The Best American Travel Writing 2004by Pico Iyer
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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 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. The Best American Travel Writing 2004 transports readers from Patagonia to Ivory Coast to small-town Vermont. Readers are treated to skiing in Kashmir, horseback riding with gauchos, driving by car and truck across America, and rescuing gorillas in the heart of the Congo. This year's volume is edited by Pico Iyer, who writes in his fascinating introduction, "Restlessness is part of the American way. It's part of what brought many of the rest of us to America." The Best American Travel Writing 2004 displays American restlessness at its most tantalizing and entertaining.
The New York Times
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American travel writing is about looking for the light. Or so, at least, I told myself, rather loftily, as I landed in Atlanta on my ﬁrst trip to the city, got into a new Aspire, and proceeded to drive around the “Phoenix of the South.” I passed Perimeter Point and Perimeter Mall, drove through a web of ofﬁce parks and shopping centers, passed a couple more Perimeter sites, and then arrived at my fancy hotel, in the midst of an area of jockey clubs and faux-European mansions. Afternoon tea was served in the lobby, I was told (with sterling silver strainers, no less), and a notice in my room, on “Guest Attire,” reminded me that I should be formally attired for breakfast or even when passing through the lobby. Another sign in my room advised me that “for security reasons” I should call the Housekeeping Department if ever I considered leaving my shoes in the corridor for a complimentary shine.
I was taken aback to see shoes linked to security: Could tennies stage a presidential assault? Or a pair of brown oxfords represent outlaw values? Yet undeterred, I decided, my last night in the place, to take my courage in my hands, so to speak, and place my sixteen dollar Payless Shoe Source loafers outside, in order to be polished to a Buckhead sheen. I called the Housekeeping Department to advise it of my intended maneuver, and was told, since it was close to midnight, to leave the shoes outside the door.
“But it says, for security reasons . . .”
“That’s okay. It’s close to midnight.”
The next morning, as I got ready to check out and ﬂy to my next stop, in California, I looked out into the perilous corridor and saw . . . nothing. I have to check out soon, I said, calling Housekeeping, and I was wondering . . . “We’ll get right on it, sir,” a voice replied, with something of the ﬁrmness of Mission Control (and I was reassured just to be called “sir,” as I’d almost never been before). Minutes passed, then close to an hour. I placed a call or two to the desk; it placed a call up to me. Living up to every fear of security violations, my shoes had apparently ﬂed the hotel and might even now be hotfooting it to Mexico.
An expert was put on the case, but she was no use at all. The concierge desk summoned a woman called Ellen (or Helen or Yellin’) to go out into the city to purchase for me the ﬁnest shoes that money could buy. But shopping for someone else’s feet is notoriously difﬁcult, and soon Yellin’ was sending an agent to my door with shoes perfectly sized for Shaquille O’Neal. The whole process was complicated, of course, by the fact that walking shoeless through the lobby would be to violate every last item of the hotel’s unbending dress code.
Finallymy ﬂight was leaving soon, and whatever APB had been put out on my loafers had yielded no resultsthe hotel decided to take things ﬁrmly in its hands, so to speak: I would be permitted to walk through the lobby in my socks, indeed to check out without my shoes, so as to accompany a bellboy (the only dark face I’d seen in the place) to a Benny’s shoe store in a nearby mall. Outside, as I hopped and hobbled through the lobby with my suitcase, stood a long stretch limo.
And so the day went on and on, and as the time of my check-in drew closer, I and the poor bellboy plodded glumly around a shoe shop, looking for something other than the light. At last, in order to bring the ordeal to a close, I alighted on a pair of hundred- dollar leather boots to replace the sixteen-dollar shoes that had disappeared, hardly caring that they were several sizes too large (and inelegant besides). Travel, as they say, proﬁts not just the soul.
This is a trivial incident, of course, and one that could happen almost anywhere. And yet it bears out how travel writing can arise out of the least dramatic places and episodes, and how it is quickened, often, when things go wrong; when one falls between the cracks of one’s itinerary and tumbles out of the guidebook altogether. It also can be a form of sneaking up on truth through the back entrance.
While I was traveling around Atlanta (to write about it), I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Center, and Fulton County Stadium.
But what seemed most characteristic, both about the city and about my experience of it, was that moment that wouldn’t be found in any travel guide: the lone black worker in a place that prides itself on propriety, the collapse of simple services in a hotel that stands on highest ceremony, the elaborate atonement for what had only been a minor mistake. Besides, I’d never been inn a stretch limo before.
