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On Travel Writing and Writing Well

April 15, 2014

Good travel writing doesn’t come from exotic locations. Any place can spark insight, nuance, or inspiration. Appalachia provides as good material as England, Ukraine, or Thailand.

To write well requires a mix of entrepreneurial spirit to act as historian, journalist, tourist, guide, and sociologist. It leads to historical quirks or overlooked towns for subject material.

It’s difficult to condense history, perspective, or the political outlook of a country into 1,000 words. Most travel blogs don’t bother, writing a chronological narrative instead: arriving, finding the hostel, eating lunch, visiting an old castle, getting drunk at night. None of that makes for an interesting post. I can buy a guidebook from Rick Steves or Lonely Planet for all of that, without clichés about a city being cheap/friendly/beautiful.

My writing gets better the more I travel, which comes from jarring my perspective. It informs me and makes me realize my limitations. As Bill Buford said in the introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2010, “place defines us more than our habits allow us to know.” Leaving a familiar place allows for self-examination and comparison.

Robert Kaplan, in Balkan Ghosts, declared that “at its very best, travel writing should be a technique to explore history, art, and politics in the liveliest fashion possible.” Approaching travel writing as a technique, rather than a genre, loosens restrictions to allow an examination of the self, the foreign culture, or the native culture the writer leaves.

Likewise with Paul Theroux in Travel Writing: The Point of It: “The job of the travel writer is to go far and wide, make voluminous notes, and tell the truth. There is immense drudgery in the job. but the book ought to live, and if it is truthful, it ought to be prescient without making predictions.” Combine the practical and the literary; that is, write to enhance the understanding of a foreign culture.

All that said, travel writing need not be about place. Many stories could be in any city and it wouldn’t lose value in the transition. Yet I’m obsessively interested in place, almost fanatically. Place shapes culture, preferences, political ideals, moral convictions, and economic and social mobility. Place presents problems and provides solutions, and that’s what I aim to discover: place as an extension of the past, the control of the present, and the shaping of the future.



Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches: The German-Catholic Counties of Ohio

March 25, 2014

Kalida, Ohio is the sort of place you notice because the train crossing makes you wait five minutes.



And then you wait again, 10 minutes down the road.

That section of northwest Ohio — between the Indiana state line and I-75 through Lima, Findlay, and Bowling Green — doesn’t attract crowds. Dull green signs mark flat farmland with three houses and a crossroads as a village. A few towns claim county seats, such as Defiance (30 minutes north of Kalida) and Bryan (30 minutes north of Defiance). Manufacturing drives the economy of Defiance, and a small liberal arts college makes it a prototype of the Midwestern town. If you’ve heard of Defiance, it’s probably from the band of the same name (but formed in Columbus, those liars). Bryan postures as “perhaps the finest small town in the State of Ohio,” which sounds like some haughty Eagletonian talk. However, the Spangler Candy Company produces Dum Dum suckers there, so maybe that claim is justified.

Bryan has a beautiful county courthouse, as well as many of the surrounding towns in that corner of the state. Traveling through the area, it’s well worth a stop.

Why would you travel through the area?

Its history and architecture. If you’re German and Catholic, it’s even better. Putnam and Mercer counties were founded by German Catholics during the early 19th century. Due to low population and the strength of agriculture in the area, the influence remained dominant. The two counties are the most Catholic in the state, 74 and 72 percent respectively, while only 24 percent of Ohioans identify as Catholic, according to a 2008 Pew Forum poll. Delphos, Ohio provides an example of the area’s Catholic colonization:

The colony at Delphos was begun in 1836 when a German priest, Fr. John Bredeick sent his brother Frederick to America to establish a German Catholic community. Frederick Bredeick purchased 92 acres for the future Delphos in an area that was already being settled by planned German Catholic communities. The first group of 42 people left Germany in August of 1842 and began clearing land for the future town the next spring. Fr. Bredeick, who was himself unable to leave Germany until 1844, had sent a second group of colonists in 1843, and he himself finally arrived the next year with a third group. Although from an early date non-Catholics have lived in Delphos, even today the Catholic high school, St. John’s, is larger than the public high school.

The area remains an enclave, much like northeast Ohio’s Amish communities. I noticed more signs about abortion, religious freedom, and the Holy Father than I did road signs.

You don’t pass any welcome signs, though; the church towers looming in the distance would pre-empt them. St. Michael’s in Kalida breaks the horizon six or seven miles before you reach the town. Designed in a Gothic or Romanesque style, the churches reside near schools, farms, or convenience stores.


It’s striking on a clear, sunny day.

Mercer and Auglaize counties have roughly 25 Catholic church buildings scattered about; including Putnam, Van Wert, and Allen counties, it’s probably closer to 50.

map clip

Multiply the dots by two, if not three. Or, if you head southwest more…

The reluctance of anything, natural or man-made, to bump the horizon makes the churches striking. Spires and silos from the German Catholic community bookends the state with another religious community on the other side, the Amish with their buggies and barns. As Peter Williams of Miami University (OH) describes it,

In a time of increasing cultural heterogeneity around the country, enclaves like this are more and more unusual … it is an island of exception to broader American trends.

To grasp the area’s history, explore the Putnam County Historical Museum in Kalida (or Montpelier, Wapakoneta, Celina…). Before you leave, visit Hoyt’s Tavern and order the pork tenderloin (delicious and as large as my face). The lack of traffic in the area lets a maverick driver treat speed limits as guidelines rather than rules.

Sweeping and cosmopolitan it is not, but the humble and unique in rural America remain intriguing.

Useful Idiots and the Defense of Totalitarians

February 26, 2014

Why do smart people support dictators?

Usually, they don’t defend a murderer, and probably oppose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or drone strikes in Pakistan. Yet, when a foreign leader opposes “American imperialism” or upholds a socialist vision, all is forgiven. Who needs freedom of speech, a bourgeois virtue that protects capitalists? What’s horrifying in domestic affairs becomes holy abroad.

When Paul Hollander analyzed the Western defenders of Cuba, China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union in Political Pilgrimshe rooted the attraction in alienation from liberal democracy:

Intense alienation is the single major factor that produced the pilgrimages and the attendant suspension of critical faculties in each period; and as long as alienation persists, emotion will continue to overpower intellect. This is so because intense rejection of one’s society leads to (or entails) such anger, despair, and hostility that it becomes imperative to find alternatives to the social system the critic lives under—hence the growing susceptibility to the claims of other social systems opposed to that which he so despises.

When one country fades as a model utopia, another replaces it. One country will always posture against the United States or the European Union. Venezuela has been a recent country of choice, but similar fools on the Right admire Vladimir Putin and Russia. Or Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Instead of confronting the failure of the United States to adhere to its professed values, a foil is sought. The narrow binary of good/bad countries prompts the search for a magical foreign land, which leads to otherwise sane people defending dictators.

Just as partisans listen to a politician’s speeches and ignore the action, the alienated lose their skepticism when a foreign leader confirms their bias. Saul Bellow wrote that “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep,” and political discussions would bear more fruit if the desire for a moral absolute in politics were resisted.* Politics might be the most difficult arena to live in by truth, but it’s better to attempt the challenge than defend a madman with a red book in his left hand and a gun in his right.

The alienation of individuals within society reflects the society more than the idealized country. Projection doesn’t require an accurate understanding of an imagine society; it only needs a disappointing reality. Hollander again:

…Both the popularity and unpopularity of the Soviet Union among Western intellectuals have more to do with the state of Western societies than with that of the Soviet. Admiration of the Soviet system peaked not when its performance was the most impressive or its policies most humane, but at the time when a severe economic crisis buffeted the Western world (in the 1930s), which helped create a perception of the Soviet Union as an island of stability, order, economic rationality, and social justice. Likewise the attractions of China, Cuba, and North Vietnam emerged and intensified during the 1960s when, once more, a crisis of confidence shook the United States (this time on account of Vietnam and racial conflict), and when both in the United States and in Western Europe rising non-material aspirations were unmet by new spiritual resources. Clearly it is possible to admire countries when one knows little about them political systems can also be detested when there is scanty knowledge about them.

Is it any wonder that Venezuela looked appealing when Hugo Chavez bloviated about defending the poor while the United States sank into economic recession and stagnation? Or when conservatives who worry about moral decline pine for Putin’s defense of conservatism and support of Orthodox Christianity? Never mind that the reality in Venezuela and Russia is abhorrent.

