Crazy In The Desert

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While I was out there all those days, wandering alone, I became like an animal, a desert creature that lives by the rules of the sun and behaves entirely on instinct. I crawled as a reptile crawls over the ground, hunting for beetles to stab with my knife, searching for the shade of a tamarisk tree, foraging for roots to suck. I fell into a hyperalert state. I became attuned to every shift of the wind, the promising wisp of a cloud building in the east, the sound of mice running over the sand at night. Every thought, every movement of my body, was devoted to surviving. I repeated to myself, “Do not surrender.” I would climb one ridge and find a beautiful city of stone spread before me. Temples and citadels, white minarets, the remnants of a great civilization. But the people were all dead and gone. Time became the sun and the moon, the crunch of my feet on a cracked riverbed. Dune. Wadi. Another dune. A camel carcass. A Berber ruin. Salt flats stretching out for eternities in the shimmering heat. A scorpion clawing over dried animal dung. Fields of blue boulders under starry skies, satellites blinking across the night. I imagined that there had been a nuclear war and that I was walking over the charred remains of the world. The last one left.

After his dreadful adventure five years ago, the Italian newspapers called Mauro Prosperi “the Robinson Crusoe of the Sahara.” He was pale and stick-figured when he got back home, shambling off the plane from Algiers in a loose-fitting robe.

Now, it was a bright morning in September 1998 in his hometown, the Sicilian fishing village of Aci Trezza, and Prosperi was the picture of good health. He turned heads outside a local cafe as he dismounted from his BMW motorcycle and removed his wraparound shades. A tautly constructed man whose black hair is flecked with gray, Prosperi was wearing spandex running shorts, a loud cycling shirt, and a Sector watch that chirped on the half-hour. He was still sweating from a run on Mount Etna, the active volcano that soars 11,000 feet above the town.

“I brought something for you,” he told me as he sat down. After ordering a cappuccino, he unfolded a topographical map of North Africa. “This is the route,” he said, pointing to the line of fluorescent ink zigzagging across the blond immensity of the Sahara. “Five thousand five hundred kilometers. From the Atlantic to the Nile.”

Prosperi, 44, has been planning this expedition for three years: a non-stop and mostly unsupported walk across the entire width of the Sahara Desert, more than 3,000 miles, with his running companion, an endurance athlete and former special-forces commando from Naples named Modestino Preziosi. He intends to finally execute it this year, be-ginning in early September. Pulling custom-designed carbon-fiber–and-titanium wagons filled with freeze-dried food and other supplies, they will trudge eastward in temperatures as high as 130 degrees. They’ll cross the desolate precincts of Algeria and Libya — places with ghostly names like Amguid, Ghat, and Waw an Namus — and pass through the seemingly endless miles of the great hamada, the hard, stony desert, following a slightly jagged route to maximize their access to known wells. By mid- to late October, with nothing connecting them to the world but a satellite phone and an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, they will be inching across the dreaded Murzuq — 350 uninterrupted miles of rippled dunes. Their plan is to reach the Nile just in time to usher in the next millennium and to celebrate their accomplishment — in a suitably Italian spirit of grandeur — at a rumored Pink Floyd concert to be held among the Pyramids of Giza on New Year’s Eve.

Over the centuries, any number of deranged existentialists have crisscrossed the Sahara in any number of ways. But no one has yet had the audacity to attempt the obvious — a full west-east traverse, tracking the whole mother on foot. In terms of mileage, it’s the equivalent of walking from San Diego to Nova Scotia. But distance, of course, is not the only obstacle. In a world in which true endurance firsts have become increasingly esoteric, Prosperi’s concept, compelling in its simplicity, is also utterly quixotic, given all the things that can go wrong, which include possible encounters with bandits, border guards, genocidal Algerian guerrillas, scorpions, snakes, and zero-visibility sandstorms — not to mention the threat of running out of water. If Prosperi and Preziosi can bring it off, their accomplishment will arguably be on a par with the Norwegian Børge Ousland’s 1997 solo crossing of Antarctica.

