Some Notes on the Travel Narrative, with Special Emphasis on Tony Horwitz's One for the Road: Hitchhiking through the Australian Outback
by Martin Kich
Travel narratives must be distinguished from travel guides, such as the annuals published by Fodor. The guides are impersonal, directed toward tourists who want a quick familiarity with the geography, history, and culture of the places they visit so that they can pass themselves off as knowledgeable while they browse the shops for souvenirs passed off as native wares. The guides' purpose and audience is evident in the concision of the presentation of the background information and the thorough detailing of the amenities offered by hotels, restaurants, and points of interest. In sum, the printed travel guides perform much the same function as their flesh-and-blood counterparts, masking their inevitable condescension under an unfailingly efficient, helpful, and reassuring manner.
The travel narratives that appear in most general periodicals--and especially those in more specialized magazines such as those published by Automobile Associations--are actually superficial travel guides presented in running paragraphs, rather than in blocked segments. The purpose of these articles is to promote destinations and to advertize the airlines and cruiselines that offer comfortable accommodations en route. The traveler might worry a bit about air turbulence or rough seas, but for the most part the jets and oceanliners serve to eliminate the "travel" from traveling: in effect, the traveler does not give up the comforts of home for the adventure of the "road"; instead, the traveler is provided with a sort of moving home in which he or she can relax until arriving at the destination, which must offer, then, comforts greater than those available at home.
When general periodicals deviate from the travel-guide formula, they generally offer the sort of clipped narratives that Charles Kuralt has made his trademark, first in his reports for the Evening News and then in book-length compilations of those reports. Given their necessary brevity, these are really more vignettes than narratives. There is little room for the quiet details of experience to accumulate. As a result, these vignettes highlight the weirdly ordinary: if the subject lacks a certain degree of weirdness, it will not seem worthy of particular notice; likewise, if it is not ordinary, it will require more explanation than space permits. What results is a verbal equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting--a highly colored slice of life that makes even the barber seem interesting or that seems to suggest that off every backroad there resides someone who has been collecting belt buckles for seventy years.
The genuine travel narrative can be distinguished from these counterfeits by the personal voice of the traveler/narrator and by its emphasis on the traveling itself as, ultimately, a single, if extended experience. The traveler/narrator recognizes that he is an outsider in the places he visits, that he is as often as not as much a curiosity to the natives as they are to him, and that the "exotic" landscape is, more often than not, inhospitable, especially to outsiders.
Although most of the world has been mapped in the sense that there are no longer the sort of "blank" spaces that drew adventurers into the Great American Desert or the Heart of Africa, the traveler/narrator recognizes that there are still vast, largely empty expanses made all the more interesting by the hardy and the foolhardy, the desperate and the desperadoes, who followed the adventurers and, upon reaching some arbitrary place near the ends of the earth, found themselves left behind. Psychologically, the traveler/narrator is driven by impulses that, paradoxically, provide a sort of kinship with many of the people whom he happens upon, whether they have been immobilized by their geography or they have taken to the road in a near-maddened exercise of free movement. Ironically, then, the traveler/narrator might be seen as the new adventurer, not, as his predecessors were, in the vanguard of civilization, but, instead, following its trail of debris to outposts it has all but abandoned.
In the last half-century, the genuine travel narrative has, in America, become something of an alternative genre for prolific novelists in mid- to late-career. One suspects that the novelists have taken to the road to get the creative juices flowing again, or at least to avoid having to stare into the dry river beds of their imaginations. Erskine Caldwell's Around about America and John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley belong to this sub-genre. Curiously, they also illustrate the tendency of some traveller/narrators to overlay their accounts with a socio-political perspective that, in effect, intrudes between the traveler and the traveling--insisting that the traveling provide some sort of canned metaphor. For all of their interesting detail, psycho-spiritual travel narratives, such as Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and even Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, suffer from a related, if perhaps more ethereal, limitation: the modes of transportation, the motorcycle and Kesey's bus, become metaphors that compete with the landscapes--that require their complements in the landscapes. Though the traveler/narrator is, in his transient isolation, inevitably self-absorbed, he is in these cases the self-absorption does not really provide much of a counterpoint to truly transcendent moments, because the transcendent experience has been pre-defined rather than stumbled upon.
