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The Best American Travel Writing 2003 (Best American Travel Writing)by Ian Frazier
I travel for all the usual reasons — to see new places, meet new people, have exciting experiences, etc. Also, I travel just because I like to move. Motion simply for its own sake is often my goal. This is true not only when I travel but anytime. The other night as I was loading the dinner dishes into our freestanding, roll-around dishwasher, my sister-in-law, who was staying with us, observed me carrying each dish individually across the kitchen, and suggested I could save myself some steps by rolling the dishwasher closer to the sink. I told her that I didnt mind, that I was enjoying the walk. I was being kind of glib with her: I know this love of motion must be controlled. When Im doing research in a library, reading microfilmed newspapers on a microfilm-reading machine, I always have to restrain myself from zipping the whole roll back onto its spool at high-speed rewind, just for the thrill of it, before Im completely done. The whine of the spinning spool, the accelerating flicker of the speeding days, express my restless disorder perfectly.
I attribute this disorder partly to my being from Ohio, and partly to my dad.
1. Ohio. When I was growing up there, Ohio seemed centrifugal. Some mystical force the place possessed flung people from it, often far. The northern part of the state was a corridor where westbound traf.c on the Ohio Turnpike picked up speed on its first real stretch of flat country past the Allegheny Mountains. When we slept with our windows open in the summers, the sound of accelerating traffic on the Turnpike a couple of farm fields away was with us morning and night. I remember Rose Rugan and Kim Gould, two girls I had crushes on, leaning on the railing of the Stow Road bridge over the Turnpike and watching the trucks and cars whoosh past beneath. As I rode by them on the bridge on my bicycle, they turned to look at me over their shoulders; for a moment, a huge concentration of hope and longing and possibility shivered through me invisibly. Not many years afterward I walked to that bridge carrying a small suitcase, hopped the fence, climbed down to the highway, stuck out my thumb, and disappeared, like the taillights of that famously fast local dragstrip racer whose racing name was Color Me Gone.
Ohio seemed not somewhere to be, but somewhere to be from. We knew the Wright brothers, from Dayton, had learned to fly and had flown away, and John D. Rockefeller had departed with his Cleveland-made millions for New York City, and popular local TV personalities had vanished into vague careers in Hollywood, and most Cleveland Indian baseball players didnt get to be any good until they were traded to the Yankees. The high school kids our parents held up for emulation, the brains and athletes, went off to distant colleges and never returned, while everybodys grandparents decamped to Ohioan-filled retirement communities in Florida or Arizona. When we were still in elementary school, some of our fellow Ohioans began to leave the planet entirely. In fifth grade our teacher brought her black-and-white TV to school one morning so that we could watch the launch of the rocket carrying the .rst American to orbit the earth — John Glenn, of New Concord, Ohio. Ten minutes later, it seemed, Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon. Armstrong came from Wapakoneta, in the less populous western part of the state. We watched on live TV as he stepped from the lunar lander and spoke his historic first words, his rural Ohio accent clearly audible through the staticky vastness of space.
Of course Americans in general like to move, not just those from Ohio. I do know that in almost any far place I go, someone from Ohio either is there already, or was. Recently Ive traveled in Siberia, passing through parts visited by George Kennan, of Norwalk, Ohio, back in 1885 and 1886. Kennan nearly destroyed his health getting to end-of-the-earth spots which would more than daunt a traveler today, and the book he later wrote about Siberian prisons helped bring down the czar. And he is only one of the Ohio travelers who went to that region and wrote books about it; in the genre of Siberian travel literature, books by Ohioans make a small but distinct subcategory.
The first time I ever traveled really far from home, thirty years ago, I was walking across a bazaar in Morocco when a man with blond, stringy hair came up to me and said, Parlez-vous anglais?” I looked at him twice and asked, Where are you from?” Cincinnati,” he replied sheepishly.
2. My dad. Like George Kennan, my dad was born in Norwalk. I never knew anyone who loved to ramble more than he. Dad was so restless that he kept on moving even after he had reached his destination, like tthose longhorn cattle that would walk endlessly round and round in their railyard corrals at the end of the Chisholm Trail. He had a relative who, as a young boy, was discovered one morning at the Norwalk train station sitting expectantly on the cowcatcher of a pausing westbound train. Dads urge to escape pointed that direction. At first opportunity, he headed west — to California, and Stanford University. After Depression-era Ohio, he could not believe the wonderfulness of California. Why do people live in Ohio, anyway?” he wrote to his mother. From Stanford he joined the navy and went to China; after the navy, perhaps against his better judgment, he came home.