Poring over the map at the cafe in Aci Trezza, Prosperi offered an elaborate rationale for his trip, saying it would advance the science of des-ert survival and that it would also help foster goodwill among Saharan nations. Suddenly, he waved his hand dismissively and said, “But screw all of that. The real reason is selfishness. It’s something I want to do.”

Five days a week, Prosperi is a crowd-control cop in the nearby city of Catania. He sits astride a police horse, cutting a proud figure for the tourists in the civic square. But the truth is that police work bores him. He joined the force in 1973, when he was living in Rome — his native city — because Italy’s police federation generously subsidizes the training of national-caliber athletes. Day after day, he stares dully at the crowds and the pigeons and yearns for an encore in the desert.

“But why,” I pressed him, “would you go back to a place that almost killed you?” For the past few days, he had been telling and retelling the story of what had happened to him when he disappeared for nine days in the Sahara, the story that had made him famous across Italy.

“I feel a connection there,” he said. “I love the clarity. And you see, the Sahara spared my life. Those days in the desert were my happiest.”

As much as I wanted to believe Prosperi’s story, I didn’t — at least, not entirely. Lots of people didn’t. As with so many tales of survival in the wilderness that lack the benefit of witnesses, there was something fundamentally incredible about his account. The possibility that Prosperi might be a fraud seemed to hover over everything he said and did.

He was one of two things: either the most dementedly obdurate bullshitter the world of endurance sports had to offer or a physiological anomaly whose feats deserved to be written up in medical journals. If his claims were true, he had confounded the laws of dehydration science. There was nothing like him in the literature of the Sahara or in the literature of any desert. But whatever had happened out there five years ago, he had never been able to turn loose of it. One way or another, the desert had taken him.

Competing in the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day “self-sufficiency” endurance race held every spring in the Moroccan Sahara, is the equivalent of running six marathons back-to-back in a convection oven. With a severe romanticism on loan from the French Foreign Legion, the event requires participants to carry their provisions on their backs — everything, in fact, but their water, which is furnished at each checkpoint.

In April 1994, Prosperi was one of 134 entrants in the event. A gifted runner, fencer, and horseman, he had won or placed in international modern-pentathlon contests from Hong Kong to San Antonio. Although the Marathon des Sables was his first competition in the desert, Prosperi was running an exceptional race.

On the morning of the marathon’s fourth and longest stage — a diabolical slog totaling some 50 miles — Prosperi was in seventh place and maintaining an impressive clip despite temperatures that were climbing to 115 degrees. It was Thursday, April 14, and the runners were approaching the finish line at Zagora, a Berber village in the palm-studded Draa Valley. Shortly after one o’clock that afternoon, Prosperi briefly stopped at the third checkpoint, 20 miles into the day’s route. Giovanni Manzo, a friend from Sicily who was running with him, helped him tape up a festering blister on his foot. Shortly afterward, Prosperi signed for his two-liter allotment of water and then took off.

Some 15 minutes later, the winds started to kick up, in gusts at first, then in a steady howl that escalated into a blinding sandstorm. Visibility dropped to near zero. Marathoners up and down the course were forced to wrap themselves in sleeping bags to ride out the choking swirls of sand, which stung the skin and caused bloody noses and respiratory-tract abrasions. The organizers formally halted the race for the day.

The winds lashed for six hours. That night, as the storm subsided, officials grew concerned: Manzo had straggled in at the fourth checkpoint, but there was no sign of Prosperi. Manzo didn’t understand what could have happened — Prosperi had been running ahead, and even with the storm slowing his progress, he should have come in hours earlier. But the race officials trusted that Prosperi would not have strayed far. The rules stipulated that should a sandstorm occur, runners were to halt in their tracks and await further instruction. The race officials decided they would commence a full-scale search in the morning.

At first light on Friday, race employees were dispatched in Land Rovers to comb the trail, while a pilot undertook a reconnaissance flyover in an ultralight craft. The searchers methodically covered the terrain in a grid pattern. They realized they would have to move fast during the morning, because Prosperi had at most only two liters of water and by noon temperatures would be in the triple digits.

But the searchers found no trace of him. He had simply vanished.

Later that morning, the Moroccan military began assisting with the search. Bedouin trackers were dispersed. A helicopter was sent up. Moving farther afield from the course, the growing search party worked all day and through the night.

