On the Plain of Snakes, by Paul Theroux****-*****

Paul Theroux has been a successful travel writer for a very long time, but he is new to me. Lucky me, I read this free, thanks to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s for sale now.

The first thing that took my notice was that this is a gutsy writer. Though he’s in his late seventies, he hops in his personal vehicle and motors south to Mexico, and then all over that nation independently, venturing into out-of-the-way spaces, mostly eschewing the usual tourist haunts that draw the spring break crowd from the US and other parts. Over and over again, locals explain to him that this road, or that, or the other is very dangerous right now; sometimes he revises his route; sometimes he takes the route but at a different time; and sometimes he goes anyway, but takes somebody with him. What he doesn’t do is go home early, or store his car somewhere and follow a tour guide around. I stand in awe.

Theroux approaches his journey as a researcher, rather than as a tourist advisor. He interviews countless individuals, even learning a little of one of the indigenous languages—in addition to Spanish– in order to communicate. I gave up trying to trace his route, instead just going with the narrative as it unspools.

I have to tell you, this is a tome. I might never have finished it had I relied exclusively on my review copy. I recognized it would be a hefty commitment to get through all of it, so once again, I turned to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. I found it went much faster once I was able to do something else with my hands as I listened. Joseph Balderrama is a wonderful reader, and I quickly found myself absorbed into the journey, as if I were an unseen passenger.

Theroux takes us through the ordeal at the US/Mexico border, which was a nightmare during the time this was written, during the Trump administration. (If you have a MAGA cap in your closet, you may not enjoy this book.) He listens to Mexican citizens that live near enough to the border that they can actually see it from their homes, or from their workplaces. Some of them have lived in Mexico but worked in Texas for a long time, and the hardship they experience once the rules are changed is dreadful. And the insight I gain from listening to his interviews with people there about immigration to the US is most enlightening.

The most amazing thing to me is the way the cartels and the Mexican police force overlap, and in a number of places are exactly the same people! He describes multiple shakedowns by traffic cops while he is driving. It seems that the state pays its cops next to nothing, and so in order for them to support themselves, (particularly, we assume, those not being paid by cartels also,) they are permitted to stop anyone they believe has some money, and essentially intimidate them into a bribe. But it’s not complete chaos: once a driver has been shaken down, they are entitled to a receipt for the money they have had to forfeit so that another cop up the road cannot do the same thing.

The one tourist area Theroux passes through is Puerto Vallarta, which also happens to be the only place in Mexico that I have visited. About ten years lapsed between my visit—a very pleasant one—and Theroux’s, and I was saddened to learn how unsafe it has become, and how badly the locals, who were mostly middle class when I was there, have it now.

There are a number of fascinating passages, and I learned a lot. One village is awash with what sounds like a new sort of trans woman, (new to an American from Seattle, at least,) and another where the handmade sandals are finished with a jaw dropping method. There’s one very poor village where earthquakes occur so frequently that most of the homes are no longer standing, but many people won’t sleep indoors anyway for fear of being crushed to death. No aid from the Mexican government or any international body has ever reached them. Those people are on their own, and they are suffering.

Perhaps the sweetest parts have to do with the friendships that the writer forms with the people he meets there. I especially enjoyed reading the interviews with his new author and artist friends.

For those like myself that approach this with general interest, I’d call this a four star book. My stamina is greater than most, yet as much as I enjoyed it, it did feel a little bit lengthy. For those with a particular interest in the socioeconomic, cultural, and political realities of Mexico, it’s five stars, hands down.

Recommended to those with an interest in this field.

The Oregon Trail: An American Journey, by Rinker Buck *****

theoregontrailBuck is a journalist and author who replicated (to the extent possible in modern times) the covered wagon crossing of the old Oregon Trail, much of which still contains the original wagon ruts. A creature of the Pacific Northwest myself, I thought I had the whole Oregon Trail story down cold, but I learned a lot from Buck’s wonderful memoir, which threads his own experience with the historical information he gleaned from a variety of sources into a fluent, fascinating, accessible yet hyper-literate narrative. My great thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the ARC. The book will be available to the public in August of this year.

