TRAVEL BOOK ROUNDUP -- WALL STREET JOURNAL 

 

By Dave Shiflett

     

    As our wondrous herd lurches toward immunity, many Americans have traded their masks for traveling shoes. The book industry is right in step, offering a slew of titles showing the way to destinations great and small and offering innovative ways to get there.

    Jeralyn Gerba and Pavia Rosati offer a comprehensive guidebook in “Travel North America (And Avoid Being a Tourist)” (Hardie Grant, 283 pages, $29.99). It begins with the dizzying observation that we live on a “furiously spinning globe” beset by potential apocalypses. No worries. Healing can be fostered if the wandering class behaves more like “travelers” than “tourists,” the latter notorious for staying in “hotels owned by large corporations” and for drinking too much bottled water. Travelers “avoid big cruise ships,” hold haggling to a minimum, and bunk in places like A Room at the Beach in Bridgehampton, N.Y., a bungalow once owned by Martha Stewart that, for all its glories, might vaporize what remains of a stimulus check far faster than Motel 6.

     

    Readers hoping to undo the damage inflicted by Grubhub pizza sherpas can follow the authors’ directions to the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail or burn excess blubber by trekking to high-country huts in Colorado. Those suffering from post-pandemic stress can seek healing context at Winslow, Ariz., where Mother Nature dropped a meteor some 50,000 years ago, devastating neighborhood life forms but leaving behind a crater that makes an awesome selfie backdrop. A similar reminder that our era has not been singled out for rough treatment is found at the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, where many a prehistoric beast met a gooey end, their agonies detailed in a pleasant museum that made the authors’ list.

     

    Travelers whose artistic sensibilities were not satisfied by the work of Joe Exotic and other lockdown luminaries will find welcome relief in “101 Art Destinations in the U.S.” (Rizzoli Electa, 271 pages, $14.98). Veteran scribe Owen Phillips covers museums famous and remote, cave drawings, and even funk superstar George Clinton’s “Mothership”—an iconic spaceship-shaped stage prop—at Washington’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Along the way Mr. Phillips supplies interesting asides. Money guy Nelson Rockefeller, as we know, made great contributions to several collections at the Metropolitan Museum in New York; the connection between art and commerce is also on display at the nearby Carlyle Hotel, which swapped accommodations for murals by artist Ludwig Bemelmans, famous for his Madeline books. In Boston, the art of art theft is acknowledged at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, whose Dutch Room displays the frames from which thieves posing as police officers sliced two Rembrandts and a Vermeer during a 1990 heist.

     

    Mr. Phillips reminds us that art raises spirits—and hackles. The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama, which depicts Pickett’s charge, may strike some as a cautionary tale about the dangers of joining the infantry. Other observers, he writes, criticize it “for showing valor on both sides with no judgment or sign of the underlying causes for the war”—a message that might require an additional cyclorama or two. A more creative protest met Pablo Picasso’s untitled five-story steel portrait at Chicago’s Daley Plaza, unveiled in 1967. A science-fiction writer erected a giant pickle on the site to pan the piece in advance. Piling on, journalist Mike Royko wrote of the Picasso that “its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and the weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner.” In Richmond, Va., where most Confederate statuary has been removed, visitors to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts can still pose beside a full-figure statue of Caligula, the controversial Roman statesman.

    Those seeking to end their bout of house arrest with a longer and perhaps stranger trip will find kindred spirits in Ben and Roxy Dawson, authors of “The Falcon Guide to Van Life” (Falcon Guides, 223 pages, $24.95). The authors note that “discontent is on the rise in the sedentary lives of twenty-first-century Americans.” They have a cure: Make like a turtle—hit the road and take your accommodations along for the ride.

    The authors tell us that they’ve been living in a van since 2017 and discovering nomadic bliss: “rock climb in the morning, float a river that evening, have a drink by the fire at the end of the day.” Their book is rich with information about vans both humble and sumptuous; the strategies for finding free campsites; and the best websites for scoring regional work. Practical advice abounds. “When in a pinch, don’t underestimate a water bottle with a hole poked in the top to use as a makeshift shower.” On-board toilets, meanwhile—given the tight quarters—can “make for some awkward mornings if one of us had to use the bathroom while the other was making breakfast.” One solution: “Carry a large shovel. The ease of digging a hole with a larger shovel relieves some stress of going in nature.” This is the innovative spirit that drove prairie schooners across the frontier.

    The authors even offer a strategy for overcoming unreliable gasoline supplies. Diesel-powered vans can be converted to run on the vegetable oil that restaurants dispose of after cleaning their deep-fat fryers. As of now, the ransomware bandits have overlooked this fuel source.

    Yet another threat to placid travel must be noted, one every bit as annoying as bears, mosquitoes and quicksand pits. The culprit, Amber Share writes in “Subpar Parks” (Plume, 205 pages, $22), is fellow humans suffering from what might be called the Yelp virus.

    Ms. Share’s amusing indictment of the “least impressed visitors” to America’s most sublime sites is based on reviews, many from online sources, of the 400-plus parks, monuments and other areas managed by the National Park Service. One critic panned the Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park for looking “nothing like the license plate.’ ” In a similar spirit, a reviewer found the 6-million-acre Denali Alaskan wilderness a “barren wasteland of tundra” despite, as Ms. Share notes, its 2,000 “species of plants, grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou”—not to mention, at 20,310 feet, the highest peak in North America. Another Yelper type complained that at Yosemite “trees block view and there are too many gray rocks,” while another dismissed the Grand Canyon as “a very, very large hole.” The Statue of Liberty, an inspiration to countless wanderers, is merely “a big green statue and that’s it.”

    One hates to dampen the spirit of our Great Reopening, but as of now there’s no vaccine for what ails these individuals.

    —Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com.