15 Travel Books
During the past twenty years,
we've reviewed a veritable mountain of travel books,
all the way from the "this is just too unbelievably glorious"
to the "it was so ghastly, you'd have to do-it-to-believe-it" school.
Our goal was to find writers who are diverting to be with
in what ever pest-ridden mud-pit-slosh-gunk-bog jungle,
in the just-below-the-mountain-avalanche-at-any-moment place.
All we ask is a guide who is funny, free, frank and frivolous enough
for us to join in whatsoever curious world he or she takes us.
Arizona Traveller's Handbook
Bill Weir
Showing uncharacteristic good sense, the other forty-seven states managed to avoid admitting Arizona to the Union until 1912. This leads us to wonder why in God's sweet name anyone with bat brains would want to travel there, much less admit it as Number Forty-Eight.

It's a state filled with rattlesnakes, coyotes, saguaros, urban glop, sand storms, and nitwits. Their politics have always been slightly to the right of Pol Pot, and the recent shenanigans with the governor go to prove that the state is second only to Texas in electing lunchheads to public office (Meacham, the previous head-of-state, got impeached not because of highway robbery and insensitivity --- that's the norm for Arizona; he lost out because he was honest enough to revel in his shenanigans).

If you must go there, this is your guide. Over 400 pages, almost thirty maps, a complete introduction to flora and fauna, transport, events, and history.

Arizona was the home of the Poston Japanese-American internship camp during WWII --- which made this area just south of Parker the third largest city in the state. Showing characteristic callousness, the state has refused to erect a monument to commemorate this travesty.

The Arizona Traveler's Handbook is filled with fine pictures of tree cholas, horned lizards, and indigenous human native stock. They all look roughly alike. Outside of the natives --- it's everything you could ask for.

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Mexican Donkeys
The shipping office had found a boat. A freighter. Three thousand tons. Well, perhaps two. A very fine freighter. A Captain and stewards. Cabins? Yes, cabins. And shower-baths. Food? Oh yes, much food. In fact it was a French boat, Portuguese. From Vera Cruz. Straight to Yucatan? Well not quite. Where to then? Such a good boat did not waste itself on Yucatan. Where did it go to? To Bordeaux. Bordeaux? Bordeaux-the-Other-Side-of-the-Sea. It was a thought.

The boat would leave in a month. It took five weeks, no seven. It was very inexpensive. We talked it over. Was it really necessary for me to return by way of New York? Did we really want to go to Uxmal? The great thing about this boat was that it would make no fuss about taking two small donkeys. For some time now I had been wanting to buy two Mexican baby donkeys, one grey one black, for fifteen shillings apiece. Where else in the world could one acquire two such enchanting, delicately made, silk-muzzled creatures for that sum?

In later life they tend to become sullen and coarse-grained, with me they would spend years of ease. I wanted to settle down, they would compel me to find a suitable rural home at once. Their influence on my choice would be good: a quiet place, some distance from the market.

I worked it all out. At first I would leave them with a friend who had a cottage in Normandy. I might give one to her, I might take a third. Madame Guerinier, the farmwoman who had such a way with dogs could look after them. She had never seen a donkey. E., I would put on an aeroplane that would get her to her native country before she could say San Esteban Tiaquepaque."

"And how do you propose to get those animals from Bordeaux to Normandy?" said E. The shipping clerks were finding their stride. Every day more details, all splendid, were coming to light about the desirable cargo-boat. "Are you sure it exists?" said E. "Is there such a thing as a freighter from Vera Cruz to Bordeaux?" I reminded her of a friend of ours who had actually travelled on something of that nature. "Ah, but Nancy commands freighters; they rise for her from the seas like Prospero's island. And nearly drown her, too. Such freighters are not for the likes of us."

--- From The Sudden View
A Mexican Journey

Sybille Bedford
©1953 Harper & Brothers

Travels with My Chicken
A Man and His Companion
Take to the Road

Martin Gurdon
(Lyons Press)
Try to think of another pet who will go traveling about with you without complaint (if it gets too hot, they just croak). Think of a pet who will, if the right sex, deliver your breakfast to you daily. Think of another pet that likes eating the bugs and worms in your front yard. Think of another pet that doesn't try to crawl in bed with you or lick your face or throw up on your crotch or on your best rug.

