Travel December 2001

Storm Island

If you like extreme weather, the French island of Ouessant is a good place to find it

After a long struggle I came to the base of the lighthouse, a massive structure painted in black and white stripes, rising 200 feet above the sea, and topped by two levels of rotating lenses sending multiple beams into the inkiness of the storm. Those beams, turning silently overhead, angled strangely downward in a way that created the illusion of rotating cones, and passing through windblown waves of rain and ocean spray, remain in my memory as one of the world's fantastic sights. Eventually I pried myself away and continued toward the end of the island, along cliffside trails and across open terrain. Enormous waves slammed into the rocks below, shaking the earth and raising plumes that were seized and atomized by the wind and mixed with the rain. The resulting deluge pelted painfully against my face, limiting my vision and forcing me at times to turn and walk backward under the protection of my parka's tightly drawn hood. Twice when I tried to stand upright and face the storm, I was knocked down by the wind. The only way to proceed now was by crouching and, on uncertain ground near the edges, crawling. It was exhilarating work, but with care never unsafe, since the onshore winds shoved me not toward destruction but away.

I came finally to the westernmost tip of the island, where the shore took the form of gravelly shelves stepping down to the sea, partially protected by house-sized boulders that stood in shallow water and bore the brunt of the waves. I crept as close as I dared, wedged myself into the shelter of a rock, and spent an hour trying in vain to judge the scale of a gargantuan scene. The numbers don't matter anyway: the breakers were huge, and when they hit the boulders, they exploded twice as high. The wind and the water roared. The moon came out briefly and lit the boiling surf. When I grew cold from sitting, I found my way back to the hotel. The walking was easy downwind.

In the morning the seas remained rough, but the rain had stopped, the winds had dropped to a paltry 50 miles an hour, and the ferry was reported to be running on schedule. It was the end of the storm, the natural moment to leave. I had a breakfast of black coffee, paid my hotel bill, and arranged for the taxi to deliver my suitcase to the ferry landing. The last hours I spent walking again—as you might want to as well, to enjoy the calm. The ferry departs for Brest at 4:30 P.M. and arrives by 7:00, which allows you to get to Paris in time to spend the night, and the next day, perhaps feeling invigorated, to resume ordinary life.

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William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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