Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November 2016
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Tales of hiking the Appalachian Trail and backpacking around Romania with Dracula's legend as the guide, plus a traveler's tool for getting what you need without sharing a language.

Appalachian Odyssey
By Jeffrey H. Ryan

At last, I’ve found a segment of the Appalachian Trail that sounds promising: West Virginia, where the route covers a total of four miles. This is the shortest state section of the AT—brevity of mileage being an attribute I hold in great esteem. You know me: I’m the guy at the back of the pack constantly asking, “How much further? Is there a Starbucks near here? Where can I call a cab?”

Jeffrey H. Ryan, on the other hand, is the real article: a hiker extraordinaire. When he isn’t at his desk writing, Ryan can usually be found scrambling up a mountain somewhere in America, a fully-provisioned Gregory Shasta carbon-fiber pack strapped to his back. Or riding out a winter storm inside his trusty Bean’s Dome tent. Or watching a mother bear and her cubs cross his path a few yards in front of him. Appalachian Odyssey is Ryan’s account of his successful trek of the AT (which covers 2,181 miles from Maine to Georgia), a feat he accomplished in segments—a week here, a week there—over the course of 28 years.

At the outset, Ryan notes that Appalachian Odyssey isn’t meant to be a trail guide, but it certainly contains a tremendous amount of information for anyone contemplating a hike on the AT. In fact, I’d say that hikers, backpackers, and other outdoor types will be among the book’s chief readership. For the rest of us, Ryan offers a chance to understand the allure of hiking: sublime mountain vistas, fresh air, camaraderie, wildlife sightings, and so on.

The highlight of the day was popping out of the woods onto the Pine Mountain summit plateau. What a view! We were suddenly immersed in a panorama of open grassland punctuated by rock outcroppings. We dropped the packs and scrambled up the most prominent set of boulders to gain 360° views. While the entire view was impressive, our eyes were most drawn to the peaks of the distant Smokey Mountains.

Ryan has included dozens of color photographs, maps, and graphs. All in all, Appalachian Odyssey is an excellent travelogue both for the avid backpacker and the armchair traveler.

*Postscript. During many of the years that Ryan was hiking the AT, he made a living as a copywriter for a national mail-order outfitter. Considering his profession, I was surprised to discover that Appalachian Odyssey is filled with typos and punctuation errors. I don’t mean the occasional error or two that every writer and publisher makes, but literally hundreds of typos throughout the book. Mostly, Ryan errs in the use of the comma in dialogue, a basic rule of punctuation.

Running into hundreds of such mistakes, page after page, is distracting and fatiguing—especially when a book is otherwise so likeable and well written.

Backpacking with Dracula
By Leif Pettersen

Backpacking with Dracula

We start with an eye-catching title. Considering the success of The Twilight Saga, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Anne Rice, I suspect that Leif Pettersen may be on to something. We then quickly learn that Pettersen is a veteran travel writer and that his book is a travel guide to modern-day Romania, using the ancient vampire story as a theme. Along the way he offers us an extensive account of 15th century Balkan history as well as a survey of film and literary references to the historic Dracula—a Romanian prince named Vlad Dracula, who came to be known as Vlad the Impaler.

Pettersen’s tone and prose style in Backpacking with Dracula is something I’ve come to think of as a contemporary, youth-oriented style. In other words, the writing is often casual, jokey, slangy, and iconoclastic.

If you recall, Vlad had recently sacked Braşov and impaled the living scat out of a good portion of its social elite. It must have taken heroic willpower to not hog-tie his ass, strap him to a donkey with mange, shove it in the direction of the nearest Ottoman horde, and then party like it was 1499.

Today, it houses Romania’s Parliament, naturally, the Senate, the Chamber of Deputies, the Legislative Council, the Competition Council, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum, and Park of Totalitarianism and Socialist Realism, one of the largest convention centers in the world and a hodgepodge of lesser administrative offices. And yet about 30 percent of the building remains unused. Yeah, it’s frickin’ huge, man.

The author has gathered an impressive amount of highly interesting historical data for this book—15th century warlords, Ottoman invasions, wars, vendettas, castles, and battle works. Pettersen has given us a tour of Romania—attractions, places to stay, roads and highways, etc.—at the same time that he addresses the Dracula story of history and myth.

Just Point: A Visual Dictionary for the Discerning Globetrotter
By Lonely Planet Publishing

I need to be clear: Just Point is not a book. It’s a set of around forty flashcards, pivoting upon a small metal bolt and stored in a sturdy cardboard holder. The cards are meant to be used in countries where you don’t speak the language, but need to order a meal in a restaurant or check into a hotel or ask directions to the nearest train station.  

Topics range from food to entertainment to transportation to health care. Each flashcard is approximately 6 inches by 2½ inches and is printed front and back. Here’s one labeled “Diet restrictions,” with six individual images declaring one’s aversion to milk, meat, shellfish, peanuts, wheat, or eggs.

Under “Leisure activities,” we find images of a roller skate, a bowling alley, a golf ball, a billiard ball, a deck of playing cards, and a chess piece.

“Whatever you need, just point!” the makers of the set instruct us. At home, I pretended I was in a foreign country and gave the cards a spin. For “Burger fillings” I scanned the card’s six images and quickly identified the cheese, pickle, bacon, and onion symbols. The slice of tomato and the lettuce leaves took me a couple of seconds to settle on.

The range of topics is impressive: “Room temperature,” “Male grooming” (two cards), “Restaurant complaints” (including a fly in your soup), “Animal transport” (horse, camel, elephant, dog sled, burro, and what I think is a water buffalo but which might be a musk ox), and the card of cards, “Help.”

For some, Just Point might appear to be a bit of a novelty, but I see no reason why it might not be of use during a journey into places where your native language is a novelty.

William Caverlee is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Cimarron Review, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Appalachian Odyssey

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


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Backpacking with Dracula

Buy Backpacking with Dracula in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Just Point

Buy Just Point: A Visual Dictionary for the Discerning Globetrotter at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK