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.

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24 thoughts on “It’s a Long and Dusty Road

  1. I agree with the idea that the aspects of each culture is different. This passage discusses music, and how some songs persuade the listener to be inspired and have the desire to experience that culture more fully. It is important to appreciate every culture and the people who are a part of it. The world is vast, which creates cultures to be very diverse. World travelers such as Sir John Mandeville and Marco Polo (who are discussed) experience the wonders of diverse cultures from their own. Writers create stories to make a point about how lives were lived.

  2. I think honestly culture of different places and people is perceived differently by each individual. Even if the facts are staring them in the face each person will have a different opinion or outlook on someone’s else culture. It is true however that music or even literature from another part of the world intrigues us to learn more. It becomes so interesting to us because its something we are unfamiliar with. I believe that some of the things such as culture that we think are barriers might be something that actually draws us closer.

  3. I think that it is interesting growing up in America, where it is mentioned in the blog to be country full of foreigners. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live a country that is fully cultured according to a certain ethnicitie’s customs. In America it seems as though there is no defined culture, except perhaps a common motto “to accept” (even though this country has not always been as accepting as it is, but that is another story). I agree that music or novels about a particular, different, place from one that the listener or reader can intrigue them to learn more. I also believe that the interest in such things breaks down any stereotypes that may have developed due to a lack of information about foreign areas. I find it interesting that Gulliver did not want to consider foreign areas to be an extension of his homeland. When I travel I hate doing “tourist” things, and I would rather spend my time learning the culture as if I were a resident.

  4. I think that like reading, when we travel to foreign lands we discover more about ourselves. Aside from the obvious thrills like learning about other cultures, traveling forces us to be independent and take our own paths in a place that is not familiar. By realizing that we are the foreigners in our travels, we have the opportunity to consider ourselves in a new perspective and act differently than we may have in our familiar society, much like Huck and Jim on the raft in Huckleberry Finn (at least it sounds like that from what you have explained of that scene). I also agree that it seems like as Americans we have gotten a bit too used to other countries learning our language. We forget that English isn’t the first language of every country and that we shouldn’t complain about the language classes we take in school since the level of rigor is a lot less intense here. But also that the English language is in most cases, the primary similarity among different cultures. One thing I would like to mention is that stereotypes targeting different cultures is a lack of understanding of that culture and unfortunately plays a much to powerful role in defaming those cultures. Some stereotypes last beyond generations and stay with society’s perception of certain cultures to the point that it affects the pride of the victimized cultures. If societies can learn to rise above stereotypes and hostilities towards what is referred to as “foreign” I think that there will be significant increase of tolerance and communication between all cultures and travel will be more enjoyable and smooth.

  5. I found your point about the American people with the common misconseption that everyone else are foreigners. Sometimes I feel like we as a whole (not the individual) can be a little ignorant to other cultures. A belief that is often heard amoung the States is that “Everyone should learn english.” I personally think that we should all try to learn multiple languages. If everything were boiled down to just one language, it would take away from the amazing diversity that our entire world contains. In fact, delving into other cultures has been show to help with academics. Many people believe, I being one of them, that learning a second, third, or even fourth language shows a positive improvement in the learning of other areas. Being able to learn a second language increases comprehension skills to a high degree. This is the reason that almost all colleges will provide some sort of study abroad program. Being immersed in a culture foreign to one can help a person appriciate their own culture even more.

  6. I agree that music encourages people to try to experience different cultures. Music forces people to experience other people’s ways of life because it is different from what we know. We recieve immediate insight into what is familiar to other cultures even if it is uncommon to us. By doing things such as learning other languages and traveling abroad, we become accustomed to them due to our own experience, rather than what others tell us about them.

  7. I agree with you that Keaton’s writing is indeed very comedic in nature. Your views on music and its ability to appreciate cultures without having experienced them firsthand. I can see the beauty of Alabama from the song “sweet home alabama” without having ever truly visited that area. Music, like poetry, art, and novels, gives us a view into a world we haven’t previously and may never see.

  8. I strongly agree with this reading. I feel that music from other cultures create a yearning to learn more. EVen though we live in one country, we are interested in the cultures of others. It is better for us to learn of other cultures becasue it separates us from what we are used to. We learn to appreciate and accept others. Many times we are foolish and forget how diverse each and every one one of us are. It is important for us to learn from others, after all every one of us live in this world.

  9. I agree that America is a place that has no defined culture. When going over to foregin places Americans have the preconcieved notion that everyone else knows English and that is not the case. Americans seem kind of rude when going over to differnt places but also other countries have their pre concieved notion about how Americans are. With traveling i would like to becuase i want to be exposed to the different cultures because you do not see alot of it in America. I think that people in America need to open up their mind and not let them think that they are superior such as with music. many cultures get to listen and learn from other palces. I really liked the blog and i never put this into my perspective until today it was great!

  10. I agree that music of different cultures allows the readers to in sense travel there through their imagination. However, I also believe that people perceive the meanings of songs and other cultures differently. People who are more open to different cultures and understanding other people’s ways would be more open to imagining the other cultures whereas people who are more closed-minded might not value the other cultures as much. I also agree that reading about other cultures, though provides out imaginations a setting, also give insight to our lives at home. When reading about how other people live we gain a view on how we live through different perspectives.

  11. I really enjoyed reading this blog because i feel the same way. In America we are so used to living such great lives and often take other things for granted like how we expect people in France to speak English. A few summers ago I got to travel to France and Italy, which I read about my whole life. Before I went on the trip I had to read and study the history of these countries since I was going as and a student Ambassador. When we got there the places described in books were so much better in real life but also i found language and cultural differences that i didn’t expect. In France I had an extremely hard time when this one lady started yelling at me in French. I had taken french for years but I could barely understand what she was saying. I later found out that she was yelling at me for stepping on her shoe but it is scary when I had no clue what she was saying to me.

