By Andrew McCarthy
Travel writing used to be easier. Back in the 19th century, all Richard Burton had to do was survive hostile natives throwing a javelin through his cheek, slay the wildest of animals and endure mysterious and grotesque illness to come back with a rousing tale of darkest Africa. And even as late as the dawn of the last century, Frank Worsley, Ernest Shackleton’s captain, merely had to carry on through a winter trapped on the Antarctic ice, sail 800 miles in an open lifeboat across the Southern Ocean, then traverse South Georgia Island under moonlight in order to reach help and write about his ordeal. But in our Google Maps world, even once sleepy places like poor Provence have become hackneyed and played out.
There is, of course, nothing new under the sun. Since everyone now chronicles his travels for any and all to read about, as well as serves as his own National Geographic photographer, the genre of travel writing has had to morph and stretch to maintain any currency. The six books here all come at travel from different perspectives, and each helps illuminate why travel, and travel writing, still matter.
David Greene’s MIDNIGHT IN SIBERIA: A Train Journey Into the Heart of Russia (Norton, $26.95) employs a classic travel-narrative device — this time along the almost 6,000-mile Trans-Siberian Railway. The epic journey by rail has proved fertile ground for writers in the past, and here it serves Greene well as he returns to Russia (he was National Public Radio’s Moscow bureau chief for nearly three years) to try to understand exactly what it is about this maddening country that captured his heart. Greene accepts the famous Russian brusqueness (read: rudeness) and is quick to point out the endless headaches and hassles of Russian society — like the “uniformly unpleasant police” and “the intense love of documents” that are “a thoroughly annoying relic of Soviet bureaucracy” — but he does so with unapologetic infatuation on his sleeve. More than once, while reading, I was reminded of the contention that a true traveler is one who is a better version of himself while on the road, and I couldn’t help wondering if Greene would be such a good sport about hostile railway workers and snoring passengers if he was chugging through Ohio.
A diligent reporter and an appreciative guest, Greene enlists the help of a Russian travel partner, Sergei — a co-worker, friend, translator and protector — and this Russian Sancho Panza proves a natural storytelling foil. This being Russia, there are tales of babushkas — “They are the engine and spirit of Russia’s older generation, and in some ways of the whole country” — and
of vodka-soaked nights, but it’s meetings with people like Ella Stroganova that resonate with both author and reader. “
Progress makes a person absolutely weak,” she tells Greene. “He loses his strength because he no longer needs to think how to survive.” And then there’s the seemingly throwaway encounter with a hotel clerk in a rural backwater who has never heard of Wi-Fi, yet goes out of her way to accommodate.
Moving inexorably eastward, deeper into winter and Mother Russia, a composite of Russian life begins to emerge that’s best summed up by the man who informs Greene that suffering tragedy is “the way the soul of a Russian person is built.” The author, decidedly American in his optimism, reads of a 19th-century revolutionary who anticipated “the end that heralds the dawn,” and is
ultimately left to wonder, “What is the dawn in a place where someone believes it is his ‘duty’ to contribute to the ‘annals of sorrow’ in his country?”
An epic journey of another sort is the subject of Wayne Curtis’s THE LAST GREAT WALK: The True Story of a 1909 Walk From New York to San Francisco, and Why It Matters Today (Rodale, $24.99). In the early 20th century, Edward Payson Weston, a slight, elderly, charismatic man given to fancy dress, captured the attention of the nation with his journey on foot across the country. Curtis, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, doesn’t set out to retrace that famous walk — he follows Weston’s route only a few miles, from Manhattan to Westchester County, before exhausting himself. Instead, through extensive research, he places Weston’s journey in the context of its time, and beyond.
“The allure and popularity of walking matches in post-Civil War America is hard to overstate,” Curtis writes. And Weston was the walking king. He began his professional walking career after losing a wager on the outcome of the 1860 presidential election. In order to square the bet, he was forced to walk, in 10 days, from Boston to Washington for Lincoln’s inauguration. Although he missed the swearing-in by a few hours, Weston did meet the new president during his visit. Lincoln admired the young man’s “great powers of endurance,” a star was born and America’s “golden age” of walking began.
