Wednesday, January 04, 2017
The Best American Travel Writing 2015
As McCarthy puts it, "Back in Sir Richard Burton’s day, tales brought back from darkest Africa had real import. Freya Stark’s journeys through Persia were a revelation. Ernest Shackleton’s escape from Antarctica with every soul intact was the stuff of real heroism. How do we top that? The 10 best beaches in the Caribbean right now(!)?"
The articles contained here have our heroes off to distant places like a luxury ski resort in North Korea ("The Great Pleasure Project," by Tim Neville); Moldova, which sounds like it's a made-up country but is not (Steven Connelly Benz's "Land of the Lost"); Varanasi, India, where people come to die ("Ashes to Ashes," by David Earley); Patricia Marx taking a cargo ship in "A Tale of a Tub," and not one but two articles about Timbuktu, which when I was a kid was usually referenced as the most remote place on Earth (and where there are, yes, blue people). Those two articles are "My Timbuktu," by Adriana Paramo and "Bonfire of the Humanities" by Patrick Symmes, and both mention the same music festival held in Mali (Timbuktu's home country) and the devastating effects of radical Islam.
There are also some interesting journeys, such as Paul Theroux's tour of the American South in "The Soul of the South," which includes beautiful passages such as "Mary T opened a bottle of blueberry wine from a winery in Harpersville, and though it was a warm noontime, a fly buzzing behind the hot white curtains in the small back dining room, we stood and clinked schooners of the wine and toasted our meeting—the ancient Mary T, the nearly blind Randall, and myself, the traveler, passing through" and such helpful observations as "No one on earth—none I had ever seen—is more polite, more eager to smile, more accommodating and less likely to step on your toe, than a person at a gun show."
Kevin Baker travels the U.S. by train ("21st Century Limited"), which is still possible: "American train stations were once the most magnificent in the world. Even in the smallest towns, they tended to be little jewels of craftsmanship. In bigger cities, they were the first monumental modern buildings erected without reference to God or king, built by the people to move the people." Needless to say. not so much anymore, especially if you've been to the new Penn Station.
And then there's Paul Salopek's "Our of Eden Walk," when he sets out to walk from Ethiopia's Rift Valley, where Homo Sapiens first appeared, to Tierra del Fuego in the southern tip of South America, the last place they migrated to. This would seem to be impossible, and I wonder if he made it, as the article ends with him in Syria, with still a long way to go.
But back to Alaska. My two favorite articles are this one, in which an outdoorsman and two others travel to the least-visited of National Park locations. "Nobody comes to the Alaska Peninsula by accident. Even fewer come here for fun." I also loved Lisa Abend's "The Sound of Silence," who has the same spirit: "when I read a British newspaper story about Inverie, the only town on the Knoydart peninsula, one of the most untouched parts of the Scottish Highlands, I thought it might be just the cure for my misanthropy." Seems reasonable. She goes on: "It would be a 16-mile trek through steep and rocky terrain, and at hike’s end, I would be in a town with a population of roughly 100 people, no cell-phone coverage, and a pub billed as the most remote in mainland Britain." Sould like bliss.
The collection also has a few humorous pieces, such as "Ship of Wonks," by Iris Smyles, where she goes on a cruise for physics buffs in the attempt to meet a fella, "Behind Closed Doors at Hotels," in which Gary Shtengyart explains: "When I travel alone, when my only companion and source of affection is the hypoallergenic wedge of pillow with some silly hotel monogram on it, when the jet lag and the unfamiliar sun make me feel like a dust speck blown across the earth (an alien dust speck that will never know the love of another human being again), when all these planets align, one thing will happen: someone in the room next to me will be having very loud sex."
I also enjoyed the somewhat comical but somewhat serious "Hail, Dayton," which is all about Dayton, Tennessee, where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place, and there is a re-enactment every year. Rachel Maddux writes, "In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, or maybe he didn’t, but either way vast ribbons of peat came to rest under what became the foothills of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, and in time the peat became coal, and later the railroads arrived, along with mines and coke ovens, and near one lazy arc of the Tennessee River workers built homes to return to after their long days of burrowing and burning, and the homes became a town, and the town was called Dayton."
So bravo to Andrew McCarthy, who understands that travel writing is about taking risks and going to the empty spots on the map, and not to the latest resort in Ibiza. Well done, and I'm sorry I mistook you for Andrew Shue.