Simone de Beauvoir in America

Since 1971, I’ve experienced many long distance road trips across and into the three countries of North America. Does it take special stamina to travel on the the vast road and rail networks of Canada, Mexico and the United States of America? After reading American Day by Day, it sounds like travel by train or bus in the U.S. is more difficult now. Passenger rail systems in the U.S. and Mexico have been gutted.

America Day by Day cover

A few dozen months ago, in a New York Times interviewPaul Theroux mentioned several celebrity authors who cruised the blue highways of the U.S.A. — Steinbeck, Nabokov, Scott and Zelda — but overlooked the North American travels of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.  

The European feminist landed at LaGuardia Airport in January, 1947 and during four months, criss-crossed the USA by train, car and bus.  Her goal was to meet American students, especially women.

America Day by Day is her fascinating account of meetings with students at elite US colleges.  She was keen to sit down with young women at Vassar, Radcliffe, Berkeley, and the other top universities. Photos of the sleek de Beauvoir in conversation with college gals swathed in rumpled ankle-length flared skirts and thickly rolled white socks offers a superficial window to the sartorial differences of the French grande dame and care-free students.

Simone de Beauvoir

There were other gaps. She thought American college students were uninformed, quite innocent of global politics, the impact of WWII, or the realities of life.  The students she met were intellectually and politically tame, but they had similar taste in music and entertainment.  For diversion, with students and literary friends, she would hunt for city jazz clubs and bars where she could talk to African-Americans.  

America Day by Day

Simone de Beauvoir

University of California Press, 2000. 408 pages.


Mapmaker Revisited


The poet is a mapmaker

to the unspoken urges that we feel.

As a human heart travels

through life and beyond,

the poet’s voice is a beacon.

Mapmaker Revisited

Beatriz Badikian is a Chicago poet, teacher of writing and literature, multilingual speaker, and world traveler.

Mapmaker Revisted, New and Selected Poems by Beatriz Badikian

With an introduction by Sandra Cisneros

Gladsome Books, Chicago, 1999.


An American in Oz

Jennifer Monahan has written an engaging account of an extended trip around Australia.

An American in Oz

Subtitled “Discovering the Island Continent of Australia” the book offers practical advice for first time travelers in Australia.  From my own experience in Australia, I agree with Jennifer Monahan that you need more than the typical two weeks for a journey Down Under.

Yes, the flight from nearly everywhere else, except New Zealand or Indonesia, is monumental .  Distance is tyranny in Australia — everything is a long way, even when it’s just over there.

I asked the author about her favorite aspect of Australia.  She responded:

“When I talk about my two months in Australia, I’m often asked, “What did you like most about Australia?”
and my first response is always “The people.”  Aussies are the friendliest, most laid back, seriously happy people I have
ever come across. Maybe it has something to do with living on a continent filled with sunshine and surrounded by gorgeous beaches.  I also believe it has a lot to do with the nation’s philosophy to give everyone “A fair go,” which means “Treat everyone fairly and give everyone a fair chance (to do their best).”

Prepare to be entertained as you join Jennifer and her companion during this adventure through Oz.  You’ll learn practical details and how to plan a successful trip.  She started out with a cross-continental train journey and rounded back by driving to the Queensland coast to explore the Great Barrier Reef  and Magnetic Island.  Along the way, they encounter singular characters, surprises and good luck, along with the usual challenges of adventure travel.  All the experiences reported in the book are instructive for other travelers.

Not ready for the big trip to Oz?  Reading this book will take you there vicariously.  Enjoy the ride!

Against Their Will :: Compulsory Sterilization

Roadside marker : North Carolina Eugenics Board.

No, it couldn’t happen in America, not in the 20th century.  No way!

Oh, but forced sterilization did happen, encouraged by state governments, doctors and social workers. The programs were sometimes supported by pharmacy manufacturers and were based on lousy research by people who weren’t geneticists.  The political  ramifications bear close attention.

Sterilization programs did happen and not just in one place or during a remote time long ago.  Utah, where researching ancestry is an ardent pursuit, was sterilizing people without their consent as recently as 1963.  I’m relieved to note that my home state — Maryland — never passed a compulsory sterilization law.  However, sterilizations without consent still occurred.

If you can stomach it, read Against Their Will to learn about the awful reality of North Carolina’s 20th century sterilization program which curtailed forever the capacity to reproduce for thousands of people without their consent. When was this North Carolina law finally struck down?  In 2003!

Against Their Will
Kevin Begos, Danielle Deaver, John Railey and Scott Sexton
Gray Oak Books 2012

Eugenics programs existed in many states.  More than 60,000 Americans were sterilized without their consent, part of the  eugenics fad of the 1920s that found its way into the rhetoric and practices of Nazi Germany.  Nazi Germany and the United States of America were not the only nations engaging in compulsory sterilization —  two provinces in Canada followed the US lead in this practice of weeding the gene pool.

North Carolina considered setting up the first Department of Heredity, leading to program where agencies across the nation would track family roots and decide who should or could reproduce.  That didn’t happen.

