Great Travel Books: Road Fever by Tim Cahill

Road Fever by Tim Cahill

Coming at you from 1987, Tim Cahill’s Road Fever is worth waiting over 25 years to read. Starting at the tip of South America, Road Fever takes the reader on a frantic trip up the Pan American highway all the way to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in under twenty five days (which set a still standing record). Along with professional driver Gary Sowerby, he battles hairpin turns up winding mountain roads (where one unfortunate driver passes them and then passes on via a thousand foot drop) and endless border crossings manned by nervous, heavily armed teenagers who really enjoy pointing their automatic weapons at confused drivers. Just last summer we went on our own road trip, a six thousand mile or so seven week plus cruise. No border hassles, but we did encounter a few bears. I will take that over crossing into Nicaragua any day.

And while we generally avoid the long drives, sometimes we just have to suck it up and spend a day or two driving. It was while on one of those drives that I had an epiphany about travel time. Travel time is a triangulation of regular time, miles spent, and the miles you hope to gain. You do of course age while traveling at top speed through the interstate, but you do so at a slower rate than everything outside your vehicle. At least that’s what I tell myself when I have to ignore my bladder just to steal a few more miles from the day. Noel

Always another road

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Great Travel Books Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a great book. Like any good travel adventure it offers a bit of danger, some self-exploration, a little other-exploration (sex), and touching passages that almost made me a little weepy. Almost.

Written by Cheryl Strayed well after the fact, Wild is her memoir about ultimately traveling away from a very difficult time in her life. Faced with the relatively recent death of her mother and the loss of her marriage due to her own destructive behaviors, Cheryl decides to hike an extended portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT (as those in the know like to call it) extends from the southern desert of California to the border of Canada. Along the way the trail crests many big mountains and wanders through prime cougar and grizzly territory. Besides the constant danger of being eaten by a big cat, twisting an ankle and then starving to death, or getting lost and then starving to death, there are the locals and other folk who might not always have your best intention at heart. There is also the sheer loneliness to contend with which Cheryl mostly embraces. She also had no prior backpacking experience and never even bothered hoisting her backpack until her first day on the trail. Lessons are learned and the Cheryl who finishes the trail is not the same person who began the trail.

So I liked Wild for the thrilling adventure she tells. Corey liked it for the touching portrait Sheryl creates of her late mother. We both agree that the narrator is not always the most likeable person. I think Cheryl Strayed would probably agree with that. And although there was no mystery as to whether Cheryl made it off the trail alive (the book cover after all does not refer to her as the late Cheryl Strayed), I was eager to know if she became a better person. After reading a couple of author interviews, I think that she did. A good trip will do that. Noel

David Mamet Would Not Approve

It all came full circle last night. For Hennacornoeliday (our most awesome family holiday and namesake of this blog) Corey got me a bunch of travel oriented books that included David Mamet’s South of the Northeast Kingdom. A collection of thoughts strung together like essays then put into chapters, the book perfectly captures the magic of Mamet’s Vermont. Corey also bought herself Tenth of December by George Saunders (a clever but maybe over rated collection that seems to repeat the same short story over and over). Last Sunday the front page of the Arts and Entertainment section of the Tribune featured a fawning article on George Saunders and a piece by Chris Jones discussing David Mamet’s recent embrace of nutty NRA politics.

South of the Northeast Kingdom by David Mamet

I do not think I have ever felt cooler than I did in that moment. The Chris Jones article concerning David Mamet aluded to how surprised some of his fans are by his almost Rush Limbaugh stand on handguns. There could not have been to much of a surprise for anyone who had read his Vermont book as he frequently talks about his love of hunting and collecting guns. In that same book he slams the Bush administration for its escalating war in Iraq and Afghanistan and subtly but firmly defends same sex marriage (a hot topic in early 2000 Vermont). Above all else, however, is his fawning over hand crafted goods. Mamet is definitely a man who appreciates a sweater woven by hand and worn by generations (where the stain of human urine, used in the processing of the wool, is present for years after receiving the gift). Our own quick impressions of the state confer with Mamet. Not only are Vermont’s byways populated with an abundance of hand made goods, but the population consumes (often literally as it would be hard to find any Vermont native who admits to using Aunt Jemima over the good stuff) those same goods.