Finally, think of a pet who (if it is the right sex) will wake you, a living alarm clock, at five or so in the morning, and will repeat his song until you guillotine the little bastard and fry him up for lunch (or baked in a pie, savory, with onions and butter and thyme).

Travels with My Chicken set me to wondering why a man who loves (and goes hither-and-yon with) chickens is such a curiosity. Would attention accrue to him if he were motoring through England, Wales, and Scotland with a duck? A goose? A fox --- or skinks, skunks, shrikes? What is it about a hen for a companion that garners him multiple appearances on television, many interviews on radio, even finding himself with invitations to a large number of book signings?

I am thinking it is the deruralization of England (and other First World countries, including America) over the last awful century. Fifty years ago one could move around with a chicken, or an army of them, and not be the object of much interest. Who's to crow over that?

But then again, perhaps it is the nature of the beast. Chickens are not creatures you can necessarily pour your heart out to, like I can with my beloved Sasha (head on my knee, large eyes touched with such love and sympathy, ready to lick my ear in a trice. If I told my woes to my Black Japanese Bantam, she'd just as likely peck me as put up with me).

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The Curious History of Japan's
Balloon Bomb Attack on America

Ross Coen
(University of Nebraska Press)
In the fall of 1944, using tree bark, glue, and intensive child labor, the Japanese produced a series of balloons that were sent up from their east coast, rising to 30,000 feet, moving across the Pacific in a great arc --- and, improbably, arriving in the coast of America. They were called "fire balloons" or fusen bakudan (in Japanese military-speak, fu-go).

When they came to ground, it was expected that bombs would explode, fires would be set off, and --- in theory --- the great timberlands of the American Northwest would be set aflame.

The fire, the furore and the panic would destroy the morale of common Americans everywhere. With this unreasoning fear of a world ablaze, we would sue for peace and WWII would come to a successful and jubilant end, for all concerned. Especially them.

So these spectral beasts began appearing in the skies of the United States in late 1944 and, not long after, over Alaska, western Canada, and contiguous American states as far east as Michigan. They appeared out of the blue and some of them actually exploded, even though early spring is not the best time to set off forest fires what with the constant winter/spring rains. Still, in the six months that the program was underway, it was claimed that 9,000 "fire balloons" had been released, with a further 11,000 planned and under construction.

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Paul Clammer
(Lonely Planet)
Editor Clammer says the best time to visit Afghanistan is late summer, and he speaks of the fruits of the market, sweet grapes from Shomali and "fat Kandahari pomegranates and melons everywhere."

We have to love this one because of the editor's affection for a loony country ... made even more loony by several armed interventions from abroad. We also have to applaud his willingness to overlook a few problems that some of us might class as spooky, if not downright dangerous. Kabul, he says, "is generally a calm city, with the greatest risk to personal safety being the insane traffic," although if you drive, it is suggested that you keep "all doors locked."

    We don't recommend walking in Kabul after dark because the broken pavements present a genuine accident risk.

There is also the problem of the air, "thick with pollution from the traffic, thousands of generators and the endless dust." It results in "Kabul cough," and one is advised ultimately to seek "fresh air outside the city."

    The first snowfall of winter is called Barf-e-Awal. Many Kabuls play surprise games (barfi) on their friends at this time, sending them riddles in an Afghan variant of trick-or-treat.

One of the trick or treats they offer visitors to Afghanistan is booze. Or maybe not. Who knows? The author doesn't. "Changing domestic politics could quickly lead to the bars and restaurants we've listed here running very dry."

Get out of town? Travel on the road even to the Kabul airport can be "tiresome due to the large number of concrete roadblocks outside embassies that turn roads into obstacle courses." Fine, let's go to Herat. Well, outside the hazards of war, there's the climate: "Hot and dry ... dominated by Bad-e Sad o Bist (Wind of 120 Days).

