Americas Archive

“The most secretly interesting place in America’

Sam Anderson first went to Oklahoma City in 2012 to write about its professional basketball team for The New York Times Magazine. He didn’t know then that he was embarking on a much longer project, a portrait of the city that he says is “the most secretly interesting place in America”. That portrait has now been published in Boom Town (Crown), which, as the subtitle has it, is “The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis.” The book is reviewed in the current NY Times Book Review, and Anderson talks about it in a podcast.

Life and (slow) death on the Chesapeake

I’m hoping to visit Arizona soon to write a travel piece. I’ve been doing background reading, buying guides and other books and making contact with people whose brains I would like to pick — all online. I couldn’t do that in the mid-1990s when I visited the Eastern Shore, that broad peninsula cut off from western Maryland by the great curve of the Chesapeake Bay. The Daily Telegraph, for which I was then working, had started what it called the “Electronic Telegraph” (on November 15, 1994), but its small staff was still separate from the print team, producing a publication that, initially, was updated just once a day. When my piece on the Chesapeake Bay appeared in print, on March 4, 1995, it was accompanied by mentions of the airline and tour operator with which I travelled, the hotel where I stayed and the tourist board that helped me on the ground. I gave telephone numbers for all of them — but no websites. Few organisations then had websites, and few readers — while access was still being charged by the minute — were minded to go online.

In those days, I did much of my most useful background reading when I arrived, following a swift scouring of the shelves of one or two local bookshops. Which is how I found Watermen by Randall S Peffer (Johns Hopkins University Press), a vivid and salty account of a year Peffer spent with the fishermen of Tilghman Island, harvesting the Chesapeake’s oysters, crabs, fish and waterfowl. If you’re heading to the Chesapeake Bay (and even if you’re not), I’d still thoroughly recommend it. But first, maybe, I’d urge you to buy a more recent, more topical book: Chesapeake Requiem by Earl Swift, which was published last month in the United States by Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins, and which I have just started reading. It promises to be an affectionate but inquiring portrait of a singular place.

Swift, a long-time reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, spent nearly two years on Tangier Island, which sits dead centre at the Chesapeake’s broadest point, “at the mercy of nature’s wildest whims”. Those whims are a large part of his story. The inhabitants of Tangier have made their living for generations from crabs and oysters. But the very water that sustains their community — one of 470 conservative and deeply religious people — is also slowly erasing it. A study published in 2015 by Nature suggested that the island, which has lost two thirds of its land since 1850, would become the first American town to fall victim to the rising sea levels brought about by climate change. Donald Trump, who is hugely popular on Tangier, has said there is no reason to worry…

On America’s border (No — not that one.)

America’s border with Mexico has been generating a lot of words, not just in news and feature pieces but in books as various as William Atkins’s The Immeasurable World and Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes A River, a memoir of his years as a US Border Patrol agent. (Cantú also popped up last weekend on BBC2 in Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border, briefing the road-tripping comedian on musicians but without being given a chance to plug his own book.) Porter Fox (what a great byline!) has been preoccupied with a quieter American frontier: the one between the US and Canada. To write his new book, Northland (W W Norton & Company), he spent three years travelling about 4,000 miles from Maine to Washington. He told The New York Times: “I started the way every other northland explorer had for the last 400 years: I packed a canoe, tent, maps and books, and headed for the line.” Outside Magazine has an excerpt from his book on territory in Montana known as the Medicine Line (“named by Native Americans for how the US Calvary magically stopped pursuing them at the US-Canada boundary”).

Back to the deserts

William Atkins’ The Immeasurable World: Travels in Desert Places was reviewed in The Observer last weekend by Sara Wheeler. The author has also been interviewed by Radio National in Australia — which seemed keener to draw him out on recent happenings in the Sonoran Desert, on the US-Mexico border, than on British nuclear tests in Maralinga in South Australia, which also feature in his book.

Following the fish on the Yukon

My review of Adam Weymouth’s excellent debut, Kings of the Yukon — for which he canoed 2,000 miles down the river to see how dwindling salmon numbers are affecting the lives of locals —  appears today in the print edition of The Daily Telegraph. You can read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

In the Black Hills and the Badlands


My article for Telegraph Travel about South Dakota, pegged to the 70th annniversary of the start of work on the Crazy Horse Memorial, is now online

In the many-storied South

The Bitter Southerner magazine, which I’ve just come across thanks to the Twitter feed of the estimable Rocky Mountain Land Library, has a fine tribute to Bill Ferris, who has spent his lifetime collecting the stories and songs of the American South. This Friday, the Georgia-based record label Dust to Digital will release Voices of Mississippi, a four-disc set that includes Ferris’s field recordings and films of blues singers, gospel singers and storytellers. If that whets your appetite for Southern stories, you will also enjoy Pamela Petro’s Sitting Up with the Dead, which was reissued in the United States earlier this year.

Following the fish

Every summer, king salmon swim 2,000 miles up the Yukon river in Alaska to spawn. For thousands of years, their journey has helped to sustain the native people. But with the effects of climate change and globalisation, the health and numbers of the salmon are  in question, and so is the fate of those who depend on them. Adam Weymouth followed the fish for Kings of the Yukon (Particular Books), which is published this week; he summarised his findings in an essay yesterday for The Observer.

New Orleans at 300

My article for Telegraph Travel marking the tricentennial of the founding of New Orleans is now online.

‘Momentous’ memoir from a border guard

William Atkins, who has recently spent time himself on the US/Mexico border while researching a forthcoming book on deserts, reviewed for The Guardian yesterday Francisco Cantú’s memoir of his years as a US Border Patrol agent (see my earlier post). He says it’s a remarkable book, written “with a raw-nerved tenderness”, and “frequently feels momentous”.