It’s possible that there are lazier travel writers than Steve Hely, whose new book describes going from Los Angeles all the way down the Americas’ western coast to Patagonia, without eliminating the suspicion that he never actually left home. But if you can let Hely’s joking offset his featherweight work ethic, there aren’t many who make better company.
“The Wonder Trail” is a fizzy, wildly untrustworthy account by a guy who helpfully made up his own Ponce de León quotation (“To tell the tale of the journey is to go on it a second time”) and who values facetiousness very highly. He has been an editor of The Harvard Lampoon and a comedy writer for TV shows including “30 Rock,” “The Late Show With David Letterman,” “The Office” and “American Dad!”
His 2009 novel, “How I Became a Famous Novelist,” includes some of the best examples of deliberately wretched writing that you’d ever want to see. Sample titles of Hely’s imaginary best-sellers, as cited in that novel, include “Sageknights of Darkhorn”; “Indict to Unnerve”; “Cumin: The Spice That Changed the World”; and “Caesar, CEO: Business Secrets of the Ancient Romans.”
So what does he know about travel? Well, he’s written one previous book on the subject. He has had the experience of leaving home. And he obviously hopes that “people on trips, people who aren’t taking trips, people who like trips and people who don’t like trips” are all potential readers of facile, funny, short-chaptered books full of gags, anecdotes, local color and touches of the cheerfully bizarre.
Since Hely is also lazy enough to favor abundant padding, as well as a hit-or-miss approach, he’s ready to include just about anything that comes to mind. The only things that organize “The Wonder Trail” are a timeline and a compass. His plan in its entirety: Start in Los Angeles, head south and come home when his hiatus from TV writing is over.
Hely claims that inspiration struck when he was sitting in his local coffee shop and noticed a map of Central and South America, one that started in Mexico and ended in Tierra del Fuego. Thus his idea of going south was hatched. “If this was a bad idea, no one told me,” he writes. “I live in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, nobody ever tells you if your idea is bad.”
First up: Northern Mexico, and a news flash we’ve already gotten. Hely reminds us that Roberto Bolaño, Don Winslow and Cormac McCarthy have written extremely well about this part of the world. So well, in fact, that he hasn’t got much to add. So he skips the region and flies straight to Mexico City, where he delivers some thumbnail information about the Aztecs, and then breaks down the Spanish conquerors’ techniques into three easy steps: “1) Knock down their gods, 2) Put up your gods, and then 3) that’s it.”
Hely is best when he veers away from the obligatory. Beware his chapters on anything as Google-ready as the Panama Canal, and look instead for anecdotes about how a guy ought to deal with a competitive hippie guy (inevitable on this route, Hely says) who’s out to impress the same woman. Hippie guy, almost certainly bare-chested, will say things like “This isn’t the real Mexico,” and “That’s why I’m thinking of going back to India.” Hely’s advice: Don’t take the bait. Chances are good that the woman is en route to a remote cheese-making community and that you’ll never see her again. Let it go.
And so off Hely himself goes, on to the surfers and dangers of Central America. He writes of both the natural beauty and extreme dangers of El Salvador, and the pretension he found at a turtle sanctuary/pelican retreat. He gets to the island of Ometepe, where he does not find the world’s greatest cup of coffee. He riffs on Costa Rica’s much-vaunted awesomeness before getting to Peru, where the drug ayahuasca and the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu command equal amounts of his attention. These are the things he suggests doing upon completing the arduous trip to the high-altitude Machu Picchu: “Take Pictures.” “Take stuff in and out of your backpack.” “Explore.” “Feed an apple to a llama.” Maybe think a little. Gape. And then what? Hely says his full routine took him only 20 minutes.
This book ends by accomplishing what it meant to: making itself indispensable, even when its author is just plain treading water. Here, for example, are Hely’s thoughts about a parrot that can say “hola”: Why would a parrot speak Spanish? Why would a parrot care? How many languages are spoken by parrots? Is there a parrot that speaks Inuit? Should he train one? And if you think he’s ready to leave it there, you’re dreaming.
“The Wonder Trail: True Stories From Los Angeles to the End of the World” by Steve Hely; Dutton ($27)