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The Worst Journey
In the World
Apsley Cherry-Garrard

What was merely eccentric ninety years ago might better be characterised as fool-hardy. Even though the author appears to be loyal and true to Scott, as one reads The Worst Journey in the World, one gets the feeling that the whole kit-and-kaboodle was undertaken with a minimum of good sense, and a maximum of what could charitably be called hubris. The choice of the Terra Nova --- an ancient and leaky vessel --- to take the party south from New Zealand was the first mistake. Everything flowed from that: the upsets that occurred in the earliest part of the journey --- including a lack of fresh water, lack of huskies, lack of appropriate space for the ponies --- helped to create the disasters that followed.

In his last journal entry, written as he was dying, Scott blamed the weakness of his companions, and the weather --- ignoring the fact that at exactly the same time the Norwegian Roald Amudsen succeeded in reaching the South Pole with no loss of life whatsoever. At no point did Scott take the blame on himself.

Cherry seems to be somewhat ambivalent on the point. He noted that no dogs were used in Scott's expedition, and pointed out that thirty pounds of "geological specimens" was added to the sledge that was supposed to return the men safely from the pole. But then Cherry quickly adds,

    The practical man ... doesn't know that these specimens dated a continent and may elucidate the whole history of plant life...and declares that Amundsen was perfectly right in refusing to allow science to use up the forces of his men, or to interfere for a moment with his single business of getting to the Pole and back again. No doubt he was; but we were not out for a single business...

The implication stands that Scott was not "a practical man." Indeed, as we read about him here, we are left with the impression that Scott had a very diffuse vision, and, was, if you will pardon the expression, a very chilly man, even before his last fatal trip made him colder than ever.

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Travels in the Orient
S. J. Perelman
That night will linger in my memory as one of the most agonizing I have ever endured. Our teeth chattered so loudly that several Americans resident there phoned the Embassy to report gunfire. Just to indicate how cold it was, I left a tumbler of water at my bedside and when I woke up, it was gone. Hirschfeld had drunk it and also had eaten the glass. That was one cold night.

The following day we embarked on a shopping tour of the antique bazaars in the Kwantung Road, charmed at every turn by the indescribable wealth of imagination the Chinese lavish on their art. Surrounded by so much beauty, it was difficult to determine what to choose; Hirschfeld finally settled on an imitation cloisonné cigarette stand complete with match receptacle and ash-trays, and I bought three ivory back-scratchers you could not duplicate in San Francisco for less than a quarter.

About midafternoon we traced our steps to the American Club, a pleasant establishment in Foochow Road made doubly delightful by the circumstance that it had the only heated bar in town. Five whiskey sours drove the chill from our bones, and we decided to have a drink. There then ensued a hazy interval during which I seem to recall the sound of a cupful of poker dice being thrown repeatedly against a board and a playful attempt on my part to comb Hirschfeld's beard with a back-scratcher.

From time to time strange faces swam into my field of vision; I remember a laborious, protracted recital by an UNRRA official of his difficulties in persuading the Chinese to eat canned peaches, but part of it was being given in Russian and some men were accompanying him on balalaikas.

It suddenly grew much colder and I found myself in a very dim night club, teaching an exophthalmic Hungarian girl the Cubanola glide. The next morning I felt remarkably listless and there was an outbreak of beef Stroganoff on my tie as though I were coming down with a fever, but these symptoms soon passed, and by noon I was able to keep down a little clear broth made of Angostura, lemon peel, and bourbon.

--- From Westward Ha!
© 1998, Burford Books
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A Unicyclist's Guide to America
Mark Schimmoeller
(Chelsea Green)
We find ourselves rather awed by the whole presumption here: so many miles seated on this one tricky wheel, with rain, snow, wind, passing cars, trucks, tractors, pedestrians and, further west, cows and buffalo. Schimmoeller learns and we learn (this is our first trip together) necessary precautions. Stay out of cities if possible. Never try to use a busy highway to get in or out of town. Look for the roads on the map that are the little dinky lines between the big ones. Avoid the four-lane or six-lane highways. Try times when there will be no traffic, or if any traffic, wide shoulders are preferable. Calm day. No wind best. No tornadoes, please. Nor drunks. Best to avoid people standing along side the road who might be laughing at him.
You'll soon figure that one reason he decided to go so far on so little is that he is a minimalist, not unlike those Mennonites. A unicycle is a minimalist dream: one seat, one tire, a fork, two pedals, several dozen spokes. If you are going across America, I guess it's the simplest way, outside of a pogo stick. Maybe next time around we can talk him into that.