Maple Syrup works; time consuming and done with pride

Maple Syrup works; time consuming and done with pride

This brings me to the circle complete. Yesterday night on NPR I heard that Makers Mark (a favorite drink of mine) is going to dilute their product by 3% http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-02-11/news/chi-makers-mark-water-20130211_1_maker-s-mark-jim-beam-bourbon-drinkers due to an increase in demand. So, instead of allowing the market to inflate the cost of their product, a good honest one that has brought joy to many a Hennacornoeli Day celebration, they are going to cheapen it in order to make more money. They have every right to do so. But I know David Mamet would not approve and neither do I. Noel Schecter

Jim Beam, producers of Makers Mark

Jim Beam, producers of Makers Mark

Update: After a lot of angry customers weighed in, Makers Mark changed their mind and decided not to water down their product. I like to think it was this post that sealed the deal.

Great Travel Books: Orphans Preferred by Christopher Corbett

It is cold today. Not a typical summer day in San Francisco kind of cold; this is an Artic sort of not quite ten degrees but a lot colder with the wind kind of day. Maybe if I lived in Fairbanks I would not think anything of it, but in our Global Warming spoiled Chicago, this feels pretty cold. All three of us are a bit under the weather too so do not be expecting much in the way of adventure from us. Instead I bring you yet another “Great Books in Travel History.”

Orphans Preferred by Christopher Corbett

Orphans Preferred by Christopher Corbett

Orphans Preferred (by Christopher Corbett) is not the easiest read. Truth be told it took me a few starts and stops before I was able to read the thing cover to cover. Like the Pony Express itself, the book tends to cover the same ground over and over again without ever really declaring what the true facts of that endeavor were. For example, it is not yet settled as to who took that first run out of St. Joseph, MO. What is certain is that the Pony Express was never profitable and did not last very long. Also a certainty is that the true heroes of the Pony Express, men such as Pony Bob Haslam (who once rode 400 straight miles in the midst of an Indian uprising) are mostly forgotten whereas others such as Buffalo Bill (who may not have actually ever ridden for Express) are forever linked with this privately run mail enterprise.

It is in the retelling of the legend of the Pony Express that Christopher Corbett shines. I have twice spent the night in Cody, WY (a mostly Disneyesque Western themed town that William Cody created) but never understood just how popular the man was. Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show were as big as they get in his time and he extensively toured Europe and America (and even performed before most of European royalty at Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee celebration). A big part of that Wild West show was always an incredibly fictionalized account of his Pony Express experience (which in actuality may have only consisted of him feeding some horses). Hollywood later seized upon that legend and to this day the Pony Express conjures images of an untamed West filled with an adventure.

That same Hollywood West has always captured my imagination and is a big part of the magnet that draws us west most summers. Truth be told, the real west is better than the legend. It also is a lot more fun.

The Great American West

The Great American West

Great Travel Books: The Old Patagonia Express by Paul Theroux

In my opinion there are two giants among the travel writing elite; Paul Theroux and William Least-Heat Moon.  To paraphrase Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction, there are usually only two types of people in this world; fans of Paul or fans of William. Few are fans of both for the reason that they have such different styles.  Paul it seems never stops writing and is currently credited with thirty-two works of fiction and seventeen travel themed books.  William Least-Heat Moon has written just four travel narratives.  Paul has traveled and written about most everywhere including Africa, the Mediterranean, South America, India, China, the British Isles, and the South Pacific.  William’s writings have touched Canada, but otherwise have never left the continental U.S.  Both writers talk and live books in their travels and meet a lot of interesting people along the way.  But Paul talks more books and William shares more tales.  There are some similarities between the two writers.  They both began writing up their travels in their mid to late 30s (just like me!) and they both are no longer married to their first wives (hopefully never like me).

