It’s summer, and everyone is on the road right now, except me. At least that’s how it seems. My Facebook news feed is full of pictures of happy friends and families sunning themselves on North Carolina and Massachusetts beaches or cooling off in Maine and Colorado mountains. Yeah, that’s right. As the DC heat smothers us with choking humidity, I’m feeling sorry for myself.
Oh well. Staying indoors with the air conditioning does give me time to read. So I’m working my way through this year’s edition of The Best American Travel Writing (hey, if you can’t go anywhere, you might as well read about it). These compilations can be hit or miss. For every eye-opening essay, there’s another self-indulgent screed from an amped-up 20something in a dangerous corner of the world who needs to prove to the reader just how cool they are. (Hate to stereotype, guys, but they are usually male). After a while, these stories all sound alike.
This edition is edited by Simon Winchester, a British author who wrote The Professor and the Madman and The Map that Changed the World. I liked both of these books. In his introduction, he posits that the English are born travelers whose desire to seek out the foreign is part of their DNA. Now I know I’ve met a few exceptions to that rule (the Brit from Joel’s pub whose biggest adventure was taking the Channel ferry to buy duty-free cigarettes and liquor – and then turn back around without disembarking – comes to mind), but maybe he’s right. They certainly had the empire-building instinct.
Of the articles I’ve read so far, a few stand out to me. Matthew Power’s Mississippi Drift, first published in Harper’s, starts out making its subject – an anarchist who rejects working for dumpster diving and petty theft – a sympathetic character. But as Matthew spends more time with him, several months floating down the Mississippi on a slapped together raft, the more conventional the punk becomes, until he’s no more laid back than a draw-within-the-lines middle manager. Great piece.
I also liked Bronwyn Dickey’s essay The Last Wild River, which appeared in the Oxford American. The daughter of Deliverance author James Dickey, she goes back to the Chattooga River in rural Georgia and tries to connect with the wild waterway that informed much of her life. The story has a perfect pace; it flows from section to section naturally in a way that echos a much calmer river than the Chattooga.
As my own summer slips away in an air conditioned lockdown, I look forward to reading more – and eventually getting out on the road again to write my own stories.