Monday, April 21, 2008

Traveling Through California: An Interview with David Page

David Page is the author of the new travel guide Yosemite & the Southern Sierra Nevada: Great Destinations: A Complete Guide, Including Sequoia & King's Canyon, Death Valley & Mammoth Lakes. He was good enough to sit down and answer some questions about travel writing.

How did you come to write this guidebook?
I was cobbling together scripts for a show on the Discovery Channel - a job that allowed much free time for contemplating what I might rather be doing – when I got wind that Countryman Press was looking for a writer for a new guidebook to the greater Palm Springs and Joshua Tree region. I’ve always been skeptical of guidebooks, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the way certain featured paths have a tendency to get worn out. But then I’ve always appreciated the challenge of trying to change things from the inside. I wrote a sample chapter, in large part to see if it was a genre I could get my head around. I tried to approach it in a way I thought I’d be able to live with. I wrote up a short history of how a life-saving watering hole in the desert evolved in less than a century into a sprawling crescent of car dealerships and timeshare condos boasting the largest concentration of golf courses in the world, with a sideline into the latest renaissance of the Hollywood Regency style. They liked what I wrote, apparently. They hired someone else to do Palm Springs - someone who lived out there, I guess - but asked me to look at their list of forthcoming titles to see if there were any holes I might be interested in filling. Yosemite seemed obvious enough, and for the sake of a good challenge – and perhaps by some deep-seated imperial impulse, or because I wanted an excuse, however impractical, to move to the Eastern Sierra - I thought: why not also throw in all that big, empty country to the south and east, down the Kern to the end of the range, and out across Inyo County to Death Valley and the Amargosa - some of the biggest, emptiest country in the Lower 48? They gave me a miniscule advance (which served mostly as a gesture of good faith that they would eventually publish whatever words I came up with), not one penny for expenses, and a year to pull it off. I pretended I didn’t have a wife and child, or a future to think of, and accepted the post.

What’s the process for writing a guidebook? Obviously, it involves a lot of research, but how much of that is done first-hand? In other words, how many of the restaurants have you eaten in, etc? And how much is done through other avenues of research?
As onetime Lonely Planet author Thomas Kohnstamm has recently made plain, guidebook writing is not the sort of thing one gets into as a means to put the children through college. At best, it is a fiscally irresponsible endeavor. At worst it is an invitation to create fiction. The easiest (and least expensive) approach - and alas there is much of this in contemporary travel writing, especially in far-flung destinations like Brazil, or oft-traveled regions such as Yosemite – is to simply rehash the extensive material put out by tourism commissions, publicity people, earlier guidebooks, the Internet, the Park Service, etc.: the gauzy brochure-descriptions, the hyperbole, the tired metaphors, the same old lists of historical figures, dates and points of interest now bereft of all context and controversy; to overlook the dams and power lines and unbelievable roadworks in favor of, yet again, the tallest mountain or the biggest tree. But to me it seemed important to discover the place for myself (again), to go out on the road (again and again) like some hapless latter-day Meriwether Lewis in a rental car, with a AAA map (actually, on the state level the Rand McNally is better), a credit card, a pocket notebook and a fleet of cheap motel ballpoints, and to write down what I came across.

Thus I spent a small, non-reimbursable fortune in gas, food, lodging and books. Thus I drove every mile of every road described in the book - most of it in the space of a single year. I skied or hiked to those few places that couldn’t be reached by road. I tried to talk to as many people as I could along the way, locals and tourists alike. I read every old guidebook and explorer’s narrative I could get my hands on – de Anza, Jedediah Smith, Zenas Leonard, Lansford W. Hastings, James M. Hutchings, Hunter S. Thompson, et al. - and as many relevant secondary resources as I could cram in in the time I had. I sampled the fare in every restaurant and tavern - as anonymously as possible. I spent nights in as many different hotels and motels as I could, which was nearly all of them. In a few cases - where budget or schedule so dictated, where I had to make do with a tour of the property - I sat on beds, listened through walls, tested water pressure, sampled views and chatted with guests about their experiences. And then finally - when I had no choice - I sat down at my desk, in the basement, and over the course of too many months wrote up my notes.

Johann Sutter, founder of Sacramento, once suggested that if the author of The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California (1845), Lansford Hastings, wanted to avoid the sort of critical backlash that in those days came in the form of a lead ball to the gut, he might do well to steer clear of the places he had so fancifully described in his book (many of which he had not yet visited). In the interest of being able to go to the grocery store in broad daylight, and without a sidearm, I aimed for - not objectivity of course; a guidebook is nothing if not subjective – but the kind of authority that comes from at the very least having been there with one’s eyes open.

