Years ago three friends and I drove 18,000 miles in about nine weeks, all in an old van that we shouldn’t have trusted to deliver us around the block. Above 40 miles an hour the van shook like it was re-entering the atmosphere, but we embarked undeterred on our shuddering adventure. We had a copy of “On the Road.” We were robbed. We befriended fellow travelers. We felt, with embarrassing sincerity, that our time on the road would furnish solutions to the riddles we saw in ourselves.
That trip kept returning to mind while reading Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s “A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and Hopeful,” a witty, deeply felt memoir that chronicles Kraus’s journey on three historical pilgrimage routes: the Camino de Santiago, a grueling walk across Spain; a circular journey to 88 Buddhist temples on an obscure Japanese island; and a Rosh Hashana trip to the Ukrainian tomb of a famous rabbi.
“Life is the crisis of doing what you want,” someone tells Kraus early on. How true you find that optimistic assertion of self-determination offers a reliable indicator of how you’ll respond to Kraus’s book. Kraus suffers from what people deride as First World problems. His ability to do whatever he wants, wherever he wants, afflicts him with the “misery of choice.” This may alienate some, but it is a true state of being for many who end up abruptly feeling they aren’t as young as they thought. Besides, happiness isn’t relative. “A Sense of Direction” is an honest, incisive grappling with the brute fact, soap operatic though it may sound, that we only have one life to live, even if that life is rather posh.
Kraus, a contributor to n + 1, The Believer, and other publications, lives an expatriate’s dream in decadent Berlin. He spends his time at gallery openings, with beautiful friends or by admiring boozy dawns. But Kraus’s aimlessness sparks anxiety that he’s creating future regrets. He “wanted my twenty-seven-year-old-self to take good care of my forty-six-year-old self, and I wanted my forty-six-year-old self to be able to look back happily.” Following a blackout bender in Estonia, Kraus decides to immerse himself in a clarifying spiritual ordeal, which “isn’t at all about freedom from restraint but about freedom via restraint” in the form of strict adherence to strict rules and protocols. Throughout, Krause offers an always charming and funny, often excellent, exploration of desire, family, pilgrim etiquette, and condescending guidebooks.
Kraus’s maiden pilgrimage, along the Spanish Camino, is the most compelling section of the book, primarily due to the presence of Kraus’s friend and partner in comedy, the celebrated essayist Tom Bissell. When a pilgrim claims to have hitched to Spain from Belgium they respond.
“ ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘When you hitchhike in America, you either get murdered or end up murdering the driver.’
“ ‘It’s a tense contest,’ Tom says.’’
The two writers’ irritations with and affection for each other opens a window into what it’s like to travel alongside a friend. Both men are nests of neurosis and complaint, and both are vocal about their ever-shifting states of misery and anxiety. “Each of us,” Kraus writes, “feels that the mere existence of the other’s anxiety, the other’s trivial anxiety, is demeaning to our own legitimate worry.”
Although Kraus adopts travel companions during his trip to Japan, this second section lacks the dynamic, amusing tensions between Bissell and Kraus. Kraus’s observations accordingly lose some of their edge. “The only thing more amazing than how quickly someone can drop from savior to nuisance,” he writes, “is how quickly you can then miss them.” This is the truth of travelers’ intimacy, but it’s a bit bland.
Which is rare. “A Sense of Direction” sparkles with tight, nearly aphoristic observations. You can almost hear the scratching of Kraus’s pen against a moleskin notebook as he lingers on the side of a road to write such gems as “Regrets are just memories that come unsummoned, and do us more harm than good.”
Ultimately, it’s not his own regret that most haunts Kraus. All roads lead to home, to family. After coming out late in life, his father promptly began making up for lost time, isolating and embittering Kraus. During the trip to the Ukraine, the final trek, Kraus finally confronts his father, neutralizing the fear that, to be blunt, his father’s life had been a series of thwarted desires that spoiled into regret.
Travel is palliative; merely being engaged in a journey is a form of relief from the pressures of workaday identity, but most people eventually have to stop. My friends and I got that part.
But Kraus is a keen self-interrogator, and he articulates an insight I sought on my long ago automotive pilgrimage, but then avoided: “It’s so easy to feel this way on the road because it’s provisional. This is its strength and its limitation. It is to be used and discarded.’’Michael Washburn is a research associate at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York. He can be reached at www.michaelwashburn.org or on Twitter as @whalelines.