More effective is the sort of travel narrative found in William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, though it does at times seem to blend elements of the Kuralt and Pirsig narratives. Indeed, the strangeness of that combination may even elevate those moments to something close to the sort of sustained, bemused realization--not confirmation--of expectations found in travel narratives such as Ian Frazier's Great Plains. Frazier's book provides the reader with a journey that he would not afterwards conceive of making, but that he finds so engaging, as a narrative account, that he must keep reading just as the traveler/narrator keeps moving. The sudden realization of expectations becomes, in effect, a shared experience for the traveler/narrator and the reader because the writer limits the distance between his functions as traveler and narrator. In a sense, the experience is like noticing something for the first time along a route that one frequently travels: one has not noticed it beforehand because it fits so unobtrusively into what has become very familiar; yet, once noticed, it changes one's perception of its setting because it gives the familiar a certain complexity, suggesting the availability of symbol without providing in itself a ready symbol. In this way, the realizations of the traveler/narrator accumulate, making the account more meaningful in proportion to the degree to which explicit meanings are not insisted upon. The technique is very similar to the relation of character (often character/narrator) and object exposed in the best of Wright Morris' novels.
When the traveler/narrator ventures outside America, he must resist the impulse to exaggerate either his naivete or his sophistication. In the first instance, everything unusual becomes exotic; in the second, everything unfamiliar becomes inferior. In his accounts of his travels by train across Central and South America, the Balkans, and the People's Republic of China, Paul Theroux has found a compelling middle ground between the two stances. In resisting the first, he is able to convey the dulling sense of the routine that becomes overwhelming on any extended travel, that is compounded by travel in a foreign place because routine circumstances become routinely complicated, but no more interesting, due to differences in language and custom. In resisting the second, he is able to convey the small moments of insight that occur because something foreign is suddenly perceived as familiar, because experience and memory have momentarily intersected in such a way that the sense of self presents a fluid, rather than a fixed, point of reference. He does not presume to be attuned to his surroundings but is receptive to them, even to the point of being at times repelled by them. He neither denies his expectations nor imposes them on his experiences: he is more a net than a filter.
Thus, the traveler and the landscape, the narrator and the narration, become full complements, and the reader very willingly accedes to traveling by proxy. If, for instance, being chased by rabid dogs in Patagonia is something that Theroux recalls with the wry appreciation of a survivor, his recollection is itself more than enough for the rest of us, who perhaps have been snapped at by a neighbor's dog when we tried to chase him from our lawn. Indeed, it is now more than enough for Theroux himself, who admits to having no desire to repeat the experience--to retrace his own footsteps, so to speak--and so there is no implication of any romance in our doing so. The narration permits us to have the experience without the risk, but, more importantly, it does not suggest that the reading experience is somehow less valid than the actual experience. We are not, after all, being given necessary instructions on how to avoid rabid dogs in Patagonia, nor are we being told, in fact, that a confrontation with rabid dogs is character-defining stuff particularly in Patagonia. We are not left with the feeling, such as one gets from Hemingway's account of the running of the bulls at Pamplona, that we have missed out on something essential.
To the contrary, we get the feeling that Theroux travels, at least in part, to elucidate for himself, as well as for us, why he feels compelled to travel. And we read his travel narratives because, beyond his routes and specific experiences, his compulsion is in itself compelling. The rabid dogs are at least as interesting for their having chased Theroux as for their existing in Patagonia; at the same time, the anecdote, like the entire narrative, is inextricably linked to its setting--so much so, in fact, that we cannot, I think, distinguish what the anecdote derives from Theroux's broader description of the place and what it contributes to the overall impression of that place.
Though we accept that Theroux's perceptions are accurately conveyed, whether or not they are accurate in themselves is a question less easily answered. Certainly, he gets most of the geographical and historical facts right, but a number of reviewers have argued that he is unduly unflattering in what he chooses to focus on--that he has, in effect, gone to the opposite extreme from the travel articles published by the Automobile Associations and similar organizations. I would argue that, though much of the charm of Theroux's narratives derives from their offering a counterpoint to sanitized tourist promotions, the underlying assumption of his narratives seems to be simply that almost anywhere one goes will fail to measure up to one's home base, wherever it is--assuming that one has the resources to travel, to begin with. The traveler has no reason to ignore what the resident may choose not to notice. Most of the world can be made to look more attractive in a photograph than it generally looks firsthand, and the traveler/narrator in the Theroux vein is driven to see what the camera misses, but does so with something of a camera eye. The result is, perhaps, the narrative equivalent of a series of prints by Walker Evans, which, in their unsparing but humane clarity, transcend the proletarian propaganda of his many of his contemporaries.