The race officials could not believe they had simply lost a contestant to the open desert. Although its promoters liked to bill the Marathon des Sables as “the toughest footrace on Earth,” only one person had actually died in it thus far, a young French runner who had suffered a massive heart attack in 1988. The Marathon des Sables’ literature spoke of pitting “man against the elements,” but that was just a cliché of faux survivalism. For Prosperi, however, the ordeal had ceased to be a controlled simulation of extremity and had become dreadfully authentic. He was an incongruous, Lycra-clad creature loping across the wastelands of eastern Morocco, his marathon bib number meaningless now, a runner struggling to win an entirely different kind of race.

I first heard about Mauro Prosperi in April 1998, while in Morocco for the thirteenth Marathon des Sables. He was back in the Sahara again, running the race for the second time since his disappearance in 1994. He was considered one of the curious sideshows of the marathon, the mad Italian flagellant who’d returned for more desert punishment.

One cool evening early on in the contest, the French founder and director of the race, a ruddy-cheeked former concert promoter named Patrick Bauer, held a meeting with journalists outside the press tent. Bauer had hatched the idea of the Marathon des Sables after he went on a “solo expedition” of some 200 miles across the Algerian Sahara in 1984. “People thought I must be mad,” Bauer said. “It was just a personal quest, something I had to do.” He spoke mystically of the prolonged solitude he had experienced, of the shooting stars he had seen, of what the desert had done to him once he was dropped into its vastness. Bauer did not mention, until prompted by a French journalist who knew the real story, that he had been accompanied on his so-called solo trek by his brother and girlfriend, who had followed him in a support vehicle.

“Yes, but they did not help me in any way,” Bauer insisted. “They were there to document this historic experience.”

Later, I asked Bauer about Prosperi. It seemed to me that these two men were kindred spirits, for they had both experienced a transcendental communion with the desert that had changed their lives.

“Don’t listen to Mr. Prosperi,” Bauer replied. He pursed his lips and exhaled contemptuously. “His story is a fabrication. He will have you believe he is Superman. It is physiologically impossible for a man to travel more than 200 kilometers in the desert without water. This is a supernatural act.”

Was he saying that Prosperi had never really been missing?

“Well, it’s possible that he got genuinely lost for a few days. But all the rest rings false. We believe that early on he was picked up by someone. And then he decided to hide out for a while.”

Why would he do that?

“He thought he could make a killing out of this if he prolonged his ordeal. He thought he could sell his story to the tabloids. He aspired to be the star of his own movie.”

The next afternoon, I went over to the Italian tent to meet Prosperi. He’d come in from a 20-mile run and was boiling a packet of freeze-dried stroganoff. He was shirtless, and a medallion of blood from a burst blister was seeping through one of his socks. I told him what Bauer had said, and, for a moment, he turned deep red with anger.

“Yes, I know what Patrick Bauer says about me,” he replied, tentatively, in a soft, high voice. “We’ve had our differences. I almost took him to court. But he says those things because he knows that my des-ert story is better than his. And because he fears that he is the copy and I am the real thing. I didn’t have a truck following me every step of the way.”

“He said you’d have to be Superman.”

“Me, Superman?” he said, looking around at some of the other Italians in the tent. “Well, yes. Precisely.” He smiled broadly, and everyone erupted in laughter.

I liked Prosperi instantly. But after what Bauer had said, I was wary of him. I approached him as if he were some kind of human-endurance hustler. “You want to hear the story?” he asked, once he had finished his dinner. Removing his socks, he made little ditches in the sand with his bare feet and stared eastward, toward the Algerian border.

When the sandstorm started to blow, I lost sight of everybody else. I kept running, though, because I thought I could see the trail. I was in seventh place and didn’t want to lose my standing. But the storm was raging with such fury that I had to stop and seek cover. I found a bush and crouched inside it. The sand felt like needles piercing my skin. I wrapped a towel around my face and waited. The dunes were shifting all about me, and several times I had to move to avoid being buried.

