Photograph by AR Sheffield | CC

By the time I finished my editorial work on this year’s edition of The Best American Travel Writing—about five weeks into my state’s mandatory stay-at-home order—I’d had plenty of time to think about the future of the form. During the first few weeks of lockdown, I was invited on to a podcast with several other travel writers to discuss “Coronavirus and Predictions on the Future of Travel Writing.” With gloom and doom, I speculated about magazines suspending publication, compared this to how travel had “irrevocably” changed after 9/11, and declared that this was “the extinction event” for a certain type of travel publishing. To be honest, I had no more idea of what might happen than anyone else, and I still don’t. But I held forth anyway, and I am aware that whatever I write now, in the spring of 2020, may seem naïve, hysterical, or wildly inaccurate by the fall, when the anthology is published, never mind a year or five from now.

Otherwise, I have whiled away the days in isolation thinking a lot about oddly divergent (and convergent) things: Iceland, Robert Byron’s classic travel book The Road to Oxiana, and the pond across from my home in New Jersey, where an alligator, according to local legend, may or may not live.

My musings on Iceland were spurred, no doubt, by the fact that two of the most noteworthy pieces in this year’s anthology deal with that country: Lacy M. Johnson’s moving piece on “how to mourn a glacier” in this time of climate change, and Kyle Chayka’s “My Own Private Iceland,” about its current state of overtourism.

Chayka argues for “inauthentic” travel, suggesting that when “a destination is deemed dead might be the best time to go there, as the most accurate reflection of our impure world” and declares that “the less authentic an experience was supposed to be in Iceland, the more fun I had and the more aware I was of the consequences of twenty-first-century travel.”

While an excellent, funny, and insightful meditation on the current state of travel, Chayka’s piece also made me yearn for my own private Iceland of the late 1990s and early 2000s. During those years, I spent a lot of time in Iceland then, living for periods in Reykjavik and traveling the island extensively.

It would be misleading and disingenuous to call this pre-Instagram time “authentic,” though when I first arrived there, lots of Icelanders still believed in elves, there was no gourmet coffee, and it was not uncommon to see Björk at a hot-dog stand or catch her doing a late-night guest DJ set. I remember being so taken by Icelandic moss—so prevalent and vivid, so many varieties and hues—that I foolishly smuggled a few samples back into the US (pre TSA) to try to grow in my yard. This feels like another lifetime.

Back then, when you traveled around the Icelandic countryside, you didn’t need to book in advance for a hotel. Airbnb did not exist. In the summers, one of the cheapest places to stay was in the dorms of the secondary schools, emptied for vacation, which cost slightly less if you brought your own sheets and pillowcases. The tiny towns at the end of ice-blue fjörds were pungent with the smell of fish factories, and, besides the working port, consisted only of a community geothermal swimming pool, a few shops, an Esso station that doubled as a bakery, café, and hot-dog stand, and a chain restaurant called Pizza 67 that specialized in “Hawaii” pizza, with pineapple and ham.

I once visited the Herring Museum in the northern village of Siglufjördur, dedicated to the booming early twentieth-century herring industry, which eventually went bust from overfishing. I spent an afternoon there chatting with one of the museum docents, a young blonde woman in a flannel shirt and big rubber boots, what the so-called “herring girls” wore during the boom when they spent all day packing salted fish into barrels. I was so taken by all the nostalgia that I enthusiastically accepted the Herring Girl’s invitation to go hiking after her shift. We climbed to a waterfall high above the fjörd, picked purple wildflowers, then swam in a hot spring.

She laughed hysterically when I asked if she believed in elves. As she removed her work costume and slid into the steaming water, she showed me her tattoo of Tupac Shakur, and cursed being trapped in this tiny remote town. She wanted nothing more than to move to Reykjavík, dye her hair black, and find work in a fashion boutique or a cocktail bar. Chasing authenticity in travel has always been slippery—a gordian knot, a nesting doll, an onion.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the strange travel books British writers produced in the decades between the two World Wars. A time of serious upheaval and disruption to travel—a complete breakdown of what had been the narrative of journeying. The great travel writing of that era, books such as D.H. Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia, Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, or Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, began to explore new forms. The itineraries, trips to Italy or Africa or the Balkans, were similar to previous generations’, but the writers began employing Modernist techniques borrowed from fiction and poetry: fragmentation, collage, juxtaposition, dialogue-driven scenes. This was period when, as critic Paul Fussell says, “writing a travel book was not at all considered incompatible with a serious literary career.”

One of the strangest books of this era is Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana. “What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what ‘The Waste Land’ is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book,” said Fussell. Bruce Chatwin called it a “masterpiece.” It’s ostensibly a travelogue about Islamic architecture, charting a course across the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan. But the book quickly veers into a wild stew of diary entries, mini-essays, rants on politics and art history, twenty comic dialogues (almost playlets), news clippings, and fragmented notes. At points the book feels almost unhinged, and may or may not glide into fiction. Tom Bissell once described The Road to Oxiana as “reportage and analysis, travelogue and autobiography, fiction and nonfiction. It did not happen, but it did.” It’s no wonder that The Road to Oxiana was held up a “sacred text” by writers like Chatwin as, during the 1980s, travel writing once again went through a revolution of form.

In the months that have passed since my pessimistic podcast appearance, I’ve had a change of heart about the future of travel writing. Of course it will survive, as it has before, even if the publishing models radically change. Travel writers, once again, will embrace new forms, experiment, borrow from other genres and find novel approaches. Many people have suggested that, once we’re free from lockdown, more modest domestic or local travel, rather than exotic foreign adventures, will take center stage. They say narratives about home might become significant and popular.