You balance wonderfully the utilitarian aspects of a travel guide (the where to eat, where to sleep, where’s the ATM features) and the lyrical, educational, and literary aspects of it. How did you work that out in the writing of the book? Is it a format that Great Destinations uses as a template or something you came upon on your own?
It’s a hard-won balance; I’m glad to hear that it may have come through. On the one hand, of course, a guidebook should be simple and practical, like a well-annotated telephone directory. One should be able to sit down with it beforehand and based on recommendations therein line out an itinerary and a series of places to stay – and not only not be disappointed upon arrival, but also still feel some of that delightful sense of discovery that must be the reason we all travel in the first place.

On the other hand – especially at a time when many travelers are making their way through space with all the vast resources of the Internet on their mobile telephones – a guidebook is still the handiest, most compact, most portable way to get at the larger context of a place, to make broader sense of the landscape one is traveling through, to see the various layers one might otherwise miss in the chaos of information.

The Great Destinations series has very specific templates: an author has the option of organizing the book geographically (as I have), or else focusing each successive chapter on a specific service (ie. one chapter on lodging, one on dining, etc.), but for each title in the series each chapter begins with a narrative introduction of some kind, and each review is headed by what they call an “infoblock” (address, phone number, url, etc.), the format of which is standard across the series. And there is always a very useful catch-all “Information” chapter at the end for brass tacks. The templates (“style sheets”) are nowhere near as specific as those of, say, Lonely Planet, or Frommer’s, where the author is meant to disappear. I was drawn to the Great Destinations series, frankly, not because I found it particularly attractive or hip or well-designed (see below re: sensible shoes), but because it allowed me a significant amount of leeway as to how I might choose to cover the region - what to put in, what to leave out, in what style and with what tone, and all that. What I lucked into, happily, was what Mike Davis aptly described to me as “the silver-lining in the editorial neglect that passes for publishing everywhere these days.” In this case I think it made for a better, more honest book than if I’d had to stick to some straight-and-narrow tourist guidebook rubric à la Frommer’s or Lonely Planet.

Your book is a very literary guidebook, providing lots of historical, natural and cultural context for the places listed in the book. Each chapter begins with a story from the region’s history, and the book as a whole, opens with a recounting of John Muir’s first trip to the area. How did you decide on that structure?
For at least ten thousand years this place has been marked and shaped by the not-so-light passage of human beings. And so, I thought, the best way to bring life to contemporary travel through this region was to make a book not just about some abstract geologically-formed place, but rather about the whole historic process of travel hereabouts (from earliest memory to today). I’ve tried to keep straight descriptions to a minimum, in favor of narrative-driven accounts of what things were like for some of the region’s more influential characters - what they saw as they traveled around this place and what they did to change it (or to try to keep it the same). That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in when I’m traveling around. I’m always fascinated to see how certain things become monuments – in the interest of a grand narrative of place - and other things are left to dry out and blow away. And how those things change over time. The so-called Chicago Stump, for example, was once one of the most popular destinations in Sequoia Country. These days it’s something of an adventure just to find the trail. Then one day, perhaps, it gets mentioned in a certain way in a certain guidebook and lo, people start making the pilgrimage again: the trail gets upgraded, the signage redone, maybe even the road gets paved, and as a point of interest the thing begins to creep its way back up the what-to-do-if-you-only-have-half-a-day lists…

The NY Times said that these guides (the Great Destinations series) were “illustrated with photographs that can generously be called functional, they’re the equivalent of sensible shoes.” I thought the photographs, many of them historical, brought me to the place much more than a color photo of a bunch of clogs or something. However, I think they’re right that the photographs are ancillary in some way to the text. After all, if you’re going to buy the book, you’re probably already headed to some of these places. Why would you need a photo of them? Why do you think so many guidebooks like Frommer’s use glossy color photos to sell their books?
The idea, I imagine, is to hook the casual browser with a quick spread of glossy, National Geographic-style photos (sans baggage hustlers and parking meters, absent crowds and recreational vehicles and iron railings placed at the edge of the cliff for your protection). Like the single glossy stock-photo-style image of Mirror Lake on the cover of my book: See the pristine beauty! Look upon the wonders that await you! Once you’ve got your heart set – and how could you not get your heart set; it all looks so delightfully “picturesque” - you’ll want to buy the book. (The book, of course, will tell you how to get to these places as expeditiously as possible, how to get from here to there without all the hassles suffered by those poor sods who were not so wise as you who bought – nay, invested in - the book.)

