John Hanson Mitchell
ISBN: 1-58243-136-1, 280 pages
Who wouldn’t enjoy following the sun through Europe to end on Summer Solstice in Scotland? That’s the premise for the author’s bicycle journey from Cadiz, Spain to Callanish, Scotland. is to follow the sun, a passionate interest of The author is passionate about connecting with people and explores the differences among cultures as well as the universal binding qualities of humanity. The trip took place a while ago, during the early years of the Common Market. Considering one of the finest travel books ever — Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Between the Woods and the Water” — was written decades after the experience, I fully embraced the timelessness of this enjoyable narrative where spirit transcends distance.
The author is well integrated in local habits, traveling as a slow-moving cyclist on a Peugeot clunker. He mentions being thanked for American assistance to Europe during WWII — that’s because even now in the 21st century, European folks of a certain age often insert a thanks for Liberation Day in conversations with visiting Americans.
The reader wheels along with the author. And it’s a great ride. Mitchell artfully describes landscape, the curious characters and the local cuisine. He never misses a human interest story and samples the local plonk, usually with a talkative companion.
Interwoven with the journey narrative are tidy summaries of historical or scientific detours relevant to the place, climate or festivals encountered by the author. Religious cults, folktales, myth, pilgrimage routes and culinary lore expand the thread of Hansen’s journey. He arrives in Scotland for the summer solstice.
En route, we learn of the westerly winds that permitted Christopher Columbus to push further west off the “edge of the known earth” and eventually sight the islands we know as the West Indies. This provides a segue into the solar influenced civilizations of the new world. Ever mindful of the sun, Mitchell discusses bird and animal behavior related to the sun and solar eclipses. We hear about the religious and intellectual growth of Spain during the enlightened years of Muslim rule prior to. He touches on bullfights and the Mithraic cult of the bull and sun, early Christian rituals, Greek myth, harvesting grapes and how to cut peat. All of it is fascinating material, lucidly presented. Alas, the book lacks an index.
Several times Mitchell mentions sojourns in Spain and France prior to this bike pilgrimage, so we can assume he knows the languages, always useful for independent travelers. Either he diligently recorded his previous travels, or he plays with memory. It would be useful to know whether he kept a diary at the time to assist memory and report past conversations verbatim. Many travel writers do this. For example, “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water,” describe Patrick Leigh Fermor’s walk across Europe at age 18; he wrote these books as a mature adult and occasionally quotes the people he met years earlier, but makes it clear that he was using detailed diaries as a source.
Mitchell acknowledges contributions from friends he met up with during the journey. While I believe it is possible for a writer to have vibrant memories of significant journeys and other experiences in life, it seems only fair to let readers know about invented dialogue based on memory. Then we’re more likely to accept that every encounter really took place and wasn’t a mirage or convenient authorial invention.
–L. Peat O’Neil
She wrote Pyrenees Pilgrimage about a solo walk across France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the
Camino of St. Jacques de Compostella that extends across all of Europe and into Spain. She is also the author of Travel Writing – See the World, Sell the Story.