December 3, 2000
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    Has daily life in the industrialized world become too comfortable, too predictable, too safe? Is it necessary nowadays to put oneself at great physical risk in hostile climes in order to have anything worth calling an adventure? The short answer to these questions would seem to be yes -- at least if this season's bounty of far-flung and hairy-chested travel narratives is any indication. But there's also a long answer, reminding us that the right kind of traveler can experience as much exhilaration bumming around Saskatchewan in a rusty Citroën as joy-riding through the minefields of Cambodia on a dirt bike. After all, you don't have to read Milton to know that the mind is its own place, and that the mind of the traveler can make, say, an Akron of Aqaba, an Aqaba of Akron.

    By most measures, Jeffrey Tayler's daily life in the autumn of 1994 might have seemed adventurous enough -- an American writer and former Peace Corps volunteer living in Moscow, he worked for a security company protecting Western businessmen from the Russian mafia. But apparently the prospect of being ''blown up or gunned down'' wasn't a sufficient test of his mettle. So he concocted a challenge for himself: to travel the Congo River from Kisangani to Kinshasa in the former Zaire, recreating part of Henry Stanley's famous journey of the 1870's. But Tayler would make his descent with a single guide. In secret. In a wooden pirogue. ''Confronting and vanquishing a tropical river would be my defining achievement,'' Tayler explains in FACING THE CONGO (Ruminator Books, $27), his absorbing if somewhat irony-deficient book about the journey. ''I hoped that the expedition would settle once and for all my doubts about who I was and what I could accomplish.''

    As Tayler soon learns, though, a country torn apart by decades of social chaos and devastating poverty is not necessarily the best setting for a voyage of self-discovery. First, there are the purely physical challenges -- the heat, the sudden storms, the stinging and biting insects, the crocodiles -- all of which take their toll, and some of which Tayler describes with more vividness than readers may appreciate. (My favorite moment: his account of snacking on insect hors d'oeuvres -- Some of the bugs made a crisp crunching sound; others . . . went down with a squish.'')

    But the most difficult aspect of his trip proves to be dealing with the people who live along the river. Schooled by years of bitter history to regard white strangers with suspicion or even outright hostility, they assail the little expedition at every turn with demands, denunciations and threats. Eventually, with his guide sick and his own endurance gone, Tayler is forced to end his journey prematurely. ''I found myself stung by my failure and trying to deny what I would later come to see as obvious: that I had exploited Zaire as a playground on which to solve my own rich-boy existential dilemmas.'' Finally, he comes to a sobering (though inelegantly expressed) conclusion: ''My drama of self-actualization proved obscenely trivial beside the suffering of the Zaireans and the injustices of their past.''

    Jeffrey Tayler also makes an appearance in THE BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING 2000 (Houghton Mifflin, cloth, $27.50; paper, $13), to which he contributes two dispatches -- one from the Russian hinterlands and another from the isolated Chinese region of Xinjiang (prompting the question: has this man ever visited Disney World?). But he's not alone in his taste for the remote. This anthology of magazine pieces, guest-edited by Bill Bryson with the series editor, Jason Wilson, is chock-full of rich-boy (and -girl) existentialists actualizing themselves -- with consistently interesting results -- in places as exotic as Zanzibar and Cambodia, Nunavut and Bhutan. Granted, there are a few weak links; I didn't much care for William Booth's ''Boat Camp,'' a sailing story that, like most sailing stories, left me reaching for the caffeinated beverages. (''It was out into the channel, and we raised the mainsail and the genoa jib, but the winds were contrary,'' and so on and so on.) But the great majority of entries rise to genuine excellence, with particularly entertaining, insightful or horrifying contributions from Bill Buford (on spending the night in Central Park), Dave Eggers (picking up hitchhikers in Cuba), Mark Ross (being held hostage in war-torn Uganda) and Jonathan Tourtellot (discovering ''the two faces of tourism'' in Mexico's Copper Canyon). This is the latest in Houghton Mifflin's ever-expanding list of Best American anthologies, and if future volumes even approach the quality of this one, our travel literature will be noticeably richer.