Heroic journalism by the Winston-Salem Journal reporters Kevin Begos, Danielle Deaver, John Railey and Scott Sexton brought this repulsive episode to light.  The series led to the North Carolina governor issuing an apology to the involuntary participants in the program.  The North Carolina legislature was the first in the U.S. A. to consider compensation to victims of eugenics or involuntary sterilization.


Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States

Against Their Will  – Midwest Book Review

Against Their Will – Good Reads

The Pioneer Fund — Supporter of Eugenics “research”

Eugenics and the Campaign for Voluntary Sterilization in Britain Between the Wars

Rwanda Forced Sterilization Bill Sparks Controversy

Camino Spirits

book cover titled The CaminoThe Camino, A Journey of the Spirit

Shirley MacLaine

Simon & Schuster, 2000

On a spiritual pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostello, the actress-author encounters other pilgrims and locals who become personal emblems of the journey.   She walks the route from St. Jean Pied du Port to Santiago de Compostello in Spain.

Ezra Pound in France

Walking Tour in Southern France

Ezra Pound, edited and introduced by Richard Sieburth

New Directions, 1992

The Idaho-born poet Ezra Pound toured southern France on foot during the early years of the 20th century, searching for traces of the era of the Troubadours.  The primary audience for this journal of Pound’s 1912 journey may be Pound scholars more than the general reader. Still, anyone interested in Southern France will find lyrical (and sometimes disconcerting) passages in Ezra Pound’s text.  Prof. Sieburth’s editing and his own journey in Pound’s footsteps helps link the 12th c. Troubadours, through 20th c. Pound, to 21st c. readers.

Edge of a Changing World

A Gathering of Stones – Journeys to the Edges of a Changing World

A Gathering of Stones
Book Cover

Carol Ann Bassett

Oregon State University Press

Corvallis, Or. 2002

ISBN 0-87071-545-3

120 pages, no index.

$12.95 paperback

Carol Ann Bassett, the author of A Gathering of Stones and a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication,  sure does get around.  The book covers journeys to Ecuador, the Northwest Territories of Canada, the Mojave, the Kalahari Desert in Africa, and other outposts around the globe.

Bassett’s writing and subject matter appeals to the thoughtful traveler. In the first chapter, Calling Down the Moon, she offers a lucid explanation of the geologic evolution of the Sonora Desert, the birthing of the west, its plants, volcanoes and stones.  Her writing is engaging, not always an easy task when explaining geology and botany.

A few of the journeys occurred a number of years ago and could have profited from factual updates.  For example, in the compelling account of a 10-day shepherding trek across Arizona with immigrant Basque herders in 1986, Bassett skillfully captures the men’s wistful lonely life and their crusty exteriors.  She reports that the men come from their Spanish Basque homelands to work a few years (or longer) on contract with the Western Ranger Association. It’s not revealed whether any of herders are working there now or whether other men are still arriving from Basque lands to herd in the American west.

Geoglyphs, which are rock alignments and giant figures created by indigenous peoples, are best seen from the air.  Bassett describes some of these monuments in the Mojave located inside U.S. Army training compounds.  Quite possibly the rock figures have been defaced by routine weapons firing.  The rocks were sacred relics for first peoples of the lower Colorado River region, yet we don’t know the current condition of the rock alignments or whether scientists who want to study them are still forbidden entry to the military area. Such mindless institutional desecration is difficult to read about.  Perhaps that is Bassett’s intent: to send the curious reader to the Internet to research the status of these cultural relics.

Bassett tackles the downside of nature tourism, which can deposit hundreds of visitors a day in fragile habitats such as the Galapagos Islands.  She discusses the inveterate laxity of enforcement even though protective laws may be in place.

Though all of the chapters offer sleek writing about important subjects, the facts are sometimes left open ended.  Perhaps this serves brevity, but the absence of fact grounding and updates reveals the previous incarnation of many of the chapters — as newspaper and magazine feature content for travel consumers hunting down fresh exotica. Collected in book format, the older journeys would be more meaningful for a contemporary reader if current conditions in these threatened regions had also been examined, at least as brief epilogues.

In the chapter Where Butterflies are Souls, Bassett paints a detailed portrait of the Tarahumara people and handily compares the Aztec Day of the Dead celebrations with a gloomy Catholic mass.  This second largest (Navaho nation is larger) indigenous American population north of Mexico City experiences socio-cultural stress from clear-cutting of forests for lumber and abandonment of their traditional practices in favor of work in the lumber mills. Attentive readers will also get the message that the indigenous people are also affected by the intrusion of ethno-tourists who pack into eco-lodges to observe the Tarahumara ways.

In other chapters, Bassett bravely discusses the issue. Ethno tourism may provide survival revenue for tribal peoples near extinction, but at what cost? It is demeaning to the natives and tourists alike as the visiting westerners peer at household rituals of fire making, eating and washing.  Are we to stop traveling, stop the momentum of progress?

Curious readers will want to do further research to investigate the outcomes of these threatened locations and peoples.  The collection is a solemn drumbeat, a wake for vanishing people, regions and cultures.

Book review by L. Peat O’Neil was published in excellent book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.

Peat O’Neil is a writing instructor and author of Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story published by Writer’s Digest Books.