Death by Tartar Sauce tackles the gooey subject of travel writing
Death by Tartar Sauce: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise, & True Love; by Jules Older, published by Older Unlimited, 146 pages (estimated); e-book available at Amazon.com for a Kindle for $3.47, or directly from the author at http://julesolder.com.
Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar
copyright the Chronicle, September 12, 2012
Finally, it’s here: the travel writing book all writers have been waiting to read.
Death by Tartar Sauce is a collection of funny stories of things gone wrong, the kind of stories no travel writer is supposed to ever publish. Either Jules Older has decided he’s established enough as a travel writer that his potential clients won’t mind this book, or he himself just doesn’t care and just had to do it.
Whatever his motivation, I will tell you right now it’s worth the $3.47 that you will need to spend to download it to your Kindle. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can get it electronically from some other website (maybe your favorite local book store) or contact Mr. Older directly through his site. This book is not available on paper, unless you want to supply the paper yourself.
Many of you already know Mr. Older. He lived in Albany for a long time and married an Albany farmer’s daughter. Their daughters, Willow and Amber, grew up here. He and his wife, Effin, have traveled the world writing about cool places to go for travel magazines, airlines, and so on. Often these gigs get you fancy accommodations and free trips, with the understanding that you will write something good that will make other people want to travel to Scotland for skiing, for example.
I don’t know what Mr. Older wrote for a magazine immediately after his trip skiing in Scotland, but the real story is in this book, and it’s one of the best chapters. It’s just plain hilarious.
The first hint of what skiing in Scotland is like comes in the brochure:
“If the centre has to close due to adverse weather conditions, a siren will sound and the lifts will stop. Please return to your cars and await instructions from the police…”
This is no ordinary wind. In the book he mentions 85-knot winds, which are 98 miles an hour. These winds make the biting winds on a winter day on the Flyer at Jay Peak (we all fondly call it the Freezer) sound downright balmy.
Sometimes Vermont conditions can be a little icy compared to the western U.S. powder. Still we usually have snow of some sort in the winter. Scotland does not necessarily have any snow. Yet people still go there to ski, or attempt to ski. The ski areas build snow fences in an attempt to catch the small amount of snow that is blowing around so it will pile up on the one trail that might be open.
Undaunted, Mr. Older travels from ski area to ski area in Scotland trying to find one that actually has some snow and where the winds are less than 98 miles per hour. Along the way he meets with lovely PR ladies, all of whom are headed out for vacation to ski in Switzerland.
He finds one ski area where the only way to reach the trail is by dangling in the air in a gondola. He asks the PR lady why that is set up that way, since high winds are often a problem, and she explains that heavy rains can be a worse problem and you need the gondola to get up above the flooded ground.
Despite the horrible conditions, he needs to at least try to ski, so he joins the locals who have decided they are so determined to get up to the T-bar lift (closer to the ground, less vulnerable to wind) that they are basically climbing up there on foot:
I joined several hundred Scottish skiers executing Plan B — climbing to the T-bar. The Great Climb began with a slog through mud so deep and black as to put Vermont’s mud season to shame. Then, as the wind increased, the mud gave way to heather-covered arctic tundra. Pushing on through a gale now laced with driving rain and dense fog, we met a covey of instructors skiing down the vegetation. I turned to Colin, a young Scot who had been trudging along beside me. “What do you call that?” I panted.
He remarks to one of the Scots that it seems pretty crazy to ski in these conditions, and the fellow grins and says hey it builds character. Plus, he points out, Mr. Older came from Vermont in order to do this, and he’s calling THEM crazy? (Good point.)
Other chapters include one about Mr. Older’s penchant to kill off airlines. It seems to be a common occurrence that he sells a story to an airline magazine right before that airline goes belly up.
The Older have explored caves in Puerto Rico, kayaked with whales, enjoyed the Tennessee Williams festival in New Orleans and a “gloriously musical Winter Festival in Newfoundland.” They have met fascinating people, including a Tokyo woman who makes her entire living curling eyelashes.
Mr. Older has eaten all kinds of horrible food and came to the conclusion that basic American foods are really pretty good, including a pot roast if it’s not overdone, or even breakfast at McDonalds.
Mr. Older is a food writer — these days based in San Francisco — who hates trendy food. He has discovered some Vermont restaurants following some of these trends and wishes they would not:
Raspberries — whole, sliced or in vinaigrette — are among the gastronomic clichés of our time. Just as llamas are yuppie Holsteins, raspberries are yuppie ketchup. No New Age dinner is complete without raspberry in some form or other making an appearance before dessert.