It was nearly dark before the winds relented. I started running again, but after a few minutes it occurred to me that I had lost the trail. For an hour or so, I kept backtracking, searching for the flags the French had put out to mark the piste. Finally, it became pitch dark, and I decided that there was no longer any point in wasting my energy. My only thought was that through my stupidity I had forfeited any chance of winning the race. But I knew that I couldn’t be more than a few miles from the trail and that the rescuers would come searching for me at dawn. So I prepared a camp and lit a small fire to create light. I slipped into my sleeping bag and fell asleep under the stars.

At dawn, I scrambled to the top of the highest dune. My heart dropped like a stone. I couldn’t see anything — no truck trails, no signs of a camp, no Land Rovers. Nothing looked familiar. I realized that the situation was grave. I had drunk almost all my water: There was only one finger of it left in the second bottle.

The race manual had instructed us not to move should we become lost, so I just sat on the hilltop, watching the horizon for any movement. Just before sundown, I heard something that was music to my ears: a helicopter, flying low and angling toward me. I fired my distress flare to make sure the pilot could spot me. He flew directly overhead, so close that I could see his white helmet in the cockpit. I knew I was finally saved. But the helicopter didn’t land. It kept on flying past me and vanished. I didn’t understand. I was desperate now, crazy with fear. I yelled, “Giovanni! Where are you!”

That night I urinated into my water bottle and saved it. I said to myself, “I will drink this if I need to.” I ate a PowerBar and fell asleep on the high dune.

The next morning, my eyes blinked open with a start, and I saw two large birds circling overhead. I pulled together my things and started walking. The sun was bearing down on me like a weight. I glimpsed the outline of a building about a mile away. I hurried over to it and found that it was a small Muslim temple with a stone turret; I later learned that it was a marabout shrine, a religious structure that’s common throughout the Sahara. It was a mausoleum, really. An Islamic holy man was buried in one of the walls. Inside, it was cool and dark. Up in the tower, I spied three bird’s eggs in a nest and ate them. I found a wooden pole and went outside to hang an Italian flag on it in case someone were to fly over. Then I sat out the day in the shade of the shrine.

By that night, my hunger had grown so terrible that I did something I never thought I could do. There was a small colony of bats living under the eaves of the building. Just before dark, I snuck up there and snatched two of them. I decided I would eat them raw, because cooking them on my portable stove would only dry them out, and I knew that moisture was what I needed most of all. So I wrung their necks off and sucked. It was a repellent thing to do, but I was crazed with hunger. All I tasted was something warm and salty in my mouth. That night I fell asleep on the floor of the shrine.

Just before dawn on the fourth day, I woke to the sound of an airplane. I didn’t know if it was a search plane or not, but when I stumbled outside, I could see it was flying in my direction. This is my last chance for rescue, I thought, and so I decided to risk it all. I took out everything from my backpack that was combustible and set it aflame. As the airplane drew nearer, I wrote SOS in large letters in the sand. But when the plane headed away from me, I said to myself, “There goes my life.”

All I could think about was that I was going to die a horrible death. I had once heard that dying of thirst was the worst possible fate. From the embers of my bonfire, I removed a piece of charcoal and wrote a final letter to my wife. I asked her to forgive me for not being a better husband and father. I was out of my head, not thinking clearly. I cut my wrist with my knife, but the blood was so thick from my advanced dehydration that it wouldn’t flow. I sat there on the floor of the shrine and cried.

After a time, I came to my senses. I realized that the marathon was moving on, that I couldn’t rely on the race officials to save me. I decided I must confront the desert myself. They had told us that at the end of the race, in Zagora, we would see a mountain range. As I looked at the horizon, I could see mountains in the distance, some 20 miles away. I decided I would try to reach them. As the sun dropped low, I pulled together the few belongings I hadn’t torched, and I started walking.

On the morning of Saturday, April 16, 1994, Patrick Bauer announced that the race would resume, a decision that dismayed many of the runners, who were resting in a dusty tent-city encampment some 15 miles from the area where Prosperi had gone missing. “We hated to leave, because all we could think about was Mauro out there alone, dying,” says René Nevola, a British runner who had befriended Prosperi earlier in the race. “Everyone’s morale was incredibly low.”

The Italian camp was especially devastated, no one more so than Giovanni Manzo. “I felt horribly guilty because I was the one who’d convinced Mauro to sign up for the race in the first place,” he said. “Now, all I wanted to do was drop out. I didn’t think I could carry on.”