Tony Horwitz's One for the Road: Hitchhiking through the Australian Outback [1987. New York: Vintage, 1988] is a truly compelling travel narrative in the Theroux mode. Horwitz, an American immigrant working as a reporter for a Sydney newspaper, had hitchhiked extensively in America. Although on the whole those experiences had been anything but uplifting, the historical impenetrability of the outback and his own sense of impending middle-age have combined to lure him into the region. Indeed, his choosing to hitchhike across most of the Australian continent west and northwest of the urban sprawl of the southeast coast is less a bid to recapture his youth than a last concession to its passing.
Thus, from the outset, Horwitz is ambivalent about his undertaking. On the one hand, he recognizes that, at least in retrospect, the experience will stand out as one of the great adventures of his life, in part because he is old enough to know that he is acting on impulse and thereby needlessly exposing himself to potentially grave misadventures. On the other hand, he anticipates, at least in general terms, the physical discomforts and spirit-numbing monotony that he will endure for the sake of a few very vivid memories, and so the romantic impulse is very much balanced by a sort of grim determination to proceed for the sake of proceeding.
As he moves across the outback, Horwitz does provide some historical background on the very few places worth identifying on even this largely empty map. But, if one is interested in that sort of thing, Alan Moorehead's Cooper's Creek, a chronicle of the exploration and settlement of the region, will be much more satisfying. The primary attraction of Horwitz's narrative is in his perception of the comic-pathetic figure he cuts as he tries to retain his dignity while, in effect, begging for the sympathy of passing drivers and others.
On his first day out of Sydney, he is left off at a crossing where he is immediately set upon by swarms of flies and very nearly blinds himself trying to apply insect-repellant. Some days later, he wakes to a cyclone in the middle of the night; his clothes have been torn from his backpack and are swirling around him. He ends up frantically dressing himself in layers and finds it most convenient and even self-protective to pull his extra undershorts on over his head. But this headgear marks him as a lunatic when he wakes abruptly to the sound of the first of the few vehicles to pass down the road the next day.
In the central desert, he finds unexpectedly good-natured companions in a group of beer-guzzling aborigines, but their vehicle has two wheels in the junkyard (in this case, any place along the mere track of a road where it might finally break down). In addition, he realizes afterwards that a leaking can of diesel fuel has soaked his clothing and backpack, so that not only is he covered in red dust that makes him look like an aborigine, but he and everything he owns smells of a nauseating combination of spilled beer and fuel. He makes it to Coober Pedy, site of a largely worked-out opal mine and the location for the apocalyptic film The Road Warriors. Here, everyone lives in underground dugouts to avoid the searing heat, and he is left to try to bathe himself and launder his clothes with a few gallons of soapy water in a dirt-walled room, with a single-bulbed light and one small airshaft cut through the ten-foot thick ceiling to ground-level.
Out among the vast wheat farms of South Australia, he is picked up by a family of Tasmanians in a camper. Although they provide a ride across much of the state, the inside of the vehicle smells thickly of the cherry-filled sweet rolls that they eat continuously, and Edna, the wife/mother, seems intent on loudly expressing every unreasoned hatred and narrow-minded opinion that an Australian might embrace. For instance, she declares that "'the only good [kanga]roo is the one that jumps in front of your car.'"
Then, just north of Perth, he signs on to work a day on a lobster boat, without pay, so that he might see the western tip of Australia from off-shore. Not only does he spend the entire day vomiting, sometimes over the rail and sometimes over himself, depending on the boat's pitch, but he also has to listen to the non-stop jabber of a crewman who thinks that scatological humor is high wit and who prides himself on the number of slang expressions he knows for each bodily function. Before Horwitz knows better, he mentions that he and his friends used to refer to vomiting as "Calling Earl"; thus, each time that he vomits, he hears the crewman boisterously call out the phrase above the crash of the waves.
Through all of this, Horwitz never pretends that he is anything but an outsider, and he recognizes that his hitchhiking will inevitably bring him into close contact with people routinely or desperately on the edge of madness. That he becomes acquainted with some people who under any circumstances might be judged normal becomes something almost miraculous in this context. In the end, he has persisted, and he has a store of tales to tell. Although one might expect the resulting narrative to provide some sort of underlying metaphor for the ugly encroachment of civilization into the outback or, more broadly, for the excesses of contemporary culture, Horwitz resists the impulse to make more of his journey than what it has been--a unreasonable, wonderful, wearying passage through a region so raw and unforgiving that it seems to dwarf even man's most ruthless efforts to despoil it. As Horwitz admits, it is not the sort of place one needs to pass through twice or, because we now have Horwitz's account, even once.