by Joel Smith & r & The Best AmericanTravel Writing 2006 Edited by Tim Cahill & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & very year, travel writer Jason Wilson combs through hundreds of published travel essays from the last 12 months and sends the best 100 to that year's guest editor, who culls it down according to his or her taste. The 2001 edition, under Paul Theroux's watch, was full of political reportage and grave commentary. Frances Mayes' 2002 collection was sunny and Tuscan. Jamaica Kincaid gave the 2005 book a more exotic flavor.
This year's editor is Tim Cahill, one of the founding editors of Outside magazine and the writer of several high-energy, smart-alecky travel tomes, with titles like Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and Pecked to Death by Ducks. It would seem likely, then, that this edition might be full of pulpy, boyish, adventure-bounding, death-defying, spine-tingling travel tales, but no. Cahill writes in his introduction that he wanted to emphasize story this year. Not place or even the act/art of traveling. But rather compellingly crafted narratives.
"Ask anyone who has just returned from a trip how it went, and you are not likely to get directions," he writes. "You'll hear stories."
But while Cahill's travelers indeed brought back some fine stories, they brought back even better photographs. Some of the best pieces in this year's collection aren't full stories at all, but snapshots, portraits -- those odd but affecting moments that unfold unexpectedly somewhere between Boston and Bangalore, between exposition and denouement.
Pico Iyer's three-page elegy for the mom and pop convenience store in his Japanese town is among the finest of these. Sean Flynn paints an illuminating picture of the Costa Rican sex trade almost solely by describing -- in detail -- one San Jose bar that's a magnet for horny gringos. Michael Paterniti's XXXXL is truest to the paradigm. Not really a story or a travelogue, it's a giant portrait of one of the world's tallest men, a sensitive and solitary Ukrainian farmer who hides out in his apple orchard. But it speaks volumes about the man's homeland.
Cahill forgot: You don't get to hear the stories until you sit through the slideshow. This one's a joy.