Saturday, November 03, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #307: One for the Road by Tony Horwitz

Other people's travels are soothing to read about, no matter what they went through. We can read their books in serenity, sitting  somewhere comfortable, and enjoy their descriptions of hardship and danger while facing exactly none of it.

(That's why we read travel books, right? It's not just me?)

Tony Horwitz, later the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Confederates in the Attic and other books that I've actually read, was a young journalist, newly married and newly arrived in a foreign country in the mid-80s. He'd done what he describes as a lot of hitchiking in his teens, and had the itch to try it again on the other side of the world.

So he set off, in what seems like the antipodean summer of early 1986, to finger [1] his way around the Outback and see what kind of reporting he could get out of it. His first book, One for the Road, emerged from that trip.

Thirty years later I read that book. Now, the world is big and full of people, and old books move around it like a vast endless wave. So it's probably not true that I'm the only person who read this particular book this year -- Horwitz was later a bestseller, and this was published by Vintage, which means there's probably a lot of One for the Road out there and a lot of people happy to read more Horwitz. But I'd like to think it's so; it's amusing to think of ourselves as more singular than we really are.

He was living in Sydney, so of course that's where he set out from, with originally a vague plan to head straight across the country, through the middle of the Outback. But it turns out hardly anyone goes that way, and there isn't a string of towns to hitch through, so instead he went up, around, and then back south towards Alice Springs.

Eventually, he made it back to the south coast, west of Adelaide, around the south and west coast through Perth, and all the way up to Darwin, where he had a scheduled flight back to Sydney and his regular newspaper job. But, as is more common with travel books than they sometimes let on, he didn't do all that in one go. Horwitz's hiatus came about because of a wreck, so he wrote it into the book -- whether there would have been a pause anyway is unanswerable.

You see a very particular side of a country while hitchhiking, and that's what Horwitz covers -- even in the late '80s, when the tide of hitching had miles yet to go out, the people who would stop for a single man with his finger out are mostly poorer, mostly grumpier, mostly more battered by life. But that's what makes for interesting travel books anyway, so I don't think Horwitz minded at the time, and his readers won't mind now.

Horwitz, unsurprisingly, decides he's too old for this shit towards the end of the book. (I wonder if he secretly knew it all along, but figured the idea was too good to give up on -- and he did get his first book out of it.) We all should be able to know when we're too old for this shit: it's an important lesson.

I still haven't read Horwitz's most famous book, and I'm starting to think I'm unconsciously avoiding it. But if we can't be idiosyncratic in our reading, where can we be idiosyncratic? This is a fun jaunt through an Australia that I'm pretty sure is quite different now, with a young but insightful American as our guide. So why not?

[1] Australian hitchhiking uses the index finger of the left hand rather than the thumb of the right. So, presumably, they do not "thumb" their way around when hitching.

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