Travel. Tales of the Americas, north and south

Two Roads to Dodge City, by Nigel and Adam Nicolson. New York: Harper & Row. 291 pp. $17.50. Coups and Cocaine: Two Journeys in South America, by Anthony Daniels. New York: the Overlook Press. 230 pp. $17.95. THE time has long since passed when a traveler could visit the Americas, North or South, with no preconception of what he would find. So much information is now available that it is easy to feel we know places we have never visited and often difficult, should we visit them, to see them fresh.

Perhaps nowhere is it harder for travelers to overcome preconceived ideas than in the most publicized country in the world, the United States, especially if the travelers are British. As Nigel Nicolson observes, ``We've met many Americans in England, read their novels and their history, seen their movies, and become familiar with every aspect of their home and public lives on television....'' Nonetheless, Nicolson and his son set out bravely in 1986 to cross the United States and gather fresh impressions.

Nigel Nicolson is the son of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, the editor of Virginia Woolf's letters; his son, Adam, in his 20s, has written several travel books. In this collaborative journey, Nigel set out from Miami, Adam from Los Angeles, each on a three-month route to Dodge City, Kan. In daily letters - exchanged weekly by overnight mail - they recorded activities, thoughts, and responses to each other. This book is the compilation of their letters.

Despite its casual epistolary format, ``Two Roads to Dodge City'' is an ambitious work on several levels. One level is the travel narrative, a mix of description and impressions. Adam describes the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills, a political rally at Berkeley, Calif., a horse farm in Montana, an intense meeting with lawyer Gerry Spence (of Silkwood fame), Indian reservations, casinos. Nigel describes the architecture in Savannah, Ga., reflections on Jefferson at Monticello, a meeting with a senator in Washington, the Kentucky Derby, Gettysburg, NASA.

The alternation of letters, moving us from Hollywood to South Carolina, from Montana to Cleveland, accentuates the country's diversity. But the letters reflect differences that are more than geographical. Nigel's excursions are planned, Adam's spontaneous; Nigel visits established academics and civic leaders, Adam talks with nonconformists and the disenfranchised.

From these generational, personal, and philosophical differences, a second level of discourse emerges. The two debate styles of travel and observation, especially the importance of history. For Nigel, historical knowledge is essential to understanding a place: ``...Americans draw subconsciously on their past to stimulate their present,'' he writes. ``I see evidence of it everywhere. History is the subconscious.'' Adam focuses on the present: ``You are digging into the coral structure, the building of polyps over hundreds of years. I'm looking at the barnacles, the anemones and the sharks.'' For Adam, their task in America is to ``draw the picture,'' not ``write the caption.''

This third, intensely personal level, though by no means the largest part of the book, is the most powerful. As Adam expresses his anger at his father's reserve, as Nigel denies the pain his divorce caused his son, the Nicolsons' relationship achieves a sharp reality their America lacks. Their journey is too swift, their impressions too diffuse, the British perspective too undeveloped, and in the end their perceptions too familiar to illuminate America. But their letters richly illuminate their personalities and the intricate makeup of their relationship.

IN its very title, ``Coups and Cocaine'' suggests our preconceptions of South America. ``In North America everyone can be president, in South America everyone has been president,'' runs an old jest, which Anthony Daniels quotes. From this continent, we expect political turmoil, poverty, and color, and in ``Coups and Cocaine,'' this is what we get.

This is a quiet book, a controlled look at the chaos. It is based on two journeys: one to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador; the second from Brazil to Chile, overland through Paraguay and Bolivia. Daniels, a British psychiatrist, traveled to satisfy a long-held interest, and his account mixes description, history, and anecdote.

It is an interesting mix. Daniels's adventures are offbeat: a farcical packaged tour of the Peruvian Andes; a visit to four American prisoners arrested for drugs in La Paz; a stay in an efficient German Mennonite community in Paraguay; a ride through the Chaco with smugglers.

Daniels's commentary is wry and often trenchant, especially in regard to the Indians. He sees them reduced to ``beasts of burden''; racist history, he notes, has even tried to strip them of their past glory, attributing pre-Colombian monuments to other races - Hebrews, Egyptians, Irish - and even to extraterrestrial beings.

Throughout the book, one confronts the hard terms of South American lives. A vivid scene depicts children and vultures on a rubbish heap ``sifting through the rubbish for tasty morsels.''

Daniels is an intelligent observer and a skillful writer, but he is an unpleasant guide. He tends to ridicule and insult other Westerners and non-Indian natives: One woman had ``the body and soul of a ruminant''; another was ``as large and healthy as she was ugly.'' The recurrent meanness undermines the spirit of the commentary.

Indeed, though Daniels confirms our preconceptions about the poverty, turmoil, and bigotry in South America, his own bias precludes the vision that would help us understand the conditions he describes.

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