The Old Patagnoia Express by Paul Theroux

It was hard for me to pick which one of Paul Theroux’s novels is most worthy of being featured by Hennacornoelidays.  By the way, there is no more coveted nod of approval in the publishing world than the one bestowed by us.  After moments of careful considerations, I decided to go with The Old Patagonian Express.  The idea here is simple enough; leave ones door in Boston, board a commuter train to another train headed south and repeat this until one reaches the very tip of South America.  Like most of Paul’s travels, there is no real degree of difficulty in this.  If you have time, patience, and a willingness to suffer some rough travel, you too can take the trains to the very end (in this case Tierra del Fuego).  Along the way, Theroux makes some rather odd acquaintances and even gets a chance to spend some time with famed Argentinian writer Jorge Borges just prior to his death. 

This book is really Theroux at his best.  Whereas later works by Theroux sometimes feel weighted down by his almost constant literary criticisms, this book focuses more on the landscape and the people who populate it.  He also lets the reader in a little more than he does with previous books.  In his first novel The Great Railway Bazaar, for example, Paul barely hints at why he is traveling by train through Asia and Europe.  And the reader has no clue as to the marital strife this journey caused.  The Old Patagonia Express is by no means a diary.  But he does offer more of an explanation as to what inspired him to take such an audacious journey.  In fact this idea of simply taking a road to a logical end point is what makes every map a glimpse into the possible.

Great Travel Books: Alaska Challenge by Bill and Ruth Albee

Alaska Challenge might be the oddest of all the books on my shelf.  Over seventy years old, it sits wedged in between more conventional books.  Its binding is coming apart a little, but other than that it is in pretty good shape.  It was written by Bill and Ruth Albee, copyrighted in 1940, and purchased by myself from a used book shop in Evanston in 2002.  Corey and Noel share a few similarities with Bill and Ruth Albee in that both couples have Illinois roots and traveled to Alaska shortly after getting hitched.  Bill and Ruth walked, Corey and I drove (Bill and Ruth were also cousins but Corey and I have no such blood link).  Like Corey and I, Bill and Ruth made a lot of fascinating friends and the journey definitely drew them closer together.

What I like best about the book:  It is through and through a truly awesome yarn.  Per Bill and Ruth, they poach moose to survive (and aggravate Canadian/ U.S. relations in doing so), get lost while following a bogus map sold to them by an old-timer, teach among First Nations people in the arctic, give birth, and witness the very end of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post era.  Is it a completely factual book?  I doubt it; at the very least I am sure much of it is embellished.  The thing that truly captivates me is how little I know about Bill and Ruth Albee.  Believe me, I have tried and tried to get more information about them but the best I can come up with is that they toured some with the Chautauqua Circuit (a traveling tent show that featured an assortment of vaudeville and self-improvement/ religious type gurus).  I also found an article written by Bill that ran November, 1938 in Popular Mechanics magazine (http://blog.modernmechanix.com/dont-pity-the-poor-eskimo-part-i/).  That same article posting has several people commenting on how they found Alaska Challenge (almost always in a state of disrepair) and how they always wondered what became of Bill and Ruth Albee.  One person commenting on that article claims Bill as his great-uncle and stated that he passed away in 2010 at the age of 102.  I like to think that Ruth also lived to a grand old age and that the two of them and their children had lots and lots of adventures in all types of far away and exotic places.  Until told otherwise, that is the story I am going to stick with.

Great Travel Books: Travels with Samantha by Philip Greenspun

Next up on Noel’s recommended reading list is a little known gem called Travels with Samantha by Philip Greenspun.  Written in the mid-1990s, Philip traces his mostly solo journey over the western U.S., Canada, and Alaska.  It took me almost ten years to realize this, but the title is a rift on Steinbeck’s classic travel novel Travels with Charlie.  Charlie is a poodle, Samantha a Macintosh.  In Travels with Charlie, Steinbeck spends a lot of time describing the modern wonders of expressways and vending machines.  Philip spends a lot of time in his book explaining to people that newfangled internet thing.  A couple places of business even let him use their landline so that he can get on the information highway.