Buck discusses his experience, and the book, here:

The germ of Buck’s idea to travel the old Oregon Trail in a covered wagon came from a favorite childhood experience. Buck’s father took his large family on a covered wagon vacation during the late 1950’s. They traveled in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and it is one of the author’s fondest memories. His brother Nick, who sounds like a real character, decided to join him on this adventure, and their skills complemented each other wonderfully in most instances, with Rinker having done a great deal of research and put up the considerable sum it took to buy the wagon, the mules, and so forth, and Nick having a wealth of eclectic knowledge about covered wagons and mules as well as tremendous mechanical aptitude in general.

Our author is one hell of a writer. His down to earth metaphors made his story accessible for modern people. For example, he says that the Conestoga wagon was the semi truck of the mid-1800s while the prairie wagon used by most families, which was made by Sears Roebuck, Studebaker, and John Deere, were more like the station wagon. The whole narrative is peppered with this sort of figurative language, and it’s both amusing and helpful. And I loved seeing the ways in which the problems of the early pioneers often became his problems also, sometimes in ways that would have halted an ordinary traveler right then and there. But Rinker and his brother are serious badasses, and they kept on going.

Think for a moment how high up the driver’s seat on a covered wagon is, for example, and how immensely soporific the repetitive clopping of hooves are on a very warm spring day. There is no safety belt; there is nothing whatsoever to keep a man from falling off and being crushed beneath the wagon.

Narcissa Whitman, one of the early settlers who together with her husband, founded the Whitman mission in Eastern Washington (part then of the Oregon Territory) made the trip on horseback. But she had no safety belt either.

The Mormons, or Latter Day Saints, did a whole lot of it on foot and pushing carts; those that lived through the experience populated Utah. But I agree with Buck that Devil’s Gate was not solely part of the Mormon experience, and President Bush had no business turning federal park lands over to the LDS Church. Frankly, it steams my clams all over again just writing about it…moving on.

I also have one small bone to pick with Buck’s research, though it isn’t enough to lop a star off my rating: he says that the 400,000 pioneers that crossed the Oregon Trail was the greatest overland migration in history. To be fair, when he wrote this, it was widely accepted as truth. But in 2010, Isabel Wilkerson documented an overland migration of 6 million African-Americans from the South to Northern Industrial cities and also to California between 1915 and 1970. The Oregon Trail, then, may be the second largest, but not the largest.

I also might have liked to see a citation accompany controversial facts tossed in, such as the claim that it was covered wagon makers, not Henry Ford, who started the mass assembly line. Generally I liked the flow of the text made possible by avoiding footnotes, but if one is going to butcher a sacred cow, one should back the assertion with a source.

But all these things are minor compared to the value, both in education and entertainment provided by the story of the Rinker brothers’ modern day reenactment, which is nothing short of spellbinding. I had just begun it when I came down with a case of flu, and I can’t tell you how comforting it was to curl up under my covers with my glass of orange juice and this book and immerse myself in their journey, which commenced in Missouri and like the original pioneers, continued across six states. And although I have never done the trail itself (and if I were to do so, I’d be one of the Winnebago set that made him half-crazy with their giant rigs that spooked the mules and their never-ending cameras winking at him and blocking his way), I have driven through all of the states he crossed through except Kansas.

It was useful to have traveled through most of the region that Buck described, yet his descriptions were so palpable that I think even if you have never been there and never plan to, you will see much of it in your mind’s eye.

I’m not sure what is the most remarkable part of this wonderful memoir: the novel aspect of the covered wagon trip during the 21st century, or Rinker’s voice, which switches seamlessly from that of historian, to that of family member with family issues, to that of the humorist who can appreciate life’s ironies even in adverse circumstances. All I know is that you don’t want to miss out on this one. What a terrific story!