2012 NMAs: Travel

This category is explore versus explore (versus explore versus explore) and friends. First let’s see what happens if we let the explore nominees duke it out.

“The Big Blue” [.pdf of story] is the only true adventure story in this category. Writer Charles Wilkins and 15 others paddle across the Atlantic in a tale of physical exhaustion, danger and weeping saddle-sores, “one of them as big as a Ritz cracker.”

While Marni Jackson’s “The Week the Women Went Away” [.pdf of story]—a story about a group of nine women trekking through Newfoundland—lacks the danger of Wilkins’ story, Jackson’s tale has sharper writing. She has a lot of nuggets, such as “in the parking lot we stepped out into an eddying nimbus of white, as if we were on location for a movie set in heaven” and “a breeze dissipated the fog and we looked down at huge sea stacks rising up out of the water, like bar stools of the gods.” My slightly unfair criticism of this story is that although I really enjoy these skilful flourishes, sometimes they draw too much attention to themselves, like Arnold Horshack trying to answer a question in Mr. Kotter’s class.

Jay Teitel’s words in “One Man in a Boat” [.pdf of story] propel you along better than those in previous two explore stories. Teitel paddles up the Rideau Canal, sort of.  Actually, he didn’t have time to paddle the whole thing, so he paddled some significant stretches of the water system with the goal of pulling into the Château Laurier for tea.

Allow me switch into a slightly very nerdy mode: this story has a Star Wars reference that doesn’t really work. “I [paddle into the lock] feeling like Luke Skywalker entering the waste disposal bay of the Death Star,” Teitel writes. Now, the nerds know that Luke, along with Leia, Han and Chewie, ended up in a garbage compactor on the first Death Star. They slid in through a garbage shoot to get there. Their entrance was wilder than, say, paddling a canoe into a lock. It was more like an industrial mudslide. While Teitel’s large lock may have had the ominous feel of a Death Star, his entrance into the concrete bay resembles more the scene at the beginning of Star Wars, when the Rebel ship Tantive IV is pulled into the Imperial Star Destroyer. I really hope the judges take all of this into consideration.

The last explore story is “Mostly Awesome, with Brief Periods of Terrible” [.pdf of story] by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. It chronicles the writer’s hike up the Bruce Trail and features injury, discomfort, booze and hurt feelings. We’ve also seen it in the sports and humour categories.

So, my pick out of the explore stories is Marni Jackson’s “The Week the Women Went Away.” (Watch Star Wars a little more closely next time, Teitel!)

In the non-explore section of this category, there’s a trip through Steinbeck country (“Class Mammalia,” Eighteen Bridges) [.pdf of story]; a visit to a freaky eco-tourist town made by director Emir Kusturica to replace the town he lost during the Bosnian War (“Mon petit village en Serbie,” L’actualité); and a houseboat on the Seine (“Ma maison sur la Seine,” L’actualité).

“Rising Again” by Nicholas Köhler (Maclean’s) focuses on the people of the Japanese town of Onagowa as they start to pull things together after the earthquake and tsunami struck. The prose is sharp and powerful and, like any good travel story, gives you a rich sense of place.

I really like the idea of “A Pipeline Runs Through It” by Nathan VanderKlippe (Report on Business) [.pdf of story]: a journey along the proposed route of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, from Edmonton to Kitimat, B.C. VanderKlippe does an excellent job at capturing the conflicting interests and even conflicted feelings surrounding this project. However, the writing falters in some places. “A hole cut for an entrance door perfectly frames a view of the swift green waters of the Morice River. The riverbank is populated by flyfishers casting for steelhead and hunters bleeding out massive moose carcasses,” VanderKlippe writes. Now, I can visualize a busy riverbank of people fishing, but I believe this passage  is also telling me that there are a bunch of hunters who just dropped a bunch of huge moose amongst the fishermen and women. I have a hard time picturing that scene. There must be a crazy large moose population along this river that are easy to pick off and the flyfishers must have nerves of steel as the hunters bag moose all around. And all this is visible through a doorway! At least VanderKlippe didn’t muddle a Star Wars reference.

Finally, Chris Nuttall-Smith goes to Denmark (“Don’t Worry Be Danish,” enRoute), and makes it sound really cool. This story had all the markings of a snoozer: a not-so-exotic location, no danger or political conflict, Danes, etc. But Nuttall-Smith’s prose just rockets the reader along. “…they infuse moonshine-strength alcohol with herbs and spices and serve it half-frozen in tiny glasses so that it shoots straight into the space above your eyes,” he writes.

So, I really don’t know which story stands above the rest. For straight-up adventure, Wilkins and his Atlantic trek. For best explore story, see Jackson’s tale. For a powerful story, see Köhler. For “I can’t believe I enjoyed that so much,” see Nuttall-Smith. I have tried to use The Force. I have searched my feelings but the future is not clear with this one. (You catch that, Teitel?!) I think Köhler’s story is the best, but I have a feeling the gold will go to explore. I’m saying “The Week the Women Went Away” for the win.

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