I’ll be honest: I read travel writing because I fantasize about escaping my life. “Escaping” and “my life” take on different meanings depending on when you’re asking me — I might envision running off to southern France and WWOOFing, or I might be fleeing a shitty job (or shittier relationship) — but the overall fantasy is that by being elsewhere I’ll be more at peace than I am in banal here.
One of my recurrent plans for escaping was to walk the Camino de Santiago and spin the experience into a book deal, or at least a magazine article that would cover passage to Paris. So it was with a professional interest, and maybe a bit of competitive espionage, that I read Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction. The book, out earlier this month from Riverhead, is Lewis-Kraus's account of walking the Camino, touring Buddhist temples in Japan, and then going on a final trek with his estranged father. It’s an entertaining series of anecdotes written by a person with interesting things to say — at times acerbic and inflexible, GLK still appears1 to be self-aware enough to criticize himself, and he is genuinely funny. So while I found myself resenting his travels in the beginning of the book, by the end I’d forgiven him the privilege of dawdling. It even seems like he grew as a person walking all those miles, and along the way he crafted some fine sentences, tripped over some knotty insights.
Which is not always the case with journey narratives. Sometimes the narrator remains unchanged; sometimes she aches so much for glimmering enlightenment that when she claims to perceive it, she sounds like an imbecile. And sometimes a journey only reveals flaws, but does nothing to rectify them. Like my perception of Dean Moriarty in On the Road: he goes from being a god, basically, to being a smear of shit stuck in the treads of our readerly jackboots. As “hopeful” and “restless” (2) as we are, I'm sure we all appreciate a bit of growth in our travel writer. It affirms our own desire, makes us more assured of the cathartic possibility of our fantastic journey.
Now that the Camino is well on its way to being played out (there’s even a Martin Sheen movie about it), I’m going to have to come up with some other long march into the stillpoint of the turning world. Maybe ascending Machu Picchu. While on an ayahuasca trip. With a travel guide that is five decades out of date.
1. What "appears" of the narrator of a memoir is always suspect, because it is always self-description, always self-fashioning. Of course a writer wants to believe he has grown or learned something at the end of his trek. And an editor working for the publishing house hawking said account is going to want these “realizations” to read convincingly. So the process is aimed at producing insight, discovery, growth—even if these warming sensations are just part of the genre, and not a representation of the writer's experience.
2. A Sense of Direction has one of the worst subtitles I’ve ever seen:Pilgrimage for the Restless and Hopeful. I doubt that GLK had much to do with that second descriptor; there’s little that is “hopeful” about his narrative, and he seems to hold most of the saccharinely positive people he encounters — whether in person or through their guidebooks — as hopelessly deluded.
Image: flickr user Matteo DT