Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November 2019
by William Caverlee

In this issue: a lowdown on Asian elephants, a primer on #vanlife, and the history of road trips in America.

Giants of the Monsoon Forest
By Jacob Shell

There's a type of travel book that isn't strictly a travel book. Perhaps it's a work of natural history, or the memoirs of a birdwatcher, or a collection of landscape photographs. Such books can be of keen interest to travelers, however—especially if you become immersed in a new country or an exotic terrain or a distant culture.

Giants of the Monsoon Forest is about Asian elephants, in particular, the working elephants of Southeast Asia. Jacob Shell, an American professor, has traveled extensively in the region, collecting data and interviewing elephant riders (called mahouts) and gathering knowledge about the intricate, multi-layered relationships between animals and humans in this watery, heavily forested land.

One of the author's first lessons for us is that "Asian elephants are the world's second largest land animal species, behind African elephants." He goes on to explain that Asian elephants are the less populous of the two, numbering around 40,000-50,000 versus 500,000 for African elephants. Most Western travelers are aware of the terrible scourge of ivory poaching in Africa, but it is deforestation, according to the author, that is the principal danger to Asian elephants.

Distinct to Asia is the age-old practice of integrating elephants into the working world of human communities. To the present day, these highly intelligent animals are used in the lumber industry, in rescues during flood seasons, and as transport in commerce. The author describes how work elephants are let loose at night so that they can roam the nearby forests, "to wander, sleep, forage for food, and mate with each other and with wild elephant herds passing by."

The next morning the mahout comes to "fetch" the elephant, to return it to its daily work site, a logging tract or a cross-forest trail.

In his wide-ranging account, Shell writes of combat elephants in ancient eras—think Hannibal crossing the Alps—of elephants transporting refugees in World War II, of modern-day tourist centers, of individual Asian elephants whose names he learned and whose stories he heard—stories of saving lives during floods and while fording rivers.

"The prospects for the Asian elephant are bleak," he concludes bluntly at the end of the book, noting the decline in numbers in the past twenty years. Yet this book of natural history and cultural studies can be, for some readers at least, a beginning point for understanding this unique animal/human relationship. With numerous black-and-white photographs.

© Jorge Reich

The Vanlife Companion
By Ed Bartlett and Becky Ohlsen

First there was John Steinbeck's Rocinante, his pickup-truck-plus-campertop (named for Don Quixote's horse), that he drove across America in Travels with Charley (1962). Next was Arlo Guthrie's VW Microbus, immortalized in "Alice's Restaurant" (1967), the song they turned into a movie. Then came Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and their multi-colored school bus, "Further," traveling-base for the antics described by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).

Somewhere along the way, the world discovered the van conversion—spiffy, comfortable, fully-outfitted campers with sound systems, kitchenettes, and captain's chairs, that suburban families bought for trips to the beach or hauling the kids to school.

Lonely Planet's The Vanlife Companion is both a celebration of and a guide to modern-day travel vans, as found the world over, plus a selection of suggested journeys for those still-beloved four-wheel moveable homes. The book is filled with color photographs, plus maps and plenty of Lonely Planet's characteristic sidebars and lists. The first half of the book concerns vans themselves—a general introduction, followed by ten profiles of "vanlifers," their chosen modes of transport, how they designed their rigs, how they like their self-created homes....

There's a focus here on outdoorsy, self-reliant young men and women from places like England, Canada, Australia, California: surfers, hikers, mountain bikers. Also a focus on seacoasts and mountainsides, as seen from the cozy interior of a custom van. The vans profiled range widely: a Toyota Land Cruiser, a school bus, an Airstream, a Volkswagen....

The second half of The Vanlife Companion is a guide to journeys that one might take in various countries around the world. The trips have titles like "Crossing the Kathmandu Loop," "Italian Grand Tour," and "Bavaria's Romantic Road." Each guide has a full-page map and numerous photos of notable sights. It seems to me that, with only a sprinkling of van-specific tips and notes per journey, this section of the book would be just as useful for a car traveler or motorcyclist (or, for that matter, a bicyclist or hiker) as for a van owner.

The photos, however, are terrific: a waterfall in Queensland, the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, a slice of the Pacific coast, and my favorite, a snowy mountain scene in Germany with one of King Ludwig II's improbable castles perched mid-frame—a golden jewel amid blue-gray frost and snow.

Don't Make Me Pull Over
By Richard Ratay

This book is subtitled "An Informal History of the Family Road Trip," an apt one-line précis. I would add "American" to the phrase since we're dealing here with the classic cross-country auto tour of the United States, as exemplified in countless books and movies.

With Don't Make Me Pull Over, Richard Ratay has compiled a witty, intelligent, well-researched survey of twentieth century auto-travel. While recounting his history, Ratay weaves personal reminiscences of his own family car trips in the 1970s. These stories are often humorous: Mom, Dad, and four children in a station wagon wheeling down the interstate. The title of the book, of course, is the well-worn paternal threat issued to rioting kids in the back seat. Americans who grew up in the 1950s, '60s, or '70s, will almost certainly be able to identify with Ratay's family: the motels they stayed in, the car games they played, the state lines passed, the tourist sights they visited. Will non-American readers experience a comparable nostalgia? I don't know.

Ratay traces the origin of the American road system back to the bicycle and the need for better road surfaces for nineteenth-century cyclists. Soon, he introduces Henry Ford and the Model T, and the race is on. From the Lincoln Highway, we make our way to Route 66 and the Dixie Highway, and finally to President Eisenhower and the interstate system. In all of this, we're dealing with the rise of the motor court, Holiday Inns, gas stations (and their free road maps—alas, a thing of the past), roadside attractions (the "World's Largest Light Bulb," the "World's Largest Ball of Twine,"), Stuckey's, Howard Johnson's, and on and on.

Then there's the family car—a subject that sprouts digressions and extensions like a Los Angeles expressway. Ratay touches on early safety issues, the CB radio, the rise and fall of the station wagon, drive-in restaurants, and even the origin of video games—which tie in to the story because the author avidly sought them out at every motel his family stayed in, when he was a boy in the 1970s.

It seems that there's no end to it—the themes of the great American road trip. And I'm sure that I'm not alone in remembering that other oft-repeated car-trip refrain: "Are we there yet?"

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and he's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

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The Vanlife Companion

Buy The Vanlife Companion at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Don't make me pullover

Buy Don't Make me Pullover at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK