Reviewed by: BigAl
Genre: Travel Memoir
Approximate word count: 75-80,000 words
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Paul Barach is a Seattle based writer, producer, and stand-up comic. Among his proudest achievements in life is “only falling into the La Brea Tar Pits once.” This is his first book.
For more, visit Barach’s website.
“A 750-mile pilgrimage, an unprepared office worker, and everything that went wrong along the way.
Age twenty-eight and fed up with the office job he settled for, Paul Barach decided to travel to Japan to follow a vision he had in college: to walk the ancient 750-mile Shikoku pilgrimage trail.
Here are some things he did not decide to do: learn Japanese, do any research, road test his hiking shoes, or check if it’s the hottest summer in history.
And he went anyway, hoping to change his life.
Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains is the absurd and dramatic journey of one impulsive American’s search for answers on a holy path in an exotic land. Along the pathway connecting 88 Buddhist temples, he’ll face arduous mountain climbs, hide from guards in a toilet stall, challenge a priest to a mountaintop karate battle, and other misadventures. He’ll also delve into the fascinating legends of this ancient land, including a dragon-fighting holy man, a berserker warrior-priest, haunted temples, all manner of gods and monsters, and a vendetta-driven ghost that overthrew a dynasty.
Told with humor and humility, Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains is a funny, engaging memoir about the consequences of impulsive decisions, and the things you can discover while you’re looking for something else.”
A reader who doesn’t get a sense of where this travel memoir is headed from the description surely will if they pause to consider the two quotes that proceed the prologue.
“Every day some new fact comes to light—some new obstacle which threatens the gravest obstruction. I suppose this is the reason which makes the game so well worth playing.”
Robert Falcon Scott (Died exploring the South Pole)
“Adventure is the result of poor planning.”
Roald Amundsen (Did not die exploring the South Pole)
Barach chronicles plenty of adventure in this story of his pilgrimage. I hesitate to call it a pilgrimage as the choice of hiking this trail seems to be driven by the author’s obsession with Japanese culture more than any particular religious belief, but at its root, his goals for this trip were not all that different than a typical pilgrim’s might be. He describes this as “enlightenment,” which is going to be different for each individual, but will boil down to making some kind of major decision or coming to terms with some aspect of life. In Barach’s case, figuring out his future direction, not wanting to become an office drone, but also not seeing an alternative.
I’m always drawn to travel books that involve a quest, some specific goal that might not mean anything to many people, but does to the author. This book fits, as would books from Amundsen or Scott (if he’d only survived to write it), as I think there is something to be gleaned from the story of the attempt, successful or not. I’m amused that at least part of Barach’s goal in this trip was to escape the repetitiveness of an office job, only to replace it by a trip that in many ways was just as repetitive, although with much more of a struggle to adequately satisfy basic human needs like food, water, and sleep. Does the author find enlightenment or come to terms with his future? I’ll leave it to you to decide. I will say that his journey was a positive step in life’s journey for me.
A small amount of adult language.
No significant issue.
Rating: **** Four Stars