It’s easy to admire the underdog or what failed to be. “Admiring defeated revolutions has the same advantages as worshipping from a distance a beautiful woman (or man) whose charms have never been tested by sharing a bed, bathroom, or kitchen,” Hollander noted. Identifying with the poor and the oppressed does not a just order make. Swallowing propaganda gives you stellar arguments, but it divorces you from reality. To avoid the shame of becoming a useful idiot, any level-headed person must judge action, not rhetoric, and contemplate the causes of alienation in their society.

*Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back.

How to Travel in 7 Steps

February 18, 2014

Everyone talks about how much they’d love to travel. Ignoring the 90 percent of people who lie when they say it, the remaining 10 percent who want to probably won’t leave the country. So I want to help that 1 or 2 percent of the 10 who might commit to the cliché and see the world. This post isn’t meant to explain how to travel for three months on $30 (who wants to be an international vagrant, anyway?).* This post is meant to get you thinking so that you’ll be able to buy a plane ticket and not regret it. How to buy the ticket, where to go, and how to get a good deal will be a future post.

Prioritize travel

Leaving the United States isn’t difficult, but it won’t happen if you don’t make it happen. If you want to travel, start a travel fund. Don’t sell drugs on the side if you’re that poor, but I save for a year before I have enough to gallivant around.† Life is about trade-offs. If you don’t value travel, admit it and move on.

Learn to save

Evaluate your expenses and figure out what you want to cut. Think like an economist and understand opportunity cost: the cost of one thing is what you give up to get it. Prioritizing travel might have you making coffee at home instead of buying it in the morning. If you know what you value, it’s not much of a sacrifice. Small things like eating out less, watching Netflix instead of going out, and choosing the library over Amazon add up. Save that tax return, don’t upgrade your phone. I don’t know, make it work.

Know what sort of traveler you are

Sleeping in hostels and eating street food with an overloaded backpack makes for a different trip than staying in nice hotels, dining by candlelight, and renting a car. I like hostels and “free” walking tours, but you might want a private shower. Aim for value, not cheapness. I loved Lithuania when I was there and didn’t spend much, but I loved Iceland too, even though I spent twice or thrice the amount. Your trip, your rules.

Know where you want to go

Answering “where do I want to go?” has two benefits: It gives you a goal that spurs action, and you avoid going somewhere you’ll dislike. Again, it’s about prioritizing travel; if you want to see “Europe” or “Africa,” that’s too vague. “I want to climb a glacier and see waterfalls in Iceland” or “I want to swim in Lake Victoria and shoot something” are goals that you can achieve and build an itinerary around (but maybe not that last one, Francis Macomber).

Plan a realistic trip

This is key. Visiting eight countries in a month is possible. It’s also miserable. Just as you should disregard  bucket lists, take time to appreciate wherever you are. If it happens, 18 hours in Helsinki is nice, but if most of your trip is a few days in 12 countries, you probably haven’t thought enough about where you want to go. Don’t try to see everything; assume that you’ll return, and prioritize accordingly.

Make a budget and itinerary

I tend to over-budget, as I deviate from my itinerary. Having that cushion helps me avoid begging my parents for money they won’t give me. Some sites publish lists of the best cities for low-budget backpackers, and others simplify the housing search. However, the best way to estimate expenses isn’t online. It’s also the best companion for traveling (aside from my sterling advice). And, horror of horrors, it’s not free.

Buy a guidebook

I love guidebooks. The best one for a trip depends upon how you want to travel, but I enjoy ones by Rick Steves. I like his perspective on travel, I like the puns he uses, and I like that he serves on the board of directors for NORML. I haven’t used Lonely Planet as much, but they’ve been useful to me as well. Everyone wants to see what’s “off the beaten path,” meet a (romantically available) local, and drown in a platitude. So they disparage guidebooks because they’re “a traveler, not a tourist.” Also, that Jack Kerouac book they didn’t understand takes up the book space in their backpack. But uh, grab a guidebook. Don’t be a hipster about it. It’s a nice memento to keep after the trip, and gives more reliable information than that weirdo on reddit who sold all his possessions so he could live on a goat farm in Moldova.

Traveling expands my perspective and heightens my appreciation for home. It’s a challenge. It’s also not necessary for a fulfilling life. But it’s fun if you’re of a certain type. If so, embrace it. If my suggestions help, send me a postcard when you make it, be it to India, Italy, or Indiana.

