The New York Times Book Review,June 11, 1995

Travel Roundup

One truism about travel of any kind is that you often remember your companions at least as well as the places you go. In literary travel, a first-person genre, choice of companion is especially important: you can’t ditch your tour guide and still finish the trip. This season’s books tend toward the outdoorsy, the rough and rugged; the following selection will let you explore two rivers in the United States or wander off to Baja California, Moscow, East Africa or northern Alaska. You can travel by canoe, bicycle or 18-wheeler truck, and with guides who are just as diverse. Some will educate, entertain and edify; others you may wish to throttle.

The best writing can be found in Robin Cody’s VOYAGE OF A SUMMER SUN: Canoeing the Columbia River (Knopf, $23). Mr. Cody, a novelist and freelance writer, paddled a canoe from the Canadian headwaters of the Columbia down to his home in Portland, Ore., and on to the Pacific Ocean. “The story,” he says right up front, “is the Columbia River, not the canoe and me, but I’ve learned that friends can’t hear me tell about the river until they know why I was out there.” He takes care to point out that “this is not an adventure story, although some adventure was unavoidable, and I didn’t set out to find myself if I could help it.” Thank God! The travel-narrative-cum-voyage-of-self-discovery is by now such a cliche that it should be outlawed. Trips need to carry their own weight, and this one does.

Mr. Cody grew up along the rivers of western Oregon, and he cares about them in a way that distinguishes him from any tourist. A broad knowledge of river biology, engineering, geology and agriculture transforms his meanderings into meditations on the river and humankind. He treats the salmon swimming invisibly beneath him as fellow travelers, for example, recalling an incident from his boyhood when some young salmon escaped from a local hatchery, making their way down a cruddy ravine into the main river before they could be properly released into a small stream. Four years later, he pulled over on his bike to see why traffic was backed up on the highway; he was “expecting a wreck, and found the true horror down at riverside. Adult fall chinook—long as your leg, thick as your torso—were beaching themselves into a muddy trickle from the place they’d been raised. It was awful. These salmon would go nowhere but home, where they couldn’t go.”

Though Mr. Cody doesn’t part with a lot of personal information, by the end of the book we have a strong sense of his personality. The tone of his writing is beautifully summed up by his closing passage, which takes place at a boat basin in Astoria:

“The world wasn’t awake yet. I pulled the canoe onto the dock, just glad the trip was over. The satisfaction of having come a long way hadn’t caught up with me. If I’d been in the mood for a crowning act, it would have been to fill the canoe with rocks and sink it to the riverbed. A bright-eyed yachtsman with a steaming mug of coffee came down the gangplank in deck shoes and captain’s cap. He noticed my odd equipment for this place.

” ‘How long you been on the river?’ ” he asked.

“The answer came floating up like a long-submerged log from a forgotten pool. Not 82 days, not just a whole summer, but Since I was little.”

It is the misfortune of Peter Lourie to be publishing his own canoeing story shortly after Mr. Cody’s. RIVER OF MOUNTAINS: A Canoe Journey Down the Hudson (Syracuse University, $29.95), which will be available in July, is one of that unfortunate breed of travel narrative that gets written, all too transparently, because the writer needs to do a book. Feeling penned in after his first year of fatherhood, Mr. Lourie (who directs the summer writing program at the University of Vermont) looked for an adventure close to his home in Beacon, N.Y. Nobody had ever canoed the entire Hudson, he discovered—well, not if you counted the beginning as Lake Tear of the Clouds, a high Adirondack source that you can’t paddle down from. In fact, you have to carry a canoe nine miles if you want to reach it. We might forgive Mr. Lourie this stunt if he hadn’t hired a river guide, who carried the canoe for him.

Other short cuts abound. Lacking confidence as a canoeist, Mr. Lourie cedes key decision making to his guide, including the choice not to paddle the Hudson’s biggest white water. He spends nights at the guide’s house instead of in his tent, and then three more at his own home. There are the obligatory excerpts from the writings of Those Who Passed This Way Before, and the equally obligatory Conversations With Locals, like the tenders of the Hudson locks, but none are memorable.

