When you’ve come down with a bout of wanderlust, but you can’t actually go anywhere, the next best thing is to curl up with a good travel book or two. A well-written book with a strong sense of place and character is like a comrade in adventure, discovery, or simply escape. Two such books have landed on my desk this fall: Robert Michael Pyle’s Mariposa Road and Stewart Aitchison’s The Desert Islands of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.
Mariposa Road is a big, sprawly classic of a road trip tale, assuming that the road trip has multiple segments stretching over a calendar year, zig-zags the North American continent from the Mexican border north (plus Hawaii), and is based on the desire to observe as many of the continent’s 800-some species of butterflies as possible. Pyle sets off on this quixotic quest in the tradition of the birdwatcher’s Big Year, an attempt to catalog as many avian species as possible within a calendar year. Only as Pyle points out in the book’s Foreword, until his wild scheme, no one had ever attempted a butterfly Big Year.
“And why would a person spend a perfectly good year in this way?” Pyle asks. “Plastered to the Oregon Coast by high wind and rain; driving thousands of miles through dessicated desert boneyards that haven’t seen a drop of rain or a flower for months; slogging through chiggers in an Illinois canebrake in matched heat and humidity in the nineties; crawling prone through icy Minnesota bogs in the snows of November—all in search of butterflies?”
This compulsively readable book answers Pyle’s rhetorical question, tracing his sorties out from and back to his home in Grays River, Washington, where he sees the first butterfly of his Big Year, a California tortoiseshell, hibernating among the “sloppy cobwebs” adorning his woodshed at a few minutes after midnight on New Year’s Day:
“The tortoiseshell’s orange and black, which give it its name, barely show. Mostly I can see the dark dark brown of the underside, with straw patches and sea blue chevrons. The crenelated edges of the wings suggest a leaf, making the nymph cryptic in the forest, but not here, where it stands right out against the hail-reflected pallor outside the window. … How lucky to begin this Big Year right here, at home…. Good luck to you, little butterfly; and to me too. You are my beginning, and I hope to see you here when I return.”
Pyle’s field kit is simple—”no laptop, no GPS unit”: just Marsha, his venerable cottonwood-branch butterfly net; Powdermilk, his trusty 1982 Honda Civic hatchback (“the smallest camper on the road”); another couple of nets just in case; a pair of binoculars; and a library of field guides and maps. He really doesn’t need anything else. Pyle is a personable guy who is comfortable with himself and possesses endless curiosity; his keen attention to the particulars of place and the people he encounters, along with his easy sense of humor, make him an entertaining and compassionate storyteller, a worthy companion for the road.
Stewart Aitchison’s The Desert Islands of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez falls in the category of travel literature that will give you the itch to visit places you never imagined even existed. This slender volume explores the more than 900 sun-baked islands rising out of the blue Sea of Cortez between Baja California and mainland Mexico. Aitchison, a zoologist and geologist by profession who leads trips for Lindblad, National Geographic Expeditions, and the Smithsonian Institution, among others, knows intimately the “dramatic, stony” desert islands and their rich sea, described by the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau as “the aquarium of the world.”
Aitchison brings the islands, the sea that surrounds and isolates them, and their strange cast of unique inhabitants alive in lucid prose, illuminated by his own lovely photographs. Here, for instance, he animates geology’s story of how Baja California split from the mainland, birthing the Sea of Cortez and its islands:
“Slowly, the western margin of Mexico was stretched. The crust began to fracture into long, somewhat parallel faults. … Great slices of of the west coast began to slide northward. Some of this unstable real estate rotated between faults, forming block-fault mountains, which typically have steep cliffs on one face and a gentler slope on the other side. This stretching and faulting allowed some land to subside below sea level and ocean water to invade.”
Aitchison’s book will introduce you to rays that leap out of the water, bats that eat fish, and iguanas that climb tree-sized cactus to munch their candy-sweet blossoms. So vivid are his descriptions and photographs that you’ll feel the hot sun on your back, the cool sea lapping at your feet. And you’ll know why I’m planning to lead another writing retreat on Isla Espiritu Santo, one of those magical islands, one winter soon.
In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving! Richard and I certainly have a lot to be thankful for this your–including all of you.