The Best American Travel Writing 2011

BOOK: The Best American Travel Writing 2011
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Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents




My Monet Moment

Southern Culture on the Skids

The Coconut Salesman

Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead

My Year at Sea

A Girls' Guide to Saudi Arabia

The Last Stand of Free Town



The Vanishing Point


Aligning the Internal Compass

The Last Inuit of Quebec

Twilight of the Vampires

A Year of Birds

Moscow on the Med

A Head for the Emir

Miami Party Boom

End Matter

Contributors' Notes

Notable Travel Writing of 2010


Copyright © 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Introduction copyright © 2010 by Sloane Crosley


The Best American Series® is a registered trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publishing Company.
The Best American Travel Writing
™ is a trademark of Houghton
Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any
information storage or retrieval system without the proper written permission of
the copyright owner unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal copyright
law. With the exception of nonprofit transcription in Braille, Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt is not authorized to grant permission for further uses of copyrighted
selections reprinted in this book without the permission of their owners. Permission
must be obtained from the individual copyright owners as identified herein. Address
requests for permission to make copies of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt material to
Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue
South, New York 10003.


"My Monet Moment" by André Aciman. First published in
Condé Nast Traveler
September 2010. Copyright © 2010 by André Aciman. Reprinted by permission of
the author.

"Southern Culture on the Skids: Racetracks, Rebels and the Decline of NASCAR"
by Ben Austen. Copyright © 2010 by
Harper's Magazine.
All rights reserved. Reproduced
from the October issue by special permission.

"The Coconut Salesman" by David Baez. First published in
The New York Times
, June 25, 2010. Copyright © 2010 by David Baez. Reprinted by permission
of David Baez.

"Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead" by Mischa Berlinski. First published in
, June/July 2010. Copyright © Men's Journal LLC 2010. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of Men's Journal LLC.

"My Year at Sea" by Christopher Buckley. First published in
The Atlantic
, December
2010. Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Buckley. Reprinted by permission of
Christopher Buckley.

"A Girls' Guide to Saudi Arabia" by Maureen Dowd. First published in
Vanity Fair
August 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Maureen Dowd. Reprinted by permission of the

"The Last Stand of Free Town" by Porter Fox. First published in
The Believer
, June
2010. Copyright © 2010 by Porter Fox. Reprinted by permission of Porter Fox.

"Stuck" by Keith Gessen. First published in
The New Yorker
, August 2, 2010. Copyright
© 2010 by Keith Gessen. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Famous" by Tom Ireland. First published in
The Missouri Review
, Spring 2010.
Copyright © 2011 by Tom Ireland. Reprinted by permission of Tom Ireland.

"The Vanishing Point" by Verlyn Klinkenborg. First published in
The New York
Times Magazine
, March 28, 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Re-
printed by permission of The New York Times.

"Reservations" by Ariel Levy. First published in
The New Yorker
, December 13,
2010. Copyright © 2010 by Ariel Levy. Reprinted by permission of The New

"Aligning the Internal Compass" by Jessica McCaughey. First published in
rado Review
, Spring 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Jessica McCaughey. Reprinted by
permission of Jessica McCaughey.

"The Last Inuit of Quebec" by Justin Nobel. First published in
The Smart Set
, Janu-
ary 7, 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Justin Nobel. Reprinted by permission of the au-
thor. Excerpt from page 480, Volume 5, is from
Handbook of North American Indians
Volume 5:
by William C. Sturtevant and David Damas, Smithsonian (National
Museum of Natural History).

"Twilight of the Vampires: Hunting the Real-Life Undead" by Téa Obreht. Copy
right © 2010 by
Harper's Magazine.
All rights reserved. Reproduced from the No-
vember issue by special permission.

"A Year of Birds" by Annie Proulx. First published in
Harper's Magazine
, December
2010. Reprinted with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster,
Inc., from
Bird Cloud: A Memoir
by Annie Proulx. Copyright © 2011 by Dead
Line, Ltd. All rights reserved.

"Moscow on the Med" by Gary Shteyngart. First published in
March 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Gary Shteyngart. Reprinted by permission of
Denise Shannon Literary Agency, Inc.

"A Head for the Emir: Travels in Iraqi Kurdistan" by William T. Vollmann. Copyright
© 2010 by
Harper's Magazine.
All rights reserved. Reproduced from the April
issue by special permission.

"Miami Party Boom" by Emily Witt. First published in
, April 23, 2010.
Copyright © 2010 by Emily Witt. Reprinted by permission of
and the author.


Find a place. Write about it. It's the fundamental premise of all travel writing—the most basic of writing exercises, and yet arguably one of the most important. Unfortunately, many readers' introduction to travel writing begins and ends with guidebooks or service-oriented, what-to-see, what-to-do, how-much-will-it-cost articles. While these forms of writing are certainly useful and have their place, great travel writing aspires to be more than just rote information and a list of bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants. "When something human is recorded, good travel writing happens," writes Paul Theroux. Hopefully, you too will aspire to this maxim, and work to improve your powers of observation, description, and storytelling along the way.

This rather dogmatic passage is taken from the syllabus of the travel writing workshop that I teach each year at my university. As you might imagine, Travel Writing is a popular course—competing with Ballroom Dancing or Wine Tasting—and it attracts a mix of undergraduates of various majors, some who've spent intense periods of study abroad, and others who rarely leave their neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Whether they've traveled widely or not, none of the students have read very much travel writing outside of perhaps a Lonely Planet guidebook. None of them usually have heard of Paul Theroux or Pico Iyer or Simon Winchester or Bill Buford—all of whom I make them read, sometimes to their chagrin. The students who may have heard of
Eat Pray Love
Under the Tuscan Sun
usually know them as movies rather than books, and only a handful nod in vague recognition when I mention
On the Road.

