Being found is overrated. I came to this conclusion in the aftermath of 9/11, when, like many reporters, I went looking for Afghanistan.
I had never been to Afghanistan. In fact, I had never set foot anywhere near Central Asia before. I was an Africa correspondent. Dispatched with a few hours' notice to cover the fall of the Taliban, I landed in neighboring Uzbekistan, having gathered everything I knew of that particular country from the in-flight magazine. A binary vocabulary in Russian (da, nyet) got me aboard a taxicab that wheezed toward Tajikistan. Tajikistan, my editors assured me, was the best jumping off point for the war. Sadly, it wasn't a small place; it's about the size of Greece. After clearing a remote border checkpoint, I blinked out, in stunned silence, over a frozen steppe that scrolled vacantly to all horizons. I had no map. I had 15 grand squirreled in my socks and a half-eaten Hershey bar in my pocket.
"Oxus?" I hollered at the Mongol-faced truck drivers parked along a road.
Nobody, probably, had heard that name used for Afghanistan's frontier river, the Amu Darya, since the end of the British Raj. (My local geography came from Kipling.) I hopped sheep trucks like a hobo. The drivers left me at a series of increasingly desolate crossroads. Thumbing into a conflict I knew almost nothing about, I grimaced down at my mud-swallowed shoes: flimsy street loafers pulled on in subtropical Johannesburg.
Seat-of-the-pants navigation is the norm in parachute journalism. It can be stressful. Yet what I remember most from those days of near-perfect "lost-ness" on the old Silk Road isn't anxiety, but a strange and euphoric clarity. Stymied by the Cyrillic signage, rendered deaf-mute by the wall of language, marooned inside my cultural ignorance, I was engaged in purest travel. I used clues in body language and the contrails of high-flying jets to grope my way forward. I actually took my bearings from the sun. Never before had I felt more en pointe, more focused within a landscape -- exhilaratingly so. It was a mental state at once dreamlike and electrically alert. I simply intuited where I was.
This latent hyper-awareness of the hunter-gatherer -- for that's how I interpret such experiences -- now has its bard in Tony Hiss, the improbably urban and urbane author of a remarkable new book, In Motion: The Experience of Travel.
A former staff writer at the New Yorker, Hiss doesn't appear to have ventured terribly far from his home island of Manhattan. He has written 12 previous books, ranging from an award-winning rumination on the impact of landscapes on the psyche to a chronicle of his family. His father, the diplomat Alger Hiss, was one of the better-known victims of the postwar anti-Communist witch hunts.
But by roaming inquisitively through disciplines as varied as psychology and archeology, literature, and even urban design, Hiss has produced a magisterial safari through what he calls Deep Travel -- "the feeling of waking up further while already awake" -- that comes with being on the move. It is a paean to human wanderlust that rivals the gemlike travelogues of Bruce Chatwin. Unlike Chatwin, however, who could be a snob about exotica, Hiss points out that the rewards of journeying are everywhere, because they're interior -- they can be tapped as easily with a walk down the block as in Patagonia.
And this counterintuitive leap turns In Motion into that rare thing -- a genuinely subversive book. It upends the genre of travel writing.
The author ambles out of his Greenwich Village walkup and notices the usually distracted expressions of fellow New Yorkers drawn into a taut, watchful point: A swooping peregrine falcon has opened their eyes to where they are. Or he sits in an Amtrak train and realizes that, by actually studying the drab "unseen" backs of houses and billboards lining the tracks, he has slipped into a state of pleasant lucidity somewhere between a daydream and intense concentration -- a kind of Zen of travel. It's all about attentiveness.
Hiss has written the first democratic travel guide: for homebodies as much as wannabe National Geographic expeditionaries.
Travel "is a built-in, active, oddly ignored, complex, discriminating, many-dimensioned, and remarkably ancient capacity," he reminds us. "We grow up fully equipped for adventuring."