The label of "Bill Bryson on two wheels” is inevitable when a travel writer is this entertaining. The premise is hilarious: a just-turned-fifty year old writer wants to travel the entire distance of a new long-distance cycle route through Europe on a £50 East German shopping bicycle called a MIFA 900. The new EV13 route follows the old Iron Curtain and he decides that a small-wheeled bike made in the GDR is the appropriate vehicle. He chooses to start the ride in the far north of Finland in winter, condemning himself to weeks of misery as "hypothermia's cold dead hand on my shoulder evolved from stimulating novelty to ever-present bore."
Laugh-out loud vignettes abound. When he discovers that his camera has a voice-activated selfie function, he bellows "Shoot" and "Capture", as instructed, oblivious to the alarm among elderly dog-walkers in a former East German border zone. His self-mockery, prat-falls and childish enthusiasms turn him into an Everyman, although in fact his cycling achievement of covering 6,000 miles in three months is extraordinary.
He is the history teacher you wish you’d had. Once you learn that the paranoid Ceaușescu would employ no one taller than his own height (5’3”) and that he incinerated all his clothes and shoes after two wearings, you understand a lot about why parts of Romania he cycled through are still in a parlous state. Earlier he comes across a Soviet-era research station in Latvia (codename Zvezdohka) now a spooky ghost town at the end of the Kolka Peninsula. His interest in Cold War history is genuine and dates from boyhood when he tuned into Eastern Bloc stations with a short-wave radio.
Crazy eccentric gimmicks have been tried by travel writers before, like hitch-hiking around Ireland with a fridge or climbing Everest with an ironing board. But somehow I didn’t find myself objecting to the MIFA 900 lark. Who could fail to like a man who admits to blubbing to his wife on the phone about the loneliness of the long-distance shopping cyclist?
White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World
By Geoff Dyer
The theme of this disparate collection of travel stories and essays is dissatisfaction and disappointment, a subject ripe for displaying wit. A version of most of these pieces had been published previously in high-end journals like The New Yorker and London Review of Books. But prospective readers need not worry that the style will be too elevated. When writing about his trip to the South Seas in pursuit of Gauguin, he summarizes the artist’s reasons for journeying there: Tahitian women were "total babes in a babelicious paradise of unashamed babedom".
Times have changed. He observes, “Although the canoe is essentially a slim-fitting vessel, in Tahiti it has presumably adapted and evolved—in a word, expanded—to accommodate the area's distinctive twist on Darwinism: the survival of the fattest." Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, is cripplingly expensive and no paradise: "I was in a huge and luxurious hotel, and even though the view was fantastic the ocean itself seemed manicured, as if it were actually part of an aquatic golf course to which hotel guests enjoyed exclusive access."
The most perfect encapsulation of thwarted expectations is a tale from the frozen north, considerably more depressing than our cycling hero’s. Geoff Dyer’s wife (he has changed her name to blur the distinction between fiction and fact) has always wanted to see the Northern Lights. Geoff relents, while mocking the concept of the "experience of a lifetime.” In Norway’s Svalbard archipelago they stay in the Basecamp Trapper's Hotel which was a "deliberately rough-hewn place, comfortable but sufficiently make-shift to impart a Shackletonian quality to one's stay in the frozen wastes." But soon the round-the-clock Northern Dark (with no Northern Lights) makes them ask each other "Why have we come to this hellhole?" The detailed account of going on a miserable dogsled ride in the utter pitch black will set back the cause of Spitsbergen tourism by a generation.
He is also capable of enjoyment. Wearing one of his other hats as art critic, he takes us to some mysterious places in America such as the Spiral Jetty, a piece of land art on the edge of Great Salt Lake, and to the Lightning Field, created in 1977, where he claims to want to stay forever looking at the grid of stainless steel poles. Elsewhere he tells two brilliant stories of encounters on his travels, one with a captivating tour guide at the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, and another with a hitch-hiker near the mysterious White Sands of the title, where the sand is as bright as snow. Just after stopping to pick him up, they see a sign “Detention Facilities in Area - Do Not Pick up Hitch-hikers.” Later chapters consist of intellectual pilgrimages around Los Angeles which are not as engaging, and wallow in his intellectual autobiography. The volume is too diffuse to hang together as a cohesive unit, but the quality of the writing and the insights scattered throughout rescue it.
On Trails: An Exploration
By Robert Moor
With admirably little autobiography, this author ponders the concept of “the trail” in its widest context. Walking creates trails, and trails shape landscapes. For the indigenous peoples of North America, trails were not just a means of travel but the arteries of culture and there is much illuminating background about trails like the Cherokee Trail of Tears. His starting point for the book was five months as a ‘thru-walker’ on the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail in 2009. Like Tim Moore, he experiences unrelieved cold and wet, misery and exhaustion. Instead of using jokes to survive, he turns to language that is almost poetic. After yet again putting on wet socks, wet shoes, he leaves the hut: “There was no sun. Plants drooped, as if hungover from the night before; a pink orchid wept.”
The intellectual scope of this book is very ambitious. His quest for understanding the concept of trails takes him from shadowing an expert fossil hunter in Newfoundland to find the first evidence that primitive organisms moved and left a fossilized trail, to a stint of sheep-herding in Navajo country. His tireless research turns up fascinating and esoteric nuggets, for example a Papuan tribe uses the same word (nakalang) for a stick placed across the entrance to the wrong trail and for death.
The geographical reach is almost completely confined to the US, and I would have enjoyed more about trails in other places. For example the Songlines of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia would have fitted his argument beautifully. Near the end of the book, he becomes involved in the nascent International Appalachian Trail, which takes him to Iceland and Morocco. The IAT is a startling idea to join up all the bits of Appalachian geology that were separated at the break-up of the supercontinent of Pangaea millions of years ago. With a local (female) guide, he hikes in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco with a view to mapping a section of this “long strong puzzling epic of a trail.” But he is dissatisfied with his task. He feels that the language and cultural barrier in Morocco is so great that no meaningful cross-cultural communication can take place. The reader might want more exotic travel tales, but he is too serious a thinker and adventurer for that.
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, an online British daily newspaper.