What you don’t see in that photo is the tripod-worn stone jetty constructed decades ago for the taking of precisely that photograph (the same one Charles Weed got circa 1865, and George Fiske forty years later, and Ansel Adams a decade or so after that, etc.). Interestingly, and this is a subject I tried to touch on in the Yosemite chapter, the kind of photographs so often used to “illustrate” guidebooks was to a great degree pioneered and then perfected in the Sierra Nevada, first by the likes of Carleton Watkins and Eadward Muybridge, and later by Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell. There was a time when these glorious images – made “as if at the dawn of time” - were instrumental in saving the landscapes they depicted from outright destruction. But they have also served, over the course of a century and a half, to bring millions upon millions of visitors chugging up the dusty trail (more than 3 million per year just to Yosemite), each hoping to catch a glimpse - live and in the flesh, as it were - of a mythical untrodden Paradise.

To illustrate a contemporary guidebook with images of this sort seems to me a kind of fiction. And sets up in the mind of the traveler a nagging sense of disappointment, of Paradise lost. If only there weren’t so many people here, he thinks. We go to New York City to be amongst people. We go to Yosemite, it seems, to get away from them. But one of the greatest revelations for me in this project has been to really look at the way a place works on people (at least as much, I think, as the other way around): the way the Outdoors – the wilderness, the road, the woods, whatever - has a profound effect on the way we move, the way we interact we each other, the decisions we make, what we suddenly come to see as important. This is part of what I tried to capture in the photographs in my book, what I looked for in the archives, and what I wanted photographer Burke Griggs to look for in his.

I was initially inspired along these lines by Burton Frasher’s now-priceless postcard shots of tourist attractions and main streets (Frasher’s estate wouldn’t give me permission to use any of his photos in the book, though they can be viewed online through the Pomona Public Library), Rondal Partridge’s shot of the parking lot with Half Dome in the background (which Meg Partridge graciously allowed me to reprint), Carleton Watkins’ haunting stereoviews of early tourists in the Valley, and by the archival images in books like Susan Snyder’s Past Tents: How We Camped. Burke added to the mix stuff like Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and George Tice - landscapes impacted by man and vice versa - which helped to make some sense of what we were thinking about. The photographs in a guidebook may indeed, as you suggest, be ancillary to the text. But I have noticed that the first thing people do when they pick up the book is to skim through the photos, to see if there’s anything they haven’t already seen before, a million times - and then to see if there’s any interesting tension between the images and the captions, if there’s any humor. Readers are eminently savvy in that way. If the photos are interesting, if they seem fresh or surprising in some way, or funny, then – and only then, I think - will the text get any attention. The goal for me - and again I’m glad to hear that it came through - was to reveal the layers in the landscape (always with man’s hand somewhere evident) rather than to attempt to reproduce the grandeur of landscapes so much better experienced in person.

Another approach to illustrating a guidebook, and one which seems, alas, rather common in this series - and again in this sort of project there is no budget for illustration of any kind, so an author tends to find himself on his own in these matters - is the more practical, “sensible” approach so generously derided by The Times: what Burke Griggs less generously (but perhaps more honestly) calls “the Chamber of Commerce tradition: vineyard-supplied photos of vineyards, restaurant-supplied photos of restaurant food and ambience, and author-supplied photos which aspire to stock photography." I’m not sure if The Times spent any time with our book in particular when they did that review, but we were aiming for something different: something a little less than sentimental, a little more than sensible… a great, well-worn pair of hobnail walking boots, perhaps - with someone standing in them.

