to into so many adventurous situations. Many of the stories within ‘Running After Antelope’ (Counterpoint Press 2001) were produced for national public radio broadcasts, including All Things Considered This American Life, so the language is conversational & humorous; you can almost hear the words narrate themselves from off the page.

Scott Carrier is a shining character & he portrays himself fairly transparently: daring but often clueless, passionate yet moody, witty but also something of a dork. But this book isn’t about Scott Carrier and he doesn’t he seek to dominate his stories with his character. The greater focus is always on the meaning behind his experiences.

Each chapter is a story unto itself, recounting some journalistic pursuit or unfolding some otherwise amazing anecdotal sketch from Carrier’s life. Carrier covers a wide spectrum of subjects, from playing pee-wee football as a haiku-reciting child, to examining the violent interior of Cambodia’s dark jungles, to trekking amidst the chaos of the disputed Kashmir mountain range, to attempting to run down pronghorn antelope with his brother on the open plains of Wyoming.

The theme of “Running After Antelope,” is threaded through-out the story in brief chapters that read as simple dispatches interlinking motifs of the evolution of breathing, spiritual awareness, & chasing after various velocious land-animals: “I doubt that we will ever have enough facts or be able to test and clearly demonstrate our nature as animals. I think we’ll always have to settle for a story – be it myth, legend, or scientific theory. And what I want is a good story, the best I can come up with. This is why the running hypothesis still intrigues me. It says that we became upright in order to breath better, in order to increase our stamina and endurance. In order that we might have more spirit and consciousness.”

My favorite piece was a touching segment called “The Test,” in which Carrier is hired to interview people in the state of Utah whom receive Medicaid support for schizophrenia. He is trained to administer a test that rates their level of mental illness, 1 thru 7. Each client he encounters is an episode unto themselves and Carrier outlines their lives with empathetic detail; but when Carrier takes the test himself, I felt as if his life was just opened up & emptied out, like a messy drawer, on the floor for the reader to see. I was touched by such a compassionate exposure of him, & now believe that’s the level of honesty any writer should strive for if they have to write about themselves. The piece was also an intense insight into how every body could be summed up as crazy by some vague questionnaire; We’re each compulsive about some things, we’re all obsessive about other things, there are a thousand aspects of personality within each of us & it doesn’t take much for them to become fragmented ways of coping with a world of filled with disappointment & indifference. “The client is a thirty-six-year-old male who lives alone since his wife and children left him over two months ago. He says there’s a darkness that separates him from other people, a heavy darkness, like looking at a person from the bottom of a well. He believes that if he could say the right words, then the darkness would go away. He says he sometimes knows the right words but can’t say them…”

Another story I’m fond of, entitled “Hitchhike” recounts Carrier’s hitch-hiking journey from Salt Lake to New York City with a colorful Serbian semi-driver named Zarko. Carrier also reminisces about other hitch-hiking experiences, but keeps the focus on the current journey, stimulating the idea that it’s easier to do than one might typically think. There is always an element of adventure in hitch-hiking & Carrier does a remarkable job of illustrating the strong bridge between non-traditional travel & story-telling; that is, when you attempt hitch-hiking, there will always be a story in that – not only one of where you’re going & how you got there, but the strange histories of whom you traveled with & what happened in-between rides. Carrier doesn’t mention it, but I’ll bet his episodes of hitch-hiking significantly developed his interest in relating real-world stories & matured him in a way fit for world-travel journalism. In any case, it’s a great inspiration to me.

There are two chapters about Cambodia that read more like Gonzo-influenced magazine articles, ‘cause that’s probably how they first appeared before being anthologized in this book, & they detail two separate tours of the country. His first Cambodian excursion was as part of a press junket hired to attract tourists to the war-torn country. At first, Carrier approaches his assignment with a reckless American-attitude of nonchalance, shrugging off the standard press itinerary and taking to the streets himself; but as soon as he is briefed by an experienced correspondent of the very real dangers that are present almost everywhere in Cambodia, he changes his tone. Carrier faithfully reports on the unimaginable horror tied into Cambodia’s history while capturing the hope of the people whom always seem to be rebuilding their lives after enduring so much senseless & seemingly endless violence.
There is a moment when Carrier is interviewing a Cambodian man, whom shares his experiences as a child-soldier (possibly responsible for the deaths of his own parents), that a note was struck in my own heart that sent forth tears when I witnessed the powerful spirit of forgiveness present in these people who’ve gone thru hell-on-earth. “You know, after the liberation we all saw what happened, we saw for ourselves the many mass graves and the killing fields, and we were very angry. We wanted the revenge. I thought it was very terrible. But from year to year, we try to forget. We have one proverb – ‘The feeling of freedom is bigger than the feeling of revenge.’ Now we are in a different philosophy.” What he saw & heard in Cambodia seems to have had a strong effect on Carrier himself, as he left Cambodia feeling “worn out and numb…a conditions which lasted through a long period of weeks” in which he slept very little & was afraid to leave his house. But after all this, Carrier still felt that he needed to tell people to go to Cambodia & see it for themselves, and he, himself, returned to Cambodia for a second trek thru a much more dangerous excursion into the militant-controlled jungles where the infamous Pol Pot called home.

I was thoroughly stirred by this short collection (130 pages) of incredible stories & am grateful to my flat-mate, Ryan, for putting this book in my hands. This was the right thing for me to read at just the right time. It is more interesting to read the autobiographical narratives of a man who seeks to live closer to his ideals, by taking excursions into the wild, than to read the biographical pursuits of another man whom abandons all to live in the wild but whose ideals are lost because he does not write for himself (i.e. Chris McCandless, from Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into the Wild’). This book has helped shift my own focus to the importance of good non-fiction writing. As a student of journalism it is imperative for me to learn how to retell my own strange stories in a cohesive way, to capture my own travels & observations in a form worthy of reading – which is why Scott Carrier & “Running After Antelope” is a perfect literary model of where I hope to take my own writing.

Listen to MP3s of these stories & others by Scott Carrier @ This American Life.

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