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Join author Brad Herzog as he marvels at a castle in Versailles,
visits a guru in Calcutta, discovers a descendant of King David in Jerusalem, and more — all without leaving the United States.
Small World is acclaimed travel writer Brad Herzog's unique tribute to the Land of the Free, featuring a world of stories culled along America's highways and byways. From Rome (Oregon) to Athens (New York), from Moscow (Maine) to Mecca (California), ...
Join author Brad Herzog as he marvels at a castle in Versailles,
visits a guru in Calcutta, discovers a descendant of King David in Jerusalem, and more — all without leaving the United States.
Small World is acclaimed travel writer Brad Herzog's unique tribute to the Land of the Free, featuring a world of stories culled along America's highways and byways. From Rome (Oregon) to Athens (New York), from Moscow (Maine) to Mecca (California), Herzog embarks on a fascinating journey into the nooks and crannies of the nation — tiny towns struggling to live up to their grandiose names. Shattering the notion that distance alone translates to wonder, this perpetual traveler probes everything from the dark history of Congo (Ohio) to the residue of slavery along the great river in Cairo (Illinois). He encounters a cast of characters as varied as the landscape — devout ranchers and devoted nudists, miners and migrants, artists and activists, hillbillies, hippies, hermits, and Hare Krishnas.
Herzog brings to bear the same sense of humor and acute observations that made States of Mind a hit, and discovers that there is, indeed, a fascinating world right in our own backyard. The hamlets in Herzog's Small World are full of cultural curiosities, historical wonders, and exotic folks — and you don't even need a passport to get there.
It was a place immersed in unreality.
And there I was, staring down at a dwindling pile of play money atop a faux felt blackjack table, sipping a watered-down drink served by a woman with silicone breasts and collagen-puffed lips, suffering disingenuous banter with false companions and insincere sympathy from a dealer wearing fake fingernails to match her smile, surrounded by bent and bleary-eyed folks reflexively dropping quarters into slot machines with illusory names like Life of Luxury and Carnival of Wonders, all in the pursuit of unattainable jackpot dreams.
Ah, Reno, Nevada. God bless America!
I had arrived there, appropriately, along a trail blazed by greed -- I-80 through the Sierra Nevada, once the site of hundreds of mining camps with names like Poker Flat and Gouge Eye. Just over a century-and-a-half earlier, a man named Johann Augustus Sutter had trodden much the same trail. Like me, he had been in his mid-thirties and had set off from California's Monterey Peninsula toward lands unknown, dreaming of great discovery. But the similarities end there. He found gold by his sawmill, launched the great Gold Rush, and eventually died penniless. Nowadays, the gold seekers go to Reno. This is where I began my hunt for the sociological equivalent of buried treasure -- at a point of embarkation as artificial as neon in the desert.
There was a campground alongsidethe casino, but it was a KOA carved out of a parking lot. There was a lake alongside the lot, but it was a man-made lake, designed as a target for golfers at a driving range. And there was live music blaring from an outdoor amphitheater nearby, where I glimpsed a stage backed by a massive Confederate flag and heard the familiar opening guitar pick of "Sweet Home Alabama." But it was still only an approximation of the real thing. The soul of Lynyrd Skynyrd had died in an airplane crash a quarter-century earlier. This was simulated Skynyrd, the remnants of the band, a sound soon replaced by a cacophony of electronic bells and whistles and crap-game shouts.
Later, my pockets lighter, I left the casino and returned to the fresh air of a July evening grown cooler. The band was still on stage, and I stood there for a moment, listening. It was the quiet between songs, and I could hear voices shouting requests into the night: "Freebird! Freebird!" Then came the tinkling of a piano, answered by the wail of an electric guitar and the roar of an arena.
"If I leave here tomorrow...will you still remember me?...I must be traveling on now...'Cuz there's too many places I've got to see...."
This was hardly a setting for poignancy, yet there it was.