So I say, Chefs of Vermont, lighten up. Climb down. Re-enter. Take deep breaths of Earth’s atmosphere. You needn’t go back to overdone pot roast, but at least have the decency not to mix it with arugula, radicchio and raspberry-balsam vinaigrette.
Mr. Older enjoys travel writing partly because he gets to meet some really interesting people. But it must be said (in this book at least, if not everywhere) that sometimes you run into some real plain old jerks.
The Olders met one such lady on a bicycle trip in Vermont:
On this tour, Effin and I — good ol’ country folk — are surrounded by a group of citified pedalers, the most citified of whom is a medical specialist from New York. Were this a movie, the very words “medical specialist from New York” would guarantee that in Scene Two, Three at the latest, said medical specialist would fall face-first into a prominently placed water trough. Especially if she is forever saying things like, “Oh, he seems so smart for a Vermonter” and “This is just such an adorable state” and “What do you do for friends up here? Isn’t everyone kind of, you know, boring?”
Anyway, our 30-something, female, citified cyclist is riding up Route 100 when a little bitty Datsun pickup drives past with a big sign behind the cab. The sign, which is surrounded with flashing lights, contains a three-word message: DANGER. WIDE LOAD.
“Isn’t that cute?” she says. “That tiny truck with the big sign — did you see that, Jules and Effin? Jules? Effin? Where are you?”
We did, indeed, see the sign. That’s why we did, indeed, race our bikes off the roadway — way off the roadway — and are now cowering behind a very large maple tree. We would have advised our city mouse to follow suit, except for the fact that:
A. She was a little too far ahead of us.
B. Neither of us liked that “adorable” remark, and
C. She is, after all, a medical specialist from New York.
Thirty seconds later, a mega tow truck hauling a triple-wide trailer comes roaring by, the exhaust spewing from its vertical exhaust stacks creating whirlwinds of leaves and dust and road schmutz. As this Monster-Truck-In-Training passes the city doctor, the driver blows its gas-fired, nuclear-powered, mega-strength air-horn, leaving her gasping for breath and weaving around Route 100 like she’s in a bicycle ballet.
Still short of breath, she somehow manages to bring her bike to a wobbly stop.
Peggy, our tour leader, sees how shaken our city mouse is by this unexpected event and calls for an instant rest stop. We pull up beside a pasture in which stand the dual symbols of all that is peaceful, serene and bucolic — a mare and her foal. Once our New Yorker stops gasping and resumes normal breathing, she takes in the sight.
Now recovered, she says the customary, “Awwwww,” pulls a bunch of long grass and offers it to the foal. As she does, she reaches out to steady herself on the fence.
The wire fence.
The electrified wire fence.
What should we do? On the one hand, it seems downright cruel to let her grab something that experience has long ago taught us is about to administer an unasked-for lesson in the power of watts, amps and volts. On the other, well, it would add some excitement to our, uh, boring bucolic lives.
And we are just country bumpkins.
Aw, the heck with it. “I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” I advise her.
“And why not?” she sneers, still reaching for the wire. “Do you think that just because I’m from New York, I’m afraid of a horse?”
I smile and give her the country answer. “Nope.”
Chronicle publisher Chris Braithwaite gets a mention in a chapter called “Catamounted,” about skiing part of the Catamount Trail, which goes the length of Vermont. Not quite as extreme as Scotland, but still quite difficult mountaintop cross-country skiing to say the least. Mr. Older gets a call from Rolf asking him why doesn’t he join them:
Why don’t I come? Because I’m afraid, that’s why. Because Chris Braithwaite, editor of the Barton Chronicle, wrote of his Catamount experience, “It was all I could do to get out of bed the next day. I was lucky (if not exactly grateful) to be alive.”
With that in mind, I said, “Look, Rolf, I’d love to come, but —”
“Great. See you Sunday. Bye.”
Lucky for us readers, Mr. Older survives the experience with just a few impressive spills. The next morning — you guessed it — it was all he could do to get out of bed. He felt lucky, if not exactly grateful, to be alive.
The Olders live in California these days. Mr. Older writes medical articles, kids books, travel and humor stores and about San Francisco restaurants and life in New Zealand. His videos can be seen on www.YouTube.com/julesolder.