In effect, the book tour starts the day Mr. Lourie leaves: he has allied himself, for publicity purposes, with John Cronin, who calls himself the Hudson Riverkeeper and acts as a sort of nonprofit watchdog. At journey’s end, a press conference at Battery Park in Manhattan will promote both Mr. Lourie’s feat and the Riverkeeper’s idea that “my river today is your river tomorrow”—and Mr. Lourie tailors all his paddling to arrive at the right time. He refuses, however, to promote the environmentalist agenda too high up the river; lumber companies, it turns out, own land he must portage across, and he doesn’t want to make waves.

As he floats under the George Washington Bridge, Mr. Lourie is pondering not the history of spans over the Hudson but whether CNN cameras will be filming him from above, as promised. (They aren’t.) It’s a fitting close.

Rounding out the suite of nautical excursions is Peter Jenkins’s ALONG THE EDGE OF AMERICA (Rutledge Hill, $19.95). In this latest installment of what might be called “A Walk Across America Inc.,” Mr. Jenkins spurns the woodsy environmentalist thing and buys not a canoe but a twin-engine oceangoing speedboat. His destination: “The Gulf Coast!”

Searching hard for the inner journey angle, Mr. Jenkins pegs this trip as the answer to a midlife crisis and opens his book with the service of divorce papers from his wife, Barbara—the “Blue Highways” beginning. But you soon figure out that he had divorced and remarried, and even had another child, before the trip ever started. This self-dramatizing is the Waterloo of an otherwise appealing traveler: Mr. Jenkins has a winning style and an unmatched willingness to engage with strangers, even scary ones like Billy and Red, two swamp-dwelling brothers in the Florida Panhandle. But he loses my trust with his melodrama, as he did in his hugely successful first book, “A Walk Across America,” when he had the presence of mind to make sure someone with a flash took a picture of the tears streaming down his face as he lowered the body of his beloved half-malamute, Cooper, into a forest grave.

Not content to let dead dogs lie, Mr. Jenkins resurrects Cooper as the name of his new speedboat. Ticking off the famous landmarks he hopes to see along America’s third coast, he adds, “Best of all, I knew there would be countless lesser-known places that would earn a place in my heart.” That’s a pretty good summary, though Mr. Jenkins’s sea of American niceness is relieved by the appearance of some lowdown hijackers off the Texas coast. What he does to them will surprise you.

It would be fun to get Peter Jenkins together with the imperious, opinionated Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy. How long would their trip last? In THE UKIMWI ROAD: From Kenya to Zimbabwe (Overlook, $22.95), which will be in stores in a month, Ms. Murphy is on a bicycle ride envisioned as “self-prescribed unwinding therapy . . . a carefree ramble through some of the least hot areas of sub-Saharan Africa.” What she finds (and you can’t believe she didn’t expect this, given her worldliness) is the alarming reality that all along the route people are dying of ukimwi, Kiswahili for AIDS.

Ms. Murphy is a very political traveler, which is both the pleasure and the pain of this book. In her frequent encounters with locals, between 80-mile days of cycling on her mountain bike (which she calls Lear), she assesses the various multinational efforts to assist the pandemic’s victims and finds them wanting—as she does, indeed, most incursions of the first world in Africa, from Coca-Cola to backpacking youths bearing Lonely Planet guidebooks. “The too-familiar stench of white self-serving hangs about the setting up of the Mikumi Training College” is a typical jab. Locals always seem to agree with her concerns. Refreshing at first—why don’t more American travel writers exercise their critical faculties?—these tirades against sexism and the postcolonial order wear thin by book’s end.

What keeps us pedaling alongside Ms. Murphy is her indomitable will, her unabashed love of beer and her almost Monty-Python-like stiff upper lip, manifested here in a seemly refusal to dwell on the little annoyances she finds in a landscape of widespread plague. Even when malaria ends her journey, just inside Zimbabwe, Ms. Murphy does not whimper for sympathy. The exception is when she eats a terrible meal; after a while, I began looking forward to her next gastronomic disappointment: “In a small airless restaurant, smelling of singed feathers and stale urine, I was the only customer. My mountain of matoke was enlivened by the leg of a geriatric hen who had died of malnutrition.”