* “The International Vagrants” would be a great band name.
† Just kidding; sell drugs on the side if you want (#smashthestate).

Your Ideology Makes You Lie to Yourself

February 14, 2014

As we descend into the cave of reality and search for truth, ideology guides our action. Yet, as the mystery in the cave deepens, the ideology we use as a flashlight catches our eyes and blinds us instead of lighting the path. Though I’m skeptical that we can escape the cave, we can avoid blinding ourselves. For that, we’ll need to understand the “morality of limits,” an idea stemming from Albert Camus.

It seems that Mario Vargas Llosa coined the term in an essay reflecting on Camus’s themes throughout his works. In short: Theories and abstractions simplify the world to make it comprehensible. By definition, the comprehension sacrifices nuance. We gain a systematic interpretation of reality, but it disconnects us from reality. The morality of limits reminds us of the limitation of knowledge and reflects the unknowability of life. It forces humility, and helps us avoid using ideology to justify “crimes and lies.” As Ronald Arunson described Camus’s The Fall, “Life is no one single, simple thing, but a series of tensions and dilemmas. The seemingly straightforward features of life are in fact ambiguous and even contradictory.” Ideology isn’t useless, but it has limitations.

The ambiguity and contradiction within life amplifies the dangers of ideology. Ideology allows a closing of the mind. The triumph of western thought relies on a broad tolerance of ideas. When that is rejected, questioning becomes sinful. The answers already exist, so don’t think about truth. Instead, have men with greater power recite it. The Gospels according to St. Rothbard, St. Rousseau, or St. Marx are alluring, after all. But they won’t allow challenges, and force reality to follow ideology. Living a life in truth becomes difficult, even subversive.

We see ideology trump reality on a daily basis. Megan McArdle demonstrates it well regarding unemployment insurance. Both conservative and liberal arguments can be valid, but aren’t always sound. Ideology uses stories to explain reality, but zeal tricks us into rejecting fact for fiction. Even self-proclaimed pragmatists can use the term to disguise their biases as cold, clear logic.

This post doesn’t endorse pragmatism nor reject systematic thinking. It acknowledges the complicated nature of reality and the power of ideology. We must be wary of absolutes, lest they blind us to the suffering and contradictions in life. Narratives are useful, but prudence encourages us to stop short of using them to justify injustice and bloodshed. The morality of limits is not a philosophy, but a perspective that skirts self-created pitfalls in the cave. When we see absolute solutions in our ideas, the panacea has little separation from the plague.

Appalachia Is a Place, Not Just a Backwater

February 12, 2014

I used to envy my friends with cultural connections to the country their families immigrated from. The traditions, cultural ties, and general identification for a way of life left behind but still valued enticed me. It continued a rare brand of conservatism that reflected Burke’s definition of society as a pact among the past, the present, and the future. It’s not necessarily nostalgic, but rather an acknowledgement of what was and what now exists. It’s a certain bond that I felt removed from understanding.

In general, I suppose, I longed for the metaphysical rooting that place provides. It determines community, influence, and mobility. It doesn’t control a person, but it places boundaries that control a person’s scope, for good or ill.

My last quarter of college, I took a Midwestern Literature class that emphasized how place shaped novels. Though her teaching style irked me, as well as a haughty windbag of a student I dubbed the “English ogre,” it was a valuable class long after it ended.

The class helped me realize that my longing was pointless. That connection to the “old country,” its community and traditions, and the deterministic properties of place already existed in my life.

The mental barrier, I realized, was that I didn’t think local. Immigration was irrelevant for me. My ancestors left Ulster and Scotland for America before the revolution and never looked back. Those ties vanished centuries ago, but I still had a place.

My place, to be specific, is Appalachia.

Along with that realization, I noticed how my place was viewed. That is, I was relatively unaware of foreign perspective treating “Appalachia” as synonymous with “backwater.” It wouldn’t be notable, but its power shapes the region and its people. It lacks context, but defines the conception.

