The bestselling author of Blue Latitudes takes us on a thrilling and eye-opening voyage to pre-Mayflower America
On a chance visit to Plymouth Rock, Tony Horwitz realizes he's mislaid more than a century of American history, from Columbus's sail in 1492 to Jamestown's founding in 16-oh-something. Did nothing happen in between? Determined to find out, he embarks on a journey of rediscovery, following in the footsteps of the many Europeans who preceded the Pilgrims to America.
An irresistible blend of history, myth, and misadventure, A Voyage Long and Strange captures the wonder and drama of first contact. Vikings, conquistadors, French voyageurs--these and many others roamed an unknown continent in quest of grapes, gold, converts, even a cure for syphilis. Though most failed, their remarkable exploits left an enduring mark on the land and people encountered by late-arriving English settlers.
Tracing this legacy with his own epic trek--from Florida's Fountain of Youth to Plymouth's sacred Rock, from desert pueblos to subarctic sweat lodges--Tony Horwitz explores the revealing gap between what we enshrine and what we forget. Displaying his trademark talent for humor, narrative, and historical insight, A Voyage Long and Strange allows us to rediscover the New World for ourselves.
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Henry Holt and Co.
April 27, 2008
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Excerpt from A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz
The Pilgrims didn't think much of Cape Cod. "A hideous and desolate wilderness," William Bradford called it. "Full of wild beasts and wild men." Rather than stay, a small party from the Mayflower sailed ahead, searching for a winter haven. In December 1620, they reached Plymouth, a place "fit for situation," Bradford wrote. "At least it was the best they could find."
On a New England road trip a few summers ago, I washed up in Plymouth, too. It could have been Dedham or Braintree or some other pit stop on the highway near Boston. But a Red Sox game pulsed on the radio, so I drove until it ended at the Plymouth exit. Stopping for beer at Myles Standish Liquor, I was directed to the William Bradford Motor Inn, the best I could find in peak tourist season.
Early the next morning I went for a walk along the waterfront, past a chowder house, a saltwater taffy shop, a wax museum, and a replica Mayflower moored in the bay. Near the water stood a gray historic marker that was terse even by New England standards.
Plymouth Rock. Landing Place of the Pilgrims. 1620.
I looked around and couldn't see anything except asphalt and a few stones small enough for skipping. Then I spotted a lone speed-walker racing down the sidewalk. "Excuse me," I said, chasing after him, "but where's Plymouth Rock?"
Without breaking stride, he thrust a thumb over his shoulder. "You just passed it."
Twenty yards back was a columned enclosure, between the sidewalk and shoreline. Stepping inside, I came to a rail overlooking a shallow pit. At the bottom sat a lump of granite, the wet sand around it strewn with cigarette butts and ticket stubs from the wax museum. The boulder, about five feet square, had a badly mended cleft in the middle. It looked like a fossilized potato.
A few minutes later a family arrived. As they entered the portico, the father intoned to his children, "This is where it all began." Then they peered over the rail.
"It's, like, nothing."
"We've got rocks bigger than that in our yard."
Before long, the portico was packed: tour bus groups, foreign sightseers, summer campers. Their response followed the same arc, from solemnity to shock to hilarity. But Plymouth Rock was an icon of American history. So visitors dutifully snapped pictures or pointed video cameras down at the static granite.
"That's going to be one heckuva home movie."
"Yeah. My Visit to Plymouth Pebble."
"The Pilgrims must have had small feet."
I went over to chat with a woman in green shorts and tan shirt standing outside the enclosure, counting visitors with a hand clicker. Claire Olsen was a veteran park ranger at Plymouth, accustomed to hearing tourists abuse the sacred stone. "A lot of people come here expecting the Rock of Gibraltar," she said. "Maybe that's where they went on their last vacation."
She was also accustomed to fielding odd questions. Was it true that the Mayflower crashed into Plymouth Rock? Did the Pilgrims serve Thanksgiving on top of it? The bronze, ten-foot-tall Indian on a hill overlooking the rock--was he life-sized?
The most common question, though, concerned the date etched into the rock's surface. Why did it say 1620, visitors wondered, rather than 1492? Wasn't that when Columbus arrived?
"Or they ask, 'Is this where the three ships landed?'" Claire said. "They mean the Ni�a, the Pinta, and the Santa Mar�a. People think Columbus dropped off the Pilgrims and sailed home."
Claire had to patiently explain that Columbus's landing and the Pilgrims' arrival occurred a thousand miles and 128 years apart. "Americans learn about 1492 and 1620 as kids and that's all they remember as adults," she said. "The rest of the story is blank."
As she returned to counting tourists, I returned to the Governor Bradford, chuckling over visitors' questions. America, great land of idiocy! But Claire's parting comment gave me pause. Back on the road, winding past cranberry bogs, I scanned the data stored in my own brain about America's founding by Europeans. In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue . . . John Smith and Jamestown . . . the Mayflower Compact . . . Pilgrims in funny hats . . . Of the Indians who met the English, I of course knew Pocahontas, Squanto, and . . . Hiawatha?
That was the sum of what I dredged up. Scraps from elementary school and the Thanksgiving table. Plus some fuzzy, picture-book images of black-robed friars and armored conquistadors I couldn't identify. As for dates, I'd mislaid an entire century, the one separating Columbus's sail in 1492 from Jamestown's founding in 16-0-something. Maybe nothing happened in the period between. Still, it was distressing not to know. Expensively educated at a private school and university--a history major, no less!--I'd matriculated to middle age with a third grader's grasp of early America.