The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck
I thought this was a terrific book. Rinker and Nick Buck, two brothers from Maine, ages 60 and 54, buy three mules and set off to make the first unassisted crossing of the Oregon Trail by covered wagon in a century. A wagon trip with their father and siblings from New Jersey to Pennsylvania a half-century earlier is part of a parallel story about their father, who died young. Rinker, a journalist, gets fascinated by the history of the Oregon Trail, and reads over 100 books about it before they head west from Missouri to Oregon, sometimes following the original wheel ruts of some of the 400,000 pioneers of the mid-nineteenth century. Rinker originally thought of taking the trip alone, but it’s clear that would never have worked. Nick can fix anything, and is skilled at driving a team, and it really takes two people to catch and harness three mules every morning. The mules, Jake, Beck, and Bute have very distinct personalities. Wagon wheels, brakes, and axles need frequent repair, and the mules need regular care. The men, not so much. Rinker sleeps on a mattress in the wagon while Nick and his terrier, Olive Oyl, sleep on the ground or in sheds. Showers and laundry are infrequent and meals are very simple. A series of strangers greet them, help them navigate mountain and river crossings, and offer space in their corrals for the mules at night, and become their trail family. The kindness of those they encounter on their trip, with one notable exception, stunned them with their hospitality. I enjoyed the descriptions of the scenery, found the history of the trail quite interesting, and hoped the very different brothers would find a way over all the obstacles to reach the end of the trail. A very enjoyable journey, one that reminded me a bit of The Longest Road, by Philip Caputo.
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig
Imagine being an eleven-year-old boy in 1951, setting off halfway across the country on a Greyhound bus, alone. Donal Cameron has an amazing summer of adventure, both good and very bad. It was bittersweet to read Ivan Doig’s last novel; I’m glad it was so enjoyable. Life on the bus, a quarrelsome great aunt who insists on teaching him canasta, close calls with the police, excitement at a rodeo, meeting hobos, and life on a ranch at haying time enliven a memorable story. Other memorable books by Doig include The Whistling Season and The Bartender’s Tale.
Wide-Open World by John Marshall
John and Traca Marshall were growing apart. Jackson, 14, wouldn’t put her phone down long enough to talk with her dad, while shy Logan was 17 and headed for college soon. It was time to reconnect, and John dreamed of taking the family and traveling around the world for a year of service. This was not the memoir I was expecting to read. They didn’t have a lot of money, and almost gave up on their dream. Finally, they rented out their Maine house and set out for a half year of volunteering. I thought the trip would be organized well in advance. While the author gives practical tips for other families who’d like to volunteer abroad, including how not to rent out your house, the Marshalls didn’t always know where they were headed next. I expected humor, adventure, illness, and increased closeness of the family. No one got sick although John did get attacked by a monkey in Costa Rica, on more than one occasion. They certainly had adventures, traveling to New Zealand, Thailand, India, and Portugal, and the people and settings they visited sound quite appealing. The teens grew and changed during their travels, and are continuing to travel and volunteer. There are some humorous anecdotes, but the family as a whole didn’t reconnect they way they had hoped and not all of the volunteer experiences were positive. A very honest, reflective memoir of a family who followed their dream to make a difference and see the world.
Lives in Ruins : Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson
This is an engaging look at the lives of archaeologists, a combination of armchair travel, popular science, and history. I enjoyed reading it very much, especially the author’s travels to visit archaeological sites and interview archaeologists in the Caribbean, Peru, a tiny island in the eastern Mediterranean, South Dakota, Fishkill and Fort Drum in New York, and the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island. The author audits classes, goes to field school before volunteering at a dig site, attends conferences, and visits museums. Other than the weather and working conditions, it sounds like fun. As a group, archaeologists are highly educated, passionate about their work, and grossly underpaid, if they’re even employed. They eat sandwiches, swat mosquitoes, work under hot sun or in the rain, often with a developer’s bulldozer looming, drive old vehicles, and tell great stories and drink beer at the end of a long day.