For 250 years, my family migrated about 100 miles through Appalachia, rarely straying 50 miles from the Ohio River. Why did it take me so long to recognize my place? Maybe it didn’t seem interesting enough. I had ancestors fight in the Revolutionary War, and most wars since then, but maybe I lacked a flashy narrative of history-altering bravery. The answer, I think, lies in something simple: I had no model to go on.
My part of Appalachia, extending a bit into the Midwest, gets lumped into anonymous, boring “flyover country.” The coasts dominate American culture, and Midwesterners lack pizzazz:

In the East Coast imagination, the Midwest is populated largely by hicks, and life there is about as exciting as a field of corn. Instead of having a vital, rewarding career as, say, chief assistant to the assistant chief in the personnel department of the Federal Bureau of This or That, Midwesterners plow fields, work in factories and mills, operate small businesses. They belong to the Grange or the Rotarians, go in for church suppers and community singing.

Who cares about a place riddled with rednecks in every cornfield, hillbillies in every holler?

Well, I do.

Aside from the marginalization and stereotyping, much more happens here.

I’m not sure how many more sitcoms can be about hipsters in Brooklyn, or a circle of white friends anywhere in New York City. Yet, a new one premieres every fall (usually with a character fleeing the Midwest). In contrast, Appalachia has Deliverance or Buckwild to shape perceptions. Murderous, predatory hicks, or ignorant, dumb yokels. What variety! If luck shines through, the Beverly Hillbillies retains some social influence. Gems like October Sky might break through, but the negative overwhelms.

Journalistic pieces follow a similar script when describing Appalachia. Impoverished people leech off welfare and scramble for drugs as the community decays. Few pieces humanize Appalachia’s denizens like Leslie Jamison’s. Even with that piece, the subject was from the South, but stuck in Appalachia; we only catch fleeting glimpses of others.

The challenge, then, for anyone in my position is staggering. How do I explain the variety and complexity of life in the backwoods Do I stay? How do I justify leaving? Why should I have to justify it?

What stands to do, then, is to integrate its existence as a valuable, complex place into public consciousness. Not through a denial of problems, but through the creation of a place in a space that doesn’t exist. Stereotypes stand, but I want to humanize the hillbilly, contextualize the redneck, and recognize others. To erase the awareness of a variety of people would be unacceptable in other contexts.

Currently, as historically, Appalachia is a resource bank. To power the country, mountains are removed. Before, they were hollowed out. Instead of a gap to hint at what once was, only wastelands, tucked away from wandering eyes, remain. Unnoticed by anyone outside, the public is unconcerned about how others suffer when they benefit. We value Appalachia for what we can extract from it and ignore what’s left behind. To change that, people need to find it on the map and understand it beyond Cletus, Sally Ann, and their bare-footed children.

Repression By Any Other Name

February 7, 2014

From “Repression By Any Other Name” by Ariel Dorfman in Guernica:

Of course, the U.S. government will continue to spy, no matter what limited and cosmetic restrictions may henceforth be enacted, and of course the criminalization of journalists who question or inform about these activities and methods is bound to increase as leaks and whistleblowers proliferate. And yet, almost every time I bring up the cautionary example of Chile, I tend to be harangued with something approaching flippancy: Hey, not to worry, what happened there can’t happen here.

A warning for those who bask in the glow of that self-congratulatory phrase, “It can’t happen here.” We also chanted those words in the streets of Santiago and from the hills of Valparaíso before the coup swept our lives away. We also labored under the delusion that our oh-so-stable democracy was exempt from the savagery of history and the depredations of an unbridled government. We also were targeted by a regime that defined dissidents as terrorists. We also consented to the degradation of our speech. And we have also realized that, of the many crimes tyrants commit against their own people, the most persistent and enduring crime of all may be the one committed against language. Even today in Chile, more than twenty years after we reconquered democracy and seven years after the death of Pinochet, most people are wary of using the word “dictatorship” to refer to the past, preferring the more neutral “régimen militar.” I could multiply examples of this toxic avoidance of significance and, therefore, of reality. Instead of “torture,” for instance, we have “excesses.” Instead of “crimes,” we have “mistakes.” Instead of “golpe militar,” we are tendered “pronunciamiento,” as if this had been a matter of words pronounced rather than virulence delivered. “Golpe” is a violent blow; “pronunciamiento” means that the soldiers have given vent to an idea, the need to change the government.

Surveillance, in any land where it is ubiquitous and inescapable, generates distrust and divisions among its citizens, curbs their readiness to speak freely to each other, and diminishes their willingness to even dare to think freely.

It can always happen here. It can happen anywhere.

Hat tip to Judith Ayers.