In Filley, Missouri,

    I asked directions at an antique store. "I can see what your problem is right away. You just have one wheel," the owner, Len Dennis, told me. He stood outside his shop.

    I've managed to come all the way from North Carolina," I said.

    "You're from North Carolina?"

    "Actually, I'm from Kentucky."

    "I'll bet you're lost."

    I told him I needed to get to Road CC on gravel roads.

    "In other words, you're lost. We haven't had a unicycle traveler yet who has stopped here and hasn't been lost."

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Twelve Days in Persia
Across the Mountains with
The Bakhtiari Tribe

Vita Sackville-West
(Tauris Parke)

The charm of Twelve Days in Persia is not the journey itself. That itself was arduous, as such trips are: travellers being alternatively cooked and frozen, up-stream and down rock-strewn, ill-marked, confusing paths --- sometimes lost on the edge of impossible precipices with the Karoun River roaring far below.

The joy of this is being allowed to stop off for awhile in the brain of Sackville-West. She is funny, wise, and well aware of herself. She's also one of those redoubtable post-Victorian ladies who went everywhere in the world with a canvas tote-bag, a foldable portable chair, a kerosene lamp, a tea cozy ... and her own indomitable self, challenging the boring image of the English woman as a retiring homebody.

Sackville-West --- great name: and she's a Vita, too --- calls this a travel book, but we mostly get to ramble through her mind, for on this ancient road, outside of the startling vistas, there are but a few hundred herdsmen, a few thousand goats, and the huts of the desperately poor. Vita spends a chapter, as she soldiers on through Qaleh Madrasseh, contemplating what it would be like to live a life of seclusion here:

    Glutted and weary with information, confused with creeds, the old words knocking against one another in the brain and producing no more than a tinny clatter, one would settle down either to a stagnant repose or else to a concentrated readjustment of values.

All good travel books should make you want to be going along with the writer. This one certainly does. Sackville-West appears in her photographs as a lithe, regal, fetching lady ... certainly making us ache to be back in there with her in the 20s, to be there striding through those goat-infested barrens.

For her eye is impeccable: for the flowers, for the mountains, for the herdsmen and their hardy women, their (often) sickly children: for anything of life amidst the dust and stones.

This, for instance, her praise for The Mouse --- her donkey ... the one who had been assigned "not to humiliate me, but to relieve my weariness." Mouse turned out to be

    small, passive, obliging, so that I very soon conceived a great affection for her and began to talk of bringing her back to England.
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Two Years Before the Mast
And Other Voyages
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
(Library of America)
Two Years is a big bore. It took us what came to seem like two years to make it half-way through the text. It is crawling with the nautical language that gave Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and S. J. Perelman and dozens of others fodder for their parodies:

    We sprang aloft immediately and furled the royals and top-gallant-sails, and took in the flying jib, hauled up the mainsail and trysail, squared the after yards .... Having called all hands, we close reefed the topsails and trysails, furled the courses and the jib, set the fore-top-mast staysail, and brought her up nearly to her course, with the weather braces hauled in a little to ease her.

Since this bit of gibberish comes early in on Two Years the reader may be thinking it is all for atmosphere, and that perhaps Dana will close haul his flying jibs and get on with the story. But no. In an ice storm near the Cape, in Chapter 31,

    The boys of the other watch were in the tops, taking in the top-gallant studding-sails, and the lower and top-mast studding-sails were coming down by the run. It was nothing but "haul down and clew up," until we got all the studding-sails in, and the royals, flying-jib, and the mizen top-gallant sail furled and the ship kept off a little. The fore and main top-gallant sails were still on her, for the "old man" did not mean to be frightened in broad daylight.

If you are a fan of the ilk of the sea tales of Patrick MacDonald, this might appeal to you. For the rest of us who can't tell the forecastle from the bilge, nor the poop from a reef, it is trying at best, throw-the-book-across-the-room at worst.

Dana comes across as a bit of a prude, one who picks and chooses the facts to be laid out in order to to paint himself more sturdy of heart. He pointedly ignores a letter from a companion who referred to "the beautiful Indian lasses who often frequented your humble abode in the hide house."

