In the essays “About Face” and “The Reddest Carpet”, there seemed to be an obvious focus on Korean culture and, on a deeper level, how this culture is different from or shaped by our own culture. In “About Face”, the obsession with plastic surgery in South Korea is explored. From an outsider’s perspective, one might think them shallow and obsessed with vanity where in actuality, Marx states that this societal norm is in place because “external aspects of self (your social status, clothes, gestures, and appearances)… matter more here” (128). Additionally, as arguably one of the most invaded countries in the world, this plastic surgery can be seen as the country making itself over cosmetically after making itself over as a nation. Marx does all she can to describe why Seoul is the way it is and I get it on a surface level, but it is hard to wrap my head around teenage girls getting nose jobs as graduation presents. Travel writing aims to unite cultures and while I understand this knowledge is valuable, it still seems strange to me as does “The Reddest Carpet”. A film festival in North Korea is nothing that I would expect to exist, yet it takes place nonetheless. Much like the last essay, it is hard for me to wrap my head around culture in North Korea because it is so radically different from my own. This essay helped me understand a little more, but I think the point that stuck with me the most was on page 167 when Moxley states, “Through film we can understand each other. Movies can help make the world a better place…” While I agree with this sentiment, I also think that travel writing serves the same function. Travel writing attempts to unite cultures from across the world like these movies at PIFF.
In the assigned essays, there seemed to be a great deal of connection between the native people and the land. The writers do not share this connection as much – although Ehrlich’s extensive travels to Greenland give her a closer connection to the land than the others. Compared to the other writers we have read in the class, I felt the writer to land connection was lacking. What drew me in in Blue Highways and especially Wild was this sense of oneness with nature that I did not get from these essays. Still, the connection between the natives and the mountain climber speak to this concept. All three people (or groups of people) discussed draw their lives or deaths from the land. Messner feels such a connection to mountains that he constructs numerous museums dedicated to them. The Greenland hunters literally depend on the land and sea to stay alive. The Inuit elders, at least in older times, depended on the land to be their final resting place after having been sustained by it their entire lives. This connection, I believe, is what drives human nature and is explored in all three essays. We depend on the earth to give us life and a place to rest after we die, and these passages explore the weakening connection that most human have to nature. Travel writing aims to connect people who otherwise might not be connected and relay, in most cases, a message or a moral. To me, this message is that we have lost our connection to nature and must try to find a way back to it, to appreciate the earth one again.
By fully immersing himself in the Pirahã culture, Daniel Everett’s worldview changed in unexpected ways. He began as a Christian missionary and ends as a scientist without religion – a dramatic shift. Over the course of his living with the Pirahã, he studies their language more intensely than anyone before and as such, learns more about their language and culture and how these two concepts interact. Everett states that “both modern linguistics and the bulk of the philosophy of language have chosen to separate language from culture in their quests to understand human communication. But by this move they fail to come to grips with language as a ‘natural communication’” (211). Essentially, language and culture, in any culture regardless of geographical location, are inextricably linked; they cannot be separated and studied independently of each other. While in writing this, the concept seems incredibly obvious, but the thought of trying to detach my language from my culture seems impossible. I would not know where to start. Yet, Everett realizes these two concepts belong together and studies them together as he should. In so doing, he “is trying to understand language in a situation as close to the original cultural context as possible” (243). Everett, in my humble opinion, succeeds in researching both the language and culture of the Pirahã in conjunction. I also believe that this study causes – at least in part – his denouncing of his religion. The link between language, culture, and travel writing is that because language and culture are indistinguishably tied together, one must understand both in order to effectively travel write.
Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is a truly fascinating read. The ‘word nerd’ in me was drawn in by the idea of a language that has no relation to any other spoken language, but it was Everett’s description of the people and his stories that had me continuously turning pages. I find it interesting and refreshing that as a ‘white man’ missionary whose goal is to convert the people, he seems to do little conversion. Instead, he wants to learn the intricacies of their language and their culture. He does not overtly attempt to appropriate it for himself nor does he try to exert any power over them; still, because Everett does not fully comprehend the culture, he does make blunders like trying to keep the Pirahã from drinking. Yet he learns from this experience and does not repeat the same mistakes. Because he does not try to change the Pirahã or convert them to Christianity, the idea of colonial discourse is barely present in the book. There are instances where Everett will compare or contrast the difference between Pirahã culture and Western culture, but makes no moves to alter their way of life. Traditionally, when white men ventured into the Amazon – or anywhere really – the invaded culture is irrevocably altered or altogether stamped out, yet Everett is more of an observer instead of an altering force. His travel narrative seeks to educate the reader on other cultures. Thompsons notes that “travel writing may enlighten and challenge readers, by revealing cultural and historical perspectives which have otherwise been overlooked or suppressed” (166). Everett’s description of some of the Pirahã’s ways were challenging to read (letting a woman die on the beach while giving birth, letting children play with knives, etc.), but he does a truly excellent job in illustrating that imply because their culture is different from ours does not mean that it’s wrong or needs to be modified to fit ours. His book appears to work against colonial discourse in a manner than I greatly appreciate.
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild makes use of the autobiographical “I” which allows her to speak as the narrator but also as a character in her travel narrative. In using such a rhetorical device, she places herself both in and above her novel and the events that transpire in it. As both narrator and character, the tone comes across as unabashedly earnest. She is not afraid to give the reader explicit details about her life on the trail (she brings up bodily functions throughout the text) and her life before the trail (her marital affairs and explorations into drugs). Still, in speaking as both a narrator and character, there is a certain gap between the two identities. As a narrator, Cheryl gives insights, backstories, and personal feelings to the reader which allows the reader to trust her as a narrator and empathize with the character. As a character, Cheryl can describe her surroundings, her interactions with fellow hikers, and her reactions to these occurrences. Through her descriptions as a character, the reader can feel as though they are seeing the PCT through her eyes instead of an omnipresent narrator. The narrated “I” could be argued to be a less sophisticated figure than the narrator. As previously stated, the character Cheryl tells the reader about her bathroom habits (page 282) and her thoughts on heroin (page 290) but in making her character less sophisticated than her narrator, Strayed gives the reader a multifaceted view of herself: the clumsy, bumbling, ill-prepared hiker and the wise woman with the perspective gained from the hike. In so doing, Strayed bridges the gap between the narrating “I” and the narrated “I” to show the reader how far she has grown and how truly complex a person can be.
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild overtly addresses the problems she wishes to face: the death of her mother, her desire to return to her old self, and a want to essentially rediscover herself through nature. While these issues are dealt with – though not in the way Strayed imagined they would – the book also covertly explores other issues facing Strayed; namely, her place in the world. Having lost her mother and her husband, she is basically alone and chooses to hike the PCT this way: alone. With little experience and poor planning, she takes to the trail wholly unprepared for what she encounters along the way. People she meets along the way never fail to marvel at her choice to hike by herself. The fact that a woman alone on a trail is something to be admired speaks to the idea that women should not or are unable to travel alone capably. Yes, Strayed is unprepared for her trip but is still entirely capable of making the journey. Thompson notes that “a recent theme in much recent women’s travel writing has been the author’s negotiation of this weight of expectation, and her deliberate intrusion into tradition, modes of travel, and geological and institutional spaces still strongly marked as male” (196). Strayed’s choice to make the journey alone would not have been as remarkable had she been a man but because she is a woman, she is questioned about her choices. Her decision to write a travel narrative about her journey is furthermore proof of her seeking a place in the predominately male space of travel writing. In her speech, Strayed states that she is “trying to tell a story about what it means to be human which is what literature aspires to do.” Her aim in writing is to attempt to relate to other people about being human is all about. Travel writing seeks to bring people across all distances closer together and connect them and this connection can be felt regardless of the gender of the author.
Finally, after thirteen thousand miles, four hundred and twelve pages, and three months on the road, William Least Heat-Moon’s journey has come to an end. In reading the novel, I felt as though it took me as long to read as it took Least Heat-Moon to travel with all of the stories, details, and philosophy he packs in with superb skill as to make the book not feel as dense (metaphorically speaking) as it is. Any reader is free to journey in the passenger seat as he makes his circle around the country and learn all that he does. Eloquently stated, Least Heat-Moon asserts that “I can’t say… that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know” (411). He begins his journey to find some kind of answer or meaning in life after his had essentially fallen apart and over the course of almost one hundred days, he finds that his questions were not answered because he was not fully aware of what these questions were; instead, he learned what he needed to know which is perhaps an even more valuable knowledge. In traversing the country, seeing the landscape change, and meeting people from various backgrounds and regional identities, he is able to learn not only about himself, but also about the people who share the nation with him. Travel writing aims to bring people together from great distances and Least Heat-Moon’s book unites an entire nation.
