Review, August 1997
The Long Way Home
By Miles Harvey
Another Country: Journeying Toward the Cherokee Mountains, by Christopher Camuto (Henry Holt, $25). Partly because the southern Appalachians have largely been overlooked by other writers, and partly because the author possesses such an ardent curiosity about his native territory, Another Country is an original and
compelling amalgam of history and nature writing. Camuto, a Virginia-based columnist for Gray's Sporting Journal, is a perambulatory endurance scribe who, he tells us, walked and canoed thousands of miles in the course of his research. The region he so thoroughly explored, once the realm of the Cherokee Indians, was transformed first by the displacement and expulsion of the
natives and next by "the cyclops of growth and development." "The destruction of nature," Camuto writes, "leads, among other disadvantages, to the erasure of history." As a form of opposition, he endeavors to conjure up "the Cherokee mind" as it was shaped by the wilderness landscape, and he also traces the sweep of events over several centuries, up to the 1992 reintroduction of
red wolves into the Great Smoky Mountains. Despite his large ambitions, Camuto is at his best with small, sensual epiphanies, such as this observation: "In the unsettling midafternoon darkness, a forest moves around you the way tundra or desert or ocean moves, in that slow spin of intact landscapes that must be the mind's eye tracking the rotation of the earth." If he is sometimes
too conventional in his environmental meditations, Camuto has nevertheless written a stirring and ultimately restorative book.
Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand, by Kenn Kaufman (Houghton Mifflin, $23). A middle-aged man's fond recollections of his salad days as a vagrant birder hardly sounds like the stuff of
high adventure. But as Kenn Kaufman points out, the early 1970s were wild times in the world of ornithology, which was rapidly becoming the object of "a continent-wide craze." In 1973, Kaufman, a longhaired, 18-year-old high school dropout, hitchhiked from the Dry Tortugas to Alaska and virtually all points in between in an attempt to break the record for spotting the most
North American bird species in a single year. His manic quest for black-capped gnatcatchers and other feathered friends was relentless, and by December, Kaufman had thumbed an astonishing 69,000 miles — while sometimes subsisting on cat food — and spied what he hoped would be the single-season record, 666 birds. In the end, another equally obsessed birder snatched
victory by notching 669 avian species on his list, but Kaufman took his loss in stride, as monomania gave way to wisdom. "List-chasing," he realized, "was not the best way to learn birds," nor did it make him a top-notch birder. Kaufman went on to become exactly that, eventually writing such books as the Peterson Field Guide to Advanced Birding. Although readers of this memoir
will have to wing their way across broad stretches of uninviting prose and acres of relentlessly geeky effusions, Kingbird Highway offers an oddly arresting glimpse into one of America's quirkiest subcultures.
Legends of the American Desert: Sojourns in the Greater Southwest, by Alex Shoumatoff (Knopf, $30). In 1985, journalist Alex Shoumatoff began work on a history of the Colorado River, a project that soon overflowed the river's banks and took on an entire region. "When people would ask what the book was about," he
writes, "I would tell them it was about 'the whole enchilada.'" It's an apt description. Twelve years later, his book is a sprawling, 500-page tome and an entertainingly synoptic cultural portrait of the Southwest. Shoumatoff, an agile and enterprising if somewhat undisciplined writer, fills the pages with vivid historic figures such as the wayward Spanish conquistador Alvar
Nö˜ez Cabeza de Vaca and the frontier hero Davy Crockett, who despite his reputation appears to have hid under a bed at the Alamo; and with contemporary dramatis personae such as a Navajo soldier convicted of passing secrets to the Soviets and the residents of a lesbian commune in New Mexico who banish men and unneutered male dogs. Shoumatoff has not succeeded in
pulling all of his ingredients together into a single driving narrative, but the reader should be under no obligation to consume the book all at once. This is one enchilada that is worth finishing.
The Quotable Cyclist, edited by Bill Strickland (Breakaway Books, $20), and The Literary Cyclist: Great Bicycling Scenes in Literature, edited by James E. Starrs (Breakaway Books, $17). Strickland's Quotable Cyclist —
more than 900 brief ruminations on "love, hate, speed, adventure, disaster, glory, desire, freedom, and all the rest" — is a timely and charmingly evocative Bartlett's of the bicycle. Helen Keller loved her tandem because "the rapid rush through the air gives me a delicious sense of strength and buoyancy." The notoriously hedonistic John F. Kennedy declared, perhaps
disingenuously, that "nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride." The legendary inexpressiveness of professional racers is perhaps too much in evidence in The Quotable Cyclist, but then there are the last words of Tom Simpson, who died after crashing in the 1967 Tour de France: "Put me back on my bike." Almost as pleasing is The Literary Cyclist, a newly reissued 1982
anthology of excerpts from the works of George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, P. D. James, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., among many others. These two compendiums are proof that the lowly but transcendent bicycle points the way to a better world. Or as H. G. Wells pithily put it, "Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia."
Photographs by Clay Ellis