Most students don't take my travel writing class, then, because of the writing or because they want to be Jack Kerouac; they take it because their first travels, alone and away from home and school, just may be the most visceral experiences of their young lives so far. Writing might be one way to make sense of it. College students, lest we forget, aren't all that far removed from the "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essays of middle school.

As we gather around the seminar table with their essays, the study-abroad students are always the boldest, sharing (often with TMI) the very recent experiences they've just returned from (only weeks ago in some cases). These are often ribald tales of hostels and drinking and romantic trysts. Often enough, though, a flicker of insight or an eye-opening moment of reflection appears. I always encourage them to think about their youthful adventures with as much distance as possible, and to fit their personal stories into the context of the place. "Why are you telling me this story?" I ask them. "What makes this your trip and no one else's?" The best of my students have a winning voice, one that makes the whole class take notice. What I ask in class, then, are the same things I ask of the essays each year as I read for this anthology.

The other students, the ones who've usually never traveled much farther than the Jersey shore, or Florida, or perhaps Cancún, usually begin with more reticence and apprehension, prefacing their essays by saying, "Well, I've never really traveled anywhere." I always try to quell their fears by saying, "Good travel writing can be about anywhere. You can write a great essay about your own neighborhood. It all depends on your approach." This, of course, is another truth I learn every year in compiling my selections of notable travel writing for the year.

So can travel writing actually be taught? Perhaps, and perhaps not.

Surprisingly, few of my students have any expectations of publishing what they write, which makes this course very different from the fiction or poetry workshops or journalism classes I've been involved with. Certainly, some do begin class by asking, "How can I get a job as a travel writer?" I quickly answer this question by explaining the shiftless, nomadic, seat-of-the-pants life that many travel writers lead (which predictably holds little appeal for this achievement-driven generation). Then I follow with the true and sad tale of how magazines are publishing less and less quality travel writing (something that makes the job of putting together this anthology harder every year). With issues of commerce out of the way, we simply write and read about one another's travels.

So why teach travel writing, then, in this age when travel writing has a declining presence? And why do students continue to take the course? Perhaps the real measure of success is whether or not these students sharpen their critical eye, learning to look for the sorts of fascinating or idiosyncratic or unexpected or profound moments and experiences that make travel (and life) more meaningful. Meaningful travel (as well as a meaningful life) is, of course, open to all of us. Writing about that travel in a way that resonates with readers? Well, that's something else altogether. But that's what we aim for in travel writing class.

And that's what this collection of fabulous writing aims for, and delivers.


The stories included here are, as always, selected from among hundreds of pieces in hundreds of diverse publications—from mainstream and specialty magazines to Sunday newspaper travel sections to literary journals to travel websites. I've done my best to be fair and representative, and in my opinion the best travel stories from 2010 were forwarded to Sloane Crosley, who made our final selections.

I now begin anew by reading the hundreds of stories published in 2011. I am once again asking editors and writers to submit the best of whatever it is they define as travel writing. These submissions must be nonfiction, published in the United States during the 2011 calendar year. They must not be reprints or excerpts from published books. They must include the author's name, date of publication, and publication name, and must be tear sheets, the complete publication, or a clear photocopy of the piece as it originally appeared. I must receive all submissions by January 1, 2012, in order to ensure their full consideration for the next collection.

Further, publications that want to make certain their contributions will be considered for the next edition should be sure to include this anthology on their subscription list. Submissions or subscriptions should be sent to Jason Wilson, Drexel University, 3210 Cherry Street, 2nd floor, Philadelphia, PA 19104.

Working with the talented Sloane Crosley this year was wonderful and refreshing. Her choices make a unique book that will take fans of the series down fascinating new paths. I am also grateful to Nicole Angeloro and Jesse Smith for their help on this, our twelfth edition of
The Best American Travel Writing.




This American Life
devoted an entire episode to "kid logic." From start to finish, it featured more adorable moments per square inch than the state of Wisconsin has cheese wheels. A spiffed-up-for-the-NPR-audience version of
Kids Say the Darndest Things
, the episode went a bit deeper in exploring how children view and process the world around them. Included is a brief interview with a child psychologist that doesn't amount to more than a minute of airtime, but you can see why Ira Glass included it then and, I hope, why I include it here now. See, there's this four-year-old girl on her first flight ever. As the plane takes off, she turns to the woman next to her and says, with the utmost sincerity:
When do we get smaller?
Until that moment, her only experience of airplanes was watching them disappear into the sky. I remember listening to this in my car as I pulled up to visit my parents, who still inhabit my childhood home. I turned the radio off and cut the engine. I looked out over our modest square suburban yard, recalling how unexotic I found Westchester to be as a child. Most of me was charmed by the
This American Life
story as I was meant to be charmed—but I felt a twinge of melancholy upon hearing it as well. Not because of the poignant moments in which children learn about the world, moments that come barreling at them through space like meteors of reality. But because sometimes imagination comes from a place not of pure delight but of pure boredom. At least that's what suburbia was for me. People with oceans and deserts and wild streams for backyards were surely better off. They had the luxury of spending less time conjuring and more time befriending actual whales.

BOOK: The Best American Travel Writing 2011
7.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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