When I think of local travel, I think of Hopkins Pond, a small body of water in the wooded park near my home in Haddonfield, New Jersey. The park is not very well maintained by the county, but on sunny days it’s still beautiful. I often take long walks there around the edge of pond, where I’ll encounter a handful of people fishing, joggers, or families riding bikes. In most ways it’s a completely typical suburban recreational area.

Not far from Hopkins Pond is the place where the world’s first complete dinosaur skeleton was discovered, in 1858. A National Historic Site plaque marks the spot. They named it the Hadrosaurus, but in Haddonfield it goes by the nickname Haddy. When they dug up Haddy’s bones, the Victorian media of the era went into a frenzy with the discovery of a true-to-life monster, and journalists from all over the world came to Haddonfield. I’ve always loved this part of our town history.

A century and a half later there was another discovery, accompanied by a minor panic, when my neighbors and a local policeman spotted what they thought was an alligator swimming in the water of the lake. I very much welcomed the excitement of a large reptile living across the street in my neighborhood pond. I was hopeful that a little exotic danger and intrigue might find its way into what is normally a quiet town.

The alligator was estimated to be around four feet long, and when a police sergeant arrived on the scene he saw the reptile feasting on a goose. For a few days, our woods were roped off with yellow tape, and TV news helicopters hovered overhead. A sign by my son’s school read: “Please join our efforts in keeping our children away from the area until it is safe.” A guy from the Philadelphia Zoo was quoted in the newspaper saying, “It’s not going to go rampaging through neighborhoods, but I would not take my teacup poodle on a walk around that pond.”

I had hoped our alligator in Hopkins Pond would take up permanent, mysterious residence, and that it might grow from four feet into a real monster. After all, right around the same time, in Los Angeles’s Lake Machado, there were sightings of an elusive alligator named Reggie. By the time the city caught Reggie he was over eight feet long. But Hopkins Pond was not Los Angeles. After those initial sightings, whatever reptile had been seen simply disappeared. A year went by without any sightings, then longer. The freezing winters surely would have killed an alligator, people said. After a few years, most figured the story of the Hopkins Pond alligator was simply make-believe. The local police began characterizing the alligator sighting as “unfounded.” About five years after our alligator sighting in Hopkins Pond there was finally another, a few miles away in the Cooper River. This reptile, too, was said to be four feet long. It made me happy to think that our gator had perhaps survived the cold winters and made it to a larger body of water. They never caught the reptile in Cooper River, either. And no one ever saw it again.

It had been some time since I’d thought about our local reptiles, but during lockdown the only travel I’d been doing was a daily walk around the pond. Early spring buds, ducks, our boring non-Icelandic moss. Of course I was keeping my eyes peeled for any hints that our alligator still exists.

It occurred to me that I could write a travel article about the pond. And that’s what I intended to do, to take some notes on my next walk, do some reportage. Then, a few days later, the governor of New Jersey shut down the parks. For the moment, the only travel essay I could write about Hopkins Pond would have to exist in the same nostalgic space as Iceland or Oxiana.

On my short-lived local nature walks, it struck me that Robert Macfarlane, who over the past decade has reinvented and reinvigorated nature writing (travel writing’s close cousin), was the perfect person to have worked with as guest editor on this year’s anthology. He’s already thought deeply about challenging form in writing about place (and of moss). In The Old Ways, Macfarlane insists that too often we only think of landscapes as affecting us when we are in them. “But,” he writes, “there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places — retreated to most often when we are most remote from them — are among the most important landscapes we possess.”

Being forced to stay at home in isolation might be the ultimate in so-called “inauthentic” travel. Yet it offers a frighteningly accurate reflection of our world and the consequences of journeying in it. Now that I sit with the nostalgia of the pre-pandemic places I once loved to visit, perhaps those landscapes I carry inside will become the only authenticity worth exploring.

Jason Wilson

Jason Wilson is series editor of The Best American Travel Writing and the author of Godforsaken Grapes, The Cider Revival, and Boozehound. He recently launched the wine site, Planet of the Grapes and writes regularly for the Washington Post and Heated. You can find his work at jasonwilson.com.

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4 Comments on “On Travel Writing

  1. You can listen to the podcast episode Jason referenced in the first paragraph here: https://travelwritingworld.com/coronavirus-and-travel-writing/

  2. Jason, what a lovely piece of writing. There’s a touch of Paul Theroux in the way you mingle real reminiscences with meta-references to the form. Here in the UK I have spent a lot of time replaying past journeys and making mental lists of places to revisit, and to visit for the first time, once this is over. I have also had a few happy evenings compiling mental collages of past trips, using maps (I collect them in hard copy), memories and the inexhaustible online supply of others’ photos and videos.

  3. “Perhaps ” Jason but then you’d be like Patrick Leigh Fermor who “mined” his life’s travels with finely honed writing. The notions of authenticity of memory plays into the concepts so well documented historically and psychologically by Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory (Knopf, 1995).
    For my part, the homogenization of distinct destinations with their transnational chain hotels and Starbucks- simply an extension of Coca-Cola Capitalism will not be missed by the Earth as it attempts to heal from the cruise ships and airlines.
    The almost obsessive desire to “travel” and “consume” an “exotic” experience has become so tiresome.
    Thus, the hacks that write about this will have to find another gear besides that of “Cheerleader to the Aspirationists”.
    And, yes, if you can find a local alligator to write about or begin to find yourself musing on what it all means, so much the better.
    Tend your own garden and the world will be a healthier place.

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