Remember all those grade-school history classes about the European explorers who discovered the New World (at least, it was new to them) and paved the way for the birth of the United States?
Neither did Tony Horwitz, who travels North America in search of those long-forgotten lessons in "A Voyage Long and Strange," by turns a thoughtful, informative and hilarious road trip into the past.
Horwitz, who wrote memorably about unreconstructed Southerners in "Confederates in the Attic" and Capt. James Cook's travels in "Blue Latitudes," stumbled upon Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts a few summers back and was dismayed by how little he knew about pre-Mayflower America.
After a little research, he realized that not only had the Pilgrims arrived here long after Columbus, but they had been been preceded by any number of other Spanish, French and English explorers.
"We should be eating chili, not turkey," an Arizona newspaper editor grumbles.
That's not to mention Leif Eriksson and the Norse, whose pointed helmets Horwitz is surprised to find looked nothing like those "worn by cartoon Norse, or Minnesota Vikings fans."
Horwitz's book chronicles his journey from Newfoundland to the Caribbean, the American Southwest and Virginia before he returns, this time with fresh insight, to Plymouth Rock.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who worked for the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker, Horwitz is no slouch when it comes to doing his history legwork. The book contains 17 pages of sources and a 12-page bibliography, more than you'd expect to find in a typical travelogue.
But Horwitz is a reporter first and foremost, and what gives his books their great appeal is his journalistic knack for finding colorful characters to latch onto -- and his willingness to follow them into some excruciating experiences.
And so we see him practically burned to a crisp during a four-hour sweat with the Micmac tribe in Newfoundland: "When one side of me felt cooked I contorted myself to barbecue the other side. I wasn't so much clutching Mother Earth as writhing on top of her."
Then there is Horwitz's laugh-out-loud funny adventure in the Dominican Republic, where he goes in search of Columbus only to find instead "el fucu de Colon" -- the curse that Dominicans believe accompanies anything associated with the Great Discoverer.
He loses a rare chance to see the explorer's bones because of bureaucratic bungling, endures several sweat-drenched hours of Dominican traffic to visit some sites of dubious import and gobbles down two plates of deep-fried street food that turns out to be pork gristle seasoned with flies.
Hoping to experience what it was like to be a member of Hernando De Soto's company, Horwitz dons 60 pounds of plate armor on a hot Florida day and almost immediately regrets it.
"The plate on my chest felt like the hood of a parked car on the Fourth of July," he writes.
What does all this have to do with explorers? Horwitz learns, often the hard way, that the facts typically are much less flattering than the myths we conjure from them.
Which is not to say those myths are unimportant, he writes. Despite the many explorers who arrived before them, the Pilgrims are the ones we remember because we like their story.
And it's those stories that we accept -- even if exaggerated or patently false -- that often guide the very real choices we make for our future.
You can read Horwitz's book as a well-informed refresher course on American exploration. Or read it just for fun. Either way, "Voyage" will sweep you along on a highly entertaining sail across the centuries.
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455