I have never given much thought to the concept of regional identity until reading Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. Of course, I have joked about my Southern hospitality, but I have always thought this was my most ‘southern’ trait – aside from my hatred of snow. Still, in reading about the interactions that Least Heat-Moon has as he traverses the nation, the concept of regional identity becomes more and more apparent in the differences he describes in the people he meets. While in the South, almost everyone invited him in for a meal and shared their story in great detail (no one loves food and stories more than Southerners). Yet as he makes his way steadily northward, Least Heat-Moon is continually met with increasingly less friendly people. Not as many people invite him in for meals; the exception to this is Arthur Bakke who offers to share his food but there were religious motivations behind that, not an extension of Southern hospitality. Least Heat-Moon even remarks himself how, while in the northern part of the country, “conversations had been difficult to strike up. The people were polite but reserved; often they seemed afraid of appearing too inquisitive, while at other times they were simply too taciturn to exchange the banalities and clichés necessary to find a base for conversation” (289). This is where the regional identity and differences become apparent: in the south, people are overtly friendly and will chat your ear off over a table covered with fried food while in the north, people are still polite but will not overshare. There is no one regional identity that is better than another. In fact, the common link between almost everyone Least Heat-Moon meets is that they all share a common pride in their regional identity.
The second section of Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways continues in the same manner as the first: an exploration into the people, the mentality, and the spirit of the small, backroads towns that Least Heat-Moon visits. He also attempts to venture into the regional identity of the geographic areas through which he roams and briefly mentions the beginnings of his writing process. Least Heat-Moon mentions that after he had settled in for the night with the murmuring Cave Creek for company – at first – that he “played a tape recording of the last few days and made notes. After a while [he] gave up on words and tried diagrams in hopes an image might shake free an idea” (162). This seems to be a prelude to the later writing process; Least Heat-Moon states in the video that it took roughly two weeks to write about one day on the road. Given the complexity of all that he encounters, both internal and external factors, it does not surprise me that it took a long time to write Blue Highways. The fact that the initial manuscript was eight hundred pages was shocking until I realized all that Least Heat-Moon was trying to tackle and capture in words: the subtle nuances of the people, the understated pride of small towns, the complexity of regional identities, the painstaking process of crafting a technicolor masterpiece with black and white words. As someone raised in the South, I both identify and rail against his depiction of Southern regional identity. Perhaps I have the fortune of experiencing the South thirty years after Least Heat-Moon, but I have never experienced or seen the blatant, rampant racism he describes in Alabama. Still, the tables piled high with fried food is a Southern staple and that he nailed perfectly.
William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways describes Heat-Moon’s backroads journey across America after his life largely falls apart. After losing his wife and job, he takes to the traveling the roads in the hopes that in essentially getting lost, he might find himself. He is not a ‘professional’ traveler or travel writer, he nonetheless tells the story of his travels with a certain degree of authority and authenticity. By laying his life bare for the reader, Heat-Moon leaves himself vulnerable; he does not put on a front or façade for the reader and this element of unabashed truthfulness allows the reader to trust him implicitly to tell his tale truly. Still, his journey almost begins from a point of delusion. Heat-Moon states that “ghost dances, desperate resurrection rituals, were the dying rattles of a people whose last defense was delusion – about all that remained to them in their futility” (5). This cross-continental journey is Heat-Moon’s ghost dance to resurrect what is left of his life and in this resurrection, potentially reinvent himself into a new life. Again, his candor with the reader allows them to trust Heat-Moon despite his lack of experience in travel writing. Thompson posits that “scholarly commentators over the years have attacked the modern, more literary travel book for the ease with which it enables writers to claim an often unwarranted authority in their pronouncements on other peoples and places” (90). But Heat-Moon does not write with inappropriate authority; he writes much as if he is relaying the story to a companion, another tactic that gives his tale veracity. The average reader is more likely to read a travel book written in friendly, unscholarly prose (a more relatable read) than read one in which they feel the scholar is speaking down to them. Through maintaining a relatable, candid, ‘everyman’ nature, Heat-Moon simply tells his story; it is the readers that give him his authority.