  12. I agree with Buster Keaton, because I think also that when peolpe get to know something better they (can) get affraid of it. Otherwise when they don’t know the other side they have nothing to be affraid of, because they don’t even know there is anything that could be dangerous. So I think people have to decide between two things: get to know the other side with all it good and bad things. Or: stay, unknown about every existance of other sides. Therefore I understand why people say: “Ignorance is bliss”.

  13. I agree with the Axton’s belief that music is often the key that unlocks the cultural door, although I’ve really never put that much thought into it until now. I also agree that music influences people to try to learn about and experience different cultures. I think that when people hear music from a different culture, their imaginations take them to that culture in a sense. I also believe however, that what people think about different cultures varies from person to person. I also agree that America has no defined culture. Books usually are a good way of getting an idea of other cultures, although some may not portray it accurately.

  14. I agree with the blog in that people are inspired by foreign and far off lands. The world is made up of various different cultures that all have unique customs. I feel that people have the desire for the unknown because it motivates them to find out more. In addition I am in agreement with the idea that we are all strangers in a strange land because there is much to be learned from our surroundings that we are still unaware of. I also feel that music and literature play a key role in broadening ones views of different cultures. They are small samples of the unfamiliar.These works often play with peoples emotions causing them to take more interest. I disagree with Jim in “Huckleberry Finn” who finds it odd that English is not the universal language. I can see where he is coming from but if that were the case then the world would be very bland and far less diverse.

  15. I disagree with Buster Keaton, because I think it is not good for you to not know something/somebody. You can also get hurt from things you don’t know. Most of the time even the fact that you don’t know about people/happenings makes them dangerous. For example with an tornado: when you know that there is a tornado coming you can get to a savty place under the earth for example, and then the tornado won’t hurt you. But if you don’t know about it, and your maybe unknown in the countryside you could die. So in this case Ignorance wouldn’t be bliss, it would be the opposite, it would hurt.

  16. I agree with the idea that books can portray such a beautiful scene. While reading books such as the Twilight series By Stephanie Meyer, one can hardly avoid feeling like they know what Forks, Washington looks like because of the beautiful descriptions provided by Stephanie Meyer. I feel that things such as literature, music and art provide a way for us to be able to experience the world without having to even leave the comfort of our own home. Things like James Fennimore Coopers novel “The Last of the Mohican”, makes me feel as if i know what the wilderness was like during the French and Indian war. I think through our imagination, we are able to in a sense, travel across the universe.

  17. Culture is an interesting idea, to me, its the idea of a background, a history of a group of people. I don’t think it’s meant to be learned per say, but that it’s meant to be understood. You can understand culture through music, literature, art, language… and its interesting how different people interpret it in different ways. America is supposed to be a melting pot so to speak of different cultures, we aren’t individuals in that respect, because we “borrow” traditions, art, music, and even language. Everything is learned from somewhere else.

  18. I most certainly agree that music as well as hear-say intrigues our perceptions of culture. On the other hand, however, I disagree that we are able to gain the maximum potential of appreciation for such culture through means of these sources. Opposing the ideas discussed, I firmly believe that one may acquire adequate knowledge of a particular culture only through experiencing this culture directly for themselves. We each develop our own feelings toward a place, and, therefore, what others have to say, or sing for that matter, in regard to a place is devoid of meaning.
    In addition, my thoughts upon the idea of all others in the world as foreigners to America were provoked. This idea represents our society’s lack of exploring the world beyond America. This ignorant emphasis of the American way shows that there is so much more beyond that we have yet to discover as indivuals. Diversity is almost infinite.

  19. I agree with the idea that music gives a sample of the culture of the country it is from but only to a certain extent. As the boys in California found out when they traveled to Mexico, the music made the culture more fascinating then it really was. Music should be used as a source of culture but only when combined with other information about the country. As is obvious in the United States, there are many types of music listened to. If a foreigner based their idea of the United States off of a rap song without listening to or learning something else, they would be surprised at what they found when arriving in the United States. I also think it was foolish for Jim to believe that everyone speaks English. To assume everyone speaks English would assume that other countries would be willing to change part of the history and culture to make it easier for those countries that already speak English to understand them.

  20. I agree with the Keaton that people believe they are safe until they realize that everything is different. People are scared of change and stuff they are not used to. Also I would like to add that my experience in France was that French do not treat tourist. And it wasn’t just American tourists.

  21. Starting a conversation with someone who is from a different part of the world can be a great experience. Asking questions about what their life is like where they are from and what they see as the biggest adjustment to being in the U.S.. Mostly people will tell you how we Americans take for granted all that we have. But I try not to let the conversation get hung up on stereotypes. Individual feelings and thoughts are more important than what is considered the cultural norm. Not that social customs and identifying with certain values aren’t important. But reserve your judgement and be genuine in wanting to open up to understanding the world from someone else’s point of view.

  22. I agree that listening to different types of music can take your imagination to a new culture. Ususally through music, you get a sense of what somebody is going through in their life or how they are feeling about a particular subject. Music makes you feel how somebody else feels. Different cultures is different from what we know and therefore, people use music to express their culture and feelings so that other people can experience it as well.

  23. I agree that music can help you empathize with the singer or the persona in the song. I also think some styles of music are associated with certain places and cultures so that when you here the music it can kind of put you in a place as well as a mood or feeling.

    J. D.

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