Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November 2013
by William Caverlee

In this issue: A bestselling author investigates American minutiae, two boomers give the blow-by-blow of a long motorcycle ride, and Alaska comes alive at the hands of a great writer.

Here is Where: Discovering America's Great Forgotten History
By Andrew Carroll

This is an anthology of historical obscurities—which, for a traveler looking for a new take on America, might make an interesting guide to off-the-beaten-path towns and places.

Andrew Carroll is the author of the estimable War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, plus a number of other bestsellers, and he's compiled here what amounts to a road trip for footnote lovers.

The inspiration for the forty or so oddities in this 499-page collection is a railway platform in New Jersey, where the oldest son of President Abraham Lincoln once fell onto the tracks and was rescued from death by a famous Shakespearean actor named Edwin Booth, brother of another well-known actor named John Wilkes Booth—who, of course, would go on to assassinate the president.

Carroll made his way to the modern-day site of that railway station and searched in vain for a historical marker. Intrigued, he came up with the idea for his book and began crisscrossing the country, seeking out the lost and forgotten. Among his discoveries:

    • Ona Judge, a runaway slave, who, in 1796, escaped the bonds of her owner, one George Washington.
    • The farm in Idaho where Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the television, grew up.
    • A potter's field in New York City where 850,000 bodies are buried.
    • The birthplace in Vermont of Elisha Otis, inventor of the safety elevator.

And so on. Here is Where contains no maps or photographs or graphics. Its 499 pages of text are printed on creamy white paper bound by scholarly hard covers and a handsome dust cover. I suspect that Carroll didn't want his enterprise to evoke Ripley's Believe It or Not! ("World's biggest rubber band ball") or similar road guides to pure American cheese.

Clearly, Carroll invested a tremendous amount of time in researching his vignettes, as well as logged thousands of miles while tracking down quarries in Hawaii, Rhode Island, Oregon, Utah, Florida, Colorado, and dozens of other states. Often, his primary subject engendered three or four additional lines of inquiry—historical anomalies spinning off in all directions.

The subjects include Julia Anna Archibald, a member of the first team to climb Pikes Peak in 1858; the search for a WWII plane that crashed in Washington State in 1943; William Morrison of Des Moines, who built a horseless carriage in 1890, precursor of the automobile; the space race; the legend of airplane hijacker D.B. Cooper.

A daunting, impressive collection of Americana. Still, the lack of photographs and maps mars the final product (and makes cover-to-cover reading of this too-long tome an exhausting slog). I wish Carroll had lowered his standards and added a few pictures to this richly detailed miscellany.

Two Butts on a Bike: 4 Months, 18 Countries, 12,074 miles
By Rick and Christie Gorsline

In 2001*, when they embarked on a motorcycle tour of Europe, Americans Rick and Christie Gorsline were a married couple in their mid-fifties, who, from the look of their book-jacket photos, could have been your next-door neighbors: a high school football coach, say, and his English-teacher wife. In fact, Christie really was an English teacher at one time.

With their two grown daughters parked in the states, the Gorslines toured Europe on a bright red BMW—Rick driving, Christie perched cozily behind. They made a wide swing from the UK into the low countries, grazed Scandinavia, then toured Germany, Italy, and France, all the while touching enough of the small-fry principalities to fulfill their book's claim of eighteen countries.

The authors are amiable narrators, if a bit wide-eyed at times; still, they happily take on whatever the road sends their way: pitching their tent in campgrounds and backyards, dining with locals, skimming over mountain passes in rain, fog, snow, and sleet. At a clothes-optional beach, Christie doesn't hesitate to shed her top—to Rick's proud-husbandly delight. Sometimes their exhilaration is a bit much: "Back home in the tent we had great sex with the tent flap open. It seemed appropriate with risqué Amsterdam just across the water." . . . Whoa, guys, we're happy that the flames still burn, but this is a family publication.

The prose throughout is unremarkable. Went there, did this, saw that. In addition, the authors use two different fonts to distinguish Rick and Christie's voices. The fonts alternate, paragraph by paragraph—an unfortunate stratagem, which gave me headaches trying to remember who was speaking. A smarter move would have been to alternate chapters.

Still, this is a cheerful enough motorcycle journal with numerous maps and b&w photos. And who doesn't admire a middle-aged couple who climb aboard a high-powered bike for a romp through Europe? Go easy, riders.

* I had to guess the year of this journey via intrepid clue sifting—as, once more, the publishers hid the information as if national security were at stake.

Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now
By C.B. Bernard

In 1999, C.B. Bernard moved from Massachusetts to tiny Sitka, Alaska, on the Pacific coast near Juneau to work on a small-town newspaper. Today, he lives in Portland, Oregon, but like many emigrants and visitors to America's northernmost state, he'll be a long time in forgetting the experience.

Bernard is a veteran journalist (again and again, I found myself grateful to be reading a real writer after the previous amateur affair), and Chasing Alaska is an excellent introduction to such a staggeringly oversized subject.

Remarkable things happen here in Alaska. I've anchored in the lee shore of the wildlife refuge at St. Lazaria Island—a misshapen volcanic plug, small and rugged, with 100-foot cliffs and arches towering above the breaking sea—to watch hundreds of thousands of birds return to their nests, darkening the sky, their songs drowning out the waves crashing beneath them . . . I've watched a pod of humpbacks circle a school of fish to create a bubble net before taking turns blasting upward through its center to fill their gaping mouths with prey . . .

Alaska's seemingly inexhaustible inventory of remarkable things is Bernard's theme, as he travels from Sitka to Juneau, Nome, Denali, Anchorage, the Arctic. There are 600 named glaciers in Alaska, for instance, not to mention 100,000 others un-named. And 1.5 million cruise visitors each year, beefing up the state's economy to the tune of $1.35 billion. Bernard's investigations touch on hunting and fishing, the salmon industry, Big Oil, gold, domestic violence, bears, caribou, bush pilots and dozens of ingenious ways to get yourself killed. Of course, Bernard doesn't recite statistics; he tells stories: of Mike, his hunting and fishing mentor in Sitka; and of Bill, a solitary handyman in Cordova in the Copper River Delta; and especially of Joe Bernard, a distant relative.

Joseph Bernard (1878-1972), like the author, moved to Alaska from New England. The elder Bernard holds a valid place in Alaskan history as an explorer, ship captain, memoirist, trader, collector, and early settler, and the author of Chasing Alaska finds his forebear's story so intriguing that he weaves it into his own.

I wish he hadn't. The current volume becomes a double narrative—Alaska in frontier times and in the present day. The author embarks on a personal journey as he tracks down clues and artifacts of his relative. It's easy to understand how Bernard became captivated by this quest, but I groaned every time old Joe entered the stage. The author's own voice offers such an excellent means of discovering Alaska that I felt diminished rather than enlarged every time the secondary tale made its appearance. I wish he'd written Joe's story in a separate book.

William Caverlee is an American freelancer who has written for numerous journals, such as The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Flight Journal, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of a collection of essays, Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays. One of his articles, on Flannery O'Connor, was reprinted in The Writer's Presence, 7th Edition.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Here is Where

Buy Here is Where in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Two Butts on a Bike

Buy Two Butts on a Bike in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Chasing Alaska

Buy Chasing Alaska at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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