How a SoCal travel writer found beauty in ugly places

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Travel writing seems to reward the young and the agile. Was any of Paul Theroux’s recent books as fiercely urgent as the first? Later collections may find a once intrepid (or at least indefatigable) scribe willing to meditate on a bad knee or worse service in a restaurant, or generally bemoan what was or could have been.

Charles Hood, a writer from Southern California now in his sixties, certainly regrets. There’s his initial decision to major in English a long time ago, a divorce from a more recent vintage, choices he made as a father or a teacher. But from these difficulties emerges the fascinating central idea of ​​his new collection, “A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat”: that what appears to be ugly or horrible can, with the right knowledge and the right context, be considered rather unique, even magnificent.

The opening essay, “I Heart Ugly Art,” describes a job Hood applied for in the late 1980s, teaching writing at a college in the Antelope Valley. “I drove Highway 14 to Lancaster, had lunch, then put on my suit in the restaurant parking lot,” he writes. “I took out my earring and put on my wedding ring. I ran my fingers through my hair. Show time. “Turns out what they’re looking for is a lifelong commitment to teaching remedial English. A potential supervisor asks, ‘Did I take the wrong exit? even where I was?

Bird watcher, poet, writer, world traveler, but most of all someone who likes to unearth the beauty of an unloved parking lot, Hood tells the committee the truth: that he knows exactly where it is. That in fact, his next stop is “the sewage ponds” on the other side of town, where he searches for a certain species, Franklin’s Gull, named after Sir John Franklin, a deceased polar explorer. scurvy in 1847. “According to campus legend,” he ironically notes: “I ended up standing on the table, beating my elbows and imitating bird calls.” Of course, he got the job.

Hood’s essays are often successful because of such humor and uniqueness, born out of decades of hard work as a thinker and wanderer in search of things small and beautiful and often in the beak. (He’s also co-author of the revealing guidebook “Wild LA.”) In other words: anyone can tell you that Lancaster is more than a place to refuel before you go skiing; Hood will actually persuade you to take a closer look at this midway of the freeway, the “cheater’s yellow stat” that “fills all spare bits of land.”

Over such prose poetry, in a dozen essays about the desert, the semi-urban corners of LA County, and some of the many nations and oceans that Hood continues to explore, lies an equally impressive and slightly worn knowledge. ecology and history. Where another naturalist might pass for a gaudy mansplainer, Hood feels like a cool, older friend, sunburned and strapped to binoculars, when he tells us California has 17 species of pines and around 20 oaks. : black, island, scrub, Engelmann – »enough species for all to be difficult to see.

Indeed, what makes this collection such a constant joy is ultimately how the author feels full of hope and how much he continues to enjoy traveling the world despite the double reality of bad knees. and climate change. “I keep journals to document my personal improvement,” he suggests, “even when there is very little good news to report.”

Reading Hood’s work will make you feel smarter but, even more crucial in these terrible times, more open to the sublime. It comes in small, provocative moments. Hood asks an Indian biologist how many tigers there are in Mumbai, which has a population of 13 million. He replies 300. “How did they get there? Hood follows. “They have always been there. Other strangely beautiful moments include a story of palm trees, those gangly Californian grafts that “repeat the lie: you can never be too tall or too thin.” Hood reports that 40 potted palm trees sank with the Titanic, and those planted decades ago in Los Angeles could very well be on the verge of en masse dying.

According to some studies, anyway. The truth – about palm trees and many other things – is that we don’t know. In the end, the book feels like a challenge to be a jolly traveler like Hood, just as open to finding pleasure in incomplete knowledge and imperfect nature as it is in seeking out pristine postcard views. “Go before the border closes, the crevasse widens, the herd thins, the engine stalls or the plague spreads,” he implores. “Take a friend if you can; go alone if you have to. But at least read this book. It is a real delight.

Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East”.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.


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