Does such random anecdotage count as “American travel writing” (especially when it comes from someone born in Oxford, England, to Indian pparents and living in Japan)? Probably noooot. But as someone born in Oxford, England, to Indian parents and living in Japan, I’ve long been interested in what constitutes the distinctly “American” component of American travel writing. Travel writing anywhere involves an extension of the passing into something more durable, and the elaboration of an incident that would be humdrum at home into something that is revealing both of setting and of self. Yet at a time when America is largely dominant in the ﬁelds of the English-language novel and serious nonﬁction, we often look across the Atlantic when we’re in search of classic travel writing. This is in part, no doubt, because the English, living in the national equivalent of a small town, have to go abroad to see the world; an American can sample most of the world’s landscapes, both cultural and natural, without leaving his own country (nearly all the world’s climatic zones can be found in Hawaii alone). But more than that, it speaks to some sense that the English, among others, have long been able to take the world as their backyard, even their private property; Americans are still more innocent abroad.
This perception is doubly curious insofar as America, in its modern form, was founded by travelers (is named after a traveler, indeed)and travelers with a vengeance, as well as with a mission: from its earliest colonial origins, America has been a country for pilgrims longing to draw closer to their God. The centuries have passed and we may think ourselves now on a different planet from that of the early settlers, and yet this sense of searchingand a corresponding sense of a vast wilderness ready to overwhelm us in all directions (“America is a land of wonders,” as de Tocqueville wrote)has remained to this day the driving impulse of American travel writing.
In 1939, deﬁning American literature as a whole, Philip Rahv devised a famous distinction between the “paleface” and the “redskin”: the one drawn to the high reﬁnements of the Old World he had ostensibly left behind, the other attracted to the boisterous vitality of the frontier. Though the distinction was aimed at poetry and ﬁction, it applies most pungently, perhaps, to American travel writing, which even now seems, with one foot, to be wandering off in the direction of Henry James (or Frances Mayes), and with the other toward Mark Twain (or P. J. O’Rourke). Open almost any travel magazine in America today and you will ﬁnd elegant paeans to Paris, say, or Kyoto, cheek by jowl with rowdier stuff about getting drunk in Costa Rica or busted in Bangkok. Often the most interesting pieces, in which you can hear a truly distinctive American voice, are those in which someone combines the extremes to come up with what might be called an anarchic voyage of the soul: Henry Miller, for example, in his exuberant and often radiant travel classic about Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi.
This is all a huge simpliﬁcation, of course, and yet it does help to lay down a cartography for what is the distinctively American contribution to this global form. Restlessness is part of the American wayit’s part of what brought many of the rest of us to America, in factand it’s no coincidence that Americans invented the car culture, more or less, ﬂy more passenger miles than the rest of the world combined, and were the ﬁrst to put their people on the moon. Even in the early days of the republic, Abigail Adams, wife of John, was referring to her fellow citizens, wittily, as “the mobility.” And at almost the same time, one of the ﬁrst ofﬁcial American travel writers, William Bartram, roaming around the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida in 1791, was striking the same note his ancestors might have done: the whole world, he wrote, was “a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator,” and just to transcribe its details was to give voice to a song of praise.
When these two impulses coincided, America gave the world Emerson, Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson, great travelers all, who found “transports” and far-off cultures and even glimpses of eternity without straying very far from home.
Thus, whether of the New England or the Montana school, as you could call them, or whether just a sui generis master such as S. J. Perelman, the American travel writer has at once looked for a kind of light and been glad to ﬁnd it near to hand. For decades, while the British were exploring Africa or Afghanistan or, for that matter, America itself, Americans were charting the vast wilderness around them and, in the process, asking questions of themselves (and making discoveries) that weren’t so common among Victoria’s men and women. FromWalt Whitman, who found in the open road a perfect modeland vesselfor the new democracy (and, with Thoreau, among others, began to expound a whole philosophy of vagabondage), to Jack Kerouac, with his sweet reveries, to Annie Dillard, with her hard-won epiphanies, the spiritual component of American travel writing has never been far from the surface; America’s explorations have been metaphysical in a way that travel seldom is for writers from the Old World. American travel writing pushes and prods, you could say, where English often saunters (and French dilates); American travel writing is impatient for a resolution that older countries may have given up on. The English traveler still carries himself often at a small distance from the place he’s exploring and is seldom naked in the way an Edward Hoagland or a Jon Krakauer might be. There is in American travel writing still, I think, an element of Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, and an American in India might not content himself so readily with, say, the whimsical amusements of Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday.
