Journeys to the park next door and the home you didn't know was yours
Four travel books
The Washington Post Book World
September 26, 2004
The Wonder Next Door
Travel, like charity, begins at home. The neighborhood through which we pass on our way to Marrakech or Montana often holds as many curiosities as our far-flung destinations, and even our most quotidian surroundings are reserves of potential discovery. Look, and you will find.
But there are neighborhoods, and then there are neighborhoods. Just ask Tim Cahill, author of Lost in My Own Backyard (Crown Journeys, $16.) His door opens, as it were, onto Yellowstone National Park a place he calls "an embarrassment of wonders." It contains 60 percent of the world's geysers, the earth's largest petrified forest and more varieties of flora and fauna than you can shake a walking stick at. Cahill's slim paean tells readers that Yellowstone is big, beautiful and supremely worth seeing. "Let's get lost together," he writes. That's a lovely invitation. But for all the promise of a chummy armchair rollick, more than a few of the 12 pieces presented here emit the kind of guidebook vibe Cahill has vowed to avoid.
It isn't until the last three essays that this veteran outdoor writer's prose shines brightest and one gets the feeling so critical to a travel book: being there. Not coincidentally, perhaps, these end pieces are the longest, focusing on multi-day backcountry treks. In descriptions of places like the park's Bechler area, Cahill's humor comes through, too, and leavens his occasionally grumpy persona. "If the Bechler ever ran a personal ad seeking companionship," he writes, "it would be a pretty sappy one: 'If you like hot tubs and rainbows and waterfalls, you'll like me. I'm the Bechler.' " Few visitors attempt back-country hikes in Yellowstone, though, so the nine short pieces about day hikes while making mostly unrewarding reading may offer inspiration within reason. Besides that, they provide a nice compendium of Yellowstone history and geology and drill into the reader's head one immutable fact: Bears are dangerous.
Visitors to the subject of biographer and novelist A.N. Wilson's superb London: A History (Modern Library, $21.95) are unlikely to encounter many bears, save at the city's zoo. One will also meet penguins there, in the Penguin Pool created in 1934 by the architects Lubetkin and Tecton. The institution's Web site describes the pool as "perhaps the most well-loved building in the Zoo." But Wilson gleefully trashes it all the same.
"You begin," he writes, considering the structure, "to have a frisson of dismay, a foretaste of what crudely modernist architecture was going to do to London in the years to come." The author, obviously, is no fan of the contemporary. And so this book is a work of time travel. Summing up the history of one of the world's premier cities is no small task; summing it up in readable style in less than 200 pages is a feat indeed. Wilson cannot write badly, and his survey of the small factories of Camden Town, the Georgian town squares and the "abundant traces" of Roman London makes for a keeper of a book. Not every piece of his subject still exists, of course. But much survives: Churchill's wartime bunker (complete with Tommy gun), Victorian restaurants, the architecturally "glorious" British Museum and the "undistinguished" National Gallery.
Wilson isn't about to be hired by the city's tourism board "much of modern London looks hideous by day," he writes but his take on today's London isn't the reason to read this book. Read it instead for his evocation of years' worth of yesterdays, like the January day in 1649 when parliamentarians condemned King Charles I to the scaffold. Almost the last thing the aesthete monarch would have seen before exiting the Banqueting Hall "would have been the great Rubens ceilings." By the time Wilson got to the weather (light snow), I felt as if I were among the London crowd, waiting for the ax to drop.
Arcadia, with Sheep
Travel is a luxury for many people and a pleasant diversion for some. But for others it is a necessity spiriting them away from disappointment or toward an imagined Shangri-La. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who falls into this latter category of wanderers, went one step further, to expatriation.
"I wanted out, I wanted away," Masson, a former psychoanalyst, writes in Slipping Into Paradise: Why I Live in New Zealand (Ballantine, $24.95.) Two days (two days!) into a visit to the "Land of the Long White Cloud," he knew he was home far from politically divided and materialistic America and on the doorstep of an ecological nirvana where everything and everyone is "decent, reliable, kindly, honest." This book is a hymn of praise to his adopted country, and Masson writes with a convert's typical joy about subjects from the melodious tui bird to hidden bays on the South Island. His tastes are catholic enough to include one chapter on important New Zealand historical dates and another about native mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary, as well as to offer what he calls a "very personal itinerary" for would-be visitors. Point Reinga, the northernmost tip of the North Island, sounds especially trip-worthy for the simple reason that it is "where the dead are said to leave for their journey to the sky."
But Masson's book succeeds best as a manifesto, not a travel book, and like all manifestos, it is largely one-sided. To be sure, he notes his horror at New Zealand's child-abuse problems and grumbles about its isolation. Typically, however, one finds him shouting out such ecstatic if hyperbolic encomiums as: "Nowhere is ugly, no place is uninteresting in New Zealand, and you will never feel lost, lonely, or regret you came." The whole country, he says, "is an alternative to North America, a place where you stop watching your back and start watching the beauty of the place." I wonder. But then sometimes all a man needs to prove Arcadia's existence is the scene before his eyes.
A Pilgrimage to Ontario
The return of the native comes in many varieties, but it takes a special kind of bravery to venture to a place that no longer exists. Give novelist and poet Nessa Rapoport credit, then, for traveling to the site of her family's cabin in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, long after it had been razed.
"I smile when I consider the pilgrimage," Rapoport writes in her meditative, lyrical House on the River: A Summer Journey (Harmony, $16). This is just after sighting the "tidy, blunt" one-story building that has replaced her grandmother's cottage. "The triplex is no Jerusalem," she admits, "but the place is numinous for all of us." Her voyage is similarly elevated. Rapoport's is an overwhelmingly spiritual travelogue concerned as it is with family, motherhood and Judaism but one that is harnessed to a concrete narrative. The author spent six days aboard a houseboat with her two children, mother, uncle and aunt, drifting through the locks of the Trent-Severn Waterway until they reached their destination. Readers hoping for vivid Canadian tableaux will be let down. But those looking for a testament to the power of place and of mindful meandering will be delighted.
"I will be dwelling within it for the rest of my days," Rapoport writes of her boat trip to Bobcaygeon. And to think that, once, the author couldn't wait to leave Canada. While travel begins at home, it can just as meaningfully lead straight back.