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The Return of the Native: A Vacation in Books

There are a thousand ways to approach a place. Some travelers pore through guidebooks as if studying for a test. Others dive in blind, equipped with nothing but a toothbrush. Some arrive ready to settle in. Others arrive ready to leave. And still others never arrive at all. They return.

For me, return is a desert word. It invokes the sere, scrub-strewn wasteland of the western Mojave where I grew up. The yip of coyotes in midnight congress. The lip-splitting heat of the Santa Ana winds. Return is the union of a thousand frozen frames of memory, each linked to that single returned-to place, and each uniquely warped by distance. Because you can’t return if you’ve never left. Right?

G.K. Chesterson once said: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

But what if you want the intimacy of a return without the investment of years and decades? Endless sources offer “insider” travel tips, promising to lay out a city so you can travel “like a local,” but most come down to an impersonal listing of bars, restaurants, and parks–not exactly the in-touch and up-close experience you’re looking for. I think that for a truly native experience, you have to tap into that film-strip of memory. You have to capture the feeling of a place, its people, and the passions that drive them.

You have to read the right novel.

Here are a few excellent examples of the notion of return embodied in books–from Steinbeck’s rich passages about California’s Salinas Valley to Dashiell Hammett’s intimate familiarity with the tunnels and twists of San Francisco.

 

Salinas Valley: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
“The drill came up first with topsoil and then with gravel and then with white sea sand full of shells and even pieces of whalebone. There were 20 feet of sand and then black earth again, and even a piece of redwood, that imperishable wood that does not rot. Before the inland sea the valley must have been a forest. And those things had happened right under our feet. And it seemed to me sometimes at night I could feel both the sea and the redwood forest before it.”

Salinas Valley

 

Las Vegas: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
“Las Vegas was just up ahead. I could see the strip/hotel skyline looming up through the blue desert ground-haze: The Sahara, the landmark, the Americana and the ominous Thunderbird–a cluster of grey rectangles in the distance, rising out of the cactus.”

Las Vegas

 

Providence: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft
“One of the child’s first memories was of the great westward sea of hazy roofs and domes and steeples and far hills which he saw one winter afternoon from that great railed embankment, all violet and mystic against a fevered, apocalyptic sunset of reds and golds and purples and curious greens. The vast marble dome of the state Houses stood out in massive silhouette, its crowning statue haloed fantastically by a break in one of the tinted stratus clouds that barred the flaming sky.”

Providence, RI

 

Dorchester: The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
“Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor. The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an installment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky.”

Egdon Heath

 

San Francisco: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
“Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab. San Francisco’s night-fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street. […] Spade crossed the sidewalk between iron-railed hatchways that opened above bare, ugly stairs, went to the parapet, and, resting his hands on the damp coping, looked down into Stockton Street.”

San Francisco

 

Have you ever read a book that really captured the feeling of a place? Share the title (or even better, a quote) in the comments.

Photo Credits: “Salinas Valley, CA” by Matthew Eddy; “Egdon Heath, Dorset” by David Jones; “The Fleur-de-Lys Building” by Will Hart; “Downtown Casino Center” by Damien; “Feeling Tense” by Will.

 


 

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Kate

My name: Kate Beall

How I earn my keep: Writing for Travelocity.

Best meal I've ever had: There are three: the mofongo at Jimmy'z Kitchen in South Beach, the lomito completo at Fuente Alemana in Santiago, and (for the sheer novelty factor) the cuy chactado in Arequipa, Peru.

First thing I do in a new place: Hit the shower. Anything more than an hour in transit gets me fantasizing about soap.

View that took my breath away: Seeing the endless stretch of the Sierras as I flew in to Reno/Tahoe for the first time. In the winter, it's an aching field of white all the way to the horizon, like a world wiped clean. Looking out at it gives you this unmatched feeling of eternity.

Most challenging travel moment: Sharing a pull-out couch in a cramped New York apartment. The heat wave of 2010 was in full, humid swing and the air conditioning was D.O.A. There was nothing to do but soak your clothes in the sink and hope to pass out before they dried. ...then wake up in an hour and do it all again.

Favorite way to get around: On foot. I'm still working on the motorcycle license.

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