Peace Corps Writers
In the Mountains of Heaven
In the Mountains of Heaven

In the Mountains of Heaven

Christmas Miracle in the Andes

Hanoi Haircut

In the Mountains of Heaven
by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985–87)
Lyons Press, $24.95
224 pages
August, 2000

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

LIKE ANY OTHER SELF-RESPECTING resident of Washington, DC, I enjoy my sunshine, my Washington Post, and my cup of morning java on Sundays. The laundry rolls and tumbles in the dryer, and there’s a tower of bills within eyesight. But I do what I imagine other returned Peace Corps Volunteers would do in my situation — head right to the Post’s Travel section. It’s been over a year since I discovered my first Mike Tidwell essay, a piece in which he invokes all the stubbornness and joie de vivre you expect from RPCVs to get himself marooned on a Caribbean island. It was an impressive bit of writing and I pursued his work to another essay about blissfully fishing the rivers and waterways of the District of Columbia. I don’t live far from Rock Creek Park, and, glancing out my bedroom window, I half-expected to see the writer padding down the street; rod and tackle box in hand — the kind of contemporary savior this world really needs. Last year, Tidwell released his fourth book, In the Mountains of Heaven, a collection of twenty essays that details numerous jaunts around the world. Was it worth the read? You bet your rolling and tumbling laundry, it was. To experience these essays is to experience — consistently — the beauty and absurdity of travel, the innocent wonder that results from new discoveries and, most profoundly, the harmony in human connection that creates a home for every traveler in every country on earth.
     In the Mountains doesn’t say much about affordable housing in the Maldives or about good restaurants in Valparaiso. Instead, it revels in the excitement and the challenges of getting from one place to another and in the improbable bonds that develop between individuals from different walks of life. Stopping for a haircut in Hanoi, Tidwell listens to his Vietnamese barber chat about the Americans he killed during the Vietnam War. But as the author fishes out his wallet to pay, the barber gently explains: “That you are happy [with the haircut] is payment enough for me.” When was the last time someone said that to you? And when Tidwell visits Linz, Germany, international sister-city to his own Marietta, Georgia, he is astonished when the burgermeister enthusiastically nominates him as parade marshal for the frenzied opening ceremonies of an annual trans-European cycling race.
     Humor is never far from the surface of these essays — it is an essential trait for any adventurer just dying to get himself into trouble — and Tidwell uses it to great advantage. In one of the funniest essays I have ever read, “John T. Love and the Flight From Hell,” he bemoans his fear of flying in a hilarious account of self-pity. As Tidwell’s shuttle flight from New York to Washington, DC is buffeted by severe storm winds he is addressed by retired Marine Corps Sergeant Love, sitting in the next seat. The sergeant orders him to raise his hands in the air, regress to the childhood excitement of amusement parks, and treat each free-fall plummet of the plane as part of a roller coaster ride. Incredibly, the author confesses, it makes him feel a whole lot better.
     Another rare and appreciable quality to Tidwell’s writing is its ability to create a certain level of suspense. On several occasions, I was actually diverted by something akin of a storyteller’s narrative. In Bishek, Kyrgyzstan, Tidwell adopts the role of inquisitive sleuth as he seeks to discover the mystery of missing manhole covers. His introduction to “Amazing Grace in the Texas Desert” is as absorbing as any hook found in short fiction today. And when Tidwell maroons himself on Ragged Island, I kept wondering when the next mail boat was going to come save the guy from permanent residence on a coastline hammock. In the latter essay, Tidwell sources Paul Theroux — perhaps the most influential RPCV travel writer to date — and it is interesting to wonder just how much Tidwell had him in mind as he penned In the Mountains. In his introductory essay, Tidwell presents a moving eulogy of an uncle who had a lasting influence on the author’s interest in travel. Theroux’s My Other Life opens with the profile of an eccentric and sometimes cruel uncle whose idiosyncrasies hide a brilliant and compassionate mind. While such connections may be incidental, they do open the possibility that RPCV writers may work within a certain frame of reference in their travels, in their influences, and in the perspective they bring to their writings.
     Occasionally, Tidwell gets too absorbed in the landscapes. His account of “Tramping Across Sicily,” for example, details extraordinarily well the experience of wandering through western Sicily and of eating excellent Italian cuisine. But the element of human connection that is his trademark is not here. And so when he occasionally claims to travel with the idea of escaping from other people, it is hard to believe that Tidwell does not as eagerly look forward to the glorious moment of return. If travel holds for one the fear of being a stranger in a strange land, Tidwell’s discovery of friendship offers much in the way of faith and hope. In one of his final essays, he takes an overnight Amtrak journey to Georgia with his younger son, Sasha. Just before bedtime, a sleeping-car attendant offers to bring coffee and a newspaper with the morning wake-up call. It opens the door for the most revealing statement of the book: “It’s comforting to know that while I take complete care of Sasha on this long journey, someone else is taking very good care of me.”
     In the Mountains of Heaven was recently nominated by the New York Times as one of the best collections of travel writings this year, and deservedly so. If the world is, in fact, shrinking in this early-21st century era of globalization, Tidwell’s fine contribution offers the satisfaction of knowing that the people we may encounter around the world are people it is worth our while to get to know.
Joe Kovacs is currently working on his first novel, The Bronx Buddha.
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