January 24, 2012
Unpacking a box of books recently I found my old copy of No Longer on the Map, a small classic of literary geography published in 1972. The author Raymond H. Ramsay reveals his M.O. in the preface:
Many places are no longer on the map, but no mystery attaches to [them] because the names were political, not geographical. The territories have been given new names, or divided into smaller units or incorporated into larger ones.
The Kingdom of El Dorado is quite a different case, as are the Strait of Anian, Norumbega, Grocland, and the Isle of Satanaxio. These are no longer on the map because they never existed. Then how did they come to be mapped at all? That is quite a story.
Of course, the more no-longer-on-the-map a place is, the more I want to go there, and Satanaxio is at the top of my list.
According to Ramsay, it was first shown on a 1507 map by Johann Ruysch, and then again on maps by Gerhardus Mercator (of Mercator projection fame) and Abraham Ortelius (creator of the first modern atlas). Roughly located near the mouth of Hudson Bay, Santaxio was thought by some to be an outlet of hell with an opening on the earth’s surface leading into the infernal core; so maybe I’ll make it a quick visit.
Looking back through No Longer on the Map made me think of all the other places I wish I could visit but can’t, places lost in time that once really existed. For instance, you cannot travel through the British Raj on the eve of the Mutiny or have cocktails in the 1950s New York of Mary McCarthy. The Southwest Chief no longer stops at dusty crossroads in northern Arizona where Navajo weavers show their work and passengers alight to visit the Grand Canyon in Harvey Cars. Villages in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia where the Haida people raised monstrous totems and roof beams decorated with Raven and Bear are deserted now, victims of disease brought by white traders, and Malacca, once the crossroads of Asia visited by Arab dhows, Chinese treasure ships and European men-of-war, is no longer even on the Strait of Malacca because of waterfront reclamation.
Perhaps it’s time travel I want after all. When I was a little girl I loved Williamsburg and Carcassonne. But historical theme parks, no matter how authentically-recreated, now make me sad somehow; the burnish is always too bright, the effort too hard.
Some of the places I most desperately want to see aren’t even there anymore. I have taken a motor boat up Lake Powell sounding for Glen Canyon, obliterated in the 1960s by a dam that flooded a 200 mile stretch of the Colorado River gorge every bit as marvelous as the Grand Canyon, if we’re to believe the one-armed 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell. Gone with the backed-up water are the Navajo holy place at the confluence of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, the Crossing of the Fathers where missionary-explorers Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez found a ford in 1776 after their expedition had failed to reach California, and Hole-in-the-Rock, another Colorado River crossing forged in the brutal winter of 1880 by Mormons who cut a 1,200 foot trail down sandstone cliffs to reach it.
I want to see those places, but at the same time love Lake Powell, a weird, unnatural, tropical cocktail in the desert where house boaters tie up at islands that used to be mesas to barbecue and drink beer, which I don’t begrudge them.
Nobody, however willing they may be to follow Edward Abbey into tight, wild places, has a special right to the marvels of the American Southwest. I’d never have gotten there myself without a rented motor boat and excellent advice from the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area tourist information office.
We are here on earth now. It is no longer virgin, but more complex.
What long-vanished place would you most like to visit?
December 8, 2011
This year Arezzo, a Tuscan provincial capital about 50 miles southeast of Florence, celebrates the 500th anniversary of the birth of favorite son Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. One of the first art historical treatises, published in 1550, it remains a touchstone for scholars and connoisseurs; some claim Vasari even coined the word Renaissance for that period of remarkable artistic flowering that occurred in Italy around 1500. As biography, the Lives is equally successful, providing colorful stories and intimate touches only a Renaissance gadfly like Vasari could know.
But the father of Italian art history was first and foremost a painter and architect in his own time. He worked for Popes in Rome and Medicis in Florence, where he designed the Palazzo degli Uffizi, now a renowned museum that displays, among many other noteworthy works, Vasari’s Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Poor fellow. His art, generally considered Mannerist in style, has ever played second fiddle to that of Renaissance contemporaries like Michelangelo. And even in his hometown of Arezzo he is eclipsed by Piero della Francesca, who created his masterpiece The Legend of the True Cross fresco series for the Church of San Francesco.
I recently visited Arezzo, the Tuscan town hill town where Roberto Benigni filmed his 1997 film “Life is Beautiful.” It has the same noble, dignified air as Siena, but fewer tourists, with a Medieval center reached from parking lots below by escalators, one of which landed me on the piazza in front of the Romanesque Duomo. Behind it is a fortress built by the Medicis who controlled Arezzo from the 14th century onward; its ramparts overlook the beneficent Tuscan countryside, hemmed in to the northeast by the rugged Apennines.