Weston was a natural self-promoter, an early advocate of product placement and one hell of a walker, averaging up to 40 miles a day. Tens of thousands turned out to greet him in Chicago after he walked from Maine in 1867, and in Cleveland he was once forced to flee spectators who “became a wild surging mob.” But by 1908, Weston was nearly 70 and the world was changing fast. The automobile was about to transform not only the country but — and this is Curtis’s larger point — human beings in the process. Curtis frames Weston’s walk as a bridge between the ages, and his contention that “not walking . . . is one of the most radical things we’ve ever decided to do” underscores this book.
Just as the mind is prone to digressions on a long walk, so Curtis spirals off into eddies on the seductive evils of La-Z-Boy recliners, aging, walkability websites and even the evolution of perambulation itself. But this story belongs to Weston, and Curtis brings the seemingly ageless dandy to sprightly life as he withstands all that the elements, poor roads, overzealous crowds and inept support teams can hurl at him.
It’s not so much the idea of the journey, or even movement, that Alastair Bonnett has on his mind in UNRULY PLACES: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25). Here, it’s all about location, location, location.
Bonnett is a professor of social geography at Newcastle University, and in a series of brief essays he takes the reader to “the ends of the earth and the other side of the street,” illuminating why it is that place matters and demands our attention — lest we lose the very essence of who we are. Bonnett believes that “in a fully discovered world, exploration does not stop; it just has to be reinvented,” and he demonstrates a keen ability to see meaning in spots most of us would pass without a second thought. A parking lot at Los Angeles International Airport, for example, conveys a sense of our continuing displacement. There, Bonnett contends, “it becomes ever easier to be convinced that mobility — ceaseless, on-the-go motion — has intrinsic value: that going to places is more important than being in places.” He looks at the “paradoxical” relevance of “dead cities,” ghost towns in China and North Korea, and marvels at islands that never existed yet appeared on maps well into our satellite-savvy 21st century.
Bonnett laments the relentless development that serves to “remove the memories, stories and connections that hold people together, socially as well as individually.” In Mecca, he points out that “over the past two decades around 95 percent of the ancient city . . . has been demolished.” If it’s true, as he asserts, that “in the face of puritanical ideologies, whether political or religious,
the past takes on a subversive and unruly quality,” this is disquieting news.
Along a barren strip of lifeless earth beside a highway in Israel’s Negev Desert, Bonnett sees “the ferocity and ingenuity with which people hang on to the place they care about” when a Bedouin village (not listed on any map) reconstitutes itself again and again after being razed by Israeli bulldozers. “Place isn’t a stage, a backdrop against which we act out our lives,” Bonnett concludes. “It is part of what we are.”
Two anthologies are among the year’s finest new travel books. The annual best American Tra vel Writing (Mariner, paper, $14.95) has been the gold standard for shortform travel writing from newspapers, magazines and the Internet since its inception 15 years ago. This year’s guest editor — a different one is chosen for each volume — is none other than the godfather of contemporary American travel writing, Paul Theroux. A generation of travel writers owes a debt to Theroux’s immersive, first-person narratives, captured with unflinching, sometimes merciless candor.
Theroux has lamented travel literature that extols what he calls the “cupcake culture” of holiday making, writing that glorifies spa treatments at posh resorts or the compiling of 10-best lists in lieu of some of travel’s more hard-won rewards. In the end, what captures Theroux, and what fills this volume, are compelling yarns from the road — the more arduous the better.
In the interest of full disclosure: My own brief article on Calcutta is included. But it’s entries like Amanda Lindhout’s harrowing, heroic account of being kidnapped in Somalia (co-authored with Sara Corbett) and Michael Paterniti’s transcendent recollection of finding his corner of the sky in northern Spain that give the 2014 edition of “Best American Travel” its meat.
A deeply personal essay by David Sedaris on losing a sibling reconceives the notion of what a travel story can be, while Harrison Scott Key writes hilariously about a Greyhound bus journey (“Bus People are nothing like Airplane People”). Steven Rinella displays openhearted zeal when he buys a dilapidated log cabin, sight unseen, in remotest Alaska. It’s the kind of decision only youth could support, and only love sustain. Rinella grows to look upon the place “like a rodeo rider might view a bull that had just bruised him up. He knows it’s a lot of trouble and that it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but he’s already planning another ride.”