One is here reminded of the words of Winston Churchill. As we wrote in a review of The Unexpected Hero,

    Early on, he got appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. He was rumored to have said, "What are the traditions of the Navy? Rum, sodomy, and the lash?" In later years he explained that he had never said this but wished he had.
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Santo Cilauro, et. al.
(Overlook Press)
For those who want to get off the well-beaten track, here is the answer of your dreams: the scarcely-known, rarely-visited country of Molvanîa. It is one of those mysterious places in East Central Europe which might be just a blank for many.

This luscious guide comes complete with photographs, history, passport information, sections on theatre, arts, and music, and current exchange rates --- dollars vs. strubls and qunts.

Molvanîa is a singular destination, both because of its history, its people, its customs, and the simple facts of life in this amazing mountain land. For instance, this on electrical power, "which is available in all but the most outlying areas:"

    The electrical current is a rather unusual 37 volts ... [so] a transformer may be required.

Under a photograph of a sizeable cactus: "The fzipdat of serrated thistle is the floral emblem of Molvanîa, a sharply thorned cactus, traditionally thrown at Molvanîan brides."

    Its leaves have an astringent, bitter taste, making it a popular ingredient in local dishes.

And next to a picture of a very old sow,

    The pig is generally considered the symbol of Molvanîa. Believed to be sacred by many, these animals may only be slaughtered Monday to Saturday. Pigs are widely used throughout the country for meat, milk and --- in remote areas --- companionship.

The drawings and photos are suitable to the text. Blurred out shots of rocky flatlands of stubble are, it is noted, "The Great Plains, recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status as a site of significant monotony."

Under a similar photograph (with goats): "Geographically, Molvanîa is a land of contrasts --- from its rocky, semi-barren hills to its rocky, semi-barren plains."

All in all, Molvanîa may soon be the place to visit for Americans seeking adventure, unusual vistas, and terminal diseases. The guide book offers maps, sidebars of comments from frequent visitors, and this unusual advice about the national currency:

    In time of war or economic crises garlic is often accepted as legal tender.

The guide notes that Molvanîa is far from backwards. There is a singular shot of a woman gesturing to what could be mistaken for an oven for bread-baking: "A worker at the Sjereso nuclear power plant proudly demonstrates the central reactor core, safely protected by her lead-lined shawl."

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Lonely Planet's
Best in Travel 2009

850 Trends, Destinations, Journeys &
Experiences for the Year Ahead

Geoff Howard, Editor
(Lonely Planet)
There are some ridiculous lists in Best in Travel. "Top ten places to steal a kiss" (the city of Kissing in Bavaria; Kissimmee, Florida, home of Disney World; the grave of Oscar Wilde in Pêre Lachaise ... which we wouldn't exactly think of as the best site for a happy buss).

Then there's "Best places to have a midlife crises:" The jewelry shops of Dubai? The home of the British Grand Prix, Silverstone? Seedy Macau ("Gamble away your kids' Inheritance?") Why not the birthplace of neurosis, Vienna?

For those in a better frame of mind, there are nine "Happiest Places." Bhutan in the Himalayas has a chart for something called GNA ("Gross National Happiness.") Perhaps that's because television only arrived there in 1999. Friends of ours do agree that Montréal, Canada should be at the top of the glee pile: there is a comedy festival every July, and marijuana is smoked openly, without shame or fear. Iceland comes in at #5, but this was published before the króna disappeared into a pile of dust last year.

And Denmark? "Academics drawing up a world map of happiness recently found Denmark the most cheerful nation on earth," but don't tell that to native son Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, who may have helped give birth to gloomy Existentialism. You might also want to avoid Happy, Texas. It is "the town without a frown."

There are some unlikely places to visit. Under "Top ten destinations" we have political edgy Algeria ("astonishing Roman cities, landscapes and oases of Saharan legend"), Kyrgyzstan ("the Switzerland of Central Asia" with "the world's only three-story yurt,") and Bangladesh. Bangladesh?

Despite being "the most densely populated country on earth," it is in the process of "banning all gas and diesel vehicles," and has mandated the end of all plastic bags "replacing them with environmentally kosher jute bags." The editors call it a "big-hearted nation" with a "most bizarre sight: a rush-hour traffic jam consisting entirely of hundreds upon hundreds of bell-clanging bicycle rickshaws."

