In Other Words
A new book explores the roots of deep travel -- as necessary for Manhattan homebodies as for madcap foreign correspondents.
I had never been to Afghanistan. In fact, I had never set foot anywhere near Central Asia before. I was an Africa correspondent. Dispatched with a few hours’ notice to cover the fall of the Taliban, I landed in neighboring Uzbekistan, having gathered everything I knew of that particular country from the in-flight magazine. A binary vocabulary in Russian (da, nyet) got me aboard a taxicab that wheezed toward Tajikistan. Tajikistan, my editors assured me, was the best jumping off point for the war. Sadly, it wasn’t a small place; it’s about the size of Greece. After clearing a remote border checkpoint, I blinked out, in stunned silence, over a frozen steppe that scrolled vacantly to all horizons. I had no map. I had 15 grand squirreled in my socks and a half-eaten Hershey bar in my pocket.
“Oxus?” I hollered at the Mongol-faced truck drivers parked along a road.
Nobody, probably, had heard that name used for Afghanistan’s frontier river, the Amu Darya, since the end of the British Raj. (My local geography came from Kipling.) I hopped sheep trucks like a hobo. The drivers left me at a series of increasingly desolate crossroads. Thumbing into a conflict I knew almost nothing about, I grimaced down at my mud-swallowed shoes: flimsy street loafers pulled on in subtropical Johannesburg.
Seat-of-the-pants navigation is the norm in parachute journalism. It can be stressful. Yet what I remember most from those days of near-perfect “lost-ness” on the old Silk Road isn’t anxiety, but a strange and euphoric clarity. Stymied by the Cyrillic signage, rendered deaf-mute by the wall of language, marooned inside my cultural ignorance, I was engaged in purest travel. I used clues in body language and the contrails of high-flying jets to grope my way forward. I actually took my bearings from the sun. Never before had I felt more en pointe, more focused within a landscape — exhilaratingly so. It was a mental state at once dreamlike and electrically alert. I simply intuited where I was.
This latent hyper-awareness of the hunter-gatherer — for that’s how I interpret such experiences — now has its bard in Tony Hiss, the improbably urban and urbane author of a remarkable new book, In Motion: The Experience of Travel.
A former staff writer at the New Yorker, Hiss doesn’t appear to have ventured terribly far from his home island of Manhattan. He has written 12 previous books, ranging from an award-winning rumination on the impact of landscapes on the psyche to a chronicle of his family. His father, the diplomat Alger Hiss, was one of the better-known victims of the postwar anti-Communist witch hunts.
But by roaming inquisitively through disciplines as varied as psychology and archeology, literature, and even urban design, Hiss has produced a magisterial safari through what he calls Deep Travel — “the feeling of waking up further while already awake” — that comes with being on the move. It is a paean to human wanderlust that rivals the gemlike travelogues of Bruce Chatwin. Unlike Chatwin, however, who could be a snob about exotica, Hiss points out that the rewards of journeying are everywhere, because they’re interior — they can be tapped as easily with a walk down the block as in Patagonia.
And this counterintuitive leap turns In Motion into that rare thing — a genuinely subversive book. It upends the genre of travel writing.
The author ambles out of his Greenwich Village walkup and notices the usually distracted expressions of fellow New Yorkers drawn into a taut, watchful point: A swooping peregrine falcon has opened their eyes to where they are. Or he sits in an Amtrak train and realizes that, by actually studying the drab “unseen” backs of houses and billboards lining the tracks, he has slipped into a state of pleasant lucidity somewhere between a daydream and intense concentration — a kind of Zen of travel. It’s all about attentiveness.
Hiss has written the first democratic travel guide: for homebodies as much as wannabe National Geographic expeditionaries.
Travel “is a built-in, active, oddly ignored, complex, discriminating, many-dimensioned, and remarkably ancient capacity,” he reminds us. “We grow up fully equipped for adventuring.”
Roughly 45 million years ago, a “superplume” of magma bulged 1,500 miles up from the Earth’s mantle, forging mountains in eastern Africa that chopped rainforest into woodlands and desert — a mosaic that ultimately drove early apes down from the dwindling trees to forage on foot. Except for the briefest heartbeat of our recent existence — starting 10,000 years ago, with the invention of agriculture — we never stopped rambling. Our obsession with suburban lawns, Hiss suggests, citing one ecologist, may even sprout from a wistful collective memory of the African savannas that birthed our footloose bipedalism.
In Motion bubbles with such nifty scientific insights, including an adroit recapitulation of how the act of standing up, which elevated our eyes high enough to take in wider vistas, expanded our consciousness by igniting an “enduring, novel, distinctive ability to participate in the landscape, a talent that has long since outlived the original, limited aim of walking.”
And it is precisely this focus — probing our abiding nomad brain — that make Hiss’s book relevant to ordinary readers, and not just professional drifters such as foreign correspondents, reindeer herders, diplomats, and errant WikiLeaks founders.
He ruminates, for example, on how mass movements inside the hard “third skins” of our cars and planes (the “second skin” being our clothing) has suffocated our primordial travel awareness, and how those ancient, life-enriching senses can be revived with simple alterations of landscaping and engineering.
Hiss lauds installation artist Robert Irwin’s plan to integrate the Miami International Airport with its marshy native environment, complete with a park-like oasis for jetlagged travelers to regain a sense of place. Like most of us, he also bemoans the Spam-in-a-can soullessness of most public transport, cheering on dreamers like Bill Stumpf, the inventor of the ergonomic chair, who is proposing Plexiglass vista-domes in the noses of passenger jets.
Meanwhile, taking a cue from India’s ancient “road beautifying” emperor Ashoka, Hiss has founded a citizen’s group, NatureRail, to build parks and short walking trails around the gritty rail lines of the greater New York City area — a means of giving harried commuters some tangible connection to the blurred way-stations of their daily lives.
Other eloquent wanderers, of course, have explored the booming but shallow nature of our modern, speedy, unfulfilling, and destination-obsessed way of moving around.
Pico Iyer’s anthropology of a new, global airport class comes to mind. And in journalism, the great Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski carved his distinctive mark by inventing his own version of Deep Travel — a return to an older, more human pace of reportage, absorbing information with a hunter’s patience and alertness, and thus offering perhaps a clearer vision of the white noise we call “news.”
“I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal,” begins a typical Kapuscinski story in rural Ghana. “Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward. This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else — wider, deeper — may be considerably more interesting and important.”
Hiss would agree emphatically. Best of all, he brings such nomad lessons home.
The most lyrical passages in In Motion describe how the 2003 blackout in New York jarred an entire bustling metropolis — the apex of sedentary life — into a state of Deep Travel: Manhattanites gaped at lingering sunsets for the first time in years; and with thousands of air conditioners silenced, neighbors could hear hushed conversations across the street. An old wonder was rediscovered.
“[T]he principal thing that has stayed with me is the sense that I got to touch bedrock more than once during that day,” Hiss recalls in his wise re-examination of human restlessness in an age of mass migrations and epic urbanization. “Simple actions — dealing with traffic and moving through slowly fading daylight — had given me a chance to see into several unfamiliar corners of myself.”
As traveling, gloriously lost, to the unknown banks of the Amu Darya once did for me. I eventually did find the Afghan war. But that’s another journey altogether.