The Best American Travel Writing 2006by Tim Cahill, Jason Wilson
Tim Cahill writes in his introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2006, "'Story' is the essence of the travel essay. Stories are the way we organize the chaos in our lives, orchestrate voluminous factual material, and -- if we are very good -- shed some light on the human condition." Here are twenty-six pieces that showcase the best travel writing from
Tim Cahill writes in his introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2006, "'Story' is the essence of the travel essay. Stories are the way we organize the chaos in our lives, orchestrate voluminous factual material, and -- if we are very good -- shed some light on the human condition." Here are twenty-six pieces that showcase the best travel writing from 2005, filled with "keen observations that transform ordinary journeys into extraordinary ones" (Library Journal).
Mark Jenkins journeys into a forgotten valley in Afghanistan, Kevin Fedarko takes a wild ride through the rapids of the Grand Canyon, and Christopher Solomon reports on the newest fad to hit South Korea: downhill skiing. For David Sedaris, a seemingly routine domestic flight is cause for a witty rumination on modern airline travel. Alain de Botton describes the discreet charms of Zurich, and Ian Frazier recalls leaving the small Midwestern town he called home. Michael Paterniti gives a touching portrait of the world's tallest man -- eight and a half feet and growing, while P.J. O'Rourke visits an airplane manufacturer to see firsthand how the French make the world's biggest passenger plane. George Saunders is dazzled by a trip to the "Vegas of the Middle East," Rolf Potts takes on tantric yoga for dilettantes, and Sean Flynn documents a seedier side of travel -- the newest hotspot in the international sex trade.
Culled from a wide variety of publications, these stories, as Cahill writes, all "touched me in one way or another, changed an attitude, made me laugh aloud, or provided fuel for my dreams. I wish the reader similar joys."
Read an Excerpt
Several decades ago, when I first started publishing travel books, it was necessary to look for a knowledgeable clerk to help find my tomes when they hit the stores. I might find my latest darlings under “current events” or “new nonfiction” or “humor.” There weren’t “travel writing” aisles in major bookstores. You could find travel guides, but not “travel writing.” All that has changed in the last dozen years or so. Bookstores have discovered that there are such things as the travel essay, the travel book, and now some stores actually specialize in travel writing. This has led me to conclude that there are now a lot more writers who specialize in travel, and, concurrently, many more readers interested in reading those writers. We seem to be in a golden age of American travel writing and may actually be closing in on some of the great English travel writers who wrote timeless books and essays in the age of Empire and just after. (This is an arguable proposition and one that, I admit, may well be an inexcusable overstatement.) There was, of course, a hiccup in demand and production just after the events of September 11, 2001, but I sense that, lately, both output and demand have picked up considerably. Magazines are once again assigning writers to seek out remote and sometimes dangerous locations, or to come back with new insights concerning more familiar areas.
In the magazines that assign such work, the word “article” is never used. One writes a “piece” or sometimes, “a story.” It is the latter definition that I prefer.
My own opinion is that “story” is the essence of the travel essay. Stories are the way we organize the chaos in our lives, orchestrate voluminous factual material, and — if we are very good — shed some light on the human condition, such as it is.
I realize that there are many very good travel writers, people who interview this person and that, eliciting contrasting views in the manner of a good daily reporter, and those fine writers did not find their way into this book, due entirely to my own prejudice in the matter. Information is of immense value, but if I can’t find a story, I often feel I’m being beaten over the head with an encyclopedia. Stories are the sole written instruments that can bring tears to our eyes, or make us laugh, or even — God forbid — compel us to think, and thereby perhaps even take a position.
Additionally, they’re generally more fun to read. (In my entirely biased opinion.) So in choosing “pieces” for this anthology, I’ve looked for the best stories I could find and was brutal in eliminating purely informational material. There is a controversy in the travel writing community concerning such matters. One argument has it that “the reader wants to read about his trip, not yours.” I’m not so sure. Readers want to read, which means they want something that holds their attention. They want to be entertained and informed and amused. If they are reading for information only, modern travelers are blessed with any number of guidebooks, and these volumes seem to become better and more informative every year.
