By Donovan Hohn
Sometime on January 10, 1992, a container ship from Hong Kong encountered a storm in the north Pacific. When twelve of the ship's containers fell overboard, 28,800 plastic bathtub toys—beavers, frogs, turtles, and ducks—set off on a trans-oceanic journey and became the stuff of modern legend. Rubber duckies sailing the seven seas!
Author Donovan Hohn first heard the story in 2005 from one of his students at the private school in Manhattan where he taught. With a pregnant wife at home, Hohn embarked on a three-year journey on the trail of those seaborne plastic toys. The result of his adventure, Moby-Duck, is a 400-page wonder—a travelogue, personal memoir, environmental tract, natural history, and a series of profiles of scientists, oceanographers, ship captains, and offbeat rubber-duck trackers.
Hohn claims to be timorous, bookish, and unadventurous, yet he soon finds himself pitching and bucking on a dubious home-built cabin-cruiser. He's beachcombing in Alaska, traveling to Hong Kong, sailing from South Korea to America on a container ship, crewing an ice-breaker in the Arctic Ocean. In the tradition of journalist John McPhee, Hohn weaves his own story into the epic he's narrating. Hohn's body of research, the staggering range of topics he investigates, the natural histories he amasses—all this along with the author's personal voyages and risk-taking—well, Moby-Duck is four or five books rolled into one. As a prose writer, Hohn is brisk, witty, literary (he's a teacher, we recall—although the book's title is a bit too cute for me), alert, generous, and insatiably curious:
I looked for Gore Point in my Atlas of the World and failed to find it. A little research revealed why. Gore Point (population 0) is one of the wildest places left on the American coastline, and one of the last places on the planet you'd expect to have a garbage problem. Unegkurmiut Indians used to spend their winters there, and supposedly you could still find signs of them (a scar on a tree trunk where some hungry soul had scraped the bark away to get at the nourishing cambium beneath; the faint concavity a house pit had left in the mossy earth). But the last of the Unegkurmiut—their numbers decimated by smallpox, the survivors lured off by ill-paid work in the canneries of the Alaska Commercial Company—vacated the premises more than a century ago.
As much as I admire and recommend Hohn's work, I could have done with a little less of his own personal history, and I think the text should have been shortened and tightened—at times the reader nearly loses track of the book's environmental theme. Moby-Duck includes an exhaustive bibliography and several pages of notes but no index—an odd omission. And, as in the case of Sweetness and Blood below, this 400-page example of the best of American journalism contains not a single photograph. Are publishers these days really that cheap, or are they simply obtuse?
Hiking the Continental Divide Trail
By Jennifer A. Hanson
In 1997, Jennifer Hanson embarked on a 2,400-mile hike of the Continental Divide Trail with her then-husband Greg Allen. For American backpackers, conquering the CDT is one of the Big Three—along with the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. As it turned out, injuries forced Greg Allen to drop out after four months (he recovered in time to make the final 70-mile jaunt), and Hanson found herself soloing 900 miles of the Rocky Mountains.
Disconcertingly, Hanson didn't hike the CDT straight through, as one might expect in a trek from Mexico to Canada. She skipped around, attending to a segment here and a ramble there—with a number of layoffs when she visited friends and family. Although she began the trail at the Mexican border, in some cases, she completed a leg from north to south. It all adds up, of course, but a first-time reader will be puzzled when the compass needle seems to be jumping every which way.
One day in Montana, Hanson spotted a wooden post with a freshly painted CDT sign, the first official trail-marker she'd seen in a thousand miles. A few hours later:
I was tracing my route around Garfield Mountain when I heard loud thrashing to my left. A large animal burst from the trees. A mule, I thought, then realized my mistake. Less than thirty feet away stood a bull moose. Without hesitation, he galloped across the open field, his dark chocolate hide glistening over long, sinewy muscles. He reminded me of a stallion as he quickly crossed the meadow and dropped into the stream bed on its far site.
Hanson stood there a moment, transfixed before the sheer beauty of the scene. Did she know that she was channeling the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who twenty-five years earlier had immortalized the same animal in her poem "The Moose," and just like Hanson had felt "this sweet sensation of joy"?
