Travel. Explorers westward and eastward

Out West: An American Journey, by Dayton Duncan. New York: Viking. 434 pp. $19.95. Passionate Pilgrims: English Travelers to the World of the Desert Arabs, by James C. Simmons. New York: William Morrow & Co. 416 pp. $19.95.

BOTH the American West and Arabia have inspired travelers with dreams of adventure, and nations with dreams of power. In these books, Dayton Duncan examines the West and James C. Simmons the Arab world through the dreams that led to the exploration and exploitation of these regions.

The very phrase ``out West'' connotes ``unfathomed adventure,'' Duncan says. ``Out West is where we went as a nation to escape whatever it was we wanted to leave behind us, to discover something new, to strike it rich, to grab and settle our own plot of land - to be free.''

In 1983, Duncan set out to explore the West and the ``American dream'' - to find out which promises had been kept and which had been broken. To trace the dream from its origins, he followed the route of Lewis and Clark's 1804-06 ``Voyage of Discovery,'' the first - and most symbolic - United States expedition to the West Coast. In ``Out West'' Duncan records his journey; drawing upon Lewis and Clark's eight volumes of journals, he describes theirs; and in comparing the two, he reflects upon the changes in the intervening years.

The territory Duncan travels has been well covered by writers and historians before him, yet he has turned out an engaging account. For Duncan, travel is not destination but exploration, and ``stopping is a virtue not a vice.'' He stops often - at historic sites, museums, caf'es, small towns, and farms. Everywhere, he talks with people, in many instances seeking out the mythical figures - cowboys or ``The King of the Hoboes,'' Fry Pan Jack. Duncan is observant, open, and personable. ``Out West'' does not offer beautiful prose, but in it we hear a genuine voice.

INFUSING the book with drama is the astonishing journey of Lewis and Clark. Commissioned by Jefferson to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and find a Northwest Passage, the expedition also gathered scientific and geographic information, and made contact with the Indians.

Lewis and Clark's colorful journals, quoted throughout, vividly convey the hardships they endured as they hiked, canoed, boated, and rode by horse through the northern part of the country to the Oregon coast and back. Remarkably, of the entire group - some 40 in number, including an infant - all but one member survived.

Comparing his journey with Lewis and Clark's, Duncan confronts the transformation of the wilderness into the US - and the wresting of the land from the Indians, whose betrayal he recounts.

Although the Indians' story has been told before, Duncan reminds us that it bears retelling - and that it is not yet finished. On the reservations, he meets Indians struggling to find a cultural identity. That this struggle may be successfully resolved is suggested in his portrait of Gerard Baker, a Hidatsa district ranger in the National Park Service who has blended the two cultures.

With wry humor, Baker compares the Indians to the buffalo, who have also ``lost everything,'' dwindled in number, and been confined and ``protected'' by the government. Duncan draws a different parallel: between the Indians and today's farmers, the most recent population dispossessed of its land in the name of ``progress.''

Duncan sees history ironically repeating itself in the dismantling of rural America - one of the failed dreams he encounters firsthand in his travels. Although he is honest in facing some of America's broken dreams, this is an easygoing, hopeful book. Lewis and Clark, he reminds us, failed to find a Northwest Passage, but this doesn't diminish their stunning achievement.

It is not the destination but the journey that matters: ``Out West'' is not a place but a quest, and Americans have not given up the quest.

NINETEEN-CENTURY Britons went to Arabia for much the same reasons Americans went West, suggests James C. Simmons in ``Passionate Pilgrims.''

Both regions ``were wildernesses'' that offered ``wonder, adventure, and freedom and were testing grounds for those individuals brave enough to venture there.'' His book recounts the journeys of nine 19th-century British travelers who fell under ``the spell of far Arabia.''

Among the travelers here are some many readers will find familiar: Sir Richard Burton, the charismatic explorer who journeyed to Mecca disguised as an Arab; the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence, who helped organize the Arab revolt against the Turks.

Others of Simmons's fascinating subjects may be less well known these days: Lady Hester Stanhope, Sir William Pitt's niece, who settled in Djoun and came to be known as ``Queen of the Arabs''; Lady Jane Digby, who married with the sheikh Abdul Maedjuel el Mesrab; or Charles Doughty - author of ``Travels in Arabia Deserta'' - who, in refusing to disguise his English and Christian identity on his journey to the holy Muslim cities, suffered terrible abuse.

Linking these disparate travelers, Simmons suggests, was their rejection of bourgeois society and their admiration for the fierce and independent Bedouins.

Given its cast of characters, ``Passionate Pilgrims'' cannot fail to arouse our interest; but it does not really satisfy it. The history Simmons supplies - within the portraits and in ``interludes'' - is too compressed for such a complex region. (``The Roots of the Lebanese Civil War'' occupies eight pages.) And his portraits are simplistically admiring. He describes Lady Hester Stanhope's despotic rule of her household at Djoun and her cruel treatment of her Arab servants; but he can only admire ``this most extraordinary woman, who had she been born a man might well have become prime minister.''

If Simmons's British travelers fell under the ``spell of far Arabia,'' he himself seems to have fallen under their spell. They are a fascinating group. But it would take a more critical reading of their lives than he provides to distinguish the myths of what they sought and found in Arabia from the reality. -30-{et

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