My first stop was the Church of San Francesco down the hill from the Duomo with its glorious True Cross, which left me with a case of Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic illness known chiefly by anecdote, marked by chills and tremors caused by exposure to great art. To steady my nerves I sought a café, winding my way east across Arezzo’s sedate main street Corso Italia to the gently-sloping Piazza Grande where I found a table under the elegant loggia on the north side designed by none other than Vasari.
In a tourist brochure I read that the town planned to mark the Vasari anniversary by restoring his Assumption of the Virgin (1539) and holding a special exhibition on the artist’s stylistic development at the Municipal Gallery of Contemporary Art. The Church of San Francesco was assembling another Vasari show on the Tuscan artists featured—some say favored—in his seminal book. And, of course, every day is Giorgio Vasari Day at his Arezzo home on via XX Settembre west of the Duomo with interior walls richly frescoed by its famous resident. His art may pale in comparison to that of Michelangelo, whom he counted as a friend, but you’ve got to love Vasari as a multi-faceted Renaissance man.
December 1, 2011
Now if a group of American expats get their way, another one will be posted on the Left Bank apartment building where Julia Child lived with her husband Paul in their post World War II frisée salad days.
Among the exponents are Walter Wells, a former executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, and his wife Patricia, who teaches and writes about cooking in France. In 1984, just after the publication of her first book The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, Patricia got a fan letter from JC and the women quickly became friends. On the way from Paris to their country house near Cannes, the Childs often stopped at the Wells’ place in Provence, where Patricia and Julia gossiped while shelling fava beans in the courtyard.
Like other friends and admirers of the inimitable JC, the Wells think her passage through Paris ought to be noted with a plaque at 81 rue de l’Université, where Julia began testing recipes for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the two-volume compendium she co-authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle that helped introduce the bland palate of Betty Crocker‘s America to the transcendent pleasures of French cuisine.
To Americans Child is a pop culture icon, famous for ground-breaking PBS cooking shows, a long chain of bestselling cookbooks, the 2009 film Julie and Julia, and her posthumous memoir My Life in France. In 2001 her Cambridge, Mass., kitchen was moved almost intact to the Smithsonian Museum of American History; next year marks the 100th anniversary of her birth.
But our beloved French Chef is no celebrity in France, never mind that she was inducted into the French Legion d’Honneur shortly before she died in 2004. “In France the ordinary person has no idea who she is,” said her grand-nephew Alex Prud’homme, who helped her write My Life in France.
Moreover, in a city with 1,300 commemorative plaques, getting one installed at 81 rue de l’Universite—Roo de Loo, as the Childs called it—is no easy matter. Approvals are required from the building’s owners, the arrondissement and the city council; other than exceptional cases, those honored must have been dead for a least ten years. Recent recipients include the film director Francois Truffaut and the writer Marguerite Duras.
“This project is important because France has never had a better ambassador to America‘s heartland, or a better loved one,” Walter Wells told me in an email. “The goal is not to establish a shrine to Julia. It is an homage long overdue.”
Meanwhile, Roo de Loo has become something of a pilgrimage site for American foodies embarked one of the growing number of French cooking programs dedicated to JC. If you pass that way you might see some of them on the doorstep trying to hear Julia whistle as she puts a capon in the oven.
Here are a few tours and classes dedicated to Julia in France:
Tour de Forks, a small New York-based tour company, offers “A Taste of Julia Child’s Paris and Provence.” The seven-day itinerary (priced from $2,450) begins, as did Julia and Paul, at the Hotel Pont Royal in the 7th Arrondissement.
Le Cordon Bleu in Paris added “In Honor of Julia Child“ to its schedule, a three-hour lecture demonstration (about $60 per person) producing a JC meal you get to eat.
At Home with Patricia Wells has five-day courses (from $5,000) in Paris and Provence taught by the author of The Food Lover’s Guide to France. In Provence, Wells uses a La Cornue stove given to her by JC.
Cooking with Friends in France is American chef Kathie Alex’s school at La Pitchoune, JC’s beloved retreat in Provence. Four and five-night courses (from $2,450) include cooking classes, marketing and meals in Michelin-starred restaurants.
On Rue Tatin is headquartered in the Norman village of Louvier. JC friend and cookbook writer Susan Herrmann Loomis presides over three and five day courses there, as well as one-day classes in Paris ($350).
