It is entirely relevant that I read about the crusades as a travel experience while steaming to the Dry Tortugas, about the eminent dangers of exotic terrain while investigating the friendly barrier islands of the mid-Atlantic, and about a road trip across the United States while rusticating in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Travel today is, in relative terms, near-instantaneous, something we undertake with minimal interruption to routine and without expectation that it will lastingly affect our lives.
It wasn't always thus, as Jas Elsner and Joan-Paul Rubies, the editors of Voyages and Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel (Reaktion, $24.95), point out in their excellent collection of scholarly musings on the subject. Travel, that commodity that all people put close to the top of their wish lists, was once related to things other than entertainment and shopping. The pilgrimage, originally a sacred enterprise, took on after the Middle Ages an empirical gloss as travelers embraced material or scientific objectives. Travel happened to you on the way to acquisition or enlightenment; the greater the hardship, the more rewarding the experience, be it possession of the secret of the source of the Nile or salvation.
Along the way we lost our ability, so to speak, to lose ourselves in the primal experience. Richard Burton, the great British traveler and student of the arcane, observed Muslim pilgrims in Mecca in 1853 and lamented that "theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstasy of gratified pride." A century later, Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, wrote in Tristes Tropiques, "I wished I had lived in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full splendor of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted."
The blighters were, of course, Westerners like himself. During the course of their travels, there developed, as Elsner and Rubies nicely put it, "a literary genre which offered an alternative source of narrative truth." The phrase reminded me of Graham Greene on the lawless roads of Mexico, looking not for adventure but for the roots of anti-clericalism, of Bruce Chatwin propelled through Patagonia by childhood imaginings, and -- yes -- even the dyspeptic Paul Theroux, riding the rails on various continents, in varying degrees of ill humor. (One does not have to like a traveler to appreciate his observations or his prose.)
All these were writers before they were travelers, and what inspired them -- and what moves the reader -- is a powerful evocation of place. One of the ironies of this age of unlimited access to the earth's nether regions is the relative paucity of good writing about them. The gratified pride is still there, the ecstasy is too often missing.
This has to do with the language itself -- its devaluation and our increasingly limited patience with it -- but also to a loss of innocence on a scale much larger than that in Burton's or Levi-Strauss's day. Technology has created the illusion that all current mysteries are cybernetic and that travel is a mere accoutrement of the Internet voyage. Narrative truth is regularly replaced by abrupt transitions to "destinations," and literary style by a gassy questing after fun and personal significance.
The emergence of adventure travel as a marketing category has further complicated things by producing the adventure travel impresario. This is natural enough, since many travelers nowadays want only the minimal skinny on remote beaches and oxygen-deprived heights. The fact that the prose cracks wise rather than conveys wisdom and only occasionally reaches for insight is irrelevant.
Since adventure travel is, traditionally speaking, a redundancy, a better phrase might be adventure tourism. In Abroad, cited in Voyages and Visions, Paul Fussell concludes that "we are all tourists now," while Kasia Boddy, in her essay "The European Journey in Postwar American Fiction and Film," mordantly observes that "while travel is the preserve of the elites, tourism is proletarian."
Take a Chance
" `Boundaries' is the operative word here; real, implied, or imagined," writes Randy Wayne White in The Sharks of Lake Nicaragua: True Tales of Adventure, Travel, and Fishing (Lyons, $22.95). "If your body or mind crosses a boundary, you are doing it." No qualifications required, only a good travel agent, a fondness for fishing or bird-watching, and plastic cards that don't bounce. Adventure once meant encountering the unknown and taking risks, but that basic concept has been modified to entail the oxymoronic notions of the "semi-unknown" and "risk with backup."
