Berton Roueche', a reporter for The New Yorker and author of "The Medical Detectives," has been all over the place and for the most part has thoroughly enjoyed what he found there. What is more, he liked the trip itself. He leads off this book with a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson -- "I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move" -- and proceeds to support it with personal documentation for many of the essays in this engaging collection of works.
He generally does not travel by automobile or plane, though he is forced into these inferior vehicles occasionally. This is a man who likes boats and trains, and some of the best of his superior writing is devoted to them. Here he is, describing the first leg of a 1980 Amtrak journey from New York to Seattle: "I am lying in a swaying hammock, gently swaying in the sun. I am swaying and swinging. I am lightly bouncing, then suddenly rocking. I am rocking from side to side, from end to end. The hammock lifts and sinks. It lurches. It lifts again, it drops again, it jolts and pitches. I am falling. The ground comes arching up. There is a shuddering thump, a bump. It thumps me, bumps me, wrenches me awake. I open my eyes to darkness. I am lying spawled on my back, entangled in sheets and blankets, in a clinking, clanking midnight dark. And the hammock -- I'm not in a hammock. There is no hammock. I am lying in a lower berth in Bedroom C in Car 4901 of the Lake Shore Limited . . ."
In spite of that lurching beginning, Amtrak never got better press than Roueche''s account of this trip across the northern tier of American states; it is travel the way travel ought to be and so seldom is, and it makes you want to call your travel agent immediately.
Other train trips were less inspiring, but all are rendered crisply and evocatively -- through the Alps from Geneva to Venice ("The mountains climbed, mile after mile, always changing, always the same. This was no mere scene. This was Scenery"); on the lyntog from Copenhagen to Paris ("The enormous countryside began again. It was a landscape made for snow, for blizzards, for raging winds"); and by the Train a Grande Vitesse from Paris to Lyon, the fastest train in the world ("There was no unusual sense of motion. There was only the rush and blur of the countryside. I don't know what I had expected to feel -- a sense, perhaps, of exhilaration. But speed, like everything else, has not only its value but its price. The window was no longer a real train window. It was a window without a real view").
And boats -- all manner of boats: a walrus-hide dory that took him through a terror of ice floes in the Bering Sea; an aluminum canoe that floated him down Courtois Creek and the Meramec River in Missouri; tow boats -- tugs that push barge loads the size of five or six football fields -- that took him down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers from Kansas City, Mo., to Baton Rouge, La.; and a passenger barge called Janine, which offered him a dreamy, sleepy, well-fed journey down the Rhone River from Lyon to Dijon.
But there is a good deal more than just travel in "Sea to Shining Sea." Roueche' has a penetrating eye for detail and a sharp ear for dialogue, and he invests both the places he has seen and the people he has observed with a meaty verisimilitude. Whether he is wandering with pleasure through a reborn Portland, Ore., traveling with a USDA agent through the potato fields of Idaho, following the daily rounds of a general practitioner in Jal, N.M., talking with the surviving Shaker ladies of Mt. Lebanon, N.Y. or just waiting for the power to come back on after a storm in Amagansett,N.Y., where he lives, Roueche' brings to the experience a sympathetic intelligence and a gift of language that fixes it in your memory just as surely as it is fixed in his. That is one of the bench marks of good writing, and I can think of no better book to turn to for a bit of redemptive wintertime reading.