The same might be said of travel itself, and Thomas Swick gives us an insightful essay on the very notion of taking to the road. He speaks of the boredom — “Travel, like football, is best in highlight form” — but goes on to illuminate the wistfulness and melancholy elicited by travel, as well as the heightened sensitivity it encourages. In essay after essay, a theme runs through this
volume — people journey, sometimes great distances, often enduring great hardship, only to be redeemed by human connection.
Another fine anthology has been compiled by one of the travel industry’s more respected authorities. Don George has served as travel editor at The San Francisco Examiner and at Salon.com. The essays he’s collected in AN INNOCENT ABROAD: Life-Changing Trips From 35 Great Writers (Lonely Planet, paper, $15.99) hint at the road’s possibilities.
There are tales here from such travel-writing royalty as Jan Morris, recalling her first trip to Venice as a soldier in the British Army: “It was not the grandeur of the place that captured me, but the strange lapping of its waters, the secrecy of it all. . . . A sudden burst of sunlight over the waterfront affected me like a melody direct from Mozart.” And Tim Cahill, with typically poignant humor, conjures — or, rather, fails to conjure — the location of a transcendent moment from his youth: “the mountain or the deep valley or whatever it was” that “shimmered in my vision,” in a story called “The Place I’ll Never Forget.”
Dave Eggers offers an intimate snippet about a whorehouse in Thailand: “He drew her a few pictures in his notebook. . . . Frustrated by their inability to say anything to each other, they lay side by side for the remainder of their time.” And Richard Ford writes a wistful, hilarious and slightly disturbing tale of an ill-conceived road trip into the Atlas Mountains of Morocco that features entrepreneuring locals, large bricks of hash and a very naïve American couple.
The stories here can read like snapshots, isolated moments illuminated, yet there’s a cumulative effect at work, reminding the reader that it’s often the seemingly trivial, the fleeting instance, that lodges in our psyches and most reveals us to ourselves. Seen through the patina cast by the recollection of vanished youth, many stories reflect a pre-9/11 world, when we were all so much more innocent abroad, and happily so. Yet other tales have a more immediate resonance. Jim Benning’s moving story about driving through Belgium with his father, a veteran of World War II, has an almost confessional intimacy. And Cheryl Strayed recalls a recent, unplanned trip to the mountains of Andorra the day after her 45th birthday, the age her mother was when she died. Innocence is something we yearn to be rid of, until we’ve lost it. One of travel’s greatest virtues, its ability to make us wide-eyed again when we least expect it, is captured in this volume.
But when the road eventually grows tiresome, as the road invariably must, the ever probing Pico Iyer sets out to explore what, on first glance, might seem far more familiar terrain. In THE ART OF STILLNESS: Adventures in Going Nowhere (TED Books/Simon & Schuster, $14.99), this global citizen — Iyer is of Indian descent, was raised in California, educated in England and America and now lives in Japan — looks at the value of simply staying put. In lesser hands this tiny volume might be a throwaway of glib, “new age” comfort-speak, but like Henry David Thoreau’s equally brief classic on another seemingly mundane exercise — walking — Iyer’s thoughtful nature leads him to peel back layer upon layer, nodding toward the infinite. Designed to be digested in a single sitting — as we are told early on — the book ricochets from Mark Rothko to Thomas Merton to Leonard Cohen to Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius to Shakespeare and finally William James, all within a few paragraphs.
A lifelong traveler who’s been “crossing continents alone since the age of 9,” a man who has always found “delight in movement,” Iyer pauses to consider the prospect that going nowhere is “the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.” He is traveler enough to know that “every time I take a trip, the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get back
home and, sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.”
Iyer is quick to remind those of us with itchy feet that “stillness has nothing to do with settledness or stasis.” On the contrary, “Nowhere,” he warns, “can be scary. . . . Anyone who longs to see the light is signing on for many long nights alone in the dark.” He concludes that “in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” If, as he suggests, “heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else,” perhaps it’s worth a wanderer’s consideration.
Plunging effortlessly beneath platitudes, this waferthin volume reminds us of what might just be the greatest paradox of travel — after all our road running, after all our flights of fancy to the farthest corners of the globe, after all our touring, our seeking and questing, perhaps, just perhaps, fellow travelers, there really is no place like home.