Grueling, life-risking treks like Hanson's—along with Himalayan expeditions and solo oceanic transits—certainly deserve our respect. But I sometimes wonder if it's necessary to admire such self-punishers as Hanson or the average mountaineer or Vendée Cup entrant. Every blue-water sailing account I've read consists of one or two hair-raising storms in the midst of 12,000 miles of soul-crushing boredom. Hanson's typical day on the trail consists of constant foot pain and a fugue-like state as she pushes herself another five or ten miles in order to keep her daily average up—finally pitching camp in the dark, scraping together a tasteless meal, boiling water, hoisting her food supplies out of bear's reach, then getting a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again the next day. Fun. Well, there's the scenery of course.
In any event, Hiking the Continental Divide Trail makes for good adventure reading. Hanson has included plenty of maps and photographs (plus an index—an unexpected bonus). She even appends five highly-detailed, how-to chapters, with lists of recommended equipment for prospective trekkers.
Sweetness and Blood
By Michael Scott Moore
Terrible title for a terrific book on surfing. Actually, it's difficult to call this wide-ranging volume a surfing book. The interests of journalist Michael Moore range from Hemingway to the Arab-Israeli conflict to Captain Cook to the Cuban revolution. When, more or less out of nowhere, you come upon a sentence like—"At that moment, wrote Noel Perrin in his excellent little book about firearms in Japan, the gun entered Japanese history"—you realize that you're dealing with a true bibliophile and a cheerfully omnivorous researcher.
From the outset, Moore explains that he visited the nine countries in Sweetness and Blood over the course of several years; thus the book isn't meant to be an up-to-the minute travelogue. Instead:
What I've tried to assemble is a folk history of surfing, a personal sketch for any curious reader of how the sport moved around the world . . . The result is a story of hippies, soldiers, nutcases, and colonialism, a checkered history of the spread of Western culture in the years after World War II.
Indeed, Sweetness and Blood is full of bohemians, innovators, and rebels. Even though Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing, Moore traces the modern-day phenomenon to southern California (where else?) and a collection of founding fathers: George Freeth, Tom Blake, Bob Simmons, who were followed in the 1950s and '60s by the richly named Mike Purpus, Miki "da Cat" Dora, Terry "Tubesteak" Tracy, and Greg Noll.
From surfing's origin in California, Moore embarks on his world tour, touching down in Indonesia, Germany (?!), Morocco, and five other countries, many of which, to the non-surfing reader, seem unlikely ports of call. (Germans surf the Isar river system, as it turns out.) All the while, Moore ingeniously compiles a travel narrative, with lengthy excursuses into politics, literature, religion, the movies, Che Guevara. . . . A stickler for literary unity might complain about Moore's many digressions and the porosity of his surfing theme; yet, his prose is invariably intelligent, witty, and readable—and, as I say, his curiosity ranges high and low. Here he is in Cornwall with his British girlfriend:
British coastlines were made by God for amusement parks, chalky cliffs, deep-fried whitebait, Brighton rock, and palace hotels with Union Jacks snapping in the wind. Or else just terrible weather. "You drive to the seaside," explained Suzy, "park by the water, and stay in your car because the weather's shit. Then you eat a packet of crisps and drive home."
But how does it feel to ride a wave?
Moore, a surfer himself, asks this very question to a Palestinian who surfs on the (hard to believe you're saying it) Gaza Strip. Answer: "It is the best thing in life." Moore even manages to find a Jewish rabbi who preaches transcendental surfing, with much talk of God's first act in creating the oceans, emanations of energy, etc. Needless to say, Sweetness and Blood is filled with enormous waves, colorful crashes, and moments of bliss; but I found it odd that a writer of Moore's acute literary power and imagination didn't come up with an enduring description of what he himself feels when standing on a board and catapulting across an ocean wave. Maybe it's like trying to describe music: words fall woefully short. Finally, while Sweetness and Blood includes a useful index and a bibliography, one or two full-sized photographs would have been nice.
William Caverlee is a contributing writer to The Oxford American Magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, www.ulpress.org. A recent article in Oxford American is a profile of American short story writer Andre Dubus. Another recent essay appears in the literary journal, MEMOIR (and).
See his previous batch of travel book reviews here.