Worlds in the Palm of Your Hand

By Schillinger, Liesl | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Worlds in the Palm of Your Hand


Schillinger, Liesl, International New York Times


This spring's enticing new travel books.

As you riffle through this spring's rucksack of enticing new travel books, seeking somewhere to go, you might give a thought to going nowhere -- that is, in the Greek sense of "nowhere," to "utopia," a word Thomas More coined five centuries ago, meaning "no place." The best "nowhere" destination of all is undoubtedly Atlantis, that utopian underwater city (or subterranean city, given millenniums of earth-crust shimmies) whose rumored existence captivated Plato, around 360 B.C., and whose whereabouts continues to tantalize archaeologists, oceanographers, classicists, geographers and mythomanes. If you've traveled to a distant continent or four, it isn't inconceivable that you've already trod upon the legendary land -- without knowing it.

In "Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City" (Dutton, $27.95), the lively, skeptical but open-minded travel writer Mark Adams goes on the hunt for sites that age-old intuition and state-of-the-art science hint may conceal that vanished realm. Possibilities abound. One is the Greek island of Santorini, whose buried Minoan village of Akrotiri (rediscovered in 1967) was destroyed in a huge volcanic eruption around 1500 B.C. that sent towering walls of water crashing across the Mediterranean at 200 miles an hour. Another putative Atlantis locale is the stony island of Malta. And then there's Donana National Park on the Atlantic coast of Andalusia. Still other candidates include the Bolivian altiplano, the Souss-Massa plain in Morocco and even Antarctica.

Mr. Adams takes readers along to four plausible sites, without quackery and with a contagious spirit of curiosity, interviewing scores of experts and fanatics, and painting pictures that will make even the most levelheaded traveler yearn to repeat his fantastic itinerary. And yet, as Mr. Adams would surely testify, it's impossible to take the same trip twice. This truth is borne out by some expressive new travelogues that reveal their authors' contrasting motivations for going on the road -- and show how strongly personal priorities can shape a journey.

One of the most perversely compelling of these accounts is "Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris, 23 November-14 December 1974" (University of Minnesota, paper, $19.95), Werner Herzog's diary (translated by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg) of a three-week hike through sleet, snow and winter winds, spurred by superstitious grief. Believing that his mentor, the film historian Lotte Eisner, was dying in a French hospital, Mr. Herzog persuaded himself that if he mortified his flesh by trekking to her bedside, she would be spared. During his long march west across the Bavarian countryside, his feet blister and bleed; he breaks into vacant cottages to sleep, shivers with cold, urinates into a rubber boot. He thirsts for milk and human company, yet he doggedly perseveres. (And so does Lotte Eisner.) Mr. Herzog's account begs to be read aloud. Seeing a lone raven, "his head bowed in the rain," sitting "motionless and freezing," all "wrapped in his raven's thoughts," Mr. Herzog writes, "A brotherly feeling flashed through me, and loneliness filled my breast." Later, nearly delirious from the cold, he bleakly ruminates: "I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I headed toward a fire, a fire that kept burning in front of me like a glimmering wall. It was a fire of frost, one that brings on Coldness, not Heat, one that makes water turn immediately into ice."

Ice is a given during Kara Richardson Whitely's mountaineering expedition to the highest peak in Africa. In her memoir "Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds" (Seal Press, paper, $17), Ms. Whitely (who has a nice, doting husband; two adorable little girls; and an insatiable hunger for pumpkin doughnuts) writes accessibly and frankly about her struggles with both Kilimanjaro and her self- image. "I was the fattest hiker on the mountain," she begins. …

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