But in travel writing, story is of the essence. And if the narrative in question inspires the reader to visit the destination in question, so much the better. I know from letters I’ve received, from conversations I’ve had at writing seminars and book signings, that some of my own stories have inspired readers to undertake journeys similar to my own. Hell, certain adventure travel companies have made places I’ve written about long ago catalogue destinations, and at least one guidebook followed a trip I took years ago, informing independent travelers how to emulate that peculiar journey without encountering the multitude of dead ends and frustrations that my own party encountered. A hearty traveler, book in hand, could in ten days make the trip that took my party the better part of a month.
Guidebooks are about logistics; stories arise from the heart, and are the essence of travel. Ask anyone who has just returned from a trip how it went, and you are not likely to get directions. You’ll hear stories. In this book, our storytellers have blundered across the globe and come back with essays and articles that I hope will make you laugh, cry, think, and perhaps dream. Or at least that is what we as travel writers like to believe, and often state aloud in the many conferences devoted to travel writing that take place across the United States every year. New such workshops and seminars are springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
These are generally invigorating for both the writers and the attendees who would like to be travel writers. The established writers are forced to think abouut how and why they do what they do, matters I generally never contemplate. As a matter of fact, most writers, meeting casually, do not tttttalk about “the process,” or “narrative arch” or the complications of carpentering together a scene.
What we talk about is how we were financially sodomized by this publisher or that, and how the latest editor went goose-stepping through our sinuous prose.
I suspect the conferences are the only time we think about what we do, and in the dozens I’ve attended, it is instructive to watch established literary travel writers oscillate between self-congratulation and self-hate. On the one hand, there is a tendency to imagine that what we do is important and that encouraging people to travel promotes tolerance and understanding. As Mark Twain, who spent much of his early newspaper career as a “foreign correspondent,” said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” My sense is that most of the writers here would be in agreement.
So we like to think of ourselves as emissaries for world peace, for the convergence of cultures, for international harmony, and, by extension, the end of cultural disharmony and even war. If folks are encouraged to travel our route, so much the better; but if they choose to experience the culture from the comfort of a La-Z-Boy, it is of no matter.
We, as travel writers, will pat ourselves on the back. Maybe we haven’t cured cancer or come up with an AIDS vaccine, but we’ve gone to the ends of the earth, almost always on OPM (Other People’s Money: the only good-sized hunks of cash most travel writers get to see), and we can congratulate ourselves that we labor in the cause of understanding and world peace.
The fact that cultures are still in mortal conflict and that world peace is yet a fantasy suggests that either we are dead wrong, or that we still have a lot of work to do.
On the other hand, many of us are consumed with a sort of gentle self-loathing and generally bristle at being called travel writers. Most of the writers you will read here did not aspire to travel as a career. I didn’t. We like to think of ourselves as writers first, travelers second. We started out as novelists, narrative nonfiction writers, creative journalists, daily journalists, technical writers. And somehow, one day, in the midst of a personality profile or political piece or the explication of a current crime, some trick of fate, generally in the person of a cruel editor, sent us on an assignment that required travel, and we nailed the story. And that led to a second such assignment, and a third. And suddenly, much to our mystification, we became known as travel writers.
The majority of those in my occupation, I imagine, would rather be known as writers who, for reasons not totally explicable, find their best subject matter somewhere beyond the front door.
In contrast, the persons we teach or speak to at various seminars actually want to be travel writers. They ask if you need to be in impressive shape to write well about physically difficult assignments, or whether it is necessary to speak several languages, or to be of this gender or that to accomplish certain tasks.
And what we tell them is: no, you have to want to be a writer and you have to write. Period.
Now, it might be supposed that people who attend such workshops, are, on the whole, hopeless wannabes. This is decidedly not the case. I am literally astonished at the number of people who’ve absorbed the message and gone on to a career in publishing. Indeed, I can think of one such former student whose last book was a national bestseller. I know doctors, judges, plumbers, and airline stewards — all former workshop attendees — who publish travel material regularly in a variety of venues.