A very different sort of wanderer from the British Isles is Graham Mackintosh, the author of INTO A DESERT PLACE: A 3000 Mile Walk Around the Coast of Baja California (Norton, paper, $14). A teacher at a technical college in England, Mr. Mackintosh took a trip to California and Mexico and, after hitchhiking down the coast, was unable to get Baja out of his mind. He couldn’t explain his fixation, other than to cite a slogan from a poster: “A Ship Is Safe in Harbor but That Is Not What Ships Are For.” Back in Kent, he writes, “Even the sheep seemed to be saying Baja.”

Armed with gobs of sunscreen, quarts of contact lens solution and a few phrases of Spanish, Mr. Mackintosh heads off to conquer the coast. His setbacks are legion; rocky cliffs block his way when the tide is up, and often when it’s down, necessitating much backtracking. Snakes, scorpions, spiders and stingrays (all exhaustively catalogued) are a constant peril. Fortunately, American tourists are conveniently spaced en route, most of them with coolers full of beer; farther south, Mexicans in remote fishing camps open their shacks to him.

In a most endearing way, Mr. Mackintosh develops a fondness for the evidently delicious fruit of the pitahaya cactus, which he stops to eat as often as possible, describing every occasion in mouthwatering detail. “I chose to walk the inland valleys in the hope of finding more pitahayas,” he confesses in his diary. “Soon found a grove and helped myself to the ripe, red balls of fluffy sweetness. Juice oozing out. I ate five or six. Progress slow. I had to force myself to go on, leaving many behind.” Toward the end of his trek, spread over two years, he acquires a burro named Bonny, recalcitrant of course; his descriptions of Bonny provide another avenue of insight into his character. Mr. Mackintosh is not much of a writer, but—in his cutoffs and tube socks, nursing a chronic sunburn—he makes a great traveling companion.

So, at least for a while, does Graham Coster, a former editor of Granta. He notes that from a cultural standpoint the world of long-haul truckers is sorely neglected and, in A THOUSAND MILES FROM NOWHERE: Trucking Two Continents (North Point/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20), sets out to rectify the situation. After a week in truck-driving school, he joins a British driver named Tony on a trip across Europe, delivering beer and frozen Cornish pasties to an ersatz pub in Moscow. There’s nothing glam here: the endless border crossings, linguistic difficulties and a succession of gray days are well described but depressing. We don’t learn much about Tony, but we do find that the truckers of England and the United States have something in common. “Huge wrecked weary men sat around, slumped and sated with huge meals,” Mr. Coster writes of the scene at a big new truck stop in Essex. “Truckworld remains the only place in the world where I have seen men eating lasagna with rice and chips and potatoes, and finishing the meal off with a Himalayan bowl of fruit crumble
and custard.”

When he crosses the Atlantic for a couple of long hauls in the real land of truckers, the CB radio culture, huge sleeper cabs and immense spaces of the West impress him more than they will most American readers. He does, however, capture the essence of this world: what it’s like to be well traveled and yet have seen nothing, what it’s like to be a rugged individualist always on the run for some big freight company. His last trip is a killer. “For the first time in the States,” he admits, “the ride felt unexalted, attritional: this wasn’t a proud owner of a chromium steed allowing his services to be hired; this time it was a tired guy being catapulted out on to another long, long road . . . and we were still at the start.” Alas, there are three chapters to go. Mr. Coster is reduced to telling us what happens at selected mileage signs and providing overlong digressions on the music he plays on the tape deck. In the end, even his keen wit and sharp sense of irony cannot rescue us from sheer tedium, the same thing truckers hate most.