Mine was a journey undertaken with some misgivings. A few days earlier, I had bid farewell to my wife and two little boys, as they boarded an airplane that would take them from California toward a summer with the grandparents in Chicago. I had become a father twice-over in the past twenty months, an experience that tends to shrink your world by focusing your priorities. But for me, it had also become an occasion for large-scale assessment. Into what kind of world did I bring my children? What were the neighbors like (the neighborhood being a continent wide)? Hence, this journey.
I had planned an itinerary that would take me through Chicago a couple of times, allowing me to see my family every few weeks. Still, I wondered if this trip was the right thing to do. I could only hope that someday my sons would understand that their father had to leave them for a while one summer because he was on a mission to take stock of their world. Perhaps they would someday see the attempt as a lesson in exploration. Maybe they would follow in my footsteps -- take the road less traveled, try to understand the overlooked, shift the boulder to discover the teeming life beneath it.
Or not. But as long as they remember to call...
It struck me as an interesting time to take on the responsibility of parenting. As my expedition began, many of the nation's other iconic institutions were reeling. The once-venerated U.S. intelligence community had become fodder for late-night TV monologues. A stunning series of Wall Street scandals had revealed that some of the highest floors of corporate America were inhabited by some of the lowest forms of life. The stock market was in a freefall. Leaders of the Catholic Church had forsaken their flock, choosing the status quo over the safety of children. And baseball -- geez, baseball -- was dominated by talk of steroids and work stoppages and Ted Williams' children arguing over what to do with his lifeless body. At any moment I expected to hear that apple pie causes cancer.
There was a collective crisis of confidence in those entrusted with our safety, our money, our faith, our future. And hovering above it all was a big bold headline that trumped the rest -- AMERICA UNDER ATTACK -- along with the daily apprehension that the words still applied.
Following the shock of 9/11 the great majority of Americans reveled in allegiance to country, more so than at any time in the past half-century. It may be a mess of a place at the moment, we said, but it's our mess, and we'll defend it. Ask what we were defending, however, and the usual reply offered only sound bites and vague abstractions. Listening to the typical American describe the provenance of his patriotism is a bit like listening to a book report by an eighth-grader who read only the back cover. A great many patriots have largely lost touch with America.
There is an irony of scale. The modern world is small, indeed. We send faxes to Tokyo and emails to Madrid. We retrieve television signals from Belfast and Beijing. In no time in history have we been more familiar with more places than we are now. But as the world's size diminishes, so too has our familiarity with places closer to home.
Like a New Yorker who hasn't gotten around to visiting the Statue of Liberty, Americans tend to take the neighborhood for granted. We translate distance to wonder -- the longer the journey, the greater the destination. In the process, we seem to be missing the trees for the forest. How many U.S. citizens have been to India, but not Indiana? How many have vacationed in the south of France, but couldn't find South Dakota on a map if you spotted them North Dakota? Indeed, I would bet that there are a great many Americans who have never actually seen the amber waves of grain.
Disregard for the nation's so-called flyover spaces has become such a coastal and urban reflex that America has become merely a patchwork quilt of stereotypes and rumors. Whole regions have become punch lines. I recall a joke from Saturday Night Live in which a Weekend Update anchor related a sordid and absurd news story about someone from a rural region, and then she said simply, "And that's the news from Tennessee." The audience howled. Sure, most in the New York crowd had never had an actual conversation with a blues singer in Memphis or a banker in Chattanooga or an antiques dealer in Gatlinburg. But, oh, that backward-ass Tennessee!
Some months later, Fox Television, which never met a bar it couldn't lower, came up with a show called The Simple Life in which notoriously spoiled hotel-chain heiress Paris Hilton and an equally pampered friend were "forced" to spend a few weeks in Altus, Arkansas (pop. 817). It could be argued that half the country's population lives in a place much like Altus. But to Hollywood, it is a culture so foreign that it is akin to being stranded on an island: Survivor: The Ozarks.
Likewise, I came across a cartoon in The New Yorker depicting a car racing along the highway, clearly in one of those places deemed the Middle of Nowhere. On the side of the road was a lonely sign announcing, your own tedious thoughts next 200 miles. The implication: There's nothing out there, and any place without Starbucks and sushi bars is unworthy of exploration.
