It’s a Long and Dusty Road

“Never Been to Spain”
Hoyt Axton

It’s a Long and Dusty Road

Mexican Travel Poster

Tasco Travel Poster

Hoyt Axton in his song “Never Been to Spain” is a kind of imaginary traveler. He has never been to a number of places but appreciates their culture and people none the less. Music, for Axton, is often the key that unlocks the cultural door. Whether it is the music of Spain or the Beatles it often touches us emotionally and evokes in us an interest in the culture it claims to represent. The music of the Middle East is very different from that of Europe, as the music of most European countries is different from that of their European neighbors. Often the foreign, exotic sounds of the music creates a desire to see the culture that produced it, even when we don’t understand the words being sung or understand the purpose of the music or what inspired it.

I went to high school in the Los Angeles Harbor area, a little town called San Pedro. Richard Henry Dana in his book Two Years Before the Mast speaks of San Pedro as a dreary and desolate place. Of course he visited before the building of the breakwater that enclosed the harbor and made it a more satisfactory anchorage. From our back yard we could see the harbor and the comings and goings of the ships. I remember one year there was a longshoremen’s strike and the ships anchored outside the breakwater and there were ships anchored out to sea for almost as far as the eye could see (or so I remember it).

But like Hoyt Axton we would listen to music and while in high school a popular band was The Tijuana Brass. They were a group of guys playing trumpets who, to us, looked like Italians playing Mexican music. Tunes like “The Tijuana Taxi” and “The Lonely Bull” evoked Mexico to us and gave us a desire to visit and experience the culture more fully, a much easier place to visit than Spain, being only about a hundred miles down the coast. When we finally went to Mexico it became clear that the music painted a more romantic picture than the reality, though our visits to Rosarita Beach and Ensenada were always great fun.

My favorite story about a book involving travel concerns Bram Stoker and his book Dracula (the story is told in the first Annotated Dracula). The opening chapters of the book take place in the Transylvanian mountains and other colorful locations in Eastern Europe. In the novel Stoker has his character, Jonathan Harker, describe the countryside through which he travels as well as the local customs he encounters, the food he eats, and the wine he drinks.

After the book was published Stoker was asked to speak to various organizations about his travels because it was assumed he could not have written so compelling about these places if he had not been there. In fact Stoker never left England. He did all of his research for the novel in London’s fine libraries. I like this story because it suggests the possibility of not just knowing well a culture and people we have never visited, but of appreciating that culture and people.

In this weeks Sunday New York Times (12-07) book review section there is an article devoted to books on the automobile industry that made America a nation in a sense defined by its mobility and the ability to travel. Growing up our television encouraged us to “see the USA in a Chevrolet” and to travel America first by using the vast highway system to explore every corner between our eastern and western beaches. There is another article on travel books. These books are about kayaking the South China Sea and motorcycling through the Congo and traveling the United States in a Mercedes Benz that runs on used cooking oil. These books all remind us of the vastness of the world, the diversity of its cultures and the yearning for adventure that abides in the hearts of most, even those who at heart are like hobbits who, as a people, dislike traveling too far from their front door.

Painting of Sir John Mandeville

Full-page portrait of Sir John Mandeville.
Source “Travels” by John Mandeville (created 1459). Via NYPL Digital Gallery

Sir John Mandeville is one of my favorite travelers. There are those who question whether or not he traveled anywhere. Many of the stories that he tells recount popular beliefs of mythological beasts that were believed to live in far away places. He talks of people with only one leg that operates something like a pogo stick and of people without heads whose faces are in the middle of their chests. (Some of these creatures make an appearance in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader one of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books.) Today we are fairly certain such creatures do not exist, so at best Sir John was having a bit of fun at the expense of the untraveled medieval reader.

Another medieval world traveler was Marco Polo. He did indeed go to China and became a civil servant in the court of Kublai Khan. When he returned to Venice he ended up in jail for some reason and started telling his travel stories to a fellow prisoner who told him he should write a book, which Marco eventually did (his fellow prisoner wrote it down). His book talks of a world few had seen and his accounts of his travels through China still captivate readers to this day. Though there are elements that are bit far fetched they are usually stories Marco heard from others and is merely reporting.

Picture of Marco Polo traveling

Marco_Polo_traveling.JPG‎ (488 × 364 pixels, file size: 53 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)
Marco Polo travelling, Miniature from the Book “The Travels of Marco Polo” (“Il milione”), originally published during Polos lifetime(September 15, 1254 – January 8, 1324), but frequently reprinted and translated .

By a serendipitous twist of fate it works out every year that we study Gulliver’s Travels in British Literature at the same time we are studying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in American Literature. Both of these books involve travel one to places that have never existed and one to a place that is rich with historical and cultural significance. The point of these stories, though, is not to take us to exotic places and give us a sampling of their flavors but to make a point about how lives were lived at home. In both cases the travelogue aspects of the book are not the point. Both books effectively skewer the cultures in which their author’s lived.

Sherlock, Jr.
Buster Keaton, 1924

Buster Keaton captures another side of motorized mobility. His is a somewhat carefree journey until he realizes that no one is piloting the motorcycle. Keaton was a master of the visual gag and slapstick comedy. His best films make use of machines, especially machines in motion, like trains, steamboats, and motorcycles. In his films he is often on a journey and the vehicles on which he travels are conspiring against him. One advantage to reading of the journeys others take, even journeys to non-existent places, is that the reader can share in many of the experiences of the traveler while assuming few of the risks.

To a certain extent as travelers we are like Keaton on his motorcycle without a driver. Like Keaton before he realizes he is alone we feel relatively safe and that everything is under control when in fact we are strangers in a strange land. People often say the French do not treat tourists, especially American tourists, very well. My experience was very different, with few exceptions. America is a nation of immigrants and people from different lands are always coming here. As a result we are used to thinking of people from other countries as foreigners. Many bring this attitude with them when they travel to other countries. Perhaps we are a bit like Jim in Huckleberry Finn who finds it odd that the French do not speak English. If all cows moo and all dogs bark than it stands to reason that all men share a common language as well, which, of course, is English.

Part of the adventure of travel comes from realizing we are the foreigners. Gulliver always realizes this and brings a zest and enthusiasm to his discovery of each new land where circumstance brings him. He is not at all like the traveler that views each new land as an extension of his homeland. In fact his experiences in each place he visits increases his feelings of alienation from the culture and people of his own country. These feelings of alienation eventually drive Gulliver mad. There is always this danger for the traveler perhaps, of feeling so far from home that she or he forgets what home is and what it is about home that is, or at least should be, warm and inviting and a shelter from the storms of life.