Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The long walk


It is troubling, to say the least, to consider that a longtime classic could be a hoax.

Many years ago, a book about surviving in the outdoors was published and a friend reviewed it for a magazine. My friend, who knew more about outdoor survival than most, didn't like the book (I've forgotten its name) and said so. Among other things, the book repeated the generally accepted wisdom that the human body can't last more than three days without water.

My friend, a proponent of the influence that things like attitude, mental toughness, intelligent strategy, desperation and will to survive have on physiology, the capacity of humans to exceed the limits of accepted wisdom and the ability to survive in the outdoors (and elsewhere), wrote something like, "If Slawomir Rawicz had read this book and got it in his head that he could only live three days without water, he would never have made it across the Gobi Desert."

"Who is Slawomir Rawicz and what's his story?" I asked my friend, who was incredulous that I didn't know and immediately gave me a copy of "The Long Walk," Rawicz's book about escaping from a Russian gulag in Siberia in 1941 and walking 4,000 miles south in 11 months across the Gobi Desert, through Tibet and the Himalayas and into India. Rawicz, a Pole, started with six fellow prisoners, including an American, and found a 17-year-old Polish girl along the way who joined them. After 4,000 miles of hardship and survival, including walking across the Gobi without water, four of them made it safely to India.

"The Long Walk," published in England where Rawicz lived 15 years after the events it describes, is a classic piece of adventure literature and is recommended reading to everyone for its Homeric journey, history, tragedy (not much comedy), inspiration, two Abominable Snowmen and the always surprising capacity of humanity for compassion and brutality and its will to survive. It's a great read.


From the beginning, the book and Rawicz himself had critics and doubters whose skepticism was driven as much and perhaps more by his reported sighting of two Abominable Snowmen (Yetis) while crossing the Himalayas as by the extreme rigors of the journey itself. Two years after Rawicz died in 2004, researchers claimed to have found documents in Russian and Polish archives that appear to debunk parts of his story. The tale is a 4,000-mile-stretch and the doubters were comfortable within the confines of generally accepted wisdom and felt justified in calling Rawicz, among other things, a liar. And in 2009, a fellow Pole, Witold Glinski, also living in England, came forward with the claim that the story was true but that it was he, not Rawicz, who had made the journey. Slawomir, according to Witold, must have found out about the journey from some "official" papers in London's Polish Embassy. Glinski said he waited more than 50 years after "The Long Walk" was published to reveal the truth because he "wanted to forget the war and concentrate on his new life."

Fair enough, I suppose. Wanting to forget things like war is admirable and understandable but probably impossible. And there is a good argument to be made that remembering and acknowledging and keeping in the public consciousness the horrors of past wars and their consequences for present life could contribute to preventing future wars. At any rate, there is a mini-war of words on the blogs about who really walked the talk of "The Long Walk," particularly between the grandchildren of Glinski and Rawicz, who loyally and adamantly defend the integrity and truthfulness of their respective progenitors.

"The Long Walk" is among my favorite books of adventure literature, and it is troubling, to say the least, to consider that a longtime classic could be a hoax. However, while keeping an open mind to humanity's vast potential for deception and depravity, as well as gullibility and unwillingness to change cherished beliefs even when it is absurd not to, I for one am not yet ready to throw Rawicz to the dogs of doubters and debunkers.

For starters, the archives of Poland and Stalin's Russia in the 1930s and '40s are hardly, to put it mildly, the Rosetta Stone of historical truth. And the "official" papers in the Polish Embassy have never been officially seen, read or acknowledged by anyone except Glinski. Anyone who believes that Stalin allowed accurate records to be kept of people he sent to the gulags probably believes Bjorn Lomborg's polemics against global climate change measure the real state of the world.

And the fact that both Glinski and the doubting researchers did not go public with their stories until after Rawicz had died is, for me, a red flag. I'm open to persuasion by some better evidence, but for now "The Long Walk" is Rawicz's story, told from personal experience, and very well told at that.

There is certainly another intriguing story to be told in the theories of the Rawicz doubters and Glinski's assertion that he made the long walk. It likely will not be as adventurous or inspiring as "The Long Walk," but determining the truth is often as difficult as crossing the Gobi without water, traversing the Himalayas without mountain boots and convincing the world that you saw a couple of Yetis.

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