By Andrew McCarthy
THIS SEASON’S TRAVEL SELECTIONS find authors facing crushing isolation, angry bulls and midnight checkpoints, as well as that most terrifying of travel’s perils, the family road trip. From the Azores to Patagonia to the Silk Road, the pull of the open road is as strong as ever — no matter the consequences. The results are among the most exciting crop of travel books in years.
As a child, Kate Harris was fascinated by Marco Polo. Forget that the famous explorer wasn’t as interested in exotic lands as he was in the riches and fame he might achieve. As a young girl growing up in rural Canada, Harris dreamed of the far-off lands Polo described, igniting an obsession with the world beyond the farthest bend in the road. LANDS OF LOST BORDERS: A Journey on the Silk Road (Dey Street, $24.99) is the gift Harris sends back from that beyond.
Say what you want about the value of experience and the power of wisdom, there’s something undeniably intoxicating about the blank page of youth being written upon. And write Harris can. With elegant, sensitive prose, she takes the reader along on her travels, shares her passion with infectious enthusiasm and invites us into her heart.
Early on she confesses that “the great goal of my life was getting lost.” To that end, feeling “young and free and rashly unassailable,” she and a childhood friend set out on the first leg of what would become an epic bicycle journey, carrying her over the Tibetan plateau in search of “not answers exactly, but a way of life equal to the wildness of existing at all.” Later, Harris bikes along “the scum on the rim of a giant bathtub” that is the Black Sea and eventually makes it to a desert “landscape of revelation” in Uzbekistan.
Harris has more on her mind than merely seeing the sights and chatting up a few locals. “It was the truth I was after, the deepest wonder, nothing less.” Such outlandish pronouncements are the prerogative of youth, yet Harris’s wholehearted belief in the possibilities of the journey forces her readers to toss aside any world-weary doubts they may have harbored. We sweat every illegal checkpoint crossing, chew on every grain of dust-storm sand and sip every cup of yak butter tea right along with her. That she is able to cast and maintain such a spell of wonder is no small feat. To say that Harris has become the explorer she always wanted to be is the highest praise I can think to offer.
Exploration of a different sort is on the mind of Porter Fox in NORTHLAND: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border (Norton, $26.95). What the reader might at first think of as well-trodden terrain is, Fox quickly informs us, anything but. He begins with a provocation — “No one knows where America’s northern border begins” — and goes on to surprise, enlighten and delight us for the next 200-plus pages. With so much of our attention given over to the southern border with Mexico, few think to look north, to our oldest, longest (and more porous) boundary. Luckily for the reader, Fox has.
Growing up in Maine and summering a few miles from the “Hi-Line,” Fox is a natural choice for the job. Armed with a canoe, a tent and determination, he sets out on a three-year journey with no itinerary other than to get from Maine to Washington. “On a map the boundary is a line. On land, it passes through impossible places — ravines, cliff bands, bogs, waterfalls, rocky summits, white water — that few people ever see.”
Early on, he encounters fishermen who still struggle with gray zones in a watery border established nearly 250 years and a dozen treaties ago, and spends his nights sleeping in forests of “pure black.” In the Great Lakes, Fox trades in his canoe for a lift aboard a 740-foot freighter where one crew member warns him, “This place is full of lunatics.” Traveling across Lakes Erie, Huron and Superior, enduring days of fog, he struggles not to “end up staring at a wall for hours at a time.” Through the Boundary Waters region of Minnesota, navigating his way around wildfires, past pipeline protests and through Sioux territory, Fox soldiers on across U.S. Route 2, shadowing the border.
As with many tales of the solitary traveler on a distant quest, otherness attracts otherness, and Fox is frequently confronted with that certain kind of lost soul who haunts the fringes of society. These pages are filled with such interactions, which lend them a deeper resonance. Near the end of his journey, Fox relays an encounter with a hitchhiker he picked up in Washington who shares a story of conditional redemption that is at once uplifting and heartrending, leaving Fox searching for both connection and a way home.
Whether experiencing run-ins with crusty locals, reviving long dead historical characters last heard from in high school history books, enduring rough weather or savoring majestic landscapes, he brings it all to vivid life. With strong descriptive powers and a clear appetite for his task, Fox succeeds in making his journey sound romantic, urgent, valuable and appealing as hell.