    One name that is conspicuously absent from the contents page of the ''Best American Travel Writing'' collection is that of Mike Tidwell, whose new book, IN THE MOUNTAINS OF HEAVEN: Tales of Adventure on Six Continents (Lyons Press, $24.95), confirms him as a master of that humble but difficult genre, the Sunday newspaper travel article. Nineteen of his pieces, most of which first appeared in The Washington Post, are collected here. And whether he's getting a shave in Hanoi (''I killed many Americans during the war,'' the barber says, holding a razor to his throat) or investigating the mysterious disappearance of manhole covers in Kyrgyzstan, Tidwell manages to find both humor and honest revelation in an astonishing variety of situations. Single-author collections of travel essays -- even by the likes of P. J. O'Rourke or Bill Bryson -- are often marred by a certain monotony of tone, but I read Tidwell's book cover to cover without ever tiring of his sensibility. Coming from a person who occasionally tires of his own sensibility on a long trip, that's saying something.

    Another welcome addition to the travel publishing scene is Adventure Press, a new imprint from the National Geographic Society. Unlike the more photo-driven volumes for which the society is known, these books feature first-person narratives -- the kind of I-unicycled-the-Silk-Route escapade that seems to be growing ever more popular. I picked up several titles from the inaugural list, with curiously mixed results. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I have freelanced for society publications and that my wife works at the magazine.)

    I started with COLD BEER AND CROCODILES: A Bicycle Journey Into Australia (Adventure Press, $26). The author, Roff Smith, is an American who lived in Australia for 15 years without ever, as he puts it, ''settling in.'' So he quit his job with Time magazine and spent the better part of a year bicycling solo around the continent -- a journey of roughly 10,000 miles. ''The goal: to come to some kind of terms with the country I'd lived in as a stranger all these years.'' His account of the trip, however, proves to be just as generic as that last sentence. The book is well written, but Smith's reportorial style is a little too bland and workmanlike to make a real impact. As he pedals his way north from Sydney to Queensland, he gives us dutiful descriptions of weather, landscape, traffic conditions and chance meetings on the road, but he doesn't inject much life into any of it. (Even his encounter with a former drag queen named Truly de Vyne comes off as colorless.) At a low moment early in the trip, he admits: ''I'm not sure quite what I had expected: sudden flashes of perception, a cavalcade of interesting characters and meaningful experiences. . . . It wasn't happening. Hell, I wasn't even having fun.'' Alas, neither was I. And although Smith's attitude changed in subsequent chapters, mine never did.

    Fortunately, my second National Geographic title -- A HELL OF A PLACE TO LOSE A COW: An American Hitchhiking Odyssey (Adventure Press, $26), by Tim Brookes -- proved much more inviting. Like Smith, Brookes is a non-native resident of the country he explores, but his journey has more urgency and specificity of purpose. Having first hitchhiked across the United States as a young Oxford student in the summer of 1973, he wonders what it would be like to do the whole thing all over again, 25 years later: ''What if I tried to track down some of the people I'd met a quarter-century earlier, find out how their lives and America had changed since those days when, for me at least, America was so vital, so full of life and hope?''

    With this mission in mind, he sets out. And despite the alleged profusion of rapists, psychotics and chain-saw killers now stalking the roads of America (''You'll be a target for every wacko and werewolf from here to San Francisco,'' one friend warns before Brookes sets out from his home in New England), he never fails to be amazed by the level of good will out there on the lonesome highway. The people he encounters are rarely what he expects them to be -- least of all the people he knew the first time around, like the formerly optimistic soul mate about whom Brookes writes, ''If we met now, for the first time, we'd probably have nothing to say.'' Although the trip turns into something of a conceptual mess (he cheats on his hitchhiking pledge by calling cabs, taking buses and accepting rides from the photographer hired to shoot his travels), the book survives these lapses intact, mainly because Brookes is such an articulate travel companion. Seldom does a chapter pass without at least one observation that's worth underlining. ''My fears of the dark vanished,'' he writes about the change he felt after becoming a father, ''as if they had been loneliness unable to express itself.'' Elsewhere, remarking on the prominent signs directing travelers in Montana to the Little Bighorn, he notes that ''monuments to battles where the whites massacred the Indians are, of course, rather less well marked.''

