For the record, John Keahey is not the kind of guy who has had his photo taken standing next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You know the photo, where you hold your hands up so it looks as if you’re keeping the tower from falling over.
Not that he thinks a serious traveler is a traveler who is always serious. But he does think of himself as a traveler, not a tourist. He prefers the piazza less traveled, and if the road that gets there happens to be a rutted path up an Italian hillside where few tourists have wandered, all the better.
Keahey, who was a reporter and editor for The Salt Lake Tribune for 22 years, is the author of four books about Italy, the most recent published this month by St. Martin’s Press. “Hidden Tuscany” chronicles his travels in 2012 through the less-visited, western part of the popular Italian region.
The irony of being a travel writer who writes about “hidden” places, of course, is that if enough people follow your lead, the places can become overrun with tourists.
But Keahey’s books aren’t guidebooks. He doesn’t rate a place with stars; there are no street maps or lists. There may be the name of an occasional hotel or restaurant, but he doesn’t mean to say you should necessarily visit it. Find your own places, he says.
“I like to think of this book simply as a guide to being a traveler,” he says in the afterword of “Hidden Tuscany.” “Pick a destination, carry a map so you can get back to your resting place each evening, and set out each morning with no agenda.”
And if you do happen to have an agenda, “be willing to abandon it if something else draws your interest,” he says. “If you come to a fork in the road, flip a coin to decide which one to take.”
His love affair with Italy didn’t begin till he was 40, although even when he was in grade school in southwest Idaho he was drawn to far-off places. He’d walk the two miles to the library in Nampa and sit for hours poring over the sepia-toned stereoscopic cards of Europe. He especially liked the scenes of peasant farmers threshing wheat or driving donkey carts.
It’s what he figured Italy still looked like — until he finally visited in 1986. He has returned to Italy again and again, and in the late 1990s wrote a book retracing the footsteps of the Victorian-era novelist and travel writer George Gissing, from Naples down the boot and then east. “A Sweet and Glorious Land” was published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, in 2000. Dunne himself has been Keahey’s champion ever since.
His next book, “Venice Against the Sea,” detailed how the fabled city is sinking. It was hardly a blockbuster, which is a shame, given its timely topic and its thorough exploration of remedies. (Keahey hopes it will get an updated second edition.) His third book, “Seeking Sicily,” was published in 2011.
Keahey knows Italian but admits he’s better at listening than speaking; still, he easily makes friends on these journeys and learns stories about the villages he wanders through. In “Hidden Tuscany” there is a story about the now nearly abandoned village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, and it’s a heartbreaker.
Catherine Weller, new-book buyer at Weller Book Works in Trolley Square, admires Keahey’s painstaking research (“He doesn’t skim across the top, he digs deep,” she says) coupled with the books’ good pacing and up-close details. “It’s really intimate writing.”
Keahey’s books are the quiet travelogues of a man who enjoys simply traipsing, or sitting on a stone wall gazing at the countryside, or sitting in companionable silence with some other retired men smoking a cigar. It’s a book written by a man who loves history and a good plate of pasta.
It’s not flashy prose. But if you’re the kind of traveler, like Keahey, who is enraptured by an olive grove or a field of sunflowers, or a line of cypress trees on an Italian hillside, you will find contentment in these pages.