Maybe these are the folks who will truly generate the golden age of American travel writing, bring harmony to the world, put an end to ecological devastation, and make bagloads of money in the process. God knows their teachers haven’t accomplished these things.
So, what is it I tell prospective travel writers? The rules are simple enough: get your facts straight and tell us a story. Facts first: I was once taken to task by a reviewer who felt “literature” did not define my work. I was instead, he proclaimed, “a high-level journalist,” in the manner, I suppose, that certain mentally or physically challenged individuals function at a high level. In point of fact, I found the charge flattering. A high-level journalist is one whose facts are unassailable.
That is our job, but it goes further. To enter into the realm of literature — or even aspire to it — requires that the writer present a coherent narrative of value and insight. There is a story to be told, a bit of the world to be organized in a fashion that can make us laugh or cry, or preferably both.
The differences are easy enough to see. When I was an editor at a travel magazine, I could generally tell when a piece would be a storyless compendium of facts, like a ship’s log. They usually began with the date, and a plane landing on a quaint runway somewhere all to hell and gone. It seemed to me that the writer had simply submitted his or her journal, and I knew that I’d be reading facts and observations entirely devoid of story. It is story that elevates the material. By contrast, a manuscript that is, in essence, the traveler’s journal is one in which the writer has failed to analyze the material. Reading these manuscripts is like those interminable nights spent at your neighbor’s house viewing several hundred unedited slides of his latest vacation.
I should say that there were many well-written Internet pieces among the stories I was asked to review here. Those that were written on a daily basis — reports from the field — were often impressively literate, nimble, and highly immediate. But the writer had no time to contemplate the entirety of the experience. Such reports, written daily on a tight schedule, may have risen to a high-level journalism, but they necessarily lacked narrative. I have written such pieces myself and wish now that I could go back and “write” them, because there was often an overarching story that I wasn’t aware existed until I studied my notes.
This volume contains a few “pieces” that might be termed adventure travel. Kevin Fedarko’s piece on the Grand Canyon comes to mind. There are those who consider outdoor literature a separate genre. Not travel writing at all. I believe that writing about nature, or exploration or adventure in all its guises, can, in fact, be compelling and literate. This was not always the case in America. In 1975, I and several others were asked to come up with an idea for an “outdoor” magazine. We reviewed all potential competitors and found that — with the exception of a magazine called Mountain Gazette — outdoor writing was confined to what is called service articles: a canoeing magazine might tell its readers how best to paddle a canoe. Twelve times a year.
Adventure articles were the province of magazines with titles like Saga or Man’s Adventure or Adventure for Men, and the stories themselves — titled “I Survived the Savage Coyotes of Montana” — seemed, well, subliterate and written to appeal to a barbershop clientele. Kira Salak proves here that adventure is not the sole province of men, and that an adventure can be not only exciting but also evocative, literate, and informative. Oh yeah, and true.
Back in 1975, other outdoor magazine startups, now defunct, were firmly based in an earnest ecological niche, and the writers for those sincere efforts tended to elucidate issues by shaking their fingers in the readers’ faces. Pieces consisted of facts devoid of story all wrapped around the idea that an ecological Armageddon was just around the corner, and it was your fault.
The magazine I was involved with did not have a particular horse to flog. Our idea — simplicity itself — was to produce a periodical that contained literate writing about the out-of-doors. This was considered a moronic idea by journalism pundits who explained, in critical articles, that people who went out-of-doors were, by their very nature, subliterate, knuckle- dragging mouth-breathers.
That was largely my fault, I think. Early on, I had argued that adventure could be part of the mix. My colleagues demurred. Adventure was in the realm of barbershop reading. My response was that outdoor and adventure literature is, in fact, American literature, and always has been. James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Faulkner, Thoreau, Hemingway were all outdoor writers of a sort. It is a great stain that runs through classic American literature. The stories in Adventure for Men did serve this tradition well.
So we had adventure stories in the new magazine, and we took a little heat for it. An unintended, but important, side effect was that we were also able to write about ecological issues, but in a story form that held the reader’s interest and enlisted him or her in a conspiracy of caring. No finger shaking.