The reader learns about the discovery of an unknown Revolutionary War cemetery in New York, and how a civilian archaeologist working for the Department of Defense is helping soldiers learn to protect sites of cultural and historical importance with decks of playing cards. Many sites have been lost to development, while others are waiting for funding, such as the search for explorer James Cook’s Endeavour in the Newport harbor. This is a November Library Reads pick.
Here, There, Elsewhere by William Least Heat-Moon
A fascinating collection of the author’s travel essays and articles, from 1983-2011. The author writes of the Great Plains, the Missouri River, Lake Superior, Japan, the south of England, New Zealand, the Yucatan, Lewis and Clark, Alaska, and more. The sheer variety of topics and settings in dazzling, but the articles are meant to be savored, read one of two at a time. Some of his travels are retracing trips taken as a child, when the lure of the highways was as strong for his parents as it clearly is for the author. The author also travels by boat, and history, geology, and food are common themes. Parts of this book reminded me of The Longest Road, by Philip Caputo. Here is a conversation between the two authors.
On the Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu
Chinese American food writer Jen Lin-Liu, founder of a cooking school in Beijing, is looking for her next project. She decides to travel the Silk Road from China to Europe, eating noodles, meeting chefs, and researching the origins of pasta. No, Marco Polo didn’t bring pasta to Italy from China, but both countries have similar noodle dishes. Jen has recently married American writer Craig, and isn’t sure how her desire to travel will affect their marriage, and where they will settle down to live as a couple. Traveling to western China, she asks two chefs from the cooking school to accompany her, and they eat and cook their way west. On the rest of her journey, sometimes her husband accompanies her, and for a while his parents, but the rest of the time she travels alone. Her journey includes Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. She meets hospitable people almost everywhere, and enjoys many home-cooked meals and access to restaurant chefs and kitchens. A variety of regional foods are vividly described, and a number of recipes are included. While the spices and meats change, many of the dishes are quite similar. Unexpectedly, rice and flat breads replace noodles for a good part of the trip.
As much a memoir as culinary travel narrative, Jen is curious about the role of women in the different countries she visits, and how they mix work, marriage, and raising a family. She learns that even seemingly modern men expect their wives to be very traditional, and that mother-in-laws rule in Central Asia. There is a funny scene when Jen doesn’t take her Western mother-in-law’s good advice, and is sorry the next day. In Iran, Jen and Craig feel uneasy, partly because they are required to have a government sponsored tour guide. After reaching Istanbul, they fly home to Beijing for the winter. Jen returns in the spring to visit Turkey, Greece, and Italy, where Craig joins her for the end of the journey. No questions about the origins of pasta are resolved, but many excellent meals are enjoyed along the way.
Approaching 70, author/journalist Philip Caputo decides it’s time to realize a dream; to drive from Key West, Florida to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. He reads up on the history and literature of the places he might visit, rents a vintage Airstream trailer, and finally asks his wife Leslie if she can join him on the trip and help take care of their two dogs. Leslie, a magazine editor, had already figured out a plan to work part-time while on the road.
They try to avoid expressways, but sometimes use them. Traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway, they are amazed by its beauty and lack of commercial development. A highlight is traveling the Lewis and Clark trail. Along the way, Caputo interviews 80 Americans, asking them what unites or divides us as a country. Their answers are varied, and thought-provoking. They visit small towns, national parks, reservations, historical monuments, and sample lots of regional food specialties. Traveling and camping with a small trailer and two dogs isn’t always easy, but it’s often funny, such as when Leslie meets “Mothra”, a huge moth, in a campground shower.
While I enjoyed reading about the road trip, it was the historical background Caputo shares with the reader that made the biggest impression on me, from learning about the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Nebraska setting for Willa Cather’s books, researching a soldier at the Battle of Little Bighorn, information about the national parks, and more. The small towns in decline were quite a contrast to communities like Grand Island, Nebraska, a multicultural melting pot with immigrants from many parts of the world recruited for factory jobs. References to other travel writers and memories of growing up in Chicago and Westchester round out the book. I think both history buffs and armchair travelers would find The Longest Road well worth reading, as well as anyone interested in reading about what other Americans think about our country today. Read more about the book and watch a book trailer on the author’s website.