Prosperi had been missing for more than two days before his wife, Cinzia Pagliara, heard the news. No one from the race committee had thought to notify her. “Like everyone else in Italy,” she said, “I read about it in a newspaper. The story was now in papers all over the world.” The following day, Prosperi’s brother Riccardo, two Interpol investigators from Rome, and Pagliara’s brother Fabio boarded a plane for Casablanca, determined to organize a search party of their own. Because Prosperi was a policeman as well as an athlete of national stature, officials both in Rome and at Italy’s embassy in Morocco mobilized with unusual swiftness to provide funds and vehicles. Now that Bauer’s staff, the Moroccan military, and the Italian authorities were involved, the search for Prosperi had become the most ambitious rescue operation the Sahara had seen since 1982, when Englishman Mark Thatcher, the son of then–prime minister Margaret Thatcher, was lost for six days after his car broke down during the Paris-Dakar rally.

On Sunday, April 17, the exhausted racers crossed the Marathon des Sables finish line in Zagora, and the following day, a ceremonial banquet was held. But what was supposed to be a party took on the hollow cast of a memorial service. Four days after Prosperi’s disappearance, the other runners increasingly spoke of him in the past tense. “The spirit of the race was ruined,” said Bauer. “There was nothing to celebrate.” On Tuesday, April 19, the racers boarded charter buses bound for Marrakech and said their bittersweet goodbyes to the desert.

By now, the Italian volunteers, led by Prosperi’s brother and brother-in-law, were the only ones still engaged in a search the authorities were saying was futile. The Moroccan military had never heard of a man surviving for more than four days in the Sahara without water.

The Italians ignored these calls to reason, and on April 20, six and a half days into Prosperi’s ordeal, they made a stirring discovery. In a no man’s land near the Morocco-Algeria border — an area designated as an “archaeological zone” — they found Prosperi’s water bottle and his aluminum-coated emergency blanket. In their minds, it was the first compelling suggestion that Prosperi could still be alive. “These are only signs,” Cinzia Pagliara told a reporter for the daily La Sicilia, “but they feed our hope after all these days have passed without any news from Mauro.” A few days later, the searchers found one of Prosperi’s shoelaces. But by now, eight days after his disappearance, everyone was beginning to concede that the situation appeared hopeless.

The mountains I was aiming for were not a mirage, but they were the wrong mountains. Instead of bearing northeast toward Zagora, I was heading due east. Of course, I did not know this. My sense of the days, and of precisely how I spent them, was becoming vague. I kept alive by sucking wet-wipes. In the mornings, I licked the dew off the concave surfaces of rocks. I sipped my own urine and boiled it with freeze-dried food. I ate what the desert offered. I improvised a slingshot with a forked stick and a bungee cord and stunned a mouse with a rock. I killed a snake and ate it, too. Mostly, I ate scarab beetles and plants. In a dried-up riverbed I found grasses that had roots dripping with moisture.

I was strict in my regimen. I walked only in the early mornings and in the early evenings. In the harsh glare of the day, I rested in the shade of cliffs or caves or trees. At night, I buried my body in the sand to keep warm. Along the way, I planted clues to my whereabouts. I would leave miscellaneous articles — a T-shirt, toothpaste, socks, a shoelace. On the crests of dunes, I would leave tinfoil and metallic food containers.

On the eighth day, I came upon an oasis. Really it was only a large puddle, a mirror of water in a wadi. I threw myself upon it and gulped with abandon, but I could hardly swallow. I managed to force a mouthful of it down, and almost immediately I vomited. I couldn’t hold anything. I found I had to take tiny sips, one every 10 minutes. I lay by the puddle like some leopard at its watering hole. I took larger swallows. By morning, my thirst was slaked.

I looked for signs of life and found nothing. I filled my water bottle and started walking again. I continued on all day and night. The next morning, I spotted the fresh excrement of goats. My spirits grew brighter. Then I saw something that made my heartbeat quicken: human footprints. I crested a hill and beheld an incredible sight. There was a nomad girl, maybe 8 years old, tending a flock in the sparse greenery of a wash.