Travel has been largely freed of all the boring stuff like biology, ethnography and geography that once drove the real writer/adventurers. If there is a common theme in White's book, it is the allure of an offbeat objective, rather than its realization. A former fishing guide, White does not find sharks in Lake Nicaragua, catch a crocodile in Panama, or enter the frog he carries cross-country to Calaveras County in the jumping contest. Nowhere is place (or fish) as important as personality, another reflection of the age. In "Iron Man with Fly" he speculates on the turn-of-the-millennium West: "Boulder's transcendent were hara-deep in aromatherapy, the Denver Think Tank Center was crackling . . . while north, in borderline roustabout towns such as Glenwood Springs and Rangely, certain Old West types were cleaning their varmint rifles, filled with the hope and anticipation that some yupster's poodle would trespass within hollow-point range." In Mark Twain's day that was known as hyperbole.
Two for the Road
Two new books deal with that perennial of American discourse, the transcontinental highway jaunt. In The Distance to the Moon: A Road Trip into the American Dream (Riverhead, $24.95), James Morgan receives the free loan of a sporty Boxster after deciding to "drive my particular (and rebelliously foreign) American-dream car into America's restless heart to see what I could fathom about where we've been and where we're heading -- and why?"
In another time, a writer would have sought to evoke these things rather than merely state them. In another time, a publisher might have looked askance at such promotion of an expensive automobile between hard covers. The Fiat in his case may be supercharged, but the prose, I'm afraid, is pedestrian. Free association, the real allure of the open road, produces interesting reflections on cars driven by pals in the past, by celebrities and by the author's father, but America morphs from motel to shopping center, devoid of place.
In States of Mind: A Search for Faith, Hope, Inspiration, Harmony, Unity, Friendship, Love, Pride, Wisdom, Honor, Comfort, Joy, Bliss, Freedom, Justice, Glory, Triumph and Truth or Consequences (Blair, $19.95), a couple of Generation Xers, Brad and Amy Herzog, opt for the other end of the motivational scale: a Winnebago Adventurer -- the irony goes unobserved -- complete with TV, microwave, and bathroom. "We would search for the things that seem elusive in modern America by seeking out Pride (Alabama), Faith (South Dakota), Wisdom (Montana), and Inspiration (Arizona)." This is clever if a bit pat; the method quickly becomes as predictable as speed bumps. Go to a town with an odd name, interview some inhabitants, make observations, roll on.
If there is little comfort in Comfort, Tex., and a modicum of love in Love, Va., does this say anything about the nation? If so, that truth remains elusive. The subtext is not a loss of idealism but loneliness and a touching acceptance by Americans of strangers asking impertinent questions. The askers, in this case, would seem to be members of Kasia Boddy's elite. It is difficult to escape the impression that they have driven their living room through the middle of Proletaria, a kind of virtual armchair travel that proves there really is no there there for a writer unless he brings a point of view.
Run for Your Lives!
Robert Young Pelton, author of The World's Most Dangerous Places, advises that you bring everything with you, including photocopies of passport and tickets. Come Back Alive: The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Disasters, Kidnappings, Animal Attacks, and Other Nasty Perils of Modern Travel (Doubleday, $14.95) is a compendium of possible unpleasantness abroad and ways to counteract it, a kind of how-to book on a global scale.
Some of Pelton's advice is ingenious, some obvious. For instance, when threatened with violence, run. Wild animals, he says, are not nearly as dangerous as humanoids. "I don't have any reason to fear animals. I've been attacked by killer bees twice and have even been tracked by a mountain lion in British Columbia and a leopard in Africa, but after all, I've still eaten a lot more of them than they of me."
He reminds the reader that unpredictability is at the root of adventurous travel. "It's when you gain enjoyment from this barrage of uncertainty that surviving becomes adventuring." According to Pelton, the most dangerous place is not Timbuktu or the headwaters of the Amazon but your own home.
The baggage of all these writers is loaded with social consciousness and ragtag imperialism -- also with scientific, technical and behavioral knowledge unavailable to their predecessors. That can be an advantage, and a blinder. Levi-Strauss, quoted in Voyages and Visions, laments the loss of purity in the world, but also acknowledges that in a few hundred years, "in this same place, another traveler, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see."
James Conaway is the author of numerous books, among them "Memphis Afternoons."