November 16, 2011
The Way, a new movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez, starring his father Martin Sheen, had me from the moment the main character arrives in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to identify the body of his son who has died in an accident while traveling. It’s a sad set-up, to be sure. But what really got me was the Pyrenees Mountains scenery around the town where pilgrims begin the 500-mile walk to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Campostela, Spain, resting place of the apostle’s remains, discovered after he was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 A.D.
For people who have dreamed about walking the Camino, the film is the next best thing, not only because of its glorious Pyrenees and Spanish Basque country setting, but because it dramatizes the emotional and spiritual journey pilgrims inevitably take, regardless of religious affiliation. Sheen plays an irascible, lapsed-Catholic ophthalmologist from Southern California. Others join him on the journey, each with his own mission. Together they follow the route, getting their official Camino passports stamped in hostels where they stop as they gradually discover truer, deeper reasons for walking the pilgrim’s path.
In real life Sheen, well known for playing President Jed Bartlet on the TV series “The West Wing,” is a devout Catholic and the father of four children, all of them actors. Emilio, his oldest, got the idea of making the film on a family car trip in 2005 roughly paralleling the Camino. He wrote the lead role for his father and based the story partly on a book by Jack Hitt, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain.
I won’t give away what happens along The Way, except to say that one of the things Sheen’s character learns is why his son loved to travel, and that every trip taken with an open heart can be a pilgrimage.
November 4, 2011
The artist and adventurer Everett Ruess was 20 years old when he vanished into wild and lonely Davis Gulch, a drainage of the Escalante River in southern Utah. He’d been tramping alone for 8 months across some of the roughest, most isolated country in the nation with burros to carry his gear and the odd volume of Emerson. Occasionally he stopped in settlements like dusty little Escalante to pick up mail from his parents. Two sheep herders reported meeting him on the slick rock tableland outside town on Nov. 21, 1934. Then nothing.
The woodblock prints and writing he left behind, collected in W.L. Rusho‘s 1983 Edward Ruess: Vagabond for Beauty, still captivate wilderness lovers. But it’s the mystery of his disappearance that has made him a cult hero among backpackers, climbers, canyoneers and other desert rats. Did he fall from a cliff while looking for arrowheads? Could he have committed suicide or been murdered by cattle rustlers? Or, drawn as he was to the blank spaces on the map, did he engineer his own disappearance, intentionally leaving family, friends and civilization behind?
His strange story—part cautionary tale, part siren song—has been told many times by Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and other writers. Jon Krakauer found similarities between Ruess and Chris McCandless, the subject of Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller Into the Wild. This year a new book, Finding Everett Ruess, by David Roberts, adds another chapter to the Ruess riddle.
The book landed at the top of my reading list not because I’m a fan; to my mind Ruess’s evocations of the desert Southwest lack cultural and historical perspective. But I have been to Davis Gulch, now part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and there’s nothing lacking about that. Hiking in from its confluence with the Escalante was an unforgettable experience, not to be repeated anytime soon because access is dictated by the water level on Lake Powell, which has risen since then, backing up into tributaries like Davis Gulch.
But a drought that peaked in 2005 made it possible for my brother John, backcountry ranger Bill Wolverton and me to explore the gulch, starting in flats of quick sand at its mouth. Farther up the canyon we saw 75 foot high La Gorce Arch and squeezed through a subway where the canyon walls narrow before leaving Davis by the livestock trail at its head, presumably the route Ruess took down.
Roberts went the same way to research a 1999 article for National Geographic Adventure that revisited the mystery, uncovering new hints about the possible murder of Ruess by Escalante locals.
But 10 years later the writer heard of a skeleton buried in a crack along Comb Ridge some 50 miles east of Davis Gulch in the Navajo Reservation. Tests on a DNA sample suggested that the remains were those of Everett Ruess, causing Roberts and fellow investigators to re-imagine the wanderer’s last steps, hypothesizing that he must have left Davis Gulch, crossed the Colorado River to die in the isolated northern part of the Navajo Reservation. But the findings, published in National Geographic Adventure, had to be retracted when a state-of-the-art U.S. military lab determined that the Comb Ridge bones were not those of Everett Ruess.
Roberts tells the whole story of the misidentification of the Comb Ridge remains, an interesting twist in the Everett Ruess saga. But in the end we’re left no wiser, still hearing only faint whispers of the vagabond of Ruess’ poem “Wilderness Song:”