The Englishman, in my experience, is often traveling for a lark, on holiday or just to escape the boredoms of home; the American, in many cases, is on a mission, and is venturing his very being (and those Englishmen who wish to undertake such a journeyChristopher Isherwood and D. H. Lawrence, for exampleoften remove themselves to America). This purposefulness can make for a kind of naiveté and an air of self-importanceas well as a frustrationin a world that is seldom eager to give itself over to our plans and projections, but it does confer a sincerity, an urgency, on American travel writing that I don’t tend to ﬁnd in the “American travel writing” of a Crcvecoeur, say, or a Fanny Trollope.
In real American travel writing, I would hazard, there’s something at stake, inwardly as well as practically; the American traveler is generally looking for something, and it may be something as profound, as essential, as himself or his salvation. The result is a prose that is less urbane often, more unguarded, even more credulous than that of the Brit, and yet there is in the air some sense of transformation.
In such great American travelers as Paul Bowles (and his descendants, Robert Stone and Don DeLillo among them), this leads to a kind of reverse transformation that is annihilation; no one has written with more pitiless clarity about the traveler who is so ready to lose himself abroad that he gets taken in entirely and cannot put the pieces together at the end. Even Henry James, whom most of us would place in the other camp, exploring the mysteries of the dinner table and the courtly silence, wrote, in The American Scene, “The il legible word, accordingly, the great inscrutable answer to questions, hangs in the vast American sky, to his imagination, as something fantastic and abracadabrant, belonging to no known language, and it is under this convenient ensign that he travels and considers and contemplates, and, to the best of his ability, enjoys.” The same James once identiﬁed Americans, as Michael Gorra reminds us here, as “passionate pilgrims.”
This all has particular value today, it seems, because for many Americans, living in a country that borders few others and at a time when only one in three fellow citizens holds a passport, travel is the only way to get a living, human sense of the world around us. The major newsmagazines (for one of which I’ve written for more than twenty years) have cut down their coverage of international affairs by as much as 70 percent in the past ﬁfteen years; and the TV networks, even as they tell us we’re living in a global neighborhood, in which the business of one place is the business of everywhere, in practice give us less and less of the most basic information about Burma, say, or Ivory Coast. A travel writer today cannot get away with describing the wondrous surfaces of Delhi or Cairo, in part because many of his readers may have been there themselves or might be about to go there tomorrow; instead, in many cases, he’s better advised to take us into some secret aspect of those placesas of a diner in Vermont or a Chinese mom-and-pop store in Sao Paulothat most of his readers lack the time or opportunity to visit. Just six weeks before the planes ﬂew into the World Trade Towers in New York, I happened to be in southern Yemen, traveling around the area near where Osama bin Laden’s home village is (and where, a few months earlier, terrorists had blown up the USS Cole). When war broke out soon thereafter, I was immeasurably grateful to be able to picture the people and the broken streets our headlines were now describing as a center of evil, and to be able to offer what ﬁrsthand reports I could to neighbors who otherwise knew nothing of Yemen except what they saw on screens.
As Thoreau wrote in his seminal essay “Walking,” with a characteristic sense of intensity, “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return.” You ﬁnd that spirit today in the likes of Peter Matthiessen and Gary Snyder. And at some point in the last century, soon after the American Empire replaced the British as the leading force in the world, American travel writing seemed to begin to get its own back on its Old World master. For me some of the most engaging travel books of recent years have been the ones written by Americans in Britain (I’m thinking in particular of Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, and Bill Buford), who have done to Britain what the British traditionally did to the rest of the world, traveling around its shores and remarking, often a little witheringly, on the strange ways and odd habitations of the natives.
