Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2014
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: a pilgrimage on foot from London to Rome, a cycling trip from New York to the Pacific against the headwinds, plus a compendium of youthful travel tales that will be bad for the blood pressure of any parent.

Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim: On Foot Across Europe to Rome
By Harry Bucknall

Whereas the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain has become "unspecial" according to this book, the Via Francigena pilgrimage way from Canterbury Cathedral to St Peter's in Rome through France and Switzerland is walked by very few. This route was new to me, and I was looking forward to discovering the secret charms of an uncelebrated long-distance walk.

But my hopes were soon dashed. What I learned was how not to write a travel book. First of all, start with a trite premise: "Pilgrimage is all about the simple pleasure we too often forget," and do not be sparing with the clichés as you enter an "altogether different world from the everyday." Assume that your readers will be gripped by your send-off party from London, in which friends and fellow church members in attendance are mentioned by name along with the advice and gifts they offer. Do not omit a single detail from the diary you keep, from the meals you are served to the wallpaper in the guest room of your rich friend's chateau ("red Toile du Jouy"). After being sprayed with mud by passing trucks (because you are walking on a main road) and getting caught in the rain, use a French word (mouillé) to describe that you are very wet. Intrigue your readers by using strange and meaningless similes, such as comparing the canals of France to "turgid dry cornflakes" or a thickly set man you meet on the road as "solid like a gaming machine". Make it seem like a traveler's emergency when you can't find anyone to stamp your pilgrim's souvenir passport. Speculate about angelic interventions when some passer-by gets you out of a pickle.

Indulge in some free association, for example in the painter Courbet's home town of Ornans, which reminds the author of a Delacroix painting depicting Greek independence. Express surprise and disgust that maps are more expensive in Switzerland than in France. Compare one landscape (a ravine in Switzerland) with another that you happen to have visited once (Samaria Gorge on Crete) which strikes you as "sinister as if touched by the hand of Carabosse herself" [huh?]. Include a range of obscure historical digressions on an Icelandic abbot, a Portuguese king and Jean de Candia-Nevers the Crusader. Dispense with an editor who might have urged you to avoid banal—not to say, clumsily constructed—sentences such as: "I would miss France with its magnificent countryside and wondrous history, where the ever-welcoming people had an unfailing old-world gentility to them, but another chapter had to open if I was to reach Rome."

And so I could go on, piling up examples until I might be accused of illustrating "how not to write a travel book review." In summary the author meets a stream of unmemorable characters, most of whom are described as "special" and some of whom (inevitably) become "friends for life." The gift of storytelling and ability to engage the interest of (this) reader are sadly lacking here.

The Road Headed West: A Cycling Adventure Through North America
By Leon McCarron

Leon McCarron

With relief we turn away from the pedestrian (in both senses) progress of our pilgrim author to a young shambolic Briton launching himself across America on his bike. On leaving university into the teeth of the 2008 recession, young Leon McCarron from Northern Ireland decides to escape a job hunt doomed to failure by turning himself into an adventurer. At the outset he is clueless, setting off from Manhattan with a hopelessly overloaded bicycle and trailer. Predictably (because he is a Brit in his early 20s), he starts his epic journey with a hangover and, with typical British self-deprecation, describes how he foolishly locks his bicycle into the building in which he has just left his key. From the start you are rooting for him.

After 400 discouraging and lonely miles still in New York state, he finds a congenial cycling companion, a dreadlocked Aussie called Susie. Gradually he starts to get the hang of cycle-touring and later the zen of endless pedaling. He certainly doesn't glamorize his chosen mode of adventure: "It's a curious thing about bicycle touring. So much of it is, in fact, boring; quite probably the vast majority. Another large proportion is miserable. A smaller proportion is both. Whatever is left over, though: that is superb." He weathers hostility from aggressive motorists in Michigan, the tedium of endless "stimulus-free" days riding through the corn fields of the Midwest, a life-threatening narrow bridge in South Dakota and so on with wry good humor, reminiscent of that famous Iowan Bill Bryson. Often he achieves that mythical budgetary maximum of $5 a day. His diet of peanut butter sandwiches is supplemented by the kindness of strangers who invite him to camp on their property and offer meals.

He brings a fresh eye to small-town American culture. Of course he has reservations but he also has a soft spot for some of its bizarre manifestations such as Wall Drug, the sprawling shopping mall-cum-tourist attraction in Wall, South Dakota which is famous for dispensing free iced water. His opinions are offered modestly; for example the glittering casinos on native reservations strike him as "garish and ruthless" but he qualifies this with "But what did I know?". He is much given to understatement, such as "gigantic RVs are not friends of the cyclist." An encounter of high drama takes place in Iowa when he finds himself alone with a drunken madman locked in a room full of guns just feet away and his main thought is "This is new. " He makes as speedy a getaway as is possible on a heavily-laden bike and cycles straight into a tornado. No wonder his mother deserves top billing in the Acknowledgements: "Your support never wavered even when you were all but convinced that I was going to die!"

Don't Tell Mum: Hair-Raising Messages Home from Gap-Year Travellers
By Simon Hoggart and Emily Monk

Like Leon's mother, mums (and dads) of young travelers must cultivate nerves of steel, if this collection of genuine emails sent home by pre-college students is anything to go by. Carefree young innocents off in search of adventure can be remarkably obtuse when communicating with home, oblivious to the anxiety their messages will produce. Parents these days insist on keeping in constant touch with their beloved progeny, but may live to regret hearing about their son or daughter being held hostage by Maoists, flying in the Andes in a four-seater with an empty fuel gauge, or participating in high-speed rickshaw races and bungy-jumps on which they casually mention that the harness wasn't attached properly. Assignations with dodgy strangers and the consumption of enough alcohol to fell an ox are all essential ingredients in the pre-college gap year.

The editors, one a stay-at-home parent, the other a young woman back from her own gap year in Asia, have woven together an anthology of snippets home that will make you shudder or smile or both. Imagine being the parent in receipt of this: "Well, I got mugged again, trying to get across eight lines of traffic from Cinelandia to the Modern Art Museum in the pouring rain. He did have a knife, but he wasn't particularly threatening, and he let me open my wallet and give him the notes, rather than taking everything, which would have been a pain. It's OK. I'm used to it now." And no parent should have to read some of the extracts in the chapter called "Love, Romance and Just Plain Shagging." This is a book to dip into for occasional entertainment or to add to the Christmas stocking of anyone you know with a child about to go traveling.

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 (personally updated by her over its 16 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently 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:

Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim

Buy Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Road Headed West

Buy The Road Headed West in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Don't Tell Mum

Buy Don't Tell Mum at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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