I ran toward her and begged for help. She looked at me aghast, screaming in terror. I beseeched her to stop, but she disappeared over a dune.

I must be a hideous sight, I thought. I took out my signal mirror and turned it toward my face. I was appalled. I was a skeleton. My eyes had sunk so far back into my skull, I couldn’t see them. The girl returned with her grandmother, and I stumbled after them, conscious of what a pitiful castaway I’d become. There was an encampment set among the trees. They were Tuaregs, the famous “blue people” of the Sahara, traveling in a caravan. The old woman instructed me to lie down in the shade of a lean-to. She prepared me mint tea and a cup of goat’s milk. Then the men came into camp. They loaded me on a camel and took me to the nearest village, a journey of a few hours. There, they turned me over to a patrol of military police, who immediately blindfolded me. As I later learned, they suspected that I might be a Moroccan spy, and they wanted to prevent me from glimpsing the layout of any military installations.

I was driven to a military base, where an officer started interrogating me. I told him I was a policeman in Italy, and for some reason this seemed to help. Then another officer burst into the room. He took one look at me and said, “Are you Mauro Prosperi?”

“Yes,” I said, astonished to hear the sound of my name.

“Welcome to Algeria, sir. We have received a report about you from the Moroccan authorities. We must get you to the infirmary straightaway.”

On the evening of April 24, Cinzia Pagliara had just put her three children to bed when the phone rang. The signal was clear, the voice buoyant and vital. “Cinzia, it’s me. Did you have a funeral for me yet?” Pagliara dropped to the floor — Mauro. He was lying in a military hospital in a place called Tindouf, in southwestern Algeria. He had traversed a mountain range, the Jebel Bani, and then stumbled across the tense border between Morocco and Algeria, which was frequently patrolled by guards and rumored to be laced with land mines. The Tuareg nomads had found him some 25 miles into Algeria and about 130 miles from the area where he’d disappeared. He had lost an astounding 33 pounds, about 20 percent of his body weight. Nurses had plied Prosperi with 16 liters of intravenous fluids. The doctors said his liver had almost failed, but after a day and a half of convalescence, they thought he was going to be okay. Only now were they permitting him to call home.

“My skin is like that of a tortoise,” he told Pagliara. “Don’t worry, Cinzia. I’m still beautiful.”

After recovering for seven days in Algerian hospitals, Prosperi, still gaunt and feeble, was flown to Rome, where he received a hero’s welcome. He was photographed with dignitaries, interviewed endlessly, celebrated in newspaper stories from Milan to Palermo. He was a walking miracle, it seemed, the man who had come back from the dead. His very name seemed to sum it up — Prosperi, “the fortunate one.”

A few weeks later, however, journalists started to report the doubts expressed by several sports physiologists concerning the medical feasibility of Prosperi’s account. It was suggested that Prosperi had faked his own disappearance, that he was the rankest sort of glory hound. One Italian magazine even surmised that Prosperi and Pagliara had staged the ordeal together, from beginning to end. “They said we planned the whole thing so we could make a pile of money,” Pagliara told me. “If that was the case, then you’ve never met two people who are more stupid than we are. We never got any money for this.”

Asked what she would do if she found out that her husband actually had invented his story, Pagliara replied firmly: “If his story is not true, don’t tell me about it. Because he had me suffering for nine days. I could never forgive him.”

Soon after Prosperi’s return, the organizers of the Marathon des Sables, perhaps worried about bad publicity, also accused him of fraud. Meanwhile, Prosperi was considering a lawsuit against Patrick Bauer, charging, among other things, that the trail had been poorly marked. But what really rankled Prosperi was that Bauer’s race crew had never told Pagliara he was missing. In the end, Prosperi dropped the idea of the suit — “My problems with Bauer weren’t legal, they were personal” — but his resentment banked.

Prosperi enjoyed a temporary reversal of fortune when a Roman film crew retraced his steps for a 1995 documentary reenactment of his ordeal. Among other things, the crew located the marabout shrine and found, next to some of Prosperi’s belongings, the skeletons of several bats. Nevertheless, public doubt continued to hang over Prosperi like a toxic cloud. The suspicions made him restless and morose; all he could think about was the Sahara.

