Robert Macfarlane, guest editor The Best American Travel Writing 2020 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), pp. xxii, 311 ISBN: 9780358362036 Pbk $16.99
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This is the twenty-first volume in a series coterminous with this century (with the millennium?). Previous guest editors in this splendid series have included such notable travel writers as Pico Iyer, William T. Vollmann, Bill Bryson (twice), and Paul Theroux (also twice). Approximately a third of the pieces (of some twenty-three altogether) come from leading mainstream journals such as The New Yorker, the various magazines of the New York Times (four), or the Smithsonian, but the editor roamed widely, gathering in some of the most striking writing from journals like Emergence Magazine and Longreads. At the back, there is also a three-page listing of other notable travel writing from the year the book covers.
In a telling way, the very emergence of such a volume is out of synch with the times – travel in a time of a global pandemic? – a disjunction reflected in virtually all of the pieces. This glaring paradox is unpacked by the series editor who provides a mini-tour of the changing nature of travel writing over the last century and suggests that ‘local travel’ such as nature walks (or searching for a maybe-real alligator in the local pond) may be the latest evolution: ‘Being forced to stay at home in isolation might be the ultimate in so-called inauthentic travel.’ Massaged a bit, this might be one of the two overarching themes of this collection: not so much ‘inauthentic’ as ‘vicarious’ travel. Travel not to see new sights and have new experiences but to help in dealing with personal issues or with humanitarian crises.
Here, we are given a grueling account of one woman’s coming to terms with her lack of conventional feminine good-looks, the hallucinations resulting from brain injury (leading to a sojourn in the western New York hamlet of Lily Dale, home to psychics), the hobo as a way-of-life (Sherwood Anderson redux), the coping mechanisms of someone born with a neurological deprivation of any sense of direction, the commitment dilemma of volunteers in orphanages for abandoned children in poor and/or war-ravaged countries, or – and this is my own favorite piece – a re-living of the journey made by the monk and wondrous writer on spirituality, Thomas Merton, in the spring of 1968 in search of a site for a new hermitage (with echoes of Jack Kerouac). As it very much was for Merton, this is a spiritual quest-journey by the writer who finds the monk’s presence yet vivid, this half-century later, in the two monasteries he visited, the first in the northwest of California and the second in the high desert of New Mexico. Beyond my life-long admiration for Merton, the geography also spoke to me. The Eel River valley, leading to the first monastery, was the landscape of my own early years in God’s wilderness; decades later, I spent most of a summer, with my children, in a home in sight of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
The pieces dealing with humanitarian crises will speak louder to many. There are two concerning the plight of migrants on our southern borders, others on African migrants in Sicily and on African migrants within that continent itself, driven from their homes by the consequences of climate change. This last links with the other overarching theme of this collection: increasing awareness of the natural world around us brought on by ‘a world in which travel has stopped.’ The guest editor attempts to set the scene: ‘Not all the changes are grim. Blue spring skies can now be seen above Delhi, London, Wuhan…. Birdsong is newly bright on the ear, unmasked by the absence of traffic noise.’ This is encouraging (despite a certain bogus Latin etymology). But the writers of the collected pieces aren’t having it. We are given the death-bed scene of the disappearance of a glacier in Iceland, another piece on ‘overtourism’ in Iceland, others on an avalanche school or slavery in Jamaica or the challenges facing preservation efforts in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, as well as a short course on the natural disasters resulting from climate change and another short course on contemporary Chinese imperialism as seen from a Kazakhstan village. The mood is grim. Perhaps most immediately grim is the account by an Iranian woman of her return to Tehran in hopes of re-living her childhood in a visit to the street where her grandparents’ home was, only to find the district closed to all but government officials with clearances.
This is an unconventional collection but, then, these are unconventional times. And, uniformly, these pieces are not just well-written but deeply well-informed; travel writing as it should be – we are invited to learn from the setting of lessons by the learned and the observant. I leave you with a cliff-hanger. The last piece is truly shocking, a sadly everyday occurrence with ugly resonance. Read it and think.