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November 2, 2001

Imagine spending three and a half weeks of your vacation just getting there. That’s how long it took American scientist Joseph Leidy to get to London in 1848 on his first trip to Europe.

Our lives don’t permit a long voyage just to arrive somewhere. A voyage is now considered any long journey, either by land or sea, although “journey” once meant merely a day’s travel over land, or by extension a day’s work, hence “journeyman.”

Leidy spent his entire life in Philadelphia. He visited Europe only four times, which doesn’t strike me as too poor a record, but he refused many other offers.

He did not want to give up his work time for travel and the attendant social obligations. Also, travel could be interesting in unexpected ways.

Look what happened to Mark and Brenda Wiard of Salida. They were on a long journey this summer and happened to come out of the mountains into Islamabad, Pakistan, on September 11. You never know.

I might have forgiven Leidy for not traveling again. On his first trip, in June 1848, he was touring the streets of Paris with a friend when they literally walked into a battle between the army and revolutionists, whose subsequent victory ultimately brought Napoleon III to power.

Bullets and barricades were everywhere, Leidy wrote, and so “I made my way home.” Wise choice. No need to miss afternoon tea.

Leidy was not apathetic about the circumstances, but I had to chuckle at the prosaic declaration: “I made my way home.” Really, though, what else is there to do?

Another intrepid nineteenth-century traveler was Isabella Bird. She started traveling at age eighteen after a spinal operation. Go figure. Maybe she figured that if she could survive mid-19th-century surgery, she could survive anything.

She published many books about her journeys, to such places as Japan, China, Korea, southeast Asia, Sandwich Islands, Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan, Colorado. You may have read her book, “A lady’s life in the Rocky Mountains.”

A few are back in print. We recently added “The Golden Chersonese,” about her journey from Japan to the Malay peninsula. As she leaves Hong Kong for Canton, she tells how, shortly before her visit, Chinese pirates booked themselves into steerage on a similar river steamer, and once it was underway, slaughtered the crew and stole the ship.

This was in the context of noting that she was one of two white passengers aboard, along with 450 well-dressed Chinese, and 1500 noisy Chinese men locked in steerage behind heavy iron gates.

Flying coach doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Leidy had many contacts in the American West, who sent him geological and paleontological samples, but he did not travel there until 1872 and 1873. Even these trips were eventful.

They went through Chicago by train not long after the great fire and viewed the devastation. West of St. Louis, they passed telegraph poles used as gallows for horse thieves. In Omaha, the only hotel was infested with bed bugs and stunk of alcohol and cigars. They slept in the lobby.

Even at that, one of his party managed to find an expert Swiss watchmaker in town to fix his gold watch. The West was an up-and-coming Third World country.

What I enjoy most from old travelogues is the leisurely passing of days, similar to those endless summers of youth, that contrasts with the psychic dislocation of our jet-enhanced vacations.

What we need is jet travel, plus three months vacation …


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