The problem isn't that many Americans don't know what's out there. It's that they don't care. This attitude has become endemic. In schools, geography appears to be going the way of Latin. A 2002 National Geographic survey of college-aged Americans found that only half could locate New York on a map. One in ten couldn't even find Texas or, when given a blank world map, the United States itself.
On the bright side, apparently people are beginning to, as Paul Simon put it, "look for America" again. September 11th was quickly christened The Day That Changed The Nation, but look around. Detached irony didn't die. The political arena is as partisan as it ever has been. We seem to have learned few lessons about global cooperation or the futility of violence or the excesses of religious fundamentalism. It didn't even take long for folks to start complaining about overzealous airport security. But one thing has happened: People are increasingly taking to the road. Blame flying fears, perhaps, but the road trip seems to have emerged as a comforting option, an exodus from urban angst. Or maybe we're beginning to realize the benefit of exploring that which we're defending.
We understand our world by expanding our reach, and it begins with the small world close to home. So I decided to hit the highway in an effort to explore the real America. Not the America of tabloids and talk shows, not the America of post-9/11 should-be and could-be, but the America that is and long has been -- wonder and warts and all.
Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" is one of those tunes that masquerades as a ballad in the early going, then shifts into hard rock mode. As I listened and the song segued into a frenzied guitar solo, I was transported to another reflection, to summer camp in the North Woods a quarter-century earlier. Once each July, an eager group of us campers would grab our racquets and race down to the tennis courts knowing there was no tennis on the agenda. Instead, a counselor would flip a tape into a cassette player, and southern rock's anthem would waft into the Wisconsin sky.
" 'Cuz I'm as free as a bird now...and this bird you'll never change...."
By the time the song played out, a few dozen sweaty eleven-year-olds would have air-guitared our hearts out. None of us knew who the hell Lynyrd Skynyrd was. Half of us thought it was some guy named Leonard. But we tried hard -- a little Chuck Berry here, a Pete Townsend there, maybe a Mick strut or an Elvis snarl. And we improvised. I distinctly remember wearing my racquet cover on my head. The best performer of the evening was usually awarded an ice cream bar, an unmatched prize in summer camp, where sugar is like gold. But I was never much interested in the ice cream. I reveled in the experience. On that night I could aspire to greater things. Like being a preteen Jewish lead guitarist in a band of good ol' boys.
Such was the subtext of my journey -- humble American aspirations. New York City may be the cultural center of the world and the nerve center of a nation, but it isn't the heart of America. For that one needs to head for the wide-open spaces and quirky crossroads that many folks speed past or fly over in a hurry to get to somewhere else. The United States is less a melting pot than a masterpiece of pointillism, a dot painting defined not by the broad strokes of mainstream media and metropolitan muscle, but by the smallest dots on the map. The colors blend from a distance; they stand out boldly from up close. If you want to understand America, you have to connect the dots.
Reno calls itself "the biggest little city in the world." I would take it one step further. There is a world of stories along the American highway, so I decided to attempt a global expedition of sorts -- Magellan in microcosm. My itinerary included visits to hamlets with names like Cairo and Calcutta, Athens and Amsterdam, Paris and Prague. It was merely a means to an end, an excuse to canvas the country. My hypothesis: One can find the fascinating, the exotic, the eccentric and eclectic in one's own backyard.
You just have to squint a little.
In Jules Verne's classic, Around the World in 80 Days, protagonist Phileas Fogg completed his arduous trek by rail, by steamship, even by elephant. I was shooting for fifty days in a state-of-the-art RV. I am of the opinion, once articulated by Howard Vincent O'Brien, that discomfort can be endured but should be avoided. My twenty-one-foot Winnebago Rialta offered well-designed self-sufficiency (bed, toilet, microwave, refrigerator, freezer) and a Volkswagen engine powerful enough to let me reach triple digits on the speedometer -- if I were so inclined. All in all, it's what James Bond would drive if Her Majesty's Secret Service ever sent him to Yellowstone. Verne's description of Fogg well described my vehicle: "an enigmatical personage" who "talked very little and seemed all the more mysterious for his taciturn manner." So I named him Phileas, and we got along famously.
