My friend, future travel partner (44 days and counting til take off) and blog photographer Gabrijela obviously knows me quite well. She gave me my birthday gift with the words "I think you could like this and I am quite sure it's at least interesting for you." When I unwrapped the present, I found "Hartland" by Wolfgang Büscher .... a book, which had a high ranking TOP 5 place on my inner book buying list. Perfect choice!
Wolfang Büscher is a German travel writer mostly famous for his books "Berlin - Moskau" und "Deutschlandreise". For "Hartland" he was packing is backpack again to WALK from Canada to Mexico crossing the USA not on the usual "go west" route but from North to South straight through the middle, the "heart (land)" of the States. Traveling this route alone would be already an interesting adventure, but doing it walking is ... special.
If you expect now a tracking guide full of equipment info and detailed data about the route you are wrong. First of all - Wolfgang Büscher walks A LOT in all kind of weather and on all kind of roads (and yes there are significant differences in the roads), but he does not do it religiously. He also drives a couple of miles when he has the possibility to transfer a car from one city to another and he takes the chance when somebody stops and offers a ride. Actually the parts of his trip he sits next to total strangers for a while are essential for the book, because Büscher is not only out there to see and feel the country. He is out to meet the people.
Traveling alone, mostly walking the endless, empty mid west is a very introspective thing to do and although the book offers beautiful and intense descriptions of the land in the transition from winter to spring from North to South, it is more the thoughts and reflections of the author that carry the book.
Bücher inserts along his path long paragraphs about the first settlers who founded Heartland - a small town that a few shattered dreams later became Hartland and is now an abandoned ghost town -, the history of the Native American tribes and how they lost their battles and most of their land or the early conquerors' search for gold, who found no metal but the golden emptiness of the Great Plains. The switch between Büscher's own travel and his narrated historical parts is giving the book a dream like atmosphere floating in time that could not be more different from the up-to-date fact collection of a travel guidebook.
Very important of course are the people Wolfgang Büscher meets along his way in diners, bars, motels or often when they stop next to him offering the lonely wanderer at the roadside a ride for a few miles. These people are as diverse as mankind can be - from the priest to the farmer ... we got it all.
The trip ends in Mexico like planned, in a world that could not be more different from the country Büscher entered after a nerve wrecking control procedure at the Canadian-American border a few weeks before. And it leaves the reader (and I think also the author) with a slight feeling of inner emptiness that follows the emptiness of the land. But isn't that a normal feeling when we finish a trip, close a circle, reach a goal?
Some parts attracted me most for - as usual - very diverse reasons (attention - spoilers):
- Wolfgang Büscher passes the South Dakota Badlands, which are in my memory forever entangled with the memory of watching the Terence Malick movie "Badlands" with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek for the first time. I cannot really name a particular reason why (yes ... fantastic acting and amazing cinematography, but I was maybe 15 when I watched it first time and did not exactly pay attention to things like that) but it really, really impressed me.
- The priest, who tells Büscher, that he decided to become a priest after an intense experience in Medjugorje in the Hercegovina. What a surprise ... or maybe not. Medjugorje is like that and you will meet there people from all over the world (I was there, too).
- The scene when Wolfgang Büscher loses his backpack with everything he owns except the cash in his pocket (enough to stay on the road) and his passport. That part is really crazy. Even by only reading it I felt the panic floating in. I mean - the backpack with EVERYTHING? And Büscher is panicking as well, but after giving up searching for his stuff makes the decision to keep walking now really down to a hitchhiking hobo with nothing than a few bucks in the pocket. I think this is the most impressive part from a literary point of view, because he describes the situation in very clear and calm words - and makes that way in contrast his emotional breakdown very tangible.