The Best American Travel Writing 2003by Ian Frazier
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor… See more details below
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respected -- and most popular -- of its kind. More and more readers are discovering the pleasures of armchair travel through the hugely successful Best American Travel Writing, now in its fourth adventurous year. Journey through the 2003 volume from Route 66 to the Arctic; go deep into Poland's Tatra Mountains and through the wildest jungle in Congo. Selections this year are from equally far-flung sources, including Outside, Food & Wine, National Geographic Adventure, Potpourri, and The New Yorker.
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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 didn't 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 I'm 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 I'm 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
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 traffic 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 usmorning 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 didn't 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 everybody's 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 first 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 I've 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
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 those
longhorn cattle that would walk endlessly round and round in their railyard
corrals at the end of the Chisholm Trail. He had a who, as a young
boy, was discovered one morning at the Norwalk train station sitting
expectantly on the cowcatcher of a pausing westbound train. Dad's 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 they'd 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 In 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
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 father's doctor wasn't 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
s 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 I'm scouting around, working on a
story. I came across it in a reminiscence of growing up in Leningrad by the
poet Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky's 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. It's 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 Armstrong's 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,' literature's first memorable nonfiction sentence. But the book
was written not so much by Caesar's words as by his act of conquering Gaul.
In many nonfiction forms, the author's 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 t all in the special kind of reporting called travel
writing, where the basic unit of measure is the author's 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 author's part will almost always be
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 society's 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 satellite's 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 traveler's tale.
Offhand I can think of no other nonfiction that's as subversive as
writing about travel. In travel writing, expectations are overturned constantly.
Travel for diversion is supposed to be fun, but often isn't; 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
t 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 can't 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 I'd 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 couldn't believe they weren't
ten times louder about making it known. It's an honor to include them, and I
hope in the future they'll 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, 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 can't be captured on TV. In other words, you had to be
there. Technology's 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 they've observed wonders and signs the rest of us haven't 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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