Still, I identified less with Verne than with a contemporary of his -- Mark Twain. More than once, Twain lugged his uniquely American perspective around the world, passing through, as he put it, "the strangest, funniest, undreamt-of old towns." His were some of the earliest travel narratives, accounts sprinkled with insight and amazement and scorn and disillusion and bemusement. I expected to experience the same range of emotions closer to home. Along the way, I hoped to gather some historical perspective, something that also seems to be increasingly foreign to many Americans.
A friend of mine tells a story about parking himself at an overlook at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He watched as a young boy and his father peered over the edge and marveled at how the Colorado River carved out such massiveness.
"Wow! How long did it take, Dad?" asked the boy, staring at the canyon formed over the epochs.
"Son," said the father, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder and standing tall while imparting his knowledge, "it took hundreds of years."
Somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost a grasp of time and place, a sense of the scope of things. I aimed to tighten my grip. It has been said that tourists leave home to escape the world, while travelers aim to experience it. Let me be a traveler then, an innocent abroad. Let me take to the open road and allow myself those rare moments devoted only to reflection. Let me watch a motion picture of America unfold before me, stop the film intermittently and enter the celluloid. Let me trek to the so-called Middle of Nowhere and ask myself how I got here, while maybe learning how we all did.
Geography is the residue of time, and every small town tells a tale. The towns come and go, their stories often fleeting and easily lost, like candles flickering in the wind. If I could save a few flames still smoldering off the beaten path, so much the better. Of course, every tale is at the mercy of the teller's state of mind. Or as Twain put it following his final global excursion, "The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice."
Let this be mine.
Copyright 2004 by Brad Herzog
Excerpted from Small World by Brad Herzog Copyright © 2004 by Brad Herzog. Excerpted by permission.
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Oh Give Me a Home...Rome, Oregon
Privy to the Dream...Amsterdam, Montana
Under Prairie Skyscrapers...Vienna, South Dakota
Polka Dot...Prague, Nebraska
Xander, Fun and the One-Armed Man...London, Wisconsin
All You Need is Louvre...Paris and Versailles, Kentucky
The Naked Truth...Athens, New York
Siberian Blues...Moscow and Siberia, Maine
Chants and Hollers...Calcutta, West Virginia
The Legacy of Black Diamonds...Congo, Ohio
Let My People Go...Cairo, Illinois
Searching for King David...Jerusalem, Arkansas
Forever Mine...Bagdad, Arizona
Desert Pilgrims...Mecca, California
Epilogue: Sequoiadendron Giganteum
Posted April 12, 2004
Brad Herzog takes readers on a descriptive tour of ¿famous¿ locations such as Athens, Jerusalem, Moscow, Mecca, Congo, London, Cambridge, Baghdad, Rome, etc without crossing any ocean. One wonders how Mr. Herzog accomplished his feat of visiting these locales yet not transverse by air or sea the Atlantic or the Pacific (except to Hawaii). Simply, he stayed inside the United States where he went from Cairo to New Madrid, Missouri or searched for David in Jerusalem, Arkansas. Mr. Herzog makes a powerful case that the states have plenty of interesting locations so that the vacationer might not ignore feeling that there is as much culture and history to absorb in Moscow, Idaho as in Moscow, Russia. The author makes the case that in deed there is plenty to see when one traces the three mile train from London to Cambridge, Illinois......................................... Small World: A Microcosmic Journey is a delightful insightful look at the vast treasures waiting for Americans within their own nation for a lot less than going overseas. The book is written in such a way so that the casual reader gets a taste of a unique locale while being able to put the book down and pick up this fine reference tome another day (I read the book over ten days). The audience will picture Kerouac and Kuralt touring together with Herzog as their driver places like Versailles and Paris......................... Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.