A fast-moving chronicle of a 14,739-mile drive

June 23, 1991|By J. Duncan Moore Jr.

ROAD FEVER: A HIGH-SPEED TRAVELOGUE. Tim Cahill. Random House. 278 pages. $17.95. Pick up "The Guinness Book of World Records," 1991 edition, skip the feats of haggis-hurling, domino-stacking, pogo-jumping and baked bean-eating, and turn to the comparatively unremarkable section on driving records. There find the following:

Trans-Americas: Garry Sowerby (Canada), with Tim Cahill (US) as co-driver and navigator, drove a 1988 GMC Sierra K3500 four-wheel-drive pickup truck powered by a 6.2 liter V8 Detroit diesel engine from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina to Prudhoe Bay, AK, a distance of 14,739 miles, in a total elapsed time of 23 days 22 hr. 43 min. from Sep. 29 to Oct. 22, 1987.

At first glance, it may not seem like such a feat. A security guard in Alaska asked, "What'd you guys do, walk?"

In truth, their trip was a grueling marathon of border formalities, perilous mountain passes, disintegrating roads, failing equipment and death-defying driving fueled by unheated instant coffee, beef jerky and a thousand promotional milkshakes

little square boxes.

The trip was the brainchild of adventure driver Garry Sowerby. A whole chapter is devoted to raising the funds ($350,000!) and corraling the sponsors to make the venture possible. Mr. Cahill's end of the bargain was to provide companionship, a passable knowledge of Spanish and a book contract.

As readers of Rolling Stone and Outside magazines know, Mr. Cahill can be a lot of fun to hang out with. The Chilean desert, he writes, "makes Death Valley look like a zoo set in a botanical garden."

In Argentina he does a gloss on the tango: "It's country and western gone urban. Take any American C&W song that hints of danger . . . dress it up in a tight suit, slick back its hair, put patent-leather shoes on its feet, paste a thin black mustache on its lip, and you have the lyrics of a proper tango. Put a razor in its pocket for good measure: my wife ran away with the milkman and now someone bleeds."

Mr. Cahill opens the story with a lot of background on the General Motors truck, Guinness, and preparations for fending off bandits, drug runners and terrorists in Colombia and Peru. It's all probably necessary to grasp the context, yet you find your foot itching for the accelerator. When, on Page 127, our guys finally set off from Tierra del Fuego, the pace picks up and never slows down.

Oddly, the publisher chose not to include pictures or even a map of the route. When asked about this lapse, a Random House publicist answered that the editors considered the book a work of literature and did not wish to diminish it by providing such artificial visual aids.

Oh, of course. When Tolstoy's publishers brought out "War and Peace," did they print diagrams of Napoleon's campaign against Moscow? Make no mistake: "Road Fever" isn't literature. It is commercial entertainment, a genre with which Random House is certainly more familiar, and as such ought to have some decent maps and photos.

Mr. Moore is a writer living in Kansas City, Mo.

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