Great American Road Trip: Travel books for the road. 1 of 4: Sun After Dark

I’m one of those people who haul books when I travel. I am ambitious, imagining hours of page turning. Usually, though, I barely crack a book. One advantage of riding in a car across a good portion of the United States, as I have recently experienced on my family’s road trip to Montana, is the hours for reading.

There are miles and miles and miles between Ohio and Montana, particularly if you head north to take in North Dakota.

On the way back, Iowa can feel endless. Indiana–dreadful. (Not to put down those lovely states, but at the end of a trip, even with stops, they seem bigger than they are.) As wonderful as scenery is, a book helps move the pavement along, particularly if the book is written by a person who is also on a journey. I brought four such books on my cross-country jaunt and recommend each of them. In the next three days, I’ll be posting on each one.

Here is the first one. I read this one through Minnesota and North Dakota.

Sun After Dark: Flights into the ForeignPico Iyer

An excerpt: “We travel most, I mean to say, when we stumble, and we stumble most when we come to a place of poverty and need (like Haiti, perhaps, or Cambodia): and what we find in such confounding places, often, is that it is the sadness that makes the sunshine more involving or, as often, that it is the spirit and optimism of the place that make the difficulties more haunting.”

Pico Iyer is one of my favorite travel writers and this book of essays does not disappoint. As he explains in the first essay, “The Place Across the Mountains,” the book is a result of his desire to travel to some of the poorest corners in the world in order to shed light on their importance and as well as add to the understanding about what poverty means.

Lest you think that this is a depressing missive that will leave you weeping over your backpack or pull-behind suitcase, chastising yourself for the delight you feel about your own travels when parts of the world have such problems, this is not the case. Iyer’s lyric quality is luminous in its prose and if nothing else, gives the awareness to the reader that hope prevails.

Sun After Dark makes a worthy book for the road because each essay is a stand alone piece. This means that if you put it down for a few days, you won’t feel lost when you pick it up again. The culmination of the essays as a group offers a variety of Iyer’s experiences that range from the fantastic to the simple.

It’s also a good book to share. Once on our trip, my husband didn’t have the books he was reading with him. I handed him this one because he could read an essay or two and it wouldn’t interrupt the flow of the other books he wanted to finish before embarking on another one.

One of the sections that hit a high mark on the unusual travel experiences spectrum is Iyer’s account of his visit to a Bolivian prison. Since Iyer had seen all that he had set out to see, more or less, the prison was at the tail end of his trip. This was one of those ideas that after wards makes one think, “What was I thinking?”

Also enjoyable are Iyer’s in depth accounts of his visit with the Dalai Lama and his time at the same Zen retreat center as Leonard Cohen. Along with the descriptions of the settings are insights into the workings of these men and Iyer’s own musings about how he fits into the scheme of existence.

As usual, no matter where Iyer goes, he sees the wonder and the beauty of humanity, even in those places that are troubling. This is a book to read if you like to think about where you are traveling, as well as, the mysteries and nuances of life.