The Best American Travel Writing 2007, by Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean has turned out the best of The Best. In her introduction to this year's compilation, Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, writes that her only two criteria for selecting the year's best travel pieces were that "one, the stories had to take place somewhere in the physical world, and two, I had to like them a lot." She goes on, though, to explain that the real magic of travel is that "you become a conduit through which the sensation of the place is felt." Though one of her selected stories doesn't actually fit in the physical world, the rest meet her criteria beautifully.
In "Hutong Karma," New Yorker China correspondent Peter Hessler lovingly introduces us to his neighbors in one of the last back-alley communities of Beijing. In Reesa Grushka's "Arieh" we meet a blind, self-styled prophet in Jerusalem. "Lost in America" follows a messed-up fat guy trying to walk across America without becoming a hero. Real hero Nando Parrado recalls the 72 days he spent in the fuselage of a crashed plane in the Andes, slowly turning to cannibalism (this was the subject of the 1974 book Alive). Parrado could have an interesting conversation with Ian Frazier, who examines travel writing's love of intestinal distress in "A Kielbasa Too Far."
There are a few stinkers here (Rick Bass' meditations on the American West and Elizabeth Gilbert's peripatetic feast through France both grow tedious), but the remainder almost pop with the energy of the places and people they're describing.
Easily the best entry, though, is "High in Hell," a riveting piece by Kevin Fedarko, which follows a crop of khat (a plant with druggy, stimulating qualities) at breakneck speed (its potency quickly fades) from an Ethiopian hillside to a social club in Djibouti, where men sit with opium-eater grins, pretending they can kick the habit whenever they want. You feel the effects of the khat, hear the groans of the men, smell "a trace of diesel fuel exhaust topped with a whimsical finish of donkey fart."
Only the best travel writing can do that.