Adding a new wrinkle to the “in the footsteps of” genre, Douglas Preston, his fiancee, Christine, and Christine’s daughter, Selene, set off to retrace on horseback the steps of a mythical personage, Monster Slayer, of Navajo lore. TALKING TO THE GROUND: One Family’s Journey on Horseback Across the Sacred Land of the Navajo (Simon & Schuster, $24), which will be published next month, begins with Mr. Preston meeting Christine for the first time, at a gallery opening in southern Colorado, and presents as a subplot to a difficult trip the question of whether Selene, stung by the abandonment of her father, will come to accept a replacement.

Mr. Preston has been interested in Navajo mythology since he worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and he makes an enthusiastic and informative guide. Long passages are given over to the Dine Bahane, the Navajo creation story, and to the land in which it developed, which stretches beyond the present-day reservation through an area known as the Four Corners, where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona come together. Much in evidence, naturally enough, is the tale of Monster Slayer, who killed off the savage alien god Deelgeed and other dark forces before sparing Old Age Woman, the Poverty Creatures, Old Man Hunger and Cold Woman. The Navajos Mr. Preston meets along the way educate him on parts of the story he doesn’t know; for me, it was a wonderful surprise to learn of the continued significance of the Dine Bahane.

Mr. Preston’s excursions into myth are leavened by his narrative passages, in particular those involving 9-year-old Selene, who has brought along her Game Boy and a saddlebag full of candy. The relationship between Selene and Mr. Preston, which grows warmer under the strains of the trip, rings very true. By the end, we’re glad that she’s calling him not “Doug” but “Dad.”

A highlight of this trip, for the reader, happens also to be the most awkward for the author: at a reservation visitor center, Mr. Preston is introduced to a beer-drinking Navajo who says, “In the white man’s war you call Vietnam, I saw my own brother blown away right in front of my eyes.” Sizing up Mr. Preston, he remarks: “Nice Navajo belt buckle you got on. And I bet you got no idea what it means.” As Mr. Preston tries to escape, the man suddenly turns friendly, telling him tales of Monster Slayer and giving him an eagle feather from his hatband. The difficulty of the encounter shows how, paradoxically, a white writer might have easier access to the sacred knowledge of the tribe than to the spirit of modern-day Navajos themselves.
Spirituality—more specifically, the interior life in the great outdoors—is also the subject of Jean Aspen’s ARCTIC SON (Menasha Ridge, $19.95). When she was 42, Ms. Aspen, her husband, Tom, and their 6-year-old son, Luke, left Arizona to spend more than a year homesteading in the Brooks Range of Alaska. Along with their nanny, Laurie, the daughter of a friend from Seattle, they built a simple log cabin, caught fish and shot moose for food, and sought the things people still seek from the wilderness.

That wilderness is vividly rendered, but, unlike other travelers, Ms. Aspen is most interested in the creation of a new home and the relationships of a family. Pioneering on a remote riverbank, surrounded by flies and mosquitoes (“One inevitably gets two to three hundred bites a day in this country in early summer, even wearing repellent and protective clothing”), not to mention having to build a house from scratch before winter sets in, turns out to be terribly stressful, and Ms. Aspen is unflinching in describing the toll that is taken on everyone.

There are also some unexpected disturbances in this utopian experiment, caused by the nanny’s boyfriend, who charters a plane to come visit for a couple of uncomfortable weeks; by pneumonia, which racks the overworked Tom; and by an aggressive bear, which charges the Aspens. On the other hand, they get what they came for. The countryside was, Ms. Aspen writes, “an overwhelming presence in our lives. There was a deep energy about it that impinged on even the busiest mind, slowing it to an older rhythm. We became quieter and gentler as the days passed. A sense of peace prevailed in our lives.”

Ms. Aspen (the author of “Arctic Daughter,” a book about an earlier Alaska journey) is a searcher, looking for her proper place in the world, and her book is an earnest collection of dictums for good living. Still, a lot of them do make sense (“Wealth, I was discovering, is more accurately measured in what you enjoy than in what you possess”). I was grateful, after the contrivances that beset so much travel writing, for the directness and honesty of this author’s voice.

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