    In the end, Brookes turns philosophical: ''As for how America has changed in the last quarter-century, I can barely even conceive of America as a single place, having seen so much of it, and its vast contradictions. Instead, it seems to be me who has changed.'' And while that youthful traveler of 1973 is lost to Brookes in many ways, he is not quite beyond spiritual reach: ''Life is not just consumption and decay: we can blow on the embers of the past to rekindle the present.''

    But this kind of quiet reflection, while appealing, isn't what makes travel best sellers these days. Testosterone-charged tragedy does, and publishers are clearly eager to find the next thin-aired, perfectly stormy adventure that will once again turn us into a nation of armchair rubberneckers. This year's most likely candidate is the 1998 kayaking expedition into the Tsangpo River Gorge of Tibet, a disastrous exploit that resulted in the death of an expert paddler, Doug Gordon. Several books on the Tsangpo expedition are in the pipeline, but two have already appeared: COURTING THE DIAMOND SOW: A Whitewater Expedition on Tibet's Forbidden River (Adventure Press, $26), by one of the trip's organizers, Wickliffe W. Walker, and THE LAST RIVER: The Tragic Race for Shangri-La (Crown, $24), by Todd Balf, a former editor for Outside magazine who now writes for Men's Journal and Fast Company. Of these two, Balf's is more coherent and readable, maybe because his perspective as a nonparticipant allows him to avoid bogging down in details and self-justifications. In any case, his is the more difficult book to put down.

    The Tsangpo, which Balf calls ''the deepest gorge in the world,'' has been defeating the efforts of would-be explorers for over a century. Given the current fascination with extreme sports, it was probably inevitable that this storied place -- a spot of Buddhist myth'' regarded by some as the model for James Hilton's Shangri-La -- would be recast as ''the definitive white-water exploratory challenge.'' But even a team of paddlers as experienced as Gordon's proves incapable of taming the rain-swollen Tsangpo, a river that presents technical challenges of epic proportions no matter what the water level.

    Although coarsely written in places (Balf has a bewildering fondness for spliced adjectives, as in his reference to ''Harry's ability to hit the 50-yards-away bottle on first shot''), ''The Last River'' is a fascinating book. The experience of white-water kayaking is difficult to capture on the page -- feeder eddies'' and ''backwash piles'' may be easier to navigate than to describe -- but Balf manages admirably, especially when recounting the tragic run on which Doug Gordon disappeared into the raging river, never to be seen again. He also does a good job reporting on the bouts of finger-pointing and second-guessing that followed the accident. The perspectives he assembles -- some of them critical of the expedition team, some sympathetic -- turn the end of the book into a kind of kayaker's ''Rashomon,'' rife with uncertainties: Was it a farce to turn the exploration of a spiritually significant place into a sports challenge? Are deaths like Gordon's frivolous, or are they an inevitable cost of expanding our geographical knowledge? Is it irresponsible of people with spouses and children to put themselves so squarely in harm's way?

    These are knotty, unanswerable questions. For a certain kind of traveler, though, they're almost beside the point. As Balf writes, ''If the questing soul needs nourishment in places where the human feels speck-sized, where they are absolutely bowed before the force and cataclysmic beauty of nature, then a deep white-water gorge is one of life's obvious destinations.''

    Gary Krist is the author of four books, including, most recently, the novel ''Chaos Theory.''

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