Back Story: Tricia Pearsall, Adventuring Pen-Woman

“Back Story,” a new web-only feature, will profile some of the quirky and hard-working folks who tell the stories you read in the magazine. Some of them have more to say about their subjects than can fit into the finished feature. Some have humorous tales to tell about what it takes to report and write a Virginia Living story. And some just have amazing life experiences we think you might like to know about. So that’s what you’ll find here—the story behind the story.

This time we’ve chatted with Tricia Pearsall: adventuring pen-woman, lifelong world-traveler, and long-time travel-writer for Virginia Living who has been everywhere from Panama to Nepal and post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan to Machu Picchu. Her latest travelogue, “Seismic Siberia,” appeared in the August 2010 issue and takes us on a backpacking trek she took across Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula over moss-covered tundra, and past foraging bears skirting glacial lakes and active volcanoes.

Pearsall has a keen eye for place, and a rare ability to distill an often-giant experience into just, well, le bon mot.

VL: How did the trip to Siberia come about?

TP: I was researching a trek or hike in the Altai or Caucasus Mountains in Siberia, Lake Baikal, and came upon a Kamchatka trek. It sounded like an exciting volatile landscape full of wildlife, and then when I started reading more about the volcanic activity, I was hooked!

VL: In “Seismic Siberia” you wrote about encountering a golden-haired Mama bear digging for marmots. What was your first reaction?

TP: The first thing we saw was actually her baby—honking and coming our way. When the baby saw us she split back to Mama bear. My first reaction was, ‘This is fantastic! This is why we came.’ Then, after realizing we were downwind and vulnerable, my next thought was ‘Camera!’

VL: What sparked your interest in travel?

TP: I have wanted to travel and experience people, cultures and land that was not like home ever since selling cookies to get two free weeks at Girl Scout camp – a black water swamp called Camp Pretty Pond in North Carolina.

VL: How far afield have you gone?

TP: When my kids were young we traveled as a family to Europe and backpacked in Colorado, Washington and Belize. When the kids got older and left for school, I started backpacking by myself in the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado and Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington. Then I had a chance to do a month-long trek to Ladakh and Zanskar, India in 1998. I suddenly realized how much there is to experience, and how special the traveling community is and so I have tried to do a long trip every year since.

VL: Do you have a favorite destination?

TP: I love northern Pakistan—the Karakoram and Hunza valleys— Yemen, Ladakh, India and Nepal, particularly the mountain villages.

VL: Have you had any scrapes or near misses?

TP: Yes, but it’s all part of the adventure! Once in Pakistan, returning to Rawalpindi following a trek up the Baltoro to the K2 base camp, we took a taxi to go to eat lunch…it was raining. We stopped for gas and by the time the driver had filled up, the water from what had been a creek was up to the floorboards and we couldn’t move the car. Soon we found ourselves on the roof of the gas station. Then we had to walk across a retaining wall and crawl in the third floor of an abandoned apartment building to safety. We were a group of three from our trek; a very large well-veiled woman and her child and about four men. We made our way to a balcony where we finally were rescued by the Pakistani army in a motorboat. It was a hoot getting the woman into the boat and trying not to disturb her total black cover, keeping the kid laughing and not being swamped by the heavy men. Then the Army – not Navy – soldier gunned the motor almost swamping us in the strong currents. We made it to a shore and everyone walked home in the dark, the electricity long gone. The next day we saw our picture on the front page of the local paper!

VL: Where are you off to next?

TP: I’m traveling to Ulaan Baatar to spend a month driving and doing two treks in Mongolia in the Kharkhiraa Mountains and the Tavan Bogd area near the Russian border. Then it’s on to Nepal for a couple of months to assist our Nepali ‘daughter’ Sushma Shrestha with her ethno botanical survey of nine remote villages in the Manaslu Conservation Area; Manaslu is another 8000m peak on the border between Nepal and China. This is Sushma’s field project for her PhD research at the University of Miami in Ohio. I am going to help with photography, note taking, and whatever she needs to get settled in. …mostly be a warm body to accompany her and do what ever she needs to help her set up her research base. Then I’ll see my son in Bangkok for a week for some beach time and hiking… I’m excited!

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