Best in Travel is a pleasant change from the typical tourist guide. It's user-friendly, has --- as it reports in its title --- 850 choices for destinations, is filled with gorgeous photographs, and refuses to be too serious. In the "Top 10 Regions," you will find the Bay of Fires, Tasmania, Australia. The population is 300, beachside camping is free, and the language is "Australian."

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Big Trips
More Good Gay
Travel Writing

Raphael Kadushin
(Terrace Books)
Raphael Kadushin, editor of Big Trips, says his time in London was spent working as an editorial assistant for a company "that specialized in memoirs."

    All the manuscripts I had to read were tragedies.

Edmund White tells of his loves in Paris and in Morocco. He and his gorgeous love Paul go off to the latter to "look at the desert." Paul is a true study. He

    was the Paul who had explained what Derrida had said of Heidigger's interpretation of Trakl's last poems;

Paul "who considered Ronsard a greater poet than Shakespeare; Paul, who "likes pain."

White reveals all this and you don't want him to stop. He has his fame, carries some agons, too. He likes pain too, and, on their trips, as they traveled, "we confided more and more in each other."

    Paul was someone on whom nothing was wasted; nevertheless he was not always alive to all possibilities, at least not instantly. I told him I was positive, but he didn't react.

"Behind the extremely dark sunglasses, there was this presence, breathing and thinking but not reacting."

With White, as with most of the other writers here, we never lose the feeling of separateness, the separateness that most gays carry, that we belong and don't belong, that we are part of it yet apart from it. "We slept in each other's arms night after night and I stroked his great body, as though he were a prize animal, la belle bëte." And, then,

    My own sense of who I was in this story was highly unstable. I flickered back and forth, wanting to be the blond warrior's fleshy pale concubine or then the bearded pasha himself, feeding drugged sherbets to the beautiful Circassian slave I had bought.

If you do nothing else with Big Trips read Brian Bouldrey's pilgrimage to Compostela. The double whammy: gay and Catholic: "Oh, the way we all live in uncomfortable contradiction to ourselves. Conservative renegades, good thieves, fascinating bores, communist monks, Catholic homosexuals. This is also what makes us feel alone: we are one-of-a-kind monsters, neither fish nor foul."

    I thought of how ridiculous I was --- how we all keep heading toward the end of our project, one we all knew would be a failure, surrounded by comfortable people who never have to live in contradiction.

Read Bouldrey. And Andrew Holleran. On Florida. You will never look at Florida the same way again. I grew up in Florida, too many years ago. Fresh water everywhere, popping up out of the ground everywhere to make rivers, streams, lakes, swamps, everything overladen by great green Spanish-moss hanging trees, the limbs like the limbs of the old, craggy, bent, knobbed. But here the writer takes us into the new Florida, crosses into Fort Myers over the Caloosahatchee River (those names! Loxahatchee, Choctawhatchee, Little Econlockhatchee, Ocklawaha!)

"This is the grid that men have laid upon the infinitely subtle, delicate ecosystem of this unique state: a grid of highways, strip malls, and housing developments that has taken something that used to be as exotic as Africa and turned it into another corporate, standardized replica of what Henry Miller called ... "the Air Conditioned Nightmare." He leaves his old uncle behind, in an "assisted living facility."

    My uncle is fine, I think; he has chosen a nice place; I am glad I saw him. At the same time I feel as I drive away that I have left him in a death camp. I feel, as I retrace to I75, that I have left my uncle in Hades, in some strange twilight land of the almost dead, in the anteroom of the life to come."

I read travel books as Bouldrey reads guide books ... "for nostalgia." This volume has something else again. It's got pith and loneliness and paradox and adventure and danger and a sense of tragedy: sixteen men who travel so far looking for a way in, a way out, home, love. Some find it; most don't. But by the telling so honestly of their desire, they have created a quiet work of classic art. Praise to them and the editor.

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Past Tents
The Way We Camped
Susan Snyder
Bancroft Library)
Susan Snyder takes us back to these halcyon times. She opines that camping was slow to catch on in America because in the 19th Century, camping was all there was. When you wanted to get from West Virginia to Missouri, and from there to Oklahoma, and from there to the Nevada Territory and California, you camped your way across the country.

