- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2010

By Tony Hiss
Knopf $27.95
352 pages

Tony Hiss begins “In Motion” with a description of walking from his Greenwich Village home to mail a letter and pick up an iced coffee from a bagel shop. An ordinary little trip, an ordinary day, except that quite suddenly he felt that “the familiar world seemed unexplored.” Ordinary objects seemed “charged with purpose … calling out” for attention - and even admiration. Everything “seemed now to have a story curled inside it.”

A few minutes later he was back home, missions accomplished. Nothing remarkable had happened, except that he had food for thought. And what that food nourished was an understanding that “during such memorable trips people somewhere along the way enter a different part of their own minds … and when the mind is in motion in this way the experience of travel changes.”

Travel: The word calls up images of journeys to exotic places - up the Amazon or into the Arctic maybe, or less adventurously visits to sunny Caribbean beaches or gorgeous European cities. But a walk to the local coffee shop such as Mr. Hiss describes? For most of us it definitely doesn’t count, and neither does time spent commuting to work or driving to the supermarket.

But far from being time “spent” - for which read “wasted” - Mr. Hiss maintains that we should think of these journeys as “the time we give to moving around.” While he notes that such moving comes with miseries and frustrations, he points out that makes our civilization possible, and also that it can lift the wings of the human spirit. In a sense, then, all journeys are equal because they can all take us into the realm Mr. Hiss calls Deep Travel. As he explains, while the gates to this experience lie in the external world, once we have passed through them, we enter parts of our own minds we rarely, if ever, explore.

Deep Travel as Mr. Hiss describes it is not a rare experience so much as one we routinely ignore. He argues his case for the existence and benefits of Deep Travel in great detail, with supporting evidence drawn from travelers ranging from Marco Polo to our contemporaries, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Pico Iyer and Tahir Shah. Other witnesses to the mind-opening experiences of travel include the Sumerian author of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” who wrote almost 4,000 years ago, to the great writers of more recent times.

Hazlitt and Keats, Kerouac and Coleridge wrote about experiences of Deep Travel as did Camus and Ortega y Gasset and Thomas Mann and more, many more including the little known as well as the famous. And far from confining himself to writers, Mr. Hiss includes explorers such as Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who trekked across 7,000 miles of Africa to find David Livingstone, the Russian Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, a pioneer of color photography, Jean-Henri Fabre, considered the father of the entomology and Kary B. Mullis, the Nobel Prize winner who was driving his Honda Civic through the California redwood country when the polymerase chain reaction - essential for quickly copying DNA - came to him during a spell of Deep Travel.

The author moves way beyond those who have written about their experiences of travel to explore the prehistoric change from hunter-gathering to sedentism - living in settled communities. He gets into work on bipedalism and the origin of the species, and describes what neuroscientists have to tell us about daydreaming and sensorimotor rhythm. He gets into transportation policy and theories about traffic control. Indeed, his exploration of Deep Travel leads him to many sciences and through a multitude of metaphorical as well as physical places.

There’s much to capture and fascinate the reader. After reading Tony Hiss‘ descriptions, who wouldn’t want to traverse the Millau bridge that flies for over half mile over an 800-foot gorge in Provence or - to stay only with bridges - the bridge in Middlebury, Vt., built by a native son in careful imitation of a Roman bridge thrown over the Tiber 18 centuries ago? Who can remain unimpressed and unintrigued by the riches of the academic territories he traverses? And who can keep track of them all?

Readers who try to read “In Motion” from the beginning to its ending 326 pages later will be taken down fascinating trails, but will often find themselves asking quite how Mr. Hiss got them there - and sometimes, also, about how they relate to his main thesis about Deep Travel. Indeed, as readers progress many will pause and wonder if they have got the concept of Deep Travel straight in their minds. It gets more elaborate, and more amorphous as Mr. Hiss explores it further. So, while the journey he takes us on is often fascinating, it is also exhausting.

One tip for coping is to take frequent rest stops. Another is not to be a slave to reading it in an orderly way from beginning to end. You can open “In Motion” at almost any page and find some extraordinary fact, learn about a new place or have your mind drawn down some new and entrancing avenue. It’s best to traverse its pages this way, more like a rambler alert for wayside treasures than the long-haul traveler who wants to get to the end of a journey by the most efficient route possible.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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