Perceptive Travel Book Reviews October 2015
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Two unhurried journeys, one through the hinterland of the American West and the other along the south coast of England, by writers with a knack for engaging with all kinds of local people; and a spirited attempt to retrace the steps of forgotten women explorers from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Slow Road to Brownsville: A Journey Through the Heart of the Old West
By David Reynolds

Once upon a time, Route 66 served as the Main Street of America, until it was entirely subsumed in the Interstate system. In search of a long-distance highway that doubles as the main streets through small town USA, the British author David Reynolds lit upon Route 83, which extends more than 2,000 miles north-south, from a small Canadian town called Swan River in Manitoba to Brownsville, Texas on the Mexican border. His aim in pottering slowly and meditatively along highway 83 is to experience the American Old West, consider its colorful history and meet a range of quirky and occasionally obnoxious characters.

I loved this book, which I think U.S. readers will find just as enlightening, since few Americans are familiar with their country's backwaters, and certainly not as seen through European eyes. Travel writers inevitably bring their own cultural baggage and David Reynolds' comments on transatlantic differences—for example the English love of modesty versus an American readiness to display pride—are illuminating. His liberal sensibilities are frequently assaulted, not only by the radio ranters, but by the casual racism he encounters, for instance from the seemingly civilized owner of a second-hand shop in Garden City, Kansas, who suddenly refers to the town's immigrants as "slime." Yet he finds plenty of gentle-hearted folk, from a young Lakota man called Delaine Blue Thunder working in a casino on a reservation in South Dakota to a widow rancher in West Texas.

The writing is never showy, but manages to be interesting the whole way through, which is a hard trick to pull off when so little happens. The scores of everyday conversations he records so faithfully always seem to reveal more than you would expect. His wry, though never sneering, sense of humor helps. We hear about the "immensely unslim" people he meets and the sandwich so tightly vacuum-wrapped that he has to resort to his nail clippers. He deploys his original powers of description both on encounters with people (a bore he meets at a parade in Nebraska "serves up glutinous slabs of his life history") and with landscapes ("In this part of Nebraska the land was like giant legs reclining, some bony, some fleshy and rounded, some with bent knees, some in creased trousers").

The book includes a bibliography that covers authors from Levi-Strauss to Simon Schama. Yet the historical background never becomes dry, whether describing the explorations of Lewis and Clark, the economics of the US meat business (80% of which is controlled by four giant companies), the disastrous effect on the environment of Yellowstone National Park caused by the disappearance of wolves and—a running theme—the reality of cowboys and Indians in contrast to the romantic stories he relished as a child. He is exploring the heart of the Old West in more than just its geographical meaning.

Channel Shore: From the White Cliffs to Land's End
By Tom Fort

From land-locked America, we now look to coastal England, again through the eyes of an amiable but acute male traveler of a certain age who is an accomplished storyteller. Tom Fort chooses a bicycle as his mode of transport but that is just incidental to his journey, and we hear very little about daily distances or physical challenges. He is interested in people and especially in what attracts so many incomers to live and vacation on the densely populated south coast of England.

This stretch of coast is far from homogenous, which makes for an interesting travelogue. While one town (Brixham) may be the premier fishing port of England, another (Tyneham) became a sad ghost town after being evacuated for the military during World War II. Some (like Lyme Regis) are famed for their fossils, others for their expensive real estate (Sandbanks) and a few for their tales of smuggling. Many are retirement resorts where folk spend their days promenading, defined as walking "from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular" while noticing and delighting in the incidentals—which is exactly what the author does as he explores the coast.

This book could serve as a textbook for a course on the British class system. Fort captures perfectly the differences between resorts that aim at gentility with their bandstand, benches and begonias, and those that are content to offer the humbler classes caravan parks, amusement arcades, and fried foods. I wish there were space to quote at more length his hilarious characterizing of the upmarket visitors who "shop in local butchers and greengrocers, buy artisan bread if they can find it and are delighted to buy fresh fish direct from a real fisherman, although they are sometimes slightly taken aback by how much goes in gutting, beheading and filleting." Then of their camping counterparts at the more affordable resorts along the coast who "do not mind being cheek by jowl with other families, smile tolerantly if someone has a radio going, like a café to get a bacon sandwich and an ice cream, are happy with throwaway barbecues and bought burgers and on wet days have no inhibitions about staying inside watching TV."

As well as snobbishness, another of the author's bugbears is the tawdriness of modern development. He bemoans the multitude of "rubbishy hotels and gimcrack leisure centres" and mocks the jargon of council strategy documents with their "nodes of activity," "public realm improvements" and "landmark developments" which ignore the existing townscapes and usually result in soulless monstrosities. He is refreshingly opinionated, and praises the communities that have turned their backs on rebranding and hung onto their identities. Yet he is not afflicted with a sentimental attachment to the way this coast might have been in the past.

Adventuresses: Rediscovering Daring Voyages into the Unknown
By Jacki Hill-Murphy

Now for something completely different. The stories are told here of three little-known women explorers who blazed a trail for female emancipation: Isabela Godin made a harrowing journey through Amazonian jungles in 1769 in order to be reunited with her husband; Mary Kingsley pluckily climbed Mount Cameroon in West Africa, and Isabella Bird penetrated Ladakh on a yak, both near the end of the Victorian period. The author has retraced the steps of these pioneering and eccentric women while admitting that her journeys have been made far easier than theirs by advances in transport infrastructure and equipment.

I wasn't always convinced that the author's journeys enhanced the historical tales she wants to bring to life. Banal concerns like the grubbiness of the hut accommodation and the shortcomings of her traveling companions often intrude. She chides herself on more than one occasion for making bad choices of fellow expeditioners—a friend who would prefer to shop in Quito than go upriver, for instance. There's another friend who applies full make-up in the depths of Africa and a motley collection who answered her ad on although they have no shred of interest in Isabella Bird or even in trekking!

Some of the re-tellings are rather convoluted with muddled chronologies, and the book would benefit from better signposting in the form of section headings and certainly from more careful proofreading. The maps are exceptional, however, and the illustrations are first-rate. Some of the quotations from her subjects are colorful (as she says, "luckily for us, Isabella Bird was a gifted writer") which might prompt some readers to go back to the original sources. Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa of 1897 has just been reissued as a Penguin classic.

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 (new edition coming soon) 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, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Slow Road to Brownsville

Buy Slow Road to Brownsville at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Channel Shore

Buy Channel Shore in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK


Buy Adventuresses at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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