by Philip Greenspun; created 1995
-- "A Book" by Emily DickinsonThere is no frigate like a book To take us lands away, Nor any coursers like a page Of prancing poetry. This traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of toll; How frugal is the chariot That bears a human soul!
This is an account of one man's journey by mountain bike from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. Duncan is the ultimate Ugly American in South Africa: he accepts hospitality every night from white farmers and then lectures them over dinner about how racist they are. Blacks in South Africa treat him with suspicion and hostility. Everything is much more relaxed in Botswana, which has been more or less ignored by colonial powers.
Zambia, which should be the nicest country in Africa, has been ruined by years of dictatorial mismanagement. A false report of South African spies being at large results in a mob of blacks attacking Duncan in a remote village. He is saved from death by the police, but imprisoned for days. Duncan is lucky; a French guy was held with little food or water for six weeks because he couldn't speak English.
Tanzania is horribly poor; Kenya is comparatively rich and Swedish tourist babes are ripe for the picking. Sudan is home to civil war and despair. Arabs from the north of Sudan who used to enslave blacks from the south have taken to killing them instead. The U.N. won't take care of the starving blacks who are losing this civil war because they aren't international refugees.
Duncan rides across Lake Nasser with 800 other Sudanese. The journey takes 3 days in 125 degree heat. There is no water or food on board. Several people die but everyone else treats it with resignation or like a big joke. When they get to Egypt, everyone is incompetent and greedy. The book ends with a whimper.
Sometimes I sit around with my friends and we decide what would be the least cool PhD. You'd think it would be civil engineering because sewers and roads aren't really that exciting. On the other hand, people at cocktail parties don't say, "You're a civil engineer? You know, the other day when I was driving over the George Washington Bridge, a big chunk of the roadway fell out and I ended up swimming through the Hudson. It was really cold an unpleasant." Whereas if you tell someone you're a CS professor, they either turn away or say "You know my Windows box crashes yesterday and I lost a whole day's work."
Now that we've established the bottom end of the scale in terms of how cool your PhD can be and what you can learn during grad school that someone else might want to hear, let's look at the top end: ethnobotany. Mark Plotkin went into the Amazonian rainforests and came back with a rich collection of stories that he relates in Shaman's Apprentice.
Plotkin will educate you about the uses of rainforest plants, the intricacies of traditional Indian culture, and the catastrophic changes that were destroying the Indian villages almost before his eyes. Yet the book is mostly entertaining and interesting rather than depressing. Plotkin isn't a grim doomsayer. He notes how unfair it is that a western drug company will make $billions off an idea they took from Indians who get nothing, but rather than just complain, he has some practical ideas for getting enough money back to the Indians that they can use it to preserve their culture.
My favorite anecdote in the book is when Plotkin comes into a remote village and an elder greets him by rubbing his chest and saying "Basha, Basha." Plotkin thinks he is saying "Welcome, Welcome" but eventually learns that the correct translation is "Spider Monkey, Spider Monkey" (a reference to the hair on his chest). Stories like this make an evening spent with Shaman's Apprentice a rewarding one.
It seems that basically all of these books are about trips of roughly the same length, i.e., 3 or 4 months. If you spend less time than that on the road, you don't have anything to say. If you spend more time than that, you lose the good English middle class values that would lead you to finish a book. Summary: Blue Highways has the best writing; Travels with Samantha has the best pictures; Travels with Charley has a Nobel-prize winning author.
Unlike yuppie old me in my brand-new Dodge Caravan, Moon drives around in a beat-up Ford van that must have been pretty noisy and unpleasant. The impetus for Moon's trip was a romantic bust-up and he starts out fairly down. However, he meets some really interesting people and seems to be completely fearless about getting off the tourist track. He avoids the Interstate system altogether and concentrates on roads that were once marked blue on maps.
The book includes a handful of black & white portraits that make one wish for more. I read the whole book on an airplane, long after I'd finished Travels with Samantha. I have to admit that my interest started to flag around page 350. It could have been edited a bit tighter. However, one could probably say that about the United States...
It is really the ultimate act of hubris for a young author like me to be passing judgment on a Nobel Prize winner like John Steinbeck.... Well, nobody said that humility was a necessary quality for Web publishing.
John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and proved that he was a real American by spending the money on a motor home and heading west from Long Island. He was 58 at the time and seemed sorry to leave his sailboat but not sorry to leave his wife. He was unwilling to leave behind his poodle, Charley, however and they hit the road together.
The writing is very tight as you might expect from a professional at the peak of his talent. Steinbeck writes particularly amusingly about his fascination with mobile homes and also about how nobody recognized him in his entire trip to Carmel, California and back. Still, he didn't run into as interesting a class of people as did William Least Heat Moon in Blue Highways. Nor did he take along a dozen cameras like I did in Travels with Samantha. So actually reading this famous book was a little anticlimactic despite priceless lines such as "Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans."
Note: I didn't read Travels with Charley until 1994, long after I'd published Travels with Samantha. I'd stolen the title from Steinbeck but I didn't want to be influenced by his writing style.
Final note: All of my years at MIT force me to point out that Steinbeck actually doesn't write too badly for someone who was a Stanford undergrad :-)
My favorite part is page 349 where you'll find a photograph of Glacier National Park. Moon used about 10 more of my photos to illustrate the 11 cross-country itineraries in this 800-page tome, but this is the best one.
I happen to know that Jamie Jensen spent at least a year driving around the continent researching these routes and out of the way places. And I know that he suffered because he used to send me email from an AOL address. The finished product seems to have made all of his effort worthwhile. The writing is engaging, the 100 or so maps that the Moon production staff came up with are helpful, and there are color photos on almost every page. If you wanted to do a minimalist trip, you could probably get by with just this book, which has hotel, camping, and restaurant recommendations, plus maybe a road atlas.
There are about 50 pages devoted to City Survival Guides to 24 cities. I checked out the cities that I know well, Boston and New York. He gets the restaurants right but the sights wrong (IMHO).
Travels with Lizbeth, by Lars Eighner, isn't all that naturally grouped with the above textbooks, but this three year chronicle of gay dog-owning homelessness will leave you thinking.
Note: If you want pictures with no text, then consider America in Passing by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Bulfinch; 150 pages). I was surprised by the things that caught H.C.B.'s eye and the America circa 1940 that he reveals.
Long trips can be edifying if you have audio tapes from The Teaching Company, which records America's most dynamic university professors. You'd be surprised how compelling history, literature, and philosophy lectures can be. I have purchased many of these courses and consider the money well-spent. Click here for my reviews of specific courses.