Part of the fascination of much travel writing everywhere is that what used to be a simple exchangea European writing of Peru, sayis now a much richer and more complicated dialogue: a woman half-Thai and half-Californian, perhaps, living in Paris, writing of a Peru largely ﬁlled with Japanese businessmen and German tourists. Yet even in this most contemporary of forms, the best American travel writing is still lit up, I think, by that spirit of transcendence less visible abroad. “All that is necessary to make any language visible and therefore impressive is to regard it from a new point of view,” wrote John Muir, “or from the old one with our heads upside down. Then we behold a new heaven and earth and are born again, as if we had gone on a pilgrimage to some far-off Holy Land and had become new creatures with bodies inverted.” Muir might have been born in Scotland, but he came to America, I suspect, in part to ﬁnd that wisdom, and the wilderness that gave rise to it, and in the process offered a rallying cry for American travelers to this day.
When Jason Wilson, with his customary discernment, sifted out one hundred pieces from the year just past to give to me, leaving me with the difﬁcult task of choosing just twenty or so for inclu- sion here, I was looking especially for pieces that leave travel behind, and rise out of the fact of simple movement from A to B to record something deeper and more lasting. Herman Melville, after all, was one of the most celebrated travel writers of his day (using “travel writing” in the lowest sense), and yet his countrymen stopped reading him when he began venturing out on the wilder, more uncharted seas of his memory and consciousness. Now, 150 years later, what we value him for are those inner, half-mad journeys.
Many of us can get to the Marquesas and see the palmy beaches he described in his early books, but few indeed can take off on the stormy expeditions into religion and desecration that he started. Much of Paul Theroux’s most memorable and enduring travel writing likewise comes, for me, in his half-invented memoirs, in which he undertakes strikingly fearless journeys into the interior.
So my criterion, in a simple way, was to ﬁnd travel pieces that would be interesting to people who have no interest in traveland to ﬁnd accounts of Kabul or a Jersey truck stop that would appeal to people who hadn’t known they’d want to read about those places. There are some travelers, like Tim Cahill in this book, who so excel at passing on their excitement about the road that we will travel anywhere with them (Cahill almost convinces me here that the “geographic cure” has validity and, as he puts it, that “favorite places have the capacity to heal”). And yet, when we join Roger Angell in a car, or Adam Gopnik on the local bus, we see how travel can really be a part of even the most sedentary life.
Heather Eliot (whom I’ve never, sad to say, read before) takes me on a transﬁxing journey here, and never mentions the name of the place where her transformation unfolds. Michael Byers goes to a place that seems almost impossible to make newthe National Malland somehow, through clarity and attention, shows it to us as if we were looking at it for the ﬁrst time. Travel writing, I’ve come to think, is much more a matter of writing than of travelingthe hard part of the journey takes place at the deskand I realized, making this selection, that I’d rather read Philip Roth on Newark than most of the rest of us on North Korea. As Thoreau puts it, much too memorably again, “It matters not where or how far you travel, the further commonly the worse,but how much alive you are.”
On many of these trips, the American traveler, as stereotype sug- gests, opens out his self for inspection and lets us see what valuables (or illicit substances) he’s carrying around with him, declared or otherwise; the revelations in this book are often internal ones. But at the same time, American travel writing has found itself willy-nilly more global than before, as we’ve been reminded, often shockingly, how much our destiny is bound up with that of Sudan or Herat. Travel writing is not merely foreign correspondency in muftiwar stories by other meansand yet it has new obligations in an age when we’re persuaded that Kashmir and Congo are not just places on the far side of the world. The most distinguished writers of place, in my bookfrom Jan Morris and V. S. Naipaul to Ryszard Kapuscinskioffer us not just a ﬁrst draft of history but an early glimpse at tomorrow.
The other difﬁcult thing about making the selection here was that all of us are travel writers when we go on holiday, much as we are all travel photographers when we inﬂict our slides (or digicam images) on the neighbors; unlike the Petrarchan sonnet or the postmodern novel, travel writing is something everyone seems to do, when e-mailing a friend or writing a ﬁfth-grade assignment on “what I did on my summer vacation.” It is hard to do well precisely because it is so easy to do passably. Yet reading some of the pieces in this book, I was reminded that there are many writers aroundJohn McPhee, Peter Hessler, Bill McKibben, to name but threewho can make a simple vacant lot come to life. Even if, contrary to my original assertion, they’re not looking for the light at all.
Copyright © 2004 by Houghton Mifflin. Introduction copyright © 2004 by Pico Iyer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Meet the Author
JASON WILSON, series editor, is the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits and the digital wine series Planet of the Grapes. He has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Daily News, and many other publications. He is the founding editor of The Smart Set and Table Matters.
- Place of Birth:
- Oxford, England, UK
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