Armchair travels

The idea that my summer traveling days are over brings a pang to my heart.

But with fall weather finally here, I've turned to the Ashland Public Library and my easy chair for a travel fix.

The library has a whole batch of "The Best of American Travel Writing" annual anthologies. I grabbed one from 2008, since the selections from that year were made by chef Anthony Bourdain, host of the television travel show "No Reservations."

Yes, there is a travel article about food, as author Bill Buford traces a specialty chocolate bar's origins back to a plantation in the Brazilian rainforest. But most of the articles are about other subjects.

Writing for Outside magazine, James Campbell followed in the footsteps of 1,200 World War II American soldiers who had to slog through jungles and over mountains on a 130-mile trek across Papua New Guinea. At least two soldiers died of exhaustion on the seven-week journey. After that ordeal, the men had to fight the Japanese army that wanted to use Papua New Guinea as a staging ground to disrupt Allied supply lines in the Pacific Ocean.

Campbell soon discovers why the trip was so grueling as he scrambles up a peak past massive trees.

"Less than an hour into the hike, though, I'm incapable of admiration. I'm on all fours, pushing through the mud, grabbing at roots, trees, ferns, bushes, leaves, anything I can clasp with outstretched fingers to keep from falling backwards down the steep, slippery mountain. In a cruel twist, everything I reach for is equipped with spurs, thorns, tiny sharp bristles, or swarms of red ants, and my hands sting and bleed," he writes.

Campbell and his fellow trekkers survived their hike along the historic footpath used by the soldiers, but not before suffering a torn ligament, skin ulcers and cracked and bleeding feet.

In a piece that appeared in National Geographic, Peter Gwin describes how he slowly worked his way into a society of pirates, learning their techniques and hearing their tales of brazen assaults on boats. Their target zone is a strait between Malaysia and Indonesia that narrows to 10 miles wide and is surrounded by mangroves — perfect hiding spots.

A third of the world's crude oil passes through the choke point, Gwin writes, but the pirates are just as content to go "shopping" on smaller boats that carry cash and supplies. He learns how they shimmy up bamboo poles to board larger ships, and hears of missions gone awry. In one case, pirates had subdued most of a ship's crew members, but one was missing. The quick-thinking crew member jumped onto the pirates' boat, cut its tether and sped away, leaving the pirates stranded on the slow-moving ship, where they were eventually captured.

Writing for The New Yorker, Pankaj Mishra recounts a journey on a new Chinese train that reaches into Tibet. The train is meant to bring progress to Tibet, but Mishra fears it will carry Chinese immigrants and a materialistic ethos into the region.

There is a valve in Mishra's sleeping berth where he can attach a tube to breath in oxygen if needed.

"The extra oxygen was a necessary precaution — the air in the mountains of Tibet contains 35-40 percent less oxygen than at sea level — but made the compartment look like a mobile clinic," he writes.

Mishra travels through the polluted, industrial cities of China before reaching the white mountains and blue skies of Tibet. He visits the home of a Tibetan farmer, and the tour ends in the family's Buddhist prayer room. One one wall is the mandatory portrait of China's leader.

But the farmer points to a chest where he has a secret, and illegal, portrait of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. Mishra ends his journey with hopes that Tibetans will retain their faith and identity.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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