With a new book coming out soon and coronavirus-related restrictions keeping recreational travel to a minimum, we thought now might be a good time to catch up with explorer and bestselling author Bruce Kirkby. His newest book, Blue Sky Kingdom (out now in Canada, and out on Oct. 6 in the US) recounts his journey alongside his family to the heart of the Himalayas.
The impetus for the trip was a feeling of disconnect from his family and the world around him. To remedy that feeling, Bruce concocted a plan that led him and his family to cross the Pacific, travel through South Korea, China, India and Nepal, eventually traversing the Himalayas themselves by foot. Their destination: a thousand-year-old Buddhist monastery, one of the last places where Tibetan Buddhism is still practiced freely in its original setting. Together the Kirkby family spent the summer absorbed by monastery life, and in this refuge, Bruce discovered ways to slow down, observe, listen, and, ultimately, to better understand his son on the autism spectrum.
Below is a brief excerpt from Blue Sky Kingdom’s prologue, followed by our interview with Bruce:
Long after our boys had drifted off to sleep, my wife and I worked beneath a bare lightbulb. Slowly and steadily we sorted a tangle of gear and supplies into two piles. The bigger mound—things we once thought we needed but actually didn’t—would be abandoned. The smaller pile held just the essentials: everything required to survive three months amongst the world’s highest peaks.
The next day, a minivan would carry us north, over soaring passes, toward an unmarked trailhead. From there, we would set out by foot, crossing the spine of the Great Himalaya Range and plunging into that swirl of summits and contested borders where China, Pakistan and India collide. Our destination was Karsha Gompa, a thousand- year-old Buddhist monastery barnacled to cliffs above the union of two great rivers—our home until winter.
In an adjacent room, door slightly ajar, both boys slept soundly with a fan blowing on them, cheeks flushed and sheets cast aside. Chestnut- haired Bodi was seven. Angular and lanky like a caribou, he was a thoughtful boy and exceptionally bright; hesitant around strangers and a stickler for routine. Three-year-old Taj was Bodi’s foil; blond, carefree and giggly. His easy manner had drawn others to him from the earliest days.
As I gazed at our sleeping boys—mouths open, dried drool on their cheeks, so perfect, so trusting, so fragile—a fleeting shadow passed inside me. Tomorrow would mark the point of no return. What dangers lay ahead? Was this journey really in their best interests? Or was it fuelled by my own ambitions? I glanced at Christine, but said nothing. I knew she worried too, in her own ways.
Let’s start with life under quarantine. I imagine the current situation has involved some pretty major changes from your usual lifestyle. How have you been adapting?
Yes, a lot of change! After spending much of the last 30 years splitting my time between international expeditions and keynoting conferences, the world feels upside down at times. But massive change and disruption are familiar from the expedition world, so within days I began adapting to the new “virtual” world. I found a gorgeous local theatre to rent, and a young camera crew to record events. I’ve been amazed at the depth of connection that can be created remotely, even with an audience spread across the country—or globe.
I’ve spoken about Grit, Resilience & Managing Change for years, but the pandemic has caused me to reflect deeply on how I share that content. Because it’s so personal right now. In every audience, people are hurting, exhausted and scared. They need some simple strategies to move ahead and regain momentum. So, I feel a lot of responsibility. Expeditions to the Himalaya or Africa seem so exotic, so I use them to carefully cast light on the universality of challenge in the human experience—and most importantly, how we react to challenge, for that’s what sets the course for our lives.
When you first conceived of the trip you took with your family covered in Blue Sky Kingdom, did you immediately think it would end up becoming a book? If not, was there a specific point when it clicked that it would?
No, it’s always been the experience that matters to me—in this case taking my family to a remote Himalayan Buddhist monastery to escape the distraction of the modern world that I felt was drowning us all. Outlets like television and books come later. I happened to pick up a tattered copy of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard in Manali, just before beginning the 10-day trek into Zanskar. It’s a gorgeously written book, and it was that crystalline prose that inspired me. As we walked under glaciated peaks and through remote rural villages, I knew I wanted to share that beauty with my readers.
What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?
Oh yeah, always plenty of plans on the horizon. The biggest one being a year of surfing with my young family. Surfing and Buddhism seem like yin and yang to me. One is very physical, the other cerebral, but both require the participant to be totally present in the moment—and that is the highest gift we can give ourselves. My book opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil that perfectly sums up my feelings on this: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ So as soon as international travel is possible again, we’ll yank the boys from school and head off with a quiver of surfboards. Madagascar, Indonesia, Chile, and New Zealand are in our sights!
Obviously you can’t predict the future but: Do you think international travel will look different in a post-COVID-19 world?
I think it will look different. But not as bad as pundits are suggesting. A return to normal is going to take time, and trying to predict what it will look like is a fool’s errand. But humans are curious, and the world is rich in its diversity, so I think before too long we’ll see a return to international travel. And perhaps this temporary pause will be a hidden blessing, allowing us to appreciate those freedoms more, while more deeply considering our impact on the locations we visit.
Bruce Kirkby lives life on the edge. An acclaimed explorer, travel writer, and television host (with a degree in engineering physics), he uses his incredible adventures across the globe to provide real-world, practical lessons on risk management and change leadership. Bruce’s travels have taken him to the tip of the highest mountain and to the centre of the driest desert. He draws on these experiences to offer simple strategies to help people confront their fears and learn how to embrace change and growth to see lasting success, both personally and professionally.