Having a job and a wife and (eventually) five kids stopped his rambling hardly at all. When we visited my grandparents in Tucson, Arizona, Dad used to take off on walks across the desert on dusty, newly graded roads and return in the evening bright red with sunburn. At gatherings at a family cottage on Lake Erie he often launched the little sailboat he had built himself and sailed beyond the horizon, leaving people to wonder if theyd ever see him again. He took pride in having driven as far as one could drive in America — to the end of the Florida Keys, and to where the road ran out just north of Circle, Alaska. He was proud, too, that he and my mother had done the journeys in a station wagon with all us kids along. At restaurants he used to point us out to the waiters and say, embarrassingly, These kids have been to both ends of the road!” After we were grown he and my mother continued onward, to a farther destination every summer. They saw Europe, India, China, Russia, Japan. Dad had various adventures and rambles-within-rambles everywhere — car wreck in India, encounter with suspicious characters in China, unauthorized explorations in East Berlin — and wrote about the experiences for the magazine at the company where he worked. When his health failed, and he had to stay home, he would pace back and forth by the hour in their condo on the west side of Cleveland. They were on the twelfth floor and could see the lake. He would walk to a window and look out at it, walk to another window and look out again. My mother described this behavior to his doctor, who diagnosed him as suffering from agitated depression.” The term seemed insufficient, somehow, for the urge that had driven him so relentlessly and so far.
Possessing the urge myself, I prefer to leave it unnamed. Even a phrase like rambling fever,” favored by country-and-western songs, pins it down too much. My fathers doctor wasnt completely wrong, though, nor are the songs: motion-for-its-own-sake does have a pathological side. Long, almost-incurable spasms of it used to rack me sometimes. When I was a young man I rode Greyhound buses around the midwest (job in Chicago, girlfriend in Iowa, etc.). Often these buses were the opposite of express. Their constant stopping tormented me. At each little station, as the bus sat and sat, as the delays subdivided, as the driver chatted with the baggage guy and finished his cigarette and used it to light another, I gritted my teeth to keep from yelling in pain. But finally the driver would get back in, the bus door would close with a sigh; and then, how indescribably sweet, the moment when the bus began to move! All my sufferings vanished, and I leaned back so soothed with motion as to be narcotized.
A trip that repeated these highs and lows over and over usually delivered me wherever I was going in a basket-case mental condition. Ending the stop-and-go felt worse than going on, and if the people I was visiting seemed not glad enough to see me, or if any awkwardness arose, I would start back to the station. I needed people to slow me down, detain me. Years later, when I was writing a book about the Oglala Sioux Indians of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, I heard of journeys harder to stop than any of mine. Some Sioux took journeys that built up a momentum of rambling and drinking and automotive problems and more drinking and more rambling until the velocity made the details blur. Usually at some point in these stories the police would begin to pursue. And usually, of course, the final scene included arrests and/or a car crash. After a while I understood the physics of that: Without an intervening shock from outside, certain journeys might never end.
Here is a maxim to keep in mind: Reporters, like wolves, live by their paws.” I repeat this quotation often to myself when Im scouting around, working on a story. I came across it in a reminiscence of growing up in Leningrad by the poet Joseph Brodsky. Brodskys father was a reporter for a nautical newspaper who covered the Leningrad waterfront and who often told this maxim to his son. Reporters, like wolves . . .” I admire the statement for its succinct, encouraging rhythm, but even more for its accuracy. It reminds me that motion-for-its-own-sake, which I suffer as a low-level neurotic affliction, can be put to good practical use as well. Its the raw material of reporting.
Most reporting is a collaboration between mind and motion. To do it right you have to cover some ground. Your feet and sometimes your physical stamina get you there, while your mind observes. The one can partly fill in for the other, too; when the mind is dull and out of ideas, extra legwork can provide inspiring discoveries, and when the legwork is lazy, the mind can disguise that with embellishments added later.
And if the legwork — the physical accomplishment — is remarkable enough, practically any words you say or write on the occasion stand a chance of being profound. Neil Armstrongs remark about the small step for a man and the giant leap for mankind was pretty good, considering he thought it up himself when he had a lot else going on. We remember it, though, because of where he had gotten to when he said it. Julius Caesar, by all accounts an unpoetic person, went to Gaul, conquered it, and wrote a book about his feat. His Gallic Wars was one of the first nonfiction books in the history of the world, with its opening sentence, All Gaul is divided into three parts,” literatures first memorable nonfiction sentence. But the book was written not so much by Caesars words as by his act of conquering Gaul.