    Sleeping under the stars and cooking over an open fire had been matters of necessity and expediency in trackless wastes that concealed wild beasts and nightmare sounds. Wilderness had been the formless enemy to be conquered and crossed at all costs.

"Now," she writes, "the trailblazers became pleasure trekkers, and trails that had been the routes of arduous travail become the paths of holiday jaunts."

Ms. Snyder has collected here over a hundred photographs to delight the soul: people dressed to the nines, posed formally outside their white-and-blue striped tents; three young fellows on high-front-wheel bicycles of the times, their packs carefully hung from the steering bar; a booted ruffian in a pork-pie hat standing before a wood-plank lodge marked WELLS FLAT; a "Silver Dawn" Sauerkraut can cut at both ends to serve as smokestack.

She has also culled readings from camping books of the day, advertising copy from the magazines filled with hints ("To dry matches: Carefully blot off as much water as possible with a soft cloth and then pass them through the hair a dozen times"), and clippings from those who ventured out into the wild:

"We ate our supper of cold venison and bread, and whittled from the sides of the wooden barometer-case shavings enough to warm water for a cup of miserably tepid tea, and then, packing our provisions and instruments away at the head of the shelf, rolled ourselves into our blankets and lay down to enjoy the view."

    After such fatiguing exercises the mind has an almost abnormal clearness: whether this is from within, or due to the intensely vitalizing mountain air, I am not sure; probably both contribute to the state of exaltation in which all alpine climbers find themselves.

This entry by geologist Clarence King concludes: "The solid granite gave me a luxurious repose."

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Dream Whip No. 14
New York City
The Lakeshore Limited pulls into Penn Station in New York. Penn Station used to be one of the world's great train stations, designed by Charles McKim in the early 1900's and partly modeled after a Roman bath. But way better, because those old Roman baths were just full of naked Romans, while Penn Station was full of trains: sleek stainless steel trains highballing in from the hinterlands. Back in 1967, they knocked down the old station and replaced it with the current one: a big hole in the ground where commuter trains skitter around like fat dumpster rats.

I spend the night on my friend's couch in Bushwick. When I wake up in the morning, it's windy. A cold wind from Canada that blows away all that talk of an early spring. Puffy clouds, tattered and torn to shreds, scud over the city. Like the remnants of some cloud massacre that took place in the sky west of here, above Indiana or Ohio. And here's what's left: corpse clouds, dismembered and drifting downwind over New York. "Corpse clouds?" My friend in Bushwick says when I tell her what I'm thinking, "that's kind of fucked up."

When my friend goes to work, I take the subway to the village and get a slice of pizza at the kosher pizza place on Second Ave. It's a good slice: veggie sausage, olives, and some crumbled-up tofu. It's good, but it's not as good as I remember. Nothing's ever as good as that. This thought cheers me up. It means there's nothing to go back to, and there's nothing to keep you around. It means the next really good slice of vegan pizza is somewhere else, waiting for you, and the only thing to do is hit the road and go looking for it.

Ship Time
In a casino, clocks are just a distraction from the gambling. That's why there are never any clocks there. You're supposed to lose track of time, and before you know it, the sun is coming up and you've stuck your retirement savings into a slot machine, one quarter at a time.

A freight ship is the opposite of a casino. There are clocks everywhere. When you're floating in the middle of the ocean, they keep you from going crazy. The clocks parcel out time in familiar minutes and hours. A comfortable scale. A scale you can deal with. If it weren't for the clocks, there'd only be ocean time, vast and wide and always threatening to swell up and wash you overboard.

There are clocks in the cabins, and clocks in the lounge, and clocks in the mess hall. They're on every landing as you walk up the stairs from one deck to another. A computer controls the clocks and constantly resets them, shedding hours as you're sailing east, and gathering them up again as you sail west. It's scary when you sail out of sight of the shore. On the open sea, even the sun looks strange, like maybe it's a different star than the one that's shining on your friends back home. That's when you're grateful for all those clocks, counting off hours that are exactly as long at sea as they are on dry land.

