A dangerous or difficult road can be the subject of a journey; the magic carpet isn’t. The classic travel story is a tale of risk, often a quest, a retelling in trekker’s gear of The Odyssey, and concerned with enduring the vicissitudes of a quest, and then getting home safely. Such a book becomes a mimicry of many legends, but particularly of the traveler beset by obstacles—demons, witches, bandits, whirlpools, the temptations of sirens, a chronicle of delays. “We walk through ourselves,” Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses, summing up the travel experience, “meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.” The torments of the road are the tale, and the getting there is the subject of most travel books, from the 17th-century Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1849) to the great travel books of our own day: the vomiting camels of Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, the muddy Congo paths of Redmond O’Hanlon’s No Mercy, the flitting and plodding of Bruce Chatwin in In Patagonia—and, I should add, to a lesser degree, nearly everything in travel that I have written. The travel book is, typically, about struggling to a destination.
But in America the journey is a picnic: traveling anywhere, particularly in the empire of the open road, is so easy as to be superfluous to write about. The challenging fact is that, because of our superior connectedness, one cannot write about the United States in the way one does any other country—certainly it is cheating to pretend that it is any sort of logistical ordeal.
“The land was big and varied, in parts wild. But it had nearly everywhere been made uniform and easy for the traveler,” V. S. Naipaul writes in his book of Southern travels. “One result was that no travel book (unless the writer were writing about himself) could be only about the roads and the hotels.” He goes on to say that America is not alien enough, which is questionable: in his trip through the South, Naipaul concentrated on the larger cities, and his stated theme was the lingering effects of slavery (Slave States was a provisional title for his book). In a helpful insight he adds, “[America] is too well known, too photographed, too written about; and, being more organized and less informal, it is not so open to casual inspection.”
That is, unless you’re deliberately creating obstacles or indulging in mock heroics, in a narrative based on a Victorian model of what travel writers are supposed to do—suffer, be afraid, overcome hardships, endure privations and bizarre rituals, find the Heart of Darkness, meet the Jumblies, converse with God-botherers and Mudmen, observe the Anthropophagi and the Men Whose Heads Do Grow Beneath Their Shoulders, be heroic, and survive to tell the tale. Many do, even in this happy land. I think of their books as mock ordeals.
Adapted from Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads by Paul Theroux, to be published this month by Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, © 2015 Paul Theroux. All rights reserved.