Review: History, travel & comedy collide in 'Wonder Trail'

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Posted: Jun 13, 2016 7:51 AM
Review: History, travel & comedy collide in 'Wonder Trail'

"The Wonder Trail" (Dutton) by Steve Hely

Steve Hely's plan is vague: travel south and make lots of stops along the way until he reaches the end of the world. And so begins "The Wonder Trail," Hely's account of everything from the history of the Panama Railway (tragic) to the best sandwiches in South America (they're in Chile).

After leaving Los Angeles, Hely first stops in Mexico and here gives readers a blueprint for the remainder of the book: rapid-fire, bite-sized parcels of history including tales of explorers, natives, battles, victories and, on occasion, someone being burned alive as a human sacrifice; plus book recommendations, tips on what to see and what to skip, and a handful of notes on the people he encounters along the way. A dozen or so half-page chapters detailing topics such as "Thought That Just Occurred to Me" and "A Nicaraguan Canal" add to the book's charm, delivering an endearing quality to the read.

The traveler's observations remain charming and ever hopeful. While he acknowledges the horrors of a country's past, he always lands on the pleasant, nearly convincing readers that maybe the histories of violence and corruption, plus a few coups are worth this beachside hut that serves decent spaghetti and cold beer. However, because he jumps from city to city so quickly, it's difficult to invest much emotional energy into the landscapes or people.

Hely's account can feel like attending a dinner party, cornered by a fellow guest fresh off an adventure, passport still in pocket, so wound up he's unsure of which story, fact or rumor to regale first. However, if you're going to be cornered by anyone at a dinner party, Hely is the guy you'd want (except for when he's high on Amazonian ayahuasca, which he researches, consumes and details thoroughly for readers).