Vienna looks like a town designed by someone with a degree in mortuary science. It's opulent the way a crypt is: all carved marble and gilding and junkie angels giving you dirty looks from the rooftops. When the sky hangs low and gray, it's like you're wandering through a cemetery instead of a city. Maybe that explains all the coffee-drinking that goes on in this town. In Seattle, you drink coffee because of the rain. In Vienna, you drink it because of the marble.

Later, I wind up in a place called the Café Hummel, a proper Viennese coffee house where the waiter wears a tuxedo and he's an asshole and he shortchanges me when I pay the bill. I order a Brauner, which is sort of an Austrian cappuccino. It's good. Really good. Then I float out of the Café Hummel on a caffeine cloud, smiling at the skinheads and the gray skies, certain, all the sudden, that Vienna is the most elegant city in the world.

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A Plague of Locusts
The insects were now full grown, and on a day they all began to move. Northeastward they went toward the desert --- slowly, very slowly, but steadily, hopping, hopping, rarely pausing, never turning to one side. A low rattle filled the air like the steady falling of fine sleet, and everywhere there was a faint, sickening odor. It was impossible to walk without stepping on the creatures.

On the morning when the grasshoppers began to move the writer was at work in a round native tent of felt, with the top, perhaps 30 inches in diameter, open to admit light and air. When the grasshoppers reached the tent not one of them turned aside. Straight up the wall they crawled, and straight across the top until they came to the opening. There they paused a few minutes and then jumped blindly.

One after another they landed on the table, which was necessarily placed under the opening for light. Tap, tap, tap, they fell at intervals of a few seconds until it soon became impossible to work. When they righted themselves after falling to the floor, they always turned in the original direction, hopping across the floor, climbed the wall and the inside of the roof of the tent until they reached the opening at the apex, and were able to continue their interrupted journey.

Near our tents flowed a brook about three feet wide, which was used for irrigation. When the grasshoppers reached it they paused a moment, and then, urged by the crowds coming up from behind, jumped into the water and struggled for the other bank. The majority reached it after being carried down a few hundred feet. On the bank they rested in swarms until their wings were dry, and then hopped steadily on.

Many of the weaker insects, however, never got across the stream alive. They were carried down to the point where the brook was distributed over the fields, and there were deposited in great heaps, which soon began to emit a most noisome odor.

The coming of the grasshoppers had a disastrous effect upon our work of excavation. The insects jumped into the diggings in hordes, falling over the perpendicular edges in a steady stream. Crossing the bottom of the excavations in their usual persistent manner, they tried again and again to climb the steep walls, only to grow weary before reaching the top, and so to fall back once more. Thus they piled up to a depth of a foot or two in every excavation.

At first we tried to have them shoveled out, but the accumulation of a single night could scarcely be removed in a day. As most of our work was finished, we merely shoveled earth into the pits to cover the loathsome, dying mass of insects. Once in the bottom of a deep, round well sunk in exploring the ruins, we found a large snake buried in a seething, squirming, ever-deepening mass of living death from which his writhing head alone protruded.

There was one excavation which we determined not to abandon at once. As quickly as possible, which was not till the end of the second day, we procured cheese-cloth and stretched it across the top of the excavation. The grasshoppers crossed by legions, their shadows darkening the cloth, and the sound of their hopping was like the patter of heavy rain on a roof....

The Turkoman laborers were clad in baggy white cotton trousers of the common full Turkish type, worn without underclothes. To stand in such garments amid the grasshoppers and shovel them into buckets or bags while the creatures crawled everywhere must have been almost unendurable. Every few minutes the men stopped to remove the clinging insects from inside their clothes. Nevertheless not only did those who were at work keep on faithfully, but scores of others, seeing that the grasshoppers had consumed their sustenance for the year, pleaded piteously for an opportunity to earn something to support their wives and children.

The visitation came to an end at length, and the grasshoppers passed on into the desert. The land was left reaped --- consumed, as it were, by fire. There was a strange stillness in the air, and though our tents were pitched in what had been the fruitful grain fields of an oasis, we seemed to be in the midst of the great desert.

--- "Life in the Great Desert of Central Asia"
August 1909
By Ellsworth Huntington
From World's to Explore
Mark Jenkins, Editor
(National Geographic Books)