In "Pathfinders," his encompassing history of the exploration of the globe, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto notes that the "Atlantic breakthrough" made by Europe at the end of the 15th Century took place in less than a decade. From Christopher Columbus' landfall in the Bahamas in 1492 to John Cabot's 1497 journey to Newfoundland and back, to Pedro Alvares Cabral's voyage to Brazil in 1500, it was "a concentrated phenomenon in the course of which a handful of voyages transformed the Atlantic into a potential arena of long-range cultural transmission."

When people refer to "Western civilization," Fernandez-Armesto contends, "they mean, essentially, an Atlantic continuum comprising parts of western Europe and much or most of the Americas," which involved a projection of people and beliefs and ways of life that "was strictly unprecedented when it began." From that perspective, the Pilgrims hardly loom large, and were late to the table as well.

That is roughly the point of embarkation for Tony Horwitz, too, in his rich cultural travelogue, "A Voyage Long and Strange," in which he visits far-flung sites and retraces extensive exploration routes of this continent taken by Europeans long before the arrival of the Mayflower.

"The Pilgrims, and later, the Americans who pushed west from the Atlantic, didn't pioneer a virgin wilderness. They occupied a land long since transformed by European contact," Horwitz writes in his prologue. "[T]he English prevailed in the contest for the continent, and Anglo-American Protestants—New Englanders in particular—molded the new nation's memory. And so a creation myth arose, of Pilgrim Fathers seeding a new land with their piety and work ethic."

When Horwitz is told by a veteran park ranger at the site of Plymouth Rock that " 'Americans learn about 1492 and 1620 as kids and that's all that they remember as adults. The rest of the story is a blank,' " he recognizes that he, too, had "matriculated to middle age with a third-grader's grasp of early America." Considering that what occurred between those dates "was the forgotten first chapter of my own country's founding by Europeans," he sets off to investigate it.

Reading "A Voyage Long and Strange" will seem like one's own first contact, coming face to face with an America remote from the pages of the daily newspaper but vibrantly alive and refreshingly various. By balancing the deep history—often bloody and chilling—against today's inhabitants, the apparently gregarious and certainly witty Horwitz has taken what would otherwise be a miscellany of experiences and turned them into a road show well worth following.

Horwitz is hardly the first in recent years to raise some of the historical topics he does; the dominance of the Puritan story line was taken up differently by Russell Shorto in his "The Island at the Center of the World," which illustrated the strong Dutch influence in our national origins, for example, and Horwitz's account of the cross-country travails of Spaniard Cabeza de Vaca, whose eight-year trek (1528-1536) took him from Florida to Mexico, was recently reprised by journalist Paul Schneider in his "Brutal Journey."

Yet Horwitz, posing as an explorer redux and an anthropologically minded participant-observer, as he pokes and prods academic experts, tour guides, everyday Americans and the historical record, shows to excellent effect the cultural chaff and mythos surrounding us, and illustrates much that has been lost as well. (Readers of his "Confederates in the Attic" will readily recognize the history-is-present approach and the resort to academics, re-enactors and others as he spins out his story.)

The earliest European visitors, and temporary settlers, of this hemisphere were the Norse, circa 1000 A.D., according to radiocarbon dating of artifacts, so Horwitz drives the Viking Trail to L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, in the initial chapter of his book, to view the first European settlement on the continent and the only confirmed Norse site as well. It is one of two trips that will take him outside what is now the U.S., the second being a jaunt to the Dominican Republic, rich in Columbus sites and "ground zero of one of the greatest colonial explosions in history." (Columbus never set foot on U.S. soil; the first modern European known to do so was Ponce de Leon, in 1513).

"Strange that the first territory in America discovered by Europeans should become, a millennium later, among its least inhabited," Horwitz muses on the way to the Norse settlement, after seeing a highway sign indicating the nearest town is 170 kilometers away; in what is bleak-looking coastal terrain, the only radio station he can pick up issued fishery broadcasts from Labrador. He spends several days in L'Anse aux Meadows, at the Vinland Motel, of course, although he reports "[i]t had taken me ten minutes to tour the remains of Norse America" with its reconstructed buildings that "resembled hobbit homes, with turf walls and sod roofs that drooped almost to the ground."