There is another sort of adventure included in this volume. You don’t see a lot of erotica in travel writing. In fact, you don’t see any. My friend, Don George, the global editor at Lonely Planet, once asked various writers to contribute to a book he wanted to call The Erotic Traveler. Few of us were able to dredge up a suitable story. Nobody wants to get naked in front of several hundred thousand strangers, for one thing. For another, sexual encounters between well-heeled travelers and impoverished people in developing countries feels . . . well, wrong.
This year, someone got it right, as you will see in Rolf Potts’s story about Tantric yoga for dilettantes.
Other stories here literally take place in the writer’s neighborhood, which validates several points I’ve been trying to make. Several years ago, Bill Bryson made the point that travel writing is a forgiving genre: once you walk out the front door, you’re traveling. And I have an ongoing preference: I’d rather read a well-written piece — a story — about a picnic in the back yard than another addled account of someone’s attempt to do cartwheels across the breadth of Turkmenistan.
More to the point: Ian Frazier’s memoir about leaving home draws a picture of a midwestern town some forty years ago. Such stuff may be exotic to a person living in Japan, but it was very close to my own experience growing up in my own midwestern town. Despite my familiarity with the subject, the piece is so gracefully written, so spot-on accurate, that I felt that pleasurable prickly sensation that I believe academics call the “shock of recognition.” Meanwhile, Pico Iyer writes, charmingly, about his own neighborhood, which happens to be in Japan and is totally foreign to me. Both writers simply stepped out the front door: Frazier figuratively, Iyer literally.
I’m sure some may argue that various pieces here are not precisely “travel writing.” I’m thinking of Michael Paterniti’s story, which does, indeed, take us to the Ukraine but is what many might consider a personality profile. The personality in question is what we used to call “a trip” in itself. The author takes us to a very sad and strange place, and if someone wants to argue about whether this story is indeed travel writing, they’re too late. It’s too good. I’ve already claimed it for the genre.
Among the stories I read in compiling this anthology, there were many about airplanes. David Sedaris expresses the majority view. Air travel these days is a dreaded abhorrence, especially for those of us who suffer in these flying metal cattle cars for a living. I felt that too many of the airplane pieces were merely foul-tempered rants. Not that Sedaris’s effort isn’t as well. The saving grace is that it is very funny indeed.
I’ve included Sally Shivnan’s piece on getting a window seat because it was the sole contrarian view of air travel, and because it was written in such a lovely manner that I almost swallowed my own biased opinion. (Note to airline executives the world over: I’m sending each of you a packet of stories, all written by professional travelers, and all suggesting that your industry is in deep trouble.) One more note on air travel and humor: P. J. O’Rourke can take us to an airplane-manufacturing company and make us see dozens of things we didn’t think we were much interested in, not because of the narrative thrust in the story — there is almost none — or his inner journey (he says certain issues make him question his freemarket principles, but clearly the question dies). No, we read and learn because P. J. makes us laugh. That’s his virtue, and that’s why you will read, with unexpected pleasure, about how French people make a real big airplane.
There are, I hope, unexpected pleasures here. Caitlin Flanagan’s understated humor compels us to read about a place I could not have imagined could have produced such a lively and charming story. We follow Mark Jenkins on what appears to be and is a pure adventure and yet we end up learning something very valuable about education in what has become a war of cultures. Tom Bissell and Morgan Meis give us a shivery tale of justified paranoia; Chitrita Banerji explicates Indian culture for us using food as a focus; Patrick Symmes writes about fishing in Mongolia but the story turns intensely personal. Alain de Botton encourages us to see the bourgeois of Zurich as admirable and somehow makes what is generally considered boring, fascinating. Calvin Trillin discusses language school and soup in such a manner that you’ll want to try both.
So what we have here is a collection of twenty-six stories, all of which touched me in one way or another, changed an attitude, made me laugh aloud, or provided fuel for my dreams. I wish the reader similar joys.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2006 by Tim Cahill. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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.
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