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Monday, May 5, 2008

Long, Strange Trip

Finding the new world

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It’s not true that Christopher Columbus defied the conventional wisdom of his time in thinking that the world was round. All the wise people of his time already knew that; Columbus, in fact, thought the world had the shape of a pear, complete with a stalk “like a woman’s nipple,” which was the site of the Garden of Eden.

  That notion came to the famed “Admiral of the OceanSea” one night when it seemed like he was sailing uphill; hence, the impression of a pear’s slope. The rest of the imagery perhaps is attributable to the overactive imagination of a sailor too long at sea.

  Historical nuggets such as that are salted throughout A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World (Holt), Tony Horwitz’s latest delightful foray into sensible-shoes adventuring. A Pulitzer-winning journalist and author of Confederates in the Attic (about Confederate re-enactors) and Blue Latitudes (retracing Captain Cook’s journeys), Horwitz tracks down everything he—and most of the rest of us—didn’t know or had gotten wrong about North American history.

  While on a visit to Plymouth Rock, Horwitz began musing about American history and realized, “I’d mislaid an entire century, the one separating Columbus’ sailing in 1492 from Jamestown’s founding in 16-0-something.” So he set out on a tour from Newfoundland to the Caribbean, the Southwest to Mexico, to fill in the gaps in his knowledge about all the explorers and settlers of America before and after it was not-exactly-discovered by Columbus.

  There is a half-ton of them and they encompass a lot of firsts, starting with the Norse exploration around 1000 A.D. of what they called Vinland and that is now Newfoundland.

  The first European encounter with American Indians was by Leif Eriksson’s siblings in Vinland. The first European birth in North America was a boy named Snorri, born to Gudrid, wife of Thorfinn Karlsefni, a wealthy sea captain, nearly six centuries before Virginia Dare in Roanoke in 1587.

  The book’s chief attraction, even more than its historical revelations, lies in armchair traveling with a personable, entertaining companion. What catches and holds our interest is the same as in John Steinbeck’s Travels WithCharley and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways and other books of that ilk: the author’s encounters with people on his route.

  In Newfoundland, Horwitz endured considerable unpleasantness in a long sweat-lodge session. In Jacksonville, Fla., he talked with evangelical Christians who operated “satanic command and control centers,” using “smart bomb praying” lobbed in the direction of other religionists not sufficiently outraged at the slaughter of a colony of French Protestants by Spanish Catholics 450 years ago.

  Memories are long, the author discovers. American Indians in the South and Southwest still simmer over the brutal Spanish conquistadors. On the other hand, there is a surprising number of conquistador sympathizers, like the die-hard defenders of the Confederacy or Hitler apologists who complain that no one remembers the good things they did. Throughout the Spanish-dominated region there is much resentment of the national lack of importance placed on Southwest history as compared with that Johnny-come-lately, New England.

  Horwitz’s sojourn in the Dominican Republic, a “comedy of incompetence,” is mordantly funny. The capital, Santo Domingo, where the humidity creates “chicken-broth air,” is in a “state of near collapse.” Phones work erratically, as do the employees who are supposed to answer them.

  Altogether, Horwitz focuses on 10 or so historical episodes, including, of course, Jamestown and Plymouth. Staying usually in “no-star hotels,” he retraces Francisco Vazquez de Coronado’s route, starting in Mexico. He follows Cabeza de Vaca’s eight-year, thousands-of-miles slog through “an impoverished and Hobbesian world,” not the gentle, bountiful paradise early America is often depicted as.

  No historical figure herein comes off looking notably good. Hernando de Soto, hands-down winner of the brutality sweepstakes, was a “monstrous man,” Horwitz says, a “Spanish Ahab, murderously chasing the unattainable until it devoured him.” America was “discovered” accidentally by the Norseman Bjarni Herjolfsson. Columbus, popularly credited with the discovery, “didn’t know where he was, or what he’d done.” The man for whom so much in the United States is named never even set foot on the continent.