Saudade is a Portuguese word with no direct translation that conveys a deep longing for something that perhaps never was and yet may never come again. It suggests a melancholy satisfaction. The 17th-century Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo called saudade “a pleasure you suffer.” Capturing its elusive nature is central to understanding the Portuguese spirit, and more specifically the Azorean one, in the case of Diana Marcum’s THE TENTH ISLAND (Little A, $24.95).
A California resident with roots in the American South, Marcum may seem an unlikely guide to understanding this condition, yet in her engaging travel memoir she captures the spirit of saudade with an eye for detail and a playful earnestness that takes advantage of and at the same time casts aside her journalistic credentials.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Los Angeles Times, Marcum covered California’s Central Valley, where she was first introduced to the Azorean diaspora. Understandably attracted by the Portuguese devotion to family but more inexplicably consumed with a longing for the islands, with which she shared no obvious connection, Marcum confesses, “Maybe for me it was more the feeling that I was an island, separate and alone.”
With little to hold her down, she pays a visit to the remote Azorean archipelago, which lies nearly a thousand miles off the Portuguese coast in the middle of the Atlantic. Following the sage travel advice offered on her departure, to let serendipity steer her course, Marcum encounters a strange land filled with the requisitely quirky locals — among them the fire chief/ambulance driver/musician who will act as her island guide and the martini-swilling woman who becomes her neighbor. She also encounters a more humane form of bullfighting, which might more accurately be dubbed pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with a moderately angry cow.
Marcum is fascinated by the countless stories she hears of the departure of local people from the islands and their inexorable yearning to return. Marcum herself makes repeated visits, eventually bringing along her unmanageable dog and taking up residence in a converted stable beside a mansion that had crumbled to the ground during the last big earthquake.
Not entirely sure where this is all going, or what it’s amounting to, Marcum makes friends along the way, snoozes on rocks beside the sea and flirts with love, both local and imported. Her embrace of isolation, coupled with her simultaneous yearning for connection, guarantees her a healthy dose of saudade. In the remote islands of the Azores, Marcum seems to have found her spot.
The crime novelist Thomas H. Cook isn’t so much searching for a place to fit in as looking to illuminate a murky corner of the travel sphere. In doing so, he provides perhaps this season’s most unlikely narrative turn. EVEN DARKNESS SINGS: From Auschwitz to Hiroshima: Finding Hope in the Saddest Places on Earth (Pegasus, $27.95) draws its inspiration from some of the cold, hard horrors that have emerged from the darker aspects of our nature.
Since childhood, after a strange and morbid encounter at his father’s side, Cook has found himself drawn to places that have seen “the weird and the frightful, the arbitrary, the unfair, the inexplicable.” But rather than create a book of sorrows, he has set out to give us “a grateful celebration of the mysterious power of dark places,” sites where “our thoughts can become unmoored and free to roam, allowing us to experience our most intimate relationship with the past.” Often traveling with his wife and daughter, Cook has spent years visiting the locations of disasters and atrocities: famously horrific places like Auschwitz and the battlefield at Verdun, as well as places that have experienced lesser-known miseries.
In Cambodia, he visits Pol Pot’s “great reeking mess of ideological purity” and “concentrated evil,” Tuol Sleng, where “the air sizzles with immediate and excruciating physical pain.” In Italy, a dreary looking river where hundreds of slaves were killed provides a fascinating teaching moment with his daughter. Later, in Alice Springs, Australia, Cook unfavorably compares the treatment of Aboriginals with the segregated American South of his childhood. In the middle of the Outback, he’s disturbed to find “both the offering and acceptance of condescension more or less the order of the day.”
But it’s at the leper colony of Kalaupapa, on the island of Molokai, in Hawaii, where Cook seems to have met his match. There he encounters palpable sorrow in a place that is “strikingly bleak and curiously still.” He comes away feeling an “unjustifiable voyeurism” and concludes — for the only time in his travels — that he should never have visited.
As Cook’s journeys accumulate, a reader loses any trepidation about approaching these sites of sorrow, awakening instead to Cook’s main purpose as the narrative acquires a humble gravitas. Cook promises that “there is much to be gained where much has been lost, and we deny ourselves that bounty at the peril of our souls,” a truth to which this surprising volume attests.