Many of the areas you write about in the book are considered wilderness by most Americans, yet, as the many restaurants, gas stations, and motels in these areas attests, they are becoming increasingly civilized. Are you concerned that we’re encroaching more and more on these wild lands? Where is there that’s left in California that’s truly wild? Is it only areas protected by national parks?
Other than in the town of Mammoth Lakes – with its successive mining-town-style booms and busts - there hasn’t been much new construction to speak of in the last forty or fifty years in this part of the Sierra. And even Mammoth’s latest building booms have so far, unlike similar sprees in places like Colorado and Utah, been contained within the town’s four-mile perimeter. Most of the tourist destinations and services that exist today – on the roads to Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings and Death Valley - were established in these parts in the 1920s and 30s. The rest of the land is still wide open and untrammeled, and is likely to remain so for some time to come. More than 95% of it is owned by the federal government or the state of California (or the LA Department of Water and Power) and thus managed by a variety of public lands agencies (BLM, US Forest Service, National Park Service). Inside the ring of roads that I have described in this book (a series of looping figure 8’s, really, when you include the Inyos and Death Valley) is the second largest contiguous roadless area (i.e. “designated wilderness”) in the Lower 48 (just a few acres shy of the enormous Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho). Are we encroaching more and more on these wild lands? Absolutely. But not in ways that are necessarily obvious to the casual visitor – not as obvious, for example, as the encroachment of subdivisions at the edge of Joshua Tree and Zion National Parks. Some of the biggest threats to the Sierra these days are not so much logging or road building or traffic or even the great impact of tourists in certain popular places, but rather much more complex (and difficult to deal with) problems like air, light and noise pollution, the encroachment of non-native species, and of course climate change. Whether what is left these days inside the boundaries of the National Parks, National Forests and Wilderness areas is “truly wild” or not is an important discussion, and one I have tried to work on at length in this book. Ultimately I think I come down on this issue about the way John Muir did a century ago: that people need to see this place in order to care about it.

You reference Muir’s “guidebook” writing as an inspiration. What other books – travel or otherwise – did you read for this book?
Actually, for my taste, much of John Muir’s writing bogs down in heavy description. Where it gets good - I think - is where he tells the stories of all the wonderfully crazy, daredevil things he did, like running outside to see the rockfalls during an earthquake, or spending the night on Mt. Whitney, riding an avalanche or climbing a tree during a gale-force windstorm - his climbing escapades and unbelievably epic ramblings. I’m a sucker for a good adventure story, for stories of people trying to get by way out of their element, eating their horses, digging holes in the ground to sleep in and such. For me the very best reading is when a really good writer – like Clarence King or Mark Twain or Apsley Cherry-Garrard gets in over his (or her) head, takes diligent notes and later manages to write about it at length. The next best thing is when a good writer with a good sense of irony (McPhee, W.A. Chalfant, Francis Farquhar) does a well-crafted second-hand account of other people out of their element.

Have you had any feedback from travelers who have used your book yet?
I just heard of one pair of motorcycle riders who are putting together a trip for this summer to follow my epic 3,000-mile “Grand Tour de Sierra: Badwater to Bridalveil and Back,” which is the route I did with photographer Burke Griggs in June of 2007, in a rental car, when we shot many of the photos for this edition – as outlined in a sidebar in the book’s transportation chapter.

What kind of books do you take with you when you travel?
Other than the sort of reading I’ve already outlined above – the epic travel narratives - I always yearn for a big novel of the sort you can drown whole lazy afternoons in. But it’s been a while since I’ve found that kind of book or had that kind of afternoon. I also love having a couple of good non-fiction books on my iPod for driving around with - though as a bookseller you probably don’t want to hear that - something in the vein of Jared Diamond or Bill Bryson or Hampton Sides. And of course it’s always nice to have along a good guide to local ghosts and roadside geology.

What’s your favorite place to travel to? Where would you like to go that you haven’t been yet?
As I write this I am sitting poolside at the Westin Ka’anapali Resort on Maui, which for all its delightful green lawns and cascading pools and family-friendly amenities, is not at all the sort of place I’d have chosen to stay if I weren’t traveling with my children’s grandparents (who also happened to be Westin timeshare owners). I’m a big fan of luxury accommodations, and can usually convince myself a memorable overnight amidst finely manicured landscaping is worth going into debt for - but I must say I prefer something a little more unique or intimate or at the very least impossible to get to. I’ll be back to Hawaii in a couple of weeks to do a story about someone’s second home on the Big Island. For that trip I plan to rent a jeep, bring a backpack, and get as far out into erupting volcano country as I can.

Thanks, David. David Page has written for the Discovery Channel, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. His new book, Yosemite & the Southern Sierra Nevada: Great Destinations: A Complete Guide, Including Sequoia & King's Canyon, Death Valley & Mammoth Lakes
is available at Vroman's and

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At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks David, Patrick, Vroman's etal! What a great read and excellent interview! More of the "inside", the so-called "back story", than I've been able to get out of either David or Burke.


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