Travel may be tough in these trying economic times, and this collection of essays doesn’t ignore that, as much as I wish it did, at times, since constant reminders of economic downturn become wearisome, like a dull and incessant ache in the lower back, which give way to shooting pains down the leg, and finally develop into a complete numbness–like a retreat born of exhaustion–of the butt. Out of the 21 essays in this collection, though, only two fall under this category of dire realism, and they’re two of the best travelogues in the book. One revolves around the haggard state of Fresno, California, and follows around artists trying to make a living, like Andy Warhol says, off of things people don’t need. The other, “Ponzi State,” previously published in The New Yorker, focuses on the staggering number of housing and mortgage crashes in Florida. As a state with one of the highest influx of outsiders, Florida soon turned into a place from which people fled. The rest of the essays chronicle wonderful adventures–from Argentina, where the author seeks out the best cut of beef, to the quintessential Midwestern state fair. And one of the best essays offers a defensive stance on why we shouldn’t scoff at tourism in our towns, and why we shouldn’t shy away from acting the part of tourist in other people’s towns. “As for cynical travelers,” he writes, “they can arguably learn, or relearn, something from the wide-eyed ‘tourist’–from the sense of wonder and unmitigated joy he brings to those top-of-the-Eiffel-Tower, crest-of-the-Cyclone, edge-of-the-Grand-Canyon moments that all travelers, no matter how jaded, long for.”
A classic. Hemingway’s memoir on life in Paris post World War I. I was so excited when I read this book, years ago, that I made copious notes in the margins in red pen, which seems offensive now. I think Hemingway’s chronicles might be every writer’s dream. He had seemingly disposable income (even though he makes references to being poor), enjoyed elaborate French meals, drank wonderful wines and liquors throughout the day, spent afternoons at cafes and horse races and going on drives through the countryside. It also highlights his relationships with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Steinbeck’s chronicles of his wanderlust alleviate the guilt-ridden, travel-related conscience that I think nomadic spirits sometimes feel. “Could it be,” he writes, “that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed at home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency?” This is a poignant and touching journey that Steinbeck takes around the perimeter of the United States–from the eastern seaboard in New York northward into Maine, to the west coast, down south, then east again, and back home. His ambition is to reacquaint himself with the country he feels he’s lost track of.
Bryson’s tale of his comical, enlightening hike along the Appalachian Trail, a route from Georgia to Maine that totals 2,100 miles, as he pledges to “rediscover America” after living 20 years abroad. Interspersed with poignant eulogies on the surrounding forest, Bryson argues for increased conservation efforts, while being careful not to make his work a diatribe. Along for the ride is his old friend Katz–severely out of shape and overweight, who brings along hoe-hoes and Twinkies for sustenance. Ultimately overwhelmed and exhausted from his load, and in a tirade that becomes characteristic Katz, Bryson’s partner throws several of their necessities over a cliff, never to be seen again. It’s my favorite of Bryson’s book, and I listened to it with my dad on our ALCAN trip, as well. While he would disagree about the diatribe comment, he did chuckle out loud a few times.