What we get from his time instead is a capsule of the town itself—only 31 villagers remain, about one-third the number at the time of the Norse discovery in 1961—and a chance to meet some of the locals, many of whom descended from fishermen who held waterside plots in the 19th Century. We also meet Viking re-enactors, one of whom offers Horwitz some "blubber" from a caldron hung over a fire; when these people drop out of character, we find that Bera was a former teacher intrigued by Norse domestic life, and Bjorn is a former fisherman (real name Mike) lucky to be employed, as many of his peers were retrained to be Viking impersonators in a government program that fizzled. Horwitz also pulls from the Norse sagas in explanation of the historical circumstances. "Outnumbered, on alien terrain, and at the end of a supply line fifteen hundred miles long, the invaders gave up," Horwitz notes, so that in the first known confrontation between Europeans and natives, "the home team had won."

Half a millennium elapsed before the explosion of Spanish, French, Portuguese and eventually English explorations and attempts at settlement in the New World, which yielded a vastly different outcome and which Horwitz traces in his peripatetic (yet organized) fashion. His touring in Dominica included a visit to a hilltop chapel that has below it, protected by a grate, the Hoyo Santo, or Holy Hole, where tradition has it Columbus planted a cross in 1495. "As sacred sites went, the Holy Hole wasn't much to look at," Horwitz notes; it was merely a shallow cavity in the ground.

At a nearby fortified site established by Columbus, Concepcion de la Vega, he is shown an area of corrugated metal shields. The two young men guiding him lift those, exposing otherwise uncovered skeletons. Unrelated but entirely consistent with Horwitz's oeuvre of reporting: His driver had gunned their car away from radar-wielding police on the way to the site, wary of being stopped by them; he reported that the police are rationed gasoline, only a gallon at a time, and wouldn't waste it chasing them. Their own car was sputtering, for the local gasoline is often diluted with heating oil, which is cheaper.

Horwitz's devils are in such details, which pervade his reporting. In northern Mississippi, searching for the spot where conquistador Hernando De Soto might have crossed Big Muddy, Horwitz follows directions he'd received in a bar and reaches an earthen levee only to find his vision obscured by a black cloud pouring from the back of a truck. Approaching it to see if anyone needs help, he finds two men dressed in camouflage, throwing something into a dented trash can. " 'Cooking wire,' " they tell him when he asks what they are doing—burning the insulation off copper wire to sell as scrap. We're a long way from de Toqueville, we can see.

"A Voyage Long and Strange" includes visits to iconic locations such as St. Augustine, Jamestown, the island of Roanoke and Plymouth, as well as many native American sites, including the mound complex Etowah in Georgia. Horwitz does his best to follow the paths of conquistadors Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, from the Southwest to the Plains, and De Soto, from Florida and throughout the Southeast to the lower Midwest.

Although Horwitz consults the experts, their routes are not without controversy. He meets Charles Hudson, longtime University of Georgia professor, who proposed the most commonly accepted route of De Soto's movement through 10 states, something that "consumed twenty years of his career and drew him into a contentious public fight." Horwitz ends up passing through or noting several towns and establishments still making De Soto claims, although they are off the map as Hudson has redrawn it.

Such is history, which in the public mind has a life of its own. As Michael Gannon, a University of Florida history professor, tells Horwitz, " 'There's an inbred resistance in the powdered-wig states to accepting the primacy of Florida and St. Augustine in the story of America's settle- ment,' " although the city is the earliest-founded (by Europeans) surviving settlement in the country. And a park ranger at nearby Ft. Caroline tells Horwitz that tourists are often "dismayed to learn that [French] Huguenots, not English Pilgrims, were the first to seek religious freedom on U.S. soil."

"A Voyage Long and Strange" has its Gothic moments—there is slaughter enough to wear on anyone's sensibilities, although that is hardly Horwitz's fault—but it is fresh and alive as the people within it speak with candor. One of those is Warren Cook, deputy chief of the Pamunkey tribe, the core constituents of the historical chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas. Expressing some ambivalence, Cook admits, " 'Mostly, though, we're just tired of hearing about her all the time, instead of figures more representative of our people.' " Horwitz manages to find his share.

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World

By Tony Horwitz

Holt, 445 pages, $27.50