After speaking with his family and friends and with dozens of other athletes who ran in the 1994 Marathon des Sables, I gradually came to believe Prosperi’s story. Although there were still questions about the chronology of events — was it possible that the Tuaregs had found him earlier than he thought? — his was the only explanation that worked. And he’d stuck by his narrative, in every detail, since the day he was found. Prosperi had no prior history of spinning melodramatic fictions. In many ways, he was your basic nuts-and-bolts guy: a cop, a gifted athlete past his prime, a doting father of three. Yes, his passion for the desert was grandiose and arguably demented, but he seemed otherwise pleasantly even-keeled, widely liked, and respected on his home ground.

The main problem with the suggestion that Prosperi invented his ordeal, of course, is that the man suffered profoundly. One would have to go on a hunger strike for weeks to look as he had and to lose the kind of weight doctors in Algeria said that he had lost. Prosperi’s health problems continued long after he returned. For a month, he could eat only extremely bland food ground up in a blender. He experienced severe leg cramps for a year, and his liver was permanently damaged.

There are other telltales of his experience. One night, for example, I asked Prosperi if his suicide attempt had left a scar. He seemed pained by the question, but then, reluctantly, he rolled up his sleeve and revealed a one-inch white line running along his right wrist.

“He was never the same after he came back,” Pagliara told me on a hike up Etna. “If you want to know the truth, I think all the publicity went to his head a little bit. When he returned, he was just a father, just a husband, just a policeman. Everything seemed so banal to him. Ever since, he’s been searching for ways to get back to the desert.”

And so his notion of a trans-Saharan trek was born. Although he wouldn’t admit it himself, his friends see the adventure as an attempt to restore his good name: Tired of defending himself, Prosperi came up with an epic retort to his critics. By undertaking an odyssey of definitive and unassailable proportions, he hoped to silence his doubters forever. It is a logic that makes sense to many who know him but not to his wife. “I am absolutely opposed,” she said. “I am sure that his three children would rather have a living father than a famous dead one.”

To help prepare for the trek, Prosperi has returned to the desert many times. Last year, he ran a two-day 75-mile race in the Libyan desert, and he has run in the past three Marathons des Sables. When he can’t train in the Sahara, he works out on the blackened crusts of Etna, a desolate landscape that at least looks and feels like the desert.

As can be imagined, the project has been an all-consuming one for Prosperi and Preziosi. Beyond the usual dance for sponsorship manna, they have had to arrange for emergency food and water drops at strategic locations in the remotest desert, and conduct a considerable amount of diplomacy work in order to persuade the mutually hostile governments of Morocco and Algeria to let them pass unmolested across the border.

As they make their way across the blazing desert for four months, the expeditioners will rely on each other for their survival — and for their sanity. The 37-year-old Preziosi, who helped in the ‘94 search, has never wavered in his belief that Prosperi’s story is true. He says he has complete trust in Prosperi and great confidence in his skills and judgment.

There is one job Preziosi is not prepared to surrender to Prosperi, however. “I will be in charge of the navigation,” he said. “For all his strengths, Mauro never was very good with a compass.”

If the two men don’t get lost, if they don’t expire from heat exhaustion or thirst, if desert thugs don’t set upon them, they probably have the disciplined strength and sheer stubbornness to cross an ocean of sand — but who really knows? For Prosperi, though, there is an added personal dimension goading his every step: the sense that the farther he goes, the more he redeems himself, with all the doubts and suspicions of the past five years disappearing in the desert bleach. And when it’s over, and he’s standing at the reedy waters of the Nile, he’ll finally have another story to tell — a better one.

I felt as though all I had done as an athlete, all my years of training, had prepared me for this ultimate competition. What had begun as a contest against other people had become a contest with myself. I was in the midst of the greatest athletic performance of my life and I knew it. As athletes, we put on uniforms and cross over to an artificial world we call “sport.” But as I moved over the dunes, I felt as though that barrier had been washed away and that the two worlds were now one.

I was desperate and scared. But I had never felt so alive. I decided that I loved the Sahara more than any other land, and that if God should see me through this, I would return to this magnificent place.

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