Travels with Samantha by Philip Greenspun

What I like best about Travels with Samantha:  The pictures are awesome.  Taken pre-digitally they tell the wonder of both the majestic and the familiar.  He also has some really funny stories.  My favorite involves him being woken from his tent by a big burly biker asking him if he was a Jew.  Philip nervously answered yes to which the biker replied “Great!  We need a tenth for a minyan.” 

Another thing working in Travels with Samantha’s favor is the story of how we came to know the book and its author.  Corey and I drove to Alaska after we got married.  While camped out near Kluane National Park, we met Philip and his friend while doing laundry.  Philip was flying a small plane to Alaska and his friend was driving an RV.  After a bit of good conversation, Philip invited Corey and I up in his plane.  I will never forget how from that height the Alcan was little more than a thin ribbon of concrete winding through an immense wilderness.  Late that night but under the high sun Philip handed us his book and we have not since met face to face (but we have traded emails).  The open road is a magical place indeed.

Great Travel Books: River Horse by William Least-Heat Moon

river horse picture

I cannot possibly write about William Least-Heat Moon’s River Horse without at least talking about his original masterpiece Blue HighwaysBlue Highways was born out of a serious disruption to William’s life.  With his marriage ending and an unexpected dismissal from a college teaching job, William took to the back roads in search of America.  Sounds hokey, but William demonstrates an unnerving ability to get people to talk about themselves and in doing so he collects more stories than a library.  What also makes Blue Highways special is the path of his journey which resembles more a circle than a line.  He is very much here a hobo in possession of a van.

In contrast, River Horse is about one clearly articulated direction; west.  William trades his vehicle for a boat and a small rotating crew of co-pilots in order to travel from New York City to Astoria.  In doing so, William and his crew battle flooded rivers, choppy seas, and the boat itself.  At times they bed down on their house boat, but they also sleep in bed and breakfasts, cheap motels, and one raucous river rat dwelling.  And through it all William tells of the people he meets and describes quite eloquently the challenges inherent to such an unconventional journey.  It does not get much better than that.

Great Travel Books: Walking to Vermont by Christopher S. Wren

We at Hennacornoelidays are nothing if not readers.  To us, reading and traveling go hand in hand.  You need to read in order to feel the need to travel.  Or maybe you need to read in order to enjoy the travel.  Either way, all three of us have our own tastes in books.  Henna likes the pretend and is currently taking a break from Harry Potter to read The Hobbit.  Corey’s tastes range from touching S & M tales (50 Shades) to romantic vampire stuff (Twilight) to juvenile fiction and a good tear jerker now and then.  And I am a sucker for violent mysteries with a flawed anti-hero as narrator (see anything by James Lee Burke or Walter Mosley).  I also seek out travel narratives.  My favorite writers of that genre include the very worldly (and often wordy) Paul Theroux and the domestic focused William Least Heat-Moon.  They are the true road and rail rock stars of the world.

There are, of course other, lesser known talents out there too.  What I would like to do over the next few days is highlight some of my favorite travel oriented books.  I am not going to attempt to rank them.  Some books (like Wild which is truly awesome) you may have heard of.  Others books will be less familiar.  But they are all worth your time.

First book on my recommended reading list is Walking to Vermont by Christopher S. Wren. 

Walking to Vermont by Christopher S. Wren

A quick summary:  Distinguished former foreign correspondent and writer for the NY Times walks from his New York office to his retirement home in Vermont.  His path includes the AT and Long Trail.

What I liked best about it:  By walking at an unhurried rate he meets (and is repeatedly passed by) many an interesting hiker.  A lot of them take breathers to talk to a retired journalist.  Christopher is also honest about the daily rigor required to walk ten to twenty miles a day and then often camping out alone in the forest.  Other writers have written similar books (See Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods), but Christopher’s journey is light on the feet and has just enough introspection to make it feel unique.

NEXT UP:  William Least Heat-Moon’s River Horse