At the other end of the travel spectrum is Richard Ratay’s DON’T MAKE ME PULL OVER: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip (Scribner, $27), the season’s most playful (and best titled) entry. Ratay came of age in Wisconsin during the 1970s, just as America was hitting the road in record numbers. He vividly captures that relatively brief — but iconic — time before cheap air travel and Wi-Fi, when “six people locked up together in a tiny padded room,” hurtling down the highway without seatbelts, was something not simply to be enjoyed but survived.
Ratay gleefully recounts his childhood wonder at being lifted from bed by his father and being deposited in the back of the family’s Lincoln Continental beside his siblings, only to have the bitter Midwest winter magically replaced by the warmth of the South. Under Ratay’s confident and relaxed spell, anyone of a certain age will be instantly transported back to (and perhaps yearn for) those more innocent times when Fuzzbusters and eight-track players were the order of the day, AAA TripTiks were cutting edge and candy cigarettes were the not-so-secret desire of nearly every preteen.
Deceptively informative and cluttered with scores of useless fun-facts (“During the 1970s alone, Americans logged 14.4 trillion miles — enough to travel from Earth to Pluto and back 2,500 times”), Ratay’s book reminds us just how recent an invention our Interstate highway system is, and how the network utterly transformed not just travel but the American psyche.
Ratay also makes clear how family travel has changed since Howard Johnson’s was considered fine dining, “The Brady Bunch” was held up by kids as the ideal family, and Bubble Yum was rumored to contain spider eggs. Recalling a later family airplane flight to Washington, D.C., he succinctly captures what we’ve lost: “We’d taken a trip but we’d made no journey.”
With an eye for detail and a penchant for research that leads him down charming rabbit holes (remember that “crying Indian” anti-littering commercial from the 1970s?), Ratay succeeds in eliciting genuine emotion even as his comic voice steers the narrative clear of cheap sentimentality. This high-spirited romp down the byways of America is part social history, part memoir and a loving salute to that brief time when the wood-paneled family station wagon was king of the open road.
No book I’ve read in recent memory resides in as much isolation as Katherine Silver’s translation of María Sonia Cristoff’s FALSE CALM (Transit, paper, $16.95). Cristoff grew up in the remote southern portion of Argentina. “As a child,” she explains, “I saw this isolation as positive, as had so many European explorers in Patagonia.” Only later, as an adolescent, did she determine that its vast space contained “a kind of nightmarish logic, where I could walk and walk but still remain in the same place.”
And so she left, only to return after two decades, “when I no longer saw things one way or the other.” Cristoff came back to talk with the people, and not talk with them — to share silence and space with those who lived under their oppressive weight. She wanted to become, as she writes, “a lightning rod, a receiving antenna,” realizing that “the atmosphere spoke through me.”
The challenge of this book is also its triumph: Cristoff makes no effort to lead or coddle the reader, to paint a romantic portrait of a remote land or tell us how we ought react to the lonely, frightening, occasionally heroic lives she exposes. With an almost clinical remove, made possible by the unspoken empathy that comes from growing up “in the middle of that yellowish chalky color that wears out your eyes,” Cristoff paints a picture of devastating singularity. Hers is a bold, beautiful book.
Whether she’s describing a shopkeeper who long ago came home to attend his dying father (“I returned for a week and stayed forever”) or a man who gave up on his dream of flying a small plane and felt “defeat in every cell, but not like the counterpart to some success; an existential defeat, the curse of having been born,” Cristoff leaves out so much surface detail that might have made for a less demanding, more passive reading experience, instead opting to sift down toward the marrow of her subjects.
No punches are pulled in illuminating the perils of Patagonian solitude. The oil field pumper whose job requires him to patrol the land, mile by lonely mile, day after solitary day, slips farther from the influence of other people until he “no longer has anything to say to them or ask them or tell them.” He goes on to explain that “you gradually start realizing that there’s less and less you need from them.”
The gasp induced by this and other revelations slices through the reader like the wind over the Patagonian steppe, reminding us — as do all these books, in their own ways — that the most harrowing journey is often the one within.