St. Joseph, Mo., writer, explorer gains experience from his years of world travel

Sunday, February 24, 2008
Conger Beasley Jr. has traveled over the world writing books and articles concerning eco-traveling. Here, Beasley was seen Feb. 13 in the library at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph, Mo. (Ival Lawhon Jr. ~ St. Joseph News-Press)

Conger Beasly Jr.'s text speaks to country and climate, but mostly to people in far-off lands

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Nothing happens easily in the Andes. The expedition, aimed at finding a new loop to the overused Inca Trail, would prove especially taxing.

Try climbing three successive 16,000-foot mountain passes on three successive days.

Conger Beasley Jr., a writer and explorer, found it the better part of valor, and respiration, to do as the natives do.

Each morning, the head Quechuan porter handed out an allotment of coca leaves, a local high-altitude helper for millennia. Tiny and heart-shaped, the leaves found a place in the climbers' mouths, where they produced wild hallucinations by day, vivid dreams by night and regulated heartbeats on the rigorous slopes.

"I thought, I've gotten myself into something here," Beasley recalled.

Indeed, even the native Peruvians got lost and the coca ran low, but that 1995 trip generated a magazine article and one more adventure for the St. Joseph writer.

If the world can be said to have far reaches, Beasley has visited them.

His books, whether about the Patagonia in the lowest tip of South America or about Kangchenjunga in the highest contours of the eastern Himalayas, touch on the culture, history and indigenous people in places almost no one will know but for the printed accounts.

Despite a preference for "low, flat, hot, malarial places," Beasley journeys where the mood and assignments dictate. He might enjoy the unspoiled rain forest of Suriname, but the stark wilderness of Manitoba also carries an appeal.

His text speaks to country and climate, but mostly to people in far-off lands. "Travelers and adventurers and journeyers are usually very interesting," he said. "I've met some glorious folks."

Conger recognized an interest in writing from his early education, first at Noyes School and then two years at Central High School. He went away to Choate, the noted Connecticut prep school, before getting degrees at Columbia University and New York University.

With a master's degree in hand, he returned to Missouri in 1965 and taught at Park College. With a new wife and the Hemingwayesque notion that a first novel had to be written abroad, Beasley departed for rural England.

His time there produced a 700-page first draft of a book. "Inside those 700 pages, there's probably a decent 250-page novel," he said with a smile. "Every bad act that a beginning writer can commit, you will find in those pages."

Some writers are vulcanists, Beasley said, spewing out words and getting them right the first time. He refers to himself as a sedimentarian, taking an agonizing length of time to shape a final piece. A simple note, he laughed, might get several drafts.

Steady work

Returning to the United States, he eventually landed with Universal Press Syndicate, one of the first employees at the upstart company in Kansas City. And he got steady book review work with the National Catholic Reporter. As a book editor throughout the 1970s, he cultivated a deeper knowledge of the writing craft.

"Of course, it's much easier to make mincemeat out of someone else's work than it is your own," he says.

Though he got a couple of novels published, fanciful works in the spirit of the times, his interests turned to nonfiction writing.

A photographer friend named J.C. Leacock recommended him for writing work at Buzzworm, a Denver-based journal specializing in environmental reporting.

An early assignment focusing on the endangered spotted owl and the timber jobs lost in Washington state took the two men to the Olympic Peninsula. Beasley went to a hardware store and announced his desire to talk to loggers.

The burly proprietor, fully conversant with the controversy of the moment, pulled the writer nose-to-nose, and said, "You've come to the right place, sonny."

A travel magazine for eco-tourists sent Beasley to Canada for a story about a whitewater rafter. There, he struck up a friendship with the photographer, Tim Hauf, with whom he has now collaborated on five books.

Hauf, whose home base is in Kingston, Wash., called Beasley an obliging partner and his writing a perfect complement to his pictures.

"He'll write about the sounds and smells that I cannot capture on film," the photographer said in a phone interview. "He can also write about the rigors of the trip, where in a photograph they are not necessarily reflected."

Beasley, who lives some of the time in Colorado Springs, considers adaptability the greatest asset in traveling to remote locales. Things will always go wrong. "You can't expect that any part of this trip is going to follow the agenda that you have outlined so meticulously," he said.

Once home, the thousand strings of gathered information come together organically, the personal observations and historical sources forming in pieces and increments.

The finishing touches are being applied to the latest Beasley-Hauf collaboration, a book on Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California. And Beasley's next book, a biography of the 19th-century faith healer Francis Schlatter, comes out this spring.

The author admits to certain moments of awe, maybe staring at sawtooth mountains in southern Argentina or breathing a sigh of relief after landing on a short air strip carved into a deep jungle.

The feeling is this: Damn, I love this job.

"I'm the luckiest man in the world," the author says.

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