Travel Writing in America

whywetravel_bestamericantravelwriting
1 January 2004 - A  A +

American travel writing is about looking for the light. Or so, at least, I told myself, rather loftily, as I landed in Atlanta on my first trip to the city, got into a new Aspire and proceeded to drive around the “Phoenix of the South.” I passed Perimeter Point and Perimeter Mall, drove through a web of office parks and shopping malls, passed a couple more Perimeter sites and then arrived at my fancy hotel, in the midst of an area of jockey clubs and faux-European mansions. Afternoon tea was served in the lobby, I was told (with sterling silver strainers, no less), and a notice about “Guest Attire” in my room reminded me that I should be formally attired for breakfast or even when passing through the lobby. Another sign in my room advised me that “for security reasons” I should call the Housekeeping Department if ever I considered leaving my shoes in the corridor for a complimentary shining.

I was taken aback to see shoes linked to security: could tennies stage a presidential assault ? Or a pair of brown oxfords represent outlaw values ? Yet undeterred, I decided, my last night in the place, to take my courage in my hands, so to speak, and place my $16 Payless Shoe Source loafers outside in order to be polished to a Buckhead sheen. I called the Housekeeping department to advise it of my intended maneuver, and was told, since it was close to midnight, to leave the shoes outside the door.

“But it says, for security reasons…”

“That’s okay. It’s close to midnight.”

The next morning, as I got ready to check out and fly back to California, I looked out into the perilous corridor and saw…nothing. I have to check out soon, I said, calling Housekeeping, and I was wondering…”We’ll get right onto it, sir,” a voice replied, with something of the firmness of Mission Control (and I was reassured just to be called “sir,” as I’d almost never been before). Minutes passed, then close to an hour. I placed a call or two down to the desk; it placed a call up to me. Living up to every fear of security violations, my shoes had apparently fled the hotel and might, even now,
be hotfooting it to Mexico.

An expert was put on the case, but she was no use at all. The Concierge desk summoned a woman called “Ellen” (or “Helen” or “Yellin’ “) to go out into the city to purchase for me the finest shoes that money can buy. But shopping for someone else’s feet is notoriously difficult, and soon Yellin’ was sending an agent to my door with shoes perfectly sized for Shaquille O’Neal. The whole process was complicated, of course, by the fact that walking shoeless through the lobby would be to violate every last item of the hotel’s unbending dress code.

Finally–my flight was leaving very soon, and whatever APB had been put out on my loafers had yielded no results–the hotel decided to take things firmly in its hands, so to speak: I would be permitted to walk through the lobby in my socks, indeed to check out without my shoes, so as to accompany a bellboy (the only dark face I’d seen in the place) to a Benny’s shoe store in the nearest mall. Outside, as I hopped and hobbled through the lobby with my suitcase, was a stretch limo.

And so the day went on and on, and as the time of my check-in drew closer and closer, I and the poor bellboy plodded glumly around a shoe-shop in a mall, looking for something other than the light. Finally, in order to bring the ordeal to an end, I alighted on a pair of $100 leather boots to replace the $16 shoes that had disappeared, hardly caring that they were several sizes too large (and inelegant besides).
Travel, as they say, profits not just the soul.

This is a trivial incident, of course, and one that could happen almost anywhere. And yet it bears out to me how travel writing can arise out of the least dramatic places and episodes, and how it is quickened, often, when things go wrong; when one falls between the cracks of one’s itinerary and tumbles out of the guidebook altogether. It also can be a form of sneaking up on truth through the back entrance: while I was traveling around Atlanta (to write about it), I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change, the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN center and Fulton County Stadium. Yet what seemed most characteristic, both about the city and about my experience of it, was that moment that wouldn’t be found in any travel guides: the lone black worker in a place that prides itself on propriety, the collapse of simple services in a hotel that stands on highest ceremony, the elaborate atonement for what had only been a regular mistake. Besides, I’d never been in a stretch limo before.

All the photos on this site, other than the one on the Welcome page, are taken by Pico Iyer.