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A few years ago on a cross country road trip we completely lost track of time in southern Utah (trust me, it’s easy to do).  Over breakfast at a cafe in Moab I realized that we still had more than 1000 miles to drive and less than 24 hours to be back at work.  We paid the bill, hit the road and made it to back to Portland with a few hours to spare.

Afterwards it blew my mind that we could traverse so quickly across several rugged western states.  What took us less than a day would have taken early American pioneers many difficult months.  And while we had to put up with bad gas station coffee and greasy fast food, they had to endure horrendous weather, attacks from Native American tribes and the constant threat of starvation.   One of my favorite books of 2014, Astoria by Peter Stark, tells the story of just such a journey.

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In 1810 John Jacob Astor financed an expedition to establish the first commercial settlement on the west coast.  His plan was to funnel all the western fur trade down the Columbia River to where it meets the Pacific Ocean in present-day Astoria.  He would collect these furs, transport them across the Pacific and sell them at a huge markup in Hong Kong.

He would then purchase porcelain, tea and other Chinese luxury goods that he would send to London and sell for a substantial profit.  That money would be used to buy manufactured trade goods that he would ship across the Atlantic and sell at, you guessed it, another enormous markup.  The plan was ingenious and incredibly ambitious.  It was also an epic failure.  And failure, I’m sure you’ll agree, makes for a much more compelling read than success.

Peter Stark is a long-time correspondent for Outside Magazine and his book, Astoria, has the flow of a well-written and well-researched magazine piece.  Like many of my favorite non-fiction titles, it contains elements of several genre:  science, history, exploration, adventure and survival.  After finishing the book in a single weekend I was left with a desire to talk to Peter and hear more about this incredible story.

Recently he was in Portland on a book tour and we got together for a chat.  He was a super nice guy and had the look of someone who’s spent much of his life playing in the outdoors.  We had a lot in common and immediately hit it off.  He even invited me to stay at his home in Montana.  I’ll have to remember to put aside a little extra time at the end of my next road trip.

Here’s a link to my interview with Peter…enjoy!

 

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