I want Real Travel.
Not like the travel you see with such faces as Samantha Brown
, that effervescent soprano who springs in front of cameras from the Iron Curtain to Outer Mongolia in search of the perfect shiatsu massage. No, I don’t want the touristy nonsense; Mozart’s Birthplace, the Eiffel Tower, the Biggest Potato West of Memphis
. I don’t want tour buses in Munich or flashy light shows in Giza, I don’t want pink sand beaches or “Great Hotels.” I don’t want spaghetti and meatballs. And I definitely don’t want postcards. I want the real thing. I want what the locals have.
I want Anthony Bourdain.
I want to avoid the glitter and get immersed in the grit. It’s not a problem because my vintage leather jacket and I can handle anything. I want to get in shouting matches with stout bearded men in different languages. I want to bond with taxi drivers over the strongest liquor they have. I want to sit on a dock and share a pail of freshly caught Dungeness crab legs with someone—anyone, really—so they can tell me what it’s like to work with your hands. I want to find out how exotic foreigners--I mean locals--think Marlboro Reds are. I wonder what a Ray-Ban-clad American writer looks like in front of the Coliseum.
Brooding. I bet it’s brooding.
Well it’s definitely cool. And what could be a cooler place to learn about travelling to than 1930s America? Dust storms, campy advertising, bowler caps, a general work-ethicky feel. Lots of style. Very cool.
After reading just a couple introductions to books about travel in the 1930s, my fantasies have been dashed. It’s so obvious it seems silly to even say that travel in the 1930s is different from travel today, but it bears saying. It’s funny how we take for granted that travel itself is something that can be consumed. A DVD box set of Rick Steves’ Europe
or a glove compartment filled with AAA maps is as mundane in American households as a refrigerator filled with food. But the concept of travel as an attainable item (though not yet a consumable mass-culture commodity) first emerged in a time when one could take neither a refrigerator nor a household for granted
. How did—how could
—tourists in the 1930s rub elbows with drunk drifters and starving children?
The answer isn’t a simple one. But I think Erskine Caldwell begins to answer it in his preface to Some American People
: “What is worth traveling thousands of miles to see and know are people and their activity… only the understanding of man’s activity is satisfying” (4).
This is puzzling to the modern traveler. Orbiting erratically from place to place, he likes to think the scenery behind him is what’s changing. He needs to feel that although the world consists of a diverse patchwork of billions of people and settings, he is its stable center. In a way it’s the only way he can stay sane; either the world is an incomprehensible tornado of people, places, and information spinning just out of reach of his understanding, or he’s part of that tornado. Solipsism or nihilism, pick one.
Caldwell’s assertion of other people
hardly enters into the question of why we travel today, but it speaks to the ethos of the Depression. Sherwood Anderson speaks in similar terms; he derides Government as absent and “impersonal”, and alludes to his belief that travel is the best window a writer has to see Americans and their potential. And we certainly can learn a great deal about this era from such writers and artists. One of the first things that struck me about Nathan Asch’s writing was how personal it was. I’m used to picturing the 1930s as a vast light-brown landscape, murky with dust and dotted with frowns and tumbleweed. Asch’s conversations with complete strangers give a much more “human” feel to my understanding of the Depression. Simultaneously mundane and ironic, he tells stories of gruff coal tycoons, “Old South” librarians in Richmond, and several others in the course of a few pages. These vignettes seem both ordinary and tragic at once and illustrate the Depression as a detailed, nuanced story.
Understanding a place, time, or social group as part of a comprehensible story requires context and artistry, and travel is (or can be) a powerful impetus for that kind of creativity. Perhaps no such story compels us as identity-seeking Americans than the Great Depression. What happened in the 1930s—along with how and why—is to this day
the subject of fierce debates
that have major implications for our artistic, moral, and political culture. The fact that “the travel habit” developed at such a significant time in our history is no coincidence. By travelling, we found a colossal, diverse, and coherent country of others living together, working together, and suffering together. By travelling, we linked these experiences into a national identity that has persisted for generations.
So apparently, travel isn’t just a channel.
*Note: Edited for formatting and topic heading