In many nonfiction forms, the authors physical progress from A to B makes the factual spine. No matter how strange and confusing the surrounding reality may be, the writer knows (and, presumably, we believe) that he or she began here, went there, returned here: came, saw, conquered. This is of course true most of all in the special kind of reporting called travel writing, where the basic unit of measure is the authors stride. If the subject is travel, the reader is in the armchair and the author is not; that is, a certain amount of physical participation on the authors part will almost always be required.
Going somewhere and writing about how you got there and what you saw is a more willful thing to do, it seems to me, than it once was. I mean, given our societys rich supply of colorful and convenient virtuality, why bother? No place on the planet is unknown. Satellites hundreds of miles above it gauge and sense and calibrate and monitor and photograph it obsessively. Up-to-the-minute images of it pour from computer screens. On the basis of the images, major decisions about specific places are made by people who have never visited the places and never will. Actually setting foot in them may even seem redundant, or old-technology. Better to stay at the computer and bask in the satellites reflected glow of olympian serenity.
The hell of it is, though, that many parts of the earth right now look their best only from very far away. Up close a different view is revealed. A traveler propelled by unmedicated agitation or some other personality imbalance actually goes to the place in the photo and finds not prettiness but near-catastrophe. Unlike its pictures, the place is, in short, a mess, and when you are up to your ankles in the mess yourself, it loses its serene, theoretical quality. Many magazines today tend not to print troubling stories about the environment, perhaps so as not to upset the cheery commercial mood advertisers want. Travel writing, however, is environmental by definition; the travel writer is unavoidably stuck with relating the sights and smells and general chaos he or she happens to find. Some of the pieces in this volume I regard as important and skillfully done environmental stories put into the form of a travelers tale.
Offhand I can think of no other nonfiction thats as subversive as writing about travel. In travel writing, expectations are overturned constantly. Travel for diversion is supposed to be fun, but often isnt; stories of nightmare journeys may be more numerous than stories of happy ones. When occasionally the place visited turns out to be uncrowded and welcoming and sublime, and a magazine or book says so, what happens to the place in the sequel is too familiar to describe. Many travelers accounts revise and dispute previous travelers writings, and are themselves revised by those who follow. Stories of a return to” such-and-such a place are an honorable and inexhaustible tradition. And from a larger perspective, we live in an age in which travelers have been puncturing fantasies left over from earlier and perhaps more optimistic generations.
Destinations are less remote and journeys less final than they used to be. You can travel in the most laborious, antique, time-consuming style you choose, knowing that if you get fed up with it you will simply head for the nearest airport and erase the mistake in a matter of hours. With a satellite phone in your pack you can call home from anywhere anytime and find out if the plumber showed up this morning and what was in the mail. In terms of travel fantasy, our world is a theater in which the curtain has just been closed and the house lights turned on. Skepticism descends: everything appears near at hand and too bright, while the hazy charms of distance evanesce away. Despite all that, people still go on journeys and write about them. I cant really explain why. I guess because reality is always beautiful and mysterious, however wise to it we think we are. Or maybe just because we go crazy if we sit around the apartment for too long.
I hoped to choose the pieces in this volume according to an overarching concept of the travel essay. In the end, though, I chose pieces that interested me. I put in a few funny pieces, too, because I liked them. I realize that these methods are feckless and informal. All I can tell you is, there are excellent pieces here. As I read through some of the selections I was at first alarmed: travel writing is about the world, and the world is in worse shape than Id thought. But then I was amazed at how bizarre and fulsome and endlessly various it is, too. A few of the writers herein accomplished travel sagas of such bravery that I couldnt believe they werent ten times louder about making it known. Its an honor to include them, and I hope in the future theyll take care. Other writers found fascinating places, or aspects of places, where I would have never thought to look. Each piece has consolations and great pleasures of its own.
People of all sorts, not only reporters, live by their paws. Now and again everybody has to get out, go for a jaunt, look around. At a criminal trial where I was a juror not long ago, a glance passed between the victim and the defendant that changed the course of the trial; the judge, an opponent of allowing TV cameras in the courtroom, later mentioned that moment as an example of what cant be captured on TV. In other words, you had to be there. Technologys fine, but it will never substitute for a person on the scene. The writers in this book, by enterprise and courage and earned happenstance, have managed to be there. They got their stories as travel writers have always done; their writing suggests the alliance between on-site reporting and art, between art and intrepidity. In places beyond our field of vision theyve observed wonders and signs the rest of us havent seen yet. The news they bring is invaluable. You heard it first here.
Copyright © 2003 by Houghton Mifﬂin Company. Introduction copyright © 2003 by Ian Frazier. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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