Road Shows

Book Bag: Beguiling if Unlikely Travel Books

Sean Wilsey recommends travel writing that at first glance might not be classified as travel writing and by such surprising writers as Casanova and Tom Wolfe.

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Since I’ve written a sort of travel book I thought I should point the way to several hundred years worth of titles in roughly the same category, in chronological order.

History of My Life, by Giacomo Casanova is only not considered road literature because it is seen as pornography; but, in fact, much of it is about the importance of transportation. Casanova, a Venetian, crisscrossed Europe in the mid-1700s, buying and repairing dozens of chariots, phaetons, covered carriages, picking up hitchhikers, and fighting off highway robbers. He chronicles it all in 12 volumes, and every page is worth reading. A random early passage, set in Poland, describes the aftermath of a duel with an aristocrat:

“‘You have killed me. You must escape, or you will lose your head. You are in the jurisdiction of the starostie, and I am grand officer of the crown, and grand cordon of the White Eagle. Lose no time; if you have not enough money, take my purse.’

His heavy purse fell on the floor. I picked it up. and put it back into his pocket, telling him it was useless to me, for if I was guilty I should lose my head, and I meant to go and lay it on the steps of the throne.

“‘I hope,’ said I, ‘that your wound is not mortal. I am sorry you forced me to inflict it on you.’ With these words I kissed him on the forehead and left the inn. I could see neither carriage, nor horses, nor servants. They had all scattered in search of doctor, surgeon, priest, relations and friends. I was alone in a desolate country covered with snow. After wandering at haphazard some little way I met a peasant in a sleigh. ‘Warsaw,’ I cried, showing him a ducat.”

Travels With Charley, by John Steinbeck. Two hundred years later an aging author and his poodle, Charley, light out on the back roads of America, in the fall of 1960, in a new GM pickup, stocked with “bourbon, scotch, gin, vermouth, vodka, a medium good brandy, aged applejack, and a case of beer.” The putative goal: to “rediscover this monster land.” In fact, unlike Casanova’s, this is a book to skim, full of dull passages, but occasionally enlivened by moments of vivid perception. Here is Steinbeck’s description of the fledgling interstate system: a “wide gash” where the minimum speed “was greater than any I had previously driven … You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass… When we get these thruways across the whole country… it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe. America, four years later, gets crossed in a school bus by Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters. Neal Cassady, from Kerouac’s On the Road, drives. But what you come away with is the conviction that the trip you, the reader, are on, fueled, as it is, by Wolfe’s astonishing ability to string together a sentence, is better that the real one (a recently released documentary confirms this suspicion). Here Wolfe describes the Pranksters’ conveyance: “glowing orange, green, magenta, lavender, chlorine blue, every fluorescent pastel imaginable, in thousands of designs, both large and small, like a cross between Fernand Leger and Dr. Strange, roaring together and vibrating off each other as if somebody had given Hieronymous Bosch fifty buckets of Day-Glo paint and a 1939 International Harvester school bus and told him to go to it.”

Truck, by John Jerome. This echt-’70s memoir, by a levelheaded back-to-the-lander, is about rebuilding a 1950 Dodge pickup, bought from “a freak.” But it is really an excuse for numerous wonderful digressions. Viz. this one, on road salting: “Salt accelerates the oxidization rate of metal. The road salt makes a mushy, corrosive paste that is flung universally about the under-and over-sides of every vehicle. It fouls all the metal parts, pits windshields, scours paint, reduces the useful life of north-country motor vehicles by several years. It also kills roadside trees, pollutes streams and wells, and destroys gardens. It is unnecessary. A coating of unsalted, hard-packed snow is just about as safe (and nearly as fast) as the undependable semi frozen slush that salt makes. But the highway department’s goal is bone dryness. No matter how much winter comes dumping down out of the sky.”

The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart. This is maybe the most daring adventure committed to print since Shackleton’s crossing of the Southern Ocean. Stewart, who was profiled with a rare combination of sympathy and laceration by Ian Parker in The New Yorker, walked alone across Afghanistan in 2002. As Tom Bissell put it in a rightfully adoring review: “Even in mild weather in an Abrams tank, such a trip would be mane-whitening. But Stewart goes in the middle of winter, crossing through some territory still shakily held by the Taliban—and entirely on foot. There are some Medusa-slayingly gutsy travel writers out there—Redmond O’Hanlon, Jeffrey Tayler, Robert Young Pelton—but Stewart makes them look like Hilton sisters.”

Sean Wilsey was born in San Francisco in 1970 and lives in Marfa, Texas. He is the author of a memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, and the co-editor with Matt Weiland of two collections of original writing: State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, and The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup. For many years he was the editor-at-large for McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and on the staff of the New Yorker magazine. His essay collection, More Curious, is published by McSweeney’s.