Article: Birth of the American road trip?

It often seemed to me that we were a luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort…But discomfort, after all, is what the camper-out is unconsciously seeking. 

This essay in the Smithsonian magazine takes a look back at the road trips of self proclaimed Vagabonds Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone.  What starts as a summer camping vacation turned into an annual road trip between 1915 and 1924 as the four friends explored America by car.  

These were not basic camping trips.  As the photos in the album below show (click on the photo), the group travelled in some comfort and formality, with chefs and up to 50 vehicles in their convoy and the Vagabonds rarely removing their jackets (at least while the camera was present):

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are near the center car, 1921

John Burroughs described the group as “joy riders with a luxurious outfit calculated to be proof against any form of discomfort” when he wrote about their 1918 in trip in A Strenuous Holiday.

Burroughs was a naturalist and nature writer who was active in conservation.  Initially opposed to the automobile, he became friends with Ford and joined the annual road trip.  A Strenuous Holiday appears in Under the Maples, a collection published the year that Burroughs died.  

John_Burroughs_1909

A short read at only 17 pages, Burroughs (then in his 80s) paints an idyllic picture of the road trip as it travels through Pennsylvania and West Virginia, before heading south.  There is something charming about his account, from the little girl with a bucket of apples to his descriptions of titans of industry at play; whether it be Henry Ford challenging people to races, Thomas Edison’s unkempt appearance, ‘delicious humour’ and his ability to turn vagabond “very easily”, or sitting around the campfire listening to Edison discussing chemistry or Ford discussing mechanics.

There is an irony to three industrialists enjoying touring a bucolic landscape which their inventions and labours were to change so radically but maybe that is no more inconsistent than a “luxuriously equipped expedition going forth to seek discomfort.”  Although, as Burroughs notes:

discomfort, after all, is what the camper-out is unconsciously seeking. We grow weary of our luxuries and conveniences. We react against our complex civilization, and long to get back for a time to first principles. We cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies, and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more. 

Whatever the discomforts, Burroughs realised, as does every traveller, that: 

It is after he gets home that a meditative man really makes such a trip. All the unpleasant features are strained out or transformed. In retrospect it is all enjoyable, even the discomforts. 

A Strenuous Holiday is available to read for free online at Gutenberg and also at the Internet Archive

This youtube documentary has some more footage and background to these early road trips:

Article: Ostrava – steel heart of the Czech Republic

And that’s Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s ‘third city’. A strange mixture of ambition, history, culture, militarism, and industrial wasteland, sitting at the heart of Europe, not hiding from its troubled past, but embracing it and using it as a means to draw you in.

From Geographical magazine, an article about Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s third largest city, only a few kilometres from the Polish border and about 50km from Krakow.

Ostrava is a former industrial town where its location at the confluence of four rivers and vast deposits of anthracite under the ground made it a perfect iron smelting location.

With iron smelting now part of Ostrava’s past, the city is making the most of its heritage and showcases its industrial architecture along with social realist buildings from the Soviet era to draw tourists.  The former blast furnace in the Lower Vítkovice area of the city centre is now a viewing platform and cafe, the former gasometer now converted to an auditorium and every year the protected former ironworks, mine and steelworks plays host to the annual multi genre Colours of Ostrava music festival.

c-ostrava-vitkovice-1

Meanwhile, the city embraces its proximity to Poland and Russia with its annual NATO days airshow showing off all aspects of security and military.  Free for the public, the event’s motto is “Our security is not given and there is no prosperity without security.

With the Janáček May International Music Festival (classical and jazz), a fine art museum as well as ethnographical and a science museum, With two universities a brewery and a lively pub and club scene on Stodolní Street, Ostrava definitely seems worth a visit.   

 

 

Video & essay: Nomads of Mongolia (6m27s)

Two views of Mongolia. 

First, a beautifully shot and edited film of traditional nomadic life in western Mongolia from Brandon Li.  Nomads riding horses, training eagles to hunt, herding yaks, wrestling and herding Bactrian camels all against a backdrop of stunning scenery and wide open space…lots of wide open space. 

See more of Brandon Li’s videos at www.unscripted.com.

Second, the excellent Roads & Kingdoms takes a look at Nomads on the Grid and how traditional nomadic life is being affected by modern technology in the wake of Mongolia’s commodities boom. The availability of solar panels is fuelling a market in small electrical appliances as electricity becomes cheaper and more reliable, making TV and mobile phone use more widespread and changing the ways Mongolia’s nomads go about their traditional activities such as herding, even if mobile coverage is not complete.  (And, in case should you find yourself in Mongolia any time soon, you may also want to see R&Ks Know Before You Go guide to Ulaanbaatar.)

Essay: Universities’ overland challenge

There is more to a road than the mud, the stones, the concrete slabs, and the tar that constitutes its surface.  (Lionel Gregory in the RCS Commonwealth Journal, 1972).

In this article from Cambridge University’s alumni magazine, former students recall an overland journey to India in the 1960s.

Their story is that of the first Commonwealth Expedition (Comex) which involved some 200 students from Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Oxford and Cambridge universities travelling in five coaches overland from the UK to India in 1965.  Along the way, they braved unpaid bills, poor or nonexistent roads, cholera and war.  Putting on cultural performances of music, singing and plays for their host countries, the students were often unaware of the political situation in the countries they travelled through.  

On the surface, it was a bit like Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday or the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour except that it had the serious aim of helping British kids interact with Commonwealth kids. Gregory called his young fellow travellers his “army for peace”. (from The Scotsman newspaper)

Following the trail blazed by fare paying coach expeditions such as Garrow-Fisher’s Indiaman Tours and Swagman Tours and later made famous as the Hippy Trail, Comex had the loftier aim of promoting the multicultural ideals of the Commonwealth and attempting “to produce enlightened Commonwealth citizens and support multiracial understanding through international travel.”

Comex was conceived by Lionel Gregory, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Gurkha regiment of the British Army.  ‘Greg’ had been brought up in India and saw active service with the Ghurkas during the Second World War in Burma and later in Malaya.  In later life, Greg was instrumental in seeing up the Ten Tors competition which takes place annually in Dartmoor National Park.  Greg started Comex after conversations with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who happened to be a family friend.  Nehru died in 1964, but the first Comex took place the following year.  Further Comex expeditions took place over the next few years with the number of coaches growing to 20 by the third expedition.  For more on this interesting character, read Lionel Gregory’s obituary in the Scotsman here and obituary from the Royal Signals focussing on his military career, here.  Greg wrote several books about his experiences including  Crying Drums: The Story of the Commonwealth Expedition (1972), With a Song and Not a Sword. (1973), Together Unafraid (1979) and Journey of a Lifetime (1997).

In short, a brief and interesting article which gives a glimpse on a form of overland travel which is no longer possible.  Read it in Cam magazine with Issuu:

Essay: Santayana’s Philosophy of Travel

Enjoy the world, travel over it, and learn its ways but do not let it hold you … . To possess things and persons in idea is the only pure good to be got out of them; to possess them physically or legally is a burden and a snare (from Persons and Places)

George Santayana, (actually Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás) was born in Madrid in 1863.   Santayana moved with his mother to the US at the age of ten.  After completing his education (including periods in Berlin and Cambridge) he began a career teaching philosophy at Harvard University where his students included TS Eliot and Gertrude Stein.  Resigning his position in 1912, Santayana returned to Europe, spending time in Spain, France, England and Italy.  Santayana died in 1952.  

In addition to his naturalist philosophy, Santayana is remembered for his aphorisms including, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim”, (from The Life of Reason).  

In the Philosophy of Travel, published posthumously in 1968 in the collection The Birth of Reason, Santayana considers travel, which “lends a great beauty to strangers, and fills remote places and times with an ineffable charm.”

Observing that a “search for the picturesque is the last and idlest motive of travel” Santayana examines different styles of traveller.  Beginning with those who travel “on more pressing errands and in some distress” such as migrants, exiles and colonists, he goes on to consider explorers, inveterate travellers, those who travel for sport and those who travel for commerce or other mercantile reason.  Finally, Santayana turns to the tourist, “the latest type of traveller”, at who Santayana explains, he will throw “no stones.” 

With his gift for aphorisms, the Philosophy of Travel naturally contains quotable travel wisdom such as “[w]e need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what” (quoted in Pico Iyer’s Why We Travel) and “[t]here is wisdom in turning often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour” which is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s famous travel quote.

Taking us from the roots and rootedness of plants to the possibility of travel lending “meaning to the images of the eye and the mind” so that it might be said that animals and man “owe their intelligence to their feet” and on through the mechanical age of mass travel, Santayana returns, at the end of this thoughtful essay, to the roots we all have and the realisation that what we return with from travel should not be material but insight and understanding;  an idea later explored by one of his students, TS Eliot, in Four Quartets:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others
[…] 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Essay: Francis Bacon, Of Travel (1625)

Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education, in the elder, a part of experience. 

Although Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral was first published in 1597, Of Travel did not appear until publication of the third edition in 1625, the year before Bacon’s death.  

At various times a lawyer, Parliamentarian and Attorney General under Elizabeth I and later James I, Francis Bacon is renowned for his legal, scientific and religious writings.  

However, Bacon was no stranger to travel, having spent several years as a young man in Paris and travelling throughout France, Italy and Spain; experiences which no doubt informed the advice contained in Of Travel.

Despite its age (it was written nearly four hundred years ago) and it length (it is short at only about 700 words), Of Travel remains relevant for modern travellers.  The substance of the advice Of Travel has not aged, even if the language used has and Of Travel contains good advice on preparing for travel (learn the language, read and learn about the countries through which you travel) or advice for the journey itself (what to see, what to avoid, who to meet, keeping a diary and choosing a travelling companion).  

My personal favourite though is his advice on returning home which advises a man to “let his travel appear rather in his discourse, than his apparel or gesture; and in his discourse, let him be rather advised in his answers, than forward to tell stories.”  Sound advice for those inclined to wear their travels on their sleeve when they get home.    

A succinct demonstration of how relevant Of Travel remains was produced for World Hum by travel writer Rolf Potts in which he re-presents Of Travel in the style of a 21st century magazine article as 10 Sizzling Hot Travel Tips from Sir Francis Bacon.   

Although the advice in Of Travel is not unique, Bacon’s gift for aphorisms will ensure that Of Travel remains a source